written and illustrated by Renaissance Makoto J (ルネサンス・真・J)
It was sunset, and Stellan Gunvor was standing in the desert. He was looking at the brand new fortress of a building that housed what Anson had called ‘the Wilderness.’ The Director, however, had jokingly named the whole structure ‘Area 42’ shortly after the swamp sprang up suddenly in the middle of nowhere. The building had a high, steel-supported glass dome that let the blooming moonlight filter down into the swampy jungle.
Since its first appearance, Stellan had realized that Area 42 held the answers to his problems. He couldn’t get to Anson’s Wilderness, but through some twist of fate, the Wilderness had come to him. Stellan wanted to be inside, so he simply was.
He was dismayed that it was far too easy for someone like him to come and go from this place, which wasn’t safe. Not that there was anybody left like him—like Eirlys or Anson or even Henry Fintan. Even still, he made up his mind to fix the problem after he left. He’d make it so that no one could get in ever again.
Stellan was exhausted, for he hadn’t been sleeping well. When he closed his eyes, he saw Anson lifeless on that table, surrounded by all those machines. Sometimes he drifted only to wake from the feel of phantom kisses against his lips.
Anson was haunting him.
And yesterday, Stellan had risen from bed after a sleepless night and decided that he’d had enough. Of everything. He was tied to the Wilderness, bound to it, but not for much longer.
Above him, the dome of the building was obscured by the gnarled branches of the trees. He walked through the swamp, the ground sucking at his feet, and the wet, dripping vines catching at his arms. Something low to the ground and fast raced past him, deeper into the thickets and brush. He unconsciously grabbed at his stomach, remembering too well what it felt like to be slashed open by something fast and unnatural. He didn’t know how long he trudged through the forest before he came to a clearing. Time was strange here.
The clearing wasn’t bright with moonlight for all that there was no canopy. No life at all. None of the animals and beasts, or insects, or slithering little things came anywhere near here. Stellan knew he had found what he was looking for.
It was small and black with a dark red center, like a bloody eye looking out from midnight. The petals—five in all—were black, as were the leaves and the stem. If death could look like a flower, then this was surely it.
Stellan reached out and plucked it neatly from the ground. In the distance, something roared and Stellan knew he had outstayed his welcome.
Before he left the Wilderness, he worked a little on the doors, on the glass, on every way he could find into the place. There were always doors, even ones that no one could see. He locked them up tightly.
No one ever needed to visit the Wilderness.
The thing was enormous, ugly, and horned for only a minute as it emerged from the red pool on the floor.
Anson had dreamed it once, a long time ago. He’d gone to Stellan because that was where he went when the nightmares were too real. Stellan, he thought, and the air rippled at the name. It was like lighting a torch in the cave, how quickly the fabric of reality changed.
The thing seemed to think, seemed to read the air of the cave—the very mind—of the boy who had called him. In response to what it found lurking in the deep, shadowy recesses of Anson’s imagination, it shifted and changed. It was as if the monster stepped to the left, and a handsome man stepped forward from behind him. A familiar handsome man.
Anson’s mind told him there were differences, that the monster hadn’t gotten it quite right. He didn’t believe it himself. It was a perfect likeness. It was still a monster underneath, but the face it had created for itself made Anson’s pulse leap. It wore black clothing from head to toe, and its black hair flowed over its shoulders and into that darkness, like rivers joining. Its eyes were black coals.
The thing looked at its hands, amused. “Just a man? This is the form you chose? I am no conqueror,” it said. “I am nothing to fear.”
Anson—naked on the cold, dirt ground, and bleeding from the cuts on his wrists—shook his head, tried to shake the daze. He came to his feet slowly, but unselfconsciously. As he stood, the blood stopped flowing, the wounds healed. The thing looked at his unscarred flesh with a perfect brow raised. “But you are something to be feared, boy,” it said. Anson jerked visibly at the word, but didn’t respond.
The thing didn’t seem to need an answer as it studied him. “Why would someone like you need me?” it asked. “And in this of all places?”
Anson gestured to the dark marks circling his left arm. The designs twined and twisted together, almost as if forming words that wrote themselves up his skin like branches from a tree. “I have been studying,” he said. “Learning.”
It nodded. “I can see that. How else would you know how to call me? So what is it that you need? What can I give you?”
Anson looked away then, refusing to answer.
The thing lifted a finger to its strong chin. “Let me see if I can guess, hmm?” it said, and even its voice was perfect, its mannerisms. Anson was trembling.
The thing stepped close to him. “Ahhh, I see,” it said. “I can see it all there, right on the surface of your mind. You are not really a boy. You look like a boy, but…you aren’t one at all.”
Anson nodded once, a quick, jerky movement. “This place…” he said and waved at the cruel, deprived world visible through the mouth of the cave. He meant the gesture to encompass the whole of the place: from the wasteland to Henry Fintan and all the terrible creatures of the swamps. “It keeps me like this. Time passes, I stay the same.”
The thing caught his chin, lifted it and turned his face from side to side. “I see. And you want to be a man for him,” it said.
“Yes,” Anson hissed.
“That’s a difficult request,” it said in a whisper. “This world will fight against you.” Its black eyes bored into Anson’s green. The longing Anson always felt was worse now, as if he had scratched the scab off of it by summoning this thing. It was a bleeding wound now, open and sucking. He could smell him on this thing, feel the heat radiating off its tall body and it was so close, so close to what he needed.
“I understand that,” Anson said. “Can you…can you give me what I want?”
It pulled him close then, wrapped its arms around him, one at the small of his back, fingers dipping low. “I can make you a man,” it said. “But there is a price.”
Anson wasn’t surprised. He had called the thing with blood, enough to kill a normal man; getting more from it would be an even higher cost. The thing would take its due from his sweat, his tears, his body, and this Anson had known before summoning the thing. But it was a price he wanted to pay. He didn’t care that it was a monster, a very effective substitute that would never quench the desire in him for long.
He didn’t care that it was only means to an end, just a ritual to change his body in a world that didn’t harbor change. Anson was starved for touch—starved for one man’s touch—and this monster was close enough. It would give him what he wanted twice over.
It pulled him to the ground roughly, loomed over him. “It will take time,” the thing said, sliding between his legs. “What you want is complex.”
Anson arched against him. “Yes.”
“You will give me what I ask for, do what I say. You will give me everything.”
“Yes,” Anson cried and gasped. It hurt and he felt dizzy with the pain, dizzy with being covered and filled by this thing that was the reflection of his dreams. He twined his fingers in its hair, pulled it close, screamed against its shoulder. “Stellan,” he sobbed and scratched his nails down the thing’s back.
“I’m not him,” the monster said in Stellan’s voice, touched him with Stellan’s hands.
“I know,” Anson cried back softly. “I know.” The black marks on his arm flared and grew, wound tighter and tighter around his bicep.
And he did know. He knew painfully that this thing was not Stellan, that it was no substitute for him. But he could feel him, could taste him and it was enough.
“I can feel your soul, boy. I can feel what you’ve done to yourself. Will he want you when he sees what you’ve become?” it asked as it moved deeper, deeper into him. But that, Anson didn’t know.
He spread wider, bit his lip, and pretended. And slowly, slowly, he began to change.
“More,” he begged. “More.”
And the thing that wasn’t Stellan gave him more.
Part I: The Facility
When they finally finished their sweep, the intruder was gone. Some of the guards thought it was just a surprise, late-night, preparedness drill; or possibly some kind of punishment. At the barked orders from Major Bradley over the radios, they wised up quickly. Over the next twenty, panic-filled minutes, access points to each level were checked for breaches, but all of them were active and functioning properly. None showed signs of tampering. The guards stood down, but stayed alert. There was an oppressive feeling of uncertainty in the air. No one understood what was happening or how.
The screaming of the alarm took longer than expected to shut down due to some inexplicable mechanical problems. Engineers and scientists with bleary eyes rushed through the halls on bare feet or in slippers. They skirted the armed guards with worried expressions. Finally, the massive research facility was quiet again. The flashing red warning lights halted. The Major’s voice howled over the radio once more: he wanted answers. Now.
Major Bradley and a handful of senior guards crowded into the security booth and loomed over the technician as he retrieved the data. Normally, the Director of the facility would have been present, but he was out of town. He was expected to return within a day, but until then, they would have to send word ahead and hope it reached him.
The technician’s nimble fingers worked the control panel expertly. He hummed a little as data flashed across the screen. “A system sweep does show an anomaly, Major. Only one level was breached,” he said.
“Um. Level One. The Tank. Sir.”
Bradley paused. “Show me.”
The surveillance footage revealed nothing out of the ordinary on the visible channels. When the technician switched to thermal, however, it was a different story.
He enlarged the image and focused on the Tank with its strange wires and tubes. The sight was a familiar one for everyone present. Inside the hulking apparatus, Anson floated—a lazy, slow, up and down. The liquid that held him fluctuated from green to amber and made him look like a ghost in a scary story. As always, he was bare to the waist, eyes closed. His long hair tangled in the slow currents around him.
“There,” said Bradley, tapping the monitor. “Right there. What is that?”
The technician squinted at the screen. “I…think it’s a handprint, sir.”
Without being prompted, the technician rewound the footage to before the anomaly registered. They all watched, silent and tense. Pressure plates in the floor told the story: the intruder hadn’t stolen anything, hadn’t broken into their databases or accessed files. Instead, he had simply walked to the Tank and placed his hand on the glass, directly over Anson’s heart. And he’d stood like that for five minutes before the facility’s security system finally woke up.
It was impossible, said Bradley. It was a trick of the camera. The technicians checked and rechecked, but no explanations were forthcoming. The only proof they had that there had been a security breach at all was a team of exhausted support staff and the thermal imaging footage that showed the perfect mark of a handprint warming the glass. They had been visited, it seemed, by an invisible man.
Bradley frowned at the monitor, thinking.
He kept watching the footage until, slowly, lingeringly, the handprint started to fade.
Stellan Gunvor had decided ages ago to go through with it. Now that he had the means right at his fingertips, it seemed silly to delay. But since it was all in his hands, all up to him, he also decided that he wanted it to be in the comfort of his own home. After all, here is where he had spent both the best and worst times of his long life. He found it appropriate to spend the last moments of it drowning in the memories stirred up merely by being here. He wanted to do this his way.
So he put on his favorite record, opened all the curtains, and slipped into his favorite slippers. He put his feet up on the antique table. The place was his, after all. It had been his for quite some time.
It was a graceful, but massive, stone castle. It had never fallen—a true siege castle, one of the greatest ever built. Gunvor Castle, it was called. He’d realized one day that people assumed it was named after one of his ancestors. A little old lady at the store had asked him if he knew much about his namesake. He’d been confused for a whole day until he realized that everyone knew that a man named Stellan Gunvor had built Gunvor Castle. He amused himself sometimes by imagining what people would say if they learned that the castle was named after him, Stellan, himself. He laughed at the idea that they would lock him up. Or try to lock him up, anyway.
The castle was registered as a historical landmark with a dozen or so different organizations and societies. They sent him annoying letters begging for access to the grounds, the gardens, and the antique roses. They wanted to see the tapestries; they wanted to take pictures of his library and thumb through his rare books. He kept a stack of such letters next to the fireplace: they made excellent kindling.
Now, he supposed, those professors of history and patrons of the arts were all going to get what they wanted. The damn horticulturalists. He had no heirs, he had no will. And, unlike Eirlys, he had no great mission to complete with his wealth. The vultures would come and pick over his belongings and argue with each other over, over—well, yes—over the bloody roses, if they wanted! And the library!
They could have it all. He didn’t care. Not anymore. He’d even said goodbye like a proper gentleman. It probably made him a sentimental idiot, but he guessed he was allowed.
He shifted to get more comfortable in his favorite chair. It faced the windows and gave him an excellent view of the rose garden. It was the last time he’d ever get to see it, which was a thought that wasn’t as sad as he knew it should be.
The brandy snifter on the table looked harmless enough. Inside it was a dark, crimson liquid. It had taken roughly five years to make the potion between all the failures and setbacks and doubts and fears. He’d been down to one petal of that cursed flower by the end and afraid to waste it. But now he was ready. He took a deep breath.
And lifted the glass.
“Well, Anson,” he said as he swirled the snifter to watch the light from the oil lamp play across the liquid, “here’s to you.”
He took a long, deep mouthful. For all that he had designed it to work quickly, he was still surprised that it hit so hard and so fast. The snifter smashed against the floor. His eyes widened. He clutched at his throat and struggled to his feet. His body shook and convulsed while his eyes watered. He could taste blood in his mouth and he started coughing thick, violent coughs. So this, he thought, is what it feels like to die. At last.
This time he had, apparently, gotten it right.
As he tilted to the ground, he caught sight of a figure standing by the window, watching him. He blacked out for a second, but when he came to again, he forced his swimming vision to focus on the boy by the window. He was green and amber in color and shimmering ever so slightly. Stellan could see the rose garden through him.
He wasn’t really there—he was a vision from the past. The boy was so thin that his clothing sagged off of him. His eyes were huge and innocent, but his mouth was cruel.
Anson hadn’t been that young in a long, long, time. Stellan stretched out a grasping, clawed hand to him. The boy just looked on.
“Are you waiting,” Stellan croaked at the specter, “for me to change my mind? Or are you waiting to hear me say ‘I told you so’?”
Stellan shuddered again then gasped for air. His stomach was on fire, his head tumbling like an acrobat. For all that he’d wanted to die, he found himself afraid quite suddenly.
Right before his heart stopped, his last thought was, I wonder if Anson will let me get away with this.
Twice in less than forty-eight hours was a little much for Major Bradley. The alarms roused the entire complex once again. The halls were crowded with personnel and staff who all looked confounded and frustrated that something like this could happen twice. This time, there was no intruder.
The engineers got the alarm off more quickly than before. The screaming siren went silent with a dragging whine. A few levels offered up cheers, but most everyone was too tired and irritated to celebrate something as small as an alarm shutting off. Something weird was going on.
The Major slammed the door of the security booth when he entered.
“That wasn’t a security alarm, sir,” explained the technician once the cursing stopped. It was maybe the same technician from the night before, but Bradley couldn’t tell. They were all starting to blur together.
“What the hell kind of alarm was it?” he demanded.
“That…that was the Tank, sir. It was meant to tell the staff doctors of a change in the patient’s status. In his vitals. We’ve got a team on Level One now. The medical staff is en route…”
Bradley’s shoulders sagged. He dragged a heavy hand over his face. “Damn. Well, I suppose we knew it would happen one day. We should alert the Plamens. They’ll want to start making arrangements for the body.”
The technician coughed politely into his fist. “I think you misunderstood me, sir,” he said slowly.
The Major’s eyes narrowed. “Excuse me?”
“He’s not dead, sir. He’s awake.”
Major Bradley had very little reason to go to the Tank. He’d been inside the massive subterranean bunker that served as a medical facility only a dozen times or so that he could recall. Oh, he had seen the boy in the Tank many times to be sure, but usually through the safe distance granted by security cameras. He knew of Anson through summarized medical reports given bi-monthly by big-headed scientists and doctors. He updated the Plamen Family on his status whenever they came by for a visit just the same, as if he himself had been there taking down the numbers and filling out the charts. It was his job, after all—beyond merely keeping the facility safe—to keep them happy and informed.
He didn’t like the Tank.
He didn’t like the fact that undisclosed amounts of money were being poured into the Plamen Research Facility to keep one man alive. He didn’t like the idea that there were hospitals out there that could use that money to save people who still had a fighting chance.
Because he’d seen dead men in war. He’d killed men himself, watched the light in their eyes dim. He knew what dead looked like.
And the man in the Tank—Anson—was dead. Bradley had known that the first minute he saw him. The Plamen heiress could keep him on ice as long as she wanted and it wouldn’t change a thing. Bradley knew the truth. He’d thought he knew the truth. And now…
Level One was cold. He could see his breath as he stood before the ceiling-high tube surrounded by wires, pipes, and machinery. The glass had been wiped clean soon after the security team had dusted for prints. There was no sign now that an invisible man had ever come to visit Anson.
“Where is Canemaker?” Bradley asked, referring to the Director.
“Still tied up, sir,” said one of the guards behind him. “He messaged to say he won’t be back for another day at least.”
“Damn,” said Bradley. He didn’t like dealing with this alone. The Director had a calm demeanor and a cool head under fire. He would have been an asset to have around at a time like this. Bradley cursed again and clenched his jaw.
And Anson was staring at him. It was unsettling.
What made it so creepy was that he had never seen Anson’s eyes open before. He had no idea what color they were with the odd fluid surrounding him turning every color ghostly green, but they were bright, almost as if they were glowing.
“Has he…tried to talk to anyone?”
“No,” Dr. Smith replied. He was a tall, blonde man with a bland countenance. He stood at the Major’s shoulder with a chart in his hand. Whenever he looked at Anson, it was with a frown on his face. “His brain isn’t any more or less active than it was before. For all intents and purposes, nothing’s changed. He’s just opened his eyes.”
“The technician said his vitals changed.”
A page of the chart was flipped. “They did. His pulse is up as is his blood pressure. We’re registering muscle movement in his arms and legs. It’s subtle, but it’s there.”
“But his mind—”
“Look, Major: there is no reason to hope for a change.” Smith shrugged. “I have no reason to believe that he’s any more aware of his surroundings than he was before. For all we know, it’s just muscles moving. Spasms.”
“Has this ever happened before?” asked Bradley.
“Mmm,” said Smith, but it could have meant anything.
Smith studied the Tank for a moment, then focused all his attention on Bradley. He seemed to be rallying himself to make a well-prepared speech with a deep breath and a squaring of his shoulders. “I said it five years ago and I’ll say it again: it would be a greater courtesy to let this poor boy go. It’s quality of life, not quantity of life—”
As he spoke, there was a small, almost imperceptible rumble. Several of the medical assistants in the room looked up from their stations, mouths turned down and eyebrows raised.
“Uh, Dr. Smith,” one of them tried.
Another shudder, followed by a dangerous sounding beep.
“Just a minute,” the doctor snapped. “I’m talking to the Major.” He used his most ingratiating tone. “I know the Director listens to you. Perhaps you could get him to reconsider his position on Anson. He has certain…controversial ideas about my patient that are, frankly, unfounded. It is long past time for the Plamen Family to consider investing their resources in, say, a research hospital—”
Bradley took a jerky step back. It caused the doctor to frown more than ever. “Are you okay, Major?”
“He spoke,” Bradley said. He had gone pale and sounded breathless.
Bradley gaped at him. “You didn’t hear that?”
“Hear what?” snapped the doctor.
“He said…I don’t know what he said. He said something.”
“If he spoke, we’d see it in the data,” huffed Smith. “Now, as I was saying—”
“Dr. Smith, you really need to see this!” one of the assistants shouted across the room. “It’s the EEG, it’s—”
There was a pulse, a wave, a spark of white. It was followed by a thunderous, wavering, ringing sound like the reverberations of a massive bell, only endless and high-pitched like a tuning fork. Everyone covered their ears, squeezed their eyes closed.
There was a beat of silence. Then two. A white world stretched on and on all around them; the bunker had disappeared into nothingness.
“Stellan,” a voice whispered. “I’m not letting you get away with this.”
Then everything flashed back into focus. The whiteness fell away and the color of the world leaked back in.
Everyone looked around in confusion. Someone screamed when the glass of the Tank shattered. Smith and Bradley reeled back from the shards of heavy, dagger-like glass flying at them so fast, so fast, so…
When nothing happened, when nothing cut their hands or their faces, they opened their eyes cautiously. The glass was hovering in mid-air, motionless. Gallons of the strange fluid flooded the floor of the bunker. Equipment sparked and control boards went down with painful, electronic groans. The glass only hung there.
Bradley reached out a shaking hand to a wedge of glass the size of a kitchen knife where it hovered a hand’s breadth away from his heart. He could see a thousand Ansons in the surface of the shard, splintering and wavering in the emergency lighting. He almost felt like he could pluck the glass right out of the air, right out of the moment where it was halted.
Until it exploded into countless beads of water that came falling down like rain, splashing into the puddles of green and amber fluid sloshing on the floor. All the glass, in fact, exploded and rained down. It sounded like a million windows breaking. The room smelled strangely of ozone until the very last drop made the fluid ripple out in waves. Everything was quiet again.
Bradley and the medical staff took the calm moment to move. Everyone stood up slowly and lowered their arms from where they had been protecting their faces. They looked to the Tank. Anson was still floating, even without the fluid. His hair hung damp and stringy over his thin shoulders. It was the color of bleached paper and looked coarse and brittle. It was the hair of an old man, but his face was young and handsome. Bradley noted, almost absently, that his eyes were green.
Smith staggered and caught himself on Bradley’s shoulder. “My god,” he whispered. He seemed afraid to blink, afraid to look away.
Anson took a step in the air, stepping lightly over the jagged glass still attached to the machinery. Once he was clear of the Tank, he landed with a soft splash. He looked directly at Bradley.
“Where is Stellan Gunvor?” he croaked weakly. His voice was barely audible. It occurred to Bradley that it was to be expected. After all, Anson had never moved—more or less spoken—in the four years Bradley had worked at the facility. And what about the Major in charge before him? And the Major before him? Not for the first time, Bradley wondered exactly how old Anson was. The Plamen Research Institute was ancient. It was, famously, one of the oldest institutions of its kind in the world. He knew that. What he didn’t know was how long Anson had been housed here in the Institute’s newest facility. He was starting to get an idea and he didn’t actually like it. There was too damn much he didn’t know about the mysterious patient and the odd technology that kept him alive.
And he wished—also not for the first time—that he’d asked a few more questions before taking the gravy job.
“Dr. Smith,” Bradley said after a moment, “I think you had better call the Plamens. Tell them it’s urgent.”
There was an awful lot of motionless darkness, silence, and still air. Then, suddenly, Stellan was drifting on nothing. A cold breeze stirred a distant patter of rain, splashing it against walls he couldn’t see. He heard the sound of shattering glass. There was something very wrong about all of it. Above and below him was vast white so bright it scorched his eyes. He could feel, quite awkwardly, that he was not breathing and that his heart was not beating. He tried closing his eyes, but the whiteness was still there, clinging to the back of his eyelids. It was strange, but he didn’t exactly feel dead. He’d been chasing death so long that he imagined he’d recognize it when he finally got it.
Thud, went his heart.
He had just gotten used to it not beating, so the sensation of it jump starting in his chest was kind of itchy. It made him squirm in his own skin.
Thud, it went again and the sound was echoed by someone’s saying his name quite clearly.
“Oh, blast,” Stellan said and then his heart went, thud, thud, thud, and just kept on going.
Stellan sat bolt upright on the floor beside a spreading puddle of poison and the shards of glass from his broken snifter. Gunvor Castle was as it had always been. He coughed and vomited and felt the awful potion in his nose and coating his tongue. He was shaking and the world was spinning. His clothing clung to him with sweat while his eyes felt scratchy and dry. It took a second of careful maneuvering to get to his hands and knees. As he crawled, he dry heaved. He managed to turn his head to the window; it was dark outside, his roses shrouded in midnight. How long had it been since he died?
Yes, that was it. He had died. And now he was, undoubtedly, alive again.
He ran out of steam at the base of the grand staircase and collapsed right beneath a tapestry he’d been sure he’d never see again.
“Damn you, Anson,” he coughed. “Why won’t you just let me die?”
Stellan realized that he was mad as hell about breathing—about living despite having succeeded at last—and that he wanted nothing more than to grab Anson by the shoulders, shake him a lot, and maybe slap him once or twice. Even if he had to crack the Tank open himself—even if he knew Anson wouldn’t feel a damn thing when he hit him—it would make Stellan feel better.
Luckily, Stellan knew just where to find him.
It was with shock and surprise that Stellan reached out into the desert, stretched out his senses to the sand, expecting nothing, and instead found—ah, there!—light. Light like he hadn’t felt in five years. It blazed and pulsed and rolled like one lover against another. Stellan could only sit there, stunned and speechless. His mind latched onto the light, followed it as it moved.
And Stellan couldn’t discern if the ache he felt in his heart while dogging that warm, pulsing glow was anger or hope or fear. While he fretted over what to do now, he decided—considering his past with Anson—that he was probably feeling all those things simultaneously.
Now the question was what, exactly, to do about it.
In the cold, metal sublevel of the Plamen Research Facility, Anson was distracted. He seemed capable of answering only half of their questions. Many of the words they said he repeated as if they were too strange and new for him to fathom. All the rest of the time, his expression went blank and his body went very still. He would stay like that for minutes at a time. When one of the nurses asked him where he was when he got quiet like that, Anson answered, “The Wilderness.”
Major Bradley had no idea what that meant.
Sometimes Anson studied his bare arms with a confused expression. He turned them this way and that as if expecting to see something that wasn’t there.
“Are you…hurt?” asked Smith. He’d treated Anson with equal parts fascination and fear since the scene on Level One. Sometimes it seemed to Bradley that Smith was ashamed of something which was why he rarely met Anson’s strange eyes. He wondered what it was.
“I’m different,” Anson said simply. “More different. Different from the different of before.”
It was all gibberish, but Bradley wasn’t surprised. What did a man who had been brain dead this long have to say to anyone? When he wasn’t babbling, Anson was very single-minded. Once Bradley understood that Stellan Gunvor was a person and not some obscure place, a few research assistants he could trust had been tasked with finding the man. Because Anson kept asking for him, like clockwork, every few minutes.
Dr. Smith flinched at the name, so Bradley figured he knew something, but when he asked him flat out who Stellan Gunvor was, the doctor only said, “Perhaps you should ask the Director about him,” and then got quiet. He had a sour expression on his face now that wouldn’t go away and Bradley was tired of wondering about it already. It was frustrating to realize that he knew no more than the young assistants and guards he employed. There was a loop, he understood, and he had been kept very well out of it.
Now Bradley rushed to keep pace with Anson who simply wouldn’t hold still, had refused a shirt, and didn’t touch the ground. He touched everything else, like a child in a toy store—and put everything back in the wrong place—but his feet never hit the floor. Bradley was still coming to terms with the fact that the man was floating in mid-air, but he had always adjusted well to new situations. He was a soldier. Although, if he were honest with himself, Anson was a bit much even for him.
He couldn’t explain it, but somehow Anson’s pants were already dry, as was his hair. Sometimes, his eyes glowed. Bradley wished he would just go back to sleep already.
They were flanked at the front and rear by guards and nurses and even a few lookie-lous with no common sense. He’d ordered all non-essential personnel back to their posts, but they just came right back. And since Anson wouldn’t hold still, there was no way to restrict who got a glimpse of him.
“The Plamen Family is on their way to see you,” Bradley said. “We should debrief you.”
Anson came to a graceful halt, toes dragging on the floor. It was a relief to hold still finally so the Major took the moment to catch his breath.
“Plamen? As in Eirlys Plamen?” Anson asked.
Bradley laughed in surprise. “Well, not exactly, son. She was the founder of the Plamen Research Institute. A long time ago. Her descendants still hold the trusts and manage the estates.”
“Trusts. Estates,” Anson repeated. He didn’t seem to know the words any better than he had understood ‘debrief.’
“Where is Eirlys Plamen now?” he asked.
Bradley laughed again and it turned into a bemused smile. He shook his head. The conversation was surreal. “Dead, son. Dead, of course.”
“I very much doubt that,” Anson said in his gravel voice. Now it was Anson’s turn to smile. It wasn’t a friendly, humor-filled smile. It was, in fact, somewhat terrifying. Bradley took a step back.
Anson fell into one of his strange silences again. His green eyes went dull and his chin dropped to his chest. Bradley snapped his fingers an inch from his slack face, but the boy didn’t even flinch. And, dammit, he was still floating.
Bradley looked helplessly around for Dr. Smith who was far behind them, almost hidden behind all the guards.
“Excuse me, pardon me! Make way!” the doctor huffed as he worked his way through the crowd to stand beside Major Bradley.
“The Wilderness, again?” he asked, considering Anson’s still face.
“I guess,” Bradley answered. “Any idea what that means?”
“I believe he means Area 42,” Smith said.
Bradley frowned. “That big dome in the middle of the desert? What does this boy have to do with that place?”
Smith shrugged. “The Director believes they’re connected.”
“But you don’t?”
Smith sniffed and his nostrils curled. “I don’t.”
Bradley knew there was a lot that wasn’t being said here, but Smith was being awfully cagey. He tried a different line of questioning. “Any idea why twinkletoes here won’t stay on the damn ground?”
“I…I can’t even say how he’s up and moving,” Smith said earnestly. “The floating is just icing on the cake.”
“Can’t we…get him on a gurney or something while he’s unconscious?”
