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
Eyes lifeless, Erik’s stared up at the shadows pooled above him. His thoughts drifted in scattered fragments, slipping further and further from his grasp, and if not for the lumpy mattress beneath him, he would have been lost. The bed grounded him, centered him in the now.
What seemed like an eternity later, the splintered thought-shards coalesced and with them came his lost memories. Erik could suddenly recall, with vivid detail, being chased into a forest of white redwoods by a pack of dire wolves. But more importantly, he remembered Dara, his first love, and the tragic history of their relationship. Now the fragmented memory of. . . . The sound of weeping pulled his attention from his past onto the rooms other occupant. Hanna.
Which one do I love more? The thought slashed through Erik’s mind. Which one do I have to kill?
Hanna lay with her head resting on Erik’s chest, and though his heart no longer pumped blood, he could still sense her tears spill onto his skin. They ran down his stomach and pooled in his navel. “How much torment can one heart take?” she sobbed.
Erik willed his heart to beat, but it refused. Frustrated, he listened to Hanna while his body remained void of all outward signs of life.
“The world is cruel, it cares not for our pain,” she said. “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.”
There was something in Hanna’s hand Erik realized, something hard and cold pressing against his chest. Hanna straddled him, thumbing a vicious-looking knife. No, don’t do it! His consciousness shook, and he struck invisible fist against an imaginary mountain. A mountain as real as any other although it existed only within his mind. Hanna, don’t!
“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 and struck out. The mountain quaked beneath his palms. He would not allow Hanna to take her own life. He would not!
She rested the tip of the dagger to her chest and closed her eyes.
A mental howl reverberated through Erik’s skull and the imaginary mountain shattered. He gasped, and a burst of air swirled into his mouth, inflating his lungs, stretching his chest. Then his body convulsed, and saliva mingled with black and scarlet wrenched its way out of his throat, throwing Hanna off of him.
Taken aback, her eyelids snapped open. “Erik! Is this real? Are you. . . .” She reached out a hand to touch him but stopped it half way.
Erik smiled up at her while the Dark One’s words rattled through his mind. Kill the one you love the most and free yourself. Refuse, and you will remain here for all eternity.
“You’re alive! You’re alive.” Hanna threw herself at Erik and enfolded him in her arms.
None of this is real, Erik reminded himself, grunting from the tightness of Hanna’s embrace. Have to remember that. Hanna was a warm pulsing furnace against his ice cold skin. Mother, she feels so real. How can she be fake?
“I never want you to die.” She squeezed him tighter. “Live no matter what.”
“Everything ends, Hanna,” Erik groaned.
“I don’t care. Live.” Hanna grabbed his face in soft hands. “I understand how crazy that sounds, but I can’t stomach the idea of you dying. Not ever.”
Erik opened his mouth and closed it again. There was nothing to say; he could not use logic to attack the way Hanna felt, not at this moment. She would not listen, not after what she had been through, and he could not blame her. “Are you hungry?” he finally asked.
A brief look of confusion flashed across Hanna’s face before she gave a slight nod.
“Good. I’m starving.” With some effort, Erik climbed off of the bed. “Come home with me, and we’ll have breakfast there.”
“What?” Hanna glared at him from her place atop the bed.
“I want you to meet Elina. You’ll like her, and Dara is not half so fearsome as she seems at first. In fact, 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?”
“Do you really want to stay here by yourself?” Erik beseeched. “What’s the worse that could happen?”
Hanna gave a bark of laughter. “You’re insane.”
Hanna sighed, then drooped her small shoulders in defeat. For her, that was near a joyous yell of agreement from another woman. She began getting dressed, looking up at him from time to time, disquiet creasing the corners of her eyes.
When they were both fully clothed—him in a blue coat and her in a coarse wool dress—they exited the house. Erik jerked them to a stop and gazed at the wheat field as if in search of something.
“What is it,” Hanna whispered.
He ignored her and shouted, “I know you’re there, Ebbi. 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 queer look when he led her deeper into the village.
“You can’t give men power without expecting some of them to abuse it,” he explained. “Sometimes I wonder how any woman can undress without a sense of dread when Lightbenders can turn invisible.”
