Co-authored by Ikken Isshu and The Unsung Bard
His fingers flew across the keyboard as the words tapped into existence on the glowing monitor. Slowly, tantalizingly, the story was drawing to a conclusion. The day was saved. The fight was over. All was right with the ephemeral world he had created out of his own once-disjointed thoughts.
With a few keystrokes, he painted a closing to the final sentence of the final paragraph of the final chapter. Adding some empty space below, he prepared to key in the two words that would set, forever, this parable as the defining agent of his imaginary world. But something stopped him. He screwed up his face, confusion tickling at the base of his neck: It shouldn’t be hard. Two simple, three-letter words. All he had to do was type them, and it would be done with—His tour de force. His magnum opus. His masterstroke.
He considered the book, considered all the thought and emotion he had invested in it. This was to be his best piece. This would be the book that made him. There would be interviews. Movies. Radio talk shows—and a flow of cash from the sales, if he was one to toot his own horn.
All thanks to one destitute little girl who grew up to save the world.
Even now, in his mind’s eye, he saw her, the same way he had always seen her, since the first keystrokes with which he had breathed life into her. She had straight, raven black hair that stopped just before touching her shoulders. She wore a green woolen cloak over her men’s tunic and trousers. In the image he now entertained, a knife was clutched firmly in her right hand, the weapon screaming stubborn defiance against all the forces that stood against her. To say it simply, she was the perfect heroine.
To him, she had no flaws. Her would-be ‘imperfections’ only contributed to the glorious whole that she represented. She was not invincible to the trials and tribulations of human existence. She was a thief. A criminal. A nobody. If she had died then, no one would have noticed. But she rose up—up against a nation of oppression, to steal back the world from those who had stolen it from the weak, to create a free world. She was the fall guy, an underdog, a would-be casualty of political war—and she ascended to the greatest of heights, purely for the sake of justice. And he loved her.
God help him, but he loved her. It was foolish, he knew, to love a character spun from his own imagination. From the beginning, her abusive childhood, to her career as a thief, to changing a nation, he had been there. He knew each intimate detail of her life. She was not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, but from her heart emanated a powerful glow of compassion tinted with joy and sorrow.
He should have seen this coming. He should have readied himself for this to happen, that the time would come to write those damning words—To end the story. With those words, she would be thrust into the eternal hell of literature, damned to relive the same events, to feel the same passions, to suffer the same atrocities time and time again. Could he inflict that on one so close to his heart?
He moved back from the computer and stood, checking to make sure that his work had been saved in its entirety. After drawing a glass of water, he sat on the edge of the bed and held his head in both hands. He looked at the clock, grunted at the time it showed. Dawn was nearing. He was tired. He eased himself back onto the bed. He closed his eyes. He felt the dreams coming, knew he would see her.
- - -
He was with her. They stood in the Derelict Plains, named for the ruins dotting the flat landscape. According to the history he had imagined, they were the ruins of the massive capital city of the Old Kingdom. He was standing with her under the archway of what was once a cathedral. Outside, a dry river bed ran parallel to the paving stones of the old, disused path beside the cathedral.
She smiled up at him with her wonderfully imperfect smile, with her emerald eyes gazing into his. Together they ran through the plains, the knee-high waves of grass flowing against their legs in the wind. Laughing, they fell to the ground, and into each other’s arms. And then they kissed. It was rapture to have her in his arms, to have her lips against his. Wild passion flowed into him, branched out haphazardly into him from where their lips met.
The words were whispered into his ear, a delicate caress.
She screamed. Fire erupted from the ground beneath them, exploded into a barrier cutting them off from each other. Crying out, he flung himself through the flames to rescue her. . . .and came out onto a dirty street plaza, filled with the sound of mongers crying out their wares from the street corners.
And there she was, just thirteen years of age and crouching behind a produce cart. She furtively reached her hand over the edge of the cart, purloined an apple—and ran.
He remembered the scene perfectly. Like clockwork, a shout rose from the merchant, and two guards were instantly in pursuit. In a blur, he found himself above an alleyway, looking down at the cornered thirteen-year-old girl, clutching the apple to her breast as the guards advanced.
Then she looked up at him.
The look in her eyes was incalculably different from the one he had always imagined at this point in her story. Rather than fierce and sly, the expression on her face was one of simple emptiness. Empty. Devoid of life, of emotion.
She was tired of having no opportunities, no life, outside of the story he had just closed. Something else was in those eyes, too—blame. It was his fault that she was trapped in that cycle, his and no other’s. He had ended the story. He had damned her to this eternal succession of youth, aging, and then sleeping until the book was reopened, only to begin the story over again.
He cried out above the noise of the city, but no one heard him.
His cry of desperation was not a part of the story.
- - -
He rose from the dream as if from water, and could almost feel the substance of the visions sliding back away from his mind.