Smith blinked at him. “He’s floating in the middle of the hallway and his eyes glow. Do you want to try to move him?”
Bradley considered that. “Point taken. How long before the Plamen Family gets here?”
“I’m not sure,” Smith said with a shake of his head. “They didn’t give us an exact time. They sounded a little shocked by the news.”
“Who wouldn’t be?” Bradley grunted. A second later he jumped a foot in the air.
Everyone, in fact, jumped, because Anson had come to again, just as quickly as he had conked out. His drooping head snapped back up and his eyes locked with Bradley’s. “The Wilderness is here,” he rasped.
Bradley said gently, “Son, this is a desert. We are in the middle of the desert.”
“No, the Wilderness is here. Close. It shouldn’t be.” And just like that, he disappeared.
Bradley stood with his mouth open on the words he’d been meaning to say to Anson. He shut it very carefully. Then he took a deep breath and turned slowly to the doctor.
“Did that boy just disappear?”
“I believe so, Major.”
Bradley nodded, then turned to the guards and assistants in the hallway with them. All of them looked ready to faint. “Just checking to see if I was going crazy.”
“No, no, you’re not going crazy,” said Smith. “Anson just vanished.” All things considered, Smith was handling it very well. He didn’t actually seem surprised.
“Okay,” said Bradley. “Okay,” he finished and that was the most he could manage right then.
“Where do you think he went?” Smith asked.
“Well, I think we can hazard a guess,” said Bradley.
Anson found the Wilderness easily. It was like a beacon calling to him. As the man called Major Bradley had said, they were, indeed, in a desert. The building they called the Plamen Research Facility sat down low in a natural valley made of sandy rock. It was protected by the surrounding canyons from much of the harsh climate of the desert. Anything the canyons couldn’t keep out would be stopped by double walls and tall gates made of metal. He looked down at the bustle of activity inside the ugly, sprawling, square building he’d just left. They were looking for him, he guessed. He wondered if they had the means to find him. They had such interesting technology, such marvelous machines. He doubted any of them would be any good at finding him if he didn’t want to be found, but he made a note to himself to be cautious. The guards would have to navigate the desert at night and Anson had a healthy lead. Besides, the dark didn’t hinder him much.
He turned away, towards where he could feel the Wilderness tugging at his mind.
Anson drifted across the desert, not too quickly, but just enough to feel the wind in his hair. It flared out behind him like a banner. The last time he’d been aware of himself, his hair had been short, perfect for fighting. Now it was too long, in the way, a bother.
The sky was vast and dark with all kinds of stars he didn’t recognize shining down on him. The wind was cool and the sand looked like pale butter in the moonlight. He took a moment to breathe, to feel the air from this world in his lungs for the first time in a very long time. It wasn’t the same. The odd clothing the men at the facility wore, the strange blinking lights and the giant tube of glass—this wasn’t the world he’d known. Not anymore.
The Wilderness wasn’t far. It was housed in a massive structure and protected by guards. They wore the same kind of uniform as the guards from the research facility.
The gate around the Wilderness was two times as tall as any man and as thick as a tree trunk. The top was threaded through with sharp, looping, jagged wire. Inside the gate, there was another structure, this one domed and all of glass and steel. The Wilderness itself was inside that dome. Anson wanted a closer look.
He tried to slip through the gates and inside just as easily as he’d slipped out of the research facility, but something was stopping him. He couldn’t even drop down over the wall. He could feel Stellan’s hand in all of this. His old teacher had been here: there was something in the slant of the workings, some aura about the ways in and out that Anson could almost taste. And it tasted like Stellan. Anson closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, absorbed the feel of the man, how he seemed to surround him. He opened his eyes and wondered again where Stellan was; why it was so important to find him; why he felt like he was here now solely for Stellan. If only he could remember clearly why.
But now he had to put it out of his mind; it was nothing he could figure out at the moment. If Stellan didn’t want to be found, even Anson couldn’t find him. He would have to wait. In the meantime, one way or the other, he’d have to go in through the front door. Luckily, doors and locks couldn’t intimidate him. Stellan had taught him very well.
Anson landed before the two guards. He wiggled his toes in the sand and liked the sensation enough that he decided he’d try walking more now that he was here. Perhaps he had missed walking without even realizing it.
The guards carried odd-looking black machines of some kind. They pointed them at him when he approached.
“Halt!” one of them shouted. Anson halted.
“Put your hands up, nice and slow!” Anson put his hands up.
One of them moved forward with silver bracelets joined by a chain. He twisted Anson’s arm around behind his back, then caught the other one. He put the bracelets on Anson’s wrists and they made a loud, metallic noise as they closed. They were remarkably effective at restricting his movements, Anson mused. He tugged at them and found his arms quite handily bound.
“Interesting,” he said and jiggled his wrist to hear the metal clang.
The second guard lifted a black box to his mouth. “Bravo to Base, Bravo to Base,” he said.
“Base here,” came a voice from nowhere. It made Anson smile. They had such amazing technology now.
“We’ve got an intruder. Send someone to cover, we’re bringing him in.”
“Roger, Bravo. Proceed with caution. Relief is on route, stand by. ETA 30 minutes. Base out.”
“Bravo out,” said the guard. Then he turned his attention to Anson.
“Okay, buddy,” he said. “Who are you?”
Anson blinked at him. “I’m Walter Anson, who are you?”
The guard sneered. “Funny, kid. You don’t worry about who I am. Worry about the fact that you’re in a world of trouble.”
“Oh? Am I?”
“Watch your mouth, kid.”
Anson felt suddenly very impatient to be done with this. He had to see what the Wilderness was doing here where it didn’t belong. And he didn’t like the way this guard called him ‘kid.’ It sounded disrespectful. He handed him back his bracelets.
“These are yours,” he said.
The guard’s mouth moved wordlessly for a moment. Anson walked past him and placed his hand on the big doors. He felt the lock through all the metal and gears and bolts. When he gave a little push, they all sprang free. Could Stellan have done it faster, he wondered. And would Stellan have praised him for a job well done?
He doubted it.
“Don’t move or I’ll shoot!” one of the guards screamed at him.
“This is your last warning!” screamed the other.
The gate was heavy, so Anson just waved his hand at it. The doors flew off and landed hard fifty feet to either side of the portal. Anson actually cringed. He hadn’t meant to do that.
He turned back to the guards. “I’m very sorry about your door,” he said. Then there was a loud crack boom and then another. He felt a strange, hot bloom in his chest, and then in his stomach. He looked down: there were bloody holes in his body. There was something foreign lodged between his ribs, embedded deep. He reached in, wiggled his fingers a little, found the thing, and pulled. Anson lifted it to his face and turned it this way and that. It was a smashed piece of metal covered in his blood. It was still warm and it smelled like chemicals he couldn’t identify. He let the metal fall from his fingers, and then reached into the hole in his stomach. It was a messier bit of work to find this one, but soon the metal was slipping from his bloodied fingers to the sand. Anson looked at the guards. Both of them had taken a few shaky steps backwards.
“That hurt,” Anson said simply. The wounds were knitting together already—bone sliding back into place, muscles tangling up around the tendons. Still, it was the principle of the matter. For a moment, he thought about hurting them, really hurting them. Thoughts of Stellan stopped him. Instead, he stared at the weapons in the guards’ hands: they turned to sand and drifted through their fingers.
The guards watched the sand pooling into pyramids at their feet, then looked back up at him, mouths hanging open and fear in their eyes. He stared back.
“You won’t try that again, will you?” he asked.
They shook their heads. “That’s good,” Anson said. He turned around and made his way to the glass dome. Behind him, the guards were frantically talking into that black box again and voices from nowhere were asking them questions. He heard them say his name, but he didn’t really care. And perhaps he didn’t like this new technology after all.
The dome was much easier to enter. He just walked right through the glass. Stellan hadn’t ever been as good at working with glass, he recalled. He halted at the entrance and felt like he was coming home to a place he hated. At the same time, he felt like he’d never left. It was a sick, confused feeling that twisted his stomach into knots.
And, really, had he known he’d end up stuck in a place like this for a thousand years, he might have listened to Stellan more.
It was raining when she brought the boy to the gates of the manor house. He was small with big, green eyes and he shivered in the cold.
“We don’t know what to do with him, Your Lordship. And his father, well…” she said in a small voice peppered with vowels that were indistinct and low. “In the village, they say you know things. They say you teach children like him. We can’t keep him at the house any longer.”
She explained a few of the worst incidents without looking at the boy, for she wasn’t ready to lose him, and it was her only defense. If she couldn’t see him shivering and near-tears, she could leave him without it hurting so much.
“It’s not his fault,” she continued. “He’s not trying to do things, he just does. Teach him. Teach him how to control it, please.”
She splashed off again as quickly as she’d come and Stellan Gunvor was left alone with the child.
“Your mother said you are called Walter Anson,” said Stellan, leaning down to look the child in the eye.
“I am, sir,” replied Anson.
“Do you know what you are, boy?”
The lad firmed his chin. “Different,” he said. “I’m different.”
Stellan considered him—rail thin and pale—and held out a hand. Anson took it—so trusting—and Stellan felt a surge of power up his arm so strong it was just shy of painful. He almost called the mother back then; almost told her he had made a mistake, that there was nothing he could do with a boy like this. That there was nothing anyone in the world could do with him. Stellan released his hand quickly and was careful not to touch the boy again. But he led him inside, got him dry clothing, and had the servants make him something warm to eat, just the same.
Later, he marched him off to meet the other students.
“What am I to call you, sir?” asked Anson. He had a peasant’s way of speaking—the same as his mother—but he spoke politely enough, Stellan decided. He didn’t seem as dangerous as he was.
“My students call me ‘Master Gunvor.'”
“I am to be your student?”
“You are. Keep up now, boy. This way.”
Anson stumbled a little as he hurried after him, his arms full with a pillow and blanket that were to be his while he stayed here. His new clothing was clean, certainly, but too big and it made him walk awkwardly.
“Are you different, too, Master Gunvor?” he asked.
“I am,” Stellan answered. His voice was deep and humorless, and Anson was just a little bit afraid of him.
“What…things do you do?” he almost whispered.
Stellan stopped walking to look down at Anson. “You can say that I can go anywhere that I like,” he answered. His eyes were black; Anson couldn’t even see the pupils.
“By walking?” asked Anson uncertainly.
“No,” Stellan answered and he smiled then, but it was small and tight, and not exactly reassuring. “Perhaps I’ll teach you one day. If you prove smart enough. Clever enough. Come along now,” he said and strode forward briskly again. Anson rushed to catch up.
The room was bright and the ceiling high, but it was still an old building. Stellan made sure that it was kept clean, but sometimes he dreamed of building a proper castle in the new style, as befitted his status. Perhaps he would one day. He’d need more space if he kept accruing students.
He halted in the center of the room. Along the east and west walls were beds, four to each side. Seven boys and girls—all ranging from the ages of eight to fifteen—lined up before him. They stood still and alert like soldiers at attention.
“Yes, Master Gunvor,” they said in unison. The boy behind him jumped in alarm at their volume and enthusiasm. He took a step closer to Master Gunvor, tried to take the man’s hand again, but Stellan shook him off with an efficient jerk.
“This is Walter Anson,” he said in his clear, low voice. “He’s special—different—just like you. He’ll be studying with us. Say, ‘Hello.'”
“Hello, Walter!” the children said, again in unison. The boy jumped again and seemed to make himself even smaller.
“Very good. Now, treat him well. Explain to him how things work here. I expect all of you in bed within the hour. We’ll be going to town tomorrow so be up with the sun.”
He gave a swift nod to them, then turned on his heels to Anson. “That’s your bed in the corner. Goodnight.”
Anson almost followed him out. He was desperately afraid to see him leave. Master Gunvor walked with long, quick strides but he imagined he could catch him if he just ran fast enough, away from these strange children who were all of them staring at him.
One of the girls caught his hand to stop him from running. He looked at her with frightened eyes and tried to free his hand. He couldn’t; she was very strong for a young girl. She had a mass of wild, black curls that framed her face, and they bounced as she shook her head at him. She was older than him by a number of years, tall, and already rather graceful in how she carried herself. He thought she was beautiful.
“I’m Eirlys,” she said, “and you can’t go where he goes.”
Anson stared at his feet. “I can’t?”
“You belong here with us. We’ll be friends. Come this way. We’re making castles.”
Anson looked across the room and, sure enough, there was a perfect row of little castles near the far wall. The tallest of them came to his knee. They looked like the toys that wealthy children sometimes had. One of them even seemed to have a drawbridge that could lift and lower. A few of them were a little crude or misshapen, but they were still the most amazing toys he had ever seen. “You…made those?” he asked.
“It’s easy. Come on.”
She tugged at his hand. Anson dropped his pillow and blanket on the floor and stumbled after her. He sat when she sat. He couldn’t stop staring at her.
“You try,” she said. The other children were crowding around her, and it was clear to Anson that Eirlys ran things around here. Everyone looked to her for just about everything.
“Well, just make one,” Eirlys said and rolled her eyes. “You have seen a castle, right?”
He’d only ever seen them in the storybooks his mother read him, he didn’t tell her. He didn’t want her to think that he was stupid and inexperienced, that his family never traveled beyond the village, more or less visited castles.
And everyone was looking at him, expecting him to do something deliberately that he’d been beaten for doing accidentally. His hands were sweating.
“Come on then!” one of the boys shouted. “Let’s see what you’ve got!”
“Shh, Jinan!” Eirlys scolded and the gangly boy went quiet. “Walter will show us when he’s ready. Won’t you, Walter?”
“Um,” Anson said and rubbed his hands together. “Yes.”
So Anson closed his eyes and thought of a castle. He imagined the turrets and the towers and the gates and the moat and all the knights practicing on the fields. He thought of banners waving in the wind and princesses strolling through flowers.
He opened his eyes. A tiny little knight rode past his knees and was joined by five more little knights, all on expensive horses and in shining armor. A tiny little lady stared out at him from one of the windows. A tiny little king was followed around by a tiny little advisor near the portcullis. There was the trickling sound of water from the moat, which was wide and clean. Clear blue water was reflected in the polished stone of the castle walls. Wind blew the banners and flags gracefully about, and a flock of birds circled high above. The whole of it was as tall as Master Gunvor. The other children’s castles had moved—as if they had jumped up and landed—and were now arranged around it neatly. They were dwarfed in the shadow of Anson’s castle where it perched high on a hill, like Camelot.
“Well,” said Eirlys at his side, “this is a problem.”
“Did I…do something wrong?” Anson whispered. The other children were standing very far away from him now.
Eirlys tugged on one of her curls. “I’m not certain what we’re going to do with all the little people. Maybe you could…make it go away before Master Gunvor sees it?”
Anson sighed. He hadn’t meant to make it in the first place; he didn’t know how to make it go away. The other children were darting strange looks at him, whispering to each other behind their hands. He got a bad feeling that he was different even for children like them. And what if Master Gunvor threw him out on his ear, told him he was a menace, that there was no place for him here? Anson imagined his heart would break if he had to hear that ever again, especially from a man like Master Gunvor who seemed almost perfect in every way. Everything he said was perfect, even how he moved was perfect. Anson wanted, very much so, to be like him. Which meant he had to get rid of this castle before sunrise.
“Can you help me? Please?” he asked Eirlys. He was begging, but she didn’t comment on it.
Eirlys shook her head, but smiled. “I can try.”
The technicians alerted Major Bradley that Director Canemaker was available for a video conference one hour after he’d ordered double shifts for over half of his guards. It was a relief to know that he could share some of this burden with Canemaker. Bradley left a few guards outside the conference room door for privacy and hit the button that would pull down the screen and start the video feed.
Canemaker’s aged face was lined with worry as his image came into focus on screen. It took some time to describe all that had happened while Canemaker was away.
“We know he’s there,” Bradley said, coming to the end of his long explanation, “but the guards who attempted to apprehend him say he is hostile and very dangerous. I don’t want to send anybody else in there just in case he becomes violent. We’ve got men stationed close, but not too close. They’re keeping us apprised of the situation.”
After a moment of serious silence, Canemaker pursed his lips. “Floating?” he asked.
“He floats,” explained Bradley.
“Ah,” said Canemaker. Then he seemed to shrug as if he had seen it all before. “Who was it he was asking for?”
“Some guy named Stellan Gunvor.”
“Now that is interesting,” Canemaker said brightly. “I had a friend run the prints you sent me from the Tank. They belong to Stellan Gunvor. Let me introduce you to your invisible man.” He looked down to his left, said, “Ah, here it is,” and pressed a button. There was a beep as his video feed was replaced by an official document. It had fingerprints at the top and columns of information at the bottom along with a single, color photo. The man in the photo had short dark hair and narrow black eyes. He jaw was strong and well-defined. He could have been anywhere from thirty five to fifty, but he had handsome features despite how he scowled at the camera. He looked like a man who had never smiled in his whole life. Under the picture was the name Stellan Gunvor.
“Well, I’ll be,” said Bradley. “He exists.”
“Oh, yes,” said Canemaker as his video feed reappeared. “That’s one way of putting it.”
That made Bradley jerk in surprise. “Wait? You know this guy?” he asked incredulously.
Canemaker smiled expansively and said, “Well, actually, he’s an old friend of the Plamen Family. An old friend of the Plamen Research Institute.”
“An old friend who breaks into your state-of-the-art facility?”
Canemaker chuckled. “Well, ‘friend’ might be too strong of a word.”
“We’ll, you’re new to our little facility, Major,” said the Director with a bland smile.
“I’ve been here four years!”
“Like I said: new. You’ll get used to Mr. Gunvor soon enough.”
“Not if he keeps popping in whenever he feels like it and setting off my alarms. So, tell me about him. What am I dealing with?”
Canemaker downplayed the question with a casual wave of his hand. “I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Gunvor on several occasions. Those of us who have worked at the facility for a while get accustomed to his oddities. He tends to come and go as he will. In the past, he’s come through the gate. Even when it’s locked.”
Bradley blinked at that. Canemaker continued conversationally as if Bradley weren’t gaping at him. “And normally he’s visible. Normally he’ll…interact with us. I’m surprised that he went about this so covertly. But perhaps he had his reasons?”
“Hell, you tell me,” Bradley said, deadpan. “I’m just trying to figure all of this out. Is he dangerous? Do I have to worry about the safety of my men?”
Canemaker shook his head. “Is he dangerous? Yes. Undoubtedly. Has he ever been a danger to us? Not exactly, no. We did have a bit of a snafu the year before you joined us.”
Bradley stood and began pacing. “What kind of snafu?”
“He broke into Area 42. We don’t know why. It gave us all quite a scare when we learned about it. That place is locked down for a reason. We lost a few men even building it.”
“Lost men? How?” Bradley asked. He had never had much to do with Area 42. His men guarded it, but what it contained was on a need-to-know basis. He had never needed to know.
“As I said, it’s locked down for a reason. We feared the worst when Mr. Gunvor went trespassing.”
“Well, can’t we prosecute him for that? Have him arrested?”
Canemaker outright laughed at that. “I would pay money to see the prison that could hold Mr. Gunvor. Doors are his specialty, as it were.”
Bradley could feel his patience slipping. “I don’t know what the hell that’s supposed to mean. Hell, I don’t know what’s going on here at all, Director. But you do, and I’m going to get the whole story from you come hell or high water real soon. Until then, we’re going to find this Stellan Gunvor and ask him some questions.”
Canemaker smiled one of his placating smiles. “Unfortunately, he is a difficult man to find. Based on past experience, I’ve learned that the best way to get to talk to Stellan Gunvor is to wait for him to want to talk to you.”
Bradley threw his hands into the air in frustration. “So…we do nothing?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Director Canemaker,” Bradley said after a prolonged moment of silence. “Who the hell is this guy?”
“That,” said Canemaker, “is a very long story.”
Part II: The Old Country
The wind blew cold outside, but Stellan’s tent was warm, as warm as if a fire blazed in a fireplace beside him. He knew a trick or two, after all.
“I have a plan. I know what to do. With Eirlys, I mean,” said Anson in a rush as he came into the tent suddenly.
Stellan placed his book to the side and inclined his head. He could hear the army running drills outside in the overcrowded clearing. They had been on the march for over a year, camping when exhaustion became too much to bear, making the best they could out of the space they could find to sleep and train. The towns near where they stayed were not always welcoming to a force this large, and so they would have to move again. The men grumbled from time to time, but what could Stellan do? The castle simply wasn’t done yet. Truthfully, Stellan himself was impatient to be away from rough living. He was used to having a roof over his head, a place to call home. Moving constantly from place to place with this growing army was wearisome. Their devotion to Anson was marvelous, true, but if their numbers kept increasing, he feared they would become unruly. They needed stability, a real place to rest in between battles. He missed the manor house and knew that Anson did as well.
And he’d thought Anson would work with the army until late in the night, putting them through their paces. But apparently his student had some new, wild theory to share with him. The worst thing about Anson’s theories was how often he was able to make them reality.
“Do with her?” asked Stellan. “I thought you planned on defeating her and chasing her army back to the Borderlands. What else is all this for?” he asked and waved a hand towards the tent flap, indicating the army.
Anson looked younger than his fourteen years as he shook his head. His cheeks were pink from the cold. “I…I can’t kill her.”
Stellan regarded his student steadily. “Why?”
He shrugged. “Because. Before she changed, she was my friend. I just can’t.”
“She’s done terrible things, Anson. I was her teacher and even I have a hard time forgiving her for her crimes.”
“Yes, but she wasn’t always like this. I remember her from before. Don’t you?”
“Sometimes,” Stellan whispered. He drummed his fingers on his thigh. “Then tell me this plan of yours.”
Anson’s face brightened. “I found a door,” he said and then hurried to assure Stellan when his teacher looked displeased, saying, “No, Master, just listen. I promise this is a good thing. Remember how you said that there is a door to anywhere, anyplace, and that you can get there if you know how to find that door?”
“I do,” Stellan said cautiously. He’d been teaching the boy the theory, but they hadn’t gotten down to using it practically yet. It was fairly advanced. As far as Stellan knew, he was the only man in the world who could take advantage of the phenomenon at all. Even with all his gifts, he imagined that Anson might find it difficult.
The boy’s hands moved excitedly as he talked. “Well, it’s true. There are doors to everywhere, Master. Everywhere. There are even doors to places that I read about. Places people told me about.”
One of Stellan’s black brows lifted. “In your studies? Other parts of the world?”
Anson shook his head. “No. Um. Like places in storybooks. Fairy tales.”
Stellan took a deep breath. “What I taught you…it doesn’t apply to doors that aren’t real, to places that are just in your imagination.”
“But it does, Master. Your theory is right. It’s so perfect, it just needs expanding. And Eirlys…she told me a long time ago that she wanted a house on a lake. And the house has a painted green door and roses outside it and…I thought I could take her there. Away. To where she can’t hurt anyone anymore.”
Stellan didn’t speak for a moment. He studied Anson’s wide green eyes, how his hands rubbed together nervously. “Boy,” he said after some thought, “are you saying that you want to imprison Eirlys on a world that doesn’t exist?”
Anson looked at his feet and his blonde hair—too long now—fell over his eyes. “‘Imprison’ sounds terrible. I just thought…she needs some time. Some time to remember who she used to be. Before the war. And this place is perfect.”
And that made Stellan glower at Anson. “Is perfect?” he repeated slowly. “Is?”
Anson squirmed under his gaze. “I built it,” he said.
And he should have known that Anson would jump in without thinking it through. More than that, he should have gotten used to the fact that Anson didn’t know what he should and shouldn’t be able to do. He should have gotten used to the fact that Anson disregarded everything he tried to teach him about limits and going too far. They had yet to find something that was beyond him, after all. Of course he would take Stellan’s theory and go traipsing off to worlds that didn’t exist. He didn’t know what was impossible, so he simply did it anyway. Foolishly.
“Where?” asked Stellan. He was preparing to dress Anson down; he just needed all the facts before he got started.
“Here,” Anson said and tapped his forehead. “It’s all right here. It’s a beautiful place, Master. I named it Manasseh.”
This Wilderness was small in comparison to the one where Anson had been trapped, but it was no less real and dangerous. It was as if someone had sawed a piece off of the real thing and then dropped it down in the middle of the desert far away. The trees were as rotten and twisted as the ones in his mind. He half expected to see Henry Fintan marching through them with his monstrous army. There were the familiar, dark, burbling swamps and stringy, tangled vines. He could hear the growls and caws of the night creatures, the scratching noises of the scavengers in the underbrush. He knew this place so well that he could almost feel the eyes of the larger, unnatural predators lurking in the shadows. They would strike if they thought they had a chance, but Anson wasn’t afraid of them.
He tilted his face into the dank air that whistled through the swamp. He could sense Stellan better here, feel him all around. Or was it that the sensation was growing, that something was moving closer? Someone? More and more he kept thinking of Stellan. It was like an itch deep in the center of his brain that he couldn’t scratch; like he had forgotten something important.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes tight. Behind his eyelids, the real Wilderness was there, waiting for him. He could see it as if looking through a window. And he could feel Fintan there, too, ready to keep fighting for as long as they both kept not dying. It was disorienting to stand in this perfect slice of the hell he had fashioned while the brunt of it all was still crammed into his mind. The internal felt more tangible, while the world before his eyes was all confusion.
“You gave the guards quite a scare.”
Anson didn’t turn, though he felt his heart speed. He sighed heavily and readied himself for this confrontation. He’d known it would happen—had wanted it, actually. He only wished that he were at his best, that he looked how he knew he really looked. In the Wilderness—the real one—he was a warrior, not some skinny, boyish invalid who had merely been kept alive here, rotting in some machine. He wanted Stellan to be impressed with him, to be in awe of him. He resigned himself to being weak and thin.
“They tried to hurt me,” he said.
Stellan looked around as he entered the dome, stepping cautiously. “Well, they won’t be trying that again now, will they? You certainly know how to make friends.”
Anson sneered at his words. “I had a good teacher.”
“One you never heeded,” Stellan said darkly.
Anson sighed again. “Did you really just come to say ‘I told you so’?” he asked and turned at last to face Stellan. He gasped. No matter how he may have wanted it, he wasn’t prepared to see Stellan again. The sight of his old teacher made his heart ache and his throat dry. His eyes dropped suddenly to Stellan’s stomach as fear struck him. Part of him knew it was foolish to feel such fear now: he knew Stellan was fine, had seen it himself more than enough.
But his mind felt half right, barely awake. The first unfragmented image to come to him was one long past, of Stellan bleeding and fading on the edge of a clearing, illuminated by torchlight and fire. While that image was clear to him, everything else around him seemed like the memory of a ghost. He didn’t feel whole, exactly. His unmarked arms told him he wasn’t. And the remedy to his ailments felt far away, just beyond the reach of his fingertips.
Stellan smirked a little, though Anson couldn’t say why. He placed a hand on his stomach. “It’s fine,” he explained. “I don’t even have a scratch.”
Anson’s shoulders sagged in relief. He lifted his eyes to study Stellan’s face, reassuring himself that Stellan was really here and not some phantom from the dreams he used to have.
Stellan looked the same as when he’d last seen him, except for how short he now kept his hair. The only real difference of note was that his clothing was strange, and that he looked a little pale, a little sick. He was still so tall and handsome and, well, yes, stern, and disapproving, and impossible to tolerate for very long. He hadn’t changed; he had simply become more like himself. Anson was jealous then, for just a moment. He would never be the boy he had been ever again, even if he currently looked like him.
“What do you want, Master?” he asked.
Stellan smirked again at the old, familiar title and answered, “I came to find you.” He took a step closer, but his whole posture was weary. Anson could feel that it was all mixed up with anger somehow, too. Stellan was angry with him and he didn’t know why. He knew it was connected to the itch in his mind, to why he had woken in that underground place, desperate to find his teacher. But all the details of it were still hidden to him.
Worse, these new worries were all tangled up with the feelings that had plagued him in his youth. At his core, he was still just an eager student trying to earn a word of praise from Stellan. That part of him was struggling to the surface even now, trying to understand what he had done wrong so he could fix it. He forced the feeling down. He wasn’t a child anymore.
“I’m glad, I think,” Anson said after a long pause. “Yes. I’m glad you’re here. I…I think I was looking for you. I couldn’t find you. They didn’t know where you were. You were always so hard to find. Where were you?”
Anson shook his head. Stellan’s secrets were always bigger than the both of them. That hadn’t changed any more than the man himself. “You’ve been here before,” he said after a moment. “I can feel you all around. What were you doing here?”
Stellan looked into the distance for a moment, like staring into the past.
“I came to get something,” Stellan answered at last, focusing on Anson where he stood.
