– – – –
"But I don't believe in reincarnation!" he protested . . .
"Reincarnation believes in you."
—Terry Pratchett, Maskerade
– – – –
In three ways, it struck Mauricio just how close his wife was to her twin brother.
The first was one of appearance and demeanor. They were tall, slender folk, graceful in their movements, with blond hair so pale it was almost white. Another man might have called them elfin, but Mauricio hated the idea—the analogy would logically conclude with him as a short, fat dwarf. Instead, he thought of them as clockwork dolls, moving in time to the same programmed rhythm, and he wondered on occasion whether he'd even notice were Eric to take Rita's place in his bed.
The second was one of fondness. Two siblings can be expected to be friends on some level, but they can also be expected to have accumulated old grudges and unresolved arguments. Mauricio was barely on speaking terms with his brothers, and it mystified him that Eric and Rita talked together on the phone almost every night.
"So, Mauricio," Eric asked, "have you been taking good care of my sister? Do you remember your anniversary? Do you take her out to the movies once in a while?"
The third was that at that very moment, they were sitting next to each other across the table, Rita's arm draped across Eric's shoulders in a way she'd seldom done with Mauricio. For as often as Eric called, he was rarely in town, and Rita had been eager to catch up face-to-face.
Mauricio doomed himself with two sentences. "I would never forget our anniversary, would I, honey?" he asked Rita. "And if I did, I'm sure I'd make it up to you somehow."
"I'll hold you to that, sugar," Rita told him. "It was last Tuesday."
Blast it! Rita had always reminded him in advance. She couldn't have forgotten this time—unless, of course, she'd done so deliberately. She'd probably already planned this with Eric. "Rita, honey," Mauricio tentatively began, "what are you going to ask me to do?"
Rita's smile was as sweet as a glass of apple juice spiked with antifreeze. "Regressions. For both me and Eric."
"This is something big, Rita," Mauricio attempted, knowing already that he'd lost. "It could change your whole worldview . . ."
"You've done this for hundreds of people, but you won't do it for your wife?" Eric cut in.
They really did plan this, Mauricio thought. They can't be this in sync.
In one respect, and one respect only, The Marvelous Mauricio was not a complete fraud. From earliest youth, he had seen something inside of people, and he'd hooked it up to something outside everything, like powering an electric bulb with a stormcloud and a lightning rod. Filtered through their own preconceptions, it became whatever they wished it to be, and he had only to tell them these were "past-life regressions" for them to imagine themselves as kings and queens reborn. This lie had made him comfortably wealthy, but he had always been reluctant to pull it on Rita—behind all her pretenses, she was innocent and ignorant, far too much so for him to be able to say that she should know better.
But then again, Rita was never the type to let the past define her. She'd spend a week or two practically skipping, and then she'd return to how she always was, perhaps with just a little more self-confidence. Why not let her have her illusions—especially ones she'd create for herself?
"You both know how this works, right?" Mauricio asked. "Relax yourselves as much as possible—this will be easier if you're almost asleep . . . Now, clasp my hands. The vision will fade in gradually."
He began the strange, harsh chant, intoning the rhymes as if he hadn't made them up himself, channeling the vision slowly and steadily. He only caught glimpses of it as it passed through him to its intended destinations.
The sun set over a manor on a hill. A cloaked figure gestured, and the gate guards collapsed.
A voice like wind through a canyon. "Your name is Initia. You will never again be Ella."
A nightmarish monster argued with itself, its three heads turned away from a knight who discreetly drew his sword.
Rita, her eyes like ice, clawed and bit at the knight, her jagged nails cutting through his armor.
The voice again. "True love. You found it once. But I swear upon all the power I still possess that you'll never find it again."
"Damn you!" Rita screamed, her hand no longer in his.
"Honey—" he began instinctively.
She lunged across the table at him, but Eric grabbed the back of her shirt. "Let me go!" she screamed. "Let me—"
Eric kissed her cheek, and as if by instinct, she turned her face to meet his. Their lips touched, and for a moment, Mauricio wasn't sure where one ended and the other began. It was like one of them was kissing a mirror, but either could have been the other's reflection.
God help him, Mauricio was turned on. Shocked, frightened, and confused, but turned on.
"What just happened?" Rita asked.