“Are you saying that. . . .” Hanna paused. “But Lightbenders are bound by the Code. They wouldn’t—would they?”
Erik almost stumbled, but not because of what Hanna had said. Another detail had changed. Black and gold banners draped from the front homes were once blue and red ones had hung. It appeared things shifted from restart to restart, small things at least. First his coat and now the banners, he wondered if eventually, even the personalities of the villagers would change. He had a sense they would and not for the better.
“Like you said we’re all cursed. All of us.” Erik licked his dry lips.
Hanna made a noncommittal sound, but she let the topic lie. They ambled on in silence, turning a blind eye to the scathing looks sent their way by the villagers, who watched them from kitchen windows and passed them on the street.
When they arrived in front of the manor, Erik turned to Hanna and said, “Relax, she won’t bite you.” Not unless you want her to. There was a tightness in the way Hanna held herself that spoke of tension, seething just below the surface.
“I’m fine,” she reassured him. And if not for her grip on his arm, he would have believed her.
The broad shutters on the manor were thrown back, and Kendra peered at them for a moment before disappearing. Seconds later, she charged out of the front door.
“Good morning, Kendra,” Erik greeted her.
Kendra’s eyes flickered from Erik’s face to Hanna’s and back again. Her cheeks reddened as she cleared her throat. “Good morning. Who’s this?”
“A guest, she’ll be joining us for breakfast.” Hanna’s grip on Erik’s arm grew tighter, and he had to force himself not to laugh.
Kendra gave a start and immediately bobbed a quick curtsied before ushering them inside. Erik left her rooted beside the door and guided Hanna down the hallway, then into a large dining room. Elina and Dara sat at 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.
“Da,” Elina squeaked. “Who’s that?”
“Morning,” he smiled. “This is Hanna, and she will join us for breakfast. Hanna, meet Dara and Elina.”
“How do you do?” Hanna gave an awkward curtsy.
Dara’s eyes narrowed slightly as she stood from her seat, but her face remained otherwise expressionless. “A surprise guest. I love surprises.” Her voice sounded dry enough to rub flesh raw.
Elina chortled nervously while Erik sat Hanna in the seat beside her, then took Dara’s former position at the head of the table. Dara gave Elina a look, and the room descended into silence. Eyes wide, Elina stuffed spoonfuls of sweet porridge into her mouth. Erik almost motioned her to slow down, but he dropped his hand. There were more important things to focus on.
Erik tried to organize his thoughts. Someone at the table had to die by his hand. Even though none of this was real, the idea knotted his stomach. He gazed from face to face. The replications were not perfect, there were slight variations that separated them from their originals. Not in appearance, but in personality and temperament. In real life, Hanna had far more control over her emotions and Dara. . . . You’re wasting time. Do it now. DO IT!
Erik stood from his seat, drawing the attention of every eye. There was no question about who he loved the most, about who he had to kill. He turned to Elina and said, “Do you want to go for a walk?”
Elina nodded and hopped off of her chair. Her eyes sparkled with barely contained enthusiasm when Erik took hold of her hand and led her towards the door.
“Erik,” Hanna began.
“We won’t be gone long,” Erik said without turning back. “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, then changed the topic. “What do you think of Hanna?” The sensation of Elina’s much smaller hand in his own made his chest pulse with dread. All he wanted to do was enfold Elina in his arms and tell her how much he had missed her. That every day since she. . . . Mother, must I really do this? To her? To my own sister?
“I think I dreamed about her last night,” Elina said. “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 for them. They got her though.”
“Yes, the girl you brought to breakfast,” she went on. “The monster things captured—Hanna and dragged her into the earth. And there was this man in a cage. I think . . . he was the one controlling the worm creatures. What does it mean, Da?”
Erik paused in front of a thick, wooden door. “I don’t know. Dreams are strange things. Most times they mean nothing.”
He opened the door, and they strode out into the garden. Rosebushes carpeted the grounds, crisscrossed with columned walkways, and the odd water fountain. At the center of it all, sat a large, redstone well, the focal point of the garden. The sun hung above their heads, a fiery ball of molten gold.
