4.2

Wet face.

Blood.

Blinked my eyes open.

Wrecked car. Crashed against a tree.

I put my hand on my forehead. Blood, but not too much. A scrape, really.

I looked over to my left. A lot more blood.

Too much blood.

Val had a hole in the back of his head.

Me. Screaming.

Tried opening the car door, but it wouldn’t budge.

Fist hit glass a couple times, until finally it *CRACKED*.

I fell out of the car, my shoulder hitting the grass.

Shoulder hurt, but everything else did, too. Body felt like rubber — hard to move.

Still made my way to the other side of the car. Car door opened. I pulled Val out.

“Oh god,” I muttered. “Oh, god. Oh god.”

He lay there on the grass, unmoving. His chest just wasn’t moving.

I put my finger under his nose. He wasn’t breathing.

“Val,” I said. “Not now, Val. I thought we were… I didn’t even want to do this! Do you hear me? I didn’t want to do this.” My head lay on his unmoving chest. His chest was wet, now. Tears.

“I didn’t want do this,” I whispered. “You made me do this. You can’t go now. Not like this. Not now.”

“Don’t cry for that monster,” a man from behind me said.

I turned around and saw the last living dealer from Demersi’s. He had a gun pointed at my head.

“Hostem’s going to destroy the world,” I said, “and this was the man who was going to stop him. Don’t you get that?”

“He,” the dealer said, “was a monster.”

I looked at Val, blood oozing from his head, soaking his blond hair. He didn’t have a monstrous face — didn’t have any of the hate or loneliness you’d expect from a monster. Really, he looked like a hero.

But the dealer was right, wasn’t he? Val was a monster. There was no way around it — around the killing, the arrogance, the violent ambition required to even think about killing a god.

Still, he’d been humanity’s last hope.

And now he was gone.

I noticed the sword hanging by Val’s side. Unsheathed it.

“What are you doing?” the dealer asked.

I crouched there, sword in hand. “Get away from here.”

“What do you think you’re–”

“Get away from here,” I said. The sword felt heavy in my hand. Hot. My hands felt like they were surging with energy.

“Fuck you,” the dealer said. “You shouldn’t have travelled with that murderer.”

*CLANG*

*BANG*

The dealer collapsed.

Putting it all together in my head, I realized that the bullet had ricocheted off the sword, hitting the dealer.

He’d shot himself.

I dropped the sword, looking at my hand. It shook. Felt powerful.

I grabbed it with my other hand. Slowly felt the power drain from me.

Looked down at Val.

Dead. Dead as could fucking be.

A pillar of light shot up out of the ground. Out of it stepped the Angel of Death.

“Death begets death,” she said, looking down on me. “I just got back from Demersi’s.”

“No,” I said. “No, you can’t do this. Val, he… Val has a mission!” I yelled. “He and I are on a quest. We have to complete our quest, don’t you see?”

“I’m on a mission of my own,” the Angel of Death said. “I’m sorry, George. I know you’ve seen a lot of me over the years.”

“No!” I yelled. “No! Fuck you! I have seen too much of you!”

She crouched down, her knees stuck outward and her wings spread across the sky. “I have to do this.”

“No!” I yelled.

“George,” she said, her voice soft, her milk-white hand grabbing mine. “I have to do it. You have to understand.”

“Don’t,” I said, tears streaming from my face. I pulled her hand towards my face. I was getting her hand wet. “You’ve taken so much from me.”

“That’s the way things are,” she said. “Life’s loss. That’s part of the deal.”

“No,” I whispered.

“George–”

“No!” I yelled. I grabbed the Godkiller with my free hand and picked it up. It was so damn heavy, but every second it was in my grasp, I felt stronger. Every second, it got easier to wield. “I’m tired of being pushed around by the forces of nature.”

“George–”

“No!” I yelled. “No, no, no! I didn’t want this, understand? I didn’t ask for this. It’s the world that told me I had to go on this journey. It’s the world that railroaded me into this crazy fucked up life. And the one thing that had any hope of consoling me was Val’s confidence. I needed the big, strong Alpha Dog to give me confidence. But now you’re trying to take me away? That’s not how prophecy’s supposed to work. It’s not how destiny is supposed to work. So, no. Sorry. But you can’t have Val. Not now. Not this time.”

The Angel of Death looked at me — sadder and more serious than I’d ever seen her.

“George,” she said, “I have to take his soul.”

“I understand that,” I said. “I get it. But just like you have to do what you have to do, I have to do what I have to do.”

“You think this is what you have to do?” she asked. There was a hint of challenge in her voice, mixing with the sadness.

“Yeah,” I said, voice quivering. “I need Val to fulfill my destiny. I need Val to save the world. So I’m going to sit here with the Godkiller, and you’re going to go away.”

“You think he’ll come back to life if I don’t take the soul?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’d like to find out. I’d like to try.”

She sighed, looking down at the floor.

“Do you know?” I asked. “Do you know what happens if you don’t take the soul?”

“I’ve always been honest with you, George,” she said. “Most people I don’t give a damn about, because frankly I have neither the time nor inclination to give a damn about them. Most people hate me. Most people aren’t worth more than the time it takes to collect their soul.”

“What are you–”

“But I’ve always been honest with you,” the Angel of Death said. “Maybe it’s because I feel bad about the way things went with you brother. Or maybe I just like how interesting you are. I don’t know. But I’ve always been honest with you, and that’s kept me going through some of the terrible things I’ve done. So I’ll give it to you straight: I have no damn idea what happens if I don’t take the soul, but I’m afraid to find out. My job is to make sure no one finds out.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to wipe the tears away from my face. Of course, it was stupid to try and wipe away the tears. There’d always be more.

In a world like this? There’d always be more.

“I have to do this,” I said. “I have to save Val. I have to make sure–”

“I understand,” she said, all the anger rushing out of her voice. In a strange way, she seemed calm. “I just want you to understand what you’re doing.”

“But I don’t understand what I’m doing! Not even you understand how this works!”

“Exactly,” she said. “There’s no rulebook for this. There’s no way I can know what’s going to happen here.”

“I have to do it.”

“I’m not saying you can’t,” she told me, “I’m just saying I don’t know what will happen. He might come back to life, but he might not.”

“I have to–”

“I’m not trying to stop you, George,” she said. “So shut up, and listen to what I’m trying to tell you. I’m telling you to think about what you’re doing. I’m telling you to think about it. Is this what you want? Is the reward worth the risk?”

I calmed down — slowed my breathing — thought about what I was doing.

I hadn’t wanted to go on this mission in the first place. This quest was just my destiny pushing me around, right? Well, now I had to decide if I actually wanted to do it. I had to decide if we should kill Hostem to save the world.

I mean, damn. If a god wanted to kill the universe he’d created, why shouldn’t he? What possible purpose could there be, if Hostem himself couldn’t find meaning in the world?

I sat and I thought. Maybe Hostem did see meaning in the world. Maybe he didn’t really want to destroy it.

I mean, was he omniscient? Did he know everything that was going to happen? Somebody had to — if destiny was a thing, some sort of being had to know how the universe ended, and all the steps that were taken along the way.

Maybe he’d fulfilled his purpose, but the universe hadn’t. Maybe threatening to kill us all was his way of giving our lives meaning — of making us think about what our own meanings could be.

I knew the meaning of my life, of course. I’d been given a destiny. I’d been given a purpose. So what if it didn’t come from within? So what if I needed to take meaning from some other source?

I had meaning. Everyone else did, too, but I didn’t have to worry about that. Asking about the meaning of life was absurd. I just had to think about the meaning of one life — my life. Everyone else could figure out their own meanings — forge their own meanings, if they couldn’t find any external ones.

“Well?” the Angel of Death asked. “What’s it going to be? Can I take the soul?”

— — —

The Angel of Death sat there with me for three days and three nights. I didn’t eat — only had a little bit of water. Somehow, it didn’t seem to matter. What could I possibly be worried about?

Starving to death? Ha.

We would talk for long hours, then follow it with long hours of lonely silence.

At the time, I didn’t really think about what that meant — what the ramifications of that could possibly be.

I remember asking her at one point, “How’d you end up like this?”

Angelic, I meant.

She told me: “I’d been human, just like you. Sad and pathetic, as all humans are. But at the same time, I had an undeniable beauty. Didn’t know it then, but I really was a beauty.”

“Still are,” I said, in a hushed tone.

“Thanks,” she said, “but you don’t need to tell me. I know.”

That made me love her all the more.

“I’d been stupid, too. Wasn’t my fault. When you’re young, you don’t have enough life experience to be anything but stupid. You make mistakes so that you can learn how to make sure they don’t happen.”

“What does this have to do with you becoming the Angel of Death?”

“I made a mistake,” the Angel said. “Fell off a horse while riding into town. Broke my spine.”

“God,” I muttered.

“The Angel of Death was old and sad when I met him — a ghost more than a spirit,” she told me. “Wore a shroud so that most of his body couldn’t be seen. The only thing I was able to see was that bony finger of his. When I lay there on the ground, back cracked and tears streaming down my face, he took a long time standing over me. Took a long time to move to a kneeling position. I’ll never forget the way his bones cracked before his face was a few inches above mine.

“‘You’re scared,’ he told me.

“‘Yeah,’ I told him.

“‘I can make it all go away,’ he told me.

“‘How?’ I asked him.

