We’ve been together since the day we were born. Before that, even. No matter what, if I reached out, your hand would be there to grasp mine in turn …
There is a certain spot in the desert where rain never falls, even when the scattered clouds come to all other places; the locals call it the Mouth of Sheol and avoid even mentioning it. If you trick one into looking in its direction, they go pale and turn away as soon as possible. Most don’t even bother to pretend: they just close their eyes and the subject abruptly changes. Even if it was nothing serious to begin with. You learn to pick up the cues–and the clues–and piece them together as best as you can. No one wants to say whether or not they’ve seen Nick, but you’re willing to bet everything you’ve got that he’s been through. You saw the way the man at the gate looked at you when you arrived: pale and then red, angry and afraid, like he’d seen a ghost. Or worse. You know there are more frightening things in this world and the next. You’ll do whatever you can to push through.
Nick’s waiting. You’ve kept him long enough.
The last letter came shortly before Christmas. There had been a photo of Nick, browned from the sun and grinning like an idiot. His hair was bleached nearly white from the sun, white as the teeth in his smile. Anna had been unable to keep from smiling back.
“I think I’m on to something,” Nick wrote. There were smudges of dirt and fingerprints all along the side of the letter from clumsy handling. “They’re beginning to open up to me. I’ve heard all sorts of amazing things, and I’m writing them all done so I don’t forget anything. When I see you again, I’ll tell you all about it. I won’t now, though, because I need something to say when you pick me up.
“I miss you. I’ll be home soon, I promise.”
There’d been nothing else. If he’d been upset at the time, or worried, nothing had come through in the letters. She remembered folding that note back up around the smiling photograph and tucking it away, where she kept all his other letters. In her head, she wrote her reply: “You’re just pretending, aren’t you? I bet you’re actually in civilization and doctoring these pictures before you send them to me. You’d better come home soon. We all miss you, not just me.”
When the next two months passed without any sort of update, that was when Anna began to worry.
I heard a story, once: that if twins are a boy and a girl, and if they look alike, they’re reincarnated lovers who died together. Isn’t that stupid? I don’t think a lover would understand what I feel. What you feel. It goes deeper than that, when you’ve shared everything of your life from the very instant it began. Maybe you were the one who told me this. You probably did. You probably made a face and laughed, too; you always laughed, no matter what. I miss that sound. I’m starting to forget what it sounded like.
I wonder if you’re laughing now?
You didn’t bother to wait. No one really thought anything was wrong: Nick had missed a letter, so what? He was very far away, chasing stories again for his next book. Perhaps he had gotten involved in the actual writing phase, and had no time to send letters back home. He was that sort of person, Anna, stop worrying. You need to give him the distance to be his own person. He did that for you, didn’t he? Let him be.
They don’t know, though: you dream of a hot, hot desert where you’ve never set foot before, and a city half-buried in the sand. You dream of tall black gates thrusting out of the horizon, shimmering in the hot air, and the ache in your feet and the burn upon your back as you trudge towards them–and you wake knowing that these are things that never happened to you, but Nick. There is a message in these dreams, where there was none in his letter. You know him better than anyone, and you know when he’s calling for you.
So you pack up and you go, never looking back. With your shield or upon it, as the phrase goes: with Nick or you’ll stay wherever he’s gone, because that’s where you’re meant to be.
You hear this story somewhere along the way: you’re not quite sure if you dreamed it (is Nick keeping his promise? he said he’d tell you things when you came to pick him up, after all) or if someone murmured it in your ear as you sat and stared out the plane window, out into the vast empty spaces of sky and brown earth far below. The story goes like this: that Heaven was once a country, as was Hell, which in the tongues of before was called Paradise and Sheol. They bordered the countries of man, so one could easily pass between the gates of one into the other, and again into the other. And the people moved because they had their freedom, amongst the angels and the devils. Things were not perfect, perhaps, but the world was very young and much more forgiving. Rules were still malleable new things, after all.
