An eternity was a very long time to be alone.
Orion had dragged her through the eons so that when the end came, he would have someone to share it with. He had waited, watching the stars fall from the sky, counting the years as they passed: millions, billions, trillions.
The wait was tedious and indefinite, but the rewards, Orion hoped, would be invaluable. Erica often told him that he could not wait it out, that the universe would not end until they did. But Orion pointed out that the world around them was rapidly deteriorating, the rules breaking, space itself unraveling. Orion could hold out forever. The universe, it seemed, had a limit.
Space had become an even darker place than before. The stars had long since exhausted themselves and burned out, the universe growing and emptying. It was barren now, beautiful in its desolation—beautiful because it was near its end.
Orion and Erica were utterly alone on their little black rock, their position in space relative to nothing else. Soon, Orion often promised her. Soon the wait would be over. Soon they would see what there was to see after the end. They just had to be patient.
But space was lonely, and Erica was not convinced. She reminded Orion of all of the events in his life contradicting his notion that one could exist past existence. Consequently, Erica’s stories evoked the history of Orion’s own life, a life longer than any man’s or star’s, the events of which had shaped him into the man he was now.
A dream startled Orion from his sleep, and it was this same dream that would save his life that night. Because of his dream, Orion was already awake when his father eased the door open, stumbling into the room with a drunken look on his face.
“You’re awake,” his father said, disappointed. He was carrying a knife, and it was bloody. He stepped closer, and Orion scrambled back in his bed until his body was against the wall.
“Mom!” Orion screamed, but he heard no answer.
Orion was still just a boy, but he was no fool. He had heard the prophecy as his father had. He hadn’t understood it then, but he was starting to understand it now. Orion had told himself that nothing would ever provoke him to kill his father, that he would sooner let himself die. But this wasn’t true. Not at all.
His father was acting to ensure his survival. He was edging closer to Orion, knife in hand, because of what he feared his son would do to him if he didn’t. Orion’s mother had not understood, and so his father had been forced to kill her. But Orion understood. He knew what fueled his father, what had driven him to this desperate undertaking. It was his basic and undying need to keep living, to preserve his life for as long as he possibly could. Orion’s father simply had to survive, and he was willing to do anything to secure his preservation.
He was close now, red and glazed eyes opening and closing, focusing. He held the knife steady, about to thrust it forward. At first Orion was stunned by his father’s towering presence, but then his own voracious impulse to live took over, and Orion found himself inundated by a force greater than himself.
Orion leapt atop his father before the latter could react. The momentum was not enough to knock his father down, but it wrenched the knife out of his hands. Orion’s father was prepared to strangle his son then, and was about to do so, when an unfamiliar sensation ran down his spine and forced him to let go.
Orion pressed his hands against his father’s face. His father cringed and appeared to be in great pain, but Orion was putting no force into his hands at all. Strangely enough, they were glowing, illuminating his father’s teeth and jawbone beneath his cheek. He was wincing now, and tears were forming in his eyes, but he was no longer struggling. Orion lifted his hands, feeling the golden power retreat into his palms. His father collapsed to the ground, and he did not move.
Orion could not believe what he had done, and at first doubted that somehow he was responsible for it. A man twice his size lay limp on the floor, all because Orion had simply willed him dead. What had overcome him? What mysterious force had taken him over?
Orion entered his parents’ bedroom to see his mother lying on her back, the bloody stab wound a tragic indicator of her fate. Her death had undoubtedly been abrupt, painful, and gruesome. Orion could bear to see no more.
It was then that Orion remembered the prophecy and realized what all of this would mean. The next morning, not only would they blame Orion for the murder of his father, but for that of his mother, as well. And how could Orion prove them wrong? They would just assume that the prophesy had been fulfilled, that Orion had killed his father, murdering his mother as well, in order to seize power. Orion would be tried and jailed, or worse.
There was nothing he could do but run. He hastily prepared a pack with nothing but food, water, and a change of clothes before leaving his house.
He entered the desert, a desolation of ceaseless sand dunes. The desert was empty, arid, and without life. The wind whipped him continuously with hot air. Orion would be lucky to survive out there alone for a day. He needed to last a week. But staying home, with the corpses of his parents ensuring his death sentence, would be an even greater risk.
Lamenting the loss of his mother, whom he loved, and of his father, whom he had not understood until tonight, Orion made his way into the desert.
Erica stood at the edge of the gate wall like a bird not sure if it could fly. She took a step and hesitantly looked down, seeing the ground a hundred feet below her. The drop would surely kill her. There would be pain, to be sure, but what action in life did not ultimately result in pain? In death she would be free. Free from herself, from her troubles, her brother, and the warlock. And she wouldn’t even have to take the leap herself. The poison would jump for her. In a few minutes, it would take control, and all she would be left with was the ecstasy of adventure, of passing into another world.
A figure out in the desert caught Erica’s eye momentarily. Her gaze was drifting back to the ground when she realized that the figure was moving. It was a boy coming closer, but very, very slowly. Erica realized that he was crawling, struggling toward the city.
She ran down the steps to open the gates. The boy was doggedly shuffling through the sand, using his forearms to wriggle his way forward. When Erica finally opened the gates, the boy was lying in front of them, a single fist outstretched to knock half-heartedly against the stone.
Erica caught the boy before he hit the ground. He wasn’t heavy, and so it did not take much effort to carry him through the city and to her home. She made a bed for him, prepared a pitcher of ice water and a sandwich for when he woke up. It was only after Erica placed the food and water by the boy’s bedside that she remembered the poison. Her eyes growing hazy, she was unconscious before she hit the floor.
When Erica’s eyes opened, she realized that she was still alive. She rose from under the sheets of the bed, rubbed her face, and turned to see the boy she had rescued from the desert standing over her.
“Who are you?” she said.
His lips barely moved as he answered, “Orion.”
