1.3

“He left,” she muttered. “He’s gone.”

“Where to?” I asked.

“Does it matter where to?” she asked. “Val’s gone. He’s fleeing. He’s– I’m finally alone.”

“Where’s he going?”

“Where the cops won’t go.”

“I’m not a cop,” I said.

“I know,” she said.

“Where’s he going?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know for sure, at least.”

“Where do you think he’s going?”

“I–” the words got trapped in her throat. She looked at me, half-confused. “I think he’s going to the Celestial Wall.”

Damn it. Damn it.

“Why would he go there?” I asked.

“Wants to see what’s on the other side.”

“He believes the legends?” I asked. “Think there’s a god on the other side? A god more powerful than Hostem?”

She refused to look me in the eye. Kept her line of sight planted firmly on the floor. “He doesn’t know. Who does? He just wants to make sure. I… He’s angry, these days. So angry. Sometimes I think he’s crazy, but sometimes… He’s tired of things that think they’re better than us. He’s tired of the supernatural. He’s got a point. Wouldn’t it be nice, to finally be free of–”

I cut her off, “Why’d he kill Stellavia?”

“Same thing,” she said. “Wanted to send a message, that humans were independent. They didn’t need gods or spirits or walking universes.”

“Which weapons did he take with him?”

“I don’t know,” she said. She peaked inside the closet. “A gun, and his favorite sword.”

“You should have said something.”

“I’m not sure he’s wrong,” she said.

She had a point, but I didn’t care. I ran out the door.

I had to reach the Celestial Wall before Val did. If I didn’t, this would be the end of the world.

— — —

Passed the bar on the way out of the city. Darkness had come, and I wondered how many hours I had until the Wise Tree sent his boys after me. I passed by restaurants and bars, happy couples, laughing families. Didn’t they know? Didn’t they know the universe was dead?

I sped forward, until I couldn’t. Soon as I reached downtown, the streets were packed. The pace felt glacial, green light turning red, red light turning green. I was stuck, with nothing to do but sit.

Looked at myself in the rear view mirror. How long had it been since I’d slept? I looked pale, bleary-eyed.

I should’ve figured out it was Val sooner, damn it. I should’ve known.

The Hyalu didn’t have enough motive. Killing Stellavia to spite Val? It didn’t make sense. Beckett couldn’t have done it, because I knew she couldn’t, but also because the wheelchair meant she couldn’t get the right angle for the blow. Evan had the most motive, really, but that damn arm of his was useless: he was practically a lefty, these days.

Then there was Val. Vile, murderous, apocalyptic Val.

I should’ve known. Maybe I just didn’t want to know.

Someone honked. I realized the light was green and sped forward.

Bar, restaurant, bar, restaurant. I needed something to eat, once all this was over. Just something to–

Evan walked out of his bar.

No. It wasn’t Evan.

A hulking brute walked out of Evan’s bar. It was Val, draped in artificial lighting. His sword wept blood.

I stopped the car. Got out. Someone honked.

My pistol was drawn before I knew what I was doing.

“What are you, crazy?” a voice from behind me yelled.

I almost turned around. I almost shot him. My hands were shaking.

“Val!” I yelled. “Val, how could you?”

He didn’t turn around. No emotion on his face, no moment where he asked for forgiveness. He paused for half a second. Then he ran.

*BANG*

*CRASH*

I missed. The window to Evan’s bar shattered.

*BANG*

*CRACK*

I missed again. Brick cracked.

Breathe in, breathe out, I thought to myself.

I breathed in. I breathed out. Steadied my hands as much as I could. He darted through the night sky like a raven on the run. He was already so far. I pulled the trigger.

*BANG*

A flash of crimson. A shot in the calf. He turned the corner.

I ran.

*CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK*

My shoes beat against the concrete sidewalk, and as I ran I couldn’t help but notice the people around me. They looked afraid, but not of Val. They looked afraid of me. What had I become? What had I become, after all these years of melancholy, of nostalgia, of nostalgia for a time when my best friend was genocide incarnate?

My lungs burned. Felt like I was about to collapse. But I wasn’t going to collapse, because I was so close to answers, to closure.

Why did we kill a god?

Why did you bring me with you?

Do you ever regret it?

My head swam in the darkness, but I turned the corner. There lay Val, soaked in blood, two shots in the chest, one to his head. My head swam, my heart swam, my whole body turned to rubber as the police sirens wailed.

I’d killed the man who’d killed a god, and wasn’t that worth something? But I hadn’t meant to. I hadn’t shot him three times. I’d shot at him three times, but missed twice. Never in the head. Never in the chest. It didn’t make sense.

