There are only two kinds of stories: tragedy and comedy. One ends with a feast and fucking and the other with death and tears. When you mix the two, you get real life.
— YPSE, TO MRETHREN ÖRK
Face lifeless, Erik’s stared up at the shadows pooled above him, then focused his attention on the sound of Hanna weeping. An instant later his mind drifted and his thoughts scattered like fine dust particles on a summer breeze. The only thing that kept him from losing himself completely was the lumpy mattress beneath his back. It grounded him. Centered him in the now.
Slowly Erik’s thoughts coalesced and with them came memories. He remembered battling the Dökk beneath Hjörtur’s stone walls. He recalled warring with the Celestial Dragon for supremacy over his earthly shell and a pack of dire wolves chasing him into a forest of white redwoods.
Hanna rested her head on Erik’s bare chest. Tears spilled from her blue eyes onto his pale skin, running down his stomach until they pooled in his navel. “How much torment can one heart take?” She shook her head. “My mother told me once that some of us are just born cursed. I didn’t agree with her then, but now I see what she meant. The world is cruel, it cares not for our pain. And who can blame it? What wretched creatures we are, so frail and full of false fury. We’re all cursed, in love. In life. We’re just too stupid to see it.”
Erik willed his heart to beat, but it was like trying to move a mountain with his hands. Frustrated, his body remained void of all outward signs of life.
Eyes wet with tears, Hanna sat up, thumbing a vicious-looking knife. She glanced from Erik to the blade and back again. It seemed that she had come to a decision where Erik was concerned.
No, don’t do it! Erik raged in his head. His braided web of consciousness shook and trembled as he struck invisible fist against an imaginary mountain. A mountain as real as any other although it existed only within his mind. The pain of bones breaking lanced through him, but the agony did nothing but add to his desperation. Hanna, don’t!
Hanna’s lips parted into a smile, albeit an upset one. “This Age will be our last. When it ends, there will be nothing left but weeds.” She laughed. “The Fifth Age, the Age of Weeds.”
Erik reached deep within himself, finding an untouched reservoir of strength. The mountain quaked beneath his palms. He would not allow Hanna to take her own life. He would not!
Tragically, she pressed a finger to Erik’s bloodstained lips, then rested the tip of the dagger to her chest. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
A mental howl reverberated through Erik’s skull and rock broke apart beneath his imaginary hands. Suddenly a burst of air swirled into his mouth, making his lungs inflate and stretching his chest out to its full size. For a moment he seemed to hang there, neither quite dead nor alive. Then his body convulsed and saliva mingled with black and scarlet wrenched its way out of his throat.
Taken aback, Hanna’s eyelids snapped open. “Erik?” she whispered, lowering her weapon. “Is this real? Are you. . . .” She reached out a hand to touch him but stopped, seeming fearful to discover the truth for herself.
Erik tried to smile at her, but he did not know if he succeeded. Every part of him hurt and he could taste blood on his teeth. Doing his best to ignore the pain, he took the sight of her in, taking joy in the bewilderment animating her face. Erik could not help but be happy. He had done it. He had stopped her from taking her own life.
Kill the one you love the most and free yourself, the Dark One’s remembered words slithered their way into his mind. Refuse, and you will remain here for all eternity.
Hanna threw herself at Erik and enfolded him in her arms. “You’re alive! You’re actually alive.”
“Be gentle,” he grunted absentmindedly, still preoccupied with thinking about the Dark One’s words. None of this is real. I cannot allow myself to become too attached. He was cold despite the warmth of Hanna’s naked flesh pressed up against his skin. Fuck, but she seems as corporal as anything else. How can she be fake? He wrapped his arms around her, perceiving her heartbeat through his fingertips. If she isn’t real nothing is.
Hanna lifted her head from Erik’s chest, her light eyes troubled. “I never want you to die,” she hissed. “Live no matter what.”
“Everything ends, Hanna,” Erik replied.
