“I know her,” a voice said.
Her. Her. I guess that was me, now.
Another voice: “I’m sorry, ma’am, but Sam is going to have to stay here. She’s sensitive, disconnected from time.”
“Of course,” the first voice said. “I understand.” I realized it was the Hyalu’s voice. I realized it was Lusu. Did she know Sam? “Could I have a moment with her?”
“Certainly,” the other voice said. It was frigid — the nurse’s.
“Just the two of us?” Lusu asked.
A pause. A silence.
“I haven’t seen her in an awfully long time,” Lusu said. “I like to think I’d remind her of her past.”
Another pause — this one shorter.
“Alright,” the nurse said. “Five minutes.”
“That’s all I need.”
“Sam,” the nurse said, patting me on the cheek. “I need you to–”
I opened my eyes. Tilted my head so I could look at Lusu. “Friend,” I said.
She smiled back. “Old friend,” she said.
The nurse’s smile finally looked genuine. “I’ll let you two catch up.”
The nurse exited the room.
The Hyalu glanced over at my roommate, then leaned over, so that her mouth was just an inch away from my ear. “I know who you are,” she whispered.
“Who am I?”
“George Royce, reporter, an old friend of Val’s that became something stranger.”
“I guess you’re right,” I whispered.
“Get up. We’re leaving through the window.”
“Window locks from the outside,” I said.
I heard the window unlock.
“You’re a cultist,” I said.
“Among other things,” she replied. “Get up. We’re leaving through the window.
I got out of bed and walked towards my roommate. “Hey, buddy. I’ve got a question to ask you.”
“Yeah?” he said.
“If I were to try and escape, would you call someone to try and stop me?”
The elf looked up at me. “I just want what’s best for people. But you’re disconnected from the time stream, so yeah I–”
I punched him in the jaw as hard as I could. Knocked him out.
“That was aggressive,” Lusu said, opening the window.
“We do what we have to.”
“And more, it would seem.”
As if I didn’t hate myself enough, now I had to deal with Lusu.
She exited through the window; I followed. By the time we’d both left, I heard the nurse entering the room.
“Hey!” she yelled. “Get back here!”
Lusu and I ran as fast as we could. We ran through the empty field, chasing freedom.
— — —
Lusu drove the car while I sat in the passenger’s seat. It all felt so wrong: leaving town without saying goodbye, leaving town to track down an old friend who wasn’t much of a friend anymore. Worst of all was this body, which felt so damn wrong.
“You’re a cultist,” I told Lusu.
“You’re really having a hard time with that one.”
“Guess so,” I said. “I like to think of myself as an enlightened,” I stopped myself from saying man, “creature. But the Death Cult has a reputation.”
“They’re not so bad in some ways,” she said. “Terrible in others, I guess.”
“They say you guys pervert the elements.”
“You use magic to light your cigarette, no?”
“Sure I do. But that’s different. Creating a spark is different than fighting death.”
“Death is the greatest tyranny of the world,” Lusu said. “Thinks it can and should take anything it wants.”
“You’re calling death entitled?”
“In so many words,” Lusu said. “Though really I try not to think about it too much, these days. I left the cult a long time ago.”
“Did Val know?”
“Yes.” Two heart beats, then a subject change. “Val’s going to destroy the world.”
“No, he’s not,” Lusu said.
“I… I thought I shot him.”
“He survived,” Lusu said.
“He just did,” Lusu said. “He survived, and now he’s going to destroy the world.”
“Probably,” I said, burying my face in the palm of my hand. “Killing Stellavia, breaking through the Celestial Wall.”
He survived. The fucker survived.
Worst of all, I was glad he survived.
The road we were on was bordered on both sides by tall trees.
“What do you care whether he breaks through the Wall?” I asked. “When I was in there, looking to find out who killed Stellavia, you didn’t say anything. Said I was a nobody, which I probably am. But you defended your husband. Why the change of heart?”
“When you love someone, it can be hard to admit they’re wrong,” Lusu said. “Then they leave, and you find yourself thinking about them. That’s when all their flaws are laid bare.”
“Val had a helluva lot of flaws,” I said.
“He had some good, too,” Lusu said. “He just didn’t know how to use it.”
I stopped talking. Didn’t see the point. This all just seemed so wrong. What was that blue big creature that had managed to give me a new body? Was it really a god? How could Beckett have painted that picture of Stellavia’s death? Why did Val even want to get past that damn Celestial Wall? All too many questions. All too few answers.
“Val’s got an unstoppable sword,” she said. “We need something just as strong. Any idea where we could get it?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve got an idea.”
— — —
The closer I got, the less I believed it. Forty years ago, Jewell’s Damned had been a small, three-person smithy: Jewell and two other guys. The town was small, so there just wasn’t that much business to be found.
Now, though, things were different. Road signs pointed us in Jewell’s Damned some thirty miles away. When we got there, the parking lot was packed with at least fifty cars.
Lusu parked. We got out of the car and walked towards the smithy.
“This place has changed,” I said, noting that there was an even bigger building at the other end of the parking lot. It looked like an inn.
“Forty years’ll do that,” Lusu said.
“You know, you’re a lot more interesting when Val isn’t around. Bolder.”
She took in a deep breath of air, then sighed. “You’re not the first person to tell me that.”
“You still miss him?”
“I know I shouldn’t,” she said, “but there’s a hole there. You invest so much in a person. Memories, thoughts, emotions…” she drifted off.
“Then, suddenly, it doesn’t mean so much at all.”