“‘It won’t be pretty,’ he told me. ‘You’ll have to see death all the time.’

“‘I don’t want to die,’ I told him.

“‘Are you sure?’ he asked me.

“‘Yes,’ I told him.

“I lost consciousness, then. When I woke up, I was the Angel of Death. My back felt fine, and I’d grown wings. The problem was this pit in my stomach, which told me that I had to go somewhere. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I was in front of a corpse. My stomach told me to reach my hand down the corpse’s throat, so I did. My stomach told me I was holding onto a soul. Then it told me to take the soul away. I did, only to repeat the process all over again.”

She didn’t seem to be looking at me anymore. I wondered if she was lost in the thoughts, or in the fight with that feeling — that desire to collect souls.

Some time after that, Val gasped for air.

I looked over and saw that he’d been healed.

He sprung into a sitting position, stammering, confused. I’d never seen him confused or inarticulate. It was strange, really. But I supposed death was as good an excuse as any.

“George, I just– I just saw… I just saw the strangest, most beautiful thing.”

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” the Angel of Death said, getting up. “I’ve no idea what the consequences could be.”

“Thank you,” I said.

A pillar of light formed behind her. She turned around, stepping into it.

— — —

The diner felt eerily quiet, though I might’ve just been projecting.

“You coming off something?” the waiter asked, pencil and pad in hand.

I wiped the sweat off my brow, looking up at him in confusion.

“Drugs, I mean,” the waiter said. “Are you coming down off a drug or somethin’? I ask, ‘cause I’m a recoverin’ drug addict, and I know how it is. It’s tough, man. It’s tough.”

“I’ll just have coffee for now, thanks,” I said, deciding not to make eye contact. Did I really look that bad?

“You sure that’s a good idea?” the waiter asked. “With the jitters you got?”

“Just coffee,” I said, a little louder than I meant to.

The waiter widened his eyes a little, looking annoyed. “Alright, buddy. Whatever you say.”

I was sweating too much. I unwrapped the napkin from the silverware. Dabbed my forehead with it.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

Godkiller had been published and it was a roaring success. I could’ve been anywhere, doing anything. But I was here, now, in a diner sweating like a hog.

Val had asked to meet me here, at this time.

On the one hand, it was considerate. I hadn’t seen the Sun much during the past couple months. Slept during the day, stayed up at night. So asking to meet me now, when the moons were high in the sky and most people had gone to sleep, was considerate.

That’s what I tried to tell myself, anyway. I couldn’t shake the thought that there would be few witnesses, if he tried to murder me.

Wouldn’t that be what I deserved?

I mean, the guy had saved the world, and there I’d been, blowing the fucking whistle, letting the whole world know what we’d done and wondering if it’d all been worth it.

I traced the line in my palm. Found the motion soothing.

“Your coffee,” the waiter said, setting down the mug and pouring me a cup. He left the pot on the table.

God, he was an asshole. I was thankful he was dumb, actually. Meant he didn’t recognize me.

Made him a rare breed.

Val entered the diner — scanned the place like a predator, even though I was the only customer they had. Once he’d swept the room, his eyes locked on me. He walked towards the booth and sat across from me.

Before he got a word out, I began talking: “I know this is tough, but I used a pseudonym, so they don’t really know it’s–

Val raised his hand, so I stopped mid-sentence.

“I’m not upset you had doubts,” Val said. “I’m not upset about the truth in the book and I’m not upset that you wrote it. You’re a writer. Fish swim and writers write. I get all that.”

“I–”

Val slammed his hand against the table, so I stopped talking.

“Lemme make one thing straight,” he said. “I’m not listening to anything you have to say. You don’t get to talk to me anymore, you got that?”

I didn’t respond.

“I’m pissed off,” he said. “I’m pissed off because you lied, George. You fucking lied to the world about what you did.”

He leaned in real close, getting an inch within my face. He was like a wild animal, and I was some prey. He growled, “I didn’t kill Hostem. You did.”

My cheeks were wet. I raised my head towards the ceiling.

No. It wasn’t true. That seemed true but it wasn’t true.

“I have nightmares, George,” he said. “I never used to have nightmares.”

“I–”

Val slammed his fist into the table. “You don’t speak. I just wanted to let you know the gravity of your actions. I wanted to let you know that I see things in my dreams. Terrible things. I see the Celestial Wall breaking. I see my dead son wrapped up in a bag. And I don’t want to believe it. I don’t know that I believe it. But the Angel of Death and I have spoken. She thinks this could be the end of the world.”

Val sat there, looking at me, letting the gravity of it all sink in.

“The problem wasn’t killing Hostem. The problem was bringing me back to life. If you’d just had a little goddamn confidence, I could’ve been born again, into a better world. Now? Now I think everything’s going to end, one of these days. And it’s going to be your fault.”

Val got up to leave, but the waiter approached, saying, “You want me to get you something while you go to the bathroom?”

“Fuck you,” Val yelled, shoving the waiter to the floor. He stormed out of the restaurant, while the waiter lay on the floor in shock.

“I didn’t kill Hostem,” I muttered to myself, tears streaming down my face. “I didn’t destroy the world. It wasn’t like that. He didn’t have a choice. I didn’t kill him. It wasn’t me. I didn’t. I didn’t… I…”

There was no point. Val was gone. I wouldn’t see him for several decades.

Those decades seemed to be nothing more than that one conversation, played over and over again in my head, taunting me, horrifying me, hanging over me.

Next

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4.1

I dreamed. It was a better way of living.

— — —

My hands tingled. I felt powerful.

“You’re not ready to fight,” Val told me, as he drove the car down the road. The two of us had just left Jewell’s. We were on our way to Demersi’s. “What I need is for you to look as menacing as possible. Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking of how beautiful my sword looked. It was in the trunk, but I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it again.

We parked outside of Demersi’s Sins.

It seemed pretty quiet, since not many cars were parked here. It was a bit early to be gambling — the Sun was still high in the sky.

Val and I got out of the car. Made our way to the back. Val slipped the key in and opened the trunk.

The trunk looked more like an arsenal. I counted three swords, four guns, a mace, a garotte, and a couple of weapons I didn’t even recognize.

“You want a gun?” Val asked me.

I almost blurted, “No.” There were several times in my life when I’d thought about carrying a gun. Every time I’d wanted to use it on myself, not somebody else.

I figured it would’ve been nice to want to use it on somebody else. I wished I had it in me to shoot at another living being.

I took a breath and spoke calmly, “No.”

Val didn’t seem to care how long it took me to come up with my answer. He took the garotte and slipped it into his pocket. Lifted up his pants leg and slipped a gun into the ankle holster. Then he took the Godkiller. Smiled, as it gleamed in the light of midday.

“Damn fine weapon,” he said, laughing.

“Damn fine,” I said. For some reason, I didn’t feel jealousy. No, I took my own sword out of the trunk and felt a sense of pride.

This is mine. I helped make this, with my own hands.

Smiled, slipping it into my scabbard.

As we walked towards the casino, I felt a sense of uncontrollable pride. I’d seen a lot of shit in my life. I’d been plenty ashamed and plenty horrified. Val had needed to drag me kicking and screaming into this prophesied quest.

Now that I was here — now that I was committed — that all changed.

I had a mission. The mission made me unstoppable.

“Mind if I do the honors?” I asked, standing in front of the big oak doors that led into the casino.

He smiled, nodding at me. It was a smile of warmth, of friendship. It was the sort of smile I’d needed to see. I grabbed the copper door handles. They were thick bars, made to look like they had vines spiraling down them. I pulled, opening the doors.

There were eight guys in the casino: three at the craps table, three at the blackjack table, one at the bar, and one at the roulette wheel. Four of them were workers dressed in formal attire: white button-down shirts with black bow ties and dress pants. The four customers at the craps and blackjack tables were varying levels of casual, with one of them wearing a floral shirt, khakis, and sandals.

“I’d like to see Demersi,” Val yelled. “Who will take me to him?”

The bartender, who was closest to us, looked at the guy in charge of the roulette wheel.

After a brief glance, the bartender said, “He’s not here right now. You can gamble without him.”

“I wouldn’t mind making a bet,” Val said, walking towards the bartender.

“I make drinks, not bets,” the bartender said.

“I bet Demersi’s here,” Val said. “I’d bet your life you’re wrong. Lying, even.”

The bartender coughed, looking down at the floor, then straight back at Val. “You’d bet my life?”

“If you’re right, I’d let you live,” Val said. “If you were wrong, I’d kill you.”

Everything grew quiet. The guys at the craps and blackjack tables stopped talking. All eyes were one Val and the bartender.

“I don’t want thing to get rough, so–”

“I don’t care how rough things get,” Val said.

“Lemme pour you a drink,” the bartender said, “on the house.” He turned towards the bottles, only to have Val grab him by the shoulder.

The bartender grabbed a tall green bottle and swung around, swiping at Val with it.

Val ducked, unsheathed his sword, and slashed the guy’s neck open.

Murmurs in the casino.

No one yelled, but the three workers all moved towards Val.

Val bent over, taking the gun out of his holster and pointing it at the workers.

“Freeze, you spineless shit-eating sycophants!” Vall roared. “You will take me to see Demersi, or I will kill you.”

My head was buzzing, but in a good way.