And then one day, a man from Sheol saw a woman from Paradise and was stricken by love. He watched her with eyes that could see nothing else, hungry and wanting, but she never once looked his way. He did try, in his own way, to court her–but he was clumsy and she never once noticed him, though her friends pointed and laughed at his foolishness. How could a creature of Sheol ever even dare to hope to lay his hand upon an angel of Paradise? It was madness, and it was foolish, and the sooner he realized this, the better for them all.
Perhaps this was true. But he looked at the gleam of her wings in the sunlight and the shine of it in her hair, and eventually that desire drove him mad. Thus came the time when, in the full light of day, he came forward and caught her wrist and dragged her with him, through the white clean streets of Paradise where those who did not realize what was happening could only look on in surprise, through the gray streets of human cities where the fleeing pair were sheltered for the sake of a handful of silver coins, down into the black dirty streets of Sheol. And though she wept, he would not let her go, touching her shining face and hair and wings until they were dulled under his hand.
Here there are other ways to continue the story: perhaps, away from the unforgiving scouring light of Paradise, he convinced her to accept his courtship. Perhaps she refused him until the end, afraid and lost and lonely. The only thing that remains the same is that she died eventually, swallowed up in the darkness until she was no longer the lovely thing that he had fallen in love with, and when she was completely tarnished, he looked upon her and saw nothing there. So without a second thought she was discarded and died from grieving. And from that there came such an outcry, the people of Paradise furious at the loss of one of their own, and so they rose up and cut the ties that existed between their country and that of man for sheltering the flight of the criminal, and that of Sheol. At the end, it was simply the King of Paradise and the Queen of Sheol, who stood facing each other across the closed gates of their kingdom.
“His crime was foolishness,” the Queen said, and around her feet creatures nodded and clacked their jaws.
“His crime was disrespect,” the King said, and the clouds and wind whispered their own agreement with his words. “He stepped out of place. He only wanted something lovely, and when she no longer was, by his own doing, she was discarded. The life of an angel is precious.”
“Life is life,” said the Queen. “And it does not matter whether you are angel or demon. Your life is not worth more than mine, simply by that fact.”
“But it is,” said the King. “And you and yours will no longer be able to look upon me and mine. The gate is closed. We will go our own way, now.”
And they were: the gates of pearl and silver slamming shut as Paradise rose, up and up and up, until it became Heaven. And the King had one last curse: that Sheol would sink deep, deep into the earth, swallowed by the burning sands and hot winds until it was lost from sight, and only the tallest of the gate’s spires could still be visible in the world of man, until it became Hell. Only the very bravest and the most foolish would be able to cross those borderlands, where one place became another entirely.
And the Queen stood there watching him the entire time, with her dark fathomless eyes, and she had a curse of her own to speak, before Paradise could vanish completely: that one day, when the gates of her city were opened to man again, the King would be called forth to stand with her, and then he in turn would be judged, as he had judged her, and punishment would fall upon him in turn. And she turned to her city, falling into darkness, and watched the light fade.
You wake–were you dreaming?–and the plane is starting to land. You look out at the hot barren expanse of the desert, the clean lines of empty sand unbroken to the horizon and beyond, and wonder about what kingdoms lie forgotten beneath.
Nick, Nick, I miss your stories. Did you tell me that one, about the King and the Queen? Do you know what happened to the man who kidnapped the woman? Was it really a kidnapping? Was there any more to it than what you said before? You’re the one who always wanted to find out how many different ways people could tell the same legend. Is that what you were looking for, in this place?
Did you find it?
There was a saying amongst the elders: only fools who are too certain of themselves dare to seek out the gates. The strange girl who arrived with the end of the brief rains seemed to be a perfect embodiment of that belief. Without even a pretense at fear or respect, she said, “There was a man living here. He was my brother. Where did he go?”
They did not answer her that day, nor the next, when she came again. There was a light in her eyes that none dared to challenge, but one also that no one dared to meet yet.
