Windows of the Soul
By Alison Plath
The darkness weighs heavily upon my shoulders, scented of copper and sulfur. The column of light where I stand is as chill and pitiless as the conspiratorial silence during my graduation. I wait for the words now as I did then. Then, my hands were clean. Now, they are stained threefold with my own blood, the blood of my brother, and the blood of my people. Then, I awaited the title conferred upon all graduates of the Magic Kingdom who have proven themselves Masters. Now, I await absolution.
"Do you hear it, Last Magician? Beneath the earth, behind your eyes, in the pulse of your heart and the fiber of your soul, Hell is calling you."
I have tried to close out the voice, but it presses as insistently upon my mind as my own thoughts, from which I am unable to distinguish it. The light pools at my feet, frightened to venture across the floor toward the form of the speaker. He is clothed in the fading shadows; at his heart is the black, pulsing venom of a demon's egg. He reclines, unperturbed, on a throne fashioned from the bones of my butchered people. I know Him: Hell's Lord.
I alone am escaped to tell thee...
His arm is raised to me in offering, the bell of a golden goblet cradled in his upturned palm.
"Hell is calling you, Last Magician. Unbind your soul and empty the glass."
He tilts the glass to me in salute, then raises it to his lips. My nerves itch, and with a sudden merciless clarity I know that it is my brother's blood... my own blood... binding me in Hell. Suddenly, the light musters an unforeseen burst of courage, washing across the floor like a whispered rumor. As it reaches Him, dissolving the shadows, my breath catches in my throat. His features mirror mine; His build and mine are identical. The spill of silver down his back might well be my own hair. There is but one difference, so sharp the steel of it rivets my heart. Wells of darkness return my transfixed gaze. He has no eyes.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Blue woke with a cry that pierced the minds of every living thing in the realm. Later, they would wonder what could have awakened even the soundest of sleepers among them, and why the air had suddenly gone frigid. Blue shivered, the cold within him chilling his bones far more than the night air. He brushed aside his tangle of hair to stare at the trimming of frost lacing the window, gathering the blankets about him. The sound of approaching footsteps tore his eyes from the window toward the entry, where aftershadows of the dream kindled apprehension as to whom the footsteps belonged. Nusakan's appearance in the doorway startled Blue far less than the single candle in his hand; mystics needed no such trifles to pierce the darkness.
"You were screaming." Nusakan observed, adjusting his glasses to fix intent mulberry eyes upon the magician. The color was reminiscent of the blood in Blue's dream, an observation that made it uncharacteristically difficult for him to meet them. He stared instead at his hands, twisting the sheet between them to prevent himself from trembling. He searched for a response acceptable to the question and to his pride, and finally answered in as few words as possible.
"It was a dream."
The mystic nodded, a mere inclination of his head, and placed the candle upon the table near the window before turning to go. Nusakan had never been one to pry into the affairs of others, especially in matters such as dreams, a phenomenon already thoroughly explainable in academic circles.
"Wait." Blue murmured, causing Nusakan to pause again in the doorway, glancing over his shoulder expectantly. Blue chose his words carefully, allowing himself enough time to keep them slow and deliberate, eradicating any potential waver of tone. "What did you hear?"
Nusakan merely fixed his eyes upon the magician anew, the candlelight flickering in his eyes. He answered simply, as Blue had inquired after facts, not analysis. "The eyes are the windows of the soul." He replied. "You repeated it several times. Then you screamed."
Blue wrapped his sheets about him in a vain attempt to rekindle warmth in his frozen blood, and stared into the candle's flame for the remainder of the night.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Dawn found Blue at the borders of Mosperiburg, seeking entrance to its sole building. The silver pyramid of the Ring Lord had been standing in the same place for years beyond the counting of anyone save its sole inhabitant, and remained unchanged despite the recent fracas over the Rings. The halls were cavernous, empty and so silent that even the falls of Blue's soft shoes on the carpet were painfully audible. Virgil, like his realm, was untouched by the passage of time. He was exactly as Blue had left him, draped across his monstrosity of a throne and clothed in a palpable shroud of ennui. Blue's arrival neither surprised nor inspired the Ring Lord, who deemed the event far less noteworthy than the journey of a single ant wandering across the arm of his seat.
