Together we stood upon the frozen surface of the Medial Sea. A pack of lilting giants, woven of both smoldering ebony and freezing marble, circled around us as they carved their way in and out of the distant gloom. As time passed, shadowed silhouettes began to emerge from the mist as they converged upon the two of us.

“Do you recognize them?” Seles said as she stepped in a careful circle around the shade of a middle-aged man with many tattoos brazenly displayed across a bare torso and a shaved head.

I didn’t answer. I’d have guessed he is a marauder – well, was a marauder. When he was alive. Probably ran with the Teeth. Maybe the Covetous, but I deemed that unlikely; he would have armor on. I’d already ruled out the Unfed – nobody in their right mind would show that much skin in the frozen Northern Ring.

“Tell me Trent… why did you kill this one?” She flicked the former marauder right between his eyes with a satisfying smack. His lips quivered in silence for a few short moments. Then his eyes started to bulge, each like a fat toad trying to wriggle out of clasped hands. A second later, he exploded into a cloud of choking charcoal smog and was swept away by the wind.

“I don’t remember.” My response was flat. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen her bend reality to her whims. It wouldn’t be the last, either.

“Would you like me to jog your memory for you?” Seles turned on me now with a pleasant smile that seemed innocuous enough, at least until you noticed her little fists clenched at her side. A tingling sensation scurried down the back of my neck and little pinprick claws dug into my skin, leaving behind a lingering electricity. Her malice was incredibly potent – I knew from ample experience.  

“I’d rather you didn’t.” I felt my left eye starting to get hot.

“Oh? Does that mean that you regret taking his life?” She asked, her eyes narrowed.

“No, I don’t. I only regret that we live in a world where we have to kill to survive.” I met her glower with no glare of my own. No, I was sure that if I had the ability to pop out of my own skull and look myself in the eyes, I’d see dilated pupils held in softened features. Bedroom eyes were all that I could manage whenever I saw her.

“’We have to kill to survive,’ sure… Ask me how many people I killed this week, Trent.” She wasn’t trying to murder me with a look anymore, no, but I wouldn’t say she had eased up either.

I didn’t respond. She folded her arms across her chest.

“I didn’t kill anyone this week, Trent. Nobody. Not a one. Ask me how many people I killed last week. Go on, ask me.” She jabbed at me with her chin and smirked.

I sighed.

“Ask me or I’m going to put spiders in your hair.” She was still smirking, but her eyes narrowed. I gulped. It wouldn’t have been the first time. This was her kingdom. I was just visiting.

“You didn’t kill anyone last week.” I do my damnedest to bite my tongue.

“That’s right. Zero! Zip! Zilch! Zonk!” She crouched down and exploded upwards with an ear-to-ear grin, teeth flashing, arms stretched wide. For a heart-crushing second, her nose and mine were a whisker away from one another. My lips parted instinctively. She spun on her heel and darted away, skipping around in a figure eight across the ice as she snickered.

“Ah, yes, the Moonstone Witch, such a paragon of temperance. Remind me again, Seles, what was it that guardsman said to you? You know, that one from Lanta that you commanded to walk barefoot through the Slumyards until he circled Lanta eight times?” I said it just loud enough for her to hear it. She ignored me.

“Oh, surely you must remember him, right? Don’t tell me you’ve forgot-“ Then she cut me off.

“He made an inappropriate remark about my figure and for some reason, my boyfriend at the time did not defend my honor in any way.” Just like that, she stopped skipping. Didn’t turn to face me, either. I swallowed hard.

“I mean… I could have killed him on the spot but then he’d wind up here with us, and this place is already full of assholes.” The corners of my mouth curl upwards into a warm smile. Defuse her with humor, Trent. It never fails.

Until it does.  

“Takes one to know one.” Oof. She turned towards me and started to march over.

“Ouch. Did I do something wrong…?”

“You tell me!” She raised her voice now. Gone was the polite mask, replaced by furrowed brows and flaring nostrils. She swept one arm to the side, gesturing at the veritable company of shades surrounding us in an angry sea of gloom.  

