The Seventh has returned, Hope thought. At long last. Her arms crossed at her chest, Hope stood at the stone rail of the east watchtower facing the sea.
Wind whipped the long cloak she wore about her thin body, casting her hair behind in swirling braids of red and black. The storm etched the dark, roiling sky with jagged flashes of lightning, illuminating the swollen sea. Thunder reverberated like the echoing roars of wild carnivores. Waves crashed against the shore.
She let the pounding rain douse her, let it wash away the doubt and grief and rage that had controlled her every thought and action for longer than she could remember.
I must go and welcome him though he, like the others before him, will not remember me, she thought, a thrill running through her. A situation I will have to remedy. Hope took one last look at the pounding surf, the erupting thunderheads and, with no conscious thought of her own, performed an act she had long forgotten.
The Mistress of the AfterRealm had come for him.
Through a veil of blood and shadow, the apparition appeared as if out of a moriam-induced dream. Dark and shimmering, it moved like smoke, seeming to float rather than walk.
He was dead. Wilem Lustan tried to laugh at the stark realization but a hacking cough was all he could muster. Pain flared in every part of his body. His legs… he couldn’t move his legs.
Wiping the blood and spittle from his mouth, he lay his head back down on the wet sand and began to shiver. It was so cold. He was dead. He was dead; there was no other explanation.
Yet a sun-lit blue sky opened up above him. White, feathery clouds scudded across its azure surface like misty, rolling tendrils. There were birds…
The apparition floated at his side, bending down to hover over him. Now this close, Wilem could see the thing was cloaked and hooded, its face blurry and indistinct. An odor wafted from it, a fragrance like… like tea. Emerillian tea. Why did the foul spirit smell like emerillian tea? And how did Wilem know that fragrance? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything before… before…
He tried to speak, his mouth opening and closing like a landed fish drowning in air. The apparition spoke in a whispery voice, its words soft and lilting, “Be calm, my Lord. Lie still and be whole again. You must be whole again.” With that the Mistress of the AfterRealm placed a warm hand over Wilem’s eyes…
He ran through the forest, unmindful of the scratches and scrapes he sustained from low-lying flora. His legs pumped furiously, propelling him through thorny brush and among towering boles of giant moakle trees.
He tripped and fell onto the forest floor, gasping, his heart thundering in his chest. Scrabbling to his feet, he leaned back against a moakle trunk, flinching at the pain in his side.
All of his discomfort was forgotten as the fire exploded behind him. A roaring inferno, the conflagration raged like a hungry beast, consuming the forest giants as if they were mere sticks. The heat struck him like a physical blow, causing him to cry out. The smell of burnt wood and… and flesh swarmed over him like maddened insects.
The speed of the fire was unnatural! It rampaged forward inexorably, its flames leaping into the night sky, lighting the forest up like a star fallen to earth.
He pushed himself away from the tree trunk and began running again. If he didn’t keep moving, the fire would envelop him! He must reach… he must find…
He stopped again, placing his hands to his head, confused, terrified. Where had he been fleeing toward? What destination did he need so desperately to arrive at? Why couldn’t he remember?
A noise erupted behind him, a sound other than the churning of the fiery maelstrom. A man-shape emerged from the smoke and flames, itself alight within a crackling nimbus. It ran toward him, shrieking from the hole where its mouth should have been, in a woman’s voice, its flame-enshrouded hands reaching out…
Wilem Lustan screamed, rising from the surface where he lay. He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering uncontrollably. A dream! It had all been a dream. Yet, was that a smell of smoke lingering in the air?
I’ve been eating too much moriam, he thought nervously, trying to convince himself this, whatever this was, wasn’t real. Too much rum. I’m in the middle of a waking dream.
Memories of reality rushed in, washing away his doubt–the storm, the ship called the Dragon’s Eye crashing upon the rocky shore, the screams of the crew and passengers, the apparition on the beach.
But had he really died? And was the dark, shrouded figure really the Mistress of the AfterRealm?
Wilem blinked, taking in his surroundings. He lay in a bed within a small room, sparsely furnished with a small table and chair and a single window inset into the opposite wall. Sunlight streamed in, a startling counterpoint to his dreams.
Not what Wilem had expected the Land of the Dead to be.
Before realizing what he was doing, he threw off the thin blanket covering him and rose out of the bed. Standing on a rough stone floor, his tall, thin frame naked, long brown hair hanging past his shoulders, he realized he was no longer injured. Confused, he looked down at himself. His legs, his back, had been broken, hadn’t they?
Wilem walked to the window, taking each step gingerly, afraid that any moment his body would realize it was sorely damaged and the debilitating pain would claw at him once more.
Placing trembling hands on the stone sill, he leaned out of the window. Summer sunlight warmed his face, the smell of the sea filled his lungs.
And, indeed, the sea lay to his left below his high vantage point, waves rolling upon a sandy shore, gulls circling above. To his right, foothills climbed the flanks of a range of taller, jagged mountains. Wilem leaned out further, discerning he must be in some tower or keep, Yes, a rounded, multi-leveled structure fell below and vaulted above him. To each side stood flat-roofed ramparts, a single faded pennant flying from a lone corner watchtower.
