I awoke with a gasp. Eyes bursting open to see a bright, clear sky above. I blink, trying to remember what I was doing before. Where am I? What was I –? I was doing something important. What was it?
A shattering sound fills my ears, an echo of a memory. That’s right, I had travelled to a dark place, to a hidden ruin beneath the earth. I had been searching for something… and I hadn’t been alone. I scrunch my brows, trying to push past the ache building beneath my skull. Something else lurks beneath the surface, but I chose to ignore it. If it were important, it would not be so easily discarded.
What had I been doing down there? When had I come back to the surface? What had –?
“Elizabetha?” Calls a voice. A voice I haven’t heard in so long.
I lurch into a siting position, my head spins as I throw myself upward and onto my feet. My vison whirls, my eyes burn, and my chest tightens as I stumble forward. Arms outstretched — why is it so bright out here? — I move, spinning around, searching for that voice. The voice of my —
And then I see him.
I stop and stare. Standing a distance away, dressed in white, is my husband.
“Daniel?” I whisper. He stumbles forward, calling my name again, and god, it is a beautiful word coming from his mouth. I move, and somewhere between my first few, weak steps, I start running.
“Daniel!” I scream, sprinting towards him. He matches my pace and between one blink and the next — I find myself caught up in his arms.
He lifts me from the ground, arms tight, fingers clutching hard enough to bruise, but I don’t care. I’m doing the same thing. Clawing at his back, my face pressed into his neck. The force coiled around my chest releases, and with my first free breath, I cry.
Tears pour down my face as sobs I cannot stop no matter how hard I try, drag themselves from my mouth. Daniel’s sobbing too, my name pouring from his lips. It’s a messy, gross, and loud reunion. And I have never felt better.
It’s Daniel. It’s the love of my life that I thought I would never see again. It’s the man who told me terrible jokes and held me in his arms as storms raged overhead. It’s the man I watched give everything for the world, only be left with… with…. What had happened? What had we been doing before?
Did it really matter?
I smile, sniffling into the fabric of Daniel’s shirt. No. It does not matter how we got here, all that matters is we have each other. I turn and press a wet kiss to Daniel’s cheek, following an imaginary line all the way to his mouth. I taste his lips and now — now I can breath easy again. Now I am home.
We kiss like it’s the end of the world, and maybe it is, real life had never been this peaceful, but I can’t bring myself to care. I’m bursting with emotion — and I want to drown in these feelings. I want to drown in Daniel. My Daniel. God, I’ve missed him. I missed the taste and scent of him, the firm hold of his arms, his warmth, and the steady beat of his heart against mine.
We break, and shifting back I meet those beautiful green eyes. There is so much warmth and love in those gems, and I never want to look away again. I want to stay here, in this moment, forever, but —
But something is wrong. There is something dark lurking beneath Daniel’s loving gaze. Something cold, and for a second, Daniel’s expression looks like glass about to break. I frown, and hold tighter to Daniel. He blinks, brows furrowing, and then his expression clears. He sighs and chuckles.
“You don’t remember yet.” He says, brushing a length of hair behind my ear.
“Remember what?” I ask, claiming his hand, lacing our fingers, my gaze never once straying from his face. I want to burn this expression, this look of unfiltered love into my brain, because I never know when or if I’ll ever see it again —
Why would I never see it again? Why would I ever even consider the thought of being away from Daniel? Why would I ever part from him? Daniel smiles, it is not an entirely sweet smile, and presses a kiss to my forehead.
All at once, the presence I had been ignoring bursts to the forefront of my mind. There is a hungry void stirring in my ribcage and my brain. It is terribly heavy, and it is quiet.
It is not a cruel quiet exactly. It is a patient quiet, the kind of quiet people give you before you say goodbye, the kind of quiet you are gifted when you are given bad news. It is an expansive quiet, a moment for you to take it all in and sort yourself out.
I don’t like this heavy silence. But I know I can’t escape it.
In that quiet, I remember. I remember an unwinnable war, a search for magic, and an item. A lantern, and a spell that turned it into The Lantern. I remember a night, cold and dark, with Daniel at my side as we marched into uncertainty. I remember what we had to do, and what it cost us. What it cost Daniel.
I lost him. He had to guard that terrible army trapped forever inside the Lantern. He had to give up his humanity, his mortality. I remember my pocket so unimaginably heavy with the weight of both our wedding bands.
I remember our last kiss. And now, on my knees with Daniel in my arms again, I remember what I did after. I reported the success, I told Daniel’s story, and then I left to search for a way to set him free.
I remember realizing there wasn’t one.
I remember all those decades alone. And then I remember my own descent into darkness. The golden tattoos that I let dig into my veins, rotten magic that now crawls across my skin. I remember the hunger that lies beneath my flesh, and what I had to do to keep that magic — to keep myself alive.
The things I had to do to stay with the creature Daniel had become. The blood I had spilled just to hold his hand as his mind faded bit by bit. So many years in the dark… Long enough that the creature that wore my beloveds face no longer felt any affection for me. The man I once called my husband is gone, and yet I remained, chasing after a shadow.