At night, the wind howled through the sand dunes and rattled against the walls of their tents and huts, and the girl emerged every morning to ask the question again: where did my brother go?
I am still dreaming about you, Nick. They’re clearer, now, than they were at home. Is it because I’m closer? Am I on the right track? Sometimes I think I hear your voice, but if I try too hard to hear what it’s saying, it fades away into white noise. But I can see you now, walking under the heat of the sky to a city that stands tall and dark in the distance. Did you ever make it inside?
Will you leave them open for me?
As the days drag by, what you begin to dream is that there is another story, hidden between the lines of the legend that separated Sheol and Paradise from the world of humans. You see the Queen in her long dark dress of shadows and cobwebs, sad and lovely in her death, looking up into a sky that can only burn sooty orange, and of starlight spilling into a bedroom where the King sleeps alone. Between the two scenes, flickering in and out of focus, Nick is there and his mouth is moving, but you can’t understand anything.
So you wait and you ask questions, and finally, there comes a day where they tell you: your brother went that way, to the west, where the sun turns the color of blood as it sets. He went to chase a story, and what he found, no one knows. He has not yet returned. No one will meet your eyes when they tell this; they know already what you plan on doing. They don’t try to reassure you that it will be safe; you don’t try to tell them that you’re doing anything like that. In the morning, you will be gone.
Half an hour after sunrise and the desert was already baking hot. Sweat gathered at the nape of her neck and dried, salty and uncomfortable. Sand shifted and whispered under her feet, and Anna’s thighs ached from the effort of walking through it. Against her hip, the water canteen bounced with the slow rhythm of her walk. The horizon line was a glittery shimmering blue, and she continued walking towards it.
To the west, under the bleeding sun, she’d been told, that was where anyone foolish enough (brave enough) could come upon the Mouth of Sheol, and the parts of the city that remained behind when the country sank into the earth, all empty streets and crumbling buildings. There was no map and no measured distance; one simply kept walking until one found it. And those who did, if they did not turn around immediately and leave the sight behind, would never be seen again.
Anna kept walking. Each minute felt like an hour, the weight of her own drying sweat making her feet sink deeper and deeper into the sand. Her throat ached, but the canteen she carried felt too light already, so she encouraged herself: one more step, ten more steps, a hundred more–then she could drink.
She crested a sand dune and beheld a city.
It gleamed jet-black in the sun, bright as polished onyx. Her exhaustion and thirst forgotten, she began to run, half-flinging herself down the slope towards the strange buildings–and, more importantly, the gates that lay on the far side, half-buried in the sand but still taller than any other building standing. She ran with her heart in her throat and the wind roaring in her ears, slipping once and going into a freefall tumble that brought her to the bottom of the dune. Immediately Anna clawed herself back to her feet, throwing herself back into a stumbling run through the streets of the city. The gates loomed tall in the distance, taunting, and she could almost convince herself that she could see someone standing on the other side, beckoning her in.
Anna hit the gates with a thud that felt like it jarred every bone in her body and slumped against them, half doubled over and panting. Her vision blurred and trembled for a moment, and she found herself fascinated with the sight of sweat dripping from her chin, sparkling in the sun before it landed in the sand and sank in. She closed her eyes and fumbled for her canteen, taking a precious sip of water before she set to the task of examining the gates. The top seemed to thrust halfway into the sky, far, far taller than she had guessed from the top of the dune. It appeared to be made of a glass-smooth material, oddly cool to the touch. Daringly, she wrapped her hands around one of the spokes and looked up.
“Nick!” she shouted. The sand carried the echoes back to her: Nick, nick, nick … and she licked salt from her lips before leaning into the gate with all her weight, sliding an arm through the spokes and stretching it out as far as it would go. She could fit her shoulder through without much effort, but it was too narrow for the rest of her to fit through. Anna closed her eyes and pushed as hard as she could, fingers groping blindly in the air.
“Please,” she hissed through her teeth. “Nick, c’mon, please.”
