Chapter 1: Sleeping with Ghosts
I stood in the doorway of my apartment listening to the sound of Luz’s car heading away in the opposite direction. I slowly set my overnight bag down in the foyer and surveyed my surroundings: mismatched armchair and couch, a coffee table bought second hand soon after I’d settled into my new job, not to mention life at Six Underground, a couple of lumpy cushions set into the corner of the couch where Stefan had sat waiting for me to finish getting ready for the annual Bash n’ Dance on Halloween.
Even the half-empty bottle of Evian that he had been drinking still sat on the tabletop. At any moment he would emerge from the hallway and he would smile when he saw me, his beautiful face radiant and full of life, and we would resume right were we had left off five days ago.
“Do you remember the night you told me that you loved me? When we walked together in the park and I told you about my Descent?”
I nodded and hurriedly wiped away my tears. “Yes, I remember.”
He tried to smile but the action seemed to cause him pain. “I told you that when I was with you that I didn’t feel damned, that being around you reminded me to be a better person. With you I wasn’t a slave to my instincts and could be myself without all the guilt that false pretenses incurs. With you I could love someone without stealing their life away, and I would be more than what I was because your love for me was pure and uncomplicated.”
My whole body began to shake from the strain of trying to hold back my grief but Stefan didn’t appear to notice. His breathing had become less strained and the lines in his face had smoothed out, as if the pain were lessening. From beneath his skin light had begun to emanate pure and golden, like flecks of the sun glimmering in the night. I continued to hold onto his hand even as the strength to grip mine vanished and he lay boneless against me. His eyes were fixed and staring unseen at the sky and his lips moved as he whispered his last words to me:
“I Descended for love millennia ago Kara, but with you I have been saved.”
I closed my eyes and exhaled slowly, my body trembling from the strain of repressed grief. Stefan was gone. He wasn’t going to emerge from the hallway to greet me after my five day stint in the hospital, nor was I ever going to see the expression on his face when he would tell me that he loved me ever again. His entire form had dissipated into a shower of golden sparks when he had drawn his last breath, and the final insult was that I didn’t even have a body to bury, to visit or to properly mourn over.
A small whimper escaped my lips but I refused to cry and instead concentrated all of my willpower on getting my breathing and emotions under control. I had never seen the value in self-pity despite the hard knocks life had dealt me, and grief or no, I at least owed it to him to make an effort to move on. I had promised Kyrian that I would be strong for Stefan as he had lain dying on the ground, but now more than ever I needed to continue to show that strength. Aron had warned me that I was not yet out of danger and I needed to keep my wits about me. Giving into my emotions could potentially distract me from my very real world problems, and I didn’t want to do anything that would put Stefan’s sacrifice in jeopardy.
“I Descended for love millennia ago Kara, but with you I have been saved.”
Those had been Stefan’s last words to me seconds before whatever life force I had bestowed on him had been returned to me. My body had literally exploded with life and it was then that for a brief moment I had glimpsed the whole of Creation in all its infinite and simplistic complexity. Kyrian had intervened and rendered me unconscious because according to him, the human mind could not possibly handle such revelations.
“Sleep, Kara; the human mind is not meant to know such things, and they will only cause you pain.”
He had been correct, if only partially. Having had such precious and infinite knowledge revealed to me only to have it snatched back at the one moment when I had needed it the most, when I was at my most vulnerable, had been and was agony. What else had I expected to be revealed to me in those moments? Perhaps some special insight into what fate awaited Stefan’s soul at the moment of his death? I knew in my heart that he had been redeemed due to his sacrifice, which Aron had more or less confirmed, but I hadn’t seen it. I wasn’t entirely sure what “it” would have entailed, and while I seriously doubted that Stefan was sitting around on a cloud looking down at me, something a bit more tangible in the way of concrete answers would go a long way towards helping me process my grief.
A faint chiming came from the depths of my shirt and I gently withdrew the chain I had around my neck. The burnt and twisted remains of Stefan’s glyph glinted dully in the pale light filtering in through the curtains and I crushed it in my palm. For Stefan this had been a symbol of his damnation, a shackle tethering him to the earth. At the moment of his death it had actually proven to be a symbol of his own redemption, of his unshakable love for me. Malos had presented it to me as I had lain in the hospital two days after Stefan’s passing along with a promise that he had been innocent with regards to his brother’s death. There was no denying the soul-deep hurt I saw reflected in his eyes as he’d laid out the details of what his Side had been plotting against Stefan and me, of the risk he’d taken in even divulging these details to anyone.
