Every ending has its roots in a beginning. Looking back I see ours. He was logic distilled, and I was nature herself. Opposites we were. I felt too much, and he felt too little.
— MATANGI, SHE-WHO-IS-CHAINED
For a long time, Erik lay on his back with his eyes closed, unable to move, trapped within utter blackness. He did not seem to be dead, he could still sense the echoes of the torment that had ravaged his body. Yet the agony was gone, replaced by something else, by a warmth on his face. Sunlight?
His eyes slid open, and he jerked upright on top of a not-very-wide bed, gasping, half-blinded by the light that fell on his face. He blinked, confused, clutching at his naked thighs until his sight returned. He froze, cold sweat dampening the back of his neck.
Hanna stood with one leg resting on the foot of the bed, rolling white stockings up her exposed skin. A gust of wind passed through the open window and tossed her golden locks back from her pale shoulders. Her blue eyes flicked to the window with a hint of irritation before settling upon Erik.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“You’re dead!” Erik frantically touched his stomach, arms, and legs, searching for the wounds the dire wolves had torn into his flesh. He found none. Fresh beads of sweat sprouted from his back like new shoots of grass. “I watched you die.” How’s this even possible? Have I gone insane? A stark realization, but not as stark as the reality before him.
“It was a dream, Erik.” Hanna cradled his head to her bosom, soothing his tremors with the warmth of her presence. “How can I be dead? I’m right here.”
Erik gasped, inhaling the fragrance of her naked flesh, sweet despite the hint of sweat. Perhaps she was right, it had all been a dream, a nightmare. For a long moment, he doubted himself and all he had experienced. No! Deep within him remained shadowy remnants of the pain and the horror. It could not have been a dream . . . could it?
Erik freed himself from Hanna’s embrace and scrambled to his feet. “What day is it? Is today the Renewal?” He touched his nose, and his fingers came away soaked in blood.
“Erik, are you,” Hanna began in a voice throbbing with concern.
She blinked, surprised. “Yes—what has gotten into you?”
“It wasn’t a dream, H—” Erik’s voice caught in his throat. Terror rose in him anew, and he took a deep breath to bring himself under control. “At least I don’t think it was. I watched you die.” He choked back a sob. “Wolfville was on fire and—I have to warn them. I have to!”
Erik ran out of the room with Hanna’s shouts rising behind him. She was yelling something about “those” . . . or maybe “clothes.” He would have stayed and explained the situation better if he could, but his insides were a boiling cauldron of nerves. The village needed to be warned! Not that he wanted to be the one doing it, but he could not see any way out of it. He had to do what needed to be done, for all their sakes.
Erik dashed through the living room and the kitchen, then leaped out of the house barefooted. He spun in a circle, catching his bearings. Though glimpsed for only an instant, Hanna’s home was as he remembered it, on the edge of the village, next to the wheat field. The sun hung in the sky, a ball of yellow radiance that beat against his bare back, but the touch of warmth was a welcome presence compared to the cold dread pumping in his veins.
He raced towards the heart of the village, heedless of the small stones that cut at his feet. Small gardens surrounded the high-peaked, thatch-roofed homes of Wolfville and red and blue banners hung at their front. “Arm yourselves! A beast swarm is coming!”
Faces shifted towards Erik in alarm before turning scandalized. Goodwives gripped aprons with pink hands and aggrieved husbands covered the eyes of nearby children. Their reactions confused him. Why were they not heeding his warnings?
Erik slowed down “Arm yourselves! A beast swarm is coming!”
“Pervert!” someone yelled at him.
He jerked and caught himself before he could stumble. His gaze drifted downwards, and his cheeks flamed with mortification. Now, Hanna’s jumbled shouts made sense, she was telling him to put on clothes. He blocked his private area with a hand but did not stop running or yelling.
Something hard bashed into the back of Erik’s skull. His vision blurred, and his head rang like a struck bell; the reverberations shivered down into his toes. His legs crumbled beneath him and everything went black.
Erik awoke in complete darkness, groggy and bewildered. He sat up and pressed a hand to the back of his head, wincing at the pain. He dropped his arm and took stock of his situation. His skin itched, and the stink of his surroundings filled his nostrils, salty man-sweat and the reek of decomposing flesh.
Cautiously, he reached out with his hands, sensing damp earth through his fingertips. A growing fear made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He scrambled to his feet. His heart pounded in his chest like autumn thunder, wet and dreary. All around him was dirt, nothing but dirt.
He was buried alive! He shook his head. With his hands stretched over his head, he touched empty air. No, it’s too large to be a grave. Where am I?
The sudden rattle of a rattlesnake’s tail froze Erik, held him fast in massive jaws of terror. He clutched at his thighs, and his eyes searched around himself as his imagination made monsters out of the darkness. He paused, focusing on a spot that seemed different from the rest. Darker.