But that is not here and now. Why had I descended into that dark tomb? What had I found? I blink, eyes burning, cheeks hot, chest cold, and stare up into this terribly familiar warmth. This hopeful ending I want to cling to so desperately, even though I know it cannot last.
“Are we dead, my love?” I whisper. Daniel shakes his head, then pulls me closer to cradle me to his chest. I shut my eyes, and clutch at this dream —
Dream? Oh. I understand now. I had discovered a relic of ages past, an artifact that could, according to legends, take the souls of people and transport them into a dreamscape. A reality of your own minds creation, where you could spend what would feel like an eternity, living out your most desired fantasies. But in reality, you would only be gone a few moments, and then your soul would be returned to your body.
I had found the relic, and had dragged Daniel down below with me. As instructed I had smashed the relic, and here, in this picturesque expanse, is where we found each other again. Here, we could be together again. We could have a happy eternity to ourselves —
“No.” Daniel says. I raise my head, and meet Daniel’s bittersweet gaze. His smile is strained.
“What?” I ask, taking his hands, lacing them together. He looks as broken as he did the day we ‘won’. But it’s worse, because then he was angry, now, knowing what he — what we both will have to return to, he looks terrified and sad beyond measure.
“I’m sorry love, but we don’t have an eternity.” He says, thumbs smoothing over my skin. I do not question that he must have been able to read my mind, magic was a strange thing, but I still don’t understand. I open my mouth —
And a thunderous crack sounds. The ground trembles, and for a spit second, Daniel’s eyes turn dark. He pulls me into his chest again, and the void in my skull shrieks silently. Without words, I know what has happened.
Daniel’s soul and mine are too fractured for the magic to hold. The Lantern calls to him like the void living under my skin calls to me. Our wretched magics are surging forth, stronger than the relic, and they will tear down everything in their path to have us again.
We do not have an eternity here, we barely have more than a few minutes.
As the world shakes around us again, I kiss Daniel. I kiss him harder than I have ever before, I hold him as tight as I can, as if I could take him into myself and keep him safe like a babe in a mother’s womb.
But I can’t. Daniel really is completely bound to the Lantern. My void calls, rising like a tidal wave, but as soon as it brushes my heels, it hushes. As monstrous as it is, my void has always been kind to me. Maybe it knows I will return soon, maybe it always knew this dream of mine was not made to last. Regardless, the void abates, lingering just beyond, patient.
Thank you. I weep to it.
Another crack sounds as I pull away to hold Daniel’s head in my hands. He kisses my palm, eyes wet, and god it is a relief not to see that inky fluid drip from his eyes. Not that it won’t later, but still, it is nice to see my Daniel. Just this one last time.
“I love you.” I sob, smiling as sweetly as I can for him. Behind him, I see the cracks crawling across the earth, opening into the terrible blackness of our reality.
“I love you too, Elizabetha.” He breathes, flashing that charming grin I had fallen for so long ago. “Thank you, love.” He sobs. “Was this enough for you?” He asks. The cracks draw closer, shattering this dreamscape like ice on the lake, ready to collapse and pull us under.
“Yes.” I weep, pressing his forehead to mine, I stare into those beautifully bright eyes, trying to burn that gaze into my memory. “It was enough for a proper goodbye.” I sniff. “We didn’t get one before.” Daniel laughs, a broken sound I will treasure as much as I treasure the joyful ones.
“Goodbye, my Elizabetha.” He says, eyes flickering to darkness. Ink begins dripping from his eyes, but still, I see only my Daniel. “Never doubt that I love you.” He swears. “Never doubt that deep down I will always love you.”
“I will. Goodbye, Daniel.” I whisper against his lips.
And then my world shatters, and I am dragged under.
I awake on damp stone, staring up into darkness. I rise, and brush the dust from my clothes. Only flickering firelight lights my way, and with it’s light, I search the stone floor, and find the shattered pieces of the artifact gone.
Daniel is gone too. It is just me, standing alone with a heavy void in my head, in a tomb far below the earth. My tattoos itch, but I pay them no mind. There will be time to hunt later. I sigh, wipe my eyes and turn to the exit.
“Elizabetha.” Calls an echo of a familiar voice. I pivot, but see nothing. I reach out with my magic, and at the edges of my reach, I feel him. In my mind, I see Daniel — no, the Lantern’s Guard, standing in the shadows. Lantern humming with raging energy at his side.
I snap my fingers, and my void drags me to him. I gasp, knees weak, and meet that dead, dark gaze. The Guard reaches out and gently drags his cold clawed fingers over my cheek. He stares into my eyes, tilts his head, and nods. I don’t know what he’s seen, but it sates him none-the-less.
He opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it again.
“Dream sweetly for me, Elizabetha?” He asks, voice wavering even though his expression remains blank. A tear rolls down my cheek as I offer a smile.
“I always do.” I say, thankful my voice doesn’t crack. Again, he nods, then steps away. He turns, pauses, then offers me his arm.
“Walk with me a spell?” He asks. I pause, but seeing the fresh inky tears on his face, I take his arm.
“Whenever you want, love.” I say. His face twitches, whether in sorrow or joy, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever know. The Guard clears his throat, and together, we walk, bathed under the light of the moon. Just for a spell.