"Turn to me with frozen lips,
Your hands are icy cold..."
I walked beside, behind and in front of the elf, within him, outside him, and he knew I was there, and he did not know of my presence. We walked in the darkness of the street, alley, more like it, for it reeked, and bold rats stopped to stare and bare their teeth at the elf before scampering away when in kicking range.
He wore patched, many-times mended clothing, tunic and trousers that were none too clean, tucked into worn boots. His hands were callused with hard labor and grime, his black skin rough and scaly with malnutrition. His hair was dirty and had been hacked off short with a knife, stopping short over hunched shoulders. Dull eyes stared out from a hollow, pinched face that still held the trademark elven looks.
A rusty sword in a plain scabbard hung proudly at his hip, yet it weighed down on him instead of providing him with the confidence such a weapon usually gave, pulling down, reminding him always of what he could have been, had he been born in different circumstances.
Commoner, and not a very unusual one. They start with bright ambitions, to rise high above their marked stations in life, and most are bitterly disappointed. Even if they are good enough to actually gain entry into a House as a soldier, or a magic-caster, or a cleric. This one was neither, but he had tried, like so many had tried.
I should know. I was there with them, watching as they fell, as they prayed and clutched at straws that turned out to be mere wisps of air and imagination, watched as they slowly gave in to the inevitable.
As I walked, I pulled at my flesh with a hook in my hand. I had long forgotten why I did this - I just do. Perhaps because the pain signifies what I am, because I am the embodiment of emotional suffering. Short, squat, pale, fat, ugly, naked, haggard, I continued to walk as I walked in uncountable other places at the same time, watched the agony of uncountable others.
He walked on, stumbling, his feet taking him down familiar paths, to a liquor store. I walked in with him and in him as he opened the door and let himself in, and put the coins that he had managed to scavenge and earn yesterday on the counter. "A drink," he said, and waited.
The storekeeper gave him an unemotional look, then counted the coins and took them, handing over a bottle of cheap wine. He snatched eagerly at the bottle, then shuffled out of the door, uncorking it as he went, and putting the bottle to his lips.
His gait became weaving as he drank, singing quietly to himself, sad, melancholy songs, making the mistake of taking one of the more public streets. He leant against a wall, and took another drink, fingers grasping for a moment at the crumbling rock for support, then pushed off it, staggered to the side, then wandered on.
Look at you, I whispered to him, Regret.
I watched the drow in the street, the commoners, and my fingers touched their hearts even as I followed him, and followed the others as well, watching and listening to their heart's sorrow, felt the dead gray of their minds, the older ones, and lingered at the edges of the younger ones, those in which my twin sister's flame still burned. Soon those would be given to me, as the rest were.
He veered at the last minute away from a group of soldiers with proud uniforms, one of them a noble warrior, hair cut to show his rank, like the rest of them. One of the ruling houses. The noble's cruel eyes fell on him, even as he attempted to sidle away from them, head down.
The noble stepped in front of him, and he automatically began to move around the obstacle, then he gasped as the noble punched him in the stomach. He staggered backwards, and the noble caught him with a upper cut in the jaw, then a sharp kick in the ribs. "Iblith," the noble mocked, even as he cradled the wine bottle to himself, curling up in the ground.
Feel the pain, the hopelessness. I whispered to him. Doesn't it hurt more than the blow?
The noble wasn't finished. As the soldiers laughed, he forcibly pulled the bottle from the commoner's hands, dangled it in the air as the commoner tried to reach for it, whimpering and pleading, then the noble smashed it on the ground. The soldiers laughed louder, and the noble joined in, then they continued on their way.
I was the only one who saw the commoner dip his fingers in the spreading red puddle of spilled wine, and I was the only one who witnessed the tears plough grubby streaks down his cheeks. Tears of denial, or hopelessness? Even he did not know, probably did not even know that he cried.
That could have been your blood, the red, I said to him, Don't you wish it were?
But he bowed his head, and his shoulders shook, only for a moment, a moment of apparent weakness, before he stood up again and walked on.
To a construction site, where the supervisor, a better dressed commoner, pointed with the whip towards the half-constructed archway.
Elf commoners, the unfortunate ones that have to do this sort of labor for work, are used than slaves for the more delicate constructions, for elven hands, even mistreated ones, are nimbler and quicker by far than goblin or such race's. And elves have an eye for angles and beauty, even those surrounded by darkness.
