There was a flash of light, and my knees hit the ground. Blood seeped out. I looked up quickly, feeling warm sunlight on my back.
I was in the middle of the Sacred Confine, white-clad novice priestesses surrounding me. I glanced around at the ring of wide eyes. Directly in front of me stood Ilasphel, the High Priestess.
"Salome!" she shrieked. "You're back from the dead!"
I bared my teeth. What the hell, this wasn't supposed to happen- Why was this happening? I'd been dead for a thousand years, why were these people even still alive -? Did time elapse differently in the human world? Hm, interesting, but not at all important at the moment.
Ilasphel had whipped out her staff. "I command your soul to leave us at once! Begone, damned traitor!"
"Ooops," I heard Trenia say in my ear. "We overshot that one a bit."
The light dropped around me again, grabbing me and pulling me out of the human world, through time and space.
I landed more gently this time, on my feet, the light bursting all around me. When the brightness faded, I found myself staring at-
We were in the foyer of his castle. The Sacred Tome -blue and unassuming- was hovering next to my right shoulder.
"Hm ho," giggled Trenia's disembodied voice.
I whispered Zetta's name. There he was, not some dumb book, him, flaming hair, blazing eyes and all. "You..." I could hardly speak or think, I was so astonished. "You brought me back."
He had a strange, closed expression on his face, an almost grim expression except that his eyes were so bright. They narrowed sharply. "Yes... I'm...very angry with you."
I think I was afraid of crying. "You're back."
He was still staring hard at me. After a moment, he took two steps towards me, reached out and touched my shoulder.
I took a deep breath, elated and a bit afraid, only able to speak in a whisper. "You brought me back."
His eyes hadn't lost their troubled look. His hand went from my shoulder to my left cheekbone for a brief moment. "Do you know," he demanded, "what you've put me through?"
My elation was draining away, his grim manner filling me with unease.
Zetta frowned, his eyes brightening a bit. "You let me slaughter you!"
"You brought me back," I said, for the third time.
Zetta blinked. "Yeah. I did." Without any other warning, he reached his arms around me, and drew me so close I was lifted slightly off my feet and his face was pressed into my neck. After a moment, he brought me down to look into my face. I reached up and kissed him, amazed.
After a very long moment, Zetta gently broke away from our kiss and cleared his throat. "I'm still angry with you!"
I smiled for pure joy, my hands sliding from behind his head to either side of his neck, feeling the strength of his pulse. Alive. We were both alive and-
A bolt of terror shot through me. "Zetta! The curse!"
"What the hell were you doing, Salome?"
"You didn't use all your Mana to bring me back, did you?"
"I can't believe you were leaking your Mana to me! Do you know what that means? You've made me a fraud, Salome! A damn fraud!"
"I didn't die so you could lose your Mana bringing me back! I wanted you to fight the curse and live!"
"What am I supposed to do now? Pram knows, Alex knows, Seedle sure as hell knows, he told me!"
"No-! No, I can't lose you again!"
Zetta winced. "I still have plenty of Mana, don't worry."
"But..." I looked at him uncertainly. "I'm an Overlord. To bring me back, you must have-" My world, so happy a few minutes before, was crashing back around me. "You can't have enough Mana left."
"Stop underestimating me. I'm Lord Zetta! I fear nothing!"
"Are you sure?"
He opened his mouth to reply -but hesitated. It was as good as any spoken answer. Despairing, I held him close, my face in his shoulder.
"Dammit, stop worrying. You're supposed to be happy to be alive."
I didn't lift my face. "I'm happy to be with you again." Even if for only two more days? I shut my eyes, searching through myself for some resource.
"I have -I have some Mana!" I lifted my head, looking at my hands on his shoulders. They were radiating a soft blue light. "How?"
Zetta grinned. "Aren't I wonderful? If you can parcel off your Mana, I sure as hell can."
"But -it's only -it's not enough!"
Zetta gripped my shoulders. "Enough about the damn curse, Salome! I've got my Netherworld back, I've got my body back, I've got you back, I'll find a damn way!"
"Maybe-" I glanced over at the hovering tome. "That could give you an idea?"