“You’ve forgotten me,” hissed a slivering voice.
Erik backed right into the damp earth wall, trembling. “Who are you? What are you?”
“Always you ask the same questions,” answered the voice, drawing nearer. “ ‘Who are you? What are you?’ Twice more shall we meet before you know my name. I am the terror that clutches at your heart. I am the Three, I am the One.”
“D-don’t,” Erik stammered. “I don’t understand.” The rattling increased, and the snake wrapped itself around both his legs, slowly growing larger as it continued to wind its way up his body. He shivered. None of this is happening! I must be dreaming . . . or I’m dead.
Such as you never die, they transform into a clump of earth, into grass, the snake whispered in his head.
Erik opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. He choked on fear, gasped on it. The serpent tightened its hold on his body. His eyes watered. His fingers twitched helplessly at his side.
“I’ve come for my husband,” a muffled voice from above declared.
Dara! Dara has come for me. A surge of joy rushed through Erik, pumping hope into his pounding heart. He closed his hands into fists, struggling against the pressure at his sides.
The snake hissed. Your love belongs only to me. Suddenly it sounded almost seductive as its voice rattled through Erik’s skull. Not even death can change that. You are mine. MINE!
The sound of moving furniture descended to Erik, followed by the rumble of booted feet walking on wood. “Always the dutiful wife,” a male voice answered Dara. “You deserve better. Do you know where he was last night?”
“Ebbi—” Dara interjected.
“He was with the Witch!” the Lightbender shouted. “Until this morning when he ran through the streets naked like a lunatic. I would never treat you this way. You need to leave him. Who does he think he is? A nobleman with two wives?”
Erik’s eyes narrowed, and he snarled, even as the serpent brought the bones in his arms and legs close to the point of breaking. Rage seethed and bubbled inside, doing battle with the fear that clenched at his heart.
“And come with you?” Dara asked.
Beloved, long have I waited, the snake said, stopping with its head hovering above Erik’s own. Long have I suffered. Long have I hungered. It flickered its long tongue across his face.
Erik shuddered. Let me go!
You’re mine, the snake snarled. The others be damned, now that I have you I’ll never let you go. MINE!
“Yes.” Ebbi’s voice quivered with barely controlled longing. “I would treat you the way you should be treated.”
Dara laughed, a melodious sound despite the biting nature of her amusement. “That will never happen,” she said. “I will never leave him.”
“Ebbi, you saved my life. For that, you will always hold a special place in my heart, but when you look at me, you see something beautiful that you want to possess. Someone you hope will ease your loneliness. When Erik looks at me, he sees me.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know, but that’s all right. All that matters is that you release my husband.”
It will be as it was before. The snake went on, opening its mouth wide enough to encompass Erik’s skull, revealing a flash of color, fiery pink flesh stretching and twisting. You and I together. Forever.
Light flooded down onto Erik from above, a sparkling pool of incandescence. Blinded by the radiance, he blinked, gasped, and shuddered, all the while expecting the worse. When he could see again, he realized he was at the bottom of a tall, wide pit, and the snake was gone. Where did it go? I imagined it. I must have!
Something struck the top of his head, and he jerked back, hissing from the pain. A rope ladder dangled in front of his face and at its other end stood Dara, peering down at him, haloed in light. For a second she appeared transparent, her diaphanous quality revealing the fire at her heart, white and cold.
Erik gulped, touching his skull with trembling fingers. His head was sticky with half-dried blood, but despite the ache he hardly noticed it. Dara held his full attention. She had never looked prettier.
“Husband,” she said simply.
“Wife.” Though neither one of them smiled, he sensed her. . . . Not love, but acknowledgment. She could not feel that emotion, he suddenly knew. The information was just there, in his head, a truth gleamed at the bottom of a pit. She took a step back, and the moment was broken.
Erik climbed up the ladder, and the first sight that greeted him when he made it above ground was Ebbi’s distorted face. He blinked, and the shimmering in his eyes steadied. The Lightbender still loomed over him, a cruel look frozen on his half melted face.
“Erik, come here,” said Dara. She held a wool blanket open in her arms.
He stood and allowed her to wrap it around him. He considered sending the Lightbender a smile, but thought better of it at the last moment and followed Dara out of the village jail. The walls of the two-story building were adorned with many instruments of war as decoration, and a broken ax hung above the door.
Outside, Erik released the breath he had been holding, freed from the hostility of Ebbi’s one-eyed glare. Dara took his hand and guided him home. He clenched the blanket wrapped around his waist and chose his steps with care.
“Ignore them,” Dara said. “They’re all small minded fools.”
For the first time, Erik noticed the looks they were receiving from the men and women they passed on the street. There were disgust and aversion in their faces. “I’m sorry, I acted without considering my options. I should have made a plan.” He gave a nervous laugh. “Or at least put my clothes on.”