“What?” Anson asked.
“Nothing. Don’t worry about that,” said Stellan.
At first, he was surprised at himself for not answering truthfully. Then he slowly began to understand his reluctance to start a fight. When he had realized that Anson was awake, that he was no longer unconscious in the Tank, he had come to him ready to shout and rail, to make him see how selfish he was. He hadn’t expected to find Anson confused and lost. Anson seemed beaten already, as if the Wilderness had done a fine job at humbling him—as much as Anson could ever be humbled. It seemed a cruel thing to Stellan to reprimand a boy who had already learned his lesson in the most terrible of ways. He imagined that Anson would choose a very different path indeed were he given a chance to do it all over again. How could he punish a boy who had been punished so thoroughly already?
The boy obviously still thought, somehow, that he was supposed to worry about Stellan’s safety. He’d looked at Stellan’s stomach as if seeing through the layers of his clothing, searching for an old wound that had never really been. For all Stellan knew, Anson had been. Perhaps the Wilderness had changed him. Who could say what he could do now?
There was something about his posture that was loose and easy, as if gravity were one of many options and he was just humoring it for the time being. It seemed to Stellan as if Anson would just fly away at any moment.
And Anson wasn’t safe here. After all, if he had somehow gotten free of the Wilderness, how long before Henry Fintan followed him out using the same route? He feared for Anson.
“Why don’t you come with me?” he said. “We have to get you back to the facility. We’ll get you checked out by a doctor, make sure you’re okay.”
Anson shook his head slowly. “I can’t leave. I want to understand what the Wilderness is doing here. It shouldn’t be here. It should all be here,” he said and tapped his forehead with a thin finger. “I need to bring it back to where it belongs. Somehow.”
“We can talk about that later.”
“Do you know why it’s here?” Anson demanded. “You do know, don’t you? And I feel like I should remember, but I can’t. Everything is hazy, like mountains through a fog. Why is the Wilderness here?”
Stellan made a helpless plea with his hand. “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you all about it at the facility. We’ll go, sit down. We’ll talk.”
Anson stared at his hands with a perplexed expression on his lean face. “Talk. Yes. I feel strange. I think I left most of myself on the other side.”
“That’s…well, okay. That’s bad. But…you’re just disoriented. You’re confused. Let’s go back to the facility. They can help you.” Stellan took another step closer. He moved like a man approaching a dangerous animal would. “They’re going to want to talk to you. They have questions. We all have questions.”
“Why?” Anson asked.
“Well. You’ve been asleep for a long time.”
Anson’s eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t asleep. I don’t sleep anymore.”
Stellan took a deep breath. He was only a few feet away from Anson now. “I know. I know you weren’t asleep, Walter.”
Anson’s eyes flared green fire just briefly. Stellan took another step closer and Anson’s expression shifted to one of curiosity. His arm snaked out and he grabbed Stellan’s face in a strong grip. His fingers were stained with blood. The other hand was fierce on his shoulder, holding him still. Stellan gasped.
Anson was…more powerful than he had ever been. The touch was like electricity, like lightning. He had become something else in the Wilderness, but Stellan couldn’t say what it was. The boy was brimming with power.
Stellan’s hands came up to pull Anson’s away, but something in Anson’s eyes made him lower them, made him relax and just wait this out. Anson turned his face from side to side with more force than necessary.
“You are just as I recall,” Anson said. He stepped even closer until they were sharing breath. Stellan could smell chemicals on Anson’s skin, something sharp and strange. He could smell Eirlys mixed in with all of it.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Stellan said quietly. “You did this to me.”
Anson ignored his words, but kept studying him with intense, unblinking scrutiny. He lifted his hand from Stellan’s shoulder to caress Stellan’s face. “So handsome. Do you remember the night before the battle?”
Stellan’s breath hitched in his throat. “Anson, now is not the time. We can talk about that later.” But Anson didn’t seem to hear him. Stellan saw it coming, didn’t know what to do, didn’t know if he wanted to stop it. Then his best intentions didn’t matter as Anson leaned in to brush his lips slowly over Stellan’s. Stellan froze, couldn’t think of what to do with the warm press of Anson’s slightly chapped lips, or the sensations they sent straight down to his belly and then lower, a growing heat in his groin. Anson licked over his lower lip and traced the tip of his tongue across the seam, searching for a way in, to taste the inside of Stellan’s mouth. And Stellan could feel himself giving in, wanting to open his mouth and let him.
Then there was a low, vicious growl from behind them. Anson sighed and released Stellan from his grip. He turned to face the thing.
“Someone always interrupts us, don’t they?”
Stellan’s eyes widened at the thing looming over them. He got a vague impression of big, and teeth, and scales, and claws, but the creature never formed into a complete picture. Stellan was trapped between the past and the present, choking on memories. Anson didn’t seem afraid at all.
“Hello,” he said to the thing. His feet lifted off the ground. “Master,” he tossed over his shoulder, “you should stay back.”
“Anson!” He rushed forward and hit some kind of invisible wall. “Anson!”
“Shh,” Anson said. “This is nothing. This is nothing at all.”
Then the thing lunged and Anson’s body seemed to vibrate, to glow. Stellan was aware of screaming out his fear, roaring it into the night air. He reached out a hand to Anson but he couldn’t reach him, couldn’t reach him, and it was all so familiar, all too familiar.
General Stellan Gunvor stormed through the halls of Gunvor Castle. When he came to the large quarters where his former pupil slept, studied, and planned war, he didn’t bother knocking. The door was locked—an understatement to be sure—but that didn’t mean much to him. Even a door locked by Walter Anson didn’t mean much to him.
Anson looked up from his maps when the heavy door smacked hard against the new stone. He watched silently as Stellan entered the room like a thunderstorm, all fury and darkness. His black robes flared out behind him like ink in water. Over his heart was the crest of the army he served—a heart pierced by a key, floating between the gates of a stylized Gunvor Castle—Anson’s own symbol.
There was one embroidered bright on Anson’s own tunic and he covered it with his arms as he crossed them over his chest, waiting. Anson didn’t appear surprised by Stellan’s anger. “I went through all that trouble with the door so I wouldn’t be disturbed,” he said.
“We’ll call it a lesson learned, then. Now you know that it’ll take more than the best you can do to keep me out. I still know tricks you’ll never know, boy.”
“Ah. You’re angry with me,” said Anson. It gave Stellan pause. He sounded much older than his years. He was sixteen now, hardly the mere child Stellan had first met. Still, he couldn’t help it: whenever he looked at Anson, he saw only a frail, big-eyed boy of six crying for the mother who had left him on a stranger’s doorstep.
Sometimes he regretted marching him into the manor house instead of following his instinct to send him away. He regretted feeding him and giving him clean clothing to wear. He regretted keeping him, like some kind of dangerous pet that he could tame.
“I’m different,” the boy had said that day, soaking wet and miserable. And it was, to this day, the biggest understatement Stellan had ever heard. Anson was still surprising him, even now.
And certainly they had been in countless battles together, had patched up each other’s wounds enough times. He should have come to terms with the fact that Anson was no longer a child, but it was proving difficult. He wasn’t ready to let go of the boy he had been, especially since the man he was becoming was something of a handful.
“How astute of you to notice,” Stellan said, snapping himself out of his memories. He made a slashing gesture with his hand and the door slammed shut twice as hard as it had opened. He could hear the wood splintering, but didn’t care. So the damn castle was new, it needed to be broken in.
“What have I done to upset you?” Anson said slyly. “I’ll try to set it right.”
Stellan shook his head with a sour expression. “Oh, how charming. For starters, when were you going to tell me about the prison?”
“So Jinan ratted on me?” Anson said. He gave an elegant, long-suffering sigh.
“He didn’t have to,” Stellan said with barely restrained calm, “I can read him like a book. Jinan isn’t the problem, you’re the problem.”
Anson laughed. “You’re being ridiculous, Master.”
“No, you are. Think for a minute, boy. Think! What makes you think you have the means to contain someone like Henry Fintan? He’s defeated us at every turn. His forces are superior to ours. He is superior to us—and to you—in every way. You don’t have the power to control him, to lock him up and keep him as a prisoner.”
Anson’s youthful face crumpled, then hardened. “It worked with Eirlys Plamen.”
Stellan clenched his fists. Only Anson could make him lose his temper like this. “Eirlys was not as powerful as Fintan,” he said through his teeth.
“She was powerful enough.”
“That’s even more reason to abandon this plan. You’re weaker than you were then, Anson.”
“You are,” Stellan hissed. He’d been forcing himself not to say this for over two years, but now it could no longer be kept quiet. “I’ve seen you barely able to summon even a light to read by! I’ve seen you almost faint on the battlefield! And I’ve worked damn hard to keep anyone else from noticing, but enough is enough.”
Anson went still and quiet. He looked down, away, anywhere but up at Stellan’s judging black eyes. “You don’t understand,” he mumbled.
“I think I understand too well. How much of your power is being used to keep Eirlys in Manasseh?” Stellan whispered. His tone had gentled out, all the anger from before dissipated. He crossed the room to stand before Anson and—awkwardly, slowly—placed a fatherly hand on his shoulder. Anson stared at it for long seconds with his head bowed. Perhaps he, too, was surprised that Stellan was touching him. It was a rare thing indeed unless one of them was dragging the other out of harm’s way. But there was no danger here, just Stellan and Anson and the weight Anson was carrying on his shoulders.
Finally, Anson said, “It’s not Manasseh. It’s…it’s… that. I’m…tired. I’m so tired.”
“Dammit, boy,” Stellan said and pulled Anson into his arms. Stellan held him while he shook; he whispered meaningless platitudes he was certain Anson didn’t hear. Holding him was even rarer for Stellan than touching his shoulder, and Stellan wondered if it felt as new and strange to Anson as it did for him. It didn’t feel wrong, exactly, just different.
And Anson felt small and strong all at once in his arms, and Stellan didn’t understand how that was possible. He felt a little breathless holding him and he imagined—or thought he imagined—the feel of Anson’s lips moving slowly against his chest, hot through the fabric.
It was a long time before Anson pulled away and turned his back on Stellan. “Anson?” Stellan asked, breaking the silence. He watched the rigid line of Anson’s back and feared the worst. He was right to, as Anson spoke, saying, “I can’t let them down. That army— those men crammed into every room of this castle of yours—they follow me. They are here for me and I can’t fail them. I will do whatever it takes to stop Fintan. I’ve…I’ve been working. I already have it.”
Stellan blinked at him. “You…built it already?”
Anson turned to him. He nodded, then shook his head. “Yes. No. I didn’t need to build it. It was already there. I just opened the door, invited it in.”
“Opened the door? Anson, what are you saying?”
Anson’s brow furrowed as he tried to explain. He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “You taught me that there is a door to anywhere, anyplace, and that you can get there—”
“Anson, don’t do this—”
“—if you know how to find that door,” he continued, speaking over Stellan’s pleas. “I believed you. I built Manasseh, Master, but Fintan’s prison I found. There was a door—a great, massive door— and it was locked, but I got through. I opened it. And now it’s all here,” he said and tapped his forehead. “I call it ‘the Wilderness.’ It’s…it’s a terrible place, Master. It’s the hell Fintan deserves.”
“So you are to be his judge, jury, and executioner?” Stellan growled. “Has nothing I taught you made it through your thick skull? There are things that you should not do with all your gifts and this is one of them.”
Anson’s frustration was palpable in the air. His hands clenched into fists at his sides and his shoulders went rigid with tension. “Oh, yes! Master Gunvor and his rules! All you do is preach about restraint, about what we can and can’t do, and what we can and can’t have!” Anson shouted. “I didn’t ask for this, but I have it anyway.”
He held up a single hand and cool, blue light flared to life around his fingers. It danced across his palm. Tendrils of it swam through his fingers, jumped like dolphins around his knuckles, and circled around his wrist. He clenched his fist and the light was crushed, ground into dust. It was a silly waste of power, a showy trick. Stellan crossed his arms and glared, but Anson was determined to make his point.
“And since I have this power,” he said, “I want to do things with it. Things that make a difference. I’m not trying to hurt anyone. I’m not trying to seize power or control people. I’m trying to make the world better!”
Stellan’s face became stone. “At the cost of your soul?” he asked. “Because this is wrong, Walter. Doing whatever you like because you are powerful makes you as much a tyrant as Henry Fintan.”
Anson threw his arms wide and screamed, “Henry Fintan doesn’t play by your rules! Only you believe these things you teach! Only you follow these rules! You have no pleasures, Master, we all know that. You indulge in nothing and expect everyone in the world to do the same.”
Stellan glared daggers at him. “Watch what you say, boy.”
“Or what?” Anson said and gave a sad little laugh. “Master Gunvor,” he began again more softly, “you’ve taught all of us never to take too much or go beyond the limits you’ve set. It’s stifling.”
“It must be taught.” Stellan tried. “Someone like you with no rules? No understanding of right and wrong?”
“And yet Eirlys nearly burned the world to the ground anyway,” said Anson. “And you don’t like to hear it, but you’re what drove her to it. You held her back so much, told her to be ordinary when she was extraordinary. She left to take all the things she knew she could have, but that you told her she couldn’t.”
“Eirlys never understood what I tried to teach her,” Stellan said. “I had hoped you would prove wiser.”
“Sometimes, being around you? Trying so damn hard to please you?” Anson shook his head slowly. “I can understand why Eirlys did it. I can’t even blame her.”
“You don’t mean that,” Stellan said quickly.
Anson shrugged. “Perhaps I don’t. I don’t know.”
Stellan took a deep breath. He had to make Anson understand. “Listen to me. There is no reason for this Wilderness, Anson. We can just defeat Henry Fintan. Weaken his army. Drive him back to where he came from. Why imprison him when we can end his reign forever?”
Anson looked away. He didn’t seem to have an answer he was willing to tell Stellan. After a moment where all his old nervous habits resurfaced worse than ever, from rubbing his hands together to staring at his feet, Anson finally answered. “It’s bigger than Henry Fintan,” he said. “This is about…making the world safe long after he’s gone. The Wilderness is…it’s the answer to so many of our problems.”
Stellan had no idea what that meant or what to do about it. When he taught Anson about the doors, he hadn’t imagined that the boy would take the theory to this extreme. Manasseh had been one thing, but this Wilderness sounded much worse. He had never intended for Anson to go finding doors to places that only appeared to exist in his mind. Of course, when did Anson ever do what he was supposed to?
“You don’t really know what this Wilderness is, do you? And you’ve let it inside your mind?”
When Anson averted his eyes, Stellan caught his shoulders and squeezed, forcing him to look at him. “You may be strong, but you’re not who you were before Manasseh. Then, no one could have touched you. Now, you’re a shell of yourself. Fintan has you beaten because Fintan isn’t holding two prisons in his mind! You’re just a boy. You’re just…you’re just my…”
“Your what, Master?” Anson asked, head tilted back to look at him with his eyes hard and knowing. And there it was again, that man’s voice in this boy’s body and Stellan wanted to scream “No!”
How could he make the child return, banish this difficult, complicated, infuriating man before Anson became him forever?
“You’re just too young,” Stellan finished. “You still have a lot to learn.”
Anson smiled up at him. It was one of his sad, broken smiles, the kind he had probably been born with. “Yes, well, I’m not your student anymore,” he said and lifted one of his small hands to cup Stellan’s cheek. It was warm and callused and Stellan felt his eyelids flutter.
“And I’m no longer a boy. You are the greatest general in my army, my most trusted advisor. I value your opinion, but I am still your commander.” His voice became granite. “You will follow my orders. I’m sorry, Master, but you know you can’t stop me.”
“I can try.”
Anson smiled. “You can,” he agreed. “But I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Stellan felt helpless looking down at his arrogant student. His commander. Anson trusted him, respected his opinion. Perhaps he could wear the stubborn boy down? For the time being, they were at another one of their infamous impasses. He would try another day.
He released Anson’s shoulders and Anson let his hand slip from Stellan’s face slowly, almost reluctantly. Stellan stepped away from Anson.
His eyes drifted to the map on the table. Henry Fintan’s forces were represented by a black blot the size of his hand situated just outside the Capital, and another twice as large further south. There were artfully placed designs around the borders of the main force. They seemed to swirl and loop powerfully over the entire world, but always returned to Fintan, free and deadly. Stellan exhaled.
“Fintan has dragons?”
Anson tilted his head. “Fintan has dragons.”
“Can he control them?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
Anson smiled his most arrogant smile, “I thought so, too.”
Henry Fintan didn’t know what to do with his sudden good luck.
In a thousand years, Walter Anson had never been this quiet for this long. He ran a hand through his straw blonde hair and smiled up at the mountain. He had wild blue eyes. The slow, endless passage of time had made them brighter, a little mad.
Behind him, his army was scattered across the foot of the mountain, waiting for his orders. And behind them was the edge of the wasteland. This far north, the wasteland was all there was. As far as Fintan knew, it went on forever, an endless, terrible landscape. The earth was low and cracked, flat and dark. Ominous clouds hovered overhead, spitting lighting down like curses. And hedging the wasteland in on one side were the mountains. He knew Anson had named them, but he’d never cared to find out what they were called. What difference did it make? They were all part of his prison and a prison didn’t need a name to be effective.
He closed his eyes and placed a hand on the cold rock. Like everything here in the place Anson called ‘the Wilderness,’ the mountain was deformed and jagged. It was capped with snow at its peak, but nothing could make it lovely. It was a fat, dirty mountain. An ugly mountain. Fintan loved it, if only for what he could tell was hidden inside it.
He let his hand drift over the rock and simply felt. He hadn’t been wrong: there was something here. It had woken him up in the middle of the night, sent him into a furious campaign to move his army north and then further north. Something was winking at him, signaling to him. And here it was, lodged in this tragic mountain; hiding from him coyly. Against his palm, whatever it was buried under all this ugly rock felt open and full of color. It felt…familiar. It was like a song he had known once but had forgotten. And now it was as if he could hear it playing in some further room. He just couldn’t get to it.
He pulled his hand back, almost despaired at the silence where the music had been. He opened his eyes. Fintan turned away and waved to Inch, his best general. The creature lumbered up in his lumpy, gray armor. He went to one knee before him.
“Sire?” Inch said in his low, harsh voice. It was good when Inch addressed him. It helped him remember that he existed. If Inch could see him, he was real.
It had taken Fintan a few hundred years to figure out that he didn’t have to fight Anson alone. True, his prison was uninhabited—besides Anson, anyway. But that didn’t mean that it was without resources. And Fintan was the most powerful man in this or any world.
The trick had been making them smart. It had been easy to make them strong, but he needed them to be smart to control them. The first few tries had resulted in beasts—savage, and just as much a threat to Fintan as they had been to Anson. Anson had killed all of them batch after batch and Fintan hadn’t minded too much.
But it was harder for even Anson to defeat generals and soldiers like Inch. They were made of the stuff of this world; they were a part of it. When they were struck down, they just reformed, nourished by the very place where they had fallen. They didn’t eat. They didn’t sleep. These were useful things since Fintan’s spies had told him long ago that Anson had stopped doing either himself. Yes, Fintan needed sentinels who could keep him safe from an enemy who was running short on weaknesses.
Fintan still needed sleep, still needed food. He had contemplated learning what Anson had done to free himself of those burdens, but had abandoned the endeavor before ever really starting. He felt the simple tasks of resting and filling his belly helped keep him connected to humanity, somehow. And he wondered what, exactly, Anson had become that he needed neither sleep nor sustenance. Was he more like Inch than anything else?
Besides the recent lack of activity from Anson, Inch and his brothers were the only thing that had gone Fintan’s way in a long, long time. And Fintan would never admit to anyone, not even to himself, that he had needed more than soldiers when he made them. He had needed the company. Despite their monstrous appearances, they made him feel human, too, as much as eating and sleeping, or possibly more so.
The Wilderness, more than anything, was a lonely prison.
He hadn’t been comforted by the idea that Anson shared it with him—was just as miserable here as Fintan was himself—in hundreds of years. What comfort was there in knowing that your enemy suffered if you yourself suffered just as greatly? What kind of sad victory was that? No, he no longer wanted Anson dead, no longer dreamed of revenge. At least, he didn’t think so. If given the opportunity, who could say?
What was true was that he wanted out. The Wilderness had taken his youth and made it endless, had forced him to squander his power on mere survival. The Wilderness had taken time away from him and hope and even his sanity. He needed the victory of freedom from this place.
“Inch,” he said thoughtfully. “I believe there is something at the heart of this mountain.”
“Its heart, sire?”
“Yes. I can hear it. Feel it. I want you to organize the men. I want you to start tunneling.”
“Through the mountain?”
Fintan nodded. He knew he was right to do it this way. This time, caution was more important. The song was delicate, like glass, and if he blasted through the rock, he risked shattering whatever it was buried here. He had to be careful. If that meant doing it the old fashioned way, he would. One of the things he had learned in his time here fighting endlessly with Anson was that all the power in the world meant nothing if you didn’t know how to use it. Now was a time for restraint.
“What about Anson?” Inch asked. There was, perhaps, worry on his scratched and battered face.
“He has been quiet,” Fintan answered. “And if he attacks, we are in a good spot to defend.”
Inch looked skeptical—what Fintan had decided was Inch looking skeptical, anyway. “I only wish to be alert,” he said. “Not distracted by digging through a mountain. I fear that we won’t be able to defend you, sire.”
Fintan shook his head. “Don’t worry. I want you to find me that song,” he said, imagining its rhythm as he spoke. “You can start tomorrow. For now, set up camp. I’m tired.”
He would sleep, and Inch would not. Inch would sit beside him all night, still as stone; and if Fintan woke screaming from a nightmare, Inch would tell him he was safe, that he could sleep. Inch would protect him.
He walked away from Inch then, back to the mountain. He placed his hand on the rock, listening to that distant song, imagining.
He would be patient. He would be free.
The wind rushed past his ears, the ground rushed up to him. It was almost hilarious that the last thing he thought about was Anson at the age of seven, curled up on Stellan’s big bed because he couldn’t sleep in his own for nightmares.
Then pain and darkness and silence.
Eirlys was beside him when he regained consciousness. Again. He recognized the old stone ceiling of his own castle, the heavy wood of his big bed. He was home. He hadn’t ever intended to see the damn place again.
And it was incongruous to see this woman expertly sewing a quilt at his bedside. In a rocking chair, no less. He’d never owned a rocking chair in his life so he guessed she must have just made it from thin air as she sometimes did. She had brought nations to their knees before Anson finally stopped her. Now, she looked like she wouldn’t hurt a fly. All her wild, black curls were pulled back into a tight, matronly bun. There were streaks of gray at her temples and the color of her eyes had faded. Her face was still younger than it had rights to be, but no one would call her young. She looked like an aging mother despite the fact that she was an aging grandmother many times over.
And where had the years gone?
Stellan had looked out for Eirlys after Manasseh. She’d been very lost and very confused. Now she seemed to think that it was her job to look out for Stellan. It put them at crossed purposes: Stellan no longer wanted to be looked after. Anson had been gone for 400 years.
He didn’t know how much longer he could endure.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” Eirlys said with a winning smile when she saw him blink at the sunlight. She was a little plumper than the last time he had seen her. That was when he had tried drowning. She’d pulled him from the water with a disapproving sneer.
“The Great Stellan Gunvor. Hah! You look like a drowned cat!”
And she’d already been putting on weight then. It was an improvement. When Anson and his army had defeated her—imprisoned her for the good of the world, for her own good— she’d been lean and savage, a hungry wolf mad on power. Stellan thought once again that Manasseh had agreed with her.
He tried to sit up in bed, but found it very difficult to move.
“Your legs are going to take some time to mend,” Eirlys said, still smiling. “And your back. You did a number on yourself this time. I didn’t find you, by the way. One of my boys did. He said you were all twisted up. What was it this time?”
Stellan settled back on the pillows, squirmed a little. “A cliff. I jumped off a cliff.”
“I thought it might work.”
“Has anything you’ve tried worked?” she snapped, then held up a stern finger when he tried to reply. “Don’t answer that,” she said with a huff.
Stellan took a deep breath. “I haven’t tried everything yet.”
“You’ve tried just about everything in the world, near as I can tell.”
“Everything in this world,” he said.
Eirlys looked at him sharply. “Oh, no. Now what? What’s in that clever mind of yours, Master Gunvor?”
“Nothing, really,” he lied. “Only, tell me about Manasseh. I never really asked you after…after everything. Anson said it was beautiful.”
“Did he? Well, it was,” Eirlys said with a smile. “I can’t get back there now.”
Stellan nodded. Of course she couldn’t: Manasseh only existed in Anson’s mind. And Anson was gone.
“At first, I fought it. I fought that boy every moment of every day.” Eirlys’ fist clenched on her quilt for just a second before it relaxed again, gentle across her knee. Stellan could remember too well watching Anson’s face go bloodless mid-sentence, watching him gasp for air and clutch at his chest. In those early days, Eirlys had put up one hell of a fight.
“What changed?” Stellan asked.
Eirlys shrugged. “I changed. It really was the perfect prison. I had no army, no allies, no worlds to conquer; I had nothing to do with all my power. Manasseh is…lonely. There is no one to rule, no one to command. There was just the water and the trees. My cottage. I had a cat,” she said with another shrug. “I named him Jinan.”
Stellan smirked. “Jinan would have been flattered.”
“No, I don’t think he would have been. It was an ugly, stupid cat.”
And that made him laugh, but even that hurt. Underneath all the pain, he could feel his body healing. It was a very awkward feeling, one he’d never gotten used to. The first time had been an accident: he’d been stabbed in a bar fight. It had been a stupid, drunken disagreement over a few coins, and his body had pushed the knife out before his eyes. Foolishly, it took another few decades for him to notice that he no longer aged.
“Anson remembered who you used to be,” Stellan said at last.
“Well, I’m me again,” she said huffily, “but where is Anson to appreciate it, hmm? Sleeping pretty as can be in my basement! He was an idiot. And I miss him. I know you miss him, too.”
“We’re the only ones left to miss him,” Stellan said harshly. He felt his face go hot, felt his eyes sting.
“Shhh. It’s all right, Stellan,” Eirlys said with a kind, knowing, understanding expression, and Stellan hated her right then for it. “It’s all right,” she repeated.
He was quiet so long that Eirlys said, “You never visit him anymore.”
“Why should I?” Stellan barked. “It’s not like he knows if we visit or not,” he added sullenly.
“How do you know that? Maybe he can hear you.”
“He’s not here, Eirlys,” Stellan argued. “He’s in the Wilderness. He made sure that it was inescapable and so that’s what it is.”
Eirlys tilted her head, studying him. “You’re still angry with him.”
“Hah,” Stellan said with no humor. “Why would I be angry with him? He saved the world, didn’t he?”
“Don’t get sassy with me, Stellan Gunvor. You’re mad at that boy because you can’t die and you know it’s his fault and you’re slipping into madness from the loneliness.”
Stellan looked away from her. “Don’t be absurd.”
“I’m not, old friend. I’m telling you the truth, even if you don’t want to hear it.”
He brooded for a moment, staring through the doorway at the passage that led to a section of his castle where he no longer went. Anson’s books and maps were still there, gathering dust. Perhaps they were turning into dust, rotting away on the tables and shelves. Stellan had no idea.
“Isn’t it funny?” he said at last. “Henry Fintan was defeated that day, no matter what else we lost. And no one has stepped up to take his place. You don’t seem to want the job yourself.”
“I’m too old to be trying to rule the world,” Eirlys said with a wicked smile.
“And I was never cut out to be a tyrant. How marvelous, then, that we’re all free from men like Fintan. In fact, we even seem to be free from men like Anson.”
“So you’ve noticed it, too?” Eirlys said with a sad sigh. “I thought maybe you had met someone. Anyone.”
Stellan managed a shake of his head. It didn’t hurt as much as he imagined it might. “Not in over a hundred years,” he said. “Did your children…?”
“Only little things. Things to mend clothing or find a button. One of them could light a fire.”
He nodded. “And your grandchildren?”
“Nothing. Not even a single prophetic dream. We live a little longer than you might expect. That’s it.”
Stellan swallowed. “So it’s you and me, then.”
Eirlys patted his hand gently. “There are no dragons, Stellan. Not anymore. The world doesn’t need them. The world doesn’t need us. I think…I think Anson took it all with him. He drained it right out of the world, like pulling a stopper from a tub. He even took himself away.”
And had he done it all on purpose? Stellan wondered. He guessed now he would never know.
“If it’s all gone, then why can’t we die?” Stellan asked and his voice caught on a sob. He swallowed it back down after a long moment. He couldn’t stand that Eirlys was here to see him like this.
