That night I was unable to fall asleep.
The next morning Arius led me solemnly to the end of the world or at least the world as I had hitherto imagined it. Fractus was surrounded on all sides by invisible barriers through which I could not pass. I had often wondered what lurked beyond them and had long ago come to the conclusion that it was only vast open space. This world had always struck me as incomplete, as either dead or in the primordial stages of its development. For years I had seen no one other than my companion and by default he assumed many roles.
Fractus was not devoid of life but I could not distinguish a cow from a pheasant as every creature appeared to me faceless and misshapen. The meat they produced was flavorless and of a consistency between rubber and shredded paper. All the produce we consumed was mealy and bland. Eating was something we did strictly out of necessity and then only just. I say this now only that you might have some reference for comparison.
Once we’d walked as far west as we could Arius’ turned his inquiring eyes to me for confirmation of my resolve. I nodded feeling that my head might fall off my shoulders. I felt in a single word unhinged. Arius placed his fingers against the wall and a section sufficient for passage materialized without the fanfare that a miracle may be accustomed to provoke.
I shielded my eyes with my arm to block the sun’s rays and it was several moments before I could see well enough to distinguish shapes of any kind. This place was so unlike the 300 acres of wasteland to which we were confined. The fields were positively drenched in colors from the crisp green grass to the dainty blues and golds of blossoming flowers. The air was sweet and slightly musky, it must be Spring I mused. There were fences along the road and animals of discernible type in the fields. The old barn was bright red and standing ecstatic against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky. In the distance I thought I saw the shapes of men stooped in the fields and my heart split in twine with a mix of joy and terror. I wondered if God would strike me down for my trespass into heaven. For it seemed to me then that I had been living in purgatory.
The house, though the same, appeared as it must have appeared mere moments after its construction. The yellow color recalled images of baby chicks and daffodils. I gasped hand nearly moving to cover my mouth. Arius turned to me with an apologetic gaze and I let my hand drop like a stone.
I stood behind Arius unable to satisfy my anxiety with any occupation. I held my breath when he knocked on the door. I held it until my lungs burned and the color fell from my face like a discarded peel. We were greeted by a 20 something man with black hair and eyes. It took me several moments to realize that he was a human like myself. “The master has been expecting you…” He spoke only to Arius and I felt that he was deliberately avoiding my eyes. “Will your servant be accompanying you?” I considered the man’s words and determined, with dismay, that they were in reference to me.
“Servant?” Arius’ obvious confusion provided more confirmation of my position than even denial would have done.
“The human…” The butler said trying to repress his astonishment/distaste at Arius’ ignorance.
“My brother doesn’t keep servants…” Just then a face emerged from the darkness that was the house. The familial resemblance was apparent at a glance but I found no familiarity in mannerism or expression. Zagan’s horns and the tips of his hair were black. His features were slightly more angular and he stood perhaps a good couple of inches taller which was to say that he could not stand strait in the door frame. “I never imagined that you would bring your lover here…” He said turning his mocking gaze to me. For several moments he appraised me sparing no part of my anatomy and although I was dressed I felt that it was not so. “Yuki prepare our guests some refreshments…” He said his tone leaving no room for discussion or objection. Neither I nor Arius disputed the man’s assumptions. I, for one, could not be depended upon to say anything in that moment.
Zagan moved to the side to let us pass through. I crossed the thresh hold at Arius’ heels just the way a child might cling to his mother’s skirts in the presence of a stranger. Zagan led us into the sitting room. The layout was much like our own sitting room but the furnishings where new. I sat together with Arius on a sofa which was slightly too small for the two of us together. My right knee bumped his thigh and for a moment I considered moving to the chair but chickened out when Zagan sat down in front of us. “Are you so scared of me human?” I felt Zagan’s laughter through the entire length of my spine and for a moment I even mistook the sound for my own pulse. “Prudent choice…” He continued gaze darkening.
The butler entered then with a ornate silver trey on which there was a full service tea set and several delicate pastries. I was grateful for the interruption as it forced our host to break his gaze. Zagan plucked an apple turnover from the trey as it passed near him. The butler served us in order of our perceived status which was to say that he served me last. When it came time to pass out pastries he kept the trey deliberately out of my reach, a slight for which I felt too much pity to protest. “Don’t be rude Yuki…offer it a pastry…” Zagan scolded without heart. I was rankled by his use of it, instead of the appropriate pronoun but I knew deep down that this was not the worst he could do to me. Reluctantly the black suited man passed the trey in my direction. I took a fruit tart and placed it on a napkin. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had anything sweet. Arius took three small cookies of different configurations and placed them on his napkin. Zagan dismissed his servant as soon as the transactions were complete.
“I acknowledge the loneliness of your position so if you’ve come to ask me to make an exception for your lover I have no objections so long as you don’t intend to procreate.” Zagan offered his tone moving seamlessly from nonchalance to disgust. The loneliness of your position invoked sympathy for I knew it must be so and yet I could not truly say that I felt alone when we were together. Procreate invoked an entirely different reaction. There were so many things wrong with that statement that I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it.
“I’m not an it. I’m a he and I have a name it’s Daniel.” I stated firmly, my irritation providing, momentarily, what confidence had failed to produce.
