Dragon bones peeked over the horizon. Waves crashed along the shore.
I was glad everyone in the car could be silent. I was glad I could hear the hum of the car’s engine. The car’s hum and the ocean’s waves were soothing, two droning sounds with just enough variation to be interesting.
The road we were on was surprisingly smooth. Wasn’t too far from the beach. If we stopped the car and got out, it would only take us a minute or two to reach the water.
I opened the window, sticking my head out.
Lusu glanced at my reflection in the side mirror, then smiled. “Having fun?”
“Yeah,” I said, appreciating the smell of salt in the air. It wasn’t my nose, but goddamn if it couldn’t smell just the same.
I looked back at the dragon bones. I’d seen Val kill a dragon, once. In fact, I think I’d seen Val kill this dragon. There was something beautiful about it — the metal dragon bones, I mean. I wasn’t surprised they’d been left here.
They gleamed, reflected the light of day. Even in defeat, the Death Cult managed to create something interesting.
“I came across a dragon, once,” The Hero said, sitting in the front passenger seat.
“When?” I asked.
“Long ago, now,” he said. “When I was a kid, if you can believe it.”
“If I can’t?” Lusu asked.
The Hero ignored her. “Oh, it was scary. Let me tell you. Those Death Cultists — well, they came up with some scary shit. Hope you don’t mind me saying that, Lusu, but it’s true.”
“It’s a point of pride,” she said.
“For you or the cult?” I asked.
“The two weren’t so dissimilar, once,” she said.
“And now?” I asked.
“I’m with you, aren’t I?”
And we’re taking you right back there, I thought. Figuring it best not to push the point, I said, “Yeah.”
Still, she’d left the Death Cult a long time ago. I’d expected some sort of fear on her face — some sort of misery at being dragged back into the past. I didn’t see any of that. In fact, she looked at peace.
That could’ve been a misinterpretation, though. I never was able to tell exactly what Lusu was thinking — how exactly she was feeling.
“The dragon,” Lusu said, looking at Hero.
“What?” he asked. “Oh, right. The dragon. I was pretty young at the time: barely a teenager. And I’d decided to go for a long walk, to clear my head and think about my future.”
“You’d just talked to an Elf Lady?” I asked.
“Er, yeah,” he said.
Of course he had. That’s what people always did, when thinking about their future. How could they not?
“This was a long time ago, when they were still testing out the concept of dragons,” The Hero said.
“They knew it worked,” she said. “They were probably testing out the execution.”
Didn’t she mean we?
Though actually, if The Hero had been a young teenager, she would’ve been a baby at best — probably not even that. Her parents would’ve been involved, though.
“Whatever they were doing,” The Hero said, “was ugly. Smaller than you’d expect a dragon to be these days, but still terrifying for a kid who hadn’t had to think about end-of-the-world scenarios.”
“Until the Elf Lady had told you you had to kill the gods,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “until that happened.”
Yet another silence blanketed the car, and I felt bad. But how do you ignore something like that? How do you not talk about the life and death stuff? It’s all around you — all the time, every minute of every day. Why do people waste their time talking about the little things?
“I assume it’s safe to say that the dragon didn’t kill you,” Lusu said. “Am I wrong?”
“No,” he said. “You’re not.”
“But you didn’t kill him,” she said.
“No,” The Hero said. “I hid in the bushes while he flew right over me.”
“Smart man,” she said.
“The thing had an awful laugh, I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “It’s been a lot of years since then, but I can still hear it howling in the night.”
“Laughing like a hyena,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said. “I never understood what something so terrible could find so funny.”
I turned my head, looking back at the dragon bones, wondering what sort of bones I’d leave. If the world ended, I might not leave any bones at all. Something about the idea terrified me, but something else told me to relax.
If the world ends, nothing ever really mattered, did it?
I smiled. Just barely stopped myself from laughing.
— — —
There was a town in front of the dragon bones. A town, and a lady playing solitaire. She abandoned the cards as soon as she saw us, tilting her head up.
It was an odd scene, her smile wide as we rolled up to her. Lusu drove onto a patch of grass, parked the car, and got out. The Hero and I followed her. In a minute we reached the lady, sitting in a chair, next to a thick oak table.
“Well, Sugah,” the lady said, long white hair reaching her hips, pale blue skin barely contrasting with the white pieces of pigment rolling around her flesh. “You sure do have an interesting sense of timing. Who are these two?”
Lusu looked at us. “An elf and a human. Not particularly interesting.”
“I’m sure you’re not being fair,” the lady said. “It always took so much to interest you, what with your wandering mind and all.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Lusu said.
“I know I am.”
Lusu changed course: “Interesting sense of timing?”
“Your mother’s dead”
“Pity,” Lusu said. The lack of emotion in her voice surprised me.
