“I’m gonna die in 30 minutes,” the elf said. “Want a smoke?”
“If you’re offering,” I said.
The elf took a pack out of her pocket. She flipped the pack open and slid out a single cigarette.
“Open your mouth,” she said. I did, ever so slightly. She slid the cigarette in there. It felt good on my lips. “Fiat Lux.” She snapped her fingers. A spark flew off her fingers and onto the cigarette. I took a deep breath in. The smoke filled my lungs, and I let it out through my nose. The cigarette hung by my lips. It had no other option, since my hands were bound.
“You’re not going to have one?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Worried about your health?” I asked. There’s never as good a time to crack wise as there is when you’re about to die. No consequences. Thing is, she was going to die even sooner than me. Why?
“No,” she said. She stood there, melancholic. Elves figured out pretty young when they were going to die, because they didn’t experience time linearly.
Well, that’s not entirely true. When they were young — say, up to 80 years old — they might’ve seen it linearly. But as soon as they grew up, as soon as they grew into everything that made elves elves, they saw time all at once. There was no past, and there was no future. There was just a long series of presents, all of time existing simultaneously.
So she would’ve known her death was a long time coming. But the thought of death must’ve been hard to swallow, after living for a millennium or two.
“You know how it’s going to go?” I asked. “Or is it something internal?”
“Not internal,” she said.
Was I going to kill her?
Elves rarely talked about the future. The more they talked about it, the more the people around them might change it. And changing the future from the one you’d seen could be painful. It meant your future would get pulled out from under you, and made your view of the future worthless.
Of course, there were a few Elf Ladies who got around the rules. But no one had figured out quite how they managed to do it.
Ordinary elf folk could tell the future right once, and someone would change their actions to better their futures. Then, their version of the future will no longer be the right one: a disorienting fact that made life hard.
Dying elves didn’t have any reason to care about the rules, but they also had the least amount of future to reveal.
“How do you go?” I asked.
“Quickly,” she said. “Beast comes in here and grabs me. Then? Nothing.”
“What sort of beast?” I asked.
“Don’t recognize it.”
“How old are you?”
“You haven’t seen anything like it in 1,683 years?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Except in my dreams, my nightmares. This thing has haunted me for a long, long time. I’ll be glad to finally confront it.”
“What does it do to me?”
“Nothing, as far as I can see,” she said. “Probably something, once I’m dead and gone.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I want to know,” she said. “Do you know what the thing is?” There was a sort of desperation in her eyes, the sort of desperation that can only come from thinking about something for so long. It’s the sort of look that comes after obsession, after you’ve thought through the problem so many times that it’s become a regular part of your life. 1,600 years was a long time.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Describe it.”
“Blue skin,” she said. “Blue, transparent skin, so transparent that I can see the bones underneath. The bones are a little big, but human-looking.”
“No,” I said. “Never seen anything like it.”
“Do you have any friends?” she asked. “Anyone who’d want to break you out of here?”
“No,” I said. “A couple friends, but no one who’d be willing to break me out. One’s a cop, the other’s a wheelchair-bound misanthrope. Both black, not blue.”
“I know it’s not an angel,” she said. “I’ve never seen a devil. You think it’s a devil?”
“No,” I said.
“I’ve been waiting for you my whole life,” she said. “Not really waiting. Despising. Thinking about. Wondering. I always wondered who you were, why you were in the dungeon. Your relationship to the monster, if it was trying to break you free.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have the answers.”
“Did you kill him?” she asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Did you kill him?”
“They say you killed him.”
“If this thing breaks you out, don’t kill again.”
“I never did,” I said, instinctively, almost angrily. Then I remembered. I hadn’t killed Val Rador, but I had killed. “I won’t,” I said.
She sighed, sticking her hands in her pockets. She began to pace around the room. When she was close, I could see her, but the room was big enough and dark enough that she was often shrouded by shadow. So she’d leave, and it would be like she’d never existed. Then she’d come back into the dim light, and it was a revelation.
Finally she said, “I’d hoped you would have answers.”
“I knew you wouldn’t. I knew you wouldn’t. But I doubted it could be true. I doubted I would ever die without knowing. Then I saw a picture of you 40 years ago, after all the business with Hostem. And I saw you at the police station, confused, accused of murdering Val without looking like a murderer. And I knew my death was part of something so much bigger. I knew the world had a problem.”
I stood there, hanging by chains, not knowing what to say. So I asked a question.
“Why didn’t you find me sooner?” I asked.
“Because I didn’t,” she said. “That wasn’t a part of my future.”
I nodded my head. That made sense, and yet none of this made sense. A see-through creature? A creature with visible bones?
“I’ll be sad to see you go,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
She squinted her eyes and nodded her head, as if she didn’t want my apology.