"Mmm, the Master Magician." Virgil mused without so much as an upward glance. "You have no further business here." He waved a single elegant hand in dismissal, eyes tracking the progress of the ant.
"I do have business here." Blue insisted. "You sent me to Facinaturu for the sand vessel, and to the realm of the Time Lord afterward. You knew my path as I never did, and even now know me better than myself. I must ask you this, Lord Virgil, because you seem to possess all the answers." He paused, drawing a deep breath, and continued. "Where do I go now?"
Virgil sighed from the root of his being, bored to tears by the tenacity of his visitor.
"Your story neither concerns nor interests me, Master Magician. Yoked by your elders, you pursued your brother. Bound by your innocence, you returned to them for explanation. Shackled by revenge, you entered Hell and emerged again to speak of it. Now that your life is, at last, your own, you come to me in search of more chains. Your chains are your own, Master Magician. Turn the key yourself."
He raised his hand a second time, a single tapered finger indicating the tiles at Blue's feet. Shimmering on the polished surface of the obsidian floor lay the mage's reflection. Though Blue wore his usual garb of azure and his characteristic topknot, the image upon the floor was clothed in red, and unbound hair cascaded down its back. His throat went dry, as he dropped to his knees, raking his bangs aside to better view the apparition. His own features gazed back at him, flawless in every detail save one. Through a trick of the light, or something far more sinister, the image had no eyes. Two black patches of floor marred the otherwise perfect likeness.
"The eyes are, indeed, the windows of the soul, Master Magician," Virgil hissed, irritably noting the disappearance of the ant. "If you are afraid to look through yours, it is none of my concern."
Blue rose to his feet abruptly, ripping his eyes from the floor. He bowed to Virgil without a word, and left the pyramid as swiftly as his feet could carry him.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Blue floated quietly in the space between realms for some time, somberly regarding the otherworld of his regionmap. Worlds curled silently in a sparkling trail across the surface like a string of pearls, each glimmering with its own invitation. The list of those who had known both himself and his brother was short and variable, but spread across a scant few of the realms. Such individuals included a fair percentage of the IRPO, as well as the entirety of its radical sister, Gradius. He sifted through those most likely to provide insight into his dilemma and, ironically, decided upon the one from whom detailed information was nigh inextricable. He sorted patiently through the spangled beacons on his map, chose his destination, and expertly melted into it. His sudden appearance in IRPO's foyer startled the receptionist badly.
"I need to see Silence." Blue informed her without preamble, placing both palms flat on her desk.
"Er..." stammered the receptionist, struggling to remember the applicable regulation response, if one existed, to abruptly materialized and demanding individuals, "Do you have an appointment...?"
"I do not want an appointment." Blue informed her succinctly. "I want to see Silence." Utterly flustered, the young woman pressed a button on her console.
"Agent Silence, are you in?"
A faint, but audible sound issued from her headset: two sharp taps.
"There's a young man here to see you. He hasn't got an appointment, but h-he...." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "... well... he appeared out of nowhere, sir!" Her tone expressed her certainty that Silence would not believe her.
There was another tap at the receiver, and the receptionist smiled hesitantly at Blue. "He'll be right out, sir."
In a few moments, her word was made good as the mystic emerged from a side door, accompanied by a wiry woman with wild hair. Time had left no mark on Silence's features any more than it did any of his kind, though the death of the Charm Lord had lifted a burden from him that was visible now only in its absence. The shadows that had once lined his eyes had faded, and his eyes reflected relief and content.
"Hey!" the woman remarked immediately. "Rouge! What are---"
She was interrupted by a sharp tug on her sleeve; Silence shook his head. The woman returned her appraising eyes to Blue.
"If you aren't Rouge, then you must be his brother... " she paused, looking him over. "... and he must be dead..." Her voice trailed off, unable to find further words. She spoke with no hint of accusation, only statement of fact. Blue nodded, judging an affirmative response far more plausible than the truth, especially since the truth was proving somewhat elusive at the moment.
"What do you want?" asked the woman, adding after a moment, "I'm Agent Doll, Silence's partner."