Erica checked her heart rate. She should have been dead. “Thank you for taking care of me,” she said.
“I think it’s me who should be thanking you,” Orion corrected, gesturing toward the table next to the bed. The pitcher was completely empty, and the sandwich was gone.
“I am Erica,” she said, rising from the bed. She expected to have a headache or at least feel dizzy, but she wasn’t bothered at all. Strangely, she felt fantastic. “What happened to me?”
“When I woke up, I found you lying on the ground. You looked cold, and your heart wasn’t beating.”
“How am I still here? What did you do?”
“I…I don’t know,” Orion admitted. “I touched your forehead. I don’t know what happened. My hand glowed, and suddenly I could tell you were alive again.”
“You say you touched my forehead?” Erica inquired, thinking. “Could it be? Could you have it?”
Orion did not know what she was talking about. “Thanks for saving me,” he said, turning to leave.
“Wait!” Erica moved towards the door. “Unless you’re planning to head back into the desert, you can’t go anywhere. This is the only city for miles, and they don’t accept outsiders here. If you go out there, somebody’s going to see you. You’ll be turned over to the Chancellor, and the Chancellor is not a good man.”
“If I can’t stay and I can’t leave, what do you suggest I do, then?”
Erica sighed. “I think I know how you saved me. You have a gift, Orion. You have magic in you. I was poisoned. I was supposed to die. But you saved me.”
“Why were you poisoned? Who did it to you?”
“You need to stay with me, Orion. I wasn’t born with magic myself, but if you stay, I can teach you. I’ve taught others with the gift.”
“I saw you at the top of the gate,” Orion said. “You looked like you were about to jump.”
“Promise to stay with me, to learn from me.”
Orion stared at her. Erica was serious. Hours ago she had been prepared to end her own life, but somehow Orion’s arrival had sparked a new passion in her. Orion didn’t know what could have convinced Erica to attempt suicide, but he knew the reason she was no longer going to try. It was because of him. It was because of what she had said he possessed. Magic.
Magic? Could it really be? Could this power, this stuff better left for fairy tales truly exist?
He wanted to know. He wanted desperately to know.
“I’ll learn from you,” he said.
Orion spent the next two years of his life under Erica’s care, learning everything he could from her. The lessons started out small in scope, with Erica instructing him how to focus and tame the energy inside him so it could be channeled into magic.
“Your touch can render a man dead or truly alive,” she said. “To learn how to control your magic, how to use it precisely and effectively, you must have a better understanding of what you truly possess.
“Magic comes from emotion. If you are angry, you will destroy. If you are compassionate, you will save. You need to control your mind and your emotions if you are to defend yourself against your enemies.”
“And who are my enemies?” Erica never answered that question, however.
Orion kept studying, kept learning. He was taught how to shoot fire from his hands, how to heal a wound, and even how to turn invisible. Orion moved on, mastering each new set of skills more rapidly than the last. He quickly realized that Erica had never taught anyone like him before. Magic was inborn, and to encounter anyone with the gift was a rarity. Orion had never met anyone possessing the skill in his life. But Erica was a good teacher, and one of the few. Hundreds had flocked to her over the years to undergo her teachings. Orion was by no means her first pupil. This made it all the more astonishing when Erica told him he would excel at a particular technique in two weeks, and he would master it in two days.
While he was not studying magic, Orion would spend most of his time sheltered in Erica’s house, reading books when alone and speaking with Erica was she was there with him. As they got to know one another, Orion disclosed to her the reason why he had been wandering through the desert. She sat attentively as he recounted the night he had killed his father, and her expression did not change once throughout the tale. Orion was not sure whether Erica condoned or reproached what he had done.
Sometimes she would bring him into town, but always to crowded places, and of course Orion was not to use magic there. If the Chancellor found out about Orion, as Erica so often warned, she would not be able to protect him.
The two years that passed had hardened Orion into a stronger person. The boy frightened in his bed was gone, and the man who had killed his father had taken his place.
They were practicing in the desert now, far away from town where no one would venture. They had taken provisions to last them through the day; Erica did not want to stay away from town for too long, as she did not want to alert anyone to her absence.
“Produce a shot of fire,” she ordered, and a flame barreled out of Orion’s fist. “Good,” she said. “Now, bend the clouds, bring them here, and fill this cup.” She held a paper cup in front of her.
Orion looked up into the sky, a bowl of sunny blue. “There aren’t many clouds up there.”
“Then you will need them all.”
Orion extended his right arm in the air, pointing into the sky. He closed his eyes, concentrating, trying to pacify his emotions. For this to work, he would need to remain calm, dexterous, and steady. Orion, at ease with his emotions, found the moisture in the sky and carefully fixed its course toward him. If his state of mind were to change at any moment, the connection between him and the clouds would be severed. But Orion remained firm as well as calm, and soon he guided the clouds toward him. When he opened his eyes, Erica’s cup was filled.
She gave it to him, and Orion drank it. “Am I ready yet?” he said.
“Ready for what?”
“I know you have been teaching me for a purpose,” he said. “I know if I hadn’t arrived here two years ago, you would have killed yourself. Why were you going to jump, Erica? Why did you poison yourself?”
For a moment, Erica was silent, but then she said, “I poisoned myself as a precaution in the event that I didn’t have the courage to jump from the wall.”
“Why were you going to jump?” Orion demanded. “And why did my arrival stop you?”
“Yes, I need you. But you seemed to want to learn magic. The power made you happy. Am I wrong about that?”
“No,” he said. “You’re not wrong, I enjoy magic. I just want to know what I am up against.”
She looked worried, as if whatever she said next would be the wrong thing to say. Whatever the reason Erica had trained him, she had been right. Orion hadn’t wasted the last two years of his life. He had been born with magic, and he needed to control it. His father had tried to eliminate him before he grew older, but Orion had dealt with his father. But stronger forces were rising, and if Orion hoped to deal with them as well, he needed to be better than them. Only then could he live the long, full life that should have been promised to him at birth. That his father had tried to take from him.