“Well,” Eirlys said and patted her bun, “I’m still here because I’m not ready to go yet. I’ve got some life left in me. I’m not using any of what’s inside me to rule the world, so I figure I can use it up just sticking around. Keeping you company. Keeping Anson safe while he sleeps.”
“And me?” Stellan whispered.
“You? Well, I’ve always thought that Anson needed you too much to let you die there like that. I think he just panicked. You know he couldn’t always control what he did. I think that spell was nothing ever written down in any book. He needed you to be alive, and so here you are.”
He shook his head. He didn’t want to imagine that his existence had been reduced to the whim of a desperate boy.
“No. No more, Eirlys. Tell me more about Manasseh. It’s different from this world? The trees are not our trees? The animals are not our animals?”
Eirlys nodded. She let him change the subject out of pity for an old man in pain, he guessed. “I was there for three years, but it felt like eternity,” she said. “Except for the cat, there was nothing familiar. It was a strange world. Beautiful, but strange. Only Anson could have dreamed it up.”
She gave Stellan a suspicious look. “Ah, I see. You’re thinking you could finally die on one of those worlds.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“Well, good luck getting to one of them. I believe only Anson knew how to do it.”
Stellan was able to sit up at last. The bones of his back shifted into place with a terrible, sickening crack. He winced, but forced the pain down enough to say, “I taught that boy everything he knew. If he could get to the Wilderness, so can I.”
Major Bradley called for Dr. Smith the instant Stellan Gunvor popped out of thin air in front of him on Level One. He’d been overseeing the cleanup of all the mess Anson had made while keeping a close eye on reports as they filtered in from Area 42. Many of them didn’t make sense—the guards babbling about something roaring like a dinosaur in the movies. And then Stellan Gunvor was suddenly standing in front of him and Bradley felt his heart lurch in his chest. The disappearing and reappearing was worse than the floating.
He recognized Stellan from the photo Canemaker had shown him. He cut a striking figure, dressed all in black as he was, with his black hair and black eyes. Bradley wondered what the point of security was when their visitors didn’t seem to need doors.
In Stellan’s arms was Anson, unconscious. “What happened?” Bradley asked as he rushed to Stellan’s side.
“He…decided to fight a dragon,” Stellan said. He lowered Anson gently to the floor. “He’s fine. He just overdid it.”
Bradley shook his head. Dragons, he thought. Why not? Of course there were dragons. Hell, Anson could disappear. The guards who had responded to the security breach lowered their guns when Bradley waved at them. “Stand down!” he barked.
“Thanks,” Stellan said. He didn’t lift his eyes from Anson’s sleeping face. When he finally looked up, he said, “You must be the new Major,” and extended his hand. “I’m Stellan Gunvor.” Bradley took his hand and gave it a firm shake.
“I’ve been informed that you’re a local celebrity around here.”
“I should hope not,” Stellan said distractedly. He was smoothing Anson’s too-long hair off of his face. It was a strange mix of paternal and…something else. Bradley cleared his throat and backed away, glad that the arrival of Dr. Smith gave him a reason to turn his back on the intimate scene.
“Ah, Doctor,” he said, “can you have a look at Anson?”
But Smith wore a fearful expression and wasn’t even looking his way. Bradley followed his gaze to Stellan who was glaring back at him.
“Dr. Smith, wasn’t it?” Stellan asked and his voice was Arctic ice. He came to his full height and Bradley was surprised to realize that Stellan was taller than him. And he practically towered over Smith.
“Mr. Gunvor,” Smith said weakly.
Stellan confirmed his hatred for the doctor by saying, “Call Director Canemaker. I won’t let that man touch Anson.”
Smith went even whiter, but he didn’t argue. He stood still, watching Stellan warily. The Major didn’t know what was going on exactly, but he didn’t have time to figure it out.
“Unfortunately, the Director’s out of town,” he said to Stellan, but kept the frightened doctor in the corner of his eye. “There are other doctors who can have a look at Anson. We need to be sure he’s okay.”
“That will be fine,” Stellan conceded. He lifted Anson again and placed him gently on one of the tables. Smith stayed far away. He looked like he would have preferred being around a python to being around Stellan Gunvor, and Bradley had to wonder again what exactly had gone down to make these men hate each other so.
“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Gunvor,” Director Canemaker said. “I’m sorry that I’m troubling you once again for a favor.”
Stellan jogged along beside him. His shadow was long beside Canemaker’s on the helipad. “It’s not a problem,” said Stellan. “How can I help?”
“I’ll explain on the way there,” Canemaker said.
The two men ducked under the spinning blades of a helicopter. They were wearing headsets and high in the air minutes later.
The city blurred beneath them. Soon enough, civilization ended and turned into an endless, golden swath of desert, beautiful but cruel.
The Director’s voice buzzed and cackled with electronic static in his ear. “We received reports of a strange growth just west of the Plamen Research Facility.”
“A strange growth?” Stellan repeated. It had been a long time since he’d heard anything of the sort. As Eirlys had taken to saying, there were no dragons anymore. Not in this world at least.
“A jungle of sorts. Now, now, don’t shoot the messenger,” he said when Stellan cut a look at him. “I’m just telling you what they told me. I was heading back to the facility anyway when I got the call. I told them I’d go check it out. And since there were some reports that you were nearby, I thought I’d send out a message, drag you along, get your expert opinion.”
Stellan nodded. “Fair enough. You say it’s close to the facility?”
“Yes, but don’t worry. I’m certain that Anson is safe.”
Stellan tried for indifference. “The thought never crossed my mind.”
“That I find hard to believe. You haven’t been by to see him in a few years. Why not pop down for a visit?”
Stellan didn’t answer right away. “I’ll think about it,” he said at last.
A short while later, the helicopter was hovering over the thing. It made Stellan’s heart skip a beat. ‘Jungle’ didn’t quite cover it, though there was the vast variety of life one would expect in a jungle. Some of the plants were tree-like and tall while the rest were vines and low bushes, difficult to see from the air. Granted, all of it was twisted and rotted, writhing and convulsing as the mass of it grew, but it was still plant life. It was already the size of a baseball field and it was apparent that the thing was still growing and expanding. Its edges crept out at least ten feet in each direction every five minutes. He could see the armored cars that belonged to the facility parked in the sand along one edge of the anomaly. They were pulling back as the jungle was too close to them now. Stellan feared that no amount of distance would be truly safe. The men weren’t alone down there.
It was bright enough outside that Stellan could see things darting around through the trees and bushes. The shapes were large and they moved quickly. All sorts of things thrived there. It was the dark forest of a children’s story, or of a child’s nightmare, and Stellan knew there were wolves lurking and worse.
There were things living there that stared out at you from the darkness with red and yellow eyes.
Stellan felt like he was falling into the double vision of memory. Some things he hadn’t expected to see twice. Worse, he felt it tugging at his soul, felt the strings that tied him to the place like pricks of a needle up and down his essence. “At this rate, it will reach the Plamen Research Facility by nightfall,” he said warningly. Canemaker was speechless. He kept shaking his head in denial of what he was seeing.
“What is it?” Canemaker asked. Stellan said nothing. He was pale and his expression was dark.
“Have you ever seen anything like it before?” Canemaker tried again and Stellan couldn’t lie. “Only once. A long time ago.”
Canemaker opened his mouth to ask a question, then thought better of it. “So what do we need to do?” he asked.
“We have to get to Anson,” Stellan answered.
Canemaker immediately ordered the pilot to turn them towards the research facility and to hurry. “This has something to do with Anson? Is he all right?”
Stellan closed his eyes and shook his head. “I doubt it. If this is here, Anson’s not…Anson’s not…in control of it if it’s here,” he tried to explain. Canemaker looked confused and Stellan wanted to curse. He didn’t know what Eirlys had told him, but he guessed it wasn’t enough. He wished she were here now more than ever.
He was anxious the entire way to the facility. He kept thinking of leaving the Director to get to the facility his way. The truth of it was that he’d never tried using one of the doors from inside a moving vehicle before. For all he knew, he’d end up in a million pieces, scattered across the desert. It wouldn’t kill him, no, but it would take a long time to recover from something like that, and then he wouldn’t be able to help Anson.
All he could do was wait and worry. Beside him, Canemaker seemed to be doing the same.
The Major—a stern man named Campbell—was standing at the gate to greet Stellan and Canemaker when they rushed away from the helicopter, windswept and fearful.
“Director,” Major Campbell shouted over the whir of the helicopter as it took off. “We have a situation.”
Canemaker’s face fell as if to say, “Now what?”
Five minutes later, all three men were standing in Level One, looking down at Anson. He was lying on a table and his skin was bloodless and turning blue. He wasn’t breathing. His once brilliant green eyes were sightless and wide, fixed on the metal ceiling and eerie for their stillness. The loose pants he always wore were damp from the fluid of the Tank. He was so thin that his ribs were like valleys, and Stellan was having double vision again. He couldn’t shake the image of this young man as he had been at the age of six, crying and crying. So skinny and hurt.
It had been a long time since Stellan had seen Anson outside of the Tank. The thing itself was no longer upright, but was on its side with the front of it gaping open like a mouth. The fluid still roiled and fluctuated inside it—a fractal pattern in amber and green—but the Tank looked strange without Anson floating gently in its embrace. Stellan looked down again at his greatest student. He wanted to touch him, push his hair off his face or hold his hand, but everyone was watching him.
The doctor in the corner—he’d said his name was Smith—was looking on with an edgy expression.
Canemaker turned to Major Campbell first for answers. “How did this happen?” he asked.
Campbell shook his head. “I’m not sure myself.” He turned to the doctor. “Dr. Smith?” he said.
Smith took a small, nervous step forward. “The Plamens requested that Anson be taken out of the Tank.”
“Like hell they did,” Stellan shouted and lunged forward. Campbell caught him and held him back, and Stellan was almost charmed by the idea that the Major thought he could stop him if he wanted to hurt Smith.
Canemaker spoke over the ruckus. “And you conveniently waited to do this until I was out of town? Tina Plamen would never consent to this.”
Smith stood a little straighter. “Tina’s husband, Michael, is her power of attorney.”
Stellan shook his head in disgust. Eirlys was probably rolling in her grave right now.
“Dr. Smith, this is quite unacceptable!” Canemaker was saying. “Don’t you understand the gravity of—”
Smith’s voice went angry and loud as he replied, “I made a decision based on irrefutable data using medical expertise, not some mumbo-jumbo espoused by a dead woman who was probably crazy!”
“I’ll not have you speak ill of that woman, Doctor.”
“And you’re as crazy as she was!”
Stellan ignored it all. He backed away from Campbell’s restraining hand, but gave him a reassuring look. He was under control now. He wouldn’t hurt the fool of a doctor, not when he had something more important to do. Campbell seemed to understand what he intended to do.
“Can you help him?” Campbell asked, barely audible over the shouting.
“I can try,” said Stellan. He turned back to Anson.
And he didn’t care if anyone saw him now, so he lifted his hand and placed it right over Anson’s heart.
Touching Anson still felt unusual, despite all that had happened; he had never been an affectionate man. Sometimes he regretted that. Perhaps Anson would have made less rash and dangerous choices if he had just told him more that he was proud of him. That he…cared for him.
Anson’s chest was cold beneath his hand. He took his other hand and covered Anson’s forehead. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated. He wished he had asked Eirlys exactly how she did this. One day, she’d taken it upon herself to keep Anson alive, and Stellan had hated her for that for a long time. After all, he’d believed that he would keep living this horrible, endless life as long as Anson lived.
He’d been wrong: Anson was dead, wasn’t he? And Stellan was still alive, wasn’t he? Now he wished he’d been more interested in the mechanics of extending a life than he had been in the mechanics of ending his own.
He hadn’t believed Eirlys when she told him her theories about the Wilderness, but here was proof that she’d been right all along: if Anson died, he couldn’t control the horrors in his mind, and they would be set free on this world. It sent Stellan’s mind racing with questions:
That growing chunk of swamp out there was only a small slice of the prison meant to contain Henry Fintan, so how long did they have before the desert was completely overrun by the Wilderness? And would it stop growing? What if it didn’t? And what of the cities nearest to the desert? The people living in them? Stellan had only seen Fintan’s prison once, but that had given him the impression that it was big in ways beyond comprehension. Would the Wilderness consume everything in its path?
And yes, fine, Stellan did hold a deeply rooted belief that he shouldn’t tamper with the world like this, that there were things he shouldn’t do. He’d failed to convey that belief to Anson and here they were, still dealing with the mess Anson had caused with his foolishness. Stellan knew that he should have taken that lesson and used it to double his certainty in his own rightness, used it as a good reason not to do anything as extreme as what he was about to do. But he needed Anson back, now, for so many reasons. His moral high ground simply had to yield.
“What is he doing?” he heard Smith shout.
Stellan closed his mind to the noise, to anything but Anson, his body, and the place where they touched. He reached into himself, found the power that was there. He rarely used it for anything now. There was hardly any reason to. Perhaps, he mused, it was like riding a bike as the saying went. He imagined a warm light traveling from his core to his hand where it rested against Anson’s chest. He imagined it pushing down and through and into him.
It didn’t. He could feel the glow pooling around his knuckles, dancing over his palm, but it wouldn’t flow like he needed it to. It was as if Anson’s body was shielded, as if nothing could penetrate.
He leaned down lower until his mouth was beside Anson’s ear. He kept one hand over his heart, kept trying to push the glow into Anson’s chest. The other hand was slowly stroking Anson’s hair unconsciously. It was too long now after centuries of infrequent haircuts and it was white like bone. His face was still that of a seventeen year old boy.
“You look pretty good for a man of a thousand and seventeen,” Stellan joked, unsmiling, then pressed his lips together. He never imagined he’d be the kind of man to talk to a corpse. Eirlys had believed Anson could hear her, but Stellan had always known better. Still, it was worth a try now that he was desperate, wasn’t it? It certainly couldn’t harm Anson more.
“All right, Anson,” he said in a whisper, his lips brushing the cold shell of his ear. He was aware that the other men in the room were watching him, but he tried to ignore them. “You’ve given us all a scare. Congratulations. Now come back.”
He hadn’t expected that to work, so he wasn’t surprised that Anson just kept not breathing, kept turning colder. He closed his eyes tight. “I refuse to believe that all of you is out there in the Wilderness,” Stellan said. “I know it can’t be because I’m still alive. You’re keeping me alive. It’s not just that place doing this to me, some of it has to be you. It has to be, you selfish boy. So why don’t you just cut the act and come back. Come back, Anson.”
He moved to rest his forehead against Anson’s. “Come back to me.” His tears were dripping down onto Anson and he felt guilty about that. He wiped them away then pulled back, let his eyes roam over Anson’s face. Stellan felt too many things to categorize. He’d known Anson too long and too well for this to be simple. “Damn you, boy,” he said and crushed his lips to Anson’s. And he pushed down hard with that hand, with his lips, with everything; he imagined life pouring into Anson’s mouth, down into his chest, to his heart. He imagined Anson alive and warm and laughing like the boy he’d never really been.
He tried not to think about Canemaker clearing his throat uncomfortably behind him, of Smith shouting something unintelligible. Stellan thought about how odd it felt to finally just give in. And at a time like this, too.
He’d never kissed Anson. Never kissed him back, anyway. It was a day of firsts since he’d never tried to bring someone back from the dead, either. This must have been what Anson had felt like trying to kiss Stellan so long ago. Because Stellan hadn’t responded, had kept his mouth motionless and his body rigid. And now Anson’s lips were cold and still but Stellan felt…something. It was, he realized, the glow leaking away from his fingers. Down, down, down like rainfall.
When Anson gasped against his mouth, he didn’t stop kissing him. He was fascinated with the feeling of Anson’s skin warming beneath his mouth, of his heart thundering against his palm. The light of Anson’s power coursed through and around him like a tornado. Alive, he thought. Alive. Then Anson was kissing him back, deeply, perfectly. Anson’s fingers were threading through his hair. Anson was calling him “Master” and arching against his hand. For just a moment, Anson was sucking on his tongue, groaning a needy groan and caressing his face with desperate fingers. Stellan didn’t want to stop, but knew he had to. He pulled away with a ragged gasp.
They opened their eyes, looked at each other.
“Hello,” said Anson.
“Hello, boy. Are you back?” Stellan asked. He was confused and breathless and felt somehow energized, like he could soar. “To stay?” he added and he’d never been so hopeful and he couldn’t say where it came from. It was as if his mind was at war: half of him hated this boy for what he had done to him; the other half of him felt like he might want to live forever if only Anson were beside him.
“The Wilderness is pulling me back,” Anson said roughly. “I don’t think I can stay.”
“You can. You have to.”
“Maybe not. But you’ll wait for me,” Anson said. Then he went limp in Stellan’s arms.
Stellan didn’t waste a second. He scooped Anson’s skinny body into his arms. “He’s breathing again,” he said. He rushed him to the Tank and, as gentle as placing a baby in a crib, lowered Anson down into the fluid.
The hatch came down. What followed was a chugging whine of pistons moving, and then the Tank was lifting, rolling into its vertical position. It went clang when it settled in back against its mount on the wall. All around the room, the boards and monitors flared to life. One of them showed the bouncing line of peaks and valleys that told Stellan that Anson’s heart was beating. He could almost feel it still against his hand.
A phone rang in the corner. Canemaker answered it with a distracted air. After a moment of tense conversation, he placed the receiver back down.
“That was the team stationed out at that jungle,” he said to Stellan. Stellan glanced his way as he spoke—the old man’s face was red with embarrassment—but his eyes drifted back to Anson immediately.
“They say it stopped. It’s not growing any longer.”
Stellan wasn’t surprised. “You should find a way to keep people from going in there,” he said almost absently. “It’s not a good place to be.”
Canemaker blinked. “Its sudden appearance is connected to Anson, I take it?”
“It is. He…well, you can say that he’s the one that controls it.”
Canemaker seemed to understand then. His eyebrows went high. “So when he died—?”
“Quite. Nothing was holding it back anymore,” Stellan said. “There are reasons why Eirlys Plamen wanted him kept alive, Mr. Canemaker. I don’t think she told you all of them.”
Canemaker sniffed. “I think she tried to tell me, but I was too young and foolish to listen. Well, we’ll get a team in there tomorrow at first light, have a look around.”
“That’s a bad idea,” Stellan said.
Canemaker blinked again in surprise. “You were being serious? But we can hardly just lock it down and ignore it. We could learn a lot from it.”
“There’s nothing you can learn there. That place is hell.”
“Surely you’re exaggerating,” Canemaker said.
Stellan looked him in the eyes. “No. No, I’m not.” Canemaker blanched and went quiet. Stellan took in the sight of the Tank one more time, assured himself that Anson was fine, and then stormed across the room to Smith.
He contemplated using something creatively nasty on the man—something he’d learned in the wars—but that wasn’t going to satisfy him. Instead, he punched him hard enough to send him spinning on his heels. Smith hit the ground in an ungainly sprawl. He whimpered and crab-walked backwards away from Stellan. There was a gash across Stellan’s knuckles from Smith’s teeth and it bled for just a second before the gash itself just closed and healed, leaving not even a mark
Smith stared at Stellan’s whole, undamaged hand and went even paler. “You—you! What are you? You stay back! I’ll press charges!”
“You do that,” said Stellan. “In the meantime, if I ever find out that you’re scheming to hurt Anson again, I will kill you.”
Smith stared up at him with his mouth hanging open. The skin around his mouth was purpling. His nose was swelling and slowly dripping blood onto his shirt.
“Do I make myself clear?” Stellan growled. Smith nodded quickly.
In the time it took Major Campbell to help him to his feet, Stellan was gone. Campbell decided right then and there that he was a little tired of Stellan’s bad habit of not using doors.
He took off his hat, wiped at his sweating brow. “I think I’m ready to retire,” he said.
Anson was conscious again in Level One. He’d come to suddenly, cried out for Stellan, and then clung to his hand in a grip so strong it was almost painful.
“Master,” he said in an eager, youthful voice, “did you see me? Did you watch me fight it?”
Stellan nodded. “I saw,” he said. “You should be more careful.”
Anson shook his head, crestfallen, and looked away. “Of course,” he muttered. Somehow, Stellan had said the wrong thing. He wondered what Anson wanted him to say. Certainly he didn’t expect praise for his foolishness?
The boy was being monitored, which Anson didn’t like, but Stellan had convinced him that it was important. He’d held tight to Stellan’s hand all through the doctor’s poking around. Smith never bothered them, which pleased Stellan since he didn’t feel like killing anyone today.
When Director Canemaker arrived at last, Stellan knew they had much to discuss. Anson released Stellan’s hand only after many promises that he would be nearby. That he wouldn’t leave Anson. Stellan tried not to notice the heat in Anson’s gaze as he walked away, but he could feel it warming his skin, slipping into his core.
Canemaker watched their parting with an expression that was half discomfort, and half sympathy.
He met with Stellan in a conference room several floors above Level One to discuss Anson and what to do now. Canemaker reacted with some dismay to learn that Anson was, apparently, suffering from confusion and memory loss.
“He doesn’t seem to remember dying five years ago,” Stellan said. It was almost charming that Canemaker still turned red at the mention of the event. That kiss was probably seared on his mind, like a bad movie, indelible and awkward. A mischievous part of Stellan had a laugh at the idea. “And he doesn’t know how he got free of the Wilderness,” he added.
“I myself would like to know that,” said Canemaker. Stellan looked away and went silent.
“Well,” Canemaker started again after the silence became too uncomfortable. “You are welcome to stay here. For as long as you like.”
Stellan thanked him and decided that he had best stay. For the night, at least. Anson probably needed him here. And if he left, he had a feeling that Anson would just come after him.
They spoke for a little time longer, Canemaker asking many questions about how Anson seemed to Stellan, whether he had changed markedly or not. Stellan answered that, yes, Anson had changed. Quite a lot. But what it all meant, neither man knew. And what to do about it was even more difficult to determine. When Tina Plamen and her idiot husband finally arrived, perhaps they could come to some agreement. Until then, very little could be settled. They fell into silence until Stellan thought to ask, “Why is that fool of a doctor still around?”
Canemaker laughed one of his jovial laughs. “It seemed the best course of action. You put the fear of God into him, as it were. I decided that it was unlikely he would try to hurt Anson ever again. Better the enemy you know, as they say.”
Stellan supposed he couldn’t argue with the logic. Canemaker cleared his throat and awkwardly stared at his feet. Stellan braced himself for whatever was coming.
“It’s good,” said Canemaker, “that you two are reunited at last.”
“Is it?” asked Stellan. They parted ways. Canemaker was tired after a hurried trip back to the facility and Stellan, well, Stellan had been tired for a long time.
Bradley offered him one of the empty guest quarters of which the facility had dozens. Stellan took it gratefully. Between dying, not dying, and finding Anson here and whole, he’d had a busy day. And there had been that dragon.
He considered swinging by to see Anson, but he wanted time to think, to rest. Anson had a way of keeping him from doing either. One of his many talents.
He showered and felt just a little more human. Then he settled down in the bed—as big as the one in Gunvor Castle, which was nice—and he thought. Soon, he was dozing. And as he dozed, he saw flashes of Eirlys, her wise face, her humor-filled cackle. He wished she were here to see Anson awake, alive, here again. She would have known what to do.
“You’ve been trying to reach the Wilderness,” Eirlys said, looking around the room. It wasn’t a question. She was plumper still than when he’d jumped off that cliff. He hadn’t…tried anything recently. No, not recently.
He had a new goal.
And he knew Eirlys was happy not to have scraped him off the ground, pulled him from a lake, or cleaned up messy splatters of his blood in quite a while. Stellan wondered if Eirlys kept track of the time that had passed between his…attempts. Perhaps she kept little marks in her diary. Forty days and counting. One day and counting.
“I have,” Stellan answered.
The floor of the workroom was covered in torn pieces of paper, strewn with well-thumbed books. On every surface were herbs and bottles of evil-looking liquids. The room looked like a strong wind had blown through it, tearing everything into disarray. There was a dark patch on the floor—red and ugly—that looked like a poorly cleaned pool of blood. Stellan himself looked as white as the snow piling up outside the castle. There were dark circles beneath his eyes and a slight tremor in his hand.
“Have you slept?”
“No,” answered Stellan.
“Sit,” Eirlys said and pointed at the chair she had just cleaned off. Stellan sat.
“Here,” she said and handed him a glass of something that made him cough and gag, but that made his eyes open wider and color return to his cheeks. “Good Lord, girl, what is this?”
“Never you mind. Drink it all.”
Stellan did. He placed it with a steady hand on the floor beside a stack of books that came to his knee.
Eirlys crossed her arms, looked down at him with a practiced eye. “No luck?”
Stellan shook his head. When he spoke, it was slowly, choosing each word with care. “I don’t know how he did it. I can’t get to the Wilderness. I’ve tried…over and over. The doors don’t work for me like that. I can’t…I can’t get to…”
He stopped and waved vaguely at the room. “I’ve tried everything.”
Eirlys glanced at one of the walls where symbols she knew all too well were scratched into the stone. She had not learned how to write them from Stellan. Things like that he had never taught, had refused to teach, in fact. She didn’t call him a hypocrite, but perhaps she might have not so long ago. Now she understood that he was desperate. Eirlys knew that desperation could turn anyone into the thing they hated most.
She heaved a great sigh and plopped down on the ground at Stellan’s feet. “If it makes you feel better, I don’t think even Anson knew how he did it. He just did things. I wish I could have asked him how he made Manasseh,” she admitted. “Surely do wish he could tell me how he did it.”
“I wish,” Stellan started to say, but he swallowed the words. After all, he couldn’t very well tell Eirlys what he wished had happened with Anson. Sometimes, he imagined that she knew anyway. “But it doesn’t matter now, does it?” he said, almost to himself.
Eirlys made a frustrated noise. She slapped him on the knee good and hard.
“That was just a tap! You’ve thrown yourself off a cliff, don’t complain about a little slap like that.”
“What was it for, girl?” he barked.
“To drag you back to your senses, Master Gunvor. Stop worrying about the Wilderness. You need to get out more. Go live. Go…be. Anson wouldn’t want you cooped up in this castle, rotting away.”
Stellan stared down at Eirlys, his brow deeply furrowed. “Go live?” he said.
Eirlys nodded. “It’s what the living do. You should try it.”
Part III: The Wilderness
High above the gash of mountains at the edge of the wasteland, black clouds churned and simmered. Fintan sat inside his tent listening to the sounds of rock falling, breaking, and crumbling as his army worked. There was no reason to know how long he sat there like that—time had no meaning any longer.
Sometimes he thought of time as a sly rabbit, darting this way and that away from him. And he was a fox, hungry and fast, but never quite fast enough. Time eluded him, mocked him.
He was pulled from his reverie when Inch arrived with a promising report: Anson was still nowhere to be seen. The suspicion and paranoia in Fintan spoke loudly and told him that it was all a trap. The desperation in him said, “Keep digging! Move while you can! Keep moving, keep digging!”
He was hungry enough for freedom that he silenced his usually irrepressible suspicion. He had to. If this was to be his only chance at escaping this hell, he had to take it. Fintan had to trust that, somehow, Anson had made a mistake and that he could benefit from it.
Inch had more good news about the mountain itself. He led Fintan to the newly formed hole at its base. It was gaping, rough and uneven. Fintan wondered, fleetingly, if freedom was always purchased with the debris and rubble of hardship. He remembered, just then, for the first time ever, Anson shouting to him about freedom once. It was so long ago, a memory made dusty by the dry earth of the Wilderness. Anson had stood—with a dark and imposing Stellan Gunvor at his shoulder—facing him across a battlefield. He had passionately criticized Fintan, his army, and his methods. Anson had called him a tyrant and a murderer. He remembered Anson demanding that he turn around, that he spare the lives of the people of his country. Fintan remembered thinking him a weak boy, a naive child, and a fool.
Fintan had laughed at him.
Now he wondered what exactly had been funny. The prisoner he had become realized that the struggle for freedom should never be made into a joke. Perhaps he wasn’t the same Fintan who had laughed at Anson all those centuries before. Perhaps.
He let the memory sleep once again and focused on something much more pleasant: he could hear the music even louder than before. They were getting close. And Inch and his brothers didn’t need sleep.
“We believe we will break through to the heart of the mountain by morning,” said Inch. “We will wake you the minute we find something, sire.”
Fintan nodded, but felt like he was drifting on a dream. It was difficult to rest when he kept wondering what was embedded in the mountain, waiting for him. And the rabbit was leaping, and the fox was running, and time ran itself ragged here, circling, circling. He was swooning a little on his feet.
“Go rest, sire,” said Inch.
Fintan felt his head go up and down. He turned and started the lonely walk back to his tent. He stopped.