“Seles, please…” I pleaded. Her cheeks started to quiver and for a second, I thought I saw the ripple of a tear trying to stain those glowing sapphire irises. Those eyes were home to a gaze that could captivate me for days.

“What is she doing here, Trent?” Suddenly, the world went white. The frozen sea was no more. It was like some sort of limbo – only Seles and I broke the monochrome sea that had engulfed the dream. A few moments later, a small tendril of smoke blossomed between the two of us, slowly billowing into the shape of a teenaged girl. The ghost turned towards me and her eyes flashed with recognition.

“I don’t know.” It was true – I had no idea why she was here. I didn’t kill her.

“So you don’t remember her either?” Any and all semblance of emotional expression drained from her face as she stared at me. I shifted uncomfortably.

“No, I remember her. Her house got burned to the ground with her family inside. She escaped. I took her back to join the rest of the Rat Pack. You were there, even.” Now it was my turn to fold my arms across my chest. I thought she knew me better.

“Then why is she here?”  Her scowl returned.

Ask her. You know I don’t spend a lot of time there.” I wanted to know too.

“Fine. Little girl, are you alright? What happened to you?” Seles said. The shade leaned over and whispered into her ear.

“I can’t hear what she’s saying.” I protested. Seles shushed me.

“She said she wanted to see you but she fell down.” Seles straightened up. Her eyes had finally softened and I could tell she knew that she had erred here.

“You should have known better anyways, Seles. I might be a killer, but I don’t kill children.” I give into my righteous indignation a little bit as I jab back in our little verbal jousting match. She let loose with a long sigh that sounded like a mixture of relief and frustration.

“Well, instead of running around and killing people, maybe you should go take care of those kids instead.” Seles said, gesturing towards the shade before it vanished, wafting off like a pipe’s puff of smoke on a breezy spring evening.

“And I will… someday when I find you in the waking world. We can do it together. I’ll settle down and stop doing contract work. We can have a peaceful life together.” I took one step towards her for each heartfelt promise. My eyelids felt heavy. She stood her ground.

“Sounds boring. Probably stinky, too. Those kids don’t like to bathe much.” She folded her arms across her chest once again and then stuck her chin out. Her eyes met mine.

“Fine then, we can travel. We can do whatever you want. I don’t care. If I’m with you, I don’t need to be anywhere else.” Her eyes softened and she looked down at her boots.

“But you’re with me right now…” She took a half of a step forward and placed her pointer finger upon my sternum. I could feel the tip of her nail drag across the thread of my shirt the way a record player’s needle might carry across the grooves in a vinyl record.

“Are you? It could be you, and while I acknowledge that possibility, I’ll never know for certain. This could just be my reoccurring dream.” The almost forgotten prick of an impending tear caused me to wince.

“It’s me.” Her whisper, low and sultry, bore into my ear the way an earthworm might wriggle its way through wet soil. There it writhed, echoing endlessly, even as my eyes opened wide and the ceiling above my bunk loomed large.

A deep sigh escaped my lips. Turning on my side, I pulled a pillow over my head to blot out the rays of sunlight drilling into my temple. I want to go back to sleep.

“Or is it?” My eyes snapped open once again.

I had woken up, but I was not yet awake.

She was still there, sitting beside the bed in a little chair.

“Maybe it is you.” I tried to sit up up, but I felt something cool and soft press against my forehead, guiding me back down. Seles looked down at me with a faint smile.

“It’s me, Trent.” She winked, then twirled a single lock of her silver tresses around her finger. I felt my lips mouth the syllable, “Ooh,”  as I admired the lovely shades of blue that painted her nail, accentuated by little polished moonstone pebbles that shimmered with an iridescent glow.   

“I don’t know, I do have quite an imagination, Seles…” After a moment of quietly appreciating the thought that must have gone into this evening’s ensemble, I offered her a wink in return and then raised her half a grin.