But the surrounding countryside lay in ruins. It was ruins. The broken, shattered remains of outbuildings, storehouses, barns and farm dwellings lay scattered in ashes as far as he could see. Blackened hulks with only burnt, jagged timbers and scarred foundations remained of what once must have been a large, thriving kingdom.
The wind kicked up, carrying a faint, lingering smell of burning, much like he had known in his dream. All ashes. A kingdom of ashes where nothing lived in such a wasteland anymore. It was too desolate, too complete in its destruction. Yet someone, something, had brought Wilem here.
At that moment he saw the Dragon’s Eye. Or what was left of the great sailing ship from the port city of Terencia. Perhaps a quarter of a league distant, one of the vessel’s masts stood starkly against the horizon, whatever else remaining of the ship hidden behind a large sand dune.
So he had not died after all. And he was sure now this was no moriam dream.
I must see if anyone else survived, Wilem thought. Turning back from the window, he felt a chill run through him. There, on the single chair in the room, lay a neat pile of clothes where none had been before. The door was still closed, he had heard no one come in or out. What magic was this?
A momentary fear coursed through him. Not the fear he had felt on the ship as the storm overwhelmed it. That had been sheer, helpless terror. What he felt now was different, more insidious, more… intimate.
More the reason to get out.
Wilem dressed quickly, not caring that the clothes fit him perfectly–the blousy long-sleeved shirt, the tight-fitting black pants and knee boots. Or that they were of a time and style long past.
As he placed his hand upon the door handle, he paused, suddenly weak and dizzy. A flash of memory brought back the words spoken by the apparition on the beach–“Be calm, my Lord. Lie still and be whole again. You must be whole again.”
Must be whole? What did that mean?
Shaking off his hesitation, Wilem opened the door and bolted into the corridor without. Short, narrow and lit by an open skylight in its ceiling which let in the sun, the hallway was short, ending in a set of downward-spiraling stone steps.
He began to descend when he realized he had smelled emerillian tea in the room behind him.
A statue of a great warrior stood in the main atrium of the keep. At least Wilem thought that’s what the more-than-life-size sculpture represented.
The figure of a human, standing with a raised arm, snapped off at the elbow, was cracked and worn smooth in spots. The face itself was featureless, blank and broken, a mere nub atop the broad shoulders.
Strange, Wilem thought. I cannot tell if it is a man or a woman.
The atrium itself was round and domed with broken stained glass windows lining an upper walkway. Dust and bits of broken plaster littered the floor with sunlight lancing in through the chipped dome’s roof. A smell of must and disuse floated in the air. And just beneath that…
The tea again. Wilem frowned. Emerillian tea.
Before he could further ponder this odd olfactory event, a door to his right opened. He walked outside in the bright sunlight, moving slowly at first and then more quickly, eager to reach the ship.
There, Wilem gaped at what remained of the Dragon’s eye. Its hull a shattered skeleton, its deck smashed, the once grand sailing ship lay moored in ruins among the rocks. One remaining mast pointed skyward like an accusing, bony finger, a tattered sail flapping in the wind.
There was no sign of life. The crew, the passengers, save himself, were gone. Gods help me understand, Wilem thought, running his hands through his hair. Why was I spared such a fate?
The skin between his shoulder blades suddenly began to tingle. Turning, he looked up at the top of the dune. A figure stood there, bathed in sunlight yet shimmering like a heat mirage. Shadowy and ethereal, it seemed to float above the sand.
A woman coalesced out of that mysterious haze, cloaked and hooded in black. The fluid, graceful way she moved as she turned away, the glint of her eyes in the light as she shot him a fierce glance, marked her as such.
“Wait!” Wilem cried as the woman vanished behind the dune. “Who are you?”
He ran, slipping in the sand, his words catching in his throat. A woman! Was she the one who had found him on the beach? He must talk to her! No, more than talk, he realized, his breath quickening. He must embrace her, tear the robe from her body…
Rounding the dune, he caught sight of her walking along the shoreline toward the ruined castle. He stared, trembling–the surf rolled in as it had since the Great Beginning but it never seemed to touch the woman. The water always foamed around her, making way for her, showing… respect? Obeisance?
Wilem realized he was holding his breath. The sand… she had left no footprints in the sand. For a moment, fear seized him in an icy hand, replacing the strange wantonness that had gripped him. He wondered if those who had perished on the Dragon’s Eye were the lucky ones.
Slowly, he began to follow, suspecting the woman would always be out of his reach no matter how fast he tried to catch up with her.
After a few moments, she reached the castle doors, turned a wide-eyed gaze in his direction and entered.
Saying a prayer to the gods, Wilem did the same.
She was waiting for him in the atrium, standing at the foot of the statue. Her hood was thrown back from her head, revealing a youthful face both beautiful and frightening. It was the eyes that unnerved him–glittering silver motes, dazzling and thoroughly… non-human.
“My Lord,” she said in a voice soft yet, somehow, piercing. “I see you have recovered quite nicely.”