“Inch,” he said.
“I can watch over you while you sleep, sire,” Inch said in his usual, emotionless tone. His voice was flat and low, like boulders grinding together. Still, Fintan imagined that he heard compassion there. Even 200 years ago he might have been offended. But now? Now it was a blessing.
“Yes, Inch. Yes, I would appreciate that.”
Inch followed him back to the tent and sat beside him, big and ugly. He kept him safe. And he would keep the nightmares at bay while Fintan slept. His last thought before he tipped into dreams was that he didn’t know how Anson could survive for so long without dreams, without remembering something better than this horrible world.
When the nightmares let him be, Fintan himself dreamed of flying free, like the birds he remembered from his youth.
Anson had been gone for 950 years when Stellan met Eirlys for tea. It was in an upscale cafe made from the remains of a once grand bank. The floors were marble and the ceiling glinting with gold and swirling with putti, strong gods, and lovely goddesses. It was in the heart of a downtown made opulent with newfound post-war wealth. Her driver waited patiently outside, dapper in black. Stellan sometimes teased Eirlys for how well she lived. Eirlys took it all with grace. “I’m old,” she would say, “not dead. And I like very expensive things.”
She scolded him, as usual, for not going to see Anson and he lied, as usual, and said he would soon. At this point, they were saying the words like actors reading from a script.
“Go see him, Stellan.”
“I will. Someday.” But watching Anson sleep and knowing he couldn’t hear him had lost its appeal several hundred years ago.
“I take it you’re still out there living?” she said with a sly smile.
“I am,” he replied. He didn’t go into details because some things even Eirlys Plamen didn’t need to know.
Other than that, he and Eirlys didn’t have much to talk about. After all this time, nothing really changed enough for them to have news. Except…
Stellan touched Eirlys’ face. There was no rush of power up his fingertips as there had been when she’d been just a girl, thin and graceful and full of laughter. And the wrinkles beneath his hand were like cracks in desert sand. The last time he had seen her, she’d had half as many lines and spots. She’d stood up straight then. Now she stooped and bowed, like a tree in a storm. Eirlys had aged quite a lot.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
She gave an old lady harrumph and swatted his hand away. When she sipped her tea, it was with her pinky out, always the lady. “I got old,” she grumbled. “Some of us aren’t lucky enough to have eternal youth. Some of us can’t keep on looking young and handsome while the world gets older. Some of us don’t life forever!”
Stellan glared at her. “Lucky?” he said with calm he didn’t feel. “We must have very different ideas about what constitutes luck, Eirlys Plamen.”
She shrugged, but it was a slow motion, as if even that took all of her strength.
“What happened to you, girl?” Stellan asked again. “You were brimming with power. Where did it all go?”
Eirlys wouldn’t look him in the eye. “I…I’m using it for something more important than youth and beauty,” she said evasively.
Stellan considered her for long moments that almost made Eirlys squirm, as if she were just a student again who had done poorly at her lessons. “What aren’t you telling me, girl?” he asked, his voice as hard and inflexible as ever. Eirlys sighed and gave him a chastised look.
“You’d know already if you bothered to visit him.”
Stellan shook his head in disapproval. “I’d appreciate you to get to the point, girl.”
“I suppose I should take you on a trip to the desert,” she said and somehow found a smile among all the wrinkles despite Stellan’s humorless looks.
“There’s something you should see,” she hedged. “And I should introduce you to Mr. Canemaker.”
“Why?” he repeated, but there was more of an edge to it: answer me, now.
Another slow sip of tea, buying time before giving a difficult answer. “It’s Anson,” she said at last. “I’ve had to move him.”
“To the desert?”
Eirlys nodded. “Yes.”
Stellan just looked at her for a moment. He placed his teacup on the table. “What’s in the desert?”
“Nothing,” said Eirlys. “That’s the point.”
The knock on the door woke Stellan just as he had started to drift off to sleep. He’d been dreaming of the little castle Anson hadn’t meant to make. The one after which Stellan had modeled Gunvor Castle. The dream made sense, he supposed, as the army would depart from the castle to face Henry Fintan at first light tomorrow. Stellan imagined that he was feeling a little sentimental.
Anson’s little castle had been beautiful, but Anson had been so afraid that Stellan would be angry with him for making it, for not knowing how to unmake it. Stellan had been, just a little.
Then he’d helped him round up the little knights and the little princess so they could figure out what to do with them. He’d caught the little king before he could run away and Anson had almost laughed.
The knock came again and Stellan let go of the memory. Awake now, he slipped on his long, heavy robe, buttoned the buttons to his chin, and went to the door.
He was surprised to see Anson in the hallway outside. He was still dressed, as if he hadn’t even tried to sleep. They had only parted ways a few hours earlier, which had been after ten hours spent in each others company, arguing about strategy with the other generals. Stellan had been looking forward to some time away from the stubborn child and had imagined Anson felt the same about him. Recently, they fought more than anything else. Stellan didn’t even always understand what they were fighting about. Sometimes he thought they were just too dissimilar to tolerate each other very well.
“What do you want, Anson?” he asked. He rightly assumed that Anson had knocked only to be polite since the boy didn’t actually use doors most days.
“May I come in?”
“Is it strictly necessary?”
He sighed at the empty hallway, shut the door, and turned to the fireplace where Anson had decided he wanted to be. The boy’s attempts at being polite never lasted too long.
Anson was picking up the items on his mantel, studying them, and then placing them back in the wrong places. He had seen these knickknacks every day since the army had settled into the castle, so Stellan recognized this as one of Anson’s less charming nervous habits. At seventeen he could lead an army, but for all his arrogance, he couldn’t stop fidgeting. It was almost comical.
“What can I do for you, Commander?” Stellan asked, crossing his arms over his chest and letting his face show his disapproval.
“What if we can’t really move a force this large to the Capital in time?” Anson said hurriedly. “I’ve never tried with so many. Have you?”
Stellan rolled his eyes. “We’ve been over this: between you and me, we can send a third of the infantry and cavalry—and all of the archers—to hold Fintan off. Jinan can command them. Then you take half of the forces that remain here to box Fintan in from the north, while I take the rest to prevent his retreat to the south. Anson, you conceived of the plan yourself and the army has already been informed. Why second guess it on the eve of battle?”
Anson didn’t reply. He lifted a porcelain figurine, twirled it in his fingers, then placed it back crooked and, of course, in the wrong place.
Stellan rubbed wearily at his face. “Anson, what is this really about?”
“Nothing. I don’t know. I’ve just been thinking.”
Stellan moved to the fireplace and took the crystal Anson was smudging out of his hands. “Have a seat, please,” he said firmly.
As a boy, Anson had always responded well to that tone of voice. This time he didn’t. “I’ll stand,” he said and firmed his jaw. Stellan noted again that, sometime when he was not looking, Anson had become…less obedient, less of a child. It was getting worse. Stellan guessed it was difficult to command an army and keep one’s innocence, but he remained reluctant to accept these changes. His only solace was that Anson still had a lot of room left to grow: the top of his head only came to Stellan’s chin. He could put on the airs of a man, but he was still just an uncertain boy. Wasn’t he?
Anson’s eyes kept darting over Stellan’s face, looking for something in his eyes or in the set of his jaw. Stellan put the crystal back in the correct place and waited. The boy would tell him what this was all about, or he wouldn’t.
“Do you ever wonder whose army we’ll be facing after Henry Fintan’s?” Anson asked at last.
Stellan shrugged. There had been bad men before Henry Fintan, there would certainly be bad men after. Wondering about who it might be would do very little good. “I suppose we only need live long enough to find out,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“But aren’t you tired of it?” Anson begged. “I am. Each one seems worse than the last. Sometimes I think the world might benefit from the absence of anyone different. Anyone special.”
Stellan tried for reason, saying, “Men will be making war on each other with or without—”
“But not so unfairly,” Anson interrupted him. “They can hack each other to pieces with swords and daggers and that seems better than the things that Henry Fintan can do. The things he has done.”
“But that is why we’re stopping him, Walter. We’ll put an end to his tyranny so—”
“So that someone worse than him can take his place!” Anson shouted and then winced as if the volume of his own voice hurt him. He rubbed at his forehead and then let his hand drop. More softly he said, “There’s always going to be another Eirlys Plamen. There’s always going to be another Henry Fintan! As long as there are people with power like that, they are going to abuse it. They can’t be made to follow your rules, Master. There’s no hope for them.”
Stellan shook his head, trying to shake away Anson’s strange words. “What are you saying?”
Anson’s shoulders sagged. Stellan could see that he was tired, that he was lost and scared. The brave face he put on for the army was gone now. He was suddenly just Anson again. His Anson. Who was just a boy who needed him.
“I don’t know what I’m saying,” Anson admitted. “I just think…I mean…what if it all just went away? All the spells, all the potions, all the trickery. All the damn dragons. The men like Henry Fintan. Like me.”
“And me?” Stellan asked softly. Anson shrank in on himself a little, as if he had considered that before, didn’t like it, but could think of no other way around it. “Perhaps,” Anson said. “Even you.”
“Walter,” Stellan said after a breath that didn’t calm his nerves, “these things are for God to decide. Not you. You’re just a boy.”
Anson bowed his head, but he cast a sideways glance at Stellan. “You haven’t seen the Wilderness,” he whispered. “It’s difficult to trust a God that allows that place to be. It’s hard to keep it…it’s hard to contain it. It fights me.”
Stellan could think of nothing to say to that, so he remained silent. Anson seemed to be gathering his courage. Finally, he said, “I could die trying to imprison Fintan.”
“Then abandon the plan as I’ve asked you to.”
“I can’t,” he said, then suddenly looked more frightened than Stellan had ever seen him. “What if I do die fighting him?”
Stellan scoffed. “Why fear what you can’t know? You could die falling down the steps. You could choke on breakfast. Everybody dies, Walter,” he said.
“But aren’t you afraid to die with regret? Don’t you have,” he started but stopped long enough to run a frustrated hand through his hair, “don’t you have things you want to do before you die?”
“There seems little point in worrying about that. I have tried to lead a full life. That is the best I—or anyone—can do.”
“Oh, certainly!” Anson hissed. “But you are an old man already and I have my whole life in front of me, and I’ve spent years of it at war!”
Stellan’s voice and face went frigid as he spoke. “You made the choices that you made all on your own, boy. No one forced you to. If you want to stand by and let Fintan march his army to the Capital and take it by force, then, by all means, give the order.”
Anson showed his frustration by flexing his hands in the air and stomping his foot hard against the stone floor. “You never understand me!” he said. “Can’t you try to understand what I say—what I want—just this once?”
Stellan spread his arms wide, inviting Anson to say anything he wished. “What would you like me to grasp, hmm? That you are an arrogant boy who has bitten off more than he can chew and is suddenly having second thoughts? That you’re afraid to die? What, exactly, do you want from me?”
“I want you to give me what I want!” he shouted before rushing forward, lifting up on his toes, and pressing his mouth to Stellan’s. He held himself there by clutching at Stellan’s robe, clinging to him like he needed him to breathe.
Anson was clumsy and inexperienced, overeager and shaking. Half of his kisses landed on the corner of Stellan’s mouth, some on his cheek. One landed on his chin, wet and hot, and it was oddly that one that forced Stellan to stifle a groan.
“Open your mouth,” Anson growled and Stellan did—only to tell this foolish boy to stop—and ended up with Anson’s tongue licking along the roof of his mouth.
He kept pulling away, trying to push Anson back, and Anson kept coming at him, tugging Stellan closer. The tongue in his mouth, the pressure against his lips, it all felt new and strange and good and terrible and Stellan could hardly think straight. The worst of it was that this felt like more than merely wrestling with the boy: Stellan felt like he was fighting with himself as well. He’d exercised strict control over his own body, and of his own wants, for so long that it was shocking to feel that control slipping.
He imagined, just briefly, sucking on that tongue, grinding against Anson.
But he could reason his way out of this—he could!—if only he could catch his breath to think. Because he couldn’t kiss Anson back, could he? He’d bandaged the boy’s scraped knees and tried to comfort him when he cried—when he couldn’t sleep at night for missing his brothers and sisters and his mother; he’d taught him how to read and forgave him when his nightmares came to life like pictures in a storybook across the walls of his manor house. He’d pulled him from a fire and held him as they watched their world burn to the ground. He was like the son Stellan had never been given. So even if it stirred something inside him that he’d imagined dead a long time ago; even if it felt like something he’d needed but had never known how to find, he couldn’t kiss Anson. He had to fight Anson.
No, he had to fight himself, and he had to win.
Anson growled in frustration. He pulled back long enough to glare at Stellan. “So that’s it, then? You’ll never give me anything I ask for?”
Stellan took a step away from him. “This is wrong. I all but raised you, boy. And you are a spoiled, selfish, ungrateful child.”
Anson laughed at him, one of his cruel, careless laughs. He poked Stellan gently in the shoulder and Stellan went flying back into an overstuffed chair. His breath left him when his back hit the chair and he gasped for air like he was drowning. Despite how much of his power was being used to hold Manasseh and the Wilderness, it appeared Anson had enough left in him to hurl grown men across the room like toys. Stellan slumped in the chair and felt the stirrings of panic, but his body wouldn’t respond appropriately.
It was like being in a daydream as he watched Anson stalk across the room to drop to his knees in front of him. Anson scooted forward until his narrow hips were wedged between Stellan’s long legs. “You’re not my father. I never thought of you like that.”
And Stellan knew that. Anson’s father had been a petty, violent, tyrant, but…
“And you sure as hell don’t think of me as a son.”
I do, he wanted to argue, but how truthful was he being?
He’s just a boy, Stellan thought and sat there, stunned and silent as Anson leaned over him and began undoing the buttons of his robe. “Don’t,” Stellan said.
“You could stop me. You don’t. So I’m not stopping.”
He splayed his hands over Stellan’s chest once all the buttons were undone, his eyes filled with wonder and daring. Stellan very deliberately didn’t arch into those hands.
Then Anson lifted up, dug his fingers into Stellan’s hair and pulled his mouth down. He licked at the crease of his lips, nipped at his lower lip with his teeth. Stellan pressed his lips so tightly together the muscles in his face started to hurt. Anson harrumphed and pushed Stellan away. “All right, Master. I get it. Fine. Here is the solution: you just sit there, I’ll do all the work. I want this. I want this from you before I die and I’ll have it. You’re going to give it to me.”
His placed his hands on Stellan’s knees, slid them up his thighs, and stopped at the waist of his loose trousers. He tugged them down just low enough to reveal Stellan’s manhood, half hard in the nest of dark hair between his legs. “No,” Stellan said, but a few quick strokes was all it took and he was hard and purpling in Anson’s hand.
Anson looked up at Stellan’s pinched face: he had turned his head away so as not to see Anson touching him. “Look at me,” Anson demanded.
“No. Stop,” Stellan gasped.
“Why can’t you just admit that you like it?”
“Really?” Anson said with an arch look that Stellan didn’t see. “I seem to be holding evidence to the contrary.” He leaned down over Stellan’s erection, mouth open and sucked the head slowly, uncertainly. How he held him, how his lips moved—he was unsure, but desperate for this. It was hot and wet and more than Stellan could take. He had to stop this.
“Touch me, please,” Anson begged and then made a satisfied groan and arched his back when Stellan’s fingers dug into his hair helplessly, almost convulsively. Stellan had meant to make him stop, to pull that amazing mouth away from his erection, but somehow…
Anson’s hair was soft and perfect in his hand. This was some kind of madness.
Anson pulled off long enough to whisper, “Master, yes. I want your hands all over me.” When he met Stellan’s eyes, they were alive and filled with lust. Stellan loosened his grip and petted Anson’s hair gently, just once, as if he couldn’t help it.
Encouraged, Anson lowered his mouth again. He trailed his tongue down the length of Stellan’s cock, nosed at the base and nibbled just a little at his lightly furred testicles. Stellan was rocking ever so slightly in the chair, thrusting into the hand that held him for Anson’s mouth to take him. Stellan stroked his hair, ran his fingers through the length. Anson was gaining in confidence with every tease, every taste. Anson licked back up to the tip, tongued at the head and said, “Now, tell me that you want this.”
Stellan gave a shaky exhale, then started to say, “Anson, I—” just as there was a knock at the door.
Stellan and Anson’s eyes met. Stellan’s were terrified and aroused all at once. He took his hand away from Anson’s soft hair. For his part, Anson looked nervous and amused and disappointed. His mouth was quirked up in a smirk.
“Ignore it,” Anson said.
“I certainly will not,” Stellan said in clipped tones. His voice hardly shook at all.
Anson looked at him, like studying a difficult calculation. “I can make you change your mind.”
“No, boy. No, you can’t.”
Anson sighed. He gently tugged Stellan’s pants up and over his erection and gave a friendly pat to his sweat-slicked stomach. Then he leaned forward and placed a single kiss over Stellan’s heart. He sucked hard, leaving a dark bruise on the skin.
“To remember me by,” Anson said, then lankily stood to plop down in a chair across the room. It took a long time for Stellan to get to his feet and repair the buttons on his long robe with his hands shaking as they were. He was more grateful for the length of the robe than he had ever been for anything in his whole life.
The knock came again, more persistent. Stellan looked down to meet Anson’s eyes. There was more resignation than promise in their depths, and Stellan didn’t know whether he was relieved or disappointed.
“Well?” Stellan asked, holding his arms out to his sides to present his appearance to Anson.
“Passable,” Anson said. “Besides, everyone knows you’re celibate. You’re practically a monk. No one would ever suspect a thing.”
Stellan scowled at him. When he would have scolded him for his cheek, he instead went to the door. “Master Gunvor,” Jinan said anxiously. “I mean, General Gunvor!” he corrected himself. He’d never known how to forget his days as one of Stellan’s students. Certainly Jinan was a soldier in his own right now, but he would perhaps always be that skinny boy with pigeon toes in awe of everything Stellan showed him.
“I am sorry to disturb you at this hour,” he continued, “but I cannot locate the Commander! He was complaining of headaches. Actually, sir, he’s been acting strangely, so I worried when I could not find him. I thought that maybe he might have come this way at some point for one of your miraculous potions.” As always, Jinan spoke too quickly and without stopping for breath.
When it seemed as if the young man had finally run out of things to say, Stellan stepped to the side and gestured expansively into the room. Jinan rushed inside and visibly sagged in relief at the sight of Anson slouching in the chair, elbows on his knees and blonde hair covering his eyes. “Oh, Commander! Thank the heavens! I was so worried. Did you come to visit the General for a potion for your headache?”
“Among other things,” Anson answered. He lifted his head and raised a brow.
“I hope you’re feeling better, then, sir,” Jinan commented, oblivious. He was so lacking in guile himself, Stellan realized, that he never assumed anyone else had any either.
“To be honest, Jinan, he hasn’t given me what I asked for, yet,” Anson said, smiling a slow, sexy smile that shouldn’t have been on his face at all.
Stellan felt his nostrils flare. He crossed the room, threw open a cabinet, grabbed a vial, and then stalked back across the room to stand before Anson. “Here,” he said and thrust the vial in front of his face. Anson’s fingers lingered over his as he took it. “Thank you,” he whispered.
“Jinan,” Stellan barked. “Take the Commander back to his quarters. Now.”
“Aye, General,” Jinan said. If he could sense the tension in the room, he hid it very well. Anson rose from the chair. He was standing too close, in Stellan’s estimation. How long had Anson been feeling these things? Stellan accepted that he would probably never know.
“Goodnight, Master,” Anson said. He bowed his head once and then he and Jinan were gone. At last.
Stellan slipped off his robe and slid back beneath the covers. He couldn’t sleep. When he closed his eyes, Anson’s blonde head was between his legs, his red mouth smiling up at him. The bruise on Stellan’s chest seemed to burn through to his heart. He could still feel the kisses across his face, feel them full and demanding against his lips. These were things he wasn’t used to feeling. Not anymore. Stellan had given up many of the pleasures other men enjoyed. He had given them up for a reason and now this boy was shoving them back before him, tempting him like the serpent in the garden.
And he was tempted.
He was still hard, his body vibrating with need.
“Damn you, boy,” he said and resigned himself to staring at the canopy until daybreak.
Eirlys was dying. She knew she was. It wasn’t scary because she was old—very old—and she had seen everything there was to see. Only, she had no idea what would become of her. Sometimes, she imagined that she would be allowed to go back to Manasseh. She spent a lot of time thinking about it now, wondering if she would end up spending eternity in Anson’s head with the lush roses and her stupid, ugly cat. She missed that cat terribly.
Her newest employee was the young and patient Director Canemaker. He held her arm as she walked through the halls of the most recent—and greatest—building belonging to the Plamen Research Institute. Everything smelled like new plastic. Most of the equipment she didn’t understand. The place was so large, so sprawling, and each floor was dedicated to something different, Canemaker explained. She liked the sound of what they were up to. And she’d made Stellan promise to visit, to help them if he could.
She’d made it very clear to Canemaker that she wanted his researchers and scientists and doctors to protect Walter Anson. They could study what they wanted—any of the odd little things that the world had to offer that were rare and inexplicable now, but hadn’t always been—but all that was secondary to this one, all-important task: protect Walter Anson; keep him alive; keep him safe.
She walked so slowly, even with her cane, that it took a long time to make it to the elevator that took them to Level One. Anson was inside some kind of Tank. The machine was a little frightening. She understood that it was doing her job for her, but it was unlike anything she had ever seen before. She pointed at Anson and then patted Canemaker’s hand.
“Did I tell you the story?”
She had and they both knew she had, but she was an old, rich woman and so he was obligated to humor her. Canemaker liked her because she was strange and because she had handpicked him to run this amazing new endeavor. He didn’t mind hearing it again.
“No, Ms. Plamen. Tell me,” he said like the good boy he was.
“He used to sleep in the basement of my old house,” she said conspiratorially. “This was in the Old Country. I would visit him every day and read to him. Stellan said it was silly, that Anson couldn’t hear me.”
She squinted at Anson’s youthful face through the thick glass. Her brow creased as she frowned. “I didn’t tell Stellan when I figured it all out. I didn’t tell him when I realized that Anson’s body was dying. He was so thin and frail! Everything that made him who he was…it wasn’t here. It was in the Wilderness. That’s where he really is now, Director. He’s there. Only his body is here. Stellan was right after all: Anson can’t hear us. I felt silly for reading to him once I understood that, let me tell you!”
She wiped at a single tear. “And I had promised my oldest friend that I would keep him safe. He never asked me to promise that, but I knew it was what he wanted.”
Canemaker helped her limp towards the Tank. She placed her gnarled hand on the glass. “I started using little bits here and there to keep him young. Little bits here and there to keep him from getting thin and weak. Little bits to make sure he kept breathing. The next thing I know, I was all that was keeping him alive.”
She smiled. “I got old very fast after that, but I’m still here.”
He patted her hand affectionately. “Yes you are, Ms. Plamen. Yes, you are.”
She smiled at him. He didn’t really understand her story—who could believe such things in this world with cars and skyscrapers and airplanes?—but she trusted him to take care of Anson. He was a good boy.
“That is the last of it all,” she said and tapped the glass, indicating the green and amber liquid where Anson hovered. “I could have used it to rule the world, you know?”
Canemaker nodded with an awkward expression on his face. He never knew what to say to his employer when she talked about conquering cities and murdering kings. Mostly he hoped it was just her being old and crazy, but he worried that it wasn’t.
“But there it all is, instead, stuck in a tank keeping that boy alive. I don’t exactly miss it. It’s doing something important. It’s very important that he lives, do you understand?”
He nodded. “I do.”
She looked at him with the look of distaste that only old women could master. “I don’t think you really do,” she said. “But that’s not your fault. Luckily these machines will do the job better than I ever could.”
“They wouldn’t work at all without you, Ms. Plamen,” he said because it was true. She waved it away.
“Well, just be glad the thing works. It would be a pity for Anson to die and for all that mess in his head to come leaking out, ending the world prematurely,” she said. Canemaker looked very, very uncomfortable. He truly hoped that most of this was just dementia. He really, truly did.
“Come on,” she said to him before he could ask her foolish questions, “take me back upstairs. I want to go home to die.”
“You have years left on you, Ms. Plamen.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said and let him take her arm. She didn’t look over her shoulder at Anson. She didn’t need to. And she hadn’t said goodbye to Stellan, but she didn’t need to do that, either. She sat in the back of the limousine, thinking about Stellan, about him telling her of the time she had missed, three endless years.
“That Henry Fintan sounds like a real piece of work,” she cackled. “Are you sure he wasn’t one of yours, Master Gunvor?”
Stellan sniffed in distaste. “Even if he had been one of my students, I wouldn’t take credit for it.”
“Hah! Do you take credit for me?”
Stellan said softly, “Sometimes.”
Late that night, she let out her very last breath. She thought of her cat, of her house by the lake. She smiled.
Stellan didn’t see or hear it coming. One minute he was on his feet—the Capital illuminated by torchlight behind him—and the next his gut was on fire. He dropped to his knees and looked at his belly where blood was starting to seep. The dragon that had struck him down shrank into the distance, seeking out its next prey, and Stellan fell to his side. His vision started to narrow to a pinpoint. With the last of his strength, he rolled so he could see Anson.
Across the bloody battlefield—
Through the armored masses vying for dominance, hacking at each other with weapons made by man for man to kill man—
Through the flickering fires of burning trees, the charging, disordered dash of war horses—
He saw him on the highest point of the battlefield. His arms were locked with Fintan’s and they were pushing against each other, wrestling for dominance. Waves of power rolled off of them, sputtering like fire. Fintan was grimacing down at Anson, his face mad with rage. There were black fingers in the miasma surrounding them and they were pulling at him, tugging at him. Stellan understood that it was the Wilderness come to claim its prisoner. But Fintan wasn’t going without a fight and Anson seemed to be weakening. Worse, he was distracted.
Anson’s green eyes were not looking at Fintan; they were locked on Stellan where he lay, guts spilling out onto the cold ground.
“Dammit, boy,” Stellan whispered weakly. “Stop worrying about me and fight.”
“No,” he heard in his head, as loud as if Anson were standing beside him, whispering battle plans in his ear.
There was a flash, a cacophony of light and sound like a million thunderstorms. Stellan squeezed his eyes closed against the radiance. When he opened them again, he saw a bizarre sight:
Where Anson and Fintan had been, there was only white with a halo of black. That halo suddenly expanded, faster than anything Stellan had ever seen. The wave of it smashed into his chest. And he felt those long black fingers tugging at him now, grabbing at his arms and legs. Stellan blinked and had to stifle a scream.
He felt his back slam hard into something.
He opened his eyes groggily.
He was surrounded by a dark forest with dark, gnarled trees stretching up high to a black sky. The unfamiliar place sent a surge of fear through his battered body and it forced him to action. But it was a slow struggle to sit up, one arm wrapped around his bloody middle to keep the tattered shreds of his stomach in place. His gut felt like liquid fire, like he’d been burned in half.
Stellan looked around slowly. From the shadows of the place, red and yellow eyes glowed. He heard a growl like a wolf’s. He was being watched. Beneath him was grass the color of pitch, as if it had been singed. The air smelled like decay and filth. Overlaying the whole place was a feeling of loneliness—of heavy, endless solitude.
“The Wilderness,” Stellan said. So this was the prison that Anson had made for Fintan. No, not made, found. Only Stellan still wasn’t entirely sure that Anson hadn’t indeed made the Wilderness, just as he had made Manasseh. Had Anson lied to him? Was this another one of his creations, like the castle? And if that were the case, how poisoned was the mind that made a hellish world like this with the intention of leaving a man there for eternity?
There was a loud crack behind him. Stellan’s head whipped around and what he saw made his eyes widen.
“Master Gunvor,” Eirlys said. It been three years, but Eirlys hadn’t aged a day. She was wearing a pretty dress, but it was stained black and brown at the bottom, as though she’d been walking through the deeper swamps he could see in the distance. Her eyes were wide and glassy with shock; she didn’t seem quite aware of where she was.
Stellan staggered to his feet. He kept one arm wrapped around his bleeding gut, but he held out a hand to Eirlys. It should have seemed strange to him: the last time he had seen Eirlys, she’d been trying to kill him, after all. But he regarded her now and saw that she wasn’t the same woman. She was more like the girl he had known, and that girl had needed his help and guidance. It was easy to slip back into the role of teacher.
She took his hand when he reached her and squeezed it as if looking for proof that this was real. “Manasseh is gone,” she said. “I keep looking for it, but I can’t find it.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Stay here with me.”