I knew I should be horrified. Val was doing a terrible thing — killing people, for barely any reason at all. But there was a sense of power. They were in his way, and he could kill them. He had a destiny to fulfill, so he felt the world would do its best to keep him alive. So why not go mad? Why not vent all the anger and frustration and hurt onto fellow man?

*BANG*

Val shot someone.

I froze.

He slammed his hand against the bar’s countertop, vaulting over it.

I was frozen. Terrified. This wasn’t how life was supposed to work.

One of the dealers grabbed my arm. His hand felt cold.

The barrel of the gun felt colder against my head.

I wanted to say something, anything. But I couldn’t. My body felt so damn cold.

“I’ve got your friend!” the dealer holding me yelled. “Come out with–”

*BANG*

Blood on my shirt. The dealer let go of me.

Val had popped out from behind the bar and shot the dealer.

I turned to look at the last dealer. He had both his hands up — no gun in them. The other dealer — the first one Val had shot — still had a gun in his limp hand.

The living dealer said, “I’ll take you to see Demersi.”

Val hopped back over the counter. “That’s all I wanted.”

Val followed the dealer and I followed Val through a door into a hallway which led to another door. The dealer opened it and Val entered.

I followed.

Inside, Demersi sat at a desk. He wore his astronaut suit. The desk matched the walls — mahogany. Stellavia sat on the corner of the desk, stars twinkling all across her body. The man stared at us, his helmet sitting on his desk, his eyes focused.

“Sir, he–” the dealer began, but Demersi waved him off.

“I heard the gunshots,” he said, eyeing the gun in Val’s hand. “You can go.”

The dealer nodded his head and left the room.

“How do I find Hostem?” Val asked.

“Everyone knows where he is,” Demersi said, his accent carrying a hint of poshness. “He can be found in the house that stands next to the Celestial Wall.”

“How do I summon him?” Val asked.

“We need to talk, first.”

“We’re talking,” Val said.

Demersi smiled, as if he was talking to a child. He leaned forward. “We need to discuss other things.”

Val pointed the gun at Demersi. “No, we don’t.”

“You know the suit stops that sort of thing. It’d take a very special weapon–”

“You don’t have your helmet on,” Val said.

“I don’t need my helmet.”

*BANG*

Demersi opened his fist, which in the blink of the eye had moved to protect his face. A used bullet *clinked* onto the desk.

“As I was saying, we need to talk about some other things first. Here, please, have a seat.” Demersi gestured towards the two chairs sitting in front of him.

Val took one. I sheepishly took the other.

“Hasn’t there been enough blood?” Demersi asked. “The Hero already killed all of Hostem’s children. Can’t we leave one god to run the world?”

“Clearly not,” Val said. “That maniac is looking to kill himself, and he wants to take the rest of the world with him.”

“I’ve been talking to him,” Demersi said.

“But that’s all it’s been, isn’t that right? Talk?”

“All his children are dead,” Demersi said. “He’s angry. These wounds will take a long time to heal.”

“I don’t need his wounds to heal,” Val said. “I need his psychological wounds to be replaced by physical ones.”

“Do you think we can do better than Hostem? He and his kin kept this world right for a lot of years.”

“Maybe if your idea of ‘right’ is genocide,” Val said. “Every year the gods killed people.”

“They felt they needed to.”

“They shouldn’t have.”

“Sentience is a dangerous thing,” Demersi said. “The gods had to make sure–”

“Bullshit.”

“–that we didn’t grow too quickly. They had to make sure we didn’t put too much of a strain on the world’s resources.”

“Fuck the world.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me perfectly well,” Val said. “I’m telling the world to go fuck itself.”

“You–”

“The gods killed my mother when I was seven.”

“I’m–”

“Is there a good explanation for that?” Val asked. “Are you truly arrogant enough to sit there and tell me that was for a good cause?”

Demersi took a deep breath. “In a word? Yes.”

Fuck you.”

“One of the men I’m guessing you just killed was a father.”

“I don’t give a shit!”

“You don’t think that makes you the same as–”

“I didn’t come here for psychoanalysis,” Val said. “I came here for the answer to a simple question.”

“What makes you think you’re any different than–”

“I don’t give a shit,” Val yelled, standing up. He leaned in, just an inch from Demersi’s face. “That belligerent dilettante of a bartender you’ve got out there should’ve listened when I asked him to take me to you. He shouldn’t have given me a hard time. He didn’t have to give me a hard time. And quite frankly, I don’t give a shit about him, or any of the guys I’ve killed. I don’t give a shit about him and all the weaklings who are moronic enough to get in my way. You want to know what separates me from the gods? I have power. I’m more godly than those effete fucks could ever have dreamed of being. Hate to break it to you, but I’m the new god in town. The old gods are nothing more than dry bones.”

“Except for Hostem,” Demersi said.

“Who’ll be dead soon enough,” Val said.

Demersi turned to look at me, reminding me I existed: “It would seem that of the two of you, you’re more likely to be my friend.”

I looked over at Val. “Yeah.”

“As my friend,” Demersi said, “would you speak to your friend?”

“It wouldn’t matter what I said,” I explained, thinking back on how Val had beat me on my own porch.

“How do I summon him?” Val said. “How do I summon Hostem?”

Demersi sighed. “In the house next to the Celestial Wall, there’s only one room. It’s got stone floor, with a big crack in the center. Throw three seeds into the crack.”

Val nodded his head, turning to leave.

Stellavia spoke up first: “If you succeed, come back here.”

Demersi looked surprised at that.

Val, somehow, didn’t. He walked towards Demersi, a lusty smile stretching across his face. He leaned in, merely an inch from her face: “You can come with me anytime.”

She flashed a condescending smile — exactly the sort of smile he deserved. Put her hand on his chest and pushed him back.

“Sorry,” she said. “That’s not exactly what I meant.”

Val turned and stormed out the room. I didn’t follow, at least not immediately.

“I hope you’ll keep a leash on him,” Demersi said. “You’ll need to, if the world’s going to survive.”

“Can’t put a leash on a freight train,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I turned to leave.

As I left, he said, “Just be a friend of the world’s. Do what’s best for it.”

I stood there, my hand on the door handle.

“I’ll try,” I said. “That’s all I ever do.”

I left the room, left the building, and ended up finding Val in the car.

“Took you a minute,” he said.

“Had to make sure we had all the information we needed,” I said.

“We did.”

“You’re right,” I said. “You always are. I just wasn’t confident enough, is all.”

He drove the car out of the parking lot. “We have to work on your confidence.”

“Maybe killing a god’ll make me confident,” I said, brushing my hair out of my face, letting out a laugh. It sounded strained, even to my ears.

He didn’t respond. I figured he didn’t feel the need to.

The two of us drove like that for a while, passing through a long stretch of trees. A car was behind us, but I didn’t think much of it.

I felt a little lightheaded, my mind buzzing with everything that had happened — Val beating the shit out of me, the two of us getting the Godkiller and my own sword, him killing all those dealers and then Demersi talking to us in his office.

It was Stellavia who really stuck in my head, though. I hadn’t thought about it when I was standing next to her — I’d been too afraid at the time. But she was beautiful. She might’ve been the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, with those stars moving across her body.

I noticed the same car in the rear-view mirror. It was unmistakable: a bright baby blue Chevrolet Bel Air. In fact, I thought it might have been following us ever since we’d left Demersi’s.

“Don’t look back,” I told Val.

“That’s right,” he said. “Don’t feel so many regrets.”

“No,” I said. “Literally. Don’t look behind you.”

“Why?” he barked. “What the fu–”

“Somebody following us.”

“You sure?”

“I think,” I said. “I’m never sure about anything.”

Val laughed, shaking his head.

“Least I’m honest,” I said, feeling fear roll its way up my spine. There was no time for self doubt. I felt like I might die.

“The car behind us?” he asked.

“Told you not to look back.”

“It’s not abnormal to look through the rear-view mirror,” he said. “There’s no reason to–”

*BANG*

The car swerved. I screamed. We hit a tree.

Darkness.

Next

Previous

Interlude 3

Val fell out of the glowing blue wormhole, smacking his head against the concrete. A trash bag fell next to him, but he didn’t have time to think about it.

A brutish creature — with the head of a horse and the body of a strongman — lifted a crowbar high into the air, then moved to strike Val with it.

Val rolled to the side, hearing the *clack* of crowbar hitting sidewalk.

In half a second he determined there were three assailants: horse-head, cheetah-head, and frog-tongue.

The frog’s tongue lashed out at Val. He rolled out of the way, hitting the alleyway’s wall.

Cornered. Just like they wanted him.

He saw a window in the building behind the three assailants, a fire escape on its right and a trash can on its left.

If he could get to the fire escape behind his three assailants, he might have a chance.

Horse-head swung his crowbar at Val again, but Val grabbed the bottom end of it, his hand touching horse-head’s. Val tugged the bar, which pulled horse-head along with it. He back-kicked cheetah-head, while grabbing the other end of horse-head’s crowbar and pushing it against horse-head’s neck.

The frog’s tongue wrapped itself around Val’s legs. Horse-head pushed back against Val, causing him to fall to the ground and let go of the crowbar.

Smacked his right cheek against the concrete. His mouth tasted like copper.

He grabbed the frog’s tongue, yanking at it so that the frog lost his balance and toppled, landing next to Val.

Cheetah-head stood back, waiting.

Horse-head raised his crowbar again.