Blue nodded a second time, acknowledging Doll's position, then turned his inquiries to Silence.
"You knew my brother."
Silence nodded, grave expression somewhat contradicted by the bobbing of his antennae. Blue inhaled slowly, unconsciously shifting his weight from one foot to another.
"What was he like? What did you see, watching us on that night... when we dueled?"
Silence grimaced, ever aware of the grievous limitations of communication by elaborate gesticulation. He spread his hands helplessly, daunted by the sheer complexity of the questions.
"He could write it down," Doll offered, "but you wouldn't be able to read it. He hasn't quite gotten the knack of human writing yet, and if we wait for him to finish typing, we'll be here until we're dust in our graves. He's the slowest typer since the dawn of computers." She scowled at her partner, one eyebrow raised, her tone turning sour. "I think he does it on purpose to get out of paperwork."
A sheepish, good-natured smile crossed the mystic's face. He feigned innocence, spreading his hands again, this time in a philosophical gesture.
"Do you know any other mystics?" Doll asked. "Mystics that could read it to you? I traveled with some with your brother, like the Time L--- *urk* --- hey, what did I say?"
Blue grimaced at the mention of the Time Lord as Silence cut his partner short with a well-placed jab of his elbow, this time to indicate a subject best changed.
"I can find a mystic." Blue replied. "That, I can manage."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Nusakan, Blue reckoned, would have been the best ally in this case, having found in him a kindred spirit. Unfortunately, he was unavailable. During Blue's visits to other realms, the doctor had vanished, leaving no inkling of his destination or estimated time of return. Blue couldn't fault him; it was precisely the lack of persistence in one anothers' affairs that cemented the friendship between the two. His dilemma was absolute; he knew no other mystics save Virgil, and he had no intention of further provoking the Ring Lord. He closed Nusakan's door behind him, pausing to look up at the sky, as if it held understanding of the spidery, long-tailed script filling the sheets of paper in his belt pouch.
Blue whirled, marking no other presence nearby. He bit his lip, standing poised on the balls of his feet, ready to defend himself if necessary.
"Devon." repeated the speaker matter-of-factly. "There's a mystic in Devon."
Blue surveyed his surroundings a second time, eyes eventually falling to a puddle at his feet, leftover water from recent rain. As before, the eyeless reflection of his fabled other half peered up at him, a pitiful smile curling his lips. Blue fell to all fours as he had at Virgil's court, ignoring the biting cold as his hands and knees submerged in the icy water. The water rippled from the abrupt contact, obscuring the reflection. When it cleared, the vision was gone; his own face blinked back at him from the pool. Only one aspect of the apparition remained; the reflection still possessed no eyes. Shivering, Blue drew himself from the water and headed for Devon.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Blue was unable to label what drew him up the vast length of stairs to Devon's shrine, the only pocket of calm in the manic realm of fortune tellers, gypsies, and seers. The shrine's only tenant was the priestess, a girl with an uncanny store of knowledge regarding mystics and a tendency to grossly underestimate demand for sacred lots. In retrospect, Blue was appalled at his failure to notice her inhumanity. He had been far more interested in her information than her race upon their last meeting. She stood in the courtyard of the shrine, wrapping paper charms about the limbs of a young ash tree.
I never asked her name, Blue realized. I don't even know her name.
He considered turning and leaving her to her task, but she sensed his presence, glancing at him over her shoulder. Perhaps it was something in her eyes that severed the thread. Something in the violet depths of her eyes flashed with recognition, suspicion, and finally, despair. Perhaps it was the tremulousness of her voice, hushed with disbelief, that triggered something in Blue's mind.
"You are the... Master of Space Magic?" she asked, her tone indicating that she already knew the answer.
Blue could only nod, awestruck, as her eyes filled with tears.
"...Then the Kylin is dead." she whispered, burying her face in her hands.
Something snapped and unfurled, whirling Blue to the outskirts of consciousness. All at once, he realized that he was watching himself from somewhere far away, as though he were at the end of a long, hollow corridor. He watched himself place a gentle hand on her shoulder, his lips shaping an unfamiliar name.
"Rei... I'm sorry..."
Rei? I know no Rei.