"Eh...No. No, I think we should give the Sacred Tome a rest. I mean... yeah."
"That's fine with me," Trenia's voice said cheerfully.
I swiveled my head around, looking for the little girl. "What is..."
Zetta sighed. "Trenia's the soul of the Sacred Tome."
"Yeah, the one you pushed out."
I whipped around. "What?"
Zetta shook his head. "Later."
"If you want my advice," Trenia the Sacred Tome (...?) spoke up again, "I'd worry about the curse tomorrow."
"But-" I said.
"But-" Zetta said.
"You'll still have two days," Trenia interrupted placidly. "Besides, look at you two." She giggled. "I have some good ideas sometimes."
Look at us two? We started bobbing our heads at various angles of the compass, trying to figure out what she was talking about. I noticed it first.
I tightened my arms around Zetta's neck and nestled back against him, hoping.
Then Zetta noticed. "Uh -I thought that was just part of your plot-"
"Well," I said, leaning closer, "it was. But I put a lot of thought into it anyway. I think it looks very good."
Zetta glanced at Trenia. "Why'd you bring her back in her wedding dress?"
"Because I'm psychic."
"Oh shoot," Zetta said feelingly. "Uhm...I wasn't expecting this."
I widened my eyes.
"...Don't give me that look."
"Zetta," I whispered, "we might only have two days left."
"Don't you dare."
There was another long silence while we held each other and studied each other's eyes. Trenia whistled cheerily to pass the time.
"What?" Zetta said, so suddenly in made me jump. "You think I'm not going to marry you? You think I'm scared of you or something? What -do you think I can't -mmmphrrh- talk even though you're -mgglumph- kissing me? Hah, I defy you! Hyaaaaaaa hahahahahahaha!"
After we wrote up the marriage contract, Trenia was let back into the Forbidden Library. Zetta refused to read ahead. Ever again. Maybe someday. However, the next morning (mid morning...okay, afternoon, yesterday had been a long day), we were back in the library, slamming books on and off shelves, searching for clues to break The One's curse. Zetta got Babylon on the hellephone and commenced grilling him for his methods. Babylon's memory swung around about four-thirty and yielded disheartening news. Zetta had nowhere near enough Mana to extract the cores from six-hundred-sixty planets, collect the water from four thousand oceans, wrench the hearts from two-hundred and forty-six demons, cook it up in a cosmic crock-pot and then drink the stupid concoction in one gulp. Sometimes, we'd figured, luck just favored two-hundred foot long Dragon Overlords (though we didn't put it that nicely).
All Zetta's scholars and battle monkeys were likewise hard at work. Zetta, pausing in his studies, often watched them in frustration. If nothing came up soon, we were considering killing all of them (reincarnating at leisure) and transferring their combined Mana into Zetta. But even that probably wouldn't be enough and might prove to be a waste of time and energy rather than a benefit.
"Maybe I should talk to Micky," Zetta thought aloud, looking up from an index of Spells So Discombobulating. "He might be willing to die and give me his Mana."
I looked up from where I was forlornly cuddling Kitt and Kiboodl on my lap. "You think you could convince Ophelia and Dryzen too?"
"Damn." Zetta dug his spoon through his pint carton of Ben Injury's Bloody Jalepeno Devil's-Food Chunk Poisonberry-Swirl ice cream. "I'd kill Drake but...what good would that be to me?"
I hauled over another book. "This is no good. It's all about various ways of removing bathtub rings. And this one...This one is about turning the blood of your enemies into orange soda..." I sighed hopelessly, watching Zetta as he ate his ice cream. "Zetta," I said softly, "will you be dead by tomorrow?"
He glanced at me.
"Is this our last day together?"
He put his ice cream down. "What are we doing reading books?"
But around seven, we were back at the books again. I sent Kitt along the very top shelves, looking for any useful books we might have missed. After he brought back the tenth copy of Complete Hamster Husbandry, I let the dogs have a rest.
Around two-thirty I looked up. It took my tired eyes a few moments to make out Zetta's figure among the stacks of books. "Zetta," I whispered.