"Mauricio, can you explain this?" Eric asked. "What did we just see?"
Mauricio just stayed silent. How on Earth was he supposed to handle this?
"Mauricio," Rita began, "why did I marry you?"
"Well, I was rich," he attempted, "and I cared a lot for you. I still do. I always figured you thought I'd be a good provider."
Rita stared straight ahead, and tried to put a waking dream into words.
– – – –
Besides the chant, there was no sound at first, just a blurry image of a manor on a hill. Two armored men stood watch, both clearly bored with their duties. On the road up the hill, only sundown approached.
The hooded man did not appear with a blinding flash of light, nor did he ride up on a skeletal horse. He was simply there, arriving in the time it took a disembodied eye to lidlessly blink. The guards waved their spears threateningly at him, but with a mere gesture, both dropped to the ground.
At his touch, the door swung open, and the vision followed him through the halls to a small but lavish dining room. The man at the table was strong and solid, a warrior born and bred, but something in him was as familiar to Rita as her own heartbeat. The woman beside him bore Rita's face—or perhaps a female Eric's—and the sight of her ushered up a strange and unexpected pang of longing.
"Who are you?" the knight demanded, standing from his seat. "What are you doing here?"
Rita watched from behind as the intruder removed his hood. Both knight and lady screamed, but an unearthly laugh drowned out their voices. Blackness descended over the dining hall, and when it dissipated, both the hooded man and the lady were gone. All that they left behind was a single message, spoken in a voice like wind through a canyon. "Follow us if you dare."
The blur of battles and challenges that followed was well-known to Rita—the story had changed little in the centuries since it had first seen print, collected by a traveller for a book of children's fables. Both Rita and Eric had loved it in their youth, and their mother had read it to them many, many times. She watched eagerly as the tale neared its close, the knight at last entering the hooded sorcerer's dungeons.
There were no torches, but a strange blue light filled the air. The lady lay on a bare stone plinth, not moving, barely breathing. Dozens of coffins leaned against the walls, all of them closed.
In this moment, Rita was no longer just watching. She was the knight, and the knight was her. But what she saw was never in the story—
– – – –
"It's okay, Rita," Eric said. "Everything's going to be okay."
"It wasn't in the story," Rita repeated. "It wasn't in the story. It wasn't—"
Eric put a hand to the swell of Rita's breasts, and she jolted upright as if electrocuted. "What the hell?"
"A little pick-me-up," Eric explained. "You touch someone, and it calls back all the good feelings they've ever gotten from being touched there. It works best with, you know . . ."
"Eric, was that magic?"
"I think so. It's kind of blurry."
Forgotten across the table, Mauricio wondered whether now was a good time to dash for the nearest exit. Probably not—they weren't quite distracted enough yet.
Of course, he also wondered how it could be that his brother-in-law was a latent psychic, particularly one with powers so different from his own. But for now, he wasn't eager to tread anywhere near that particular chasm.
"I'll explain later," Eric said. "Do you think you can continue?"
– – – –
A coffin slid open, and the knight watched in confusion as his own likeness stepped out. "I married her for her estate," the copy said. "I barely even knew her before I said 'I do'."
Another coffin slid open. "Ten years we've been together, and she's borne no heir. Who will inherit when we die?"
A third coffin. "Sir Rowan's wife would have slept with me, if I'd asked her to. If only I hadn't been so loyal . . ."
Half the coffins opened, and the occupants of each said things the knight had once thought. They advanced with swords drawn, but the knight was faster, and each vanished in a spray of ice-cold blood. He barely hesitated from one kill to the next, even when he finally screamed at the pain of killing his own heart.
When the last of his sins was gone, he slumped to his knees. "Sorcerer! What horrors do you have left for me? I will face the Devil himself, should he stand between me and Ella!"
Another coffin opened, and the lady stepped out. "I didn't want to marry you. I was scared of you."
Another coffin. "I never enjoyed the nights we spent in bed. I was always faking my pleasure."
Another coffin. "I knew the fever left me barren, but I never told you. What might you have done had you known?"
The lady and the lady and the lady, an endless stream of her, marching towards him with no weapons but sharpened fingernails and unbridled rage. His sword would have made quick work of them, but he dropped it without a word. He tried to rush past them, but his armor slowed him down, and their knife-sharp nails tore through metal and flesh—
"I love you!"