"I remember the halo of light shining around him, and the refrain of his ancient song. "
I have never seen a Kylin!
"He was a magnificent creature..."
"I HAVE NEVER SEEN A KYLIN!!!!"
"I did not enjoy killing him."
"I DON'T KNOW YOU! I HAVE NEVER SEEN A KYLIN! STOP!"
His vision blurred; when it cleared, he was clutching his head in both hands, screaming, as the young priestess backed away.
He ran until a stitch in his side forced him to stop, leaning against a building and gasping for breath. He clung to a gaudy windowbox, staring fiercely at the withered blossoms within.
"Leave me alone.... Leave me alone..."
The panted mantra caught the attention of a handful of tourists, who whispered amongst themselves and pretended not to notice.
"Will you still deny me?"
Blue stiffened instantly, raising his eyes from the petals to the glass above, to his translucent duplicate within.
"LEAVE ME ALONE! You're dead! DEAD!" Blue screamed at his reflection, his knuckles turning white as he clung to the wooden ledge for support.
"Dead. Yes," mourned the image, raking its bangs aside to reveal nonexistent eyes. "... but in death I am meant to be part of you. You shut me out and live as you lived before, tapping into my power without reaching the heart of it."
"You are part of me!" Blue insisted, "You always were! I have reclaimed myself. I am whole!"
"Whole?" The apparition trembled as Blue trembled, fingers digging into the phantom windowbox in the glass. "Whole? You ignore Rei as though she were a stranger and leave her to cry alone over the death of the Kylin. You deny killing the same creature when you wield space magic as it once did, and you tell me we are whole?"
Blue could not remember striking the window, nor could he remember the accompanying pain his nerves must have registered. He remembered only opening his eyes to find the glass shattered, a distorted, scarlet parody of himself pleading from the face of every blood-rimmed shard.
"Let me in, Blue. Let me in... or let me go."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The darkness presses heavily upon my mind, and the overpowering scent of sulfur clouds my senses. I stare numbly at the vermilion staining my hands, unable to remember whose blood I have shed, or why.
Who are you?
The light pools at my feet, too terrified to spread beyond the relative safety of my presence.
"I don't know," I reply. "I don't remember."
You are the last Magician. Are you Blue, or Rouge?"
"Yes." I reply, my mind working furiously to discern the proper answer as soft, brittle laughter deems my initial response incorrect. "No. I..."
Who are you?
I search the darkness for the speaker, hoping to find in him the answer to the question gnawing at my mind, but I come up empty on both fronts. Slowly, I realize that I have been here before. The thought pierces my mind with terrifying clarity, inspiring the luminous disk at my feet to tap a new well of courage. Fingers of light stretch outward from the focal point where I stand, washing over a throne drenched in the blood of my slain people. Two handprints mar the scarlet surface, and I realize that I must have placed my hands upon the arms of the throne to stain my hands. Now, the Master of Hell sits upon the throne, exactly as I remember him. His eyes are embers set deep within his head, and his voice is the grinding of broken joints and swarming flies.
"Welcome to my Heart, Last Magician." He raises a goblet to me, bell cupped carefully in his taloned fingers. The slightest of whimpers draws my attention from the gesture, and I raise my eyes to find the source of the sound. What I find curdles my blood within me as bile rises in my throat. My brother is spit to the wall on a spike of marble above the throne; it is his blood in the chalice. It might as well be my own. The Lord of Hell speaks again, tearing my eyes from Rouge's.
"Welcome to your Heart, Last Magician."
He raises the cup to his lips, and I am looking through his eyes at the mouth of the goblet, studying my reflection on the surface of the liquid within. I can feel the weight of the vessel in my hand, and the coolness of the metal against my serpentine skin. My voice curls from my tongue like smoke, staining my lips with the sound.
"Let me in, Last Magician. Let me in... or let me go."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Blue was unable to stop screaming after the second dream. He flung himself from the bed, slamming both fists into the wall as the screams ripped themselves from the back of his throat. Savagely he turned on the mirror, shaking a fist still wrapped with bandages from the slash he had inflicted upon himself from the window.
"Are you doing this to me? Are you?"