"Hm?" He tossed a volume embossed with the words 692 Ways to Cook Tears-on-the-Pillow-Pie over his shoulder.
"If you die tomorrow...I promise I'll find a way to bring you back."
He looked up at me. "How?"
"I'll build up my Mana again."
"And then-" He snapped open another book impatiently, breaking its spine. "And then you'll erase yourself when bringing me back, so I'll build up my Mana again, and I'll bring you back, but I'll die in the process, and then you'll build up again, and-"
"I promise, Zetta."
He gazed at me a long time. When he spoke, his gentleness surprised me. "We should get to bed." He snapped the broken book shut. "You'll need your strength to start this damn process."
The next morning, the first thing I almost did was roll over and check if Zetta was still breathing. But as I opened my eyes, I first raised myself off the heated blood-bed (yes, like a waterbed... I never said Zetta had any class) and squinted out the window, trying to figure out who was doing heavy construction work on this most fateful of days, bull-dozing it sounded like, and maybe even swinging a wrecking ball into something substantial.
Oh. It was Zetta snoring.
We decided to take Zetta's last breakfast in bed, poached T-rex eggs, strips of wild boar bacon, Leerios, freshly-squeezed orange juice with vodka -all Zetta's favorites. We weren't going to talk about the curse and when during the day it might take effect and how I was planning not to let Zetta out of my sight once, not once, so we didn't really talk at all. Zetta absently shredded his bacon and fed bits of it to Kitt and Kiboodl (he didn't notice that both of them were drooling ecstatically on his lap).
It was a difficult choice to make. Spend the last day deep in the books, hoping to find a miraculous eleventh-hour cure that would be both lightning-quick and expend no Mana whatsoever? Or spend the day together? We compromised by carrying open books wherever we went.
Night descended over Zetta's Netherworld. From my position at our balcony, I could see the underlings hanging black wreaths on every vertical surface. Kegs of booze were being rolled through the street. I gripped the railing, unable to imagine how I was going to face my beloved's death. Zetta had been strong enough to watch me die, but could I just stand by helplessly when his time came?
The next morning, I awoke to find Zetta gone. I'm not using a euphemism, he was just gone. I sat up in bed, heart pounding, rage blazing through me at whoever had removed his body during the night -whoever had let me sleep while my love was-
I looked past the foot of the bed. Zetta was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, still in his pjs.
We stared at each other.
"Are you," Zetta asked, a bit heatedly, "about to say that I've been cursed to death by an ear of corn that can't even count?"
That morning was spent breaking up the funeral parties taking place around the capital. Zetta phoned Babylon around noon. "You remember anything about The One not being able to count?"
There was a confused rumble on the other line.
"No, I do not want to hear about your thrown-out back. I don't care if a limbless dragon like you is all back!"
I glanced at the volume of Next Best Text of Hexes Complex in my arms and dropped it with a loud bang.
While Zetta and I were in one of the kitchens, frying up a dragon's heart (said to make him who consumed it invincible), I asked if maybe The One was still counting. Maybe he'd meant three full days since Zetta had toasted him. There was another of those very long silences.
After noshing, Zetta went into one of his frenzies, overhauling the libraries, consulting the other Overlords on the phone. By late afternoon, he'd taken to sword-swallowing as a way to relax himself. He even gave Kitt and Kiboodl tummy rubs. However, whenever I saw him look up, his eyes were still sharp with tension. For awhile, his conversation scaled back to single syllables.
In the early night, after a silent dinner of blowfish and filleted barracuda, I left off giving Zetta a shoulder rub and dropped into his lap. He gave me a halfway blank, halfway hopeless look.
I kept my voice gentle, running my hand along his face and neck. "Tomorrow won't be the end. I'll bring you back."
He grimaced. "Right."
I arched my eyebrows, a bit challengingly. "You think I won't be able to do it?"
"Of course you will, but..." He glowered. "What's the point? What's the damn point?"
"To be together again, of course."
"Well, yes," he admitted. "But both of us so weak?"
I laughed shortly. "By our previous standards, we were pretty weak to begin with."