“Are you challenging me then, Mr. Harbinger?” The corners of her lips tugged further upward still as she giggled playfully.

“Not tonight, Seles. Maybe another time.” I responded.

 “Another time.” She nodded, then stowed her Cheshire cat grin before continuing, “I’m sorry about before. You’re right, I should have known you better than that.” She said it with such an earnestness that I was instantly disarmed.

“I forgive you. I would have been pissed off at me too.” I nodded my head a couple times. Then I shook it.

“Wait, did I say that out loud?” I quirked an eyebrow.

“No, but you should already know that saying it out loud and thinking it are the same thing to me, silly boy. Especially for you. Your heart must speak the loudest out of anybody I’ve ever met.” Her playful smirk had returned. I saw little dimples forming on her cheeks. For a second, I felt like a slab of butter melting on a freshly baked dinner roll. That’s right, Trent, this isn’t so bad.

Hey, what are you doing in here? Hehe.

Next, she began to hum, softly at first. I felt a casing of steel close around my heart as it grew more audible. I recognized the tune – it was an old lullaby. A very old lullaby. In that moment, I felt helpless. Helpless, but warm. Warmth was a currency that flowed freely around me. Into me. The muscles in my neck and back started to relax. Now it felt like the floor of my stomach had given way, like some cliché trap door. I knew what would come next. No, I can’t–

“Why are you still hiding from me?” My eyes were open again, locked with hers. She didn’t blink. No, of course not. She’d been expecting this.

“I’m here with you right now, aren’t I?” She replied back in a sweet singsong. Her grin was innocent enough. I’m not sure when she picked it up, but I felt a fine-toothed brush working through my disheveled mess of a mane now. I could hear the brush finding resistance, but I couldn’t feel any prickling pain along my scalp. Not when I was in a dream, anyways.

“What about when I wake up?” I looked up at her, eyes still imploring. She sighed and ruffled my hair instead, then shook her head in disapproval.

“What about it?” Her tone was flat now.

I didn’t answer with words; instead, I reached up with my own hand to grasp hers in a secure but gentle embrace. Was I imagining the warmth that I felt from it? I carefully drew it down to my chest and placed her palm over my beating heart. Together we listened to the bass drum waltz, fingers entwined.

“Seles, please… tell me where you are.” It was I who broke the quietude.

“You’re as persistent as ever. Can’t we just enjoy the moment?” She offered as a suggestion.

“Don’t you remember the days when we used to lay along those vast, forgotten, empty beaches of baked white sand? The way the sunlight soaked into our pores?” I said it all without skipping a beat or blinking an eye. She didn’t answer.

“What about the smell of the sea salt on our hair? The taste of strawberries on our lips? What about all those mornings when we took in the sunrise, hand-in-hand, for better or for worse?” The words marched out of my mouth with a mind of their own. Before I realized it, the tip of my nose brushed against hers. Our lips hovered a breath away from a kiss.

“Of course I remember…” She tried to look down and away, but our foreheads gently met. Her cheeks burned with a coral-colored rouge that was all natural.

“Then what’s stopping us from actually enjoying whatever time we have left on this crazy little carousel we call the Ring?” All I can see now are her eyes, wide and beautiful like a clear stream on a cloudless summer day. Her lips trembled.

“I don’t know- damnit, Trent. You’re so… all-or-nothing.” She said with an exaggerated groan, finally withdrawing her hand from my grasp so that she could fold her arms across her chest and pout.

“I am only what I know. What I was taught.” It was a practiced response. She rolled her eyes.

“If I told you where I was, I would never be able to get rid of you again.” She furrowed her brow and folded her arms across her chest.

“And why would you want to do that?” My empty hand hovers over my heart as I feign being stabbed. Well, at first I was feigning. Then it really snuck up on me, and I mean it really came in from my blind side, and smashed me over the head. I was reeling from a thought.