The image in the glass was solely his own; the eyes gleamed sapphire.
"Answer me!" Blue howled, reaching for the glass as though he could drag forth his reflection and wring it for the solution.
"I think," answered a voice neither his own nor his reflection's, "you should talk to me."
Blue yelped, rounding on the speaker with his hands raise to weave a counterspell that died before its inception. His arms fell limply to his sides as his memories collided at the sight of the girl seated upon the windowsill. She was tiny, with intense, luminous eyes that seemed ill placed among her girlish, elfin features. Her hair, cropped short, had a translucent, verdant sheen to it, and her clothes were of a style humans had not embraced for centuries. Her name was on his lips before it occurred to him that he had never known it.
"Yes." she replied simply, "Who are you?"
Blue flinched, certain she could hear his heartbeat, thumping wildly within his chest, or his breathing, rasping swiftly past dry lips.
"I do not know you." he answered, enunciating each word carefully. She shrugged, ignoring his utterance of her name moments before.
"As you do not know Rei?"
Princess Rei is first among the maidens of the Rose, first among the free, and slave to the Karmic Wheel.
"I was looking," Blue answered, biting off the ends of each word, "for a mystic."
"Only those who know Rei," countered Asellus as she slipped from the windowframe into the room, "know she is one. She certainly knew you, and well enough to recognize what was happening to you, and to come to me."
"You." Blue as good as spat, conveying perfectly in the single syllable his opinion of her competence regarding his dilemma.
"Yes." Asellus replied, unperturbed. "You must choose."
"Choose?" Blue repeated, struggling to restrain the flow of memory Asellus' presence evoked at the core of his being.
"If you would walk the middle path, you must become something entirely new." she answered. "Embracing my mystic blood would have hardened my human heart. Regaining my humanity would have stripped me of instincts and powers by then second nature. I could not live as a human. I cannot live as a mystic. I am something else now. You can't live as Blue, and you can't live as Rouge. You're someone else now. Accept it, or reject it, but make your choice."
Blue exhaled, slowly and deliberately, realizing only upon doing so that he had been holding his breath.
"Is that truly all? Is it truly that simple?"
"No." Asellus answered gently. "It is truly that difficult." Blue closed his eyes, raising one hand to cover them, suddenly excessively weary. "Why were you looking for a mystic?" Asellus inquired, breaking a long silence.
Blue waved a hand toward Silence's veritable dissertation on the subject, which he had left upon the bedside table after an evening of staring at the script in the hopes that the words would rearrange themselves into something readable. Asellus drifted past without so much as stirring the air, reaching out to touch the sheets with a single finger. Her eyes followed the delicate characters across each sheet for several moments before she spoke again, reading the script aloud.
"The only mystery to me is that you never felt the pull earlier. Until the defeat of the Time Lord, your duel with Rouge was something you spoke of only vaguely, and with the distinct factuality of another exam assigned by your professors. The change occurred only when your feet touched the egress of the Time Lord's realm. I could tell the time had come before the words had left your lips. Your duel was no longer a nebulous goal; it had become a magnet drawing at your every move. I never believed in destiny until I saw that force take hold of you. Watching you give yourself over to that unseen power was, I think, difficult for those of us who called you friend, and some wondered if the same epiphany simultaneously overcame your brother."
Asellus paused in her reading. "It did." she commented. Blue had wrapped both arms about himself, directing his gaze out the window toward the stars. He chewed his lower lip as his thoughts sifted through the words. "Who wrote this?" wondered Asellus, waiting patiently until Blue realized the question was directed at him. It found him sufficiently in the grip of distraction to answer without hesitation.
"I see his lack of voice has given him quite the flair for dramatics of the written word," she murmured wryly, voice softening for her second question.
"Are you all right?"
Blue nodded, not entirely certain he was telling the truth. "Yes. Go on." She turned her attention again to the sheets of writing.