She nodded her head, looking solemn.
The smithy itself didn’t look so different. Same old concrete building, though there was a lot of graffiti scrawled across it. When I got close, I didn’t enter.
Instead, I took a look at the graffiti. Truth was, a lot of it depicted Val. In the pictures, he almost always wielded the Godkiller and he was often shirtless. One tasteless but beautifully drawn piece actually showed him in the middle of severing Hostem’s head. Another showed him fucking the Angel of Death. Her wings were spread wide. She faced the viewer, laying on her back with her head tilted up. We saw Val’s bare back. He pleasured her with his tongue.
A chill ran down my spine. It gave me the creeps to see how close to reality the artist had gotten. He couldn’t have known though, right? Had to be an urban legend — nothing more.
Well, it was both an urban legend and the truth. But I hoped the one mystified the other, if only because I still felt something for Val, too. A part of me wished he could have just led a normal life.
Any hope for that was long, long gone, of course.
The first thing that hit me when entering the smithy was that of the power hammer. Shortly after I recognized the belt sander, whirring.
A big lady with an even bigger voice shut down the belt sander, then turned to look at us. “Can I help you two with something?”
I gazed into those safety goggles of hers. Those always unsettled me: you could never see a person’s eyes. Just darkness.
I began to say something, only to realize my voice was getting drowned out by the machines. I started again, moving closer as I yelled, “We’re looking for a weapon.”
“You came to the right place,” she said. Made yelling look so natural. “What kind of weapon?”
“I don’t know what kind,” I said. “Something that can beat the Godkiller.”
Her laugh boomed. “Don’t waste my time.”
I slipped my hand into my pocket, taking out my Elf Guard badge. It was real, which was odd.
“Don’t waste mine,” I said. “Blake Reiner…” I paused for a moment. Almost called him Val. But she couldn’t know that I knew that. “Blake Reiner’s a wanted man. It’s my job to catch him.”
“Get him in his sleep,” she said. “You can’t stop the Godkiller. Blade’s too tough to be broken. And it’s magic. Nothing can get past it. No, I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
“Pity.” I sighed, taking out a pack of cigarettes. I looked at Lusu. “You want one?”
She shook her head no.
I looked at the big lady. “You?”
“No,” she said.
“Fiat lux.” I snapped my fingers so that a stray spark flew from my fingers and onto my cigarette. I took in a deep breath of smoke. I exhaled. “We’re going to be staying at the inn for for the night. Let me know if you can think of anything, alright?”
“Nothing to think of,” the lady said.
I nodded my head. Lusu and I walked out the door.
“What now?” I asked Lusu. As the sound of machinery grew dull, I heard the sound of two swords banging against each other, ringing like misshapen bells.
There was also the faint sound of music.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Somehow, I’d gotten the impression you knew everything.”
“Oh really?” she asked.
“You knew where to find me.”
“We can’t fight him without a weapon.”
“I know,” she said.
“You know? There we are. Back on familiar territory.”
We turned silent. It took about five minutes to walk to the inn. When we got close enough, I could see the source of the ringing: two boys, fighting in the moonlight. Lusu and I passed them by.
I sighed, opening the door for Lusu.
“You don’t have to do that, anymore,” Lusu yelled in my ear.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Hold the door open for ladies,” she said. “Might make people ask questions.”
The music was really loud, once we got inside. The band was five people: a saxophonist, two guitarists, a drummer and a singer. They were a prog rock band, assaulting the bar with strange melodies and even stranger lyrics. The saxophonist was awe-inspiring, fingers dancing up and down his instrument, the loud squawking making me feel better than I had any right to.
One man sang, groping the mic and whispering sweet sibilance into it: “King and Queen, living in green, / clouds of musk and mud and despair. / King and Queen, living in green, / killing each other, again and again.”
The whole room vibrated with these thoughts, bass guitar shaking the bones, drummer trying desperately to keep the time.
Drum, drum, cymbal. Drum, drum, cymbal, cymbal.
“King and Queen, living in green, / looking for a better life. King and Queen, living in green, / hoping to die so they don’t have to live.”
Drum, drum, cymbal. Drum, drum, cymbal, cymbal.
The bass guitar was wild, an image of an exploding star obscured by strings and the guitarist’s hand. On the drum there were words, which I figured to be the band’s name, “Deus ex Apocalypsis”.
“King and Queen, living in green, / hands around their throats and hearts torn from their sleeves. / King and Queen, living in green, / got no reason to die. Then again, they ain’t got no reason to live, either.”
Lusu leaned in and said, “I’m going to try and get us a room.”
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll scope the bar out.”
Drinking. That was one of the few things I’d done well in life, right? Hard to screw that one up.
I sat down next to a tall, broad shouldered black man. I recognized him as The Hero, from the way Beckett had described him and the pictures I’d seen. Still, Beckett hadn’t even been able to find much about him that was interesting. The man was almost less intriguing than the sword. Just by looking at the scabbard, I could tell it was a thick thing.
The bartender walked up to me, eyepatch over her left eye. “What can I get you?”
I noted that The Hero was drinking beer. “Beer, I don’t care what kind.”
She looked at me for a moment. “I don’t know what to get you, then.”
“The cheapest kind,” I said.
The bartender nodded her head and walked towards the beers.
The Hero laughed. “Not exactly a big spender, eh?”
“Doesn’t matter, so long as it gets me drunk.”
The Hero nodded his head, taking a sip of his. “Bad day?”
“Interesting,” I said.