Her fingers touched something that curled around them.
You remember this part of the story, now: that the man from Sheol who’d loved the woman from Paradise was, in turn, set adrift by the decline and death of the one he’d so admired and loved. In his grief, he went to his Queen and knelt by her feet, trembling in the cold of her presence.
“My Queen,” he said, “I submit myself to you.”
She touched his head with her hand, her long claws upon the back of his neck, and she said, “It is because of you we have fallen so low, that not even the light of the desert sun reaches us. We can no longer freely move into the countries of humans, let alone those of Paradise. What would be fitting enough punishment?”
“Whatever you wish, my Queen.”
“There will be revenge for us one day,” she murmured. “At the end of things, he will stand before me.”
“As you say, my Queen.”
“I bid you go, then.” She turned her nails into his skin until they cut and there was blood; she curled her fingertips through it, then painted symbols upon his forehead. “Wander this world and remember everything and nothing. Your crime was selfishness, so you will walk without anyone else to mark your footsteps until there is no longer ground for you to walk upon. Your crime was impulse, so in this way you will be forced to think and consider, forever on end, until the time comes when the King of Paradise stands before me and hears his judgment.”
Away he went, then, weeping into the wastelands that led eventually to the human world, and there he still walks to this day, unable to stop, powerless to do anything but watch until the day his Queen calls him home. You know this part of the story now, as clearly as if you’d always known, and it goes through you like a physical shock; you can distantly feel yourself falling to your knees, and there is a voice that says your name.
We’ve always been together, even when we’re apart. No matter how far away you were, I always knew exactly where you were. It’s because we’re twins, right? More than anyone else, even people who said they were close, we’ve always been closer than anyone. I know you’d come for me if I needed you, just like I came looking for you–
When did that stop?
Anna opened her eyes.
The world was dark around her, the air hot and dry. Her limbs felt heavy, but eventually she forced them to move, pushing herself up to a seated position. In the distance there was a flickering warm point of light–a campfire, she thought, and dragged herself to her feet, stumbling towards it.
Nick sat next to the fire, prodding at the coals with a long stick. She was less surprised to see him than she expected. He didn’t look up when she sat down across from him, but he said, “Anna, I’m sorry.”
“Jerk,” she said. “I worried about you.”
His shoulders slumped a tiny bit. “I know,” he said. He tapped a hand against his chest. “I could tell.”
Anna hugged her knees to her chest, watching the fire rather than him. “What’s going to happen?”
“You’ll wake up for real,” he said. “And if you still want to go through the gates, they’ll open for you. After that …” He shrugged; she saw the movement from the corner of one eye. The fire crackled in the pauses between his words. “I don’t know. Maybe you’ll make it through to the other side. Anna–”
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said. “Of course I’m coming.”
She glanced up to look at him as he lifted his head. His face was worn and tired–there were dark circles under his eyes and his cheekbones were more stark than she could ever remember them being–but he still smiled, a small bubble of a laugh rising from somewhere deep in his thin chest. “I knew that,” he said, and then, “Anna, don’t be disappointed, whatever you see. No matter what, we’re still together, right?” He reached out with his free hand across the fire, and Anna caught it immediately, squeezing. She wondered if she should cry, but her eyes remained stubbornly dry.
“You can’t get rid of me now,” she said. “Always together, we’ve already promised that.”
Anna woke. She was on her feet in front of the gates, and a terrible wind had struck up, whipping the sand around her into a frenzy. She threw an arm up to shield her eyes, squinting hard against the force of it, and saw that the gates before her were opening, just as Nick had promised. In the sands behind the gates, a set of stairs were sinking into existence, leading downwards into a darkness that appeared to have no end. Over the shriek of the wind were other voices, howling things in languages that had died long before before the birth of humans. Beneath her feet, the Mouth of Sheol gaped open and hungry.
Without looking back, Anna began to walk.
