I dreamed. It was a better way of living.
— — —
Sitting in the car, watching the fields of wheat passed us by, I thought about life.
Six months had passed since he and I had returned from our adventures. Hostem was dead, the world was safe, and the government couldn’t get enough of Val. Of course, not too many people knew exactly what we’d done, and how we’d done it. Some knew bits and pieces, but the killing of Hostem? Only Val and I had been there for that.
“How’s the book going?” Val asked.
“Good,” I said, sitting in the passenger seat of his car. We were getting close to the Death Cult, but somehow that didn’t bother me. After everything Val and I had been through, a group of cultists didn’t seem that bad.
The sound of ocean waves could be heard not too far in the distance. The car sped along a narrow dirt road, surrounded on either side by fields of wheat.
This was a government job: kill a dragon the Death Cult had created, and then the government would make you filthy fucking rich.
It was strange, since they hadn’t payed Val for the assassination of a god. But then again, that hadn’t been done for them. That’d been Val’s destiny.
Or my brother’s. It was hard to keep track, sometimes.
“How far along are you?” he asked.
“Not very,” I lied. “Still stuck in the early-goings.”
“You’ll make me look good, right? Just like we agreed?” Val said, smiling.
“Yeah,” I said. “Soon as I can figure out how to get the words on the page.”
“This should curb your writer’s block,” he said, “getting to see the action again. Sometimes you’re so stuck in your own mind. It can’t be good for you. No, a little observation is what you need.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it.”
A dragon came into our line of sight. It was big, like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Great silver wings flapped, keeping it in the air. It had a bright silver body. Looked like a sword in the sky.
It turned to look at us, and suddenly I felt less confident.
“Go in the other direction,” he said, parking the car. “Hide in the fields and stay there.”
I shot out of the car, not even closing the door as I leaped into the wheat field. My heart pounded.
This wasn’t the plan. I wasn’t supposed to get so close to the action.
I’d told myself my adventuring days were behind me, but I supposed I had one last great adventure, after all.
I peaked through the wheat, curiosity getting the better part of me. Somehow, things seemed less terrifying when you at least understood the basic situation.
The dragon still flew towards the car. I heard the sound of laughter, but didn’t see the dragon’s jaw moving. The dragon got close to the car. Seeing that we weren’t in it, it angled upwards, just narrowly avoiding the thing.
Val ran out of the wheat, throwing himself onto the hood of the car.
I noticed the dragon’s tail for the first time. At the very end was a small human-shaped head. It laughed.
Val grabbed onto the head just in time to get yanked into the air.
I waited in the wheat fields, staying silent for two hours. An odd feeling sat in my stomach. On the one hand, I wanted him to win. After everything he’d been through — after everything he’d fought for — I felt like he deserved to win.
But how good would his life be after all this? Sure, he’d have wealth beyond his wildest imagination. And that’s not nothing — that’s a big something. But what would challenge him? What would make life worth living for him? If a good life was one that had joys and challenges in equal measure, what could possibly challenge him after he’d killed a god?
If he died, I wouldn’t have to worry about his reaction to the book. That’s really what I cared about, wasn’t it?
His life was his own. I wished him happiness but I didn’t plead for it. The real worry was for my own life. He’d killed a god, and I wanted to piss him off?
Near the end of the second hour, I felt a bit of relief.
He’s probably dead, I told myself.
That’s when he appeared before me, covered in black dragon blood.
“It’s done,” he said, reaching his hand out to lift me up. “We’re going home.”
Val drove us home. The whole time, I couldn’t help but notice the glimmer of joy in his eyes.
When I got out of the car, on the way back to my place, he asked, “Any idea what you’re going to name the book?”
Godkiller, I thought.
“No idea,” I lied.
It was the second-to-last time I’d see Val, at least for the next forty years. It was the last time I’d ever see him think of me as a friend.
— — —
I woke up. Something was in my mouth.
Spat it out.
Opened my eyes, seeing dead skin.
I put my foreign hand on my face. Dead skin sloughed off.
This time it was more annoying, less horrifying. There was something comforting in that, actually. The first time I’d been frightened. But now that I knew what was going on, I was just ticked off.