He sighed bleakly and held me close. Ah. I was getting the security blanket treatment. I linked my arms around his shoulders. "Isn't it worth any trial to be together again?"
"Are you still trying to justify crashing your Netherworld into mine?" Zetta demanded, "because-"
The next morning I rolled over in bed to find Zetta perfectly still, not snoring, eyes shut.
People talk about hearts breaking, like someone's heart falls off a shelf and shatters. This wasn't like that. It was more like a bullet to the heart than anything else I can describe. Heart still intact, just useless. "Zetta-" I choked on a dry sob, reaching out to touch his cheek.
"Whuh?" he asked indistinctly. "Was'up, Salmay?"
I sat up straight. "What?"
He blinked his eyes open and yawned. "What? You said something?"
Zetta looked down at himself. "Magog... What the hell is going on?"
Over the last few days, between frenzies, Zetta had told me what had happened after I'd died the second time, how he'd been frantically searching for some way to write in himself a wish to bring me back. About how Pram had volunteered to do it and been stabbed by Seedle. And about how Alex had shown up, irate that yet another person was interrupting his feud with Zetta, and stabbed Seedle back, perhaps fatally. And then the whole business of Trenia confessing her identity and how she'd set out to teach Zetta a grand lesson about humility. Zetta and I had only heard from the others over the hellephone. Both Alex and Pram had survived the encounter. Seedle was silent, but we hadn't heard of any uprising in the Underworld and so had to assume he was still in power. I don't think that rested well in either my or Zetta's minds. Even Seedle, who had never been exactly a Mana powerhouse, might be able to kill us in our state.
Anyway, I was a bit surprised to see Alex and Pram show up in our front foyer later that morning. Both of them looked fine.
As usual, it took Pram to say the impossible.
Zetta's hair flared in astonishment. "The One? A fake?"
"But -Babylon seemed so sure..." I faltered.
Pram put her hands on the area below her waist (come on, she has no hips). "Babylon."
Zetta was glowering a bit, hands on hips (actually, he doesn't really have hips either). "Trenia did say That One was her friend." His eyes narrowed. "Little bitch."
Pram's eyes rounded, then narrowed into little black spikes. "Huh? Just what are you talking about?"
Zetta crossed his arms. "Did she write that prophecy in the Sacred Tome too?"
Pram flipped her long white hair. "Must've been her."
"So you're not going to die from that curse?" Alex asked.
Zetta's eyes brightened. "Hell, no!"
Alex punched the air. "Great! That means I still get to kill you!"
"Don't think so, Alejandro!"
I wondered how we were going to get out of this if Alex suddenly declared battle. Zetta still had a lot of Mana, and his troops were primed for fighting, but maybe this wasn't the best way to commence this new stage in life.
Of course, then the front of the foyer fell in as Valvoga showed up. "Zetta!" Micky cried. "Oh, Zetta, you're alive! I thought -I thought I'd come here and see -"
Zetta threw back his head laughed heartily. "Thought wrong!"
Ophelia hmph!ed. Dryzen sniffed with disappointment. Micky soldiered on. "Uhhhhh -Look, I knitted you a burial shroud."
Zetta held up the bundle Micky had handed him. It was soft pale orange cashmere, decorated with little bloody swords. "Er... Thanks, Micky. This is great. It really is."
"Maybe you could use it for something else." Micky looked around the foyer. "It would make a lovely carpet. Or a quilt for your bedroom."
Micky looked around happily at all our faces. Then his eyes widened. "Waitaminute... Zetta, how're you alive? You should be dead! You zapped The One with your tiny, pupiless eyeballs!"
Pram spun around haughtily. "Huh! That One was a fake!"
Micky drew back in astonishment. "A fake? It couldn't be! You couldn't -you couldn't just pretend to be The One. The One would come and curse you, wouldn't he?" Micky shook his head firmly. "No, it just must be the power of Zetta's ego, that's all there is to it." He crossed one set of arms on his chest and placed his other fists where his hips would've been (if anyone in this universe but me actually had hips) and looked around with satisfaction.