“But I have to go back,” she whined. “You don’t understand. This isn’t a good place to be. Can’t you feel it?” She looked around with fear, lip quivering. “This is a bad place. It wants to keep us here. Forever. I have to find Manasseh.” She squeezed his hand too hard just once. “Can’t you find the door for me? Please?”
“Shhh,” he said. He had no idea how they were going to get out of here, but he knew he’d need her help, which he couldn’t get if she was too busy trying to find yet another prison, instead of the way out of this one.
“You’re right, we can’t stay here,” he said with calm he didn’t feel. “We don’t belong here. We have to get Anson to let us out.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know if he can get to us. It’s his mind, after all. Who goes visiting their own mind?”
Stellan sighed. Apparently being imprisoned in someone else’s head did strange things to you: Eirlys wasn’t making much sense.
He held tight to her hand a moment longer until he felt his own fingers loosen though he hadn’t wanted them to. He looked down and realized that his clothing was thoroughly soaked with blood now. Everything before his eyes shimmered and swam. His knees went out from under him and Eirlys followed him down to the rotting forest floor, trying to catch him.
“Master!” she cried. “What…oh.” Her mouth opened and closed soundlessly as she looked at his stomach, snapping out of her daze for the first time to notice his wound. “You’re bleeding. What happened?”
“There’s a battle,” he tried to explain. “Dragons. I have to get to Anson.”
“You can’t even stand!”
He grabbed at her shoulder, tried to pull himself to his feet. The tangled fingers of tree branches above him seemed to be reaching down to him, ready to pluck at him, stab at him. Everything started to spin.
“Yes, that is a problem. I think I’m dying,” Stellan said. Anson’s words about dying with regret came back to him suddenly, and he had an insane thought that he wished Jinan hadn’t knocked on the door after all. Given a second chance, he’d have scooped Anson up in his arms, carried him to his big bed, and bedded him properly. He would have kissed him for hours and hours.
And none of his wishes mattered now.
He had the strangest feeling that his body was in two places. Half of him was curled around himself on a battlefield, bleeding out at the edge of a blood-soaked clearing. The rest of him was here, in the Wilderness. He knew for a fact that he was dying in both places. He wondered if he’d end up with two graves, two headstones. Would Henry Fintan bother to bury him?
Above him, Eirlys’ worried face was becoming a blur. Her lips were moving, but he was deaf to the sounds they made.
He let the whiteness wash over him.
He opened his eyes and Anson was there. Stellan felt such joy at seeing him that he got to his feet and rushed forward only to stop short when he noticed the absence of pain. He looked down at his stomach: he was perfectly whole. He felt young and strong. Anson was facing him in a blank, white world. He, too, was clean and free of the cuts and bruises he’d had the last time Stellan had seen him. Not for the first time, he thought how fine Anson was to look at.
And how strange that it must have only been minutes since he’d really seen him last, since the spell to pull Fintan into the Wilderness had gone so very wrong. Time felt stretchy and inconsistent. Stellan didn’t know how long he’d been on the forest floor, bleeding to death in Eirlys’ arms. He didn’t know how long he’d been standing before Anson. As he’d never died before, he had no way of knowing if this sort of thing was standard for men like him.
“I really wish you wouldn’t,” Anson said simply.
Stellan frowned. As usual, he wasn’t on the same page with Anson. “Wouldn’t what?” he asked.
“Die,” Anson said. Then he placed his hand right over Stellan’s heart, right where the bruise from his mouth was. Stellan could feel it, hot still, as if Anson were even now sucking at his chest. Something wound its way through his body, like a thread. He could feel its stitching its way in and out through the fabric of his soul. In and out through something dark and limitless. There were pinpricks of a needle forming a tattoo inside him, uncomfortable and persistent.
He couldn’t pull away, couldn’t even panic. All he could do was feel the needle sharp stab, the sour tug of that thread binding him tighter and tighter to something old. Older than anything. “Everybody dies, Walter,” Stellan said, always willing to point out the true things that Anson took for granted. He was almost shocked by his own calm despite the sensations inside him.
“Well, do me a favor and don’t,” Anson said. “Wait for me.” Something flashed again and Stellan felt like he’d been kicked in the chest. But all the tiny little stitches held. The world and all the color and shapes in it stabbed into his vision, manifested quite suddenly before his eyes.
He sat upright with a gasp and then ducked just in time to avoid a horse jumping over him. He turned his head from side to side: the clang and flash of swords was all around him. Stellan knew that something was very wrong.
He tore at his bloody clothing and looked down at his stomach. It was whole and unmarred, as if he hadn’t just been gutted by a dragon. “Dammit, Anson,” he said and stumbled as he tried to stand. On the highest point of the field, Anson was on his knees in front of Fintan who was raining blow after blow down on Anson’s bleeding head. They were surrounded by a white and black ring that flickered like fire. The fingers were grabbing at both of them.
Stellan concentrated, looking for a door, any door, to get to Anson in time, but it was as if the world were suddenly devoid of them. Anson had locked them, barred his way.
He screamed Anson’s name as he ran forward; he screamed as he stretched out his hand, reaching for him; he screamed because he couldn’t make it in time; he screamed when he still couldn’t find a damn door to get him there faster. Anson turned his head, smiled a bloody smile and whispered, “Goodbye,” right against his ear, as gentle as a kiss. Light blazed, then faded.
And then Anson was gone.
Henry Fintan was gone. The sky was empty; there were no dragons.
Stellan kept scanning the hill, blinking back tears. No, he thought. Anson wasn’t gone, he simply wasn’t looking properly. There were a million places he could be, a million doors to look behind once he could calm his mind to try. The skin over his heart was tingling and he imagined that Anson was before him, wanting to kiss him again and again.
There was a girlish squeak behind him followed by what sounded like a body hitting the ground. He turned and Eirlys was on her hands and knees, a dizzy look on her face. “He was there,” she said in her distant voice, as if her mind were still far away. “I saw Anson in that place, lying on the ground of that swamp. He said, ‘Forgive me.’ Then something grabbed me, pulled me here.”
Stellan helped her to her feet, trying to make sense of the endless stream of confused words she said. Once he was sure of Eirlys’ balance, he looked to the hill again, hoping to see Anson. He must have said something aloud, because Eirlys put her hand on his shoulder. He wanted to shove her away because how dare she be here and free when Anson hadn’t planned it that way?
“Master Gunvor,” she said softly. Stellan wouldn’t meet her all too knowing gray eyes. “Master Gunvor,” she tried again. “I’m sorry.”
He did push her hand away, then. “Aren’t we all?” he asked. He squared his shoulders and started walking across the field, to find Jinan, to gather the survivors. To figure out what the hell to do now. He suddenly stopped. After a moment, he looked back over his shoulder at Eirlys. There, underneath the former warlord, the former villain, was the little girl who had filled his manor house with laughter.
“Eirlys?” he said.
“Yes, Master Gunvor?”
“Come along, now.” He didn’t wait to see if she would follow. He simply moved.
Eirlys nodded, and, like a little girl, followed Stellan across the smoldering debris of war. After all, Master Gunvor always knew what was best.
The dark of night grew darker, the sky colder.
The remains of their army gathered up the dead, prepared them to be buried. Jinan organized some of their more sympathetic men to help the remainder of Fintan’s forces move their dead. The haggard armies worked side by side, no longer enemies in the face of so much death. Stellan pitched in, sweating as he heaved another body. He wiped the grime off of his brow and felt so empty inside he imagined nothing would ever fill him up again.
It was over four hours before they found Anson. He was at the base of the low hill, on the side that faced the river that ran beside the Capital. He had not disappeared, but had tumbled down the hill and landed a little twisted up, his arm wedged at an odd angle beneath his body.
Stellan ran across the uneven ground, dropped to his knees, pulled Anson into his arms, and rocked him a little. Anson was scratched and bruised and smelled like sweat and war.
“Boy, boy, wake up.” He kissed his bloody temple, unthinkingly. “Please, boy, wake up.” Because he could feel that Anson was alive, that he was breathing and warm to the touch. Stellan was alive and Anson was alive and maybe things wouldn’t be so bleak after all.
But Anson would not rouse.
“We should have him looked at,” said Jinan. “A man of medicine can tell us when he’ll wake.”
“He won’t wake,” Eirlys said, staring at Stellan where he sat on the ground, holding Anson to his chest. “He won’t.”
“He will,” Stellan argued.
But, after all, Eirlys had been right.
He’d been in the Wilderness for five hundred years. Sometimes he forgot what home looked like. Sometimes he forgot his own name. He remembered Stellan.
The battle, he remembered as fragmented images of horrors, sometimes smeared as if through a muddy window. The only thing that was sharp and clear was the memory of Stellan dying there on the ground, of not knowing how to help him, how to keep him.
Light had flared and there—where he stood—he’d felt like a puppet cut free of its strings. He had tumbled down, down, down the hill.
But there—where he was—his back had slammed into the ground, and he had opened his eyes on a pained cry. The swamp of the Wilderness had loomed all around him and Anson had known as he got to his feet that he would never leave this place. He’d broken into a cold sweat then and started to shiver.
He’d heard a rustle of dead leaves, a distinct crunch, and then Henry Fintan had run him through with a pointed branch. Anson had looked down at his blood burbling from his chest, had looked over his shoulder at Fintan, and then everything had tilted. When he had come to, Fintan had been long gone. It had been a long, painful, torturous time before the wood was free of his chest.
Anson wrapped his arms around his knees at the memory and looked down to where Fintan’s army had set up camp. They were just below the high cliff where Anson had made his home. The cliff face held the entrances to thousands of caves, some of them shallow, but many of them deep and leading to caverns as tall as the cliff itself. Anson liked the cliffs and had planned on staying for a decade or two. He had a lot of work to do. The ink black marks on his arm were testament to the changes he had undergone. But there was so much he had to do before they were complete. Fintan had an army, true. But this world had offered Anson many opportunities to become…more. Yes, to become something more. He would seize those opportunities, he would become stronger.
But he needed time to work undisturbed. Yet here Fintan was with his army of mindless golems, determined to force him out.
Anson stood and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was standing beside Henry Fintan who was slowly roasting one of the meatier, nastier creatures to be found this far east on a crude spit. He stood and wheeled around to face Anson the minute he sensed him.
He’d wasted power on another sword and he pulled it to point the sharp tip at Anson’s neck. Anson sighed. He couldn’t believe they were doing this again. Or perhaps he wasn’t surprised at all.
“Henry,” he said calmly. “I didn’t come here to fight.”
“Hah!” Fintan almost screamed. “I can call my army and then you’ll have to fight them and me.”
“You haven’t called them, which means you want to hear what I have to say,” Anson reasoned. He looked across the rocky valley and saw the golems sitting motionless. There was never really any moonlight here in the Wilderness, so they looked like the silhouettes of large, misshapen rocks, their deformed faces hidden in the dark. This batch was smarter than the last, but they were still fairly limited in what they could do. He was a little jealous because Fintan seemed to enjoy their company. Anson himself had only the demons in his head and very bad memories to dwell upon. He had regret.
“I haven’t called them yet because I want the pleasure of gutting you myself,” Fintan said.
Anson sighed. “You know that doesn’t work, Henry.”
Fintan flinched and then his face seemed to crumple in despair. “Why! Why doesn’t it work? Why do my wounds keep healing? Why can’t I age? Why can’t I die? Tell me!”
“It’s the Wilderness,” Anson said sadly. “It’s the eternity you deserve.”
Fintan was seething. “This is hell,” he spat.
Anson didn’t deny it. Instead, he tried to reason with Fintan. “Rest for a while. Stop trying to fight me.”
“I’ll keep attacking until you free me.” That was an old argument now, wasn’t it? Five hundred years was a long time to try to explain something to a mad fool.
“I can’t, Henry. There is no door. There is no way out.”
“Did you free Eirlys Plamen from her prison? I know you did.”
Anson felt an uncomfortable knot of tension in his chest. “I don’t have Manasseh anymore,” he explained.
Fintan’s wild eyes lit up. “So you did set her free. Which means you can let me go, you just won’t!”
“I can’t,” Anson repeated with as much sincerity as he could convey.
“I’m not lying, Henry.”
“Stop saying my name!” Fintan hollered and slashed his sword threateningly at Anson.
“No, Henry. I think you need to be reminded of who you are.” Lately Anson had noticed the madness deepening in Fintan’s blue eyes. He was slipping. Anson could recognize it because he saw it in himself.
“You tell me how to get out of this place!”
“Or what, Henry? You have nothing with which to threaten me.”
Fintan’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t I?”
He smiled a wide, terrible, toothy smile. “Tell me or I swear I will dig my way out of here with my bare hands and the first thing I will do when I’m free is find that handsome teacher of yours and make him suffer. I will keep him alive for days and make him bleed. There are so many things I can do to him. I’ll make him wish he had never met you.”
Anson went very still. As if plucking an apple from a tree, he reached out a hand and touched the tip of Fintan’s sword. He didn’t react when Fintan started screaming as the sword turned to molten metal in his bare hand. It sizzled as it hit the rock at his feet. Fintan doubled over his cooking hands, the red, angry, melted flesh.
Then Anson stretched his hand out to where Fintan’s golem army waited. He muttered a single word and the ground caved in, swallowing the army like a giant mouth.
Fintan’s mad eyes went comically huge and the veins in his neck stood out grotesquely. “You,” he screamed. “Damn you!”
He raised a damaged hand and fire erupted from his palm as he charged at Anson. It was one of Fintan’s old tricks. Anson knew a better one.
Mid-stride, Fintan’s body split in half, his legs flying one way and his torso the other. Anson took a deep breath and looked at the mess he had made, blood sprinkling the ground at his feet. He wiped a red smear of it across his face.
“I’m sorry,” he said calmly. “I didn’t mean to do that.” Sometimes, recently, he found himself forgetting all the things Stellan had told him. All the things he was allowed to do and all the things he wasn’t. All the things Stellan had tried to teach him about limits.
He assessed the damage to Fintan’s thin body. It wouldn’t kill him, of course, but it would take him a long time to piece himself back together. Anson moved to stand above Fintan’s twitching torso and head.
“A-Ans—” he was trying to say, but he was choking on his own blood.
Anson’s face was impassive. “Be careful what you threaten,” Anson said simply.
He was gone in an instant and Fintan was left to struggle across the dirty ground to his legs one painful tug at a time.
On his darker days, Stellan remembered Jinan, old and shriveled and washed out. His milky, white eyes had stared up at him.
“I lost it all,” he said, his voice a rasping thing. His room in the castle smelled like death already. “That day…Anson took it all away, didn’t he?”
Stellan nodded, then said, “Yes,” because Jinan had lost his sight shortly after his fiftieth year. He had lost so much, actually, but never complained. Jinan had been the best of them, and they had never noticed. There he had been, shining like the sun, but even that light had been dim in Anson’s shadow.
Jinan had been a great comfort to Stellan those first few years after the last war when Stellan habitually addressed statements and questions to Anson, asked after Anson, woke in the middle of the night screaming out for Anson.
Anson who was gone, all but dead to the world.
Jinan had been a rock, unshakable and dependable, never cross with Stellan for calling him the wrong name. Jinan had comforted Stellan when nothing he tried made Anson return to them, when every spell had no effect. Stellan had leaned on Jinan, perhaps too much.
“I used to do…such things. I could make the wind swell on a windless day. I could make the rain dance…” Jinan smiled a toothless smile and stretched his hand up, high to the ceiling as if he could touch the clouds that used to be his to command.
Jinan jerked and blinked rapidly. Then, slowly, his eyelids drooped only to snap open as if he could see after all, and something had swooped close to his face and surprised him. “Master Gunvor?”
“I’m not mad at Anson,” he wheezed. “We all loved him. You should…forgive him, too.”
Stellan looked away. “No,” he said and regretted it instantly as Jinan’s face went slack and his lifeless body seemed to sag into the bed. The servants bustled around—taking care of the messy work of cleaning up the dead—but Stellan sat there, thinking.
“No,” he decided, was a terrible word to have as the last sound you ever heard.
He wanted to apologize to Jinan—for the wars, for Eirlys, for everything—but he knew it was little solace for a dead man.
The first time it happened, Stellan refused to leave the castle for a month. Hundreds of years he had gone with only the memory of the longing and desire he had felt for Anson. Those memories aroused him, made him want, but his body remained under his control, his desires firmly chained. It all shattered at once, so suddenly Stellan was left reeling from the shock.
And, well, Eirlys had told him to live—and he’d been trying, really—but he didn’t think she meant…
He was thin and blonde with green eyes filled with sadness. What made it worse was that it was he who spoke to Stellan first, he who asked him questions. For whatever reason, this beautiful youth had seemed interested in him. Stellan had felt his face flaming and hadn’t known how to stop it. He’d clutched his arm close to his chest like a shield and stuttered through the conversation. The boy had been bright and energetic as he chattered, and Stellan had thought about holding him against the wall and keeping his mouth busy other ways.
When a woman approached, this strange boy had introduced her as his mother and Stellan had barely been able to choke out, “And how old are you?”
“Fifteen,” the boy had answered.
Stellan had, literally, run away.
He’d stood in the Great Hall and suffered through wheezing, panicked breaths. His soul was already damned, wasn’t it? And now for this to come to him, this unnatural longing? A boy of fifteen? He was a pedophile, the lowest scum of the earth.
He’d prayed for forgiveness but had awakened to sticky, wet clothing and a deep hatred of himself. And from then on, it only worsened. Shy, green eyes looked at him from behind books in libraries. Thin, blonde, muscled boys seemed to ogle him as they ran across the countryside, sweating and shirtless. Scrawny, green-eyed boys seemed to be everywhere he looked. And he had thought the Wilderness hell. How wrong he had been.
Stellan felt like Anson was haunting him through the faces of these boys, staring out at him accusingly through their eyes.
It was months before he spoke to one of them again. But this time, it was with great relief to find that it was a man of twenty five turning his head. He, too, was blonde and thin; he possessed green eyes filled with sadness. Not too young. Not…unobtainable.
Stellan had chatted him up longer than he should have, just so happy to learn that his inclinations weren’t forbidden, monstrous things. No, it wasn’t merely youth that caused him to ache and need. No, that would have been too simple and his life had never been that. Instead, it was…
Of course, Anson. After all, Anson was the question and answer to most everything in his life.
One day, when he felt desperate and bold, he went home with one of them. The boy watched Stellan all night before buying him a drink, hitching his hip onto a barstool. “It’s my twenty-first birthday,” he breathed into Stellan’s ear, draped himself over Stellan teasingly. “Ask me what I want.”
“What do you want for your birthday?”
“I want to be with a man.”
Stellan doubted, very much, that this boy—he’d said his name was Chris—spent much time alone. He said as much and Chris laughed.
“You’re right, you know. I’ve messed around plenty. With young guys like me. But you? You’re not some boy just messing around. You’re a man. I want you for my birthday.”
And Stellan…he was too weak to say no. Chris was beautiful beneath him, all long legs and unchained reactions. Stellan imagined…
And how long had it been?
Chris fell apart in his arms over and over and Stellan watched him, feasted on the sight he’d never had, the sight he’d wanted despite himself. Anson would have looked like this at twenty-one: too beautiful to look at. Impossible to own.
Chris rolled on top of him in the morning, kissed him with a mouth that didn’t taste very good, but that Stellan enjoyed opening for nonetheless.
“That was amazing,” Chris said. “Best birthday ever.” Then he kissed his way down Stellan’s chest and took him in his mouth. Watching that blonde head move between his legs…it was everything he needed. Not enough.
Later, Chris watched Stellan dress from the rumpled sheets, a nervous expression suddenly on his face.
“Um. I like you. You…like me?” he said and Stellan could tell he hadn’t meant to make it a question. “So…can we…can we do this again sometime?”
And Stellan saw it in his mind—saw exactly how it would play out. Chris would want more of his time, more of his attention. Chris would wonder why Stellan stayed cold and aloof and distant. Chris would start to notice that there were things that Stellan wasn’t telling him. Chris would ask him if there was another man and Stellan would not be able to lie.
And, years down the line, Chris would want to know why Stellan looked exactly the same while his own youth and beauty faded away.
Stellan stood there, thinking all those things and said, “Yes. Yes, we can,” anyway.
Because Eirlys had been right all those years ago: he was lonely and he missed Anson more than he could ever explain.
In the end, it happened just as he’d known it would. He felt guilty, ultimately, but what was done was done. After Eirlys passed, he was somewhat comforted that at least she was no longer around to see him acting so foolishly. Granted, he could have used a stern talking-to, and she wouldn’t have hesitated to give it. Now there was no one left to keep him from ruining his life. Or the lives of silly, romantic boys.
And sometimes he imagined that Anson forgave him for making a decision they’d both had to live with for longer than he had ever imagined. Sometimes, he imagined a better world, one where he could have waited for Anson to grow up. A world where Anson could have come to understand what, exactly, he’d been asking for that night. In this one, he’d never had the chance to.
And after Chris, there were others—all of them somewhat like Anson, but never nearly enough.
Sometimes he wondered if Anson knew.
One day, he had opened a window. Just a crack, just a bit. He couldn’t pass through it: he wasn’t that powerful yet. But he could open that little window and he could see. He knew that the world must have changed, but he didn’t actually care what had become of it.
He found Stellan.
He frowned, watching Stellan suck some other man’s neck. The man was blonde, green-eyed, thin, and pale. Anson wanted to be him. He felt a stinging pain in his head, felt his eyes burn. He couldn’t even hate Stellan, could only sympathize.
“I love you,” this man said against Stellan’s mouth. “I love you so fucking much.” And Stellan growled against his lips, pushed him to the bed, and all but ripped his clothing off of him. “Yes! More!” cried this imposter, this substitute. Instead of telling him “No” like Anson wanted him to, Stellan gave him more.
Anson decided that he had seen enough. He slammed the window closed and vowed never to look again. Even he didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not.
The monster that wore Stellan’s face came when Anson called and almost appeared happy to see him. “You seem troubled,” it said. “How can I help?”
Anson frowned. “Change,” he ordered and waved his hand at the thing. It shifted, slid back and to the side. The monster it really was stepped forward, horns heavy and sharp.
“Is this better?”
Anson studied the thing, its massive arms and solid body. “That’s what you really look like?”
It tilted its big head to the side. “Here. Yes, this is what I look like here.”
Anson nodded, satisfied. He slid his clothing off. The black marks covered most of his skin now, expanded and slithered over his legs and torso, up his neck, and across his back. He looked, perhaps, eighteen now and it wasn’t enough.
“I need to know more. I need to change.”
The monster looked surprised. “Like this? But what of—” Its figure shifted, was handsome and dark eyed and Stellan again and Anson felt that pain in his head, that awful knowledge that Stellan was giving himself, that he was…doing…to someone….
Anson squeezed his eyes closed. “No,” he said sharply. “I don’t want to look at him.”
The monster held out its arms. It dwarfed Anson and its shadow was as black as the clouds above the dead and dying Wilderness.
“Come here, boy,” it said. Anson went.
Part IV: Manasseh
Dr. Smith shook the hand of the man who had introduced himself as Michael Adams. He was the husband. The small woman was Tina Plamen-Adams, the heiress. She had short brown hair and a rather average, pleasing face. She was painfully thin. Michael was only a little taller than his wife and had thick brown curls. He was far more handsome than she was pretty. It was an uneven match, Smith decided. Both of them were dressed expensively, Tina in a flattering pantsuit and Michael in a tailored blazer. They practically stank of money.
Michael kept his arm around her shoulders during the greeting. And Tina, for whatever reason, didn’t shake Smith’s hand.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she said simply. Smith let his hand fall back to his side.
“Please, have a seat,” he said to both of them.
The settled in across from him at his big desk. Michael instantly reached for Tina’s hand. Tina allowed it, but more Smith couldn’t say. Smith had worked at the Plamen Research Facility for two years now, but had never met any of the Plamens before. Whenever they came for a visit, they were swept away by the Director or by Major Campbell. They only visited Level One when the Director took them down there, usually when Smith himself was not present. As far as Smith knew, they were very disinterested in the health and well-being of the man suspended in the Tank far below them. He knew there was no blood between the Plamens and Anson. What tied them together was something of a mystery.
“As you know,” Smith began, “I have been placed in charge of monitoring and ensuring the health and safety of Walter Anson.”
Tina nodded slowly.
“We appreciate all your hard work, doctor,” Michael said with a small smile.
“Thank you,” Smith said and bowed his head to acknowledge their appreciation. “Over the past two years, however, there haven’t been any changes in his condition.”
One of Tina’s eyebrows went high. “Dr. Smith,” she began, “I know you are new to this sort of work, but there hasn’t been any change in his condition much longer than that.”
Michael gave her a quick, disapproving look so fast Smith wondered if he had imagined it. He was the doting husband again instantly.
“I’m aware of that, Mrs. Adams.”
“Plamen,” Tina said quickly.
“I’m sorry?” Smith asked.
“It’s Mrs. Plamen. I go by my maiden name, Dr. Smith. I only hyphenate it on paper. Otherwise, if you would…?” she trailed off and inclined her head, waiting. Michael flashed that unhappy expression again. It took longer for it to fade this time. Smith realized that he had misjudged Tina Plamen-Adams. She wasn’t some mouse, some weak pushover. She wasn’t what she seemed at all and this would be very difficult.
“Oh, of course,” Smith said. “I apologize, Mrs. Plamen. As I was saying, I’m aware that he has been in your family’s care for a number of years. I know you are both busy people, so I wondered if you had ever had any cause to examine the numbers.”
“Numbers?” Tina repeated, that one eyebrow high again.
“Yes,” Smith said. “The expenses. Of keeping Mr. Anson here. On life support.”
“Money is not a problem for our family,” she said.
Smith laughed an awkward laugh. “I’m aware of that. However, I know you have several charitable organizations that you support. Perhaps you could do even more good for these organizations were not for the cost of keeping Anson alive? Let me be frank: he is brain dead. There is no neural activity. That is unlikely to ever change.”
Tina stared at him. Her expression was unreadable. It was either shock, or horror, but Smith couldn’t decide.
“Are you suggesting that we go against my grandmother’s wishes?”
Smith shook his head. “No, not at all. I’m merely suggesting that she might have wanted other things had there been someone to explain to her—”
“Explain what?” Tina said and the last word ended in something like a hiss through her teeth.
Smith reconsidered then. He imagined a few scenarios where he could back off, save face. He squared his shoulders and soldiered on. “That is, her resources—your resources—are being wasted on a man who will never regain consciousness.”
Tina’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t appreciate the implication that my grandmother made a mistake by choosing to keep a sick man alive. And I don’t appreciate you trying to manipulate me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Dr. Smith,” she said as she came to her feet. Michael bounced up immediately after her, stretched out his arms to catch her as if she might fall over. She avoided his hands and skirted around the chair. “I’m afraid I don’t like this conversation. Michael, I don’t feel well. I’ll be in the car.”
She left without further ado. Michael stared after her, shoulders rigid, then turned back to Smith. “How much money?” he asked. He didn’t sound like a loving husband now; he sounded like a shrewd businessman working an angle.
Smith pushed a folder across the desk, the contents of which Michael studied for a moment. He placed it carefully back atop the desk.
“My wife was ill not too long ago,” he said. “Cancer.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Smith said.
“Thank you. During that time, I was made her power of attorney.”
Smith’s ears perked up, just a little. “Oh?” he asked.
“Yes.” He slid his hands into his pocket and rocked back and forth on his heels a few times. “I am still her power of attorney, Doctor.”
“I see,” Smith said.
And he did. Indeed he truly did.
The manor house was cold and drafty despite the fire blazing in the classroom. The fire itself was the problem. It had not been there before. There was a scorch mark on the floor leading from the desk furthest to the front all the way to the fireplace. There was even a dark burn on the ceiling above the fireplace. Stellan had taken care of the smoke that had erupted into the room with an irritated wave of his hand and a whispered expletive.
And now he stood at the front of the classroom, a looming, displeased figure all in black. Stellan’s face was pinched, as if he couldn’t believe his methods were being questioned again.
“You expect too much. She was just trying to impress you,” Anson said. He could still hear Eirlys’ sniffles. Her eyes had been red, and her face had been streaked with tears. Her curls had flown behind her as she ran away, hands clenched in impotent fists. He hated, hated seeing her upset.
“I am very unimpressed,” Stellan intoned, low enough so that only Anson could hear. “Furthermore, I doubt that display was for me. She has been dying to show off for quite some time, and I’ve just put an end to it before she hurts someone.” To the other children, he said, “The spectacle is over. And thanks to Miss Plamen, practical lessons are now at an end.”
The students groaned in disappointment, but Stellan spoke over them saying, “When one of you lacks control, you bring the group down. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Master Gunvor.”