Yelling. Round scared eyes gazing. Cold metal binding my wrists. None of it made any sense.

I barely noticed the cops taking me in, but still I spoke up.

“What’s, uh.” I looked for the right word. Nothing felt right. Had I really killed him? “What’s my crime?”

“Shut up.”

The cop car began to pull away. Had a new car smell. The cops smelled new, too. Were they rookies, or was I just old?

People staring. No, not people. Monsters. A Leviathan, an Argus, a million beady eyes flickering in and out of existence, and if you looked real close you realized that no one was watching at all, no, they had no goddamn idea what was going on. They were too busy with their lives, which I guess was my greatest strength: no life, no distractions. It was just me staring down the world, but this time the world had won.

Why’d I kill Val?

Why’d I feel like a caged beast?

— — —

“You really screwed the pooch on this one,” the Wise Tree said, his voice crackling. “Gave you a chance to run, and you killed an innocent. You’re a monster, George. A goddamn monster.”

I laughed at that. Innocent. Innocent? He had no idea.

Head was still swimming, as I tried to get my bearings. The smell of rotten forest made it all a little easier. Made me feel grounded.

“You’re not wrong,” I said.

“What made you kill Val Rador?”

“Where’s Vicky?”

“Not here,” the Wise Tree said. “What made you kill Val Rador?”

“I didn’t.”

“You did.”

“I didn’t have a reason because I didn’t kill him.”

“We’ve got a lot of witnesses placing you at the scene.”

“I shot at him, sure. But I didn’t kill him. One bullet grazed his leg.”

“Not on the corpse,” the Wise Tree said. “He didn’t get shot in the calf.”

“Not on the corpse,” I repeated, chewing over the words.

“You killed Val.”

“I didn’t.”

“Witnesses have you at the scene.”

“They say I shot him. Anybody see him die?”

The silence terrified me. Made me feel alone, unreal. It was good when he talked again.

“They saw you shoot, and they saw him dead. That’s enough,” the Wise Tree said. “Even if that wasn’t enough, you shot at him while pretending to be an officer. That’s ten years, at least.”

“I’ll go to jail for that,” I said. “That’s what I did.”

“You’ll go to jail for his murder. Then they’ll execute you.”

“Has The Judge weighed in on my case?”

“Guilty,” the Wise Tree said. “Week in jail, then execution.”

Death. Death, by the hand of another. I wondered which was better: being killed or killing yourself. Was it better to be in control of your own destiny? Or was it better to not have a choice in the matter? Dive into the unknown or be thrown into it?

I’d tried to kill myself twice now: once by jumping off a building, and then again by offering myself to the Death Forest.

I wanted to think of execution and suicide as the same thing, but I knew they weren’t. I wanted to think of death as just a continuation of life. It was, in some ways, but not in the important sense.

“Can I see Vicky before I go?”

“No.”

“Can I have a cigarette?”

“We confiscated them.”

“You don’t have any cigarettes?”

The Wise Tree looked over my shoulder.

An elf walked into my line of vision. She was pale, with short greased blond hair that stuck to her scalp. She had the obligatory ears, as well as a three-piece suit. She slipped a cigarette out and placed it in-between my lips.

“Fiat lux,” she said, snapping so that a spark of flame shot out from her fingers and onto the cigarette.

I took in a deep breath of smoke. Then, slowly, I let it out.

“Thanks,” I said.

She didn’t respond. Instead, she moved behind me again. I swear I couldn’t hear her breathing.

“She’s here to take me to the jail?”

“Yeah,” the Wise Tree croaked.

“Guess you’re not all bark and no bite,” I told the Wise Tree. “I’ll miss that sick, ugly mug of yours, you stupid piece of–”

“Take him away,” the Wise Tree said. “He’s gone crazy.”

— — —

Darkness.

I don’t remember when they knocked me out. All I knew was that when I blinked my eyes open, I still saw nothing but darkness. Cold metal bound my wrists and ankles. I was hanging by my wrists, so I pulled myself upright. Felt the concrete wall behind me. Chained to a wall. Jail.

“Hello?”

My voice echoed in the darkness.

“Hello?”

A little louder this time. The way my voice came back made the room seem pretty big. It seemed really big, for just one guy. It was cold, too. Cold and damp.

I tugged at one of the chains on my wrist. No give. Each was about the length of my arm, but they were tightly bolted into the wall.

I shivered.

It was going to be one long hell of a week.

— — —

Past became present. Thoughts turned to physicality. Memories became realities.