I groaned. A couple seconds later, a door clicked.
I opened my eyes, immediately regretting it. The rush of light burned. I closed my eyes again, allowing me to focus on the fact that I was a nail and life seemed to be a hammer.
“I hope you had fun last night,” Lusu’s voice said.
Groaned some more: “Define ‘fun’.”
“Given what I saw last night, it might involve embarrassing yourself, not to mention embarrassing me. Or perhaps it just means being an idiot.”
“You’ve no bedside manner,” I said. “I don’t feel well.”
“Which is entirely of your own doing,” she said.
“Why would you ever leave a place like this?” I asked, opening my eyes again and looking at her. The light still burned, but not closing my eyes again felt like a point of pride.
“You mean the Death Cult?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Honestly?” she said. “Dragon bones get boring after a while. I wanted to see the world, and Val promised something new, something interesting.”
“So you left for him.”
“Sure,” she said. “Wouldn’t you? Tall, strong man. A man unlike anything you’d ever seen, with fire in his eyes and a mysterious past. How could I resist?”
“He was something,” I said. “I miss him, even though I hate him.”
She shook her head, a small smile spreading across her face. “I know the feeling.”
“How’d you meet him?”
“Covered in blood,” she said.
I let out a bit of a laugh. “Sounds like Val.”
“Yeah,” she said. “It does.”
“I’m sorry I embarrassed you,” I said. “That stuff at Demersi’s… It was,” I searched for the words. How did you even talk about this sort of thing? How did you talk about life and death, without the awful silence that so often followed?
“Rough,” she said.
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” I replied. “It was just so damn rough.”
“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t know what it means, or what I should think. I told a guy why he should kill himself. I told him he should kill himself.”
“You were being honest,” she said.
“What you did?” Lusu said. “It was awful. You told a man to kill himself, and he did. But you said what you thought, and it saved you, me, and The Hero. It was a hard situation, but you were honest and you saved people.”
“It doesn’t feel good.”
“I can imagine,” she said. “Are you going to be alright to mingle today?”
“No,” I said, turning around and burying my head in the pillow.
“What’s your plan for today, then?” she asked. “Ostracize yourself forever? Wallow in the self-pity? I understand your pain, George. But I somehow doubt this will help you.”
I sighed. “What do you mean when you say mingle?”
“The Death Cult is a democracy,” she said.
I took my head out of the pillow, turning to look at her: “It’s a democracy, you can come and go whenever you want, there’s no overly influential leader. Why is it even called a cult?”
“An overly eager journalist,” she said, as drolly as the Hyalu voice would allow. “Though I’ll confess, every organization has both good times and bad.”
“What does that–”
“Point is,” she went on, “the Death Cult is a democracy, with particular roles filled by people who’ve been voted in. My mother’s dead, and someone needs to fill the position.”
“You want to fill it.”
“I need to fill it,” she said. “At least, I need to fill it if we want to send a dragon after Val.”
She was right, but at that point I cared less. If she wanted to join the Death Cult again, that was her prerogative. Especially since they didn’t even seem all that bad. Still, something else was bothering me: “You talk about your mother’s death as if it doesn’t matter.”
“She’ll be back,” Lusu said. “Truth be told, I’m sorry she didn’t escape.”
“You don’t miss her?”
“She’s out there,” Lusu said. “She’ll find her way back, someday, somehow. I’m asking if you’re okay to mingle, because I need to gain the Hyalu’s trust. They’re somewhat impressed by me, since I have a knowledge of the world. But they don’t know me much, anymore, and your colorful display last night didn’t exactly instill confidence. They need to know I’m right for the cult.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Talk to the Hyalu, get to know them. Let them know how trustworthy I am.”
This, I thought, is going to be a long day.
— — —
I stood on the deck of the ship, Bloody Mary soothing my hangover. My elf body still felt uncomfortable, but it was getting better. Feeling the sun shining on my face, I actually felt better than I’d felt in a while. Maybe life wasn’t so bad after all.
The Sun was a bit too bright, sure. But that was okay. I was sweaty, but smiling. The Hero stood next to me, also smiling, as the old Hyalu spoke to us.