You can hear things skittering all around you the deeper you descend into the earth. The walls are still made of sand, and somewhere along the way, as you headed into total darkness, torches began to appear. You try not to look too closely at them: their light is green and sickly, and from the corner of your eye you can see that the holders are smiling. You can guess enough to know you don’t want any sort of confirmation. It doesn’t mean anything, anyway. There’s only one thing you’re here for. Without taking your eyes from the path ahead of you, you continue walking. It may take hours, days, weeks, but you will not stop. Not unless you’ve reached the end of your path.
At last there came an end to the stairs. Another pair of gates stood at the end, and through their bars, Anna could see a landscape that was twisted and black, as full as the desert above was empty. Green firelight, like the torches that had guided her, clashed with the more familiar cherry-red and orange of regular fires, all of which cast twisting moving shadows across the ground. She hesitated for only a moment, then walked up to the gate, which was held shut by a giant padlock, shaped like a three-headed crucified skeleton. Tatters of cloth and flesh still hang from its yellow-stained bones. A heavy pendant hung around the point where the three bowed necks became one, and in the center of that was an open eye that had no color–just a thin black circle dotted with a shining pupil. It blinked at her approach.
She stopped. She said, “I’m here to look for my brother.”
The eye blinked again, then slid shut.
The middle head of the skeleton lifted up. Two pinpoints of blue light appeared deep within those hollow sockets and fixed on her. “Human child of the living world,” it said. “This is no place for one as yourself.”
The skull on the left lifted up. The light in its eye sockets was yellow. It said, “You will find nothing but disaster here. All those who come to this place cannot expect to life.”
The skull on the right lifted up. The light in its eye sockets was green. It said, “Only by grace of the Queen may this gate open. You must turn back.”
Anna felt her stomach knot, but refused to move. “I’m not leaving until I find my brother,” she said. “Nicholas Smithword, twenty-five years old. My twin brother.”
“What use are the names of the living?” asked the middle skull. “You will only find grief.”
“The living cannot enter unchanged,” whispered the left skull. “We are charged to keep the gates closed. Only the Queen may give the command.”
“If your brother is here, you will see him at the end of your own natural life,” cackled the right skull. Its jaw swung loosely for a moment, as if to widen its horrible grin. “All those with arrogance like yours will come to Sheol eventually. Have patience, human child of the living world. You’ll see him in time.”
“I’m not leaving,” said Anna. “If I have to break your stupid bones, I’ll make it through. I’m going to find him, and we’re going to leave.”
The eye on the pendant opened, and the three heads of the skeleton clattered forward, like marionettes on cut strings. It turned to look at her, and its gaze felt like being stripped completely bare, past the trappings of clothes and flesh by a million tiny red-hot claws. Anna’s knees buckled for a moment, but she managed to stay standing, lifting her chin a little. Something on the other side of the gate began to laugh, high and hysterical, before the sound trailed off into a keening wail, not unlike a cat in its death throes. Still Anna refused to turn away, clenching her hands into fists by her side, digging her nails into her palms to keep some measure of focus.
Two deep clicks sounded to either side of her. The skeleton jerked and twisted, its long limbs flailing as it began to split in half right down the center of its distorted body. Bits of something dark and flaky drifted from its body as the gates began to roll aside, opening just wide enough for someone to walk through. Anna stepped over the gate’s threshold and was immediately struck with the stinking smell of smoke and sulphur, carried on a hot and moist wind. It made her stomach roll and for a moment she gagged, unable to do anything but double over, swallowing back bile for a few minutes. When that finally passed, she straightened and wiped her hand across her mouth and started forward. There was no path now, and things alternately crunched or squished beneath her feet. She refused to look, walking.
Voices began to call as she walked: some that she recognized and more that she did not. All of them knew her name, calling secrets and taunts alike at her. She could see things writhing and moving in the strange light, and once something brushed against the back of her knees, slithery and wet, startling her into a buck forward before she could regain her balance. She passed a building-high object where things cackled and cajoled in turn, all limned by the green light; when she glanced at the ground for just a moment, she could see shadows with faces leering back at her. At once, unnerved, she broke into a trot until she’d left the structure behind her.