I sat in Stellavia’s temple, some thirty years ago. Her body twisted and turned, dancing, worshipping in the dark while being worshipped in the dark. There was something beautiful in my lack of presence. Nobody asked me to sign their copy of Godkiller. All our eyes were turned towards the stars, which glimmered in the Holy gloom.

A voice whispered into my ear, “Hostem’s eyes slowly winked out of existence, and I wondered if we’d ever think of him as a hero, a god among gods, a villain worthy of the greatest form of worship: murder. Oh, Hostem killed so many of us, and he planned on killing many more. But did our morality apply to him? Was his genocide equal to our deicide?”

The lines from my book sounded all wrong. The nameless voice in the dark emphasized the wrong words, turning it from conjecture into scripture, throwing my own prose at me in a Holy fashion, in a Holy setting.

I sat there, silent, hoping I could appreciate this escape without some vulture asking me why I did what I did.

“You’re a good writer, kid,” the voice told me. I turned around and saw that the voice in the dark came from Beckett. “I don’t know if you remember me,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “I remember you.”

“Let’s get out of the dark,” she said. “Seems you’ve been spending too much time in the past.”

I turned around and caught one last glimpse of Stellavia. It was the most beautiful glance I ever got of her: the stars and planets moving across the body. I felt for a moment that I could reach out and touch it. I felt that I could hold the universe in my hands; protect it, if need be.

Then I was gone, whisked away by Beckett into a new life. I wouldn’t look at Stellavia for the next 30 years.

The images changed. I was somewhere else, somewhen else.

“Mother always said I wouldn’t amount to anything,” I’d admitted to Val so many years ago, while I’d been driving us down to the temple that stood at the base of the Celestial Wall.

“If only Mother could see us now,” Val said. He did that, sometimes. Pretending to be my brother.

It’s a great thing I’m about to do,” he said. Back then, I figured he meant to say ‘we’re’. I was a fool, always a fool.

“Man, we’re talking about unshackling humanity,” he said. “Humanity, that’s been under the tyranny of gods since the beginning of it all. But we didn’t ask for the gods. We don’t need the gods. This is beautiful. This is something. We’re about to become our own gods, and isn’t that beautiful? The gods fucked us over, oh how they fucked us over. But now we’re going to do something. Now, we’re going to be something.”

“If we live to tell the tale,” I said.

“We’ll be the tale,” he said. “The Myth of a Generation, a Century, a Species.”

The images warped again, going further and further back. Deeper into the past. Deeper into misery.

This view was short, a brief series of images. Me taking an axe to the kitchen table I’d just inherited. I took the spindly table leg and broke it across my knee, satisfied by the sound of it breaking.

*CRACK*

The scene changed again.

Mother, sitting at the kitchen table, cradling a steaming hot cup of coffee. Me, no more than twelve years old, standing in the doorway, feeling so cold.

“I’m sorry, ma.”

She glared at the coffee, like she’d been hypnotized.

“I don’t know why I lived,” I said. “I didn’t mean to.”

She lifted her head up, taking her gaze off the coffee. She looked outside our small kitchen window. I stood there, waiting, too confused to cry.

Things never were the same after that.

Some colors faded, others got brighter. Images twisted and turned, until finally I was somewhere else.

“You better do good in school,” my brother told me, the two of us trudging through the snow. “You’re the smart one. You’re going to represent our name, out there in the world.”

“No,” I said, laughing. “I’m not anybody special. You’re the one that’s gonna save the world, least that’s what the Elf Lady said. And the elves can see the future, so–”

“The elves don’t know what they’re talking about,” my brother said. The two of us were getting closer to the car. The dreaded moment approached.

“Everybody else believes them.”

“I’m not going to save the world,” he said. He was sixteen at the time, about five years older than me. “I wouldn’t know how to. I just want to live and be happy, if I can.”

“Well, you can’t,” I said, big dopey grin on my face. “You have to save the whole world, you dumb goof. You have to save us all.”

I’d never forget how quickly the mood changed. My brother stopped in the snow, practically midstep. Then he looked at me with a sad serious look, sadder and seriouser than I’d ever seen him look at me before.

“I can’t ever save you,” he said. His hands were on my shoulder, his voice low. “I can help you, but I can’t ever save you. That’s why you have to learn to save yourself. You got that?”

I hesitated. “How come you can’t save me? The Elf Lady said you can save everybody. Aren’t I everybody?”

He got down on his knees, grabbing my face, looking me in the eyes. “It’s complicated.”

“It’s not complicated,” I said. “The Elf Lady said you’re going to save everybody, and I’m a part of everybody, so you’re going to save me.”