“I used to be a boxer,” Nawlins said, his eyes lit with a dimming fire, white pigment swirling around his knuckles. They didn’t flow like usual Hyalu pigmentation. Instead, they spun in a circular motion, focused specifically around each of the knuckles. When a Hyalu got bruised badly enough, that happened — the white pigment hung there, spinning til death. “That was a long time ago, though.”
“What do you do now?” I asked.
“Odd jobs,” he said, his voice gravelled. He wasn’t quite punch drunk, but he was distanced. Like getting knocked in the head all those times had taken something from him, and he couldn’t get it back. “People always need a fighter. Though maybe not, you know. I hear there aren’t s’posed to be anymore dragons. Maybe…” he drifted off.
“What?” I asked.
“Hm?” he said. “Oh, uh. Nothin’. Just wonderin’ about the future.”
The Hero jumped into the conversation, after having not said anything for a while: “I met a dragon once. Real scary thing, lemme tell ya.”
“Yeah.” Nawlins slapped The Hero on the arm a couple times, looking into the distance, not even seeming to notice us anymore. “That’s nice. That’s nice.”
He walked away, leaving The Hero and I standing there.
“You’ve got to stop telling that story,” I told The Hero. I took another sip of Blood Mary. The salty spiced flavor sat well on my tongue.
“Why?” he asked. “It’s not a good story?”
“These Hyalu are interested in death,” I said, making my way to the ship’s railing. The Hero followed. “You being afraid of their own creation isn’t going to impress them.”
“I guess you’ve got a point,” The Hero said, leaning on the railing next to me. “Didn’t really think about it, to be honest.”
“Of course you didn’t,” I said. “You haven’t ever had to impress someone. Intimidate, maybe. But never impress.”
He sighed. “I guess you’re right.”
“You’ve got some stories they’d be very interested in,” I said.
“Don’t say it–”
“You killed gods,” I said. “That’s fascinating. They’ll eat it up.”
“I don’t like talking about that,” he said. “Bad time of my life.”
“Take it from a journalist,” I said. “That’s what the people want to hear.”
“You’re an Elf Guard,” he said. “You can’t be a journalist and an Elf Guard.”
“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Point is, if you tell the Hyalu about how you killed gods, you’ll have their interest more. They’ll like you. Gods wanted to kill most living things and start over, so you killed most of the gods? That’s a story for the books.”
The Hero’s cheeks reddened a little, as he looked out at the sea. “You want to hear the story, not them.”
“We all do,” I said.
“Not me,” he said. “I don’t want to think about it, ever again.”
The waves lapped against the boat’s hull.
“It’s not morbid curiosity,” I said. “That’s not why I want to hear your story.”
The Hero chuckled. “Sure.”
“I… I have a personal interest in the death of the gods.”
“You, and every other bum from here to the Celestial Wall,” The Hero said. “Everybody asking me what it was like, everybody asking me if I was proud of what I did.”
“More personal than that,” I said. “I was there when Blake Reinor killed Hostem.”
The Hero chewed on his lip, and by extension the thought. He glanced at me, then back towards the town. “Don’t remember reading about an elf being there when Hostem died.”
“An elf wasn’t there,” I said.
He gave me another look, like he didn’t even believe I was standing next to him.
“You’re disconnected from your timeline, aren’t you?” The Hero asked.
I took in a deep breath of fresh air. Almost took a sip of Bloody Mary, but I doubted that would help any. “Not really. Well, yes. It’s complicated.”
“I knew it,” he said. “Knew something was off about you. Does Lusu know?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Lusu knows.”
“An elf disconnected from the timestream.”
I shook my head. “A man.”
“A man,” I said. “George Royce, to be precise.”
“That’s not right. No,” he said, “You’re an elf, not a man. A weird little elf, but an elf all the same.”
“Some being put me into this body, taking the elf and putting her in my body.”
“That can’t happen. What sort of thing could do that?” he asked me.
“A god,” I said.
The Hero laughed. “A god? We’ve killed all of them!”