It was the lady. The real lady, awakened from her slumber in his time of need. "I love you, Brom," she said again, and the copies dissolved into mist. "I always will."
"Let us leave this place," the knight told her, "and return to our home. We can start all over—"
Her sudden shout gave him warning, but he was already badly injured. The sorcerer merely touched him from behind, and pain lanced through his chest.
"Initia has a home," that inhuman voice said. "A home with me. She still denies the magic within her heart, but her power will someday be even greater than mine. She has no need of a foolish mortal man to hold her back."
"Heal him!" the lady screamed. "I'll stay with you—I'll do whatever you want—but heal him!"
"That is your power, not mine," the sorcerer said. "But you have refused to learn it, and so you cannot save him. It's almost farcically tragic."
"I'll find you," the knight gasped, "in the life to come . . ."
With another touch, the vision faded to black.
– – – –
"Mauricio," Rita asked once more, "why did I marry you?"
For my rugged good looks, he thought of saying. For my tender touch. For my big fat bank account. But no, someone had to tell at least one truth in this mess of lies and self-delusions.
"I made myself what you wanted," he said. "You wanted a strong but caring man who would provide for you. I sensed it in the patterns of your soul. And you were beautiful, and unattainable, and at first, I just wanted to prove I could claim you. It wasn't until later that I realized I loved—"
"I wanted me!" she shouted. "Some part of me remembered when I wasn't this fragile little woman—when I was a knight of the realm, fighting for my lady's honor. But I wasn't a knight anymore, so I looked outside me for what should have been in me. All this time . . ." She trailed off.
Mauricio knew it wouldn't work, but he had to try. "I'm a fraud, Rita. I always have been. The regressions—they're reflections of what people wish was true. I've had three Cleopatras, and none of them were her, they were just the sort of people who'd want to be her. Half the time, they don't even get the details right—I swear there was one man who thought Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires—"
"That's no surprise," Eric interrupted. "You were never good with the past. For you, it was the future, always the future." He was standing next to Mauricio's chair. How did he get around the table so quickly?
Mauricio stood. He should have run earlier—
Eric laid his hand on Mauricio's shoulder, and pain exploded through his body.
"You broke your shoulder in high school," Eric said. "It's in your past. I can't turn back time, not anymore, but I can make you remember."
"This is crazy," Mauricio choked out. "None of this is real."
"I'm the one who makes things real. That's what you told me, Terminus—"
– – – –
"—and that's why you're Initia. Just as I'm Terminus, because I make what's real cease to be. In seconds, I call the ravages of years to grind things down to nothing, but your magic can build them back up again."
"My name is Ella—"
He struck her cheek with the flat of his hand, and her mouth filled with powder. She spat white dust onto the gray stone floor.
"Can't say that without your teeth, can you? Your first test is to grow them back. No asking for help—your instincts should tell you what to do."
Unable to pronounce an appropriate response, she gestured one instead, a sign she'd learned from the rough men under Brom's command.
"Never lose that fire of yours, my dear. It will serve you well when you ascend to become the goddess of this world."
What sort of magic could she do? There were stories on her mother's side of the family, but she'd never before healed someone. Or had she? When Brom had come home, still hurt from a battle . . .
She pressed her hand against the fabric of the hooded man's robes, feeling the flesh beneath. "Ah, very good," he said. "The act of love brings life into the world, as violence takes it away, and it will grant you power as violence grants me power." Suddenly, he was naked, his member erect and enormous.
She ran her hand along it, feeling its warmth. On almost every level, she didn't want to do this—not with a man who wasn't her husband, and not with a man she already despised. But faced with the prospect of toothlessness, she knelt before this strange sorcerer, wrapping her lips around his prick.
She couldn't and wouldn't take it far inside, but just licking at the head seemed to be enough. She found herself enjoying the taste of the liquid that leaked out, and when it finally sprayed, she swallowed it all. She felt her teeth returning, and before she could argue herself out of it, she bit down as hard as she could.
It was like trying to chew through steel. "A commendable effort, but you can't hurt me that easily. Congratulations on the success of your spell—the first of many to come . . ."
– – – –
Mauricio stared into Eric's eyes, trying to decide whether to be horrified or amused.