“I’ll show you,” Erica said finally. “I’ll show you what you’re up against.”
It was dark when they finally arrived at the graveyard. The moon was out, but it was a sliver of itself. Orion said nothing as they walked through the graveyard, but he did not understand why Erica had brought him here. She had said she would show him who he was to defeat, but there were only dead people here, and the dead were already defeated.
“Here,” Erica said, standing in front of a grave.
“Who is this?” Orion asked.
She pointed to the name on the gravestone. “My brother.”
“I don’t understand. Why did you bring me here?”
“It was the Chancellor who killed him. He murdered my brother because he knew magic. The Chancellor wanted to be the only one.”
“So it’s the Chancellor you want me to kill.”
“I learned all about magic from my brother, and through him, I taught others, including the Chancellor. But when the Chancellor rose to power, he made sure there wouldn’t be anyone to challenge him. That is why magic is forbidden here. My brother was one of the ones who stood up to the Chancellor, but he was struck down.”
“You want revenge,” Orion said plainly.
“I want justice. I want the people here to be able to live their lives unafraid. And I want to give a tyrant what he deserves.”
“And I can do that for you.”
“Yes,” she said, “but not yet.”
“Why not? I’m ready, I can defeat him.”
“No.” She shook her head. “Not yet. You are strong, but the Chancellor is stronger. He has had many years to accumulate his knowledge. You’ve only been learning for two.”
“We can outsmart him,” Orion argued. “The Chancellor doesn’t know I exist, does he?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve tried to keep you secret, but the Chancellor’s police are widespread. Still, if he knew of you, chances are he would have acted already.”
“He doesn’t know,” Orion said confidently. “We should engage him now, while we still have this advantage. I’m sure if we think long enough, we can come up with a plan. We can outwit him, Erica. I know we can.”
“How can we outwit him, Orion? With his power, he will uncover our machinations before we even take action!”
“Do you still attend to the Chancellor?” Orion inquired. “Do you still teach him magic?”
“Not anymore. The Chancellor is beyond my teachings,” she answered. “But I still visit him occasionally to practice and review what he knows. I thought, after my brother’s death, I could use this position to gain leverage over the Chancellor, kill him with his guard down. I tried many times, and I almost got caught. I gave up trying. You cannot kill the Chancellor, Orion. Not as you are now.”
“I can kill him,” Orion insisted. “Trust me.”
There was a moment’s pause as she studied his face. He truly believed he was ready. “Okay,” Erica said. “I’ll give you a chance. But this will take careful planning. You’ll get your opportunity to face him, but we’ll need to sit down and plot this together. Can you do that?” Orion nodded. “Okay, then. It’s settled.”
As they walked out of the graveyard and back into town, Erica wondered what had happened to the wayward, insecure boy she had found at the edge of the desert. What had transformed him? Was it the magic, or was it the weight of time pressing against him? Whatever the cause, Erica hoped that Orion’s confidence would not betray them, that he knew what he was doing. Erica had worked tirelessly to mold and shape Orion into a weapon, her revenge against the Chancellor. She did not want to throw it all away, bet everything on the chance that they could beat the Chancellor now, before Orion matched him in skill and power.
It took them two full days to formulate a plan they were confident with, and then another day to begin its implementation. Erica produced the poison required for the plan, the same mixture of liquids she had once drank in order to take her own life. The layout of the Chancellor’s palace was needed to give Orion a sense of the environment they were to work with. Lastly, they went over the spells Orion knew, and which ones would be most useful in dealing with the Chancellor.
Erica called him a warlock because he had corrupted the principles of magic, using it to control and subjugate people. The Chancellor relied on anger and fury in his magic. Erica recognized the Chancellor’s provincial philosophy of magic, directing Orion accordingly. She gained confidence in their plan, admitting to Orion that it might actually work. By the end of the third day, they put their plan into action, and there was no turning back from there.
Even before the Chancellor consumed his glass of wine, he knew the drink was tainted with poison. The same stratagem had been attempted before, and the Chancellor had dealt with the perpetrator. Either he had punished the wrong person, or someone else was attempting the same method of assassination. But the Chancellor doubted this. The poison was clearly homemade, both tasting either the same or uncannily similar. It was surely the same person who had concocted both poisons.
The question was: who would be so audacious as to employ the same plot twice, and yet so dimwitted as not to realize that if it hadn’t worked the first time, it wouldn’t work the second, either?
The Chancellor rounded the halls of the palace with a wary eye. He read the emotions of all whom he passed: the politicians and aides, but also the cooks and chambermaids. Every one of them was afraid, but none of them seemed guilty.
Finally, the Chancellor ran into a woman rushing by in a hurry.
“Chancellor!” she said, halting. “I’ve been looking for you.” She was his old teacher of magic. The Chancellor hadn’t seen her in many months now. “I think it’s time we went over a survey of your magic. You’re long overdue.”
The Chancellor was about to deny her, too preoccupied with this unknown assassin, until he saw the sparkle in her eyes and recognized the need to follow her.
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll go to the practice room.”
When they entered the appropriate room, the metal doors were sealed shut and closed so tightly that not even sound could escape them. The reinforced steel walls were necessary to contain the magic inside the room so that it could not escape and contaminate the rest of the palace. The Chancellor would often attempt complicated spells in this room, and it was necessary to keep the magic under control.
“So, what do you have in mind for us today?” the Chancellor asked.
The woman had her back turned, and she did not answer. He walked closer to her, knowing she was the one, she was the assassin, but also aware that there was more to be seen.
The woman suddenly turned to face him, holding a knife in her hand. She moved to strike him, but the Chancellor was too fast for her, knocking the weapon out of her hands. Defenseless, she stepped away until her back was against the wall. The Chancellor moved forward.