He said it loud enough to catch the attention of other Hyalu. My heart was starting to beat a little too quickly.
You’re a man, no matter what anyone else says, I told myself. You know who you are.
“He said he was an unkillable god,” I said.
“Lemme tell you something,” The Hero said. “There’s no such thing.”
“It was magic,” I said.
“No,” he replied. “These days, we know what magic does. Someone says the right thing or does the right ritual, and there’s a reaction. One thing impacts the other, and it makes sense. But body-swapping? That’s… I’m going to go to my room. To let you clear your head. You need to clear your head, you know. Stop thinking you’re something that you’re not.”
He stormed off, leaving me there, to the waves and the Death Cult.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. No, I decided I wasn’t very surprised at all.
Hadn’t people been telling me who I was, year after year, decade after decade? It was hard to decide things like that for yourself. It was so much easier to believe what people told you.
That said, wasn’t what I’d been telling myself worse than what other people had been telling me? Wasn’t my own guilt — my own obsession with the past — the ultimate problem?
I couldn’t escape myself. I couldn’t escape my past. I was a goddamn slave to my own stream of consciousness. Boring. Disgusting. Mad. Death to everyone around me.
It’d been that way since the Angel of Death had seen me in the car crash. Maybe it’d been destiny since before I’d even been born.
Couldn’t I ask more? Wasn’t there something better than all this?
I remembered Hostem’s last breath. I remembered Stellavia’s stars pour out her back. I remembered Demersi, his space suit shot through just like his skull.
I remembered too much. I didn’t want to remember anything, anymore.
I closed my eyes, listening to the sound of the waves lapping against the boat. I focused on my breath, the present, the now. The sun beating down on the back of my head. My spine curled just a little forward, my shoulders much too hunched.
I took slow, deep breaths. Forced my shoulders down. Rolled my neck forward, rolled it back, then rolled it forward again.
You are nothing more than the present moment, I thought. You aren’t your past. You have no future. You’re here, now, and that’s all that matters.
Maybe it was the Sun, or maybe it was the hangover. Maybe it was my desire to forget, or the culmination of all the shit in my life leading to a psychological break. But whatever it was, in that instant, I felt wholly separated from myself.
It wasn’t just a physical thing anymore — I hadn’t just changed my outer being — it was psychological.
My whole life seemed like little more than a fever dream, a life I felt privileged not to have led. It had haunted some other man, some doomed ghost of a man who couldn’t escape his past.
But me? I stood there on that boat, born for the second time.
Cool air filled my lungs, and I wondered who I possibly could have been. After all, everyone had a past, and elves had more of a past than most.
I liked to think I’d been a good elf: able to scrap when it came right down to it, but rarely needing to. Maybe I’d been a traveling salesman, moving across the world and really being able to appreciate each stop I’d made.
I never knew my mother. Probably didn’t know my brother, either, though it pains me to admit that. No, I’d been an orphan, floating through life. I might’ve been a little lonely, but I’d never gotten attached to the wrong people. Better not to get attached to anyone, if you’re going to try and get attached to the wrong people.
I’d read Godkiller — I was plenty literate, after all — but I’d known better than to want the life of an adventuring hero. No, I was much happier with the way things were, me driving on the open road, selling whatever it was that living creatures were willing to buy.
Maybe I sold incense.
My mind wandered like that, not really knowing where it was going, plenty content to take a journey without knowing the destination. Eventually, after what didn’t feel like very long at all, I noticed a soft blue hand appear in my periphery.
I turned to look and saw a Hyalu standing before me, a pearl bracelet hanging by her wrist, a smile spread across her face. She looked odd, mainly because she didn’t have any white pigment. She was a blank blue slate, a sky without clouds, an ocean without waves.
“Look like you’re having a rough morning, sugah,” the Hyalu said.
“I’m over it, mostly,” I said, taking a sip of Bloody Mary.
“I always wondered what it was that led some elves to drink so hard,” she said.
“Good question,” I said. “I’ve been on the road for a lot of years, but I’ve never been able to figure that out.”
“On the road?” she asked.
“Traveling salesman. Incense.”
She smiled. I thought I saw a kindness in her eyes.