“Now, return to your seats, open your books and do try harder than Miss Plamen to control yourselves.”
His dark eyes shifted again to Anson. “You, too, boy.”
“But Master Gunvor,” Anson argued. “Can’t I go after her? You were too harsh and she—”
“Return to your seat, boy,” Stellan interrupted. Anson looked like he wanted to press the issue. The other students stared at him, curious to learn how much insubordination Master Gunvor would take from even his favorite pupil.
“Master, please,” Anson tried and touched Stellan’s sleeve. Something sharp and wild flared in Stellan’s eyes. Anson had no name for what it was. He let his hand fall away.
When Stellan’s hand flexed at his side, Anson’s eyes snapped to it. In that moment, Anson understood something: Stellan wanted to put his hand on Anson’s shoulder, or clutch his upper arm. Stellan wanted to touch him and wouldn’t. Anson knew this with certainty, he just didn’t know why.
Stellan’s hand relaxed and Anson looked again to his hard, black eyes. “Just because she is your friend, doesn’t mean that she is infallible,” said Stellan. “Don’t take her failure and make it your own. Please, boy, sit down!” Stellan finished in a desperate whisper only Anson could hear.
It was like a bucket of water dumped on a fire. Instead of starting what had promised to be a seriously entertaining row, Anson bowed his head once, turned on his heels and returned to his seat.
Stellan watched him until he had his books out, had his nose practically touching the page, and then he jerked to alertness and forced himself to look away, to pay attention to the other students.
“Jinan, that is not even the correct book,” Stellan said as he stalked between the tables.
And when his back was turned, Anson lifted his eyes, studied Stellan with more intensity than he had ever studied any book. It occurred to him, suddenly, that there was a lot he didn’t know about his teacher.
“But doesn’t he have any children of his own?” Anson asked Jinan one lazy Sunday afternoon. They sat side by side on the grass in the garden of the manor house, staring at the colorful birds that came and went.
“Master Gunvor!” Jinan squeaked: his voice was taking longer to change. Anson’s own had finally deepened over the summer and he was grateful for that. It had been terribly embarrassing to squeak his way through lessons and squeak his way through prayers.
Jinan shook his head slowly. “Children of his own? Be serious. Have you ever seen him with a lady? Have you ever seen him go to court as he should? No, no, Anson: Master Gunvor isn’t the marrying kind.”
“But then…does he…that is…” Anson felt his face flaming and he could do nothing to stop it.
Jinan eyed him sharply, but his usual careless expression returned shortly. “No, Anson. I don’t think he…um…does. Not since I’ve been here. Eirlys said…well…no. Never. Master Gunvor has his books, his potions, the manor house, and us. That is all.”
He kicked the grass a little. “The servants talk about it sometimes, how he doesn’t…um.”
Anson nodded, letting Jinan off the hook since his own face was only getting redder.
“They say, ‘Wrong for a man his age to go so long wifout some attention! And him lookin’ as fine as he does!'” Jinan flapped his hands like the cook and stuck his chest out like she did, made his voice superior and coarse. “Why, if I was younger and slimmer, I’d go a-visitin’ me self!” It was a very good impression and Anson laughed, relieved.
Only…it all kept Anson awake at night. He could see over and over that flex of Stellan’s hand, that spark in his eyes, and he wondered: what did Stellan think might happen if he touched Anson? And Stellan had such nice hands, long-fingered and strong. When Stellan bandaged his cuts and bruises, they were deft and quick. If Stellan touched him, Anson knew it would feel nice. He squirmed a little on his bed, painfully aware of the snores of the other boys in the room. Eirlys and the other girls slept far away now and Anson knew it was because, well, they were all older now. Jinan stared at Eirlys sometimes like a fool and said things to Anson about how pretty she was. She had curves now that she hadn’t had before and Jinan couldn’t even focus for looking at them.
But Anson wasn’t interested in girls. He wanted to think more about Stellan.
He rolled onto his stomach and was aware, suddenly, that he was hot and swelling…down there. It sometimes happened, usually without him even being awake to know what had caused it. This time, he knew the cause exactly, and it was new and strange. When he rubbed against the sheets, it felt good. Very good. He reached down, touched between his legs and he groaned.
He stopped immediately when Jinan shifted on his bed across the room. Anson felt his heart thunder. He couldn’t do this here! Not if he was going to be so noisy. There were always other children and servants around and privacy was hard to find even in a house this large.
He crept out of bed, found a little-used room, ducked into a dark corner, and shucked his pants. His hand was fast and careless between his legs, but he imagined that Stellan would be good at this. He wanted Stellan to touch him like this. He wanted Stellan’s mouth on his skin.
He came all over his hand, a messy, surprising thing.
Oh, this is bad, he thought. He remembered, acutely, the sting of a slap across his face; his father drunk and loud, telling him that he was going to grow up to be like the boys in the village, the ones who loved other boys. His father had gone into great, lurid detail about the ways these boys made love.
And now, well, he was red in the face admitting it even to himself, but some of those things sounded nice, especially if it were Stellan doing them to him. Which is why this was awful, just awful. How was he ever going to be able to look Stellan in the eye now when he wanted things from Stellan he knew Stellan wouldn’t give him? Things Stellan didn’t seem to do with anyone at all? And he would most certainly not do them to a boy who had caused him a considerable amount of trouble over the years.
When Anson climbed back into bed, Jinan mumbled, “Where’d you go sneaking off to, mate?”
Anson shook his head. “Nowhere,” he lied, then curled up and tried to sleep, tried to think of anything but Stellan’s hands. He didn’t succeed, but he imagined he deserved some praise for trying.
Anson was bored with the doctors. Their concern was boring. Their tests and questions and machines were boring. He felt full of energy, alive. He could feel himself…changing. It was a slow, subtle transformation, but it was real.
And there was a world out there just ready to explore. He hadn’t seen it in a thousand years and Anson wanted a tour. He knew who he wanted to take him to see this changed world. But when he looked through the levels of the facility, he found Stellan sleeping deeply, but fitfully. This was a man who needed rest. Reluctantly, Anson slipped away without him.
First, he stopped by Gunvor Castle. It was different in many ways, but just the same in others. He drifted through the halls, stared at the familiar tapestries—noticed the burns that a few of them showed proudly like battle scars—and touched all the little things that had been beyond his reach for too long. And he touched the new things that had been added over the years, modern knickknacks and furniture. The place felt like Stellan and it made Anson ache.
He frowned when he came across the stain on the carpet, the broken glass. The smell from the stain was familiar as was the deep red color. This was from a flower that only grew in the Wilderness. It was poisonous. Very.
Anson frowned. What had Stellan been up to? And Anson felt…angry. He was beginning to understand why, exactly, he was here now. Stellan had done something awful and Anson needed time to think, but his head was still a confused jumble.
Suddenly, like a wave, something huge and heavy crashed down on him. His mind was flooded, and he could barely stay above the rising tide of memories.
He sat right down on the ground beside the broken glass, waiting for this dizzy feeling to pass. White flashed behind his eyes and he felt his skin go hot and dark. Then there was a sensation carving itself across his back, down his spine, across his hips. It was a forest growing atop his flesh and he could feel it stretch and tingle as it spread.
He remembered. He remembered death, how, everywhere he was—here and there—he had stopped being. Through the veil of his own ending, there had been a distant light, a candle at the mouth of a cave, flickering enticingly.
And he remembered…
Stellan’s mouth firm and powerful against his, his hand hot against his chest. Anson could almost feel the cold of the table against his back. There had been darkness and nothingness, and then there had been Stellan and everything he was—light and warmth and austerity and coldness—pouring into him, guiding him back to life. Stellan had been that candle. The heat of Stellan had wound around and into him, welcome and needed.
Anson shuddered, reeled as his body changed. Ink slid up, around, deep into him, far beneath the skin; the black went to his essence, scratched its way up his bones, invisible but undeniable.
Newer memories came to him then, and he understood exactly how he had come to escape the Wilderness. There had been a painful, searing slash across his soul. He’d felt it and closed his eyes and tried to understand. It had been the feeling of Stellan being ripped away from him, Stellan leaving him forever.
He remembered wailing in rage and sadness and then something had crumbled and his eyes had opened. He’d been floating and cold, surrounded by glass, and Stellan had not been there. Everything before his eyes had been tinted green and gold and Stellan had not been there. Then glass and anger and…
After a moment, the wave subsided and he could surface. He came to his feet quickly and inhaled hugely. His mind felt tender from the onslaught, but he was undamaged. In fact, he felt remarkably fit and alert. He took another deep breath.
For the first time ever, he was whole. He looked down at his arms and smiled.
With his newfound understanding, he left Gunvor Castle and headed to the nearest town. It had been a town once, anyway.
This was unlike anything Anson could have ever imagined. There were so many people, millions of them crushed in together. None of them seemed to know each other. They were all strangers, staring down at small, blinking things in their hands, listening to music through the cords pushed into their ears. They rushed around in fast machines that made terrible noises. No one really smiled or said a kind word.
Overhead were giant, winged things. He thought of dragons. But when he lifted into the air, he saw that they were man made, massive ships holding hundreds of bored-looking men and women. He followed one for some time, curious. Not a dragon at all. Just another machine. Just another terrible machine.
Anson spent two hours or more popping to and from old, familiar places and finding them changed. The people were practical, educated and informed. There were no superstitions. How could there be? These were the architects of towering buildings made of glass; of wires that buzzed with energy stitching city to city; of wide, paved avenues lined with shops that sold things he didn’t understand. There were churches, but no one expected miracles. They prayed, then went to see a doctor.
Even the countryside had changed. More machines lumbered and groaned here. They spewed smoke and dirt and buzzed with noise. The animals didn’t seem bothered by the terrors, and Anson wondered what it would be like to live around something like that, to be so used to it that it was just one of many annoyances.
He discovered television early in his tour. Something called ‘the news’ showed him horrors.
Anson wanted to cry because, as always, Stellan had been right. Stellan had always been right and Anson had never listened.
Men still killed each other, war still existed. All of Anson’s high ideas had been foolish ones. Henry Fintan was just an earlier version of the men commanding armies today. Machines and weapons did all the work that he used to do with a wave of his hand, a whispered word.
Anson regretted everything then. He felt lonely, he felt alone.
He missed Stellan.
In the blink of an eye, he left the gruesome scenes playing out in the store window on the television. The world was different, but Stellan never changed.
Anson didn’t see it—was too focused on Stellan to see—but in the center of the street where he’d stood, a black sapling crawled its way out of the earth. It twisted and crept through the concrete, cracking the sidewalk. It was joined by another, and another.
A door had opened and something had started.
A door had opened and something was coming.
Anson wiped at his tears and stomped his foot a few times.
His face was hot from the fire, but when Stellan tried to pull him away, warned him that they were standing too close, Anson didn’t listen, didn’t move. He shook Stellan off and even stepped closer to the flames.
“It was your home,” he said through the tears. “It was your ancestral home and you’re not even…you don’t…” He wiped at his face again. “Why don’t you feel anything?” he shouted.
At that, Stellan fell to thinking. He immediately decided that this night was not the tragedy it could have been. He’d lost the manor house, true, but he’d been able to get most of the things he cared about to safety.
He’d been able to get Jinan and the other students to safety. He’d been able to rescue his servants.
And (most importantly, a terrible, selfish, but true voice added) he’d gotten Anson to safety. He’d come home to an inferno, like the mouth of hell had open up at his gates. And he’d known real fear then, wondering if he would never see that damn, stubborn boy again. But he had found him. He had.
That, more than anything, made this night nothing to cry about. And, no, Stellan would never tell anyone that—before the other students—he had dashed into the fire for Anson. He’d sought out the brilliant light that was his greatest student—through the fog of smoke, the blaze of fire—and he’d gone to him, taken him up in his arms, found a door to safety, and pulled him through with him.
He’d set him down on the ground gently, gently. Then he’d followed him down, pulled him into his arms.
“Shh, boy. Shhh. I’ve got you,” he’d whispered against his sooty temple. “I’ve got you.”
Anson had clung to him. Tears had cut through the grime on his face, leaving him streaked with black and red. He’d smelled like ash and had been incapable of anything but shaking and holding Stellan’s arm tight to his chest.
“I was s-so s-scared. I c-couldn’t f-find you,” Anson cried. “I-I c-couldn’t…”
“Shh, boy. I found you.”
And Stellan hadn’t wanted to let him go. But he’d gone back for the other students. He’d gone back for his things, those that could be saved. He felt like he opened a thousand doors that night, any door he could find that would let him spirit the things he cared about away to safety.
“Master, let me stay with you! Please!” Jinan had shouted. The other students, too, had wanted to stay with him, but he couldn’t risk it. If she came back for him, he wanted no one else in the line of fire. Almost no one…
He’d almost lingered inside the burning manor, almost tried to save everything. The memory of Anson sobbing on the ground made him abandon that notion, leaving all the rest of his things to the inferno.
Stellan briefly considered opening a door and taking Anson to join the other students, but he couldn’t stomach the idea of letting the boy out of his sight. He needed him here, with him, where he could protect him. It was an irrational urge he couldn’t explain, but he imagined that he felt, for the first time in his life, like a father. Or something like it.
Then he’d stood beside Anson and watched his house burn to the ground.
And now Anson was scolding him, demanding to know why Stellan, even at a time like this, was emotionless, calm, and unfeeling. But Anson had no idea of just how much Stellan felt. No idea at all.
“You’re alive, boy,” Stellan said. “Be grateful for that. It was just a house.”
“It was more than a house!” Anson argued, his voice quivering.
“No, it wasn’t,” Stellan reasoned. “It was just wood and brick and things. That doesn’t make a home. That just makes a building.”
Anson’s mouth turned down more. He was too mad to hear reason. “I liked that house. I grew up there. I liked it there.”
Stellan crossed his arms. “As did I. Now, stop crying.”
It almost worked. Anson sniffed loudly, then took a breath that sounded like a series of hiccups. After a few minutes, he only made a few whimpers.
“Better?” Stellan asked.
“Yes, Master Gunvor.”
“Master Gunvor…I was happy to see her,” Anson said after a moment. “She stood outside the gate and…I thought she’d come back to us.”
Stellan went tense as Anson related the events leading to the fire. He felt such guilt for having not been here to protect him. He feared it would never lessen.
“Then she screamed such terrible things. I…” Anson tried, then shook his head fiercely. “I can’t believe she did this,” Anson said after a long moment. Hulking beams broke free and crumbled to the ground and Anson jumped as they crashed. “Why did she do this?”
Stellan shook his head. “Eirlys is not herself,” he said. “I cannot explain her actions. I certainly can’t justify them.” After all, she had attacked a home filled with children, deliberately picking a time when Stellan was not there. Those were not the actions of a sane woman. Stellan had to assume that something vital inside of Eirlys had shaken loose.
She’d fled when he arrived, apparently well aware of the outcome if they were to spar. What she had in raw power, she lacked in experience and knowledge. That, Stellan had in spades. That, at least, was something. If she feared him, he had an advantage.
“She wasn’t alone,” Anson said, turning away from the fire at last. “She had men and women with her. They helped her.”
Stellan tilted his head to the side. It was troubling, but unsurprising news. Eirlys had been charismatic from the first moment he met her. Even with this new, dangerous path she was on, Stellan didn’t doubt that she had easily been able to recruit men and women to follow her wherever it led.
“Well, if they come for us again, we’ll be ready.” I won’t let them hurt you, he didn’t say.
Anson shook his head. “But what if they go after other people? People who can’t defend themselves? Regular people?”
Stellan didn’t seem to like the question. His face twisted into an ugly frown. “I don’t believe that is our concern. They have kings to rule them. They have armies to defend them. We are alone and should take care of ourselves.”
Anson shook his head again, more emphatically than before. “I won’t let her go and hurt people,” he said. “I won’t let her go…burning down homes and…t-t aking people away from people who l-love them.” He firmed his chin to cover his nervous stutter and it was somehow an impressive thing to see. A bit like watching him grow up before his eyes, Stellan imagined. He studied this new, resolute Anson and wondered what further surprises this night held in store.
He lifted a brow at Anson, a question all on its own. Aloud he said, “And what do you plan to do about it?”
“Well,” Anson said with surprise in his voice. He hadn’t made any plans himself, it seemed, had just been voicing his anger. But now, when faced with the chance to act, he jumped at it. “The way I see it, if she has an army, we should get one, too.”
Stellan’s brow went higher. “We?” he asked.
Anson reached out and took his hand, just for a second. “We,” he said and smiled.
Stellan opened his eyes. He was in the research facility, in the room Bradley had said he could use. Safe. The clock told him he’d been asleep for five hours, but he didn’t feel rested. He gave in, sat up, and looked at Anson in the weak light from the nightlight. Something was wrong, but he was too sleepy to figure out what it was. He didn’t know how long Anson had been sitting on the edge of the bed, staring down at him. It didn’t disturb him as much as it should have. It was good to see the boy again.
Stellan frowned. He reconsidered his last thought and realized that it wasn’t accurate. He couldn’t call Anson a boy, for Anson wasn’t the same from even five hours before. Then he had indeed been a boy of seventeen. The man at the edge of Stellan’s bed was twenty-one years old at least. His body had filled out: he was muscled and lean. His bone-white hair was short around his ears and longer at the top, falling over his forehead slightly.
Stellan shook his head, denying what he was seeing. That was what had been wrong: Anson had changed.
“Boy,” Stellan intoned, “what happened to you?”
“I know what you took from the Wilderness,” Anson said, as if Stellan hadn’t spoken at all. Even his voice was a deeper timbre.
“Anson, answer me. What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing. I feel fine. I’m becoming myself again. See?” He held out an arm and what Stellan saw there made him bolt out of bed. He turned on a nearby lamp and grabbed Anson’s arm, turning it as he examined the marks that had not been there before. Anson’s new, formidable power tingled through his fingers, sizzled up his spine. Not unpleasant, but surprising. As surprising as what was before his eyes.
There were dark bands of tangled patterns roving up Anson’s arm. They reminded Stellan, uncomfortably, of the trees in the Wilderness. Not only was Anson older, but it seemed obvious that he had been marked with proof of his studies into dark, forbidden things. Before Stellan’s eyes, the marks seemed to be spreading. They fanned out across Anson’s bare chest, up to his neck. Stellan couldn’t help but notice that Anson smelled clean and that his hair was a little damp. He’d showered and no longer smelled like a mix of chemicals and Eiryls’ power. Anson smelled fresh. Good. There was a bead of water on his collarbone and Stellan stared at it, feeling suddenly thirsty.
“You have been…dabbling with things you shouldn’t,” Stellan said abruptly.
Anson shrugged. “I had a plan. I had to be stronger.”
“Strong enough to do what?” Stellan tried not to scream. “And at what cost?”
“Strong enough to open a door,” Anson said simply. With a slow tug, he pulled his arm out of Stellan’s grasp. “You always distract me, but I won’t let you this time.” There was hurt in his eyes as he said, “Why did you do that? You tried to kill yourself. You…you did kill yourself. You were dead, weren’t you? I told you to wait for me.”
Stellan felt his mouth pull down in an ugly expression. “Wait for you? For another hundred years, perhaps? Two?” When he sat down opposite Anson on the bed, it was wearily. “I’m tired, Anson,” he sighed.
“I closed my eyes in the Wilderness and I woke up here,” Anson said. He seemed to have trouble following the thread of the conversation, of keeping his mind in the present. “I couldn’t figure out what could be strong enough to take me from that place. There aren’t any doors out of the Wilderness. You can’t ever leave it. Yet here I am.” He smiled a small, odd smile. “I understand now: it was you. I came back for you.”
“I won’t let you leave me, Stellan. You don’t get to take yourself away.”
“It should be my choice, don’t you think?”
Anson blinked at him, his expression confused. “No,” he said.
“Listen to me, boy—”
“But I’m not,” Anson said, interrupting him. He rolled gracefully to his knees and crawled across the bed to settle too close beside Stellan. “I’m not a boy, I’m not a child. This is what I really look like. Look at me, please. I’m a man now. I have been for a very long time.”
He lifted one of Stellan’s shaking hands and placed it over his chest. Stellan marveled for a moment that he could feel when Anson clamped down on the torrent of power inside him so that Stellan wasn’t bombarded with it any longer. He almost missed the sensation of it bubbling through his veins.
“And I could feel you touch me,” said Anson. He was taking deep, slow breaths.
“Listen to me: I did no such thing.”
Anson’s expression was wistful. “I felt your hand over my heart. Just like this. I…I remember you kissing me.”
Stellan swallowed. “Go away, Anson.”
“No,” Anson said and his chest was warm beneath Stellan’s hand, virile and real.
“Dammit, boy. Leave,” Stellan growled. Something was breaking inside him. Resolve or…what he didn’t know. But it was crumbling and Anson needed to go before the last piece fell.
“No,” Anson repeated and then it was too late: they were kissing and Stellan was clinging to him like he was afraid he might disappear in front of his eyes again. This was, Stellan thought, a very bad idea. But just this once, he promised. Just for a moment, just this once. And Anson tasted like heaven.
Anson tugged at Stellan’s shirt frantically until he seemed annoyed with the activity. When his eyes flared green, Stellan found himself with no shirt on, bare chest to bare chest with Anson. He supposed that was one use for all the things he had taught Anson. Stellan felt feverish and dizzy on this; he wasn’t in control of his body. His hands were hot as they glided over Anson’s abs, teased his nipples, gripped his shoulders too tightly. It seemed that Anson, too, couldn’t get enough of touching Stellan’s bare skin. He whispered Stellan’s name over and over while caressing his chest, his collarbone, the hollow at his throat.
They shifted until Anson was straddling one of Stellan’s thighs, rocking slightly, and Stellan’s hands were clinging to Anson’s back, his ass, massaging his muscles; it was never enough. Anson made little breathless noises that told Stellan that this was going to be fast and messy and that it was going to feel brilliant. He wanted to feel Anson rub himself off on his thigh, wanted to hear him come so hard from wanting this so much.
Of course it was Stellan who pulled away first.
“Anson, I…I can’t,” he protested.
Anson leaned back to study his face, tilted his head to the side. His lips were red and wet and Stellan tried not to look at them. “Is it these?” Anson asked softly, extending his right arm where vines and brambles of ink moved and slithered. “They disgust you? You don’t want me?”
“No,” Stellan said with forced calm. “They don’t disgust me, Anson. Even with…those…anyone would want you.”
“Anyone? But not you?” Anson asked, sliding somehow closer.
Stellan shook his head, confused by the conversation, his own feelings. “No, I do want…you’re still all I…I mean, that is. I just…can’t.”
Anson beamed at his slip and Stellan scowled more for being caught. “Oh, but you can,” Anson argued and bowed to tease one of Stellan’s peaked nipples.
Stellan gasped. “You’re just a—”
“I’m not,” Anson said and kissed him roughly before Stellan pulled away again.
“I don’t—” he tried, but he was as breathless as if he’d run a marathon.
“Stellan, you weren’t always celibate,” Anson said, just as breathless, just as shaky and affected. “And you certainly weren’t celibate while I was gone.”
“How could you know something like that?” Stellan snapped.
“You have no idea the things I know now,” Anson said, still touching him slowly, exploring his body.
Stellan believed him, and it was a terrible thing to believe. He studied the distance in stony silence, his face red and his eyes as black as they had ever been. Anson smiled knowingly, then lifted Stellan’s hand to his mouth to suck on Stellan’s fingers, licked them until they glistened in the lamp light. “None of that matters,” he said. “Now I’m here and you won’t need substitutes. You can have the real thing. And I can finally have you.”
When Stellan meant to be protesting, what he found himself doing instead was rocking into the hand Anson shoved beneath the waistband of his loose pants. Anson whispered dirty things in his ear and massaged his ass as he stroked him. He jacked him a little too hard, a little too fast and Stellan never wanted him to stop.
And just like that, he gave up. He gave in.
He groaned when Anson did stop touching him, but he needn’t have worried. Anson was only getting started.
Anson flopped onto his back, shucked his loose pants, and spread his legs. He grabbed Stellan’s hand again and was all playful confidence as he tugged that hand down and back, lifted his hips. Stellan was almost shocked by how forward Anson was with his desires, but he had other things to worry about: the marks were even on Anson’s legs, swirling over his ankles, twisting around his hips.
Suppressing how disturbed they made him feel took effort. But Stellan went where he was led and moved over Anson’s body. A man’s body. His breathing was ragged; he felt his heart racing in his chest. He was shaking even worse than before. Still, he kept his hand where Anson put it, traced the ring of muscle so gently that he wasn’t sure he had actually touched Anson at all. But Anson smiled up at him slow and hungry, obviously liking what he was feeling. “Yes. More,” he said. He stroked up and down Stellan’s arm, encouraging him. “Touch me.”
Stellan pushed a little harder, let one of his fingers slip inside. Anson’s reaction was instantaneous and wild. His hips bucked and he tugged at Stellan’s wrist, pulling that finger deeper into his body. Stellan bit his lip at the sight of his finger deep in Anson, slicked by Anson’s own saliva. Then Anson tugged at his wrist, then pushed it away and…Stellan swallowed harshly. Anson was fucking himself with Stellan’s finger, in and out, making desperate, keening noises.
“More,” Anson said hoarsely. “More…”
Stellan shook his head. His finger wasn’t going in as easily as was optimal if they were really going through with this. “Maybe we should go slower. We should wait. I don’t think—” he said, letting his doubts speak. Anson made a thoughtful noise, then reached his empty hand out to the side, and made a grabbing movement. A second later, he pushed the tube into Stellan’s hand.
Stellan blinked. “Where…?”
Anson bit his lip. “Not sure. There was a drawer. We’re not waiting.”
Reluctantly, Anson let Stellan pull his finger free. “Nng,” he said. “Hurry.”
Stellan twisted off the seal and the cap and let them drop to the sheets. This was certainly another use for the things he had taught Anson. He was creative. “Finally mastered drawers, have you?” asked Stellan.
Anson squirmed as he answered, pushing a pillow under his hips. “I had nothing but time to master what you tried to teach me.”
Stellan stroked the marks on Anson’s thigh with a feather-light touch. “I didn’t teach you this.”
“You taught me the basics. Put that on your fingers,” he said bossily. So they weren’t going to discuss what Anson had done to himself, Stellan realized. Fair enough. They had time, he supposed. All the time in the world.
Stellan slicked up his fingers. He didn’t see the point in denying Anson any longer. And dammit, but he wanted this. Whatever might become of his soul, he still wanted it. So he slipped a finger all the way inside Anson again—it went in more easily and Anson was tight and hot, and the thought of pushing into him made Stellan bite his lip—and moved it in and out, slow and suggestive. He sped up a little, heard Anson’s breath hitch.
“Anson…?” Stellan asked softly, needing to know.
Anson made encouraging noises. “That’s good. I knew it would be. I always knew it would be with you. I need to know what you feel like inside me.”
And Stellan wanted that, too. So much, only…
His mind was reeling, wondering. The question was on the tip of his tongue as he thrust his finger gently into Anson. He didn’t understand how Anson could have ever been with anyone like this. Had he been a virgin when he first tried to seduce Stellan? Or had someone been…touching him, teaching him how to be a lover, right under Stellan’s nose? The thought angered him, though he knew it was unreasonable. Or had Anson learned these things in the Wilderness? In the Wilderness where the only other human was Henry Fintan…?
The words tumbled from his lips, “Have you ever…I mean…did you…in the Wilderness?” And it was odd to be coy about this when he was pushing his finger deeper into the boy, but he couldn’t help it. Not a boy, he thought. Not a boy.
“Shhh,” was all the answer Stellan got followed by the command of, “Don’t think about that. Give me more. Harder.”
Adding another finger made Anson louder, more expressive. Another finger and he was twisting so prettily, so forcefully, that Stellan had to use his other hand just to hold him down. And Anson’s tattooed hands clawed at the sheets, or they clutched at Stellan’s shoulders, but they never held still.
“Do it,” he said at last. “Come on. I’m ready. I’m so ready.”
Stellan slid his fingers free and Anson made a high, needy noise. He watched Stellan as he removed his pants and stroked the lubricant onto his cock. Anson licked his lips. “Remind me to finish what I started,” he said huskily.
“This doesn’t count?” asked Stellan.
“Oh, no. This is just the start,” Anson said almost dreamily. And Stellan almost changed his mind about how this was going to happen right then because he had tormented himself for hundreds of years imagining Anson’s mouth sucking him to completion and he was torn trying to decide if he wanted that now, or later when he wasn’t so hungry for Anson that he was shaking.