"We followed you because we had no choice. Whatever led you prompted you to gate immediately to the site of the duel; the spell caught us as it caught you, and all at once we were beneath you, eyes raised upward to the ledge where you stood. I have seen few things I found as disturbing as the two of you together. Your eyes and his were fixed solely upon one another, and were glossed over with same influence that had brought you there. Your fingers flexed and unfurled at the exact same time, and the rise and fall of your chest mirrored his breath exactly. You were the same together. Apart, no two people could have been more different. You were inclined to keep your own counsel. Rouge was not. He rose and retired early. It was pulling teeth to get you to sleep, and you never cared to greet the sunrise. You remained perfectly still while thinking. Rouge fidgeted. You were driven. Rouge was distracted. When I travelled with you, you were the leader, and it was toward your destination our footsteps always led. When I travelled with your brother, he was ever companion to someone else, working toward whatever ends they were bound. Rouge was a procrastinator. You were not. You were claustrophobic. He was afraid of heights. You had an affinity for musical tone; he cheerfully admitted to being tone-deaf. He could dance. You could not... and so on, and so on. All those things were lost from both of you the moment your eyes met across that battlefield. Both your eyes were empty."
Asellus paused again as Blue came near to losing his balance, steadying himself against the wall with one hand. He attempted to mask his distress by focusing on his fury at revealing such weakness before this slip of a girl, but the moment the thought crossed his mind, a fresh surge of anger boiled from within. Rage foamed from his heart, forming into words in his thoughts.
"You asinine, bloody-minded GOAT. She's trying to HELP you. If you would think for half a moment---"
"Rouge," Asellus cut in gently, "please hush."
The magician fell silent immediately.
"Was I... was that out loud?" Blue demanded. Asellus nodded slowly. After a moment, she repeated her earlier question.
"Are you all right?"
"No." Blue admitted, "but I'd rather you finish it."
She nodded a second time, turning her eyes to the script once more.
"Watching you duel was difficult. You were little more than flashes of motion, darting in and out among a ring of wildly rotating stones. In the end, you caught him with a shift of time as he turned, and the lash was upon his back before he had time to breathe. I have always considered the Arcane magic 'Saber' particularly nasty. Anything that gives one the opportunity to speculate upon one's fate before it strikes is doubly insidious. It was the sort of instant one describes as lasting an eternity."
"He smiled." Blue interrupted, causing Asellus to start. "When he realized the swords from that card were about to eviscerate him, he smiled."
Asellus cleared her throat. Finally, she shook her head. "That sounds like him, the idiot..." She sucked in a breath. "It sounds like something he would do."
Blue regarded the half-mystic thoughtfully.
"You knew him, too."
She nodded. Blue wrestled with the words for half a minute before answering.
"You aren't." She retorted, returning to Silence's masterwork, "... and he wouldn't have been, either."
Blue rewarded her with one of the blackest looks in his repertoire, but made no further comment, as she resumed reading.
"Whatever threads of destiny had held you were severed by those swords, and you lunged to catch him as he fell. Whether you spoke or not is your own business. I can only speculate, and hope that you reconciled with one another. His body fell away into ruby ash, something I had never seen occur in humans. It swirled around you on a nonexistent breath of wind, and settled in your heart, mind, and eyes. When you returned to us, you were as you are now. You are a power to be reckoned with, but a new one. Those new to power are often confused by it, and more often consumed. I think it is those influences you now resist. I don't doubt you will overcome them. At any rate, before you can do so, you must understand them, and in your case, understand both sides of yourself. It is either that, or go mad, and I hardly think madness suits you."
Asellus released the papers, placing them face down upon the table.
"There you have it. You have forty-six years of memories now, Blue." She informed him. "Half are yours, and half are his. They start at different places and lead in different directions.
Blue toyed with the medallion about his neck for a moment, tracing the letters on the back with one finger. He had fit the half Rouge had worn into his own half at the end of the duel without truly making note of the inscription; too many winds had borne the screams of his people to him at the time. Since then, he'd had ample opportunity to turn the words over in his mind, but had never fit them with meaning.
Confutatis maledictis flammis acribus addictis....
Blue raised his head and let the medallion fall back to his chest, straightening regally to meet the half-mystic's eyes with perfectly clear pools of sapphire.
"Thank you." He enunciated every word clearly, without the faintest ghost of an echo behind them. With that, he disappeared behind the screen beside one wall to trade his nightshirt for his usual robes, simultaneously tapping into the ambient magicks of the air to shape a gate.
