The bowtie that Anlu had lent me felt tight around my neck. I pulled at it, trying to make myself feel better.
Of course, that wasn’t going to make me feel any better.
“Feeling alright?” Lusu asked. She took a sip from her martini glass, then put it back down on the table. There was a sort of softness in her voice: a softness born not of tenderness, but of brokenness. Her voice sounded hollow.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m feeling…”
Anlu sat with us. The three of us sat at the table, watching the night’s proceedings: everyone walking around in their fanciest outfits, waiting for the vote — waiting for the moment when we’d hear whether Lusu or Coraline would be put into the body of the dragon, which of them would be sentenced to an empty death.
I felt tired. But I had a mission, didn’t I?
Wasn’t that enough?
I wondered if the missions others gave us meant a damn, or if it was the missions we gave ourselves that counted. Or maybe none of it mattered.
Fuck. I wasn’t a nihilist, wasn’t I? There had to be something more to it than all that. But I hated feeling like such an idiot — like a blind man stumbling through life, hoping to stumble onto some sort of personal meaning when everything felt like it was coming from an outside source.
Why was I broken?
The sound of a fork tapping against glass.
I turned my gaze and saw Nawlins, standing at a podium. He spoke into a mic.
“The time has come,” he said. He nodded his head, reaching over to grab one of the seven envelopes that lay on the table on his right. He ripped it open with those thick muscled hands of his. “Lusu.”
The name pierced me like a knife.
Did I really care that much? Did I care so much more for Lusu than Coraline? Coraline who’d shown me such kindness, and Lusu, who I’d been forced to associate with?
The answer was yes. I wondered why.
“Coraline,” Nawlins said. I couldn’t detect any emotion in his voice, and figured that was put on. Then again, maybe he just didn’t care.
I looked over at Coraline. She sat at a table by herself, sipping champagne. That pearl bracelet of hers hung from her wrist. Dangled. My breath felt short. I remembered being in her bed — how much comfort I’d felt.
But I was with Lusu for a reason. That mattered, for some reason. Maybe it just mattered because it had to matter. Maybe I was in love with the idea of friendship more than I was in love with the friendship itself, but goddamn it we’d been goddamned — the both of us — and I believed in us.
I’d forgotten how to believe — doubt kept on washing over me, wave after wave of it hitting me — but I believed in our destiny, I believed in our friendship. Because I had to. Because I knew in my heart it was true.
“Lusu,” Nawlins said.
Two to one.
Maybe the world was supposed to end. Maybe Lusu and I couldn’t ever save the world together, because it wasn’t supposed to be saved. Everything had to end, isn’t that right?
I felt like I was dying. Held on tight to my pant leg, hoping beyond hope this could all just be over. Was that like wishing for the apocalypse?
“Coraline,” Nawlins said.
Two to two. So maybe Coraline was going to die. Maybe I actively contributed to the death of someone who’d shown me nothing but kindness. And why? For what? Was I so in love with the Angel of Death that I couldn’t stand the thought of her being killed?
“Lusu,” Nawlins said.
So Lusu was going to die. So that was the way it was going to be. So what? I did my best — I tried my hardest. This must’ve been destiny — fate — what the gods wanted. I, some simple stupid elf-human man-woman-bastard shouldn’t have even bothered trying.
“Coraline,” Nawlins said.
Coraline was going to become the dragon. Coraline was going to die.
And at that moment, I swear my heart stopped. My whole life stopped. Time seemed to slow down so thoroughly that it didn’t even exist anymore. The truth is that nothing much existed: it was just me and Nawlins, in that moment. Him reaching over to grab the envelope, me taking in the deepest breath of air I’d ever felt.
No Lusu. No Coraline. No nobody. Because the truth of it all was, the sooner you let go of all personal connections, the happier you were. You had to let go of your hate, your love, your enemies, your friends, your identities, your responsibilities, your destiny, your god, because you were just one goddamn clump of dust flinging itself around, dressed up and gallivanting but really you were nothing more than a fool, a fool in Emperor’s Clothing, a fool, I was a fool, I wasn’t an elf or a human or a man or a woman or a hero or a villain or a goddamned coward-writer.
I was no one, and I liked it that way.