He squinted in the mage light, but moved to start with the small bricks that the arch would be made of, tiny, white bricks. He was early, hence there were fewer people to help him. The sword at his side hindered him, but he did not put it down even as he plastered and layered the bricks, carefully, for one mistake and he would be whipped to unconsciousness. Hours like this passed, slowly, and I watched him as I watched them all, goblin, dwarf, drow, minotaur, kobold, all of them.
Look at them, I told him, You were born higher than them, yet your life is not much different then theirs.
One minotaur, its muzzle flecked with the white hairs of age, finally fell under the weight of its load, squealing. Younger ones lifted the load off it and continued, others pulled the broken animal, now useless, away to one of the rubbish heaps far from any noble housing, where the eaters of the dead would make short work of him.
It was still alive as they dragged it past at the direction of a supervisor, its bloodshot animal eyes dull and resigned, as its animal mind registered and accepted what would happen. I looked out of them, and I looked at them.
Look at it, I told him, Do you wish that you were it? At least it was fed and housed when it still truly lived.
His eyes now drooped with weariness, yet he had to continue, or revoke his pay. His hands no longer blistered from such menial toil. His companions did not acknowledge each other, even when their eyes met. They were dead already, all of them - they just kept on going until their bodies died as well.
How old was he? I had walked with him for a few centuries, which I did not count. The passing of time did not matter to me, nor did it have much of a significance to me. With my hook I pulled a gobbet of flesh out of my palm, and watched the blood well up, bright red on pale skin, then to clot over and finally disappear as I healed again.
The arch finally was completed, and the work day ended. The creatures began to stream away - the slaves back to their pens, the drow commoners back to whatever niche they slept in, after collecting the few coins that were their pay.
Matted black hair fell over my face as I shook my head once for no reason and followed him, leading him at the same time. I dragged the hook along my cheek and neck, lacerating the skin. What I am hurts like this, doesn't it? Pain, dull pain, sharp pain, lingering and hardly ever healing, or only healing to leave a bitter remnant.
For him, he is so much of mine that what I am in him does not seem to hurt him any longer, or if it did, it was so much a part of him that he hardly ever registered it, as few people register that they have a tail bone. I passed a dry tongue over cracking lips, not tasting anything, nor feeling anything.
He crawled into a bolt hole of his, an abandoned building near the end of an alley, the doors and windows boarded over. He adjusted a few boards until they were large enough to admit him, then when he entered he fixed them back. I walked through the boards without resistance as I followed.
Look at this, I silently told him, Even those slaves sleep in warmer quarters.
The ground was dusty, and he sneezed as he walked through to the corner of the empty room where a nest of rags were, and he unbuckled his sword and removed his boots, and slept, cradling the sword to him. I sat down beside him, and dug my hook into my ankle, pulling out a vein that oddly did not bleed. It disappeared just as quickly, and as I passed my fingers over my ankle, it healed to be hurt again.
He no longer walked Dream's realms - too far gone now, he was - he wandered in Delirium's, the less pleasant sections of her realms. He tossed and turned and moaned in his sleep, if rest it could be called. There were no shadows in the room, for there were no shadows in the absence of light.
Eventually he woke due to the prompting of hunger, and he got up, rubbing his eyes, those lifeless orbs, red of infrared, as I saw in such sight and in all other sights. He hugged himself as his stomach growled, the acid eating at him, gastric pain, but his breath hissed through his teeth as he slowly pushed the pain away, so used to it now.
Hunger, you hunger, you, I spoke to him, Yes, you hunger for all you could not have had. Regret, still, you, regret.
He crept out of his bolt hole, buckling the sword back on, the sword that was a heavy memory of what he could have been. He had taken it from the body of a dead soldier he had found, that had been cut down running away from one of the inter-house wars.
He eased his bladder in another alley, then walked on to a tavern, where he ate a simple breakfast, hoarding his coins carefully, and then went to find another drink. It was what he seemed to live for now, though it did not make living worth it. In his ear I told him this in my scratchy voice, even if it did not register in his ears, but only in his mind.
Later he watched a child being kicked to death by a mage's familiars, two strange-shaped monsters that smelt of brimstone. He watched, but was unaffected by the horrible death. He had seen many of its like.
What had life to offer you? I had murmured this phrase to him before, and I did so again, and again he listened but did not listen.
Keeping away from soldiers this time as he drank his wine, ignoring the moans of the beggars, those too old or too sick to work for money. In a drow city, those like it would die quickly.
Look at them, I told him, You will be like them.
And he glanced at them, reaching in his pocket with the coins, but he walked on without helping. Eaters of the dead were already taking their fill from one old drow, who had not been dead when they started, but he glanced once and walked on.