"Wait!" Asellus sputtered, Blue's earlier confusion seemingly transferred to her. "Where are you going?"
He completed the spell before answering, holding the portal open with an ease mages twice his elder would have envied. His gaze was as unsettling as it was cleared. Nonetheless, she was reassured by the faint smile he gave her, if not by his words.
"Back to Hell."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hell is as I remember it in my mind, not as my soul remembers it in my dreams. It is an exceptionally beautiful mask. The brilliant light and shimmering colors are woven to seduce and beguile. They are meant to draw you under before you realize the taint beneath the perfect surface. Scratch softly at that gilded veneer and it flakes like gold plating, revealing the true pulse of Hell. Hell is many things to many people. To me, it is this lie of the perfection I crave. I make my way through the realm of the damned for the second time, this time uncontested. Hell is empty, as it was when I brought down its Lord. I reach the stairwell at the center and hesitate; something has hooked my core as it did the day I fought my brother. It tugs at my heartstrings and at every cell of my body: Come to me. If I am to see this through, I must obey it, but I will do so at my own pace. Power sings about me with every footfall. Each step I ascend thrums quietly as my feet touch the surface. As I reach the summit, I realize what it is drawing me forward, and the fear bleeds out of me along with the unexpected. I raise my eyes to the Egg of Lilith, the Heart of Hell, and the faces of those who fought beside me pan across my memory. This time, I am alone.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Blue stood upon the platform, eerily motionless in the shadow of the throbbing mass of darkness hovering above him.
Not yet. You come too soon, Last Magician.
Three years ago, Blue had seen the creature of his recent nightmares emerge from the egg. Three years before, he had driven it back, and thought it destroyed. The surface of the egg boiled and frothed, a violent storm curling across its surface. Three years before, the egg had hatched. This time, Blue raised both arms to the tempest, and called it by Name.
A thousand bells opened their throats and screamed. The turmoil sweeping the surface of the egg curled downward, dancing about Blue with the raw abrasion of an open wound. The force between them tightened, dragging the egg toward him, and without hesitation, he rose to meet it. Darkness surged through his senses as he passed the surface, until the only sensation he recognized was his own will drawing the cord within him taut.
The darkness is heavy, and scented of copper and sulfur.
Focusing all of his attention on that unseen connection, Blue willed himself forward.
The column of light where I stand is chill and pitiless, as it was at my graduation.
Blue felt the line he followed go slack, and the shadow lifted from his eyes.
I wait for the words now as I did then, my hands stained with blood I cannot remember shedding.
The creature at the heart of the egg was nothing like the thing of Blue's dreams. Ragged tendrils of flesh linked it to outer reaches of the egg, anchoring it securely within the farce of a womb. Veins of ichor were visible beneath transparent skin stretched across a framework of burning bones, and two milky, sightless eyes were set in an otherwise featureless face. The bulbous orbs turned toward Blue, oozing a viscous fluid that hissed and bubbled before dropping out of sight beneath the surface of the egg. The eyes speared him through the soul, immobilizing him with a single glance, and the tremor that wracked the creature's half-formed frame told him that his own eyes had the effect upon it.
"You have come too early, Last Magician."
Blue's rage beat about the reaches of his mind, betrayed only by the slightest furrow in the center of his brow.
"I am not so stupid to ignore the waking of Hell."
The sodden, sucking rattle the demon emitted might have been laughter in fully formed lungs.
"Of course not. Hell is yours."
"I want no part of it." Blue growled. "I want to sleep in peace."
The embryo's eyes watered with acid; the throb of the ichor through its veins quickened as it made a squelching sound of disgust.
"What is your life but an endless quest for gifts, Last Magician? Kill the Kylin, and you are Space Lord. Kill the Master of Time, and you are the Time Lord. Kill the King of Hell, and you are Hell's Lord."
Blue had scarcely parted his lips to voice a denial when the creature cut him off.
"Your people groomed you for this, Last Magician. They sent you to gather unmatched power by any means possible, and even had you not paved that path in blood, a final task was set to seal the bargain: you were to kill your other half. Whether you killed your brother, or killed yourself is irrelevant. Either is a mortal sin; you are the legitimate prey of Hell. I am the darkness behind your eyes, Brother. Let me in, or let me go."