“Stay away from me, warlock,” she said, her eyes scanning the room. But it was completely empty, and Erica could not escape easily. The door was bolted and locked; it would take several minutes to open. The Chancellor wondered why Erica had chosen this room to make her attempt, one with absolutely no chance of retreat.
“I assume it was you who put the poison in my glass,” the Chancellor said, stepping closer. “It didn’t work the first time. Are you so desperate to kill me that you would attempt a failed plan twice?” She said nothing. “Why do you want me dead so badly? Am I so terrible a ruler?”
“My brother,” Erica said. “I taught you everything you know, and you slaughtered him.”
“Was he one of the dissenters? If so, he and his cohorts rebelled against me. I had no choice but to defend myself.” Erica did not answer, but looked at him with fiery scorn in her eyes. The Chancellor knew she was not going to understand the way he saw things. “It’s a shame, killing you,” he said. “You were an excellent teacher, Erica.”
The Chancellor held out his hand, using his magic to tighten Erica’s throat, cutting off the flow of oxygen from entering her lungs. She gagged, holding her hands to her throat, and fell to her knees.
“Warlock,” she managed to gasp, and this label angered the Chancellor, provoking him to tighten his grip.
In the corner of the room, Orion waited, enshrouded in invisible light. As far as he could tell, the Chancellor did not know he was here, though he certainly suspected that someone else was connected with the plot to assassinate him. Erica was in pain now, and Orion wanted to help her, but he forced himself not to. For this to work, he could not reveal himself until the moment was right.
Growing faint, Erica held out her hand, as if begging Orion to intervene. She was slowly falling to the ground, her resistance to the magic weakening. Erica was dying, and Orion was letting it happen.
Orion was not sure if Erica would have approved of what he was doing, but he knew it was the only way to kill the Chancellor. As of now, the Chancellor suspected another party was involved, and was now waiting for him to attack. If Orion made his move now, the Chancellor would notice him right away. The only way for Orion to successfully ambush the Chancellor would be to let Erica truly die.
He may not have consulted with Erica before enacting his plan, but if she was dedicated to avenging her brother, she would understand. It was the only way.
Her throat completely closed and her mouth open in a silent cry, Erica finally collapsed to the floor and died. The Chancellor stood over her, inspecting her, but also thinking. He had expected more than this. Erica must have known her plan was suicidal. Why, then, had she gone through with it?
The Chancellor turned around just as an onslaught of magic cascaded his way. He had been so preoccupied with Erica’s dead body that he was only able to conjure a weak protection before a second blast of magic burst into him and slammed him against the wall.
Orion did not pause, releasing spell after spell, fearing that if he gave the Chancellor even a second to catch his breath, his advantage would be lost. Orion scorched the Chancellor with fire, pelted him with a dozen arrows of light, and railed him with dark energy. The Chancellor was skilled enough to block many of the attacks, but he could not defend himself against them all. He was knocked from wall to wall, picking himself off the ground only to be flung into heavy steal once again.
The Chancellor’s mind contained a host of spells more advanced than any of Orion’s, but he could use none of them. He simply didn’t have the opportunity, forced to focus exclusively on what he lacked most: defensive attacks. The room was just too small, and Orion too quick. Each time he thought he had the opportunity to alter the course of the battle, another of Orion’s attacks assailed him.
The Chancellor was superior to Orion in his level of magic, and yet he was losing. Not only that, but he was dying. Each spell that hit him struck him like a tidal wave. He wasn’t going to last much longer, and there was nothing he could do about it. Indeed, the only attack that mattered in this battle had been the first, and it seemed as if it would dictate the end.
The Chancellor now saw the genius of Erica choosing this room for the assault. The soundproof walls would contain the explosions of the battle, ensuring that nobody would come to the Chancellor’s aid. It was the perfect trap.
Panting, Orion gathered his energy again, this time focusing on his patience. He had used his anger and rage before, but now was the time for control. A lance of lightning extended from Orion’s fingertips, streaking toward its target. The Chancellor was beginning to rise to his feet when the lightning struck him. Not wanting to risk the Chancellor recovering from the attack, Orion sustained the swath of electricity. He drained himself of everything he had, purging himself of emotion. And through all of the hate, anger, determination, excitement, and ambivalence, through the humility, awe, sadness, and love, Orion converged his magic. When he finally let go, the lightning burst out of the Chancellor’s body in a flash of light. He fell to the ground as the electricity tore apart the wall behind him, bursting into shards of metal and streaks of light.
Orion heaved a heavy sigh. He could finally rest. The warlock was dead.
Still out of breath, Orion approached the Chancellor’s body. There was no doubt in his mind that he was gone. The Chancellor’s body had been utterly destroyed by the lightning. His midsection was a bloody mess, demolished like the metal wall behind him.
Orion saw Erica, and walked up to her to confirm that she was dead as well. She had gotten what she wanted in the end. They both had. But Orion now felt regret in his decision to let her go. He had sacrificed her life for both of them, but Orion could not deny that he had also done it because Erica had tried to deceive him, use him to meet her own ends. Was he wrong in using her in the same way?
A force hit him then, more powerful than any Orion had encountered before. He was overcome by it, a formless cloud absorbing into his body. Orion dropped to his hands and knees, the sensation was so incredible. The magic that attached to him was ten times that of his own; Orion could feel it, experience it. And somehow he knew it was the Chancellor’s magic, searching for a new home. Orion tried to tame the magic, but it was greater than himself. The force was so potent that Orion imagined his body exuding its essence. Was there a limit to the level of power a man could hold? Orion smiled, gaining control over the magic, making it his own.
It was inside him now, the spirit of the Chancellor’s magic combined with his own. He was ten times what he once was. He was reborn.