I looked from our entwined hands up to his face. There was no trace of deceit or malice in his eyes, and I saw only grief reflected there along with an honest, open sincerity. I risked a glance over at Kyrian who nodded silently.
“I believe you.”
“Why? Why would you believe me after everything that I’ve done to you, to Stefan?”
“I told you: I may live in a world where people are judged based on fine black and white distinctions, but I don’t judge people based on those distinctions. I know that a person’s past has lot to do with their present, and demon or no, my gut tells me that there’s more to you than what you choose to project to the world and that it is far from being terrible or evil.”
I had not seen Malos in the days since then, nor had I seen any sign of Aron or Kyrian. I suspected that this was in large part because I has asked to be left alone to gather my thoughts and therefore decide on a course of action. Aron had warned me that Stefan’s sacrifice had more or less painted an even more vivid and irresistible metaphysical target on my back, and that the edax animae was sure to be the first of many such attempts on my life. As he had explained it, what Stefan had done for me was unprecedented, and it was only a matter of time before his seemingly random sacrifice set off a chain reaction that would reverberate throughout the ranks of both Sides, for better or for worse.
This isn’t over yet, I’d sworn. Not by a long shot.
Was my being overconfident risking the lives of more people that I had come to care for over the past year? My mere presence would be like putting them in the direct line of fire, and I cared too much for them to potentially wind up as cannon fodder. The crux was that no matter where I chose to run to, that no amount of distance would lessen the desire of Malos’ Side to see me gone from the face of the earth. I was done running—I had more or less sworn that on Stefan’s memory as I had lain recovering in the hospital room—but was choosing to stay where I knew that those I cared for could be hurt or killed an even more cowardly act than running?
“I just don’t know what to do. I need some sort of sign or something, anything to let me know that this is the right thing to do.”
The living room remained silent and there was nothing even remotely illuminating about the hiss and gurgle of the boiler kicking on in the unit next to mine.
“Figures.” I stood up and hoisted my overnight bag over my shoulder and made my way down the short hallway towards my bedroom. The sight of the sheets that were still rumpled from where Stefan and I had spent our last night together did nothing to lighten my mood and I set the bag down in the doorway and backed out.
No, I can’t go in there just yet.
The open door to the bathroom revealed the pile of clothing and hastily discarded towels from where Stefan had made love to me in the only way he could a mere fifteen hours before his death, and like the bedroom, it held memories that were just too painful to process at the moment.
I wound up back in the living room curled up in the armchair where I had once awoken to find an amused-looking Stefan staring down at me after I had fallen asleep while he made me dinner after a long day at work. The only other option was to bunk down in the kitchen, but seemingly like the rest of my apartment, it too was haunted by the memory of our brief time together.
I have to sleep at some point, I chided myself as I settled one of the couch cushions under my head. I have to be ready for work tomorrow even if Dani reassured me that I could take all the time I needed to return, if ever.
This isn’t over yet; not by a longshot.
Yes, going back to work at Six Underground was the right thing to do. I owed it to my friends to not leave them hanging much like I’d found them nearly a year ago. I owed it to Aron who had also become something of a kindred spirit, and perhaps I owed it to Kyrian, however enigmatic and infuriatingly obtuse he could be at times. As for Malos, well, it seemed that I owed him the benefit of the doubt considering that he at the very least thought me more than capable of handling whatever else his Side may throw my way:
“Kara.” Aron came closer and knelt down beside my bed, his gray eyes serious. “What happened to you and Stefan is unprecedented. Not once in the entire history since the Descent has a demon willingly given its life for a human out of love. The potential repercussions for either Side are inconceivable and you need to know that you may not yet be out of harm’s way.”
“Let them come for me. I’ll be ready.” I owed it to Stefan to do something with the life that he had granted me. I was done running—from others, from danger, from my own past—and I wasn’t going to leave now even if I had a metaphysical target painted on my back.
“That’s admirable of you Kara, but—”
“Just let her be, Aron. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this whole debacle, it’s that Kara is more resilient than any of us have given her credit for.”
My fingers traced the warped and twisted grooves of Stefan’s glyph until the cold metal grew warm. Back at the hospital I had sworn to never take it off for as long as I lived because it would serve as a reminder of not only of the love that Stefan and I had shared, but as a testament that despite what Malos believed, that everyone was worthy of being saved no matter how much time has passed.
And if I believe nothing else for the rest of my life, I have to believe that.
Eventually I felt my eyelids droop closed as exhaustion finally won over my harried emotions and I surrendered to sleep with the glyph still clutched in the palm of my hand.