Elina dropped his hand and ran towards the well.
“Be,” Erik began, then stopped himself. Warning her to be careful was pointless, he could see that. Not when he meant to. . . . He sighed.
When Erik reached Elina, he sat her down on the rim of the well and fixed the wrinkled hem of her cream-colored dress. Hot tears sprang from his eyes. I can’t do this. I don’t care if none of it is real.
Elina touched his cheek. “Da, what’s wrong?
“I’m dying, Elina,” he whispered. Unbidden, memories sprang forth, memories of him and his twin sister—of him and Elina. They had been inseparable once, two sides of the same coin.
“No,” she gasped. “I don’t want you to die.” Her green eyes glistened brightly in the sunlight. “Please, Da, don’t die.”
“All things end,” he muttered 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.”
“Do you mean that?” Erik’s heart clenched and his body quivered with inner torment.
“I do,” Elina sobbed. “I love you more than anything.”
Erik pressed his hand to her chest and pushed. For a heart-wrenching moment, everything slowed, and a look of terror crept across Elina’s face, then she tumbled backward into the well. Her frightened shrieks tore through the air until it ended with a loud splash.
Erik crumbled to his knees. “I love you too.” He shut his eyes and struck the well with his fist once, twice—
“Da,” a hollow sounding voice rose from the well.
Erik leaped to his feet with his blood pounding in his ears and glance into the well. Illuminated by a single ray of sunlight, Elina gazed up at him, paddling with one arm.
“Help,” she moaned.
“Hold on!” Erik jumped in after Elina, using the walls to slow his descent. His hands slipped on the wet stone, and he slammed on top of her. Air exploded out of his lungs, and he almost blacked out, but he steadied his mind and struggled to his feet with Elina in his arms. The water only came up to his chest.
“No. Please, Da, don’t,” Elina whimpered.
Her plea turned his insides into a vat of boiling acid. Die. She had to die. He choked back a sob and pushed her under the water. His hand shook, and water splashed onto his face. Tiny nails sliced into his arms. His insides burned. Burned. I’m sorry! his mind howled. I’m so sorry! Her eyes peered up at him, begging for mercy. Howling, he wrenched his eyes away and glared at the circular working of redstone. Despair trickled down his throat.
Suddenly, the wall in front of Erik grew thin, foggy, and transparent. Through it, he could see the Dark One staring down at him from the center of her clearing, all three of her eyes alight with sympathy. She held a child elevated in her palm, a green-eyed boy dressed in a golden robe. A princeling.
Elina’s thrashing weakened, then stilled. Erik lowered his eyes to find her lying beneath him in a damp, cream-colored dress on the leaf-strewn floor. Somehow he had transported back to the clearing without noticing.
“I didn’t mean to kill her,” Erik said. “I didn’t mean to kill Elina.”
Matangi lowered the princeling to the ground. The wind rippled his robe and tossed his sandy, brown hair. “It doesn’t matter,” the boy said. His voice seethed with rage.
Erik clutched Elina’s tiny lifeless body to his chest. “She matters!”
“No!” snarled the boy. “The only thing that matters is the plan!” The air groaned like a beaten child, and the ground hissed as tiny pools of magma formed at his feet. “First, we conquer the Grand Assessment.” He strode towards Erik and with every step he took his eyes glowed a deeper red. “Then we get named Prince of the Blood, and then finally we become king.”
Erik dropped Elina’s body and wrapped his hands around the boy’s neck. Hatred hammered in his chest. Liquid fire roared through his veins. This is not me! He squeezed, and the wind wailed around them, keening and squalling with the lamentation of a thousand stillborn children.
The boy gasped as tears leaked from his scarlet eyes. “When we’re king, they’ll have to like us.” His voice was soft now, filled with desperate hope. “They’ll have to.”
“How does it feel murdering the thing you love the most?” the Dark One asked. “Is life worth such a thing? Is freedom, is power?”
Erik clutched the boy to his chest and screamed. The gut wrenching sound came from his depths and joined the dirge of the wind. 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 his mind. Then all of existence turned dark, stealing his wail of torment and leaving only silence in its place.