Cautiously, as if taking a step might shatter the floor, Orion rose to his knees. The first thing he saw was Erica’s body, and he knew what he was to do. The melancholy, the grief, was overwhelming. Orion wanted to fix it. He wanted to undo what he had done, give back what he had taken.
Orion knelt beside Erica and put his hands on her cheeks. Slowly, he began pumping energy back into her body. As he sat there, giving life back to her, putting inside her body something that was never supposed to return, Orion never felt so alive. He felt as if he were bursting with power, brimming with energy.
When the magic ceased, Erica sat up, gasping for breath. She looked around her and, seeing the Chancellor’s lifeless body, smiled. “You saved me,” she said, surveying him, already suspecting that Orion was somehow different. “Thank you.”
Orion smiled, but unfortunately, this was before Erica realized that he had let her die. Erica would remember, and then Orion’s moment of glory would be shattered. She would be heartbroken, disgusted by his willingness to let her suffer and die. Orion would listen to her condemnations, even hold her when she sobbed in his arms, but he would never regret what he had done.
Erica did not understand, was not capable of understanding. His level of power was so high now that he could feel things he had never felt before. He could breathe in the energy of the universe. He could feel the hearts of every organism in the palace pulsing as one. He could taste the air.
And he wanted more of it. The power made him feel secure, protected. He wanted to find more of it. He wanted to keep living this potent and lofty life.
He wanted to keep tasting the air.
“I thought I’d find you here,” Orion said. Entering the room, he saw Erica sitting alone by the window, and sat next to her. “Everything is in place. I’ve reorganized the government just as you instructed. With the Chancellor dead and me in his place, they had no choice but to listen to me.”
“Good,” Erica commented indifferently.
“What’s wrong?” Orion asked. “Why are you acting this way?”
“You killed me, Orion. You let me die.”
“Yes, but I brought you back.”
“You didn’t know you would have the power to do that. You acted selfishly, of your own volition.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me what would happen once I killed the Chancellor? You must have known I would absorb his magic.”
“Yes, I knew,” Erica admitted. “I didn’t tell you because you already had enough incentive to fight him early. We already failed to wait the appropriate amount of time. I wanted to teach you patience.”
“I deceived you,” Orion admitted, “but you deceived me as well. You used me to seek vengeance against the Chancellor. Don’t deny it, I don’t mind. You got what you wanted; that is what matters. The Chancellor is dead, and we are both alive and well. I’ll only have to stay here for a few more days to make sure the government is stabilized and the right people stay in power. You will continue to help me oversee that process, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Erica said. “But where will you go afterwards?”
Orion sighed, stretching back in his chair. “There are more bad men out there,” he said. “More warlocks abusing the power of magic. When I’m done here, I am going to find them all, and I am going to end them.”
“You want more magic,” Erica commented.
“Erica, you can’t imagine the furor that shook me when the Chancellor died. The feeling is…indescribable. The Chancellor was able to protect his body from the effects of poison. I will go a step further. I will shield myself from the blade of any sword, guard myself against every disease. There won’t be a man out there who can kill me. I will live forever, until the end of time.”
“Is that possible?” Erica asked, marveled. “Can you make yourself immortal?”
“With the level of magic I possess now, I can already extend my life several hundred years. If I kill more warlocks, more magicians, my lifespan will grow indefinitely. If I kill them all, I will live even past the universe.”
“That would be something to see, the end of the universe. When everything else is dead.”
“Come with me,” Orion suggested. “I won’t make you, but after everything we’ve been through, you owe me this.”
“I saved your life, Orion.”
“I saved yours twice.”
“If I come with you,” Erica began, “I don’t want you tampering with me. I know what you can do, Orion. I’ve seen powerful men use their magic to make any woman lust for them. I’ve seen them turn people into brainless animals, or into lesser forms of themselves. If you want me to stay with you, then promise to leave me untouched.”
“Okay,” Orion agreed. “I promise. I will extend your life so you can experience it with me, but that is all.”
“All right,” Erica said. “Where do we begin?”
Six hundred years was a very long time for a man to live. Any other would have gone mad in that span of time. Any other would have tied his mind in a knot trying to understand the complexities of the universe, trying to compute himself. Any other, surely, would have lost the will to keep on living.
But not Orion.
It was his magic that fueled his desire for immortality. It was his magic, bursting with emotion, that made him want to live and keep on living. He was prepared to wait. He didn’t know exactly what he was waiting for, but he had a vague sketch in his mind. The end of time. The end of existence. The end of everything.
He wanted to be there when the universe itself faltered. When the day came, he would watch with eyes wide-open as it happened, and he would turn to Erica and say, “We saw everything,” and nobody in the whole universe—not even the universe itself—could say the same.
Erica did not feel the same way. She lacked Orion’s magic, and so she lacked that determination to survive. Orion had done as he had promised: he had granted her the same immortal life he led, but in no other way had he affected her with his magic. Now Erica was a woman not searching for death, but was waiting for it.
Unless she was granted her wish, she would see it to the end. She knew she bore a responsibility to Orion. She had turned him into who he was, shaped him into this half-hero, half-monster. Abandoning him now would be worse than what she had done to him.
The last six hundred years had gone by in a blur for Orion, but for Erica they had traversed agonizingly slow. After leaving Erica’s town, Orion had done just as he said he would. They traveled across the world, visiting city after city, searching for any abusers of magic.
And in those first few hundred years, Orion was a good man. He helped people, even saved them, by freeing them from the warlocks. The first fight was the most difficult, but each subsequent one was easier. Gradually, Orion found himself accumulating enough power to last him ten-thousand lifetimes. But that wasn’t enough.
Orion searched even harder, scrounging for warlocks, scavenging for hints about their whereabouts. Anything to keep sustaining himself. Anything to keep extending his life.