"Let go." A third voice crystallized in the center of Blue's thoughts before the creature's words could saturate them too deeply.
"I can't..." Blue mouthed frantically, terrified that he had fallen beyond any glimpse of understanding. "I don't... This isn't..." A long, shuddering sob escaped him, wracking the length of him from head to toe. "Rouge, help me."
"Let go," repeated the fallen twin urgently. "Blue, I know your entire life was built around a quest for power. Mine was, too. This time you have to let it go, or that thing will devour us both." Blue shivered, gaze still captured by the living heart of Hell's rebirth.
"Blue!" the voice strained with desperation. "Please! You haven't truly tapped the power we possess because you keep half of it in chains. Please, let go!"
The darkness roared in on Blue again, the churning surface of the egg surging about him in a turbulent cloud. The unseen thread that had led him to the demon tightened about his throat, stifling his breath.
"Trust me!" Rouge pleaded, the words little more than a strangled whisper. Blue felt the essence ebbing out of him faster than he could stop it; his eyes were half-lidded, both his hands were fastened helplessly on the cord at his neck, attempting to prevent it from crushing his windpipe. As if in a dream, he saw the image of his twin standing between himself and the creature, cords similar to those that held the demon within the egg wound about him. In that instant, he saw the nerves binding the both of them in Hell, and he saw that the brainstem feeding them all was in his hands.
Blue let go. He let go of everything he knew about himself, past, present, and future. Everything he had been holding back since the day he faced his twin pinwheeled outward from the four corners of his mind, rushing forward to fill a void he hadn't realized was there. Blue felt every nerve in his body ache with release, and without seeing, he realized that the emptiness in the eyes of his reflection was gone. With that realization, a piercing, ear-splitting trill stabbed through the putrid haze, and the turgid mass surrounding Blue melted from him like dew evaporating at dawn. The splintering keen continued to rend the air, its volume and pitch increasing to octaves beyond the human ear's capacity for sound.
The demon was screaming. As the hurricane in Blue's mind settled, the line between himself and the creature faded into focus, one of his hands closed firmly about it. Whatever strength the thing had been bleeding from him was cut off; he could feel the backlash building within him at an alarming crescendo. The embryo was thrashing in agony, snapping the additional supports that linked it to the egg.
"I never killed my brother." Blue growled, twisting the cord as the abomination at the opposite end writhed and shrieked. "I brought him home."
The egg shattered, fragments erupting in a nova of shell and acid. The whole of Hell trembled at its foundations as the glamour wrapped around it fell away into shards and filth. Blue stared at the broken mass of bones and flesh at his feet and scowled; no one but himself would have believed that the formless, quivering bundle before him had once been a threat. With a snarl of disgust, he ripped the medallion from his neck, flung it upon the remains of his nightmares, and turned his back upon the realm of the damned for the second time.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Nusakan never mentioned the change in Blue, for which the magician was infinitely grateful. He knew without the aid of his reflection that his amber hair was streaked with silver, and that his eyes were amethysts laden with twice the depth of memories his age implied. He knew he displayed habits and quirks of character that were foreign to what he had been before, although they seemed as much a part of him now as his skin. He closed his eyes, massaging his temples with one hand, and exhaled, taking up a quill to pen a letter to Silence in response to the lengthy discourse the mystic had written days before.
"I do not truly know who I am now. I don't understand what I am. I do understand that power has a price, and a responsibility linked to that price. I understand that demons are lost in the depths of Hell without the aid of a fallen angel, and I understand that denying half oneself will hold one back. If one does not know whom one is, one leaves an opening for others to define one according to their needs. In the end, I met my own eyes and found myself wanting until I threw wide the windows of my soul... And looked through.
Flammis acribus addictis
Voca me cum benedictis.
Oro supplex et acclinis
Cor contritum quasi cinis
Gere curam mei finis.
When the damned are condemned to sharp flames, call me with the blessed.
I kneel in supplication, my heart contrite as ashes.
Take my end into your care.
Alison Plath's Fanfiction