“I was hoping to ask a favor of her,” Lusu said.
“That’ll be difficult, given the situation,” the Hyalu said.
“What were you hoping to ask?”
“Little point asking if I can’t get an answer,” Lusu said.
“You couldn’t ask someone else?”
“I’m not inclined to.”
Lusu and the lady bounced back and forth. I watched web of intrigue get spun before my very eyes.
“Well then,” the Hyalu said, standing up and smiling at Lusu. “It’s good to see you again. Feels like nothing’s changed.”
“Nothing ever does,” she said.
“About your mother’s death,” the lady said.
“The cult is one member short.”
“You’re saying I should rejoin?”
“Why ask for a favor when you can get it yourself?”
“Nothing ever changes,” the lady said, smiling.
Without saying a word, the Hyalu turned and began to walk away. Lusu followed, so The Hero and I followed, too.
We passed under the great big dragon bones, making our way through the ribs. It was strange, but things didn’t seem so bad in the dragon’s chest. It looked more like a piece of art than anything. Neither Lusu nor the lady seemed to even notice it.
Having passed through the dragon bones, we reached a ship. It was big — probably big enough to fit a hundred people. It was docked on the shore. We walked onto the dock, then stepped onto the ship.
Inside, it was terrible: a kaleidoscope of carnal pleasures, with pop music blaring on the speakers and a couple of gambling tables set up. It reminded me too much of Demersi’s Sins. It reminded me of all the blood.
The center of the action was at the roulette table, where a broad-shouldered Hyalu with short silver hair stood, laughing.
“Anlu’ll be happy to see you again,” the lady said.
“I know,” Lusu responded.
Sure enough, we walked towards the roulette table. When we got there, the broad-shouldered silver-haired Hyalu did look happy.
He smiled wide, then turned to hug Lusu.
“How’s my baby?” he asked.
“Old,” she replied.
“Take it from your father,” Anlu said. “Age is just a number.”
“Speaking of, how many shots?”
“Oh, you always were no fun,” he said, looking at the roulette table. “Can’t you see I’m playing?”
I looked at the table, not entirely sure what he meant. It was your typical roulette table, a green felt table with half the numbers black and the other half red. And there was the roulette wheel, much as I would have expected. But people had placed shot glasses on some of the numbers. I noticed that there weren’t any chips on the table.
“I can’t tell if you’re good at living or dying,” Lusu said, which made me pause. I hadn’t realized that was one of those truisms she threw out, whenever it suited her.
I noticed a shadow from the corner of my eyes and turned around. A Hyalu stood there, carrying a tray of rainbow shots.
“Friends of Lusu,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Would you care for a drink?” he’d ask.
“Two, if you can spare it,” I said, taking a blue shot and knocking it back.
“An elf who knows how to live,” the waiter said, a bit of a smirk on his face. “Always nice to see.”
“Yeah,” I said, wishing he hadn’t said that. I picked up a second blue shot, knocking it back.
“And you?” the waiter asked, looking at The Hero and smiling.
“More of a beer man myself,” he said, laughing a little bit and patting me on the back.
I took a third shot and knocked it back. The waiter gave a bit of an awkward laugh, walking away.
“You really are a party animal,” The Hero said. “Hope you don’t see any puke in your future.”
Future? My future’s shit.
“I’ve seen enough puke to last me a lifetime,” The Hero continued. “Perils of living in a bar, you know.”
“Can’t imagine,” I mumbled.
My stomach didn’t feel right. I didn’t feel right. I looked at the floor, with its repeating diamond pattern. In each of the diamonds, there was an ouroboros. Snake after snake, all of them eating their own damn tails.
My heart didn’t feel right, either. Too fast. Was that shit poison?
No, it tasted just like alcohol, and everyone around me seemed fine.
“I came to ask a favor,” Lusu said. I turned around, and saw her talking to Anlu. “With Mom gone, it’s a little more complicated.’
“Big problem?” Anlu asked.
“It’s my husband.”
“Bastard,” Anlu said.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” she said. “I need him dead.”
“He’s a big problem.”
“We need to create a dragon to kill him, or at least slow him down.”
“Sounds a bit like overkill doesn’t it? Summoning a dragon to kill one man?” he asked. Pausing to consider, he said, “Then again, maybe one dragon isn’t enough. He’s already killed a couple of ours.”
“He’s become a big problem,” she said. “I was hoping to get a big dragon.”
“What’s going on?”
“So’s what you’re asking for. We’re going through a bit of a transitional period right now.”
“You need another cultist,” Lusu said.
“Exactly. You want to fill the spot?”
“I’m not sure,” Lusu said.
“Your mother left us at a bad time,” he said.
Lusu looked like she wasn’t sure what to say, so I interjected. “How do you play?”
“Excuse me?” Anlu asked me.