He stopped once, outside a House compound, watching the soldiers train with their weapon master through the gaps in the fence.
Look at them, I told him, You were never good enough to be like them.
And as he watched, an old soldier, too old to be able to earn his upkeep by fighting decently, was dragged out and left in the street, stripped of armor and weapons, only wearing shirt and pants. Dead eyes met dead eyes as the soldier looked at him, then he walked on.
Look at him, I told him, Even if you had been good enough to be like them, you would have ended up like him.
He looked back once. The soldier was shambling away.
Look at yourself, I told him, There is no hope, not here, not now.
I knew what he had to do.
And this time, instead of walking back to the construction site, he returned to his bolt hole.
It hurts, doesn't it? I asked him, You can make it stop.
He drank the last of his bottle, and dropped it on the ground, where it shattered into hundreds of fragments of black glass. The scent of wine filled the air, and he turned around once, eyes closed, enjoying a private fantasy.
Soon even that, you would not remember. I told him, and he knew it to be true. Soon.
I am Despair, and I was in him now, a part of him. What's simple is true - I see all of you, touch all of you, at some part in your lives. I'm always there for the poor and the sorrowful, always there for those dying in the darkness, always there for those without hope, there for those whom Desire has forsaken.
What's simple is true...
I ran the hook over my flesh again, a furrow of red that I smeared on my cheek. The blood felt cold, not warm, and not icy cold, but a dead lack of warmth, sticky and dirty, blackening quickly then flaking off, like the lives of all creatures.
He drew the sword slowly, carefully, touching the rust, smelling the metallic scratchy scent of it, the metal not even holding any gleam of light any longer, even if he could see it in the lack of light. And he ran his hand over the sides of the blade and the hilt, and then pressed the blade to his cheek.
What's simple is true...
He propped the sword up, my hand guiding his, merging with his, his blade parallel to the ground, tip facing him at chest level, between two of the boards on a window, and he looked up around him for the last time.
Then he ran into the blade.
Blood spurted out, warm blood, a quick splatter of red flower-shapes on the boards and ground and wall, and also a black drip of it downwards that stained his shirt and trousers. As he crumpled to the ground, the weight of him pulling the sword free from its support, the red light in his eyes began to wane.
Blood, spreading like wine, like rich velvet.
I walked out through the boarded door before my sister came for him.
"That was short," Zaknafein commented. "And no Wulfgar."
"It was beginning to depress me," the author admitted. "As to Wulfgar, I read through the bits with him in 'The Silent Blade', and decided that I really didn't want to write about him. Oh, and thanks for the help as to a 'normal' commoner's life."
"Hardly very accurate, just passable," Zaknafein said critically. "You refused to put that part about..."
"Zaknafein, I said my writing was 'maturing'. That would really put it under 'degenerating'," the author said tartly.
"I thought you wished to have more authenticity in your work," Zaknafein said obliquely.
"Authenticity, yes, but not of that sort," the author said.
"I would think that any commoner elf still with his looks would have..."
"Okay already," the author said swiftly. "Question, please."
Zaknafein picked up the lyrics sheet of Spirit on the table, and leafed through it. "This song?"
The author glanced. "Yeah." She hesitated, then added sharply, "Don't sing! Don't sing!"
"I had no intention of doing so," Zaknafein responded dryly. "'What's Simple is true... I love you'?"
"I couldn't put that last bit after the words, could I?" the author stuck out her tongue. "There you go."
Zaknafein listened a little to the radio, which was now droning on about the US elections instead of playing classical music. "What is that?"
"Hmm?" The author corrected a spelling mistake, and glanced at the radio under her table. "Oh, that. Something political."
"No one's dying," Zaknafein said critically. "You call that politics?"
"Yeah well," the author smiled, "You see, the people vote for a president with um, ballot stuff, and they count the votes and the person with the most number of votes becomes a president."
"No one dies?" Zaknafein asked disbelievingly. "And commoners choose?
"No one dies and commoners choose," the author said firmly, "However when a person is president and he or she sleeps with someone or do something in that order with someone other than their wife or husband if they're married, he or she can stop being president. Or become something less. Actually, I've never understood what impeachment meant. Nor do I want to know."
Zaknafein listened patiently to this. Finally he said, "To be 'president' is to be the most powerful?"
"In that country, yes. Here, the president's more like a figurehead, and the Prime Minister has the power." The author said airily.
"The most powerful... and if he has other lovers he is punished?" Zaknafein sounded astonished.
"Something wrong 'bout it?" the author blinked.