Val took the pale, skinny frog man and used him as a shield from horse-head’s blow.

Frog man puked up blood when the crowbar hit.

Val tossed him to the side. Then he kicked horse-head at the side of its knee. He hooked his other foot around horse-head’s ankle. Pulled, and the horse-head smacked his own head against the floor.

Val threw himself forward. Wrapped his right arm around horse-head’s left leg, then used his left hand to grab its left foot. Val jerked the foot to the left, much farther than it should go.

Horse-head howled.

Val spat blood and a tooth. It splashed against horse-head’s leg.

Val looked at the Cheetah-head. He wanted to say something, but his mouth hurt. So instead, he put his hand out, beckoning Cheetah-head.

“I only fight the ones who run,” cheetah-head said, standing there. A smirk swept across his face as he observed his claws.

Val stood there. He didn’t know what to do.

Lunge at cheetah-head, not knowing its capabilities? Run away, provoking a fight?

He stood there. Figured nothing could go wrong if he just stood there.

He moved his fingers. Balled them into a fist, then undid the fist.

Maybe this was the plan. Get him to stay in one place long enough in case reinforcements were needed.

Val darted for the fire escape.

The ladder wasn’t down, so he leaped.

Grabbed onto the metal bar and began to pull himself up.

Sharp pain in his calf.

He looked down at cheetah-head, whose teeth dug into his leg.

He lifted his free leg, placing its foot on the top of cheetah-head’s head. Pushed, trying to get cheetah-head off.

The bar broke.

Cheetah-head fell to the ground; Val landed on top of him.

Val had the broken bar in his hand, so he struck cheetah-head with it.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Val heard the sound of engines.

Moved to leave. But then he looked back, at the trash bag that had come with him.

The wormhole was gone, but maybe that bag held a key to where he’d been.

He moved towards the bag. Ripped it open in one foul motion.

Saw his son’s head, placed next to various other chopped up bits.

Tears streamed down his face, but sadness wasn’t really what he was feeling.

No. He felt anger. He felt rage boiling up, threatening to consume him whole. He felt like a bomb about to go off.

He ignored the searing pain in his leg. Tried walking away from the madness.

Cheetah-head groaned, spitting blood onto the sidewalk.

Val limped towards cheetah-head, grabbed him by the hair on his head. He dragged the creature towards the curb.

“Who you?” he muttered.

“I’m not,” cheetah-head spat blood, “tellin’ you a thing.”

Val didn’t waste his breath. He placed the creature’s mouth on the street’s curb. Lifted his leg up and stomped on the back of its head.

Teeth cracked. The creature would probably have screamed, if it hadn’t died instantly.

“Talk, frog?” Val spat.

He began to limp towards the frog, only to hear the sound of motorcycles.

He took the two steps needed to get to the trashcan.

“Die, scum!” one of the cyclists yelled.

He took the lid off the trash can, throwing it at the motorcyclist. The cyclist got knocked to the side. His leg got crushed by his own motorcycle, and he screamed.

Val’s face cracked into a smile.

— — —

The Angel of Death fell from the portal and onto the concrete sidewalk, holding her arms out so as to protect her face.

It felt strange.

Not the fall — that didn’t actually hurt.

It wasn’t even the way that Monster had flung her into the wormhole — that was strange, but it felt so far away.

What felt strange was the lack of urgency.

For the centuries that she’d acted as the Angel of Death, she’d always felt that urgency in her gut. It was the need to get at the souls and take them. It always guided her, always pushed her towards her next destination.

But she didn’t feel that.

No, she felt like she had so many years ago, when she’d stopped her death by becoming the Angel of Death.

She felt empty. She felt afraid. She felt alone.

She’d been alone for a long, long time. But without the urgency, she really felt it.

“Hello,” a voice said from behind her.

She lifted her head up, blinking a couple times, trying to really get a sense of her surroundings. She was in an alleyway. Motorcycles rushed past her, and she noticed a trashcan on her right.

She turned around and saw a broken fire escape.

She also saw what she thought to be a man. He looked at ease, wearing a red vest, white pants, and nothing else. He stood barefoot on the sidewalk, which the Angel of Death found odd, since the sidewalks seemed relatively dirty.

Oddest of all was his skin, which consisted blots of color moving all across his body. He almost looked like a human kaleidoscope, all the colors of the rainbow mixing.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” she said. “A rarity, I assure you.”

The man chuckled. “I’m sure it is. I’m sure it is.”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“You, in a way. Well, I’m being a bit facetious when I put it that way.”

Unamused, she merely repeated herself: “Who are you?”

“Me? Why, I’m the Angel of Death.”

“Surely you’re joking,” she said.

“Nope.”

“Where am I?”

“Five-hundred years in the future.”

“And you’re the Angel of Death here?”

“Exactly.”

“You seem relaxed,” she said.

“I am.”

“You don’t feel it?”

“Now it seems you’re the one who has me at a disadvantage.”

“You’re not worried about all the souls you need to harvest,” she said.

“No. Things are different now.”

“They can’t be so different,” she said. She walked closer to him, not fully believing her ears, her eyes.

This was the future, so it made sense that time had changed. But it wasn’t that. She didn’t really care how things went this far in the future. Because as she came to realize, she must’ve died.

If this man was standing before her, she must’ve died.

For a while, she thought she never would.

One weight was lifted off her shoulders, only for another one to be thrown on.

Yes, she would die like everything else. Finally, the brash thing she’d done centuries ago wouldn’t really matter.

Then again, she was going to die. After all the death she’d seen, she was going to die.

It bothered her that a man had taken her position. A man? The Angel of Death?

“Or maybe they are,” the Angel of Death said, her milky white finger touching the man’s kaleidoscopic face. “A man becoming the Angel of Death. Never thought I’d see it. I suppose I didn’t, in my lifetime.”

“I’m not man.”

“You don’t look like any lady I’ve ever seen,” the Angel of Death said.

“That’s because I’m no lady, either.”

“Then what are you?”

A chuckle. “Isn’t it funny how people always mistake androgyny for masculinity?”

“You’re androgynous,” she said.

“Yes,” they said. “‘They’ pronouns, if you don’t mind.”

“‘They’ is plural,” she said.

“Trust me,” they said. “And anyway, you’re five hundred years in the future. Is my gender really the most interesting thing?”

“I suppose not.”

“Come with me, if you don’t mind,” they said. “We have a lot to talk about.”

“I imagine we do,” she said, looking around her at the buildings that stood like towers — at the sidewalks littered with gum, at the motorcycles rolling across the streets. “I imagine we do.”

— — —

Val held a scrawny freak by the neck, raising the thing in the air. The two were on the roof, mere inches from the edge. Six corpses surrounded them in a semi-circle.

“B’ck,” Val muttered, less a word and more a gravelly growl.

It was strange for him. Back in the past, he’d been able to make himself known. Years of education and attention had been poured into making sure he was the perfect hero — the man with the proper pose and proper voice, who could say what he want when he wanted to say it.

Now his mouth was little more than sore gums.

Now, he spoke with his body. Though really, was that so much of a change from before? Sure, his words sounded nice, but they’d never been a match for the physicality of his being. They’d never been much more than window dressing for the body, which had had so much time put into it, so much effort put into it.

“I can’t go back,” the freak hissed, legs dangling. “I’ll fall off.”

Val wanted to squeeze the freak dry — pummel him into the ground, exsanguinate him and see if the stupidity was visible in the bones.

He’d killed the rest for not understanding. He took a breath of air, trying to snuff out the fire burning in his heart.

No. He would have to try something else.

He set the freak down. The freak almost let out a smile when his feet touched the ground, but then Val let go and pushed on the freak’s shoulders. The freak gave a confused look, but nonetheless sat down on the ground, right near the edge of the roof.

Val took a couple steps back, then put up four fingers.

The freak looked at Val askew for a second, but then Val took a menacing step forward. Looking at all the corpses strewn along the floor, the freak said, “Four words?”

Val nodded his head. Looking the freak straight in the eyes, Val smiled his bloody smile. Then, he began to run in place.

“First word, ‘Run,” the freak said.

Val shook his head no.

“Jog?”

No.

“Uh, sprint.”

No.

“Go?”

Val nodded his head, then put up two fingers.

“Word two,” the freak said.

Val turned around, so that he was no longer facing the freak. He bent both of his arms over his shoulder, so that his thumbs were pointing at his backside.

“Spine?”

No.

“Back?”

Val shook his head yes again. He put up four fingers.

“Fourth word,” the freak said.

Val nodded his head. He stood there for a second, trying to think of how to describe this one. It was an abstract concept. What did it mean?

He got on the ground, curling himself into a ball, into the fetal position.

“Egg,” the freak said.

Val shook his head no, and began to stretch his legs out. He put his hands and legs in the air, moving them about and pretending to cry like a small child.

“Sex,” the freak said.

Val shook his head no again. Got on his knees and imitated a kid licking a lollipop.

The freak didn’t say anything, so Val slowly got up off his knees. He turned to look at the freak, who looked back at him with nothing more than confusion.

Why couldn’t the freak understand? Why was this whole future so stupid?

In a fit of rage, Val punted the freak off the roof.

The screams of the freak could be heard, when an Angel of Death walked onto the scene. There were two of them, in fact: the one from the future, and the one he’d made love to.

“Time,” the future’s Angel of Death said, his skin a kaleidoscope of color. “You want to go back in time.”