She still doesn’t trust me. The words tumbled around in my head like bricks in a barrel rolling downhill. I turned onto my side, facing away from her. For the second time tonight, I felt that painful sting of a big, wet, salty tear welling up in my eye. The one that could still cry, anyways.

 “I can hear you…” She said softly. I didn’t respond; her words scarcely reached my ears; I was so lost in thought.

Hey! I blinked a few times.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you, Trent. It’s that I trust you will do exactly two things if I let you find me.” I felt her fingers in my hair again, ruffling it, smoothing out any stubborn knots with a gentle touch.

“And those things are…?” I rolled onto my beck again, regarding her out of the corner of my eye.

“Well… the first thing I’m certain you’d do is eat all of my food.” Okay. Guilty as charged. She chuckled.

“And the second?” I turned my head towards her now.

“The second thing… is that I’m certain you would fall madly in love with me and never want to leave my side ever again.” She began to twirl her hair around her finger once again. Invitation accepted.

“Too late for that, I’m afraid.” I shook my head in mock defeat. She playfully punched me in the arm and I pretended to wince, but I couldn’t hide my smile.

“You haven’t even seen me for the last… I don’t know how many years, Trent. For all you know, I might look like an old crone now.” Seles said as she fanned her nails and inspected them for a moment. She turned away from me.

“I find that hard to believe. Either way, it wouldn’t matter to me.” My head tilts forward as I show her back the warmest smile.

“Oh yeah? Well… how about now?” She turned suddenly and for a second, I almost didn’t recognize her. Gone was her youthful visage, replaced by many wrinkles, crow’s feet, and poor posture; Seles had called my bluff and transformed herself. The only thing that looked the same was her hair – still white and silvery, tinged with splashes of sky-blue. I guffawed. Not bad!

“Nice try, but it’ll take more than a few wrinkles and some parlor tricks to get rid of me.” I felt my voice rumbling lower, down at the bottom of my chest.

 “So you promise you won’t ever leave me, then?” She came closer, grabbing my shirt to reel herself in. I can see every single pore, every blemish, every trace of erosion that old age has left on her visage. It was only after I was convinced I’d taken it all in, memorized every line, studied every idiosyncrasy —  only then did my eyes settle onto two sparkling beacons of familiarity – pools of liquid sapphire, each glowing with a quiet power.  

“I promise I would never leave your side. Even if I die. I’ll find a way to come back. Or turn back time. Something like that, I’ll figure it out.” I felt like I was breaking through this time.

“What if I died first?” She pursed her lips together and placed a single digit upon them. I could tell by the way her eyes had lit up that she was serious.

“I’d never let you die if you were by my side, Seles.” A bold promise, for certain, and I meant every word.

“You know there are problems you can’t kill, right?” She scoffed, then leaned back in her seat.

“Nonsense. Everything can die.” I said it as a joke. She didn’t laugh. After a few moments, the silence hung thick and oppressive, like smoke from a campfire that kept blowing back at you no matter where you sat.

“What if I died first?” She repeated, brows furrowed. I still wasn’t sure how to respond.

“What would you want me to do?” I asked. Now it was her turn to pause.

“I want you to think about what you  want, Trent. Not what I want. What do you  want?” She asked, her eyes glittering as she leaned in. I studied them – there were no hints of malice there. What was it that shined behind them..?

“I want to be with you.” I felt the words tumble out of my mouth as if someone had yanked them out. She sighed. I couldn’t tell if it was out of frustration or affection. Maybe both?

“Fine. Let’s get married then.” Yeah, let’s get – wait what?

“No cold feet now, boy! Better go find me a nice ring.” She giggled. Suddenly, she was getting smaller. Smaller, smaller, and smaller, yet I could still hear her laughter echoing around me. The bed tumbled down into an endless well with me along for the ride. I knew what came next…

My eyes snapped open again. A bead of sweat rolled down my brow and into my eye and it stung. I winced.

I’m awake now, but it still feels like I’m in a dream.

Written by Jungle, (c) 2022, all rights reserved. 

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