“There are so many strange things in the dark,” she said quietly, her weak grip on him tightening in fear. “I saw you, and the children, so many times—I saw you die, and I saw you alive again—My mother was there, sometimes. I wanted so badly to go to her but my hands were tied down—but they aren't tied down now. But you're dead, so I must be hallucinating—where is my mother?”
“I am alive, Theia,” Bird repeated, sprinting through the town's darkened streets. “I am alive—please, believe me.”
“But I always believe you—I always do, and you never are!” She sobbed. “And in two days the guard will come by and it will all break—break into pieces, and I'll still be in the dark alone and you'll still be dead!”
“In two days you will still be free, and your fever will be gone, and I will still be alive,” he promised. “In two days, I will be by your side, and there will be no guards, and no chains, and there will be light.”
“You promise?” she asked brokenly.
“I do.” He nodded. “I cannot lie to you, Theia. I will bring you a light, in two days, if there is none in the house—I will be with you, and you will not be alone—and as long as I still can protect you, I will never be dead.”
He rounded the corner onto the dirt pathway up the ridge, and she buried her face in the back of his neck. “I wish I could believe you.”
“You can,” he repeated earnestly.
“But the dead ones always lie.”
“You are different, little one, but I still know what you want.” The story keeper turned her around. The empty hallway was full of light, streaming from crooked windowpanes and catching the light of a thousand motes of dust. Faded flowers sat on a windowsill, the blue glass vase thick with dust. Wooden doors were scattered down the hallway, opening by cracks into rooms that held just a glimpse of mystery; strange things that felt familiar and so alien at once. The room was warm, and yellow, and everything she wanted. “You wish for the old things, the mystery and magic you knew when you did not understand. The brilliance of jewels means nothing to you, nor the transient life of flowers. This hallway leads to your dreams; mystery that cannot be exhausted, a world where there is always more to explore—a world where mystery lives on without uncertainty or danger. Listen to my stories, tell me your own, and I will give you this.”
“I... I couldn't feel safe.” She looked down, ashamed. “Not like that.”
“Anastasia,” he growled quietly. “You're an idiot if you think I would ever hurt you.”
“You would,” she whispered. “You wouldn't mean to. I know you wouldn't mean to hurt me, but you... you would.”
“I would not,” he argued, taking her hands in his own with less than his usual roughness. “I couldn't. I won't.”
“I'm sorry.” She put her head on his shoulder, taking in the synthetic warmth. “I want to trust you. But...”
“But I left you,” he finished bitterly, dropping her hands to wrap his arms around her body and entwining his fingers in her hair. “So you can't.”
“It's more than that,” Anastasia admitted as she pulled herself closer to him. “You just... It's not even you.” She ducked her eyes away, burying her face in the crook of his neck. “I can't trust. I never could. I'm sorry.”
He let his face soften, if only for a moment, as he held her so closely that he thought his skin might burn. His fingers ran gently through her hair, combing out the small tangles that plagued it, and Casey wanted so badly to do something, anything, anything he could to comfort her.
“Learn,” he finally whispered.
“She will never be happy in darkness, Spirit!” The rebel drew his sword. “You know that as well as I do.”
“My darkness is less painful than that which you offer her.” The Dead Spirit looked down on him, black cloak swirling around dramatically in the flickering light. “Mine is only a physical darkness—to return with you will sentence her to a hidden life, always watching, always silent.”
“Because she is yours?”
“No, because she was yours,” the Spirit shot back. “She is innocent. Your sin has doomed her. If she returnsss they will take her again, and all will be lost. No, she will not return with you.”
“Then where will she go?” the rebel challenged.
“There are pathsss.” The Spirit circled on the other side of the pond, as if searching for a way across. “I offered you a choice, Fire-bonesss. I offer her the same.”
“She will choose to return to me.”
“Then it will be her choice; I will warn her and protect her if need be. But she is not such a fool as you think—she may leave you yet.” The skull dropped to Paul's level but the shadowy figure still stood tall above him. “You have given her little enough cause to ssstay.”
“You really think she would choose death?” Paul drew his sword with a metallic sssshk. “Enough of you is flesh for me to cut, Spirit!”
“I have never offered death!” The skull rushed back up to where it belonged, and the white bone hands appeared, tense and curled like claws. “She is safe, Fire-bones; safe with me! I am under no obligations to you. Your price will be high if she chooses to return—and I will collect it.” The dark figure leaned over the pond, the beak of the skull inches from Paul's face. “Your ssssoul is not so uninteresting as it once wasss.”
With an angry cry, he swung his sword, aiming for the painted face beneath the skull. The Spirit was too fast, and shot back, out of his reach. Before he could swing again, the skull had vanished, and the shrine was empty once again.