Next

Previous

3.7

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.

Six heartbeats.

“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.

“Optimistic?”

“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 sighed.

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.

Gun won.

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.

I collapsed.

Next

Previous

Interlude

The Angel of Death was not enjoying herself. She held a drink of some foul black liquid that did indeed taste as bad as it looked. She had no idea where the stuff came from, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

She was at a party, or at least it was supposed to be a party. Tasteless strings of skulls lined the walls of obsidian, and candles glittered from chandeliers made from skulls and spines. There was just generally a lot of bone. If something wasn’t actually bone, it was often sculpted to look like bone.

That was the trouble with being aspected with death, you often got the short end of the stick in terms of aesthetics.

All of this meant that the shocking pink table was particularly out of place, somehow the fact that it kept the skull and bone styling made its existence even worse than if it had been a regular shocking pink table. It had been inserted into the Hall of Death by one of the Members of Death as a joke.

The Angel of Death still didn’t think it was funny, neither did anyone else.

As the Angel of Death stared at her murky drink and considered how completely messed up everything had become, the rattling of chains broke the dismal deathly silence. It was the large black double doors which, really were more a collection of chained charred skeletons hanging in the door frame that rolled out of the way to let people in.

Thick billowing mist that periodically had tormented faces arise from it spilled into the room. The Angel of Death warded off some of the Mist of Death with her drink, trying to see who was coming in. First she saw the glowing blood red eyes. The owner of the eyes trotted in. It was a shaggy black dog that seemed particularly ominous. Its fur seemed more like roiling shadow than fur.

The Angel of Death knew that it was fur, she had felt it many times back when she was on friendly terms with the Dog of Death. Before she had full knowledge of his true nature.

When it saw The Angel it gave a monstrously yet far too human toothy grin, like a yawning pit combined by some unholy method with a smirk. Noticeably, there was one fang missing.

“Oh my, what shiny new wings you have!” The Dog yapped.

The Angel of Death glared at the Dog, of course he’d start on that. The Dog of Death was kind of a jerk.

“However did you get them? You surely didn’t bring something that you knew could pretend to be dead near the wall and then got jumped by it, did you?”

The Dog turned less shaggy, more lean and close furred, its face twisted cruelly, smile practically beheading the top half of his head.

“Hahaha, no that’d be silly wouldn’t it? You’d never do anything that silly would you? Not the high and mighty Angel of Death? Please ignore the mad yapping of this lowly mongrel!”

“At least unlike a certain someone I haven’t had any of my teeth stolen by lesser beings” The Angel of Death shot back.

The Dog of Death became ominous and shaggy again, no longer smiling. He silently padded to his place at the table. There was four chairs made from whole skeleton at each side of the table, well four at all but The Dog of Death’s side, but as soon as he sat back on his haunches, the skeleton of a dog larger than himself arose in the form of a chair, the Dog resting within the dog’s open ribcage.

The was a clatter as a metal dog bowl appeared on the table.

“Demeaning as always” The Dog sighed, but still he lapped up the black liquid in his bowl.

The door skeletons clattered out of the way again.

This time, four people came in at once.

One was a hooded robed figure bearing a scythe, he or she only brought the scythe because his/her combine harvester wouldn’t fit in the Hall of Death. No face could be seen within the hood. Old gloves cracked and caked with earth gripped the scythe. The figure was really quite tall.

Next to the Reaper of Death was what looked exactly like a jolly bearded old man holding an oar. He was in a black polo-neck, and pinstipe slacks that seemed a bit too disturbingly tight to be called slacks. Annoyingly he also had a red scarf around his neck in spite of his polo-neck. He wore a straw wide brimmed hat on his head. This was the Ferryman of Death.

Beside these two was a what could only be described as a dark wanderer. His spurred cowboy boots were dark, his covered face was dark, even the way he walked was dark. It was likely that his passing would cause lesser beings to suddenly become myopic poets. In reality however, he was just the Cartman of Death, though he went by the Driver of Death now. He had a dark ride of course, open topped even.

The final one of this set was a dark haired voluptuous woman practically bursting out of what could only be called armour by the generous. Poking out from her ankles were a ridiculous pair of tiny raven wings. She was the Messenger of Death, definitely not any other profession.

These four mostly ignored the Angel and the Dog, though the Messenger did toss an idle sneer at the Angel. Which the Angel had learned to ignore, she never wanted to involved with the messenger’s pettiness again.

They quickly sat down at the table and replaced the feeling of awful party with awful party where people other than yourself are having fun. The Angel of Death did not find it much of an improvement. She might have liked to sit down, but then she wasn’t supposed to yet and the possibility of the Dog or the Messenger trying to talk to her was not one she liked.

The skeletons lazily clattered out of the way once more, they hated this time of the year.

In strolled a sharp man with large curly horns and and serrated tail. He give a winning smile, the award being, sharpest and largest amount of teeth in one mouth. His skin was kind of sickly, though his suit was velvet with the front ripped open, had fur at the cuffs and and an absurdly furry ruff. His hair was done up in a pompadour that would not have stayed in shape if the Devil of Death had not been a supernatural being.

Behind him was an indistinct maiden-like form, pale hair obscuring her face, dressed in a ragged white dress. She was wailing as quietly as she could. She floated above the ground, no feet visible, as was befitting for the Spirit of Death.

The Devil’s supremely pointy shoes clacked on the floor as he closed in on the Angel. He slapped her on the ass, she give him a punch full force into the face, causing him to fall down on his own ass. Then they both laughed, the Angel hugged the Devil as she helped to pull him up.

The Devil broke off and twirled away to his chair.

“Love the new wings darling!” He shot before settling into a game of ‘Who can harass the other the most’ with the Dog.

The Spirit hovered before the Angel.

“Everything’s fucked Angel” She moaned.

“It really is.” The Angel answered.

“I think I might be happy Angel” She whispered.

“Well, that confirms it, everything is fucked. Rejoice while you can Spirit!”

“Yay” Spirit said in monotone, going to float partly in her chair.

The skeletons begrudgingly rolled away again, a few of them clacking their jaws in discontent.

The Angel could not believe who she saw come through the Mists of Death.

“Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” She asked the new guest.

The Goddess of Death put a skeletal finger to her full lips.

“Shhhhhh”

Then she sat down next to the Devil as if nothing had happened. She stared incredulously at the Goddess. The Devil, thinking she was looking at him waved and blew a raspberry, it didn’t fly very far tumbling onto the floor near the table. The Goddess picked it up and tossed it in the Dog’s dish, who barked in displeasure at this action.

The skeletons clattered out of the way so fast that one of them fell from its place. Grumbling, it climbed back up and chained itself back in with the help of its fellows.

A dark blur shot in and hid itself behind the Angel’s wings.

It was quickly followed by a mass of extremely angry bees. The Bees of Death.

“Where is he?” They buzzed.

“I think you just missed him, What’d he do this time?” Angel asked.

“Tried to eat some of us again” The Bees hummed with rage.

“Oh come on, you’ve a lot of bodies, you can spare a few!” The Crow of Death cawed.

The Angel threatened the bees with the drink as they tried to get behind her.

“No, go …er, sit!”

The bees thought about it for a moment, but relented.

“Next time, we won’t be merciful”

Once they were in their place beside the Dog, a chair made of dead bees came up. It was a bit pointless.

The Crow of Death hopped up onto the Angel’s shoulder.

“Thanks for that Sis, we winged deathfolk gotta stick together eh?” The Crow cackled.

“Just hurry up and sit down, Crow”

“Oooh, testy, well alright, alright. I know when I’m not wanted”

The Crow’s chair was the skeleton of a quite oversized bird. He perched on the beak of it.

The skeletons moved aside yet again, though this time they got caught hand had to untangle themselves to get fully out of the way.

There was the jingle of bells.

The Angel of Death groaned. This member was the most universally hated of the Members of Death.

A Jester in mismatched black and white bits of clothing cartwheeled out of the Mist on boots and gloves of different length. It wore a death’s head mask with a shiny red nose stuffed into the nose hole.

It stopped in handstand position before the Angel of death. The Joke of Death.

“What is funnier than a dead baby?”

The Angel of Death did not reply.

The silence spread onwards, oppressing the chatter coming from the table and the disgruntled door skeletons.

“I don’t know Joke, tell me?” The Joke of Death cast its voice from The Angel of Death.

“Why, a dead baby in a clown suit!”

The Joke laughed, and slapped its arm with a foot, crumpling into a head in the process.

The Angel of Death sighed.

“Ok, now go sit”

“Spoilsport” The Joke shot, prancing to its seat.

The door skeletons managed to open without a hitch this time, one gave the other a high five.

The two figures that walked in were pretty different.

One was a massive goliath of bone with a skull made up of skulls, a necklace of skulls, its body hidden by many skeletal arms and it walked upon a multitude of fleshless legs, a coattail of spines trailing behind it.

“Yo” The Death of Death said, waving to the Angel.

“What?, What was that?”

The other looked just like a regular person, a middle-aged unremarkable woman in a grey suit. Nobody was quite sure what the Deaf of Death actually did.

The Death of Death signed quickly to the Deaf and with a nod they passed the Angel.

There was only one member left to come.

The Angel of Death waited patiently for her to come.

The door skeletons reverently rolled away for the last time.

There was clopping from beyond the Mist of Death.