The phone rang again. With a start, he realized it had been ringing for some time now, and he rose to retrieve it.
“Hello?” he nearly mumbled into the phone, pressing one side of his face back into the pillow. He glanced at his bedside clock with the one eye that wasn’t buried in the pillow, and saw that his bout of dreaming had lasted all of three or four hours. A square of sunlight was visible on the far wall.
“It’s me,” came the phone-distorted voice of his publisher, the same publisher with whom he’d been working since the beginning. She was the one who had given him his ‘big break’, turned him into an accomplished author. She had given him his fifteen minutes of fame—which had promptly become much more, as his work sold countless copies nationwide. Right now, however, she sounded impatient. “The deadline’s today. Where the hell are you?”
“Sorry,” he croaked, and cleared his throat, trying to suppress images of a poor little girl stealing an apple. “I pulled an all-nighter. Could you hold off the wolves for one more day? I still have something to… wrap up.”
His publisher sighed. “You know I can’t push the deadline back forever. I can only stall for so long.”
“But you’ll do it for now, right?”
“…Yeah, but you owe me a big one. Are you sure you’re all right? You don’t sound too hot.”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine. Thanks for asking, though.”
“Well, take care of yourself. I need to get to my other work, and unless I’m mistaken, so do you.”
“Yeah. I’ll call you later.”
There was a pause, as if she was trying to think of a clever farewell, then a click as she hung up. He groaned as he sat up a second time, and returned the phone to its cradle. He took a second glance at the clock and let out another, louder groan. Another hour or two of sleep couldn’t hurt. He fell back against the pillow, and sleep found him quickly.
However, so did she.
- - -
He was sitting. He didn’t know what on. Everything. . . .everything was white. The world was a mass of shifting, rolling white. White, and one tired, sad, small writer in the center of it all.
A hand touched his shoulder. He looked up.
It was her, just as he remembered her. She smiled that imperfectly perfect smile and sat down on the. . . .white. . . .next to him.
“You are troubled, my love?” Her voice was more than he had ever imagined in a year’s worth of dialogues, curses, commands that he had written into her mouth. It was soft, sharp, invasive, caressing—female, in all the best ways.
“Yes,” he said, forcing himself to tear his eyes away from those emerald pools. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Talk to me,” she caressed. “Let me in. Maybe I can help.”
He told her everything, told her the story, told her that it was to be his crowning achievement. He told her that he feared to close the story, because it would mean condemning her to an everlasting rotation. Told her that he loved her, as nonsensical as it seemed. Told her that he did not want to see her trapped in that cycle.
She listened, nodded, and finally, smiled. “In the life you gave me,” she told him, “I fought against oppression. I wanted to be noticed.” She smiled sadly and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Not hidden under a rock and kept there.”
“I know,” he said with a sigh and an attempt at a wry smile. “I wrote it, remember?”
She laughed, shook her head slowly. “Yes, I remember,” she said. “But you miss the point. I did not fight that war on injustice, only to be hidden from the world again. Yes—I did great things; but how is the world to know of those things, if you hide me away?”
He glanced over to her, had to pull his eyes away from the earnest expression on her face. “So this is what you want?” he whispered. “You want me to end it?”
“I want people to remember me,” she said as if correcting a small child, but it was without condescension. “It would be better to live on in the hearts of many, than to be kept imprisoned in the mind of one.” She smiled sadly. “You entertain this… idea… that the end of the story is as a condemnation to ages of repetition, of people reading the same story time and time again.”
His face darkened, and his voice reflected the anger. “Do you mean to tell me that you want that life? That you want to be forced through the same trials, to be squeezed through mind after mind, until the story is just a sequence of events through which you move?”
She touched his shoulder and turned him to face her. “No.” Now her voice was cold, but carried an underlying pain that cut him to the core. “I want to be free. In the life that you wrote, I fought and struggled for freedom. You have this delusion that by closing the book you would forever imprison me here, in this story, for eternity. So you would prefer to enslave and imprison me within your heart. That is wrong. You are wrong.”
His head came up. “What do you mean?”
“If you surrender me to others, they will hear of my story, and I will live on in the hearts of those who read of me. By keeping me to yourself, you are acting the jealous lover, refusing to let others know the joy you have found in me.”
His throat closed unexpectedly, and his cheeks felt wet. “Then… what would you have me do?”
“Set me free.”
- - -
He sat up in his bed, the tears still lending their wet sheen to his cheeks. Slowly, he stood and moved to the computer up and walked over to his computer, which was still glowing with the text of the story, exactly as he’d left it.
He could still hear her voice, echoing in his ears.
Set me free.
He touched the keyboard lightly. The pain was intense, but he blinked back the tears. It was over. The story, the romance… It was over. With a long, mournful sigh, he typed:
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