“Ho ho…so you are…my mistake…” Zagan did not strike me as particularly apologetic but I doubted he would suffer much more in the way of my insolence. “Well better that you are male…” He seemed relieved and I understood in a moment that his relief was a testament to his prejudice against human kind. I was too young to have adequately considered children but his words cemented the fact that I would never have any of my own. Not that I wanted to bring a child into what had become of my life.
“I didn’t come here for that reason nor did I come here to listen to you insult my partner. As for your offer I will hold you to it.” Arius said sitting his napkin down on the side table, two of the cookies yet remained. As for my tart I hadn’t taken a bite, irritation had left my stomach somewhat unsettled. “I came here to ask you some questions….we came here to ask you some questions.” He said having no where to sit his hands he placed them in his lap.
“Still afflicted with amnesia I see very well ask your questions…” Zagan took a sip of his own tea his eyes fixed on me as opposed to the speaker. What he thought about Arius’ reproach I could not say for he did not answer to it.
“What are we?” I recognized the question at once. Only days ago I had asked the very same question of Arius but I knew the answer meant more to him than it did to me. For him it was a matter of identity but looking at Zagan I wondered if Arius might be better off with the buffer afforded him by his amnesia. I was sick from all the hope that my own childhood had afforded me and sometimes prayed to forget it that I might more readily adapt to my current circumstances.
“What are we?!” Zagan laughed out loud. Startled by his brother’s question he turned his attention back to Arius and I felt myself shrink down a little further in my seat hoping next time he might not find my eyes. “You are more addled than I thought.” He sat his tea cup down and leaned his weight forward on his knees. “We are temptation…a lure.” He answered with a smile that seemed, to my eyes, deliberately cruel. “We bring food to the shadow and by we I mean I…you just can’t seem to part with your little pets.” He looked at me pointedly.
“Daniel is not a pet. I regard us as equals and I like to think we have always lived as such.” Arius stated in a tone that was as kind as it was definitive. Zagan looked annoyed and for a moment I feared that he might really lash out in anger.
“Equals? Hardly we are superior in every respect.” Zagan snorted indignantly. “We are immortals…I am immortal. You gave that up when you sided with our prey along with your portion of paradise.” He said and I thought, for a moment, that I detected sympathy in his gaze. Such a sacrifice I had never considered but it all made a certain kind of sense. “But don’t worry brother you have the entirety of your human lifespan to come to terms with your loss.” He said using smugness to cover up the fact that he was also affected by Arius’ circumstances.
“Did I ever offer humans to the creature?” Arius’ voice shook a little when he spoke. I sat frozen in my seat, hips pressed on either side. All the things I should have been doing conspired to keep me inert.
“You never…you have always been too good for this world.” Zagan phrased his last comment as something between an insult and an endearment. I am not sure how he achieved such nuance with his voice but as I had always found Arius’ voice richer and more versatile than my own I assumed it must be something with their vocal chords. I was relieved by Zagan’s words, relieved that Arius had never participated in the practice but simultaneously saddened at the knowledge that his life would always be a punishment. Arius let go of the breath he was holding and exhaled audibly.
“Besides Yuki are there other humans living here?” I asked trying to swallow a revived hoped that Oz might be alive.
“I keep several servants yes but if you’re hoping for a playmate I can’t help you.” My jaw tightened in response to his condescension but I said nothing. “If you are looking for one in particular I am afraid I have no memory for human faces.” He answered shrugging coldly.
I pulled a charcoal sketch from the folds of my robe and passed it to Zagan, it was a likeness of Oz. “Perhaps this will jog your memory.” He opened the paper and looked at the sketch for a several seconds.
“I’ve seen this sketch before my brother is nothing if not persistent.” He said holding the paper out for me and then pulling it back at the last minute. Zagan straightened himself and then called out for Yuki. The servants arrival was so swift I suspected that he must have been standing by the door. “Have you seen this child before?” He asked Yuki took the photo and studied it. I searched his face for recognition but he gave away nothing. The servant leaned down and whispered something into his master’s ear. “Oh really. Yes we have seen this child but he is no longer with us. It seems that he ran away three years ago.” Zagan returned the picture to me and waved Yuki out the door. My heart sank if Oz had left Zagan’s protection than his death was all but inevitable. “I am not one to offer false hopes.” He said by way of changing the subject. Arius clasped my hand and I could not tell if he was trying to comfort me or get my attention. Whatever the case the effect, I imagine, was very much the same on Zagan. He frowned deeply but said nothing.
“Well then I believe that I have earned a turn.” Zagan said the left side of his mouth curling up without the right side’s consent.
“Tell me about your encounters with darkness.” He said aiming his question at me. My heart leaped up in my throat. Was he referring to the curse? “Don’t look so surprised boy…I can see the price that your disloyalty has exacted.” His tone was sharp and accusatory. “My brother might over look your crimes but I do not think you will find me so forgiving.” His voice cut me to the core and I felt the hand in mine tighten.
“It was 2 years ago. I thought that Arius might be using fear to limit my freedom. I have since realized my mistake.” I couldn’t bring myself to look at my companion but was relieved that he continued to hold my hand.
“Your rebellion has cost me greatly.” Zagan bit back eyes narrowing to slits. “But enough of that for now…” He said irritability. I knew that for the time he would not permit us to question him further. “Since you are here you may as well spend the night. You will set off in the morning.” He said and it seemed as if matters had been settled. “I will have Yuki prepare a room for you.” He said rising, apple turnover in hand, he took his leave.