It was hard to say how long she’d been walking before she became aware of someone moving beside her. She didn’t slow down, nor did she look, but she said, “Who are you?”
There was no answer. Finally, she risked a glance and found a human-shaped and -sized shadow at her side, utterly featureless. Surprised, she stopped, and the shadow did as well. It turned to her, and she saw a small white spark in its chest, around where a human’s heart would beat. It gestured at her for a moment, fingerless hands fluttering gracelessly, before it turned and gestured. Anna followed the line of its arm and saw a tall, tall castle where there she would have sworn nothing stood a moment before. The lines were slanted outwards, as if though the castle had been violently thrust out of the ground, and even from the distance she could see things moving through the walls and in the windows.
“Is that where I’ll find the Queen?” she said. “Is that where Nick is?”
The shadow began to fade. As she watched, the human shape melted away completely, until only the white spark was left. For a moment she saw her own face in that tiny light, and then it was gone as well. Behind her, over the continued din, something giggled hysterically before falling abruptly silent. Anna squared her shoulders and started to walk again, hugging at her elbows now as she did.
One step, two, three–after ten, the world blurred around her in a disorienting spiral, and she found herself in a long dark hallway, with black marble clicking under her feet. She stopped for a moment, shocked, turning in a circle. The wall to her left was simply a long window, which looked out onto the landscape she’d been walking in moments before; to her right were a series of paintings, each framed in alternating ebony and bone. In one, a man all in black and gray and red bent a woman in white and blue and yellow in his arms; her arms spread open wide and her shadow upon the ground stretched outwards like the graceful sweep of wings. In another, a bone-pale woman whose face was half hidden in shadows looked out, holding a delicate lace-edged fan with a rotting hand.
Anna began to walk again, slowly. At the end of the hallway, before a set of elaborate double doors, she found the painting she had been looking for: a person who stood stood in profile on the edge of a great and terrible pit, with the city-country-world of Sheol twisting inside. Some phantom breeze had caught his clothes and hair up into disorganized fluttering, and glittering there around his neck, barely visible, was the cats’-eye jade that Anna had given him for their twentieth birthday. The matching one lay heavy on her breast under her shirt.
“Nick,” she said softly.
The doors opened.
We’ve always been together …
You walk into the throne room of the Queen of Sheol, and now you are not afraid. Unlike every other part of this underground kingdom, the light here is faint and colorless; this is a room of monochromes. The deep plush black carpet whispers under your feet, but it’s silent here, especially compared to the cacophony outside. Without faltering you make your way up to the throne itself, knowing you are being watched, and not just by the Queen herself. With a grace you have never known before today, you sink down onto one knee before her and keep your head bowed.
“How far you’ve come, human child of the living world,” says the Queen of Sheol. Her voice is whisper-soft and fills the room with its echoes. “What do you seek from a place like this?”
You close your eyes. You breathe slowly and listen to your heartbeat in your ears.
“I’ve come looking for my brother,” you say. “I know he’s come this way.”
She is silent, but things move and shift and speak to each other in voices without sound. You can feel them more than hear them, but it all goes silent and still when the Queen speaks again. “And if I say that he has not come?”
“I wouldn’t believe you,” you say, and the murmur that buzzes at the back of your skull rises to a piercing, aching pressure. It drives your head down lower, until you’re nearly bellydown on the carpet. You lock your elbows and think about your brother’s smile in the last photo he sent, clear in the sunlight. While it does not save you, it is something to focus on when your skull feels as if it might split.
The Queen speaks again, and her voice immediately breaks the weight on your shoulders: “And what would you do, if I did not bring him to you?”
You stare at the carpet, a hairsbreadth from your nose. “I would go to him,” you say. “We’re supposed to be together. If he’s going to leave, then I’ll follow. I don’t care what I have to do, but let me see him. Please.”