Then, she came, sleek, black, powerful, fluid, naked, with long flowing locks of hair and perfect curves, pointed ears and large eyes set under long eyelashes on a long face. She was as always, on all fours.

Yes, she was of course the Horse of Death.

The Angel of Death had to resist squeeing like a little girl. She could not however resist throwing herself at the Horse, hugging her neck.

“Yes, I’m here now, relax, everything is going to be fine”

After the Angel had soaked in the Horse’s comforting presence long enough for the Horse to get uncomfortable, they both went to sit down. A skeletal horsechair formed around the Horse.

Every member was present. There was still an empty chair, but that was fine, because that was the Chair of Death.

Glowing red spots of light appeared in the Chair of Death’s eye sockets.

“Finally everyone is here, we can begin, the first matter of order is concerning the current state of things.” The Chair said.

“Everything’s Fucked” The Spirit happily supplied.

“Yes, quite, in light of this, we’ve decided to undergo a rebranding, to focus on what really matters as everything ends”

“Oh, what’d that be?” The Dog questioned.

“Drugs, from now on, you are the Dog of Drugs for example. We are going to give up the death business and focus on drugs, we are going to crack down on them, we shall greet the end with a drugless world!”

Beckett awoke screaming from her bizarre dream.

— — —

APRIL FOOLS!

The crazy, zany, and completely NOT CANON! interlude you’ve just read is part of the Serial Fiction April Fool’s Day Swap, 2015 Edition. The mindblowing gag post you’ve just read was written by SnowyMystic, who normally writes Flash Fiction, found at http://www.elconic.com/index-of-stories/ .

Billy Higgins,  who normally writes this story, today has created their own piece of tomfoolery for Stoneburners found at http://stoneburners.wordpress.com/ .

For a full list of all our April Fool’s Swappers and their stories, as well as dozens of other serial novels that will tickle your fancy, check out The Web Fiction Guide at

http://forums.webfictionguide.com/topic/2015-april-fools-master-list

Thanks for reading and remember, the best way to support your favorite serial novelist is to tell all your friends about them.

3.6

She wore fur, but no smile.

I stood in Nancy’s doorway, admiring the white fur that hung around her neck. She didn’t admire me.

“You’re the elf,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“The elf that puked everywhere.”

“Yeah.”

“Lusu’s friend.”

“Yeah.”

The conversation had started with two lives and a half-truth. I could only imagine how it would go from here.

“What do you want to talk to me about?”

“The election,” I said.

“What if I don’t want to talk to you?”

“I can see the future,” I said. “I don’t really know if you want to talk to me or not, but you’ll be glad you did, a couple years down the road.”

She laughed, but hers wasn’t a laugh of joy. It was an aggressive thing, like each “Ha” was her punching me in the face.

“And if I don’t talk to you?” she asked. “You saying I’ll regret it? This some sort of veiled threat?”

“I don’t know what happens if you don’t talk to me,” I said. “It’s not a threat, because it doesn’t happen. No ultimatum. Just the truth.”

“Sounds like you’re flirting with insanity,” she said. “Disconnecting yourself from the timestream.”

“You know the elves that can tell the future without getting disconnected?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m one of those,” I said.

“You don’t look like one of those.”

“And how do they look?”

“More professional,” she said. “I’ve been down to Elftown. Their suits aren’t so dirty. And they smile. And they shake your hand when they meet you.”

“There are a lot of sorts in this world,” I said. “You can’t judge the individual based on the whole.”

“You just seem weird, is all.”

“I am.”

“Then why should I trust you?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “You should trust yourself. You don’t have to judge my ideas based on how I look. You shouldn’t judge a picture of the future based on who’s painting it for you: you should look for yourself, judge it for yourself.”

She nodded her head. “I don’t trust you.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” she said, turning around and walking into the cabin. I followed. “Just keep in mind that I killed a man, once.”

“I hope that won’t be relevant to our discussion.”

“So,” she said.

“So?” I said.

“The future,” she said. “You wanna tell me the future, right?”

“Only if you want to hear it.” She shrugged her shoulders, but I continued: “You vote to make Coraline the dragon.”

Nancy let out a laugh, looking at me like I was mad. “That’s a little blunt, don’t you think.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“You come here, tell me I’m going to vote for Coraline to become the dragon. You say that because that’s what you want. You’re not even going to try and dance your way around it? I expected a build-up of some sort, an attempt at an illusion, an attempt to deceive me. But this? What is this? You’re not telling me the future. You’re just telling me what you want me to do.”

I sat there, looking at her. Damn. Hadn’t expected her to be quite so blunt.

“You didn’t ask me why you vote for her,” I said.

“Why do I vote for her?”

“Well, I suppose I can’t say for sure,” I said, lighting a cigarette and muttering ‘Fiat Lux’. “I’m no telepath, after all.”

“You’re toying with me, elf,” Nancy said. “I don’t like being toyed with.”

“I know you don’t,” I said, looking at her. I widened my eyes just a little bit, staring at her for longer than I felt comfortable with.

“Is that a threat?” Nancy asked. “Because it sounds like one.”

“Not a threat,” I said. “A suggestion.” Not breaking eye contact, I slipped my hand into my pocket.

“I think you should go,” she said.

“I think I should stay,” I said, taking the pistol and pointing it at her.

“You think you can win a vote this way?” she asked. “What, are you going to point the gun at me all the way to the voting booth.”

I sighed, slouching in the armchair, sure to keep my aim on her as good as I was able. “This is tough.”

“You think the position you’re sitting in is tough?” she asked.

“It’s tough because I don’t know how to make you believe me.”

“I don’t trust you,” she said. “Clearly, I trusted you even more than you should.”

“You’re right, of course. But now you know not to trust me because you know who I am.”

“And who are you?”

“A monster,” I said. The words came out as a whisper, though not on purpose. “I’m a fucking monster.”

“Yeah,” she said. “You are.”

“Which means you know that I’m willing to do things outside the norm,” I said, “like getting your vote under gunpoint. But you know, I wouldn’t do this under normal circumstances.”

She squirmed in her seat. I continued, “I’m on a mission, you know? A quest. Because the world’s dying and it’s all my fault and if I can just save it this one last time, maybe I’ll be worth something. Maybe that’ll mean something.”

She gulped. “This is you doing good?”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “This is me trying to,” I wanted to say what I meant, but I didn’t know how to finish the sentence, so I said, “It’s hard, you know? You see what your creator looks like, and you just,” you just what? What do you do? “You just don’t know what to do. Does that make you bad? Does all the bad in the world make you bad? I had a friend who was bad. But everyone thinks he did good and I guess that shouldn’t matter, because who knows anything in this goddamned world? I mean, really? Who knows anything in this goddamned world?”

“You think this is the answer?” she asked, voice sounding hollow.

I looked at the gun. “No, but it’s the best answer I’ve got.”

“Put the gun down,” she said. “Put the gun down, so we can talk about this like two individuals.”

“I,” I didn’t know what to say. All I knew was that I couldn’t put the gun down. “I can’t.”

“You can’t?”

“The Angel of Death follows me, I think.”

Nancy nodded her head, so I continued, “I know it sounds crazy, but ever since I’ve been a little boy,” shit, “girl, you know, ever since I’ve been a girl, there’s been this cloud of death hanging over me. And it stinks. Everywhere I go, I can smell the stench. And it’s so awful. And I wish I could escape it, but I don’t think I can. I don’t think I’m able.”

“Put the gun down,” Nancy told me.

“I can’t.”

Nancy repeated herself, speaking a bit more softly, “Put the gun down.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I– I should go. I’m going to go.”

She nodded but didn’t say anything. I kept the gun pointed at her, as I stood up and walked backwards towards the door.

“What I came here to say,” I said, “Well, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to explain it, but obviously I do. What I wanted to say was that this gun can shoot people, you see? Doesn’t matter where I point it. I will the gun to shoot at someone, and the bullets find that person. Have you heard about what happened at Demersi’s Sins?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“This was the gun,” I whispered, pointing at it. “This thing in my hand has already killed too many. But it was meant for good.” I looked at it, wondering how much good it’d done. Was this what I’d become? Threatening a Hyalu at gunpoint?

Hadn’t I seen so much worse?

No. That didn’t make it right. It didn’t matter how ugly the world got, or how ugly the world had already gotten. Maybe I’d been destined for terrible things. Maybe Hostem had created this world only to create conflict and pain. But I still had a choice. There was still something in me that was me.

I was more than my destiny. I was my actions.

I walked over to Nancy. She looked afraid, which was a fair response.

“I’ve got this destiny,” I said. “Save the world by killing a friend — or at least, a man I used to call a friend. And it makes me feel miserable day after day, like most of life has felt miserable. I believe in my destiny — I believe I’m needed. But I don’t know. Sometimes, after so many days of this — so many years and so many decades — you begin to lose perspective. I want you to give me perspective. Can you do that, Nancy?”

I got down on one knee. Flipped the gun around, so that she could grab it.

“Take it,” I said.

She shook her head.

“Please, take it,” I said. “You don’t have to, but I think it’ll be better for me if you do.”

She looked at me askance.

“Please,” I said.

She moved her hands to grab it, but stopped. Her open palms sat there for a couple seconds, shaking, circling the gun but unable to actually grab it. It was worship, of a sort: a respect for the divinity of the bullet.