“You’re young,” he said. “You don’t understand.”

“No,” I said, stomping my foot. It slushed in the snow. “You don’t understand. You have to save me!”

“I can’t,” he said.

“You shouldn’t be so sad,” I said, “You’re going to be like The Hero! Isn’t that great?”

He put his face on my shoulder. “They think I’m someone I’m not.”

My shoulder was getting wet. I was annoyed by that.

“The Elf Lady knows who you are more than you know who you are,” I said. “You just have to deal with it. You’re going to save me, and that’s that.”

He lifted his head up. “What if I didn’t save you?”

“You’re not going to–”

“Just imagine,” he said. “Imagine a completely different world where I can’t save you.”

I almost thought about it, but then shook my head. “I don’t want to live in a world like that.”

“You don’t,” he said.

“Nope,” I said. “Good thing you’re going to be a hero!”

“Yeah,” he said.

“So you’re ready to save me?”

“Yeah,” he said, voice sounding weak. “I’ll save you.”

“And what about everyone else?”

“They’re not my brother,” he said. “They’re not my responsibility.”

“We’ll work on it,” I said.

He just nodded his head, standing up and moving towards the car. I moved towards it, too.

When were about to get in he said, “Stop.”

I did, taking my hand away from the car door.

“You still want to learn how to drive?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “But mom says I–”

“You drive, today.” He chucked the keys over the roof of the car. I fumbled around for a second, but still managed to catch them. They were cold in my already cold hands.

“But I don’t know how,” I said.

“That’s why I’m going to teach you.”

I walked around to the driver’s seat of the car. I didn’t really want to drive right then and there, but I figured that my brother knew best. I opened the car door and got in. The wheel felt big around my hands.

“Shouldn’t we do this when it’s not snowing out?” I asked.

“School’s not far,” he said. “You can reach the pedals?”

“Yeah.”

“Put the key in the ignition.”

I turned the key, but the car didn’t sound right.

“Other way.”

I turned the key the other way, and the engine sputtered to life.

“That’s good,” he said. “Now look behind you.”

I did. Nothing behind me but snow.

“It’s clear,” I said. My voice squeaked a little.

“Then put your foot on the ignition pedal, gently.”

I did. My foot leaned into the pedal, ever so slightly, and the car began to back out.

“Good,” he said. “Keep it going. Keep it going.”

I did.

The two of us drove for a while, him occasionally having to explain something to me. But for the most part it was easy. Move the wheel and the car moved with you. You hit one pedal when you wanted to go fast, you hit the other when you wanted to go slow.

When we got close to to school, my brother said, “Let’s keep going.”

“You just said I had to study hard in school.”

“Not today,” he said. “Not today.”

I kept driving. It didn’t feel comfortable, but there weren’t all that many cars on the road. So I drove and I drove. After a while, my brother stopped telling me how I was doing. He stopped warning me if I veered too close to the centerline. He just sat there while I drove, farther and farther into the white nothingness.

Eventually I asked, “Am I doing good?”

“Great,” he said.

“Running low on gas,” I said, looking at the car meter. “Should I turn back?”

“Just a little while more,” he muttered. “I’m enjoying the ride. You’re a good driver.”

“Thanks,” I said, smiling.

I thought we were going to fall into another silence, but my brother asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A writer,” I said. “I really liked that lady who came and talked to you about the Elf Lady’s prophecy. She was cool.”

“Yeah,” he said. I looked over at him for a second, and saw that he was looking at a big oak we were passing. “Cool,” he said. “But would you ever want to be a hero?”

“Nah,” I said. “You’re the one who’s supposed to save the world. I don’t ever want to be a hero. That’d be awful, for me. It’s just not what I’m meant to do.”

He nodded his head as if I was some sage.

“Stop the car,” he said. “I want to drive us home.”

“Okay,” I said. I stopped the car, putting it into park. He got out of the car, and so did I.

We switched places.

“You know I love you, right?” he asked, starting the car up again.

“Of course I do,” I said. “You’re asking stupid stuff today.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said, speeding up. “Maybe I am stupid.”

“What are you doing?”

“What’s best for you.” The car veered off the road.

“Come on!”

“I love you,” he said, the tree getting closer.

“No!”

“It’s what’s best.”

“Stop!”

“I can’t.”

“Stop!”

“I love–”

Darkness.

Darkness.

I blinked my eyes open, coming back to the present. The greasy-haired elf from before stood in front of me.

“You were screaming,” she said.

“How long have I been here?” I asked.

“Two days.”

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