This time, the silence is just silence. Everything is looking at the Queen except for you, bowed down as you are. Your arms are beginning to ache, but you can’t let yourself fall. Not now. Not yet.
“He said the same thing,” the Queen whispers at last. “When the positions were reversed.”
Before you can stop yourself, your head snaps up. You stare at the Queen of Sheol, wreathed in shadows and mist, whose pale face floats like the full moon high above you. Something is starting to twist in your chest, like someone reached inside and has taken hold of your heart, twisting it in slow steady degrees. Your arms finally give out and send you crashing to your elbows, flat on your belly otherwise, and you stare.
“He begged.” The Queen lifts a hand and traces in the air with a finger that is completely bone, white as the skin of her face. It leaves afterimages with its movement and the symbols she draws are just borderline familiar. “He pleaded. ‘We’re supposed to be together,’ exactly. All the way to Sheol Gate, with your name as his banner and his shield. Just as you did.”
Your lips move. It must be your brother’s name you say, but you can’t tell yourself.
“But there are prices, and there are balances.” Though the Queen’s face is impassive, you think that perhaps something not unlike sympathy moves through those dark, dark eyes. “When one steps into another world, one changes. You’re not the same person you were before. You’re closer to who you used to be, instead.”
Words rise to your lips, unbidden: “I was changed the moment he entered Sheol.”
For some reason, that makes the Queen’s face change: her dark lips twist upwards in a parody of a smile. “Of course,” she says. “Because you’ve always been together.”
“Let me see him,” you say, and now you’re begging and your pride was left behind long ago, so all you have is this, now. “Please, I–”
“Anna,” your brother says from behind you. You turn to look.
We were always, always together, weren’t we? My first memory is of you. Inseparable, even when there was distance between us. If I reached out my hand, yours would be there for me to catch hold of. No matter what.
The next part of the story goes: that the man who had raped the angel of Paradise eventually grew lonely again, through his many, many years of wandering. Though he was little more than a hungry ghost rattling throughout the world of man, once upon a time he’d been a demon of Sheol, with some measure of power to his name. A burdened is a burden lightened, so he gathered what little strength he had left to himself and wished.
He wished and for a short time, he was no longer alone in wandering the world.
But what is the worth of a punishment that has been invalidated?
“Nick,” Anna said. Her chest ached.
“Maybe next time,” Nick said. He was so faint now, translucent becoming transparent becoming nothing. He was smiling though, ducking his head on a laugh. “Next time, one of us won’t be stupid and go off alone like we always do.”
“No,” she said. “No, god, Nick, no–” Desperate, she clawed her way to her feet, running for him, her arms open. “Don’t–!”
For a moment her arms went around him; for a moment he was as solid as he’d ever been against her. For a moment he held her back, his hands warm against her back.
Then she fell forward onto her knees, the impact jolting through her entire body, her arms empty. She curled forward around herself, eyes wide and dry, panting and swallowing against the acid taste of sickness in her mouth. Deep inside of her, something felt raw and torn open, bleeding out.
“Go,” said the Queen of Sheol. “Go forth into the world and walk with your single set of footsteps. Remember everything and nothing, until the day the King of Paradise comes to me.”
Jerked upright like a puppet on a tight string, Anna struggled to her feet. Her stomach rolled. She took a mechanical step forward and then stopped, all the muscles in her body trembling. When she blinked, the world wavered before her eyes like a heat illusion.
“The way is clear,” said the Queen. “Go.”
We’re always together. Always.
So why, when I hold out my hand, does it remain empty … ?
You look out upon the desert, standing in the ruins of a city that once stood as the gateway to another country. The sun has set long ago, the bloody color fading away into the inky darkness of night. There are many, many empty miles that stretch ahead of you, and all the distance you have come thus far is nothing in comparison. Stumbling, hesitant on your legs as a newborn colt, you begin to move forward.
Overhead, a shooting star falls.
Close your eyes. Wish.