“I don’t care. You have to live.” She grabbed Erik’s face. “I know how crazy that sounds, but I can’t stomach the idea of you dying. Not ever.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. There was nothing to say; he could not use logic to attack the way Hanna felt, not in that moment. She would not listen, not after what she had just been through and he could not blame her.
“Are you hungry,” he asked.
From the look on Hanna’s face, she was not expecting those words to leave his mouth. She behaved as though she had steeled herself for an argument, but it never came. Finally, she gave a slight nod.
“Good,” Erik said, separating himself from Hanna and getting off the bed. “I’m starving. It’s like I haven’t eaten a meal in years.”
“Is this your way of asking me to cook breakfast?”
Erik shook his head. “No. No. I want you to come home with me and eat breakfast there.”
A second after the words left his mouth, she threw up her arms. She kept her voice controlled, though, if barely. “You want me to what? Do you know what I hate about you?” He tried to respond, but she was letting it all out in a rush, not allowing him to get a word in edgewise. “It’s your sense of humor. You always take things too far, to where I worry about your mental state. Sometimes the things you say are just not funny.” She gave Erik a careful look, half glaring. “This is one of those times.”
Erik used the bed sheet to wipe the blood from his mouth; Hanna frowned but said nothing. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said, “but I wasn’t joking. I want you to meet Elina. You’ll like her, and Dara is not half so fearsome as she seems. Actually, I suspect you two will get along. You’re alike in a way.”
Hanna grounded her teeth. “Your wife and your mistress together at the same table, you’d love that wouldn’t you?”
“I died, Hanna,” Erik said, trying a different tack. “That kind of thing changes a man. All I want is everyone I love gathered under one roof, with everything out in the open. The way it should be. Tell me what’s wrong with that?”
Hanna sighed, then drooped her small shoulders. “Okay, you win.” She stood from the bed, and added, “It’s your face that does this. I never used to be this weak.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s very hard saying no to you,” Hanna muttered. “But you knew that already.”
Erik raised an eyebrow. “So you want to say no?”
“No, I. . .” Hanna shook her head. “Never mind.” She turned away from him and began the arduous task of getting dressed.
Minutes later, they exited the house and walked down the dirt street. Thinking of something, Erik came to a stop behind a thatch-roofed home and looked around as if searching for someone. “I know you’re there. Dara made her choice. It’s time for you to make peace with that fact. Find someone to love you as you love them.”
Hanna gave Erik a surprised look. “Who are you—”
Erik turned towards her, and she cut off abruptly. He gave his head a small shake and pulled her along as they continued their walk. “You can’t give men power without expecting some of them to abuse it,” he explained. “Sometimes I wonder how women undress with any peace of mind when some can turn themselves invisible.”
“Are you saying that. . . .” Hanna did not finish her thought. Instead, she gave Erik a serious stare. “But Lightbenders are bound by the Code. They wouldn’t—would they?”
Eyes drifting to the black and gold banners hanging at the front of every house, Erik almost stumbled. He could have sworn once they had been red and blue. He was sure of it.
Maybe every time I die little details change from the last time around, he mused. That would explain Elina’s hairstyle changing randomly.
“Erik,” Hanna shouted, grabbing his attention once again.
“Like you said,” he replied, “we’re all cursed. All of us.”
Hanna made a noncommittal sound, but she let the topic lie.
Traveling on in silence, Erik ignored the stares that villagers sent their way. With Hanna clutching his arm, they looked like two sweethearts out for a morning stroll expect for the fact that neither of them was smiling. There was a tightness about their eyes that spoke of tension, seething just below the surface.
“Relax,” Erik said, smiling when he felt like doing anything but. “She won’t bite you.” Well, unless you want her to. He knew better than to say that last part out loud.
Hanna came to a halt in front of the manor and rolled her eyes at Erik. “I’m perfectly fine. There is no need to keep reassuring me.”