In time, all of the warlocks were dead, and Orion had absorbed their energy. But even that wasn’t good enough. He needed more, and because there were no more, Orion was forced to find other sources of magic. He began attacking the magicians, challenging them to duels. He was always the winner. Nobody had stripped magic away from others as much as he. Nobody had killed as much as he.
There was only one left now. Orion had trekked across the entire globe to make sure. The Wizard, the seer, he was the last one. He was the final nourishment. Orion had searched obsessively for this last magician, and now, finally, he had found him.
Orion stormed up the steps to the castle, Erica following as his shadow. When Orion blasted open the doors, he found a man inside waiting for him.
“I was wondering when you would find me,” he said.
“That was very clever of you, disguising yourself as a seer. You had me fooled for a long time, until I realized you knew magic. Until I realized you were the Wizard, the last magician I’ve been looking for.”
“I did not disguise myself,” the Wizard said. “I did not lie. I am a seer as well as a magician.”
Orion laughed. “Is that really true? If so, you must have known I was coming to kill you. Any credible seer would have foreseen that. Why are you still here, then?”
“Because it is time,” the Wizard answered calmly. “I have run from you for as long as I can. I have hidden myself well, but I cannot do so forever.”
Orion tried to understand the Wizard’s reasoning, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t capable of it. He took a moment to glance at Erica for her opinion, as he so often did. She said nothing, but he only needed a few seconds to perceive her feelings. Orion didn’t use any magic, but he had such a great understanding of emotion that he could read hers instantly.
She believed him. Erica thought the Wizard was telling the truth; he was a seer as well as a magician. Orion would trust her judgment. While he was unequaled in understanding and experiencing emotion and feeling, Erica was more attune to discerning truth from lies.
“Are you the one who made the prophecy about me?” Orion asked. “Is that why you hid from me for so long? You compelled my father to try to kill me, forcing me to act.”
“No, that wasn’t me,” the Wizard said. “That seer is long dead, but I knew him, and I can assure you that prophecy or not, you would have killed your father.”
“Yes, I know,” Orion said. “It was my destiny. I understand.” The seer was not certain whether Orion was mocking him or not. “You must understand, then, why I need to kill you. I will see the end, Wizard. I will do what no one else will ever be able to do. I will be there when the worlds finally unwind, when the universe fades away.”
“You won’t,” the seer said matter-of-factly. “The universe can’t end until you do, Orion. The journey is never over as long as you are still alive.”
“Is that a prophecy?” Orion demanded.
“It is what you make it to be,” the seer responded. “I will not change your course, Orion. Do what you will, but know that you can’t get your wish. You are greater than anyone I have ever met, every man who has ever been, but there is a limit to your power. You can’t endure eternity. You can’t outwit the universe.”
“We’ll see,” Orion said, and shifted his feet into a fighting stance. Erica drew back, knowing what was going to happen, having seen it occur countless times. “Now,” Orion said, “fight me.”
Both Orion and Erica were taken aback by the seer’s response. In surprise, Orion’s muscles relaxed and his mind unfocused, but then he grew tense and perceptive again.
“Why?” Orion repeated. “Why? Because you want to live, that’s why. Because not defending yourself is tantamount to giving up, ending your own life. Is that what you want, seer? Do you despise yourself so much that you won’t even cling to the most basic of assets?”
“Does it make a difference to you?” the seer questioned. “Whether I fight back or not, you will still draw from my power when I die.”
But Orion could not let go. He needed to understand the seer’s reasoning. He needed to know why giving up in the face of adversity was so common a trait among human beings. Even the woman standing next to him had once attempted suicide. Before meeting Orion, she had been literally a step away from death, and it had been her own doing. Why would a person deny herself the most primal of needs?
People were put in this world to live, and above all else, that was their most important responsibility. Everything else was expendable, but life was the most precious commodity. Orion could not understand why anybody would throw that away. Why surrender? Why start over? Did the seer know something about the afterlife that Orion did not? Did better days lie there for him?
While the Wizard stood there, Orion grappled with this issue for some time. Then, when he could not come up with any conclusions, he walked up to the seer, stared him in the eyes, and stabbed him through the chest with a blade of blue magic. The seer made no sound as he dropped to the floor and perished. He even closed his eyes as he passed away. None of the other magicians had closed their eyes.
Orion immediately sucked up the energy from the corpse, augmenting his life a step further. He did not relish the power this time. He did not revel in the euphoria. His mind was still trying to interpret the seer’s logic, the riddle that everyone else had solved, but somehow he was too sublime to do so. Erica comprehended it, and she would try to explain it to him later, but still he would not understand.
Furious, Orion vacated the castle as violently as he had entered. He would be forlorn later, when the realization finally hit him that there were no more magicians for him to kill. It was possible that others would be born in the future, but Orion doubted it. The decline of the magicians had begun many years ago, as if the universe had understood the danger posed to their kind and resolved not to create any more.
Did it matter? Orion would reason. He was fully immortal now. He was prepared to wait until the end, when the universe could last no more. He would be there, standing above it all, with only Erica and his eternal hunger by his side.
He had waited for his father to die, for the Chancellor to die, for the warlocks and magicians to die. He would wait for the universe to die too, and then he would devour its corpse and experience the transcendental power that had once sustained existence itself. The whole, the everything.
It was the last sunset the world would ever see, and they were the only ones left to view it. They had watched the red Sun flare up, pushing its atmosphere into space like a popped balloon. They had stood on their world, watching the oceans evaporate into steam, the fields and forests burn into ash. Everything was wiped out by the radiation. Every living creature was eradicated before the storm was over, before the Sun shed itself completely of its outer layers, revealing the glistening white marble underneath.
Erica watched Orion watching the collapse. The Sun was reduced to a tiny white ball, and the fires had wiped out the world completely, shattering it into fragments, into dust. It was cold now, and there was no life left.
“It’s over,” Erica said as they hovered out in space where their world had once been. “You got what you wanted.”