Then his eyes widened. "Salome? You're here? I mean, you're alive? You're supposed to be dead, you're supposed to be dead twice. I heard all about it on SNN the other night, Zetta came through and splattered the walls of your citadel with your blood and er, well, maybe that wasn't the best of way of putting it. What the hell is up with you two and not dying?"
Alex looked a little confusedly at me. "Yeah, I thought there was something weird about you being here."
"Tch!" Pram put her nose in the air. "I knew all about it already."
We decided, for the time being, to leave the Netherworlds as they were. I said it was romantic, having them eternally smooshed together like that. Zetta said he'd get on it when he could spare the Mana. In the meantime, we both went into Mana training we'd been able to ignore for several centuries and got to work conquering lame Overlords again, accruing their Mana. And generally every other day or so, Pram or Alex or Drake had a stab at trying to take our Netherworlds. Drake never failed to bring That One with him and do a bit of brandishing. We heard he'd taken up corn-farming in his spare time. Meanwhile, Tulip de Montmorency showed up again and wanted to join forces. Zetta and I divvied up a considerable amount of Mana between us after her first visit (and her second, and her third).
The constant takeover attempts on the part of the other Overlords was actually extremely helpful. We won most battles and were able to absorb the Mana from our enemies' soldiers. Slowly, we began to gain power again. And, just like old times, we started to branch out. We took over half of Babylon's Netherworld. We reincarnated my elite troops (including Asperis) and set them to work training with Zetta's elite. We got some great motorcycles with knives on the hubcaps and the ability to shoot acid out of the handlebars. We commenced a new cosmic takeover and had never been happier.
One lazy afternoon as we were boating on the Styx in Zetta's private barge, Zetta and I were stretched out on a deck chair, he reading the Roast, I busy knitting (we were thinking of annexing a few more of Valvoga's provinces, and they could get chilly. I just like to be prepared for any eventuality). I paused in my purling a moment to lean over and nuzzle his neck. "Anything interesting?"
"Remember those reports about missing ghosts? You know, all throughout the Underworld, human ghosts just disappearing?"
"Turns out it's the handiwork of some human chick in a place called Ivoire. Apparently, she just summons the ghosts and makes them fight for her."
"Hm." I knit one and purled two. "Well, that's hardly unethical."
"Also there's been more talk about that new Overlord that's shown up. La Harlequin or something like that."
I laughed. "Those French-named demons are never tough. Remember Noir?"
Zetta bared his teeth reminiscently. "Ah, it's good to be powerful again." He glanced at me. "I saw you turning backflips in the dining room yesterday. Looked good."
I smiled. "I should be able to do some of my old moves again."
Zetta leaned over to kiss me. "At least some things can go back to the way they were before."
"Are you still upset about my smashing your Netherworld?"
"You leveled my Pain Forests. Leveled them. Do you realize how endangered the universe's Pain Forests are? We have to work to preserve these precious resources, and you ruined mine!"
"Kiss me again."
He did and then glanced up at the sky. "It's getting late. When's the cook going to have dinner ready?"
I tapped my stomach. "I'm starving too. Here, I'll go check." I put my knitting down and got up.
As I was walking away, I noticed Zetta glance idly at the heap of black cashmere next to him. Then he gave a jump and picked it up. I stopped at the below-decks door to watch him.
Zetta held my knitting between both hands, his eyes taking in the generously-sized torso, the carefully formed sleeves that ended in little felt claws, the legs with wee little black booties, the two tiny bat wings affixed to the back, and the darling hood with the blobby devil horns. A great little romper, sized ideally for the most badass freakin' baby in the cosmos.
Zetta jumped up as if he'd suddenly realized his pants' seat had been filled with broken glass. "Salome!"
I laughed, patted my stomach again, and went below-decks to inquire after the roast bunyip.
So you might hear this story again.
It won't be me, and it won't be Zetta the next time it's told,
because it's an old story-
-a story of giving up yourself to fulfill your deepest wish.
It's an old story not because it's about love and love is beautiful.
Love isn't always beautiful to look at. Love can be bleeding and unsure that it will live to see the morning.
It's because love is true,
and the truth endures long after we are here to know it.