If not for the tightness of her grip on his arm, Erik would have believed her. He raised an eyebrow at her but left it at that. Some points were best made without words.
Suddenly broad shutters were thrown back on the side of the manor, and a pink, youthful face peered at them from the window. A few seconds later the front door swung open, and Kendra stepped outside.
“Good morning, Kendra,” Erik said.
“Good. . . .” Kendra’s eyes flickered from his face to Hanna’s. Her cheeks reddened, then she cleared her throat. “Good morning. Good morning.”
Erik gazed at her, a wry twist to his mouth. “We have a guest for breakfast today.” Hanna’s grip on his arm grew tighter, and he had to force himself not to laugh.
Kendra curtsied. “Understood. Right, this way.” She turned around and led them inside, closing the door after they entered.
With a heavy heart, Erik guided Hanna into a large dining room. Elina and Dara sat a long table eating breakfast, comprising fresh bread—wrapped in a white cloth and still warm—scrambled eggs, bacon that looked over done, and a bowl filled with honeyed porridge made special just for Elina.
A pair of green eyes rose from the table to drill into Erik before moving over to Hanna on his arm. “Da,” Elina squeaked. “Who’s that?”
“Morning, all” he greeted them. “This is Hanna, and she’s joining us for breakfast. Hanna met Dara my wife and Elina.”
Dara stood from the head of the table with a blank expression on her face. Hanna bobbed a curtsy, a forced smile on her lips. “How do you do?”
“Good. Everyone is introduced,” Erik said, directing Hanna to a chair next to Elina. Then he took Dara’s place at the head of the table.
“This is very unexpected,” Dara muttered, taking a seat to Erik’s right, across from Elina.
Hanna leaped from the chair. “I can go—”
“No. You’re here already. You might as well eat something before you leave,” Dara told Hanna, excepting the plate filled with food Erik passed to her.
“Are you sure?”
Dara’s eyes narrowed. “Sit.”
Hanna sat, and the room descended into silence. Eyes wide, Elina looked from face to face, stuffing spoonfuls of sweet porridge into her mouth. Erik almost motioned at Elina to slow down, but he dropped his hand. Seldom could she be stopped when she became excited, and there were more important things to focus on.
He served himself a plate and tried to organize his thoughts. I have to kill one of them. But which one of them is it? He gazed out at them and reminded himself that none of this was real. It was so easy to forget. Solemn faced, he lowered his eyes. He was wasting time; he knew exactly who he had to kill. I’ve known since waking.
Taking a deep breath, Erik turned to Elina and asked, “Do you want to go for a walk?”
Elina nodded her head with barely contained enthusiasm.
“Erik,” Hanna began. Her blue eyes were as wide and round as he had ever seen them. He waved at her to stop, but she rushed on. “You haven’t even eaten anything!”
He stood, clasping Elina’s little hand in his. “I’m not hungry anymore. Plus, this will give you two a chance to talk in private.” Not giving her a chance to complain, he left the room, not quite hurrying, but not dawdling either.
“Da, where are we going?” Elina asked in the hallway.
“The garden,” he said. “What do you think of Hanna?”
Elina frowned. “I think I dreamed about her last night.”
“Uh-huh,” Elina nodded. “I was running through a maze when these giant worm creatures burst out of the ground. They tried to grab me, but I was too quick. They got her, though.”
“Hanna?” Erik questioned.
“Yes, the girl you brought to breakfast. The monster things captured–Hanna and dragged her into the earth. And there was this man in a cage. I think. . . I think he was the one controlling the worm creatures. What do you think it means, Da?”
“I don’t know.” Schooling his face, Erik strode out outside with Elina. The garden was carpeted with rosebushes, crisscrossed with columned walkways, and beautified with water fountains. Yet, the thing that drew the eye was the large redstone well that sat at the very center of the garden. “Dreams are strange things. Most times they mean nothing.”
Elina dropped his hand and ran towards the well.