Anson made up his mind for him when he held his arms out, asking for what he wanted. He wrapped them around Stellan’s back to embrace him as he moved down low; he wrapped his long legs around Stellan’s waist to anchor him where he needed him. His heels pressed hard into Stellan’s ass and it was intoxicating to be like this with him.
Stellan took his weight on one elbow then put his hand on Anson’s chest, feeling, remembering. With the other, he took himself in hand, breathed, waited for Anson to make a noise that said “Yes, now.” He pushed, hard, and then harder, steadily. And then Anson gasped, adjusted, felt himself spread and ache and spread more, open wide and impossibly wider. He gasped, choked a little on pain and then waves of something bigger than pain.
Stellan was panting near his ear, hot, desperate breaths. “Am I hurting you?”
“Yes,” Anson moaned. “Please don’t stop.”
Stellan couldn’t even if he’d wanted to. Anson felt just as perfect as he’d always tried not to think about.
“You’re so tight,” Stellan whispered. “You feel so good.”
Anson laughed breathily. “A compliment? Perhaps you have changed.”
Stellan closed his eyes and his lips thinned. “I haven’t,” he said.
Anson stroked the worry line at the corner of Stellan’s mouth, tried to wipe it away. “I know,” he said. His hands slid over Stellan’s strong back. “Now will you give me what I want?” he asked, squeezed his muscles around the thick heat inside him. Stellan grunted in surprise and pleasure.
“Yes, Anson. We can both have what we want now.” The first push made Anson scream against his shoulder. The second made him clutch at the sheets. And one of the perks of taking Anson on his back like this was watching the lovely play of emotions across his expressive face.
More than that, as he moved, Stellan listened to the sounds that Anson made. There were harsh little gasps and long, throaty moans. There were whispered encouragements and pleasure-filled shouts. He found the rhythm that made Anson beg and twist and claw and stuck with it. It felt too good to be real, overwhelming sensations shooting up his body with each thrust, and Anson sounded beautiful.
“M-Master!” Anson cried as the rhythm went good—perfect—and just this side of too hard, too much. He reached down to grab his dick where it was rigid and leaking against his belly and stroke himself in time with the pounding of Stellan’s cock inside him.
“Yes, right there!” Anson said and bucked his hips into the thrusts. “Needed you…nnng….so long.”
“Anson!” Stellan shouted because it felt like a flood of desire, like he was drowning and there was no way to keep Anson’s delicious body from pulling over the edge too fast, like some horny teenager with no control.
And Stellan dropped his head, rode it out, held himself up with one hand and used the other to massage Anson’s ass, to feel his muscles flexing as he rocked up into him. He looked down to see his cock sliding in and out of Anson, felt terrible and possessive and primal for needing to see that he owned him like this and that Anson wanted to be owned like this. He needed to reassure himself that he wasn’t taking advantage of a lovely boy, he was making love to a man who had wanted this, begged for this, and was even now crying out in joy for this impossible, powerful, hungry thing that was between them.
And dammit, he wanted Anson to call him Master again, wanted to fuck the word right out of him.
He got his wish a second later as Anson arched hard against him, screamed out that beautiful word and rocked against him spastically a few more times, his inner muscles constricting and fluttering around Stellan, massaging him and driving him crazy. There were deep, jagged, gashes all along Stellan’s back from Anson’s nails. They healed only to be ripped open again as Anson shuddered and clutched at him one more time.
Stellan stilled, stared down at the beautiful mess Anson was, covered in sweat and semen. Anson seemed to drift back to the bed, a languid, lazy smile on his face.
“I want it,” he said in a whisper and kissed Stellan slowly. “Come on. Give it to me. I have to feel this.” He smeared the blood on Stellan’s back as he pulled him closer, shifted his hips seemingly just to tease Stellan more. It made Stellan want to fuck faster, harder, make Anson never forget how good he could make him feel.
Stellan pulled out until just the head of his cock throbbed inside Anson. He held Anson’s gaze, waiting for the slight nod that said “now.” Then he slammed in hard. Harder the next thrust. Faster. All the need of all the centuries pushing into Anson’s tight little hole. Harder still.
“Ah, ah, ahhh, nnnggg, ah,” Anson breathed with a voice gone high, every shudder of cock into him making him exclaim.
Stellan fell into the rush of sensations, let it take him. This was something delayed by a thousand years, something even hell hadn’t been able to stop.
He wiped the sweat off Anson’s face, kissed him and kissed him as he thrust himself to completion. So tight, so hot, milking the come right out of him, thirsty for it. Fucking him. Filling him. There.
He caught himself before he could crush Anson, pulled out with a grunt, and rolled them both to the side so they were looking at each other.
Anson smiled, then frowned, then smiled again. He didn’t seem to know how to react. Stellan could sympathize. He gave in and kissed him. It was hardly the worst thing he had done now. Anson moaned into the kiss. “You taste good,” he said dreamily. “Been wanting to kiss you again forever. I’ve wanted you forever.”
Stellan didn’t say it back. He couldn’t.
They showered slowly together, Stellan kissing the pale skin he could find among the black. One of Anson’s nipples was pink and clear and Stellan sucked it greedily, tasting deeply. But beneath his tongue, it suddenly turned black and Stellan closed his eyes not to see. He didn’t want to see.
But then again, back in bed, Anson felt right in his arms. Like it was where he’d always been, a part of Stellan, a piece of his heart.
Stellan was aware of dozing, of falling asleep content and exhausted with his arms full of a boy who was no longer really a boy. He could feel Anson stroking his face, hear Anson talking to him as if from far away.
“When I was sixteen, all I did was wage war and plan war,” Anson said. “And when I wasn’t thinking about war, I was thinking about making love to you.”
He could hear a sad smile in Anson’s voice. “You never noticed. There you were, handsome in all that black, never smiling at me, and I just wanted to touch you.”
Stellan squirmed in his sleep and Anson paused, perhaps feeling guilty for disturbing the first restful sleep Stellan had had in some time.
“You told me,” said Anson, lowering his voice to a soft whisper as he touched his fingers to Stellan’s temple, “that there is a door to anywhere, anyplace, and that you can get there if you know how to find that door. I found a door to you, Master, and I won’t leave you again.”
Stellan didn’t know if he dreamed the words, or if they were real. He wanted to reply, to tell Anson…something. Sleep took him away before he could. When he woke again, it was to kisses deep and slow and his body already hot with wanting Anson. He found the lubricant where it had fallen beside the bed and Anson took it from him. When he rolled Stellan onto his stomach and pushed his legs apart, Stellan let him. Anson was thorough with preparing him. When he pushed inside—a man’s cock, thick and long—it was slowly, as if he were savoring it. Stellan opened for him, welcomed him.
It was as slow this time as the first time had been fast.
Stellan rocked into the bed, knew he could come just like this, with Anson pounding a slow, sensual rhythm into his ass and the sheets a perfect friction against his cock. He couldn’t imagine getting enough of this now. How strange, when he’d never thought of it before that night, the night before the battle when everything had changed. Then Anson had kissed him, taken him into his mouth, and it had been like lighting a fire or flipping a switch. Stellan had been trying to douse it, turn it off, for a thousand years. Now, he never wanted it to end.
Anson shuddered into him, filled him, then rolled Stellan onto his back with surprising strength. He swallowed him down easily, pushed down until Stellan was throbbing in Anson’s throat. Anson stroked his sides, encouraging, and Stellan bucked up, pushed into that wet heat, leaking and on the edge. Anson worked his throat, swallowed around him and Stellan followed him into orgasm, drowning in the sight of Anson between his legs again, at last, the feel of that mouth he had craved. Then they snuggled together with Anson muttering promises about the morning, about the day after that, and the day after that. And Stellan could almost see it: forever spent like this.
“I’m always going to want this, Stellan,” Anson said, as if he had read his mind.
Hearing that, Stellan felt content and rested for the first time in a long time. And before sleep claimed him again, he wondered what the hell to do about it.
“Master Gunvor,” he almost whispered.
“Good heavens, boy. What are you doing awake? It’s gone past midnight.”
Stellan placed his book on the table and looked—really looked—at Anson. The boy was pale, trembling, and his eyes were wide with terror. Something had scared him enough to send him sneaking through the halls of the manor house in the dead of night. He’d been crying.
“Come here, boy,” Stellan said.
Anson sidled up to him obediently, his hands rubbing together as they did whenever the boy was nervous.
“Did you have another nightmare?” Stellan asked.
“Yes,” Anson said softly. He swallowed over and over again, stared a hole into the ground. This one, then, had been worse somehow.
“Are there pictures? On the wall?”
Anson nodded, a small, tight thing. Stellan’s face showed no worry, nor surprise. Anson’s dreams sometimes took on lives of their own. The first time had given him a terrible shock, but now he was used to Anson, used to how his incredible power appeared in unusual ways.
“We can get rid of them in the morning,” he said. “No harm, no foul.”
“They’ll come back.”
“Dreams can’t hurt you,” Stellan said easily.
“Mine…seem real,” Anson said. “I think they can hurt me.”
“I won’t let them.”
“How can you?” Anson sniffled.
“Have I ever let anything happen to you?”
Anson shook his head. “No,” he answered quickly, sincerely. “Never ever.”
“And I never will.”
Anson toed the ground, hiding a small, shy smile. He seemed to like Stellan’s words. “Can I stay here?” he squeaked. “With you?” he added.
Stellan turned to look at his big, empty bed. He hadn’t been using it, after all.
“I suppose. Until morning,” Stellan said and waved at the bed.
“Until morning,” Anson agreed with a relieved smile, and then shuffled off to tuck himself into warm, heavy blankets that smelled like Stellan, clean and good. His trembling was better and there was actual color to his pale face now. Stellan felt the knot of tension in his chest slowly ease.
“Goodnight, Master Gunvor.”
Stellan lifted his book and flipped a page. “Goodnight, boy,” he said.
Anson looked down at Stellan where he slept and considered what to do now.
For there were many things he could do. He looked inside himself and watched as the last window looking into the Wilderness turned black, and knew that no part of him remained there. He could come and go, he realized, but it was no longer a prison for him. He was, all of him, in one place again for the first time in a thousand years. He was all here. With Stellan.
He wondered what exactly that meant for a moment, and realized that it maybe meant that he was possibly happy. Perhaps. He wasn’t quite sure. At the very least, this was a start in the right direction.
When he held out his hand before him, he knew that he could do just about anything with it. All the possibilities in this world—or any other—were like low hanging fruit, so easy to pick. And those that were higher up the tree? Anson considered them for a moment and knew that even they were not beyond his grasp. He’d become something of an excellent climber, as it were.
And Anson had Stellan now. Stellan, who had always caught him when he fell. Stellan who had taught him and cared for him. Stellan who had forgiven him for so many things, even from the start.
“I suppose,” he’d said that very first morning, looking at the castle Anson hadn’t meant to make with a cold expression, “that I shall have to help you clean up your messes.”
And Anson had waited for Stellan to throw him out of his beautiful manor house, for him to hit him or yell at him or punish him. But Stellan had merely sat beside him and, in a calm, slow voice, explained to him where the castle had come from. He had even rounded up the little people with Anson and it had been the most wonderful moment of Anson’s life because he had known then and there—with more certainty than he had ever known anything else in his young life—that Stellan would never hurt him.
Anson ran the tips of his fingers across one of Stellan’s high, perfect cheekbones, simply because he could. Stellan was one of the only things he’d ever wanted for himself, so that was all right, too.
He frowned as he wondered what exactly he would do with all the power he could feel settling inside him nicely. It was like a cat nestled down deep in a blanket, lazy and content, but ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice.
Anson closed his eyes and floated over the mountains near the wastelands. It was strange to be in the Wilderness and not be trapped, to be a visitor just passing through. He didn’t want to be seen, so he wasn’t. And he’d found what he was looking for: they were digging, Fintan and his army. They’d made good progress, he guessed, but what exactly were they digging for?
He studied the mountain more carefully and almost laughed. He was a little embarrassed to realize that he’d left a crack in this world. In his haste to get to Stellan, to stop him from dying, he’d ripped a hole in the Wilderness. Henry Fintan had found that crack—that accidental exit—and was now steadily working his way back to his home world.
Anson didn’t think going back would do Fintan any good. Fintan didn’t belong. Fintan was mad and broken and probably in need of healing he would never find in a world that had machines and steel and glass, but no dragons. No miracles or wonders. The world didn’t need Henry Fintan any more than it needed Walter Anson, or even Stellan Gunvor.
Anson concentrated on the crack in the mountain—decided to give Fintan a better option.
It was easy, actually.
Anson made a door.
When Inch broke through to the heart of the mountain, Fintan almost cried with joy.
He walked up to it cautiously for how could he be sure that what he was seeing was real? Anson was so full of tricks. So crafty. Perhaps this was just another trap, just another prison? It certainly didn’t feel like Anson’s malice. Could this really be one of Anson’s odd mistakes? The air around their discovery told Fintan that even the mountain was surprised by the thing, as if it hadn’t known it housed it at all.
“Sire,” said Inch in his steady, emotionless voice. “We stopped digging when we found…that.”
It was as tall as a man and made, oddly, of charming slats of wood. There was a window in the shape of a heart in one of them and the whole thing was painted country green. The paint was fading and cracking, which only added to the charm. It had a brass doorknob worn dull in places from use. There was a sturdy rug right in front of it that said ‘WELCOME.’ Fintan looked over his shoulder at Inch.
“Perhaps it is a trap,” he said, voicing his fears aloud.
“It isn’t,” said Inch.
Fintan swallowed once, then again. He felt very lost. “Will you come?” he asked.
Inch maybe smiled; Fintan couldn’t tell.
“My body is the dirt you stand on. I’d die.”
That made Fintan frown. He hadn’t imagined, when this day came, that he’d ever have any reason to feel sad.
“Well, then. You’d better stay. I suppose.”
“Goodbye, sire,” Inch said slowly.
Fintan couldn’t make himself say the words in return. He put his hand on the doorknob, turned, and stepped through.
It was morning, but the sun was struggling to rise here. It crept and squeezed its light around the tall towers and high, stacked streets. Long, bluish shadows slid along the avenues and across the parks. Anson looked away from the weak daylight and into the distance, far away to the desert where Stellan was asleep, eyelids moving as he dreamed. Satisfied, he turned back to consider what was before him.
He floated high above the tops of the tallest building in this city. Men and women were pouring out of it onto the street, screaming and shouting. The building itself groaned and shook. Glass rained down on the street as the windows exploded outward, bottom to top like a volcano erupting. From the gaping mouths of the broken windows, the Wilderness emerged, shooting out thick, gnarled branches and creeping vines. The clawed fingers of the trees wound together, grew longer and longer and wrapped around the tower. Then the ground at the feet of this tower cracked open and heaved up black roots, thick and rotting.
Anson watched it all, impassively. He moved to another city and watched as the wasteland tumbled up and out from the ground, sweeping across the land and overtaking it. He moved to another. Huge, ugly mountains began to push themselves up from caverns in the ground, shaking the world like a million earthquakes.
Another city, another chunk of the Wilderness. And another.
In the largest conference room of the Plamen Research Facility, Canemaker stared at the news on the big television and then decided that he needed a drink. He handed one to Bradley without asking him if he wanted one. The Major certainly needed one: he looked as white as a sheet.
The reporter wasn’t holding up much better.
“Cities across the w-world are reporting strange growths appearing from nowhere. Skyscrapers are being engulfed in branches and vines. This footage is live. I…that is. A state of emergency has been d-declared for the entire state. P-people are being asked to remain calm and to report all incidents to officials as soon as—”
Bradley muted the television with a too-forceful push of the button on the remote.
“Anson brought that with him when he woke up,” Bradley said, halfway between a question and an accusation. Canemaker nodded.
“If it’s any consolation, I don’t think he intended to.”
“It’s not,” Bradley said.
When Smith joined them a minute later, Canemaker poured the man a drink as well since he looked even worse than the reporter. The three of them stood there, silent and shocked, and watched their world as it was overrun by another.
“Well, things could be worse,” Canemaker said after a long pause and with forced brightness. A monument had just toppled on top of a popular franchise restaurant, and then both had been buried beneath a wriggling mass of vines. There was poetry in there somewhere, Canemaker decided.
Smith gaped at him. Bradley shook his head. “Director, I don’t see how.”
“I don’t either. I was just trying to be cheerful. We’re probably all doomed,” he added and raised a toast to them with a smile.
“Well, thank you for that,” Smith said and downed his whole glass, wincing as it burned its way down. He gave a little hiccup then added, “Anson is not in the facility, Director,”
“I didn’t think he would be. I imagine he has his hands full,” said Canemaker.
“Can he…stop it?” asked Bradley.
“Possibly,” Canemaker answered. “The real question is, will he?”
And that, none of them knew.
When Stellan woke, Anson was gone. He put his feet on the floor, considered all the aches and pains he could feel from a night spent with Anson, and decided that he didn’t mind them at all. He showered and, standing under the spray, imagined the warm water washing away a thousand years. A nice thought, but not very practical.
When he was finished and dressed, he looked around the facility, thought about Canemaker, Bradley, and that fool Smith. He realized, somehow, that he’d never see them again. He’d never meet another one of the endless Plamens who came and went as time endured. This was an ending he hadn’t anticipated when he’d swallowed that poison.
He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was in the desert standing behind Anson.
Anson had always been easy to find; he was usually the brightest thing around, like a candle flame in a cellar. He was a beautiful contradiction: nervous and brave, confident and cautious, powerful and needy. Stellan didn’t know how Anson could be all the things that he was, he was merely grateful that Anson was. Whatever he had become, he still was.
The sun was coming up over the desert and Anson’s hair was rimmed in gold. The strange black markings that covered his body had worsened. One of the designs snaked up his neck and slithered up the side of his face.
“It’s growing,” Anson said to Stellan without turning away from his study of the dome and its surrounding wall. Or what was left of them. For Anson was right: the Wilderness had quadrupled overnight. There were patches through the trees through which Stellan could see the wreckage of the dome and even the barbed wire from the wall. But most of Area 42 had been buried by the swamp.
“You can’t control it any more?” Stellan asked.
Anson shook his head. “No. I’m here now,” he said. He held out one of his heavily marked arms for Stellan to inspect. Before Stellan’s eyes, the marks became darker, seemed to spread faster, covering up all the remaining pale skin that Stellan had kissed and sucked the night before. “See?” said Anson.
Stellan was afraid of the marks, of what they might mean for Anson. “What are these things?” he asked. “Tell me what you did to yourself.”
Anson frowned. “This is what I’ve looked like for a long time. There, not here. And I’ve become whole again. The Wilderness goes where I go. And I’m here. Don’t you see?”
Stellan shook his head. He didn’t. He didn’t understand at all. The creaking and groaning of the Wilderness as it grew was deafening. It sounded like the earth vomiting up another world from its core, like something bigger than anything being birthed to life.
“H-how big is the Wilderness?” Stellan asked fearfully.
“Endless,” Anson answered. “It has no boundaries.”
“Then this world—”
“Will be swallowed, yes.”
Anson was so calm about it that Stellan wanted to shake him. “Can’t you contain it again?”
Anson seemed to consider. “Can I be honest and say I don’t want to?”
But Anson would not listen to his curses. He had his attention focused on the mass of jungle spewing up from the ground, taller and taller. Stellan estimated that they had mere hours before where they stood would also be swallowed by the thing.
“What will happen to Fintan?” Stellan asked.
Anson angled his head as if listening for something. “Henry is on his way to where he needs to be. Once he’s there, I can do what I need to do.” He turned away from the expanding patch of hell in front of him and held out his hand to Stellan.
“Would you stay with me while I wait for him to find it?”
“Find what?” Stellan didn’t ask. He knew that the answer would be beyond him. Right then, he had a sudden, honest thought that he still wanted Anson, despite whatever it was he had become. Even with his blackening skin and strangely luminescent eyes, he was still the most beautiful thing Stellan had ever known.
Stellan’s smile was a weak, tragic thing. “Of course,” he said and took Anson’s hand. Once, he had taught Anson. Now, he found that Anson knew more than he ever had. The price for such knowledge was high indeed.
They settled down on the sand, holding hands and watching the Wilderness. It took about an hour for the clouds to form high above the thing. They were black and low and flashed with lightning. As if agitated by their own power, they moved constantly, churning restlessly. Stellan had never imagined that the weather of the Wilderness would come along with the trees and the creatures. He felt silly for not having considered it, at least.
Something swooped out of the trees, circled, breathed smoke, and plunged back down again. It roared. Stellan felt a stab of terror, but let it pass. After all, Anson had saved Stellan from a dragon before, just as Stellan had saved the boy from a fire. It was all connected somehow, and Stellan was convinced that Anson understood the whole of it.
And Anson kept waiting, watching intently at the edge of the thing. At last, Stellan understood what—who—he was waiting for.
Henry Fintan had changed. He looked thin and wild and lost. His blue eyes were bloodshot and he walked with shuffling, uncertain steps.
When he was before Anson, just five feet away, Fintan stopped walking. “I found a crack in the mountain,” he said simply. “There was a door.”
Anson nodded as if this made perfect sense. “Stellan helped me get free of the Wilderness. I’ve let it escape. It’s not here anymore,” he said and touched his forehead once. “It’s there,” he said and gestured across the desert at the ever-growing thing. Fintan turned to where he pointed.
“Damn,” said Fintan, turning back. “I had hoped to leave it once and for all, but here it is.”
Anson nodded. “You took the door the wrong way. I hadn’t meant you to come this way. Try again.”
Fintan licked his dry lips thoughtfully. “I wondered if I might have. I could hear the music that way—down some distant corridor—but I came this way instead. I had some vague idea about revenge, but it all seems silly now. I don’t think you would die, anyway.”
Anson smiled, just a little. “Go find the door again, Henry. I imagine you must be tired.”
Fintan looked hungry and wilder than ever. “I am. Yes. I can follow the music now?” he asked like a child needing permission. Anson nodded and Fintan’s shoulders lost some of their tension.
“Goodbye, Henry,” said Anson.
“Goodbye, Walter,” Fintan mumbled. He turned to Stellan, gave a curt nod, and then wandered off back into the Wilderness. Stellan thought that he looked small and vulnerable beneath all the twisting brambles of the place. He wasn’t a warrior anymore or a commander. What, exactly he was, Stellan couldn’t say, but he hoped Fintan found peace.
He disappeared from view, hidden again inside the Wilderness.
It took about a minute—a long, slow, desert minute—but there was the distinct sound of something going click.
The green door opened and Fintan stepped through it.
Fresh air rushed into his lungs and sunlight—almost painfully bright—made him squint and lean back into the shadows.
He was standing on a covered porch made of aged but sturdy-looking wood. There were birds of every color circling above a lake so clear and blue that it was just another sky flipped upside down. He had never seen trees like the ones that lined the lake before, but they were so tall and graceful they swayed like dancers in the breeze. There were odd but pretty roses in pots at his feet—on either side of the green door—and rose bushes lining a path that led down to the water. There was a dock with a boat tied to it.
Something went, “Meow.” He looked down at a long and slinky cat as it wound its way around his ankles.
“Your cat is very cute,” he said to Eirlys.
“Don’t lie, it’s bad for your soul,” she said and rocked in her big rocking chair almost thoughtfully a few times.
Fintan reached down to pat the cat’s head. “Yes, ma’am,” he said.
He understood now that the music had been coming from her. Eirlys had been humming a slow tune, very sweet and almost sad. He’d heard her through a mountain. He’d heard her through hell and back.
She had gray hair and gray eyes and lines everywhere. Her hands were thin and bony, but they looked strong where they held the needle. She was sewing with small, precise stitches to add another patch to an already large quilt. It seemed the kind of work that would never finish. He understood that very well. But he also understood that this was the kind of work that was a joy, not a burden.
“You look tired,” Eirlys said.
“I am,” he admitted. “I was lost in the Wilderness.”
She nodded. “Would you like some tea? I was going to have some tea.”
Fintan couldn’t remember the last time he’d had tea. “Tea would be nice, ma’am.”
She stood slowly, threaded her arm through his, and reached for the doorknob. He almost cried out for her not to open the door, not to make him go back. He felt horror clawing its way up his throat, and he wanted Inch to be there to protect him from what was on the other side, but Inch was gone.
He sagged when the door swung open to reveal a clean and simple living room. Beyond it was a kitchen glowing golden from sunlight bouncing off dozens of copper pots hanging above the sink.
“I…I thought it might be…somewhere else,” he said weakly. He wanted to cry in relief.
She smiled up at him knowingly. “It’s okay now. We’ll be friends. Come this way,” Eirlys said and tugged him into the house.
Stellan felt a change in the air, but he couldn’t say what caused it. Something about the change made him imagine that—were he to stretch his hand out before him without fear, without doubts and hesitations—that something beyond anything would be there, just waiting for him to grab it.
Anson looked at him and said, almost childishly, “Well, I can close it now.”
Stellan frowned. “Close what?”
“The door,” Anson answered. “What good is a prison without a prisoner?” He closed his eyes and held an arm straight out before him—just as Stellan had imagined himself doing. Anson’s skin was nearly solid black now with the marks closing in on the flesh like a predator devouring prey.
He brushed the air with his fingers—a small flick of his hand—and Stellan didn’t imagine the thud that echoed across the desert.
The Wilderness folded in on itself like a paper screen. Then it seemed to fold again, and again, smaller and smaller, twisting and shrinking as it moved. The last fold made it disappear from sight. All that remained were the tattered walls of Area 42 and the cracked and jagged glass and steel of the dome.
Stellan heard a squelching sound and turned from the wreckage to Anson. He watched dumbstruck as the black marks on his arm dripped off of him like paint from a paint brush. The inky black of it slipped to the ground and seeped away into nothingness. His skin was left clear and free moments later. Stellan couldn’t stop staring at him, didn’t want to, in fact. Anson without the marks was lovely. Stellan had always imagined that, one day, his greatest student would grow up to be a fine and handsome man. He hadn’t imagined that it would happen quite like this, but perhaps it didn’t matter now. Anson studied his hands with a look that was half approval, half uncertainty.
“So strange,” he said, almost to himself.
“Well, boy,” said Stellan. He gave Anson a stern look. “Have you cleaned up all your messes?”
Anson glared at him. “You know what?” he said. “I hate it when you call me that.” He said the words with all the vehemence of a man who’d wanted to get them off his chest since he was six.
Stellan smiled one of his slow, vicious smiles. “I know,” he said.
Anson huffed. He muttered something about “Just one word of praise!” Then his hand brushed Stellan’s. Stellan got the hint and twined their fingers together once again. Anson said clearly, “I think I’ve done all that I can do. My messes, as you say, are as clean as I can make them.”
“That’s honest enough, I suppose,” said Stellan. “Now what will you do? I don’t think you belong here anymore.”
Anson smiled. “I don’t. But you don’t either, Master.”
Stellan fell quiet. It was true. He’d figured that out a long time ago; known it painfully as he stepped off a cliff.
“I know,” he said softly.
“Don’t worry,” said Anson. “There are other worlds. Better worlds.”
Stellan forced down the spike of fear he felt to ask, “Where?”
“Here,” Anson said and tapped his own forehead. “And here,” he added and touched his fingers to Stellan’s temple.
Stellan felt uncertainty like a gash in his stomach, a burn of poison in his gut. He didn’t know what kinds of worlds there were in his mind. The ones in Anson’s didn’t seem much better. What if he had places as bad as or worse than the Wilderness lurking in the corners of his imagination? Stellan took a deep breath, tried to be brave.
“How do we do this?”
“We find a door. We open it.”
Anson squeezed his hand reassuringly. “Stay with me. I’ll teach you.”
It was such a reversal, being taught by Anson. Nevertheless, it felt right, as if it were a role he should have taken sooner. “Together, then?” Stellan asked.
“I’d like that.”
Stellan nodded. He supposed that this was the time to decide if he had really grown tired of life after all. Now was the time to wonder if Anson, too, had simply had enough. Or would it all be somehow tolerable if they were together? Would everything hurt just a little less? Could they go on forever, arguing about silly things and then making up with slow, deep kisses?
He closed his eyes when Anson did, felt how strong Anson’s hand was in his. It helped him believe that this was happening, that Anson was really there beside him.
He took a deep breath. He chose.
And here—where he stood—he could feel himself falling, tilting over, hand still clasped in Anson’s, who was falling, too. Stellan’s back hit the ground, but he didn’t let go of Anson’s hand. Then Anson was lying right beside him and the sand was blowing across their cold skin. They were silent, motionless, and staring unblinkingly at a clear sky.
But there—where he was—there was a door inside a sea of whiteness. And the door was locked—a complicated lock both tricky and subtle—but Stellan put his right hand against it and Anson put his left and, between the two of them, there could be no doubt that the thing would open.