Wilem fought back the sudden desire he had felt on the beach–a longing for this strange woman. His body stiffened, sweat broke out upon his forehead. He licked his lips, his hands reaching out for her. He could take her now!
No, no… he regained control, stepping back, hugging his arms at his chest. More memories came crashing in–the moriam, the alcohol, the sex. Always the sex. He was in thrall to his desires, unable to control himself. That was why he had been on the Dragon’s Eye–he had been traveling to an island sanatorium to get treatment for his addictions.
“No,” the woman said, as if reading his mind. “You are the addictions. I bespelled you across the Veil Between Worlds to bring you here. You only traveled to the hospital isle to infect those there trying to escape your insidious affliction.”
“Bespelled?” Wilem started at those words, confused. “How do you mean? Who… what are you and where is this place?”
The woman smiled, an expression of pity written there. “You really don’t remember, do you? It was once your home as it was for the others before you all destroyed it.”
“The… the others?”
“Gluttony, Avarice, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. All the sins released into the mortal world by that poor, gods-tricked human female so long ago. The ones, like you, I have lured back here through the Veil Between Worlds, though it has taken me countless lifetimes to do so.”
Wilem gasped. His legs, suddenly weak, collapsed beneath him, sending him to his knees. He remembered. He finally remembered.
“Yes, the fire. Once the pithos was opened, your powers were released. You and the others destroyed much of our world here before escaping to the mortal realm, burning everything in your vengeful wakes. Only I was left behind, wounded and broken.”
“Hope,” Wilem said, remembering the burning figure in his nightmare. “You are Hope.”
“And you are the last of the Deadly Sins I have brought back. The Seventh. You are Lust and you will be contained here once more.”
Renewed strength and anger filled Wilem. He rose to his feet, his fists clenched at his sides, a malevolent grin twisting his features. How dare this feeble woman dictate to him! “I think not, witch,” he said, his true nature emerging in full. “Humankind wallows in the likes of me and the others. They will never accept you. You have no power over me. I… we will escape from this prison again.”
That smile again. “I have been here for a long time,” she replied, her silver eyes glowing. “I have healed myself from the burning you caused, and, as such, my power has grown. Even now, a rescue ship approaches through the Veil Between Worlds to pick up the crew and passengers of the Dragon’s Eye. Oh, yes, they have survived; I would not have them hurt, only that you be brought to me while in your mortal guise. I intend to be on that ship. It is my time now. Yours is over.”
“Ha! We have wreaked much havoc in the mortal world. We are reborn every generation into new human incarnations to spread our principles like plagues. You will not be able to undo what we have done and will do in the future.”
“Not so,” Hope said, confidence edging her words. Her face seemed to shine with an inner light. “I will do the same, slowing and then stopping your reigns of terror. It will not happen overnight but it will happen. Be sure of that.”
Hope gestured toward the statue. “Do you see what’s left of this great idol of the god Zeus?” she said. “Each time I have ensnared one of you, I destroy a piece of his likeness. He was, after all, the one who made me, who created this… box.”
Wilem smirked, his renewed confidence and braggadocio empowering him. He walked toward Hope, itching to rip the robe from her body, to make her pay for her insolence, to violate every inch of her. “And what part will you take from him now, witch? I will show you…”
He jerked to a halt, staring at the empty space where Hope had been standing. Where…? A rumbling from beneath his feet, a tearing, pounding sound as if the earth itself was splitting into pieces, sent a jolt of fear through him.
The defaced statue of Zeus was falling, uprooted from its base.
Lust, once called Wilem in his human form, tried to run but couldn’t move. He was frozen to the floor, bespelled once more, trapped within Hope’s magic, watching helplessly as the stone idol collapsed upon him. He screamed and knew no more…
… then woke in darkness, fumbling in a shadow-realm filled with pained raspings and the smells of death.
“Help us,” Wrath, Envy and Pride whispered like ghosts.
“I can’t move,” Gluttony moaned.
“Please, let us go,” Sloth and Avarice chorused in guttural tones.
“No… NO!” Lust screamed, flailing helplessly in the murk. As he sank into darkness, an odor, now familiar and reviled, struck him– emerillian tea, Hope’s favorite drink . It would be with him forever, always reminding him of his downfall. Of his… hopelessness.
Hope stood astern of the rescue ship, watching as the prison, the pithos of Pandora, that had held her captive for more time than she could remember, recede into the distance of its alternate reality.
She was free. Free!
Goodbye, my Lord Lust, she thought with a smile, the wind wisping through her hair, the sun warm upon her face, the doubt and grief and rage accumulated through the ages gone. I hope you and the others enjoy your stay as much as I despised mine.
“Mistress, if you please. What are your orders?”
The ship’s captain stood respectfully several steps away, his head lowered. “To Terencia first,” Hope replied gently, weaving her benevolent power over the man, his crew and the people they had rescued. I have a kingdom to save.
The captain bowed and retreated. Once more she looked back. Yes, she thought, her silver eyes smiling as the realm of the pithos, the jar, Pandora’s Box, vanished into feathery mists. A kingdom and a world.