In retrospect, it shouldn't have surprised him that Eric was psychic. He'd always known his own abilities couldn't be unique, and Eric's bond with Rita was closer than was normal even for twins. It also shouldn't have surprised him that, somewhere in the depths of their subconscious, Eric and Rita wanted to screw each other, and saw him as an unwelcome intruder. But to make up such a ridiculous story, and to convince themselves it was true . . . How could he respond to this, except by futilely pulling at the dangling threads?
"If I was this 'Terminus'," Mauricio asked, "why would I let you remember that?"
"Because you don't remember it," Eric said. "In this life, all three of us forgot."
"My lady . . ." Rita breathed. "I was afraid of what he would do to you, alone with him in his dungeons, but I never dreamed of this." Her expression hardened. "Whatever you do to him, it'll be too mild."
Mauricio settled on a third emotion: fury. "How the hell can you punish me for something I don't even remember?"
"All I want to do is to make you remember," Eric said. "That, and to make you understand what you did."
– – – –
In a quiet corner of the dungeons, Ella bled, and cried in joy. Her fever-ravaged womb was whole again.
Someday, she'd escape from Terminus and return to Brom's arms. When that day came, she'd be able to bear him the children he'd always desired. Perhaps one son, to inherit his land, and one daughter, to inherit her power, one leading the serfs and the other tending to them. (No doubt others would fear the girl's sorcery at first, as they would fear her own, but she was sure that healing was no gift of the devil—used to serve the country's good, this power might even help her daughter's marriage prospects.)
With a sigh, she undid the spell's last step, ensuring that Terminus would not make her pregnant. Another spell whisked the blood back to the realm of might-have-been, removing the evidence of her deed.
Just in time, too, as Terminus strode into the room. "I was wondering where you were," he said. "You need to practice again, to build up your power." In other words, have sex with me now, or else I'll force you to regrow your arms.
Her dear knight had never been a very good lover, but he at least had a concept of foreplay. Terminus had never once played with her clit or her nipples, and rarely had he kissed her on the lips. He didn't even allow her to wear clothes, nor did he still wear his robes in her presence. He simply pushed her down on the floor, got on top of her, and stuck it in.
But for once, she didn't mind, closing her eyes as a now-familiar girth stretched her painfully. In her fantasy, it was Brom inside her, and she smiled at the thought of his touch. She could almost hear his panting as he bucked atop her, feel his thick sperm spurting inside her, see the new life growing in her womb . . .
"I love you," she whispered, unaware that she'd spoken aloud.
"Do you now?" Terminus asked.
Suddenly, she could feel him coming, far more clearly than she ever had before. But something was wrong. This liquid—it wasn't semen—
It burned inside her womb, and she screamed.
"We two can live forever," he said. "Our magic will be the greatest in the world, and none not of our bloodline might oppose us and live. But should our power be passed down to our children, they would someday grow to challenge our rule. That's why you will never again be fertile."
She hit him, and bit him, and tried to claw his eyes out. He took it as stoically as he always did.
– – – –
"I stopped practicing magic, and I stopped learning new spells," Eric said. "I never did learn how to heal anyone other than myself. That's why you put me to sleep—the nightmares were supposed to break my will."
"Eric, you've known me for years. Do you believe I could do something like that?"
"I believe it," Rita said. "You always did love to play with other people's lives."
"I never gave anyone anything they didn't wish for. I think on some level, you two wanted this story, too." Wanted to be something other than brother and sister, he thought.
"The story's not over," Eric said. "You need to know how you died."
– – – –
Too late, Ella rushed to her knight. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I wasn't strong enough."
"Quite right," Terminus said. "And what's more, you maintained this ridiculous loyalty to a man your magic could have crushed as easily as you can blink. You relied on him to protect you, when he couldn't even protect himself. This calls for special training."
She had just enough time to ask "What?" before her doppelgangers popped back into existence.
"This is all my fault," one told her.
"I should have just told him to run away," said another.
"He could never have defeated Terminus. No one could," added a third.
"They can't kill you, but they can hurt you," Terminus said. "Master them, before they master you."
She watched them as they encircled her, stalking closer and closer. Then she looked down to the body at her feet, and she knelt to kiss Brom one last time. Though his soul was gone, his lips were still warm, and for a moment, she forgot her pain . . .