“Now I’d like to welcome The Brass Knuckles.
Four Hyalu began to play jazz music, trumpet roaring, climbing higher and higher trying to reach the loudest, brightest note it could. The rest of the band supported it — bass keeping time, drum keeping time, saxophone working some interesting repetition.
Go man go go as high as you can.
We were sitting at a fancy table. Lusu looked at me.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
I was glad she wasn’t speaking in Trumpet, but there was something so uncomfortable about this experience. It was like spiders crawling all across my body. I began patting myself down.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I looked up at her, confused. I didn’t know what to say.
You killed a man, a powerful voice said. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, but he was right.
I’d told a man to kill himself, and he had. Maybe there was no escaping that. Maybe my life was ruined.
His life sure was.
Now Coraline’s life was gone, too.
I’d tried killing Val — not really, I supposed, but I sure as hell had wanted to kill him. Somehow, he’d survived. Maybe that was why I missed him, deep down inside.
He was unkillable, but I was still a damned killer.
— — —
Sat on the bed, elbows resting on my knees. A cigarette dangled from my lips, and I didn’t have it in me to care where the ashes got.
The light was turned off, until Lusu walked into the room. I figured she was surprised to see me quite like that, though I couldn’t tell for sure — my back was turned to her.
“I fucked Coraline, you know,” I told Lusu.
“I didn’t,” she said. “Know, I mean. I didn’t know you fucked Coraline.”
“I did. I enjoyed it.”
“If you’re going to fuck, might as well enjoy it.”
“Do you think she deserved it?” I asked, wiping a bit of sweat off my brow with the back of my hand. “I know she didn’t do some things she should’ve. I’m not saying she was a saint. But is it wrong to turn her into a dragon?”
“This was her destiny. It was bound to happen since the day she was born.”
“That’s not the point.”
“I think it is,” she said.
“It’s not. We’re the reason she’s going to turn into a dragon. We’re the reason she’s going to die like that — living life after confused life, wondering what she did wrong. But really she didn’t do anything that wrong. I’m sorry. She did do bad. It was bad of her to let her boyfriend do what he did, but it’s not like that should lead to eternal damnation.” I took a sharp breath of air. Felt like I was drowning in air. “Should it?”
“You’re being optimistic,” Lusu said.
“You’re assuming the world’ll be around long enough for her to live life after life.”
“Isn’t that what all this is about?” I asked. “Turning her into a dragon so she can maybe save the world.”
“Exactly,” Lusu said. “The worse Coraline’s fate, the better off the world is. You see how nice that is? We only have to worry about Coraline’s fate if we save the world. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much of a difference.”
“We only have to worry about her fate if we’re heroes,” I said.
“Right. And by then we’ll have the time, the freedom, the luxury to wallow in self-pity. You’ve gotten a lot of practice at it, after all.”
“You’re cruel,” I said.
“Only because you’re such a damn fool, sitting here, telling me Coraline doesn’t deserve this. None of us deserve this. Any of it. We didn’t ask to be born in this world and we didn’t ask to die in it. But damn it, that’s just the way the world is. You want to fight the way of the world? Ha.”
“Val did,” I said.
“And look where it got him. Turned him into a villain.”
I burst into tears. Sobbed uncontrollably and hated myself for it. Couldn’t help it though. Not really. I was just so tired — tired of doubting myself, of doubting life and the world.
Lusu got on the bed, whispering from behind me: “Someone’s going to need to transport Coraline to the ritual location. Everyone’s saying you should do it, because of your experience as an Elf Guard.”
I laughed through the tears.
“I know,” she said, “but it’ll look odd if you say no.”
I felt the mattress springs shift as she got off the bed. I heard her walk away from me, only for her to stop. “By the way?”
“Yeah?” I said.
“You really shouldn’t waste too many tears on Coraline. The bitch deserves it.”
— — —
Nawlins parked the car. He took his white-knuckled hands off the steering wheel and looked at me: “We’re here.”
I sighed, looking out at the view. It was a barren patch of land, surrounded by fields of wheat. Some idea of ‘here’.
I got out of the car. Walked to the back, opened the door. Put my hand out; Coraline took it.
“Am I the first person you’ve escorted to death?”
