Somehow the idea shook me considerably, and I found myself imagining a funeral, my family, friends mourning, my parents repeating their chosen story again and again.
War had occupied my mind enough that I had never considered it before. What was happening in my old life, in my old world.
I thought at first that it served them right. It served my parents right for playing with my life to have to deal with the guilt. But then there was everyone else. Izzy, my friends, my teachers, everyone I’d met who would never quite be the same again.
And they had meant to save me, hadn’t they? They were scared, and I was in danger and they had wanted so badly for me to survive. It hurt to admit it to myself, but…they didn’t deserve it either.
I wondered briefly if I should try calling again, but quickly dismissed the thought. If Izzy picked up, and thought I was dead…
It was better for me to let it be.
We eventually reached a huge castle looming over the countryside, and as we approached a series of workers came to collect our horses and take them to the stables.
We were led to our rooms, and Myrrh managed to draw me another bath in the blink of an eye.
I had a long soak before crawling into the huge four-poster bed in my room, cocooning myself in the sheets and shutting my eyes in the hopes of shutting out my racing thoughts.
When sleep came, it was fitful.
I was back on the battlefield. I looked down to see that I was in full armor again, and I was holding my swords so tightly that my knuckles were turning white.
I blinked, wondering what had happened.
I was alone.
I spun slowly, stunned by the silence and vast emptiness.
The ground was light gray, covered in frost, and without a single corpse. The sky was clouded over, an endless expanse of white that only let muffled light through.
And then I heard footsteps. Crunching on the frozen grass, slow and careful, before they speeded up. And then it wasn’t just one set of feet hitting the ground, it was many.
I spun, holding out my swords, searching desperately to place the noise.
I turned and was suddenly face-to-face with a Purgatorian soldier. I recognized him as my first kill, my initiation, as the sword in my right hand sliced cleanly through his neck.
And then there was another soldier. And another.
Out of nowhere, a line of soldiers had materialized, all waiting until I killed the one in front of them before stepping up to take the last one’s place.
I started to create a pile of bodies at my feet, blood seeping into the earth and onto my armored feet.
My throat started to tighten and I turned to run.
I ran until the bodies disappeared from my vision and kept running, gasping for breath as the armor weighed me down and slowed my footfalls.
When my lungs began to scream for air I stopped, panting.
I turned back and the next soldier was waiting, the line still stretched out behind him. I looked down and the bodies were still there.
I didn’t bother trying to run again. I was having a nightmare. I knew it.
I waited, dropping my swords, and raising my hands.
The soldier stood there.
“Come on, kill me!” I screamed, pushing him.
He stepped back up, speechless, motionless.
I watched in exasperation, panting, sweating.
The soldier bent down and I jumped back, startled, but was stunned even further when he held my sword up to me, offering me the hilt.
I took it warily, and he took the blade in his hand and held it to his neck.
I realized then that there was a silver chain around his neck. With my free hand I tugged at it, freeing a very familiar locket. I felt myself opening it.
“Not you. Come on.” I muttered, “I already did this once, why do I have to do it again?”
I looked up and the young soldier looked back at me, his face expressionless.
“Answer me!” I screamed, pulling the sword back to my side.
He touched his neck and his pale hand came away bloody. I’d cut him.
I dropped the sword and tried to stop the bleeding with my hands, my face contorting into shock and regret.
“God, I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
Blood started to spurt from between my fingers and I moved them, shocked, to see the cut had deepened.
The soldier held my hand and then let it go, showing me his palm.
Another wound had appeared where I’d touched him.
“How can I save you?” I half-screamed, “Tell me how to save you!”
He was holding his neck with one hand and held out my sword with the other.
I did it before he had the chance to realize I would.
More and more soldiers kept coming. Some I recognized, some I didn’t. I didn’t keep count. I knew that it would have driven me mad if I did.
I wanted to wake up. I tried to will myself to wake up. It wasn’t working.
The line kept stretching on, and my hand kept trying unsuccessfully to shorten it.
Eventually, the never-ending line of grey was interrupted by a head of jet-black hair.
He smiled at me, and I noticed that his right cheek had scarred horribly where I’d burned him with the arrowhead. He took the end of my sword and held it to his heart, still smiling.
“I didn’t kill you!” I insisted, “I let you live!”
He just stood there.
I ran him through.
Eversio stepped up next, holding his silver pocketwatch as if to see how long he’d been waiting before tucking it into a pocket with a gloved hand.
He smiled at me, his golden eyes twinkling, and held out a hand.
I took it, and with my free hand impaled him.
I didn’t let myself look at him as he fell. I might have been crying. I didn’t really know.
And then, Manara stepped in front of me.
The sword fell from my grasp, slipping from my bloodied fingers.
“No.” I said firmly, “I’ll wait here all night if I have to. No.”
I sat down and turned away from her and the rest of the line. I’d had more than enough for one disturbing dream.
To my surprise, Manara walked in front of me and sat down, crossing her legs.
“I told you,” I said, “I’m not stabbing or beheading you. I never did.”
“Love the hair, Z.”
I looked up, shocked that she was speaking.
“You can talk?”
“Um…duh. I’m only dumb in one sense of the word.”
I realized she was dressed like the first time I saw her. Hair down, skinny jeans and purple tank. Chewing gum.
“Sorry. Bad question.” I blinked, “I…I miss you. A lot.”
“Aww, I miss you too, Z.” she smiled, “Glad you finally listened about the hair, though.”
I laughed hoarsely.
“Yeah, I did.”
I looked at her, sitting across from me, and I tried to think of something to say. I’d already thought of millions of things in the days following her death, but none of them wanted to come to me.
“Wait…” I said suddenly, “Manara. What did you mean about the magic lessons?”
She laughed and almost looked a little embarrassed.
“Ask Charon. You’ll figure it out.”
“Eversio. Did you really bury him yourself?”
“Are you really going to waste your time with me with these boring questions?”
“Did…you know Eversio was the mole?”
Her smile faltered.
“No. Not at all. I barely knew him to begin with.”
“What does that mean?”
“We seemed like we should be together, so we were. He was…distant, at best. I don’t know why I let it go on so long. It was easy, it made sense…” she trailed off, “I never really….”
She stopped herself, smiling.
“Look at me, rambling. I should know by now the dead aren’t supposed to speak.”
Manara looked down and I looked with her to see blood spreading across her shirt.
I stumbled towards her, but I felt the world lurch, the dream beginning to loosen its grip on my mind.
I reached out, but my hands dissolved into nothingness a split-second before my eyes shot open.