“Yes,” Orion began, “but we are not quite there. We are a step closer, but there is more to be seen.”
He looked at Erica, and he could feel her heart sink. “Please!” she said desperately. “Please, just let it end! Let us die already!”
Orion approached her and let her sink into his arms. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Truly, I am. But we’re not done here, Erica. This world has ended, but there are others out there. We will travel to one of them, and we will make another home there.”
“Six million years!” Erica said, sobbing now. “Six million years we have waited. We are alone now, Orion. Everyone else is dead.”
“The universe is not dead. Only when I see its end can we rest, Erica. Then, I promise you, I will let it end.”
“Go without me,” Erica begged. “You don’t need me. Let me die. See the end yourself.”
“I can’t do that,” Orion said. “I do need you, Erica. I can’t do this alone.”
She looked up at him, and she saw tears in his eyes, as well. Erica knew that however heartless he appeared, Orion was a truly compassionate man inside. He was determined, no matter what, to obtain what he desired, but he felt the toll of Erica’s sorrow along with her. It was his magic, Erica decided. It was his body, his mind, forced to feel what others felt. That was why he needed her. Alone, Orion would be empty, with no one to express himself to, no one to take the journey with him.
“Please,” Orion said. He was the one begging now. “Please, see the end with me. We have gone so far. It would be a shame to give up now, after all of these years of waiting.”
“Okay,” she said. “For you, I’ll do it. I don’t want to, but I will.”
Orion smiled faintly and, holding her in his arms, dove like a streak of light out of their solar system and into the cosmos.
They watched and marveled as time progressed, seeing things no one else had ever had enough time to wait for. They travelled from star to star, settling there for a while before witnessing the star’s destruction and rebirth, and moving on. They waited, the only witnesses left to a universe constantly reforming, like soup churning in a pot.
When the resources of their galaxy had been sucked dry, they were forced to move on to a new galaxy. They waited, lingering only long enough to observe each galaxy’s annihilation, the beautiful swirling of colors and the dying out of giants. They lived through it all, enduring longer than the stars or even the galaxies, and if Orion got his way, longer than existence itself.
The universe was stretching now, emptying. The stars were dimming, fading out of existence. They had to travel farther now just to find a suitable home. Light was becoming rare. Orion took this to mean that the end was approaching. The universe could not last forever.
How much time had passed? How many trillions of years? Was it six, sixty, or even six-hundred? Even to Erica, time was a meaningless measurement of the span of their lives. A year did not pass for Erica as it had before. A million years was the blink of an eye to a woman who had surveyed the rise and fall of an entire galaxy.
At first their conversations lasted centuries. Despite their utilitarian relationship, they cared for each other. And they were all that they had, all that was left. But as the eons passed, the silences between their conversations began to widen. There was simply nothing left to say. After trillions and trillions of years of watching the universe live its life, Erica just wanted quiet. Even Orion did not seem to mind the silence.
“It’s almost over,” Erica said in anticipation. “Can you feel it?”
“Yes,” Orion answered. “When’s the last time you’ve seen a star?”
“Not in a long time,” she said. “They’re all gone, I think.”
They were sitting on a little black rock now. Orion had constructed it for them after failing to find a new star for them to dwell near. Orion missed the glow of the stars, but at the same time took their absence as a sign of the end.
He could feel the universe growing weary. It had grown too large, with nothing to fill the gaps but more emptiness. The rules had long since bent and broken; gravity was inconsistent, distance no longer existed. The universe felt like it was about to fall apart. But no matter how long they waited, it never did. It was as if something was holding it back, preventing its termination.
“Something’s wrong,” Erica said after waiting an indefinite amount of time. “It should have ended by now. Don’t you think so?”
Orion did not answer her, but he felt the same way. He paced around the planetoid, looking up to see only a black canvass. Once, stars had littered the night sky, but now it was a graveyard. All that there was to see had passed now. Why, then, did it continue? Why did it not end?
It was waiting, Orion decided. It was waiting for him to confront it, kill it himself.
That isn’t it, a voice rang in Orion’s ears. You know what must be done.
“Who are you?” Orion demanded.
I have many names. I am the Universe, the Father, the Scorpion, the All.
A figure appeared in front of Orion, though he did not know how far away. He was surprised to see that it was his father.
“Okay,” Orion said. “I have a question, then. Why will you not end?”
Why do you want to see me end?
“Because of what will happen next. Because only when you die will I be able to take your power. I have waited many years for this moment. Your time has come. We both know this.”
Yes, his father agreed. Yes, I have lived too long, it seems. But something is preventing me from letting go. You are, Orion. As long as you stand, I will, too. For me to die, everything within me must be dead, too.
“No,” Orion said incredulously. “No, that isn’t true. I will see to it that I live past you. I challenge you, Father. I challenge you, Universe.”
When his father laughed, it seemed as if space itself were shaking. Challenge me? he repeated. As if such a thing could ever be. You have proven yourself, Orion, but this is the end of the road for you.
“Liar!” Orion cried, and sent a tendril of green magic spiraling through space. But it simply passed through his father’s body, his image shimmering as it went.
You are the best there ever was, the Universe said, but there is no beating me. It simply cannot be. The rules won’t allow it.
“Do you know who I am?” Orion questioned. “Do you know all that I have been through, all of the obstacles I have overcome? I’ve lived past my father, who was older than me. I’ve lived past the Chancellor, who was stronger than me. I’ve lived past the Wizard, who was wiser than me. Why, then, can’t I live past you?”
Because, his father answered, by definition, if you still exist, there will always be existence. For the sake of everything, you have to die now.
“I cannot do that,” Orion said defiantly. “I cannot just give up. That’s not who I am.”
Orion, I admire your ambition and your persistence, but you have encountered the one force as unbendable as you. Here, you must yield. I’m sorry.