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
“Am I the first person you’ve had to escort, who you’re personally responsible for killin’?”
“No,” I said, walking with her towards the circle of Death Cultists. “Not really.”
She looked surprised.
“I’m sorry, if it matters,” I told her.
“I wish it did, sugah,” she said. “Or at least, I wish you’d been sorry before you did what you did — sorry enough to not go and do it in the first place.”
Of course, that was my problem. I was always sorry for who I was and what I’d done, but I never knew how to change. Death and guilt hung over me. I wondered if I’d been made that way — if it was just something in my bones.
“You called me the Engine of Change,” I said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be that.”
“You did change things,” she said. “You just didn’t change them the way I wanted them to be changed. Change ain’t always good, I guess.”
“And if often doesn’t go the way you want it to.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not so sure that’s true for you. It’s true for me, but I’m not sure it’s true for you.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had. We reached the circle of cultists. Coraline looked back at me one last time. I thought she’d given up hope, but maybe she hadn’t. Maybe there was a glimmer of something in her eye: an unwillingness to believe that this was where her life had led her, that this was the culmination of everything.
My arms felt weak, but I thought back to Val. I thought about everything he’d done, and how he was about to destroy the world. I thought about myself. It was too late for me; I’d been a bad man for too many years.
You had to be bad, to end up in a situation like this. So I grabbed Coraline by the arm, throwing her into the middle of the circle.
She didn’t fight me. She knew enough not to try and run. Instead, she stared at the circle, jerking her head wildly back and forth. I saw tears leave her eyes.
“We’re ready for the future!” Lusu’s father yelled. “Excelsior!” I looked up at one the moons. They were little more than slivers in the sky.
A blue fire seemed to shoot out from it. It weaved its way through the heavens, piercing this world’s atmosphere and landing on Coraline.
In an instant she was burned to a crisp. The blue fire shot out from the ground, weaving its way in the sky. It began to form a circle, and that circle began to take on texture: detail. I struggled to keep my eyes on it. Felt like staring into the sun — couldn’t have been good for my eyes.
But I couldn’t resist. This might be the only time I watched a dragon form, and I just had to see how it worked.
“Find the man known as Val Rador,” Anlu said. “Kill him.”
“Find the man known as Val Rador,” Anlu repeated. “Kill him.”
“Find the man known as Val Rador,” everyone in the circle said. “Kill him.”
Sure enough, the circle of fire spun and spun, the speed of it mind-boggling. Finally, it began to slow down.
I blinked, and the fire had turned into a dragon.
It didn’t do what it was supposed to do. Of course, I’d never seen the ritual before, so I couldn’t necessarily know how it was supposed to look. But I could tell by the expressions in the circle that something had gone wrong.
There was something in the air. A breath of madness.
And so, Lusu tore her hands away from the Death Cultists on her right and left. “Sint Tenebrae!” she yelled, and not a second too soon. The dragon blew fire, obliterating almost everyone in the blink of an eye. Lusu remained, as did a few of the people around her. A shield of some sort had sprouted from the tips of her fingers.
All that was left was me, Lusu, Nawlins, and two other cultists. Felt like we were standing on the Sun. Or maybe it felt like the Sun was hacking up its lungs in our direction. The fire spat out, until there was a brief cessation.
I took the gun from my side, surprised I had to use it here, now. Its bullets had only been meant for Val, and yet so many had died because of it.
I raised the gun, pointing it right in-between the dragon’s eyes.
It spat fire. The gun spat a bullet.
The single bullet ripped through the dragon’s skull, throwing its skull into the air. The magic bullet made a sharp turn, curving back on itself and shooting through the dragon’s right cheek. The dragon’s head jerked to the left, and the bullet took another sharp turn, digging into the dragon’s throat and making its way through the airway, shooting out of the dragon’s crown.
The dragon slumped to the ground.
My arm felt weak, and the gun felt heavy.
I dropped the gun.
My whole body felt way too hot: sweat forced its way out of my every pore, and I felt a bit dizzy.
Puked on my shoes. Didn’t realize what was happening until I saw the results. Rubbed my temples, raised my gaze to look at Lusu.
But she didn’t look like a person, anymore. Nobody did. I turned my gaze even higher, towards the Sun. Now there was something reliable.