“What were you trying to achieve?”
“I think I’m going insane,” Erik said after a moment. “Something is happening to me, or maybe it already has. You won’t believe me, but. . . .”
Dara squeezed his hand. “There is only one way to be sure. Start from the beginning.”
Erik sighed and did just that. He told Dara the tale emotionlessly, his face was stone, and his voice was iron until he came to the dire wolves appearance in front of Hanna’s home. That he rendered with burning passion. “I can almost still sense their teeth tearing into my flesh,” he said, touching his unmarked stomach. Unmarked or not, he winced. “I don’t know why I am not dead, or what happened to my memories. I sense them hovering at the edge of my mind, yet somehow barred to me.”
His wife did not speak. For a time they walked in silence until the itch at the back of his mind made him wonder if Dara thought him crazy. Then they came to a stop in front of the manor, and she turned towards him. “When are the wardstones supposed to fail?”
Erik looked up at the sky and frowned. “Seconds after the Renewal ceremony.”
“So, we don’t have much time.”
“You believe me?” Erik gazed at Dara with wide, incredulous eyes. “Why? I half don’t believe myself.”
Dara fixed his sagging blanket. “We’ve survived this long not because we’re smarter, though we are that, but because we’re more careful than our enemies. The truth will reveal itself in a short while, until then it’s better to air on the side of caution.”
“And if what I saw never comes to pass?”
“Well then, husband, we will have words,” she said.
“I understand.” Erik made himself meet Dara’s gaze with resolve. It was not easy. There was something in her eyes that made him feel like an insect dangling in a spider’s web. He loomed over her, but at that moment she terrified him. “What now?”
Dara led Erik inside the manor. “Now we prepare for war, but first you need a bath.”
“Is that necessary—” Erik began.
“It’s the small things that keep you going at the end of the world.” Dara picked up a little bell that laid on a table within the front hall and rang it. “Your words husband, not mine.”
After a moment Kendra rounded the corner slightly out of breath and her face flushed with color. She gave a quick curtsy and smiled at them, a lightness in her eyes. “Mistress,” she said. Her voice was soft. Perhaps too soft for all the red in her cheeks.
Dara’s next few words tore the smile from Kendra’s lips. “There has been a change in plans. Gather the hens, we’ve been surrounded by a mountain of daggers.”
“I-I understand.” Face as white as a sheet of paper, Kendra rushed down the hall almost at a run, disappearing around the corner.
Dara looked at him then, with a frown that lasted only an instant before she led him down the hallway. “You really remember nothing, don’t you?” Her voice sank almost to a murmur. “How about the night we first met?”
Erik shook his head.
“How strange this must all seem to you.” She pointed at a painting on the wall, a painting of masked revelers partaking in an orgy. “The night we first met, you were standing in a darkened corner by yourself, a forlorn look in your eyes as you gazed out at the evening sky. Such a tragic. . . .”
Unbidden, unasked, memory returned of that night of debauchery where they first met, images rose within his mind.
A dark-haired woman came to a stop beside him, adorned in a black dress with silver ornamentation and a white spider mask, her green eyes fixed on the world outside the window. Dara. His prey.
The need was in him. Erik could feel it blaze in his blood, the hunger for the chase. He watched the night sky from behind his red fox mask, keeping his eyes from flicking towards her. She had to be the one to speak first; it was part of the game.
“I’ve seen you here before,” Dara said. “More than a few times, but you never partake. Tell me are you afraid of sex or do you just like to watch?” Moans and groans rose and fell behind them.
He drew a circle on the window. “There is no thrill in the hunt when your prey approaches you and places its neck in your maw. Not for me. I’ve grown tired of kittens with pretend claws.”
“Do you?” Erik turned the circle into a crude rendering of a spider.
“I . . . think I do. You hunt those things that slip through the dark forest. The ones with claws and teeth that stalk you while you seek it.”
“Exactly, I hunt myself. Or something very much like me, a—”
“A predator,” Dara breathed.
Her words turned the blaze into a furnace. Breathe. Erik had to breathe. His chest rose and fell. His insides burned with need. Can’t let her see! his mind howled. Can’t show weakness, not now! Her eyes peered at him, green sapphires bedazzled by lamplight. Heedless of all thought, he grasped her and pulled her closer. Fire trickled down his throat.
Erik tore himself away from the memory; even though they were just images, his skin burned. He blinked and gasped as he realized he was now soaking within the steaming water of the stone bath. The hot water was the reason for the pain.
Dara clutched the back of his head, yanking his attention back onto the present. “That’s when I knew,” she said, “that we were meant for each other. That together we would—”
“Fuck them all,” Erik finished, tugging her into the bath. Warm water splashed onto the green tiled floor as he pulled her into a long, fervent kiss.