"Malice had..." Zaknafein rubbed his nose. "I really do not understand humans. If he is the most powerful, like Matron Baenre, I would think that he would..."
"But he doesn't," the author said firmly, "That's democracy for you."
"What is wrong with having other lovers?" Zaknafein muttered.
"Well..." the author struggled a little to explain. "Um. You're supposed to be faithful to your wife, see. Or husband. And anyway, they won't like it."
"What if they do not mind?"
"That usually doesn't happen," the author said.
"Well, what if it does?" Zaknafein asked curiously.
"Um. Still liable to be charged with adultery," the author said slowly. "Punished by the law. I think."
"Humans." Zaknafein rolled his eyes. "As to your biblical commandments..."
"Don't say it! Don't say it!" the author said sharply.
"Very well," Zaknafein glanced at the computer. "So, do you mind informing me as to the point of writing these seven stories?"
"Um," the author attempted to think of a meaningful and deep reason, and failed miserably. "Well, they were fun to write. Most of them. And I was bored."
"Take up sword fighting," Zaknafein advised.
"Don't like physical exertion," the author said honestly. "And I think I'd manage to cut off my own head."
"...not much of a loss..." Zaknafein murmured.
"I heard that," the author told him. "Right then. More questions?"
"This thing with the hook..."
"She always does that. Either that or it's something eating her slowly," the author shuddered. "I chose hooks."
"Ah," Zaknafein said diplomatically. The radio began to play 'Rumba allegro', and he did a complicated step to it, boots tapping on the wooden floor.
"Didn't know you could dance," the author commented with interest.
Zaknafein paused and glanced at her. "That was not a dance... it just happened that the music had a good match to the rhythm."
"Then what was it?" The author asked. She was mildly surprised that Zaknafein was civil to her.
"It is a step that, combined with a certain sword move, should end up with you sweeping aside your opponent's defense and stabbing him through the heart." Zaknafein said, then paused, then added. "Or at least getting a stab in. Preferably in a crippling place, depending on whether you can penetrate any armor he has. If not penetrable, through the leg and breaking the bone should be sufficient enough to parry any counterattack and then cut the main artery or the vein in his throat without touching the spine, or the sword may be stuck."
"I see," the author blinked. "Okay. I'm not sure I wanted to know that."
"You asked," Zaknafein said innocently.
"Next time tell me it's a dance step," the author muttered.
"You have written worse."
"That's different," the author responded immediately.
"In what way?" Zaknafein smiled.
The author floundered, then changed the subject. "Ask a question 'bout the story."
"I believed you wrote in the Desire story that few drow went to..."
"Eh. Um, I didn't say which drow," the author said hurriedly. "'Nother question?"
"Your next story will be the Nalfein one?" Zaknafein asked.
"Yep," the author smiled. "You don't like him?"
"He was marginally more bearable than Dinin," Zaknafein said. "Mostly due to the fact that he was usually away at Sorcere."
"Ah," the author said, then winced as thunder crackled outside. "Damn, lightning better not hit."
"Why not? Then all your electrical equipment will turn off, and I can go get a drink while waiting for it to turn back on," Zaknafein said, having had this explained to him already, if painstakingly so.
The author glared at him.
"Only a suggestion," Zaknafein said mildly.
A bright white flash, and the computer switched off. Thunder followed, a loud growling roaring rumble.
"Damn," the author muttered. "You're jinxed."
"The drink..." Zaknafein left the sentence hanging.
"Might as well," the author said. She watched him go, then looked back at the computer screen, which was now dark, shut off. And first she saw her face, reflected back to her, then seven faces, of the Endless, staring out at her and yet not at her, and she knew wryly that even as she had written of them, her actions had been written in Destiny's books.
As she had written of Dream, she had walked in some of his realms, made some of his realms.
As she touched Death for a moment, so did Death wait for her, would wait for her to the end.
As she listened to Destruction, she also did, in little ways, listen to his realm, read the evidence of it in the papers.
As she lived a little with Desire, so did Desire live inside her, burning at times and quiet at times, but there all the same.
As she smiled with Delirium, so did Delirium see with her when she daydreamed into space, over a breakfast or over a book, mouthing the words to a song.
And as she walked with Despair, so did Despair touch her heart, before, and would touch her heart, in the future.
The Endless are part of us, all of us, and we are part of them, all of them.
The author thought about this for a moment, though not forming any other conclusions, then heard a crash from downstairs, followed by a muffled curse in drow, and quickly went to take a look. Sinking feeling.
In her absence the computer screen blinked once, as if completing a transition back to reality, or from reality to imagination, then was still.