“I will not,” Orion protested. “Because of the magic inside of me, I can feel things no other man has ever felt. The energy is exhilarating, the greatest sensation of all. I will never give that up.”
You will never have been alive, his father said, if you do not die now. For all of your anger, passion, and love of living, you have become an empty man inside. For me to end, you must end. It is the only way.
In answer, Orion discharged a furious barrage of energy, but the Universe remained still and unaffected. Space lit up in blinding light, the void erupted in limitless energy, but his father did not even take notice. Orion was finally beginning to realize that he had come to a roadblock. After all of these trillions of years, he had finally encountered the one enemy he could never beat. His eternal life, his inexhaustible powers—they were meaningless here. He screamed, cried, and shrieked all at once, but there was nothing he could do to change the inevitable.
Through all of the eons, Erica had never really considered harming Orion until this moment. She had kept an arrow from the distant past, but she had told herself that it was just to remember what death was like and how it was made. Ever since her plea when their original world had perished, she hadn’t asked Orion to let her die. She had stood by him, partly because of her guilt in destroying him all those years ago, partly because of her promise, but mostly because she had no other choice.
It had been so easy to change him in the beginning. It had been so easy to turn him into the killing machine he was now. Then, Orion had been a boy: malleable, easy to alter, easy to affect. But he had solidified now, and there was no turning back. He had turned into an even greater monster than Erica had conceived, chasing after a dream that would never be realized.
Things had gone too far. The universe wasn’t going to end. It showed every sign of doing so, but it remained at the brink of death. It would remain there forever if Erica did not act now.
She was so very weary from all of those years of waiting. All of those years of traveling from galaxy to galaxy, watching everything die, everything come to an end. Everything but her.
She cared for Orion, and she knew he cared for her, but he was never going to give up. Orion saw in emotion, not truth. He only understood sensations, not right and wrong. His senses had blinded him, deluded him into thinking that the universe could end before he did. And if there was no end for them to see, she would not be breaking her promise if she died now.
They had barely spoken to each other these last few centuries. Now Orion was talking, but not to her. He was babbling incoherently, looking off into the darkness. Had he finally gone mad? Was he starting to realize that everything ultimately had to come to an end?
He was frantic now, blasting magic at some hallucination in space. Erica was frightened, and tried to speak to him, but Orion didn’t seem to hear her. He was lost in his mind somewhere, driven insane by the impossibility of his quest.
Erica saw his pain, his frustration. She wanted to grant him peace, make him realize that death was natural and necessary.
Maybe she could not make him happy, maybe she could not give him what he wanted, but she could give him an end. She could take his life, restoring order to the world, maybe even setting things right.
Cautiously, Erica crept over to Orion, the arrow in her hand. But he did not even notice her. He was lost somewhere far away, in conflict with a force even greater than himself.
Are you ready? the Universe asked after Orion had ceased his discharge of magic.
“Ready? I’ll never be ready!”
It’s going to happen soon, Orion. I suggest you prepare yourself, even accept it. It will not do you well to die an obstinate man.
“Oh?” Orion inquired. “And how do you plan to kill me? I have warded myself against every possible threat. My bones can weather through all the ages. My body can thrive with no food, no water. My skin cannot be penetrated by anyone my magic has touched. No one can strip me of my life, father.”
Believe what you will, but I have warned you.
“I worked hard to become what I am. I deceived and killed the Chancellor. I hunted down every magician, every warlock. I have earned my immortality, father. You cannot take it away from me.”
You are wrong, Orion. You think yourself ridden of every threat, but you have not slain them all. A warlock lives yet.
“That is impossible,” Orion said confidently. “All the worlds are gone. All the warlocks are dead, extinguished along with the stars.”
One lives yet.
“LIAR!” Orion roared. “They’re all dead, father, all dead! I hunted down every one of them! Do not spew lies at me!”
Orion, the Universe began quietly, you are the last threat to yourself. You are the last warlock.
Orion’s voice got caught in his throat as he prepared a response. What was there for him to say? He had twisted the rules of magic, acquiring more than any man was ever meant to. He had used it to grant himself the most unnatural of powers: immortality. How could Orion possibly denounce his father’s claim? He was right. He was right, and there was nothing for him to say.
Orion suddenly felt weak, and dropped to the ground. There was blood draining from his chest, and only after touching it with his fingers did he realize what had occurred. While he was talking to his father, Erica had snuck up behind him and planted an arrow in his heart.
Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong.
Why did he feel so weak? What was this new sensation?
And all at once, Orion realized why Erica had been able to damage him. His body had resisted the blows of swords and spears and weapons that never should have existed, but this tiny arrow had penetrated his skin. Why? It was Erica herself. Orion had promised not to change her with his magic, and so in all the universe, she alone had the ability to harm him.
Clutching his chest, Orion looked up at Erica and saw anguish in her face. She sat beside Orion and held him. He did not resist, too shocked to be angry, too overcome by the sensation of dying to retaliate.
His father had been right; there was no way for Orion to ever have been alive unless he died. He knew anger, he knew sadness, but he did not know death. Not until now. Not until Erica had given it to him.
Orion died with his eyes open, but in dying, he began to learn how to close them.
The universe responded immediately after Orion’s death. It was preparing for the end now, shrinking rather than growing in one sweeping storm of darkness. With Orion’s hold on her now relinquished, Erica could age again. Her body shriveled, her bones withered. She smiled as her body disintegrated along with the ground she stood upon, the dust swept away into the nothingness.
And finally, after all of those years of waiting, the universe compressed into a ball too tiny to see. There was no one left to witness it, but after a moment of suspense, the ball erupted into color and light, expanding instantaneously. It was the moment Orion had wanted to see so badly, but was destined never to witness. It was the moment of rebirth.
All of that empty space would now be filled with ice and rock and plasma. And every creature that would spawn and dwell in this new universe would have no knowledge of the past, and every reason to see the future.