"I'll never love you," one copy told Terminus.
"I'll never obey you," said another.
"I know how to kill you," said a third.
"An impressive success," Terminus said, "but don't get too cocky. I have far more experience than you do." He spread his arms and waited for the copies to advance.
She knew she couldn't take his life. Taking was his power, not hers. But she channeled her power into one copy's claws, and his expression turned to shock as she gave him life back. "What are—" Slash. "You can't—" Slash. "Stop this—" Slash, and now she could see him growing younger. The copies surrounded him, and when they dispersed, they left behind a boy no older than eight winters.
A boy too young to use magic.
"You won," he said, almost amused. "You actually won. I didn't think you could do it. So what now? Are you going to kill me?"
Her brave knight's sword was lighter than it looked, but the blade cut cleanly through the boy's neck.
– – – –
"I heard your voice again, before your body vanished," Eric said. "You told me two last things. One was that I'd never again be yours, and that the other was that I'd never again find true love." He made a sweeping gesture. "Turned out pretty well for you, didn't it? It can't have been chance, to have been reborn like this. I think you somehow influenced it before you forgot everything. The knight whose sword killed you, now under you in bed every night . . . You're just the sort of person who'd consider that payback."
You're insane, Mauricio thought, but he said nothing. What could he have possibly achieved at this point?
"I'm not going to kill you," Eric said. "I've done that once already. I'm just going to show you how badly you've lost." He turned towards Rita. "If you're willing, of course."
"Wait, you mean . . . In front of him?" Rita asked. "I—I don't know if . . ." She trailed off.
With Eric's gaze averted, Mauricio made another attempt to run. This time, there was no pain—he simply fell, his muscles locked in place. Eric caught him before he hit the floor, and dragged his bulk back into the chair.
"Well, I'll need to set things up," Eric said. "To begin with . . ." Turning the chair to the side, he worked Mauricio's pants and boxers down around his legs, and his dick flopped out in the open. "I'm going to torment him a little."
Mauricio tried to ask what that meant, but he still couldn't move his lips. Eric's tongue against his cock made the question moot, anyway.
Mauricio wasn't gay—at least, that's what he'd always told himself—and it presumably followed that he shouldn't get an erection from another man's attentions. But Eric's tongue felt the same as Rita's, and he couldn't help but respond the same way to this gentle, teasing touch. In three long, slow licks, he was firm. In five, he was dribbling. In eight, he would have come.
Eric stopped at seven. "I think that's enough. Are you ready, Brom?"
"I don't know," Rita answered. "But . . . This is your magic, isn't it? Your element? You want to show him he can't control you anymore. For you, I'll try. My lady."
There was no wall between the dining room and the living room, and Mauricio had a clear view as Rita undressed and lay down on the couch. Eric started simply, with a hand on one of her breasts—"I used to have these. It was fun, when they were touched the right way." Stroking and occasional licking brought responses Mauricio knew well, but when Eric pressed down gently and hummed a brief tune, Rita let out a catlike purr he'd never heard before.
In time, Eric's attention drifted lower, past Rita's belly button to a place Mauricio couldn't see as clearly. "Hard to believe this is all that remains of a once majestic cock. Maybe we can do something about that, once I've figured out more about my magic. But for now . . ." Rita looked like she'd been hit in the head with a pickaxe, but from the sounds she made, she didn't seem to mind.
Mauricio realized that he could still blink. If he wanted, he could close his eyes. He didn't have to watch when Eric finally undressed and climbed atop Rita. But he couldn't stop himself from looking, and as another man's hardness drove in and out of his dear wife's wetness, his own hardness betrayed the reason why.
Within the span of fifteen seconds, all three of them came, two in each other's arms, one wrapped only in self-loathing. Mauricio pitched forward, released in more ways than one, landing in his own puddle of semen.
He didn't believe. He couldn't believe. He'd spent far too long not believing in anything. But that meant . . .
How many lives have I ruined? he wondered. I showed them all a lie, and then I sent them on their way. How many times did it turn out like this?
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and a cold, gentle calm ran through his body. "Even you deserve a second chance," Eric said. "I'm sure someday, in some life, you'll be able to make things right."
Mauricio looked up, but he didn't say a word as Eric and Rita quietly dressed and left the house.