“Be careful,” he warned her by instinct as she peered into the well. She’s not real, he reminded himself. None of this is.
Slowly, Erik approached Elina and sat her on the rim of redstone made structure. He fixed her satin dress and kneeled in front of her. As his eyes burned, she gazed down at him with a look of confusion. He buried his face in her lap and shut his eyes to stop the hot tears that gushed forth. I can’t do this. I don’t care if it’s not real. I can’t!
“Da, what’s wrong? Elina asked, touching soft fingertips to his wet cheek.
Erik looked up at Elina’s small face marred with concern. “I’m dying, Elina,” he whispered.
“No,” she gasped. “I don’t want you to die.” Bright tears glittered in her green eyes. “Please, Da, don’t die.”
“All things end,” he muttered mostly to himself. “I rather. . . .” Die then harm you.
Elina slapped him across the face. “Don’t say that! There has to be something we can do. I will do anything! Please, don’t die, Da. I love you.”
Erik leaned back on his heels, a faint sensation of pain throbbing in his cheek. “Do you really mean that?” he asked.
She nodded her head, fighting back a sob. “I do. I love you more than anything.
Erik pressed his hand to her chest and pushed. “I love you, too.”
Everything slowed, and he could pinpoint the instant her devotion turned into terror. It was a heart-wrenching moment where all light seemed to go out of the world. Her pupils grew until they were all he could see, and then she tumbled backward into the well screaming with all her might. It was a bloodcurdling sound that ripped out a part of his soul.
At the noise of a loud splash, Erik crumbled to the ground as if he was a puppet and his strings had been severed. He clenched his teeth against the sense of horror that tried to drown him in its dark murky depths and struck the columned walkway with his fists.
“Da,” a hollow sounding voice escaped from the well.
Erik roared to his feet with the sound of blood pounding in his ears. “Elina,” he yelled, staring into the well. Illuminated by a single ray of sunlight, she gazed up at him, paddling with one arm.
“Help,” Elina wept. It looked like she had lost control of her features to fear, they moved and changed like crawling shadows. “Da, I’m scared.”
“Hold on!” he shouted and jumped in after her, using the walls to slow his descent.
Erik’s hands slipped on the wet stone, derailing his plan. He slammed on top of Elina in a jumble of displaced water and limbs. Air exploded out of his lungs, and he almost blacked out, but he steadied his conscious with a thought.
He struggled to his feet with Elina grasped in his arms. The water only came up to his chest. “I’m sorry,” He told her. “This is the only way.”
Elina trembled in fear. “No. Please, Da, don’t,” she whimpered.
Erik choked back a sob and held Elina under the surface of the icy water. Tiny nails sliced into his arms, lancing through his mind with a panic-inducing fervor. He focused on the nearest wall, a working of circular redstones, and imagined he was anywhere else. Suddenly the wall grew thin, foggy, and finally transparent. Then he could see the Dark One staring down at him from the center of her clearing, all three eyes alight with sympathy. A single tear dripped from the third.
Mesmerized, Erik watched the drop of eye water track its way down Matangi’s forehead. At the same time, he was aware of Elina growing weaker; the same way someone might sense an ant moving around on their toe. The moment Elina stilled in his grasp, his eyes lowered to find her laying beneath him in a damp dress on the leaf-strewn floor. Somehow he had transported back to the clearing without noticing.
“How does it feel murdering the thing you love the most?” the Dark One asked. “Is life worth such a thing? Is freedom?”
Erik clutched Elina’s tiny lifeless body to his chest and howled. The gut wrenching sound came from his depths and seemed to grow louder with each passing second. Fist the leaves rustled, then branches shook, and the earth rumbled.
As if swatting a fly, Matangi struck out at Erik with an open hand. The huge palm descended with a thunderous light, scarring a purple afterimage into Erik’s mind. Then all of existence turned dark, stealing his wail of torment and leaving only silence in its place.