“The game. The roulette game. I know how to play, but what’s with the shots?”
“Your elf friend’s oddly inquisitive,” Anlu said, wearing a bit of a smile.
“She’s not your typical elf,” Lusu replied.
“Inquisitive is good,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to perfect the dragon ritual without some degree of inquisition.”
“Curiosity is an annoying quality that you both share,” Lusu said, smiling.
“Be nice,” he said. “The smartest Hyalu the world has ever seen is trying to do you a favor. The least you could do is be nice.”
Lusu rolled her eyes.
“We play it the same as everyone else, but today I decided we’d bet with booze, instead of money,” Anlu said.
“Yeah,” he said. The waiter came over again, and Anlu beckoned him with his finger. “Put it on my account,” he said, taking two green shots and placing them on 32 Red.
The dealer placed his hand on the roulette wheel, spinning it one way. Then he placed the white ball on the black circle surrounding the wheel. He pushed the ball so that it spun in the other direction.
And so the two spun, back and forth, making me feel dizzier and dizzier.
Around and around, such a small chance of winning.
My head really wasn’t feeling good.
Could you really predict where the little white ball would land? Or was part of the fun in knowing that there was no real way to know? If I was a real elf I would know. Would I want to?
Wasn’t I a real elf?
The white ball landed on 11 Black.
“What now?” I asked.
“I lost, so the House gets to drink my drinks.”
“That sucks,” I said.
Anlu smiled, practically giggling as he reached over the table and picked up one of the green shots. “Not if you cheat.” He kicked it back.
Lusu looked at him.
“I’m renting the ship, and I bought all the liqour in it. I’m only stealing from myself.”
Lusu changed the subject: “I’m sorry Mom didn’t escape. How’d it happen?”
“She took someone else from the clutches of the Angel of Death,” he said. “We’d talked to the Elf Ladies, and they figured the Angel of Death would be particularly busy that day. So we agreed to take an elf and help it escape the cycle of death, before the Angel of Death could do anything about it. But the Elf Ladies were wrong, and the Angel of Death came early. Took your mother, so she could be reborn.”
“And this party?” Lusu asked.
“Figured the Death Cult could use a pick-me-up.”
I’d told a man to kill himself.
That didn’t bother me, though. I said what I meant: I envied him. I envied the fact that his fate wasn’t too desperately sealed.
“I could probably kill Coraline,” Lusu said. “If I did, could I take her place instead?”
“We’d still need another Hyalu to fill your mother’s place.”
“I’m sure you could find one,” Lusu said. “And really, who would you rather be in the cult? Coraline or me?”
It really didn’t bother me — what I’d done back at Demersi’s Sins. I was fine with the fact that I’d told him to kill himself. Death was an escape. Death was something he’d wanted to do. Death was something I wanted to do.
The Angel of Death was so beautiful. How could anyone hate her? I loved her. She’d been good to me, ever since I was little.
Anlu shook his head.
“You doubt my capabilities?” Lusu asked.
“It’s been a lot of years since you left.”
“I learned a lot while I was gone.”
“So did Coraline.”
“Without you this cult would’ve been run into the ground by now.”
“Coraline’s gotten better at magic since you knew her.”
“She always hated me.”
“That’s not true.”
“What do you want me to do. Talk to her?”
“It couldn’t hurt,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“It won’t kill you,” he said.
I’d told a man to kill himself.
I really wasn’t feeling well.
“I’ve got to step outside for a moment,” I said.
“You feeling alright?” The Hero asked.
“Fine,” I said. “Great. Couldn’t be better.”
I pushed him to the side a little bit as I moved towards the door. He followed me anyway.
“You went pretty hard back there,” he said, as I pushed open the door and made my way to the railings.
“Life’s hard,” I said. “The intoxication has to be even harder, ain’t that something?”
“Sure,” The Hero said.
I leaned against the railing, looking down at the clear blue water. It wasn’t even nighttime yet. How did these Hyalu live like this?
“What do you think?” I asked.
“What do I think of what?”
“Of all this,” I said, throwing my arm in the air.
“The Death Cult?”
“Not what I expected.”
“Me either. I mean, neither,” I said. As a writer, I knew the fucking difference. “They’re so fuckin’ happy.”
“Guess it feels good to believe in reincarnation, even if you do believe it’s some shitty never-ending cycle.”
“Why would Lusu leave–”
I’d told a man to kill himself. A man was fucking dead, and it was all my fault.
I smelled like death, didn’t I? It followed me wherever I went, a cloud above my head, an albatross around my neck. I’d never escape it. Some deep part of me might not want to have escaped it.
I helped a god die. And now I’ve killed a man. When does it end?
Maybe it never ended. Maybe this was who I was.
I puked over the side of the railing.
The Hero shook his head, sighing. “That’s not a surprise.”