“It’s not right,” she said. “I thought you’d be responsible somehow.”
I might be. I didn’t know, since it hadn’t happened yet. But it didn’t feel wise to mention that fact.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m not too sad,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be missing much.”
“What do you mean?”
“The end of the world’s coming. At least, I think it is.”
It made me feel dumb, but I repeated myself, “What do you mean?”
“Elves don’t like to share thoughts of the future, even among themselves,” she said. “But sometimes, late at night, often after having had too many drinks, we’ll reveal when our timeline ends. We won’t reveal the how of it ending, of course. But we’ll reveal the when. And do you want to know something? Most of the elves I talk to don’t last much longer than me.”
“Maybe,” she said. “I think so. Can’t help but wonder if I’m the beginning of The End.”
I wondered, too. She wouldn’t quite be the apocalyptic beginning — that distinction had to belong to Stellavia. But she was pretty damn close.
I hung by the chains, wondering while she paced across the dungeon floor.
“You think we could change the future?” I asked her. “I mean, wouldn’t it be worth it, to save your life?”
“Thought about it. Thought about it a lot, actually,” she said.
That was the problem with elves. They’d thought through so much of their futures. I hated talking to them, because I always felt four steps behind. I guess I was.
“But it’s not worth it,” she said. “I’d rather die than see my timeline ripped out from under me.”
“Because it hurts?” I asked.
“Like hell,” she said. “You go crazy. If you’re lucky, you figure enough out to right yourself. But not many do.”
“So you’d rather die.”
“I’m going to die,” she said.
“How about helping me change the future after–” I almost said, ‘after you die,’ but I stopped short of that last, ugly word. “Help me figure out how to beat this thing.”
“I don’t know enough,” she said.
“I’m sure you’ve researched it.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Nobody knew anything about it?”
“So far as the world is concerned, a creature with blue translucent skin doesn’t exist.”
Sure, as far as the outside world was concerned. But not as far as I was concerned. Not as far as she was concerned. And right then, my world was just the two of us.
“What if the see-through skin isn’t natural?” I asked. “What if it’s a condition?”
“Thought of that, but what sort of condition could cause that?”
“I don’t know, but it’s an idea. Some kind of disease.”
“A disease that weakened the skin,” she said. “Made it thin.”
“Extremely thin,” I said.
“Checked all the medical libraries. Even went to a couple of doctors.”
“No dice,” she said.
“If we can’t figure out what it is, maybe we can figure out how to hurt it.”
“Maybe,” she said. I realized then that she’d given up decades — centuries — before I’d met her.
“Thin skin,” I said. “Does that make him weak? Sensitive?”
“Didn’t look weak or sensitive, to me.”
“He doesn’t have to be weak to have a weakness,” I said. “Everything has some sort of weakness.”
“Probably,” she said.
“What did his face look like?” I ask.
“Two eyes, a nose, a mouth,” she said. “It looked like a face.”
“How about emotionally? Angry? Sad? Happy?”
“I don’t know,” she continued. “Might’ve been human, might’ve been sad. I’ve seen the thing so many times that I can’t really see it anymore.”
“I just need something to work with.”
“I’ve looked at this problem a long time. There’s nothing. Nothing–”
“A trait,” I said. “Maybe it’s not sick, but is just different for some reason. Maybe they were born a mutant, or maybe they’re some magical accident.”
“Doesn’t look anything like magic,” she said. “And I’ve seen some foul magic.”
Of course the elf had given up. She knew she was going to die. But me? I didn’t know I was going to die. I was human, so my whole life was just one big surprise after another. And the fight. My god, the fight. That thing could kill me, or it could let me go. There were a thousand possibilities, but I couldn’t begin to work through them if I couldn’t figure out what the hell it was.
In my travels I’d met a dragon who breathed blue fire.
“What if it’s magically irradiated?” I asked. “With dragon fire. Is that a possibility?”
“No,” she said. “His skin wasn’t burning. It looked like a translucent glow.”
“What if it was irradiated with something else?” I asked.
I sighed. “I don’t know.”
Felt like I’d hit a wall, so I stopped talking. She kept on pacing, waiting for the inevitable.
“Was it a good life?” I asked.
She stopped. She was in the darkness, not the light.
“Yeah,” she said. “You?”
My throat closed up a little. “No.”
She stood there in the silence. Then she went back to pacing.
“Let me out of these chains,” I said. “Maybe I can sneak up on the thing. They took my gun away, right? How about your gun? Do you have a gun?”
“That’s not how it goes,” she said. “You’re chained to the wall, the beast comes in, it kills me. That’s how it goes. It’s destiny.”
“Fuck destiny,” I spat out.
“You can’t say that. You can’t do that. You can’t just cast destiny aside.”
“Too bad there’s not an angel of destiny,” I said.
*CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK* *SPLASH* *CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK* *SPLASH* *CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK* *CLACK*
There was poetry in her pacing.
“It’s important that things go the way they’re supposed to go,” she said.
“Why?” I asked. “I mean what I say. Fuck destiny. Get my hands out of these chains and let me try and kill this fucker.”
“Like Val killed that god?”
“Like Val killed that god,” I said.
“No,” she said. “This is the plan.”
“Why do you care about the plan?” I asked. “Why the hell would you follow a plan that kills you?”
“I think there’s a reason elves know the future,” she said. “Maybe not think. I believe there’s a reason. How can there be so many wonderful things out there, if there isn’t something to guide it all? How could all of this just happen, by accident?”
“Hate to break it to you,” I said, anger slipping into my voice. “But god’s dead. I saw him get killed.”
“I think there’s something more than that,” she said. “Something bigger.”
“Don’t let metaphysics blind you with bullshit,” I said. “There’s only one thing you know: what you can see with your own two eyes. Elves, humans, dragons, the future. This is all stuff that you know exists. Some higher power? Some higher, unkillable power? You don’t know jack shit about it.”
“Belief doesn’t require knowledge.”
“You know what else doesn’t require knowledge?” I asked. “Bullshit. I could make up my own goddamn religion if I wanted to. Watch me.”
“Don’t–” she began.
“Wizard gets bored one day. Takes some clay. He sculpts out an environment, and some little clay people to populate it. He watches them go for hours, entertained by their petty lives, by their conflict. Makes some mini-wizards, who help him run the clay people: stirring up conflict, but also stamping it out if it gets out of hand. He loves the conflict so much, because isn’t that what makes things interesting? Aren’t living creature addicted to conflict, all the trials, all the triumphs? The wizard loves his creations, who fight so hard for their lives. They get into all sorts of petty squabbles, but through it all manage to form a government, a democracy. It’s beautiful, but it’s just the beginning. They’re ready to take on bigger and bigger conflicts. They’re ready to venture into the outside world, to convene with other creatures, and perhaps even confront their god.
I went on. “First, they confront the mini-wizards, who’ve acted selfishly and without kindness. The mini-wizards refuse to change, so the clay people kill them all. The wizard loves his clay people dearly, but realizes that they’ve advanced too far. He’s a petty wizard, and he doesn’t want to deal with their struggles. And so, with a snap of his fingers, he attempts to wipe out life. Of course, the life wipes him out first. The clay people saved themselves, but now they’re rudderless. Servants without masters. Eventually, they all end up killing themselves.”
By the end of my speech, the elf looked like she was holding back tears.
“If you’ve thought I was cold during this conversation,” she said. “If you thought I should have tried harder to help you save your life, just know that I heard this story many times, that I’ve lived with it, for all these years. Know that your nihilism has been a dark cloud hanging over me my whole life.”
“Hung over mine, too,” I said.
She paced, I hung.
And in the silence, I realized it wouldn’t be long now. I realized I’d given up.
How much time was left? Ten minutes? Five? Three? Time blurred together in this place, with no sun and no stars. I wondered if that’s how the elves felt: blurred. If every moment was happening all the time, were any of them happening? Or was it just going through the motions, each moment a boring–
“It’s time,” she said.
“Wh–” I began to say, but I was cut off.
The thin-skinned beast broke the wooden door, charging into the room. It was just like she’d described: blue, with all the bones showing. I wondered if it was human. Or rather, if it had been human.
It didn’t roar. I wanted it to, but it didn’t. After the initial besatial breaking down of the door, it seemed quiet. Cold. Calculated. It placed its palm over the elf’s eyes. She was dead already.
My eyes watered.
I’m going to die.
When the door had broken down, the elf had stood there, calm. What had she thought of that, for all these years? Had she wondered at how calmly she could handle death, and the roaring? Or did she know that this was her salvation, the way to escape her nightmares?
She escaped her nightmare by living it.
But this wasn’t my nightmare. This felt wrong.
The beast stood there, arm glowing, radiating a wild blue.
“What are you?” I asked. I looked into its eyes. Its face looked pretty human: no pointy ears, no defiantly inhuman feature. But it was so much bigger than any man I’d seen: nine feet tall, with muscles like mountains.
It looked sad, when I asked my question, so I asked, “Who are you?”
Her head was clasped in its hand. It brought the other hand towards me.
“Were you always like this?” I asked. “Is this a disease? A condition? Do you like what you are?” The idea wasn’t that it would answer this barrage of questions. It was that he’d answer one of them, the right one, the one that resonated with him.
It leaned in close. My skin tingled. I looked at my wrist, which basked in its glow. I could see my bones.
“I am the God that you cannot know,” it whispered. “I am the God that you cannot kill.”
It placed its hand over my eyes.