One palm rested on the gun’s grip, its finger on the trigger. Her other hand met it, supported it.

“I told you I killed a man,” she said, voice quavering.

“Yeah?” I asked, cheeks wet, smiling.

“I lied,” she said.

“That’s alright,” I whispered. “We all lie sometimes, I think.”

“What do you want me to do?” she asked.

“What you think is right,” I said. “I’m confused. I’m lost. The world is telling me to do something, when all I really want to do is die. And I want you to tell me if I deserve to live.”

“I barely know you,” she said.

I gazed into her eyes, trying to find something there. The muzzle of the gun pressed against my forehead. It felt hard — cold.

“I’ve told you I believe I can save the world,” I said. “I believe my name is George Rador. I believe I’m the journalist who was with Val Rador when he killed Hostem. I believe I’m the one who has to stop him, but I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“You want to know if you’re crazy?” she asked.

“I want to know if I should believe in myself,” I said. “If I shouldn’t just kill me. If I’m causing more pain than good — if I’m nothing more than a coward who threatens people at gunpoint — please shoot me. Blow my fucking brains out. It’s what I deserve. Maybe it should’ve happened a long time ago.”

“I’m no killer,” she said.

“You might be doing the world a favor,” I said. “I convinced the man who wielded that gun last to kill himself, and I’m wondering if I can convince you to do likewise.”

“You can’t,” she said.

“If you want me dead,” I said. “If you think I should die, but you just don’t have it in your heart, just say ‘bang’. Just say ‘bang,’ and I’ll do it to myself.”

“I don’t think you should die,” she said. “I think you’re troubled, obviously. But you believe what you say and you’re trying to be good. That’s all you can do. You need help, but you don’t need to kill yourself. That’s as bad as killing someone else — it’s self-murder.”

The tension in my shoulders let go. Was this redemption? Forgiveness?

No. I could only really forgive myself, and I hadn’t really liked the things I’d done. I didn’t really like who I was. But I’d done my best. I’d made a lot of mistakes, but I’d been in a lot of bad situations and I’d done my best, damn it.

“Thank you,” I muttered, getting off my knees and standing up. I grabbed the muzzle of the gun. The grip of it slid off her hands. I put the gun back where it belonged — in my holster.

“Are you still threatening to kill me?” she asked. “If I don’t vote how you want me to, will you shoot me.”

I looked down at the gun. It had too much power, didn’t it? Ate away at my inside’s. Gave me power I shouldn’t have — the power to kill another. How do you engage with people in a normal, healthy way when you have that sort of power? Is it possible?

“No,” I said. “I won’t kill you if you don’t vote my way. You know how I feel — you know I think Lusu is part of a prophecy to stop Val. But I don’t know. Maybe this is supposed to be her last stop. Maybe this is the price we pay for doing what we’re supposed to do. But I don’t think it is. I think if she dies, the world’ll be in real trouble. Of course, I don’t really know. That’s my opinion, and you have to come up with your own.”

She didn’t say anything. I wondered if that was because she didn’t have anything to say, or if I’d scared her.

“I’m sorry,” I said, walking towards the door, not looking back at her.

“Thank you,” I muttered. I opened the door, leaving her cabin.

It was dark outside — no one else was really around. What time was it? I took about twenty steps towards my room, looking up at a moon. Seemed the other was covered by a cloud.

I took deep breaths, trying to calm myself down. That’d felt good, but bad. I didn’t really know how to feel.

I took my gun back out of its holster. Looked at it closely, examining the silver muzzle, the ivory gun grip. I opened the barrel, spun it around.

Two bullets left.

Did the magic come from the gun, or the bullets? Could I reload, or was this it?

I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter. I shouldn’t need to know, because I should only use this to kill Val Rador.

For some reason, that didn’t convince me, I wish it had.

I thought about tossing this goddamned gun into the ocean. Just let it sink to the bottom, rust to hell. If this world was meant to die, so be it.

But that was all emotional. In my head, I knew I was on the right path. I knew I had to do everything I could. It was my obligation — my need — my destiny.

I put the gun back in its holster, where it belonged.

Took another breath, letting the cold air hit my lungs. There was a sort of peace to be found there, in my thoughts:

Yes, this is where I’m supposed to be. Yes, this is who I’m supposed to be.

I walked back to my cabin and opened the door.

Lusu was there, lying on the bed, crying into her father’s lap. Her father sat there, rubbing her back, telling her it would all be okay.

I stood there, not knowing what to do. Would it really matter?

I quickly tried to figure out why she’d be crying. Was she afraid of getting turned into a dragon? Upset over that beating that had happened decades ago?

Maybe she missed her mother. Maybe the willingness to accept death so easily was all just a big ruse, making this society one of oppression instead of openness.

I decided it was a selfish question. I didn’t have to know why she cried, so I shouldn’t ask. I just stood there, wondering what to do.

Finally, I hit upon the answer: “I’m going to go for a walk.”

“You talked to Nancy,” Lusu’s father said.

“Yeah,” I said. “We talked.”

“What’d she say?” he asked. “Is she going to vote for Lusu to become a dragon? Or Coraline?”

I rubbed my temples, looking at the floor. I just couldn’t look him in the eyes right now.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We had a good talk — I mean, it was rough, but I think we had a good talk. But I just don’t know. I don’t think you can ever know what’s actually going through the mind of another living creature.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He didn’t have anything to say to that. Lusu hadn’t even looked at me since I’d entered the room.

I left. Stood right outside the door, watching the waves crash against the boat’s hull for the rest of the night.

Previous

Next

3.5

I stood by the door of the dining hall, squirming uncomfortably in my three-piece suit.

Hadn’t worn a three-piece suit since I’d gotten out of the hospital. Instead, I’d worn the button-down shirts Lusu had brought with her when she came to break me out.

This vest was the one Sam had worn, before we switched bodies. The pants were hers, too. I wondered where she was. I wondered how my body was doing.

I hoped she hadn’t died. Can you imagine that? Someone else dying in your body — someone else dying for your crimes. And yet there I was, wearing her body, getting ready to eat a fancy dinner in her three-piece suit.

I looked out across the ocean waves, wishing they’d smash me into oblivion.

“You look nervous,” Lusu said.

“I’m always nervous,” I said.

Lusu shrugged. She was wearing a white dress, which perfectly complemented the white pigment swirling across her skin. Thinking about it, I hadn’t seen her look anything less than stunning since I’d known her. Was that on purpose, or did it come naturally?

“Coraline doesn’t have white pigment in her skin,” I said.

“Quite the observational skills,” Lusu said, breaking into a smirk. “If you still had the job at the newspaper, it might be worthy of an article.”

“I don’t.”

She shrugged again. “The story behind Coraline’s skin is funny, actually.”

“Lusu,” her father said. It was strange. I hadn’t heard him talk to her like that before.

She didn’t seem to pay it much mind, saying, “She’s the one who’s keeping us waiting. I think it’s only fair I get to tell the story. If you want to be there when something’s said about you, you’ve got to be there when it’s being said! That doesn’t seem too hard now, does it?”

And just like that, Coraline turned the corner, walking towards us. Her hair bobbed in the night wind, her white dress practically glowing in the light of the two half moons. It was a strange thing: whereas Lusu’s dress accentuated the whites of her skin, Coraline’s noted its vacancy.

“Did I hear something about my name?” Coraline asked.

“As a matter of fact, you did,” Lusu said. “Sam here was wondering just how it was that you lost the whites of your skin.”

In an instant, the mood of the party seemed to change. Lusu’s father didn’t say much. He merely tilted his head slightly, observing the situation but not going so far as to look anyone in the eyes.

Lusu took on a bit of a smile: subtle, but definitely there.

Then there was Coraline. I couldn’t quite tell what Coraline was feeling, how she was reacting to the words Lusu had just slung. Was it pride on her face? Embarrassment? Discomfort? Shock? She tilted her head up ever-so-slightly, taking a step back.

“I ask a lot of questions,” I said. “Half the time, I don’t even think about what I’m asking until I’ve already asked it.”

“That,” Coraline said, drawing out the pause between the beginning of the sentence and the rest of it, “is a bad habit.”

“Let’s eat, shall we?” Lusu’s father said, desperate to please.

I nodded my head, thankful for the interruption.

“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s.”

Lusu’s father moved first, reaching to open the door. Coraline quickly entered the room first, head down. Lusu looked at me, that wolf’s smile spreading across her face.

I went before her, ladies first no longer being applicable to my situation. Lusu followed, then her father closed the door after her.

A waiter, seeing that we’d arrived, quickly rushed through the kitchen door. I had no idea what they were going to serve us, but a piece of me was excited.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been served like this. A long time ago, probably, when my fame had been more a matter of respect and less one of mockery.

This night wasn’t going to go well: I could feel it in my bones. But maybe there was an upside. Dinner and a show.

I don’t know. Things had been so bad for so long, making it feel like normal.

I sat down next to Coraline. Lusu sat next to me, at the head of the table. Lusu’s father sat at the other end of the table, across from Lusu. The Hero sat across from me, while the seat that sat across from Coraline was empty.

“I was glad to get the invite,” Coraline said. “Thought it was real nice of you.”

“You might call it charity,” Lusu said.

“I wouldn’t,” Coraline said, “but okay.”

“We wanted to talk to you about the dragon situation,” Lusu’s father said.

“I figured as much,” Coraline said. “I’m curious why you even think we need to summon a dragon, in this day and age. I thought we were trying to move away from that.”

“We are,” the father said.

“Good,” Coraline said. “I’d thought you might be just looking for an excuse to kill someone else for your pet project.”

“That’s not fair,” Lusu’s father said.

“I’m not surprised you feel that way.”

“Surely my father isn’t the worst person you’ve had to sit down to dinner with,” Lusu said. “I’d name names, but quite frankly I can’t even remember them all: all the pathetic excuses for elves who drank themselves to oblivion, knowing every step of the way where their drinking would lead them.”

“They were troubled,” Coraline said.

“They were drunks,” Lusu replied.

“Clearly you have a bit of a problem yourself, when it comes to drunk elves,” Coraline said.

“Sam’s not my lover.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” Coraline snapped.

“Surely not as much as the elves fooled you. How many times did they lie to you about your future?”

Coraline broke eye contact with Lusu. “They were troubled.”

“That’s one word for what they were.”

There was a moment of silence. Then the waiter walked back into the room. “Can I get anyone a drink?”

Nobody spoke up, until I asked, “Do you have any wine?”

“Yes,” the waiter said. “We have a variety of options, might I get you–”

“The cheapest stuff you have. Don’t waste the good stuff on me.” I saw the disappointment in Coraline’s eyes, so I said, “Might as well play to type — fulfill my destiny, and all that.”

“That’s sad,” she told me.

I nodded my head. “You’re right.”

The waiter looked somewhat stupefied, so Lusu merely said, “Water,” tossing her hand in the air as if to let him know how little it really mattered.

“Water,” Coraline said.

“Cognac,” Lusu’s father said.

The waiter looked anxious. He bowed his head and walked back to the kitchen.

“It’ll be good when your mother comes back,” Coraline said. “I just hope you’re here when she does.”

“I can assure you I won’t be,” Lusu said.

“She told me she missed you,” Coraline said.

“I–” Lusu stopped. The smile was gone from her face, and there was something I didn’t quite understand. I thought she didn’t care about her mother. I thought reincarnation made it all okay. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Lusu’s father cut in, “Of course she missed her daughter.”

“Of course,” Lusu echoed.

“Most people didn’t care too much that you’d gone,” Coraline said. “They’d known you, but not so well. I cared.”

“You shouldn’t have,” Lusu said.

“I did. How come you didn’t tell me or your mother that you were leaving? Why did you only say goodbye to your father, in the middle of the night?”

“My father was the one I wanted to say goodbye to,” Lusu said. “Surely that’s not so hard to understand.”

“I want to know when you stopped caring about me.”

“I always cared,” Lusu said. “That was my problem?”

“That was your problem?”

“One of many,” Lusu said. “We all have a lot of problems, and that was one of mine.”

“I–”

“You knew all the bad things Rick was going to do to me,” Lusu said. “You knew what your own boyfriend was going to do to me, and you didn’t care.”

“I did care.”

“Clearly not enough,” Lusu said, “or you would’ve stopped it.”

“I did care,” Coraline said, “but you know I couldn’t have stopped him. Stopping him would disconnect him from the time stream. He told me how things were going to go, so I followed him.”

“And you don’t think that was abusive? Making you do exactly what he told you to do?”

“It’s the elf way,” Coraline said. “Sometimes an elf slips up, says something they shouldn’t. Then whoever they spoke to has to stick to the future. That, or see their loved one go mad. Surely your friend can tell you that.”

“I really can’t,” I said.

A beat in the conversation. The elf scrunched her face up a little, confused by my words. I chose not to explain them.

The waiter entered, carrying the tray of four drinks. He set them all down in silence. Then, he asked for our orders. We gave them, and sat there in continued silence.

“You know I’m sorry,” Coraline said. “I told you I was sorry.”

“I heard the words,” Lusu said.

“And I said ‘em because I meant ‘em,” Coraline said. “I’m sorry, sugah, but I just don’t know what else I can do. Are you just looking for a punching bag? Because I can be that. I’m a grown Hyalu and I don’t expect that you need to forgive me. But do you want to? Do I have a chance at your forgiveness, or are you just looking to sit here and snipe me?”

“I don’t want to forgive you,” Lusu said. “You don’t have a chance at my forgiveness, because you shouldn’t need to ask for it now. You should never have needed to ask for my forgiveness in the first place.”

“Lusu–” her father cut in.

“No,” Lusu said. “I’m not going to lie, Dad. Lies are a waste of time.”

I thought back to her and me back home — her telling me she didn’t know where Val had been the night Stellavia had died. She’d lied, then. Of course, there was little point bringing that up now.

“Your husband beat the shit out of me,” Lusu continued, whispering, voice quavering. “He got drunk, he got jealous of our friendship, and then he beat the shit out of me. And you let him. He emotionally abused you, he physically battered me, and you let him. He told you it was going to happen, and you let him do it anyway.”

“I had to,” Coraline said, cheeks wet.

“You had to?” Lusu repeated, slamming her hand on the table and standing up. “You had to let him beat me?”

“It was just one night,” she said. “I didn’t think–”

“Clearly you didn’t,” Lusu said, jabbing her finger at Coraline. “Because what could you possibly have thought that would make that okay? You thought that was just one night? You thought what he did to me would just be one night? I’d get up the next day and forget about it? Or I’d get up the next week and the bruises would be gone and that’s all that would matter? Because that’s not what happened, Coraline. What happened is that I’ve been afraid.”

She gulped air, wiping a tear. “What’s happened is that I don’t relax around other living beings, anymore. I can’t afford to, because I know what they can do. I know how much they can hurt me, and I know that sometimes it doesn’t matter how much I beg. Sometimes, you’re looking into the eyes of a madman and all you can do is hope he doesn’t beat you too hard.”

“That knowledge,” Lusu said, “has changed my life. It’s what I loved about Val. He made me feel safe. And then he died and came back to life and now I’m on this stupid fucking journey trying to kill him, coming back to see you even though I hate you. And do you understand? Do you understand what it’s like for me to have to sit here and pretend to not hate your fucking guts.”

Coraline didn’t make eye contact with Lusu. She kept her gaze planted on the floor. Scratched her forehead, and said, “I’m sorry.”

“That’s not good enough!” Lusu screamed.

“What do you want?” Coraline said, meeting Lusu’s gaze. Honestly, what do you want me to do about this? You want me to turn into a dragon and die? Is that really what you want?”

“You’ve been dead to me for a long goddamn time,” Lusu said. “Might as well make it official.”

“Fuck you, sugah,” Coraline said, pushing her chair back and getting up. “I hope you have to suffer through a million more reincarnations.” She moved for the door.

“Fuck you!” Lusu yelled. “Fuck you! You want to know something? I don’t even think the universe is going to be around that long, so I don’t even care anymore. I just want you out of my life! Forever!”

“A couple days, and your wish will be granted,” Coraline said, softly, not turning to look at Lusu. “One way or another, you’ll get your wish.”

With that, Coraline opened the door and left. Lusu stood there, her face undefinable. I thought I saw exhaustion there. Exhaustion, confusion, anger, pain. I knew I’d never know exactly what was going through her head in that moment.

I’m not sure I knew exactly what was going through my head, either. Anger?

Yeah. Anger.

There was a lot to be mad about, and I didn’t know where to begin. Had Coraline only had sex with me because I was an elf? Did she really care so much for elves that she’d let her own friend get beaten?

Damn. Damn! There was the Hyalu who’d made Lusu the way she was. There was a lot to like about Lusu: she was smart, she was funny, she believed in what she believed in.
But she was closed off, and it seemed like Coraline was to blame. Coraline had wrecked Lusu.

Lusu was a wreck. I was a wreck. Coraline really couldn’t see who I was?

The waiter came in, carrying a tray with five plates. The four of us turned to look at him. Lusu looked mad, her father looked embarrassed, and The Hero looked clueless.

Me? I had no clue how I looked.

Still, the waiter seemed to pick up on the mood of the room — which couldn’t have been all that hard to do. He gave each of us the food we’d ordered, then took the fifth tray back into the kitchen.

I sat there, looking at the lobster before me. It looked good and I was hungry. The smell only made things worse. I looked over at everyone else, but no one was touching their food. It was almost like they were afraid to.

I tore into the lobster, ripping it limb from limb. Lobster’s a good food to eat when you’re angry. Lets you tear things apart.

By the time I was done, I’d calmed down a bit. But the anger still simmered. It’d calmed down, but it was definitely still there.

The hurt was still in Lusu’s eyes, the embarrassment in her father’s, the cluelessness in The Hero’s. Not much had changed, I decided.

“I think I’m going to go,” I said, standing up.

“That’s fair,” Lusu’s father said, wiping his lips with a napkin, even though his lips weren’t dirty. “I think it’s fair to say that this party is over.”

“Before I do, though, how do you think the vote is going to go?”

“Honestly?” the father said. “I’m not sure.”

“Who’s vote do you need?”

“There are seven members of the cult,” he said. “Lusu and I are voting for Coraline, obviously. I’ve got a friend who’s on our side, too.”

“So you need one more vote,” I said.

“Yes.”

“Do you think you’re going to get it?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Give me a name.”

“What are you going to do?” Lusu asked. “My best,” I said. It might not be much, but it was all I could offer.

“Nancy,” Lusu said. “Talk to Nancy.”

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