Paradise Chapter 8
Chapter 8: Nightmare
Damp velvet of crushed petals beneath her. Dark lightning caressing her body, sending tingles through it like flecks of ice. Hands burning into her, exploring every inch of her skin.
Pain ripped her open, like when she was little and her father had come to visit her—only this was worse—a horrible burning pleasure tore through her and she tried to resist it but—
She screamed—a dark laugh above her—eyes empty of everything but lust, no love in them, just a bright spark of pleasure glazing the darkness of starless space—
Lightning lanced across her body, snapped into her—she cried out—but he didn't stop—didn't hold back—dark, horrible, ripping pain burst through her—his utter delight seeped into her, how he thought of her as only an object, no real care for her, no love—the absence of love burned into her eyes—
Darkness crushed her soul—a huge shadow superimposed on his giant form, as if this physical being was only a part of what he was—a thing filled with resentment and bitterness, a black hole of desire and hate and pain and madness—sending dark slivers into her mind—
Burning away all love, all that was good, searing her into ash.
Petals in her hands, wrung to shreds, bleeding. Or was it her own blood? Pain throbbed through her, burning across her skin. She lay on her stomach, and something was making satisfied moans above her. Cold fingers caressed her shoulders.
"I'm so glad you gave yourself to me. My darling." He kissed her shoulder.
She didn't react. This was all she was. Something to be used, broken. Raped. Again and again—no hope.
She could never get away. She had to resign herself to this.
He grasped her arm, flipped her over to face him again. Her heart was hollow, empty. She gazed at the blue of the sky. Wished she could float up into it…dissolve into its endless serenity….
Perhaps she could find a way to end it all…as long as Ember was safe back home—that was all that mattered….
A thought sparked into her. What if Char hadn't gone ahead with his part of the deal? What if Ember was trapped with that horrific being? What if her sacrifice was in vain? After what she'd seen in Char's eyes, she could not believe him to be honorable.
"Is—" She struggled to speak. "Is Ember okay? Did you—"
Char waved a hand. "Enough about Ember. Didn't I explode his memory into nothing?"
"If you must know, he's on his way back through the Portal. I didn't want him interfering with us." He caressed her cheek. "I can see why humans do this. It's more than I could have imagined. I was right to want you. You gave me everything I could possibly have wanted, and more. What a beautiful little creature you are." He ran his hand down over the curve of her waist. She shuddered. She hoped he wouldn't decide to take her again any time soon.
And she'd just have to take his word that he'd let Ember go. She had to believe this wasn't in vain.
Char slid his hand into her hair, twining his fingers in it. "To have such beauty close by at all times…." He cupped her cheek in his hand. "What's wrong? Was that not as wonderful for you as it was for me? It was my first time, but considering what I am, you'd think it would be the most amazing thing you've ever experienced. Maybe you're in shock. I'm still recovering myself." He lifted her up to cradle her against his chest.
He kissed down the center of her stomach, then pulled back. "I'd like to do it again, as soon as we're recovered. Oh. I see what might be the problem." He ran his hand lightly over her stomach. "My lightning has scarred you. I'm sorry. I was trying not to damage you too much. Not exactly my priority while we were in the middle of that, but—I can heal them easily enough." She hazarded a look down at her body. Scars veined across it, heavier and darker the further down they went. Not red like normal lightning scars, but bluish-gray. Beneath the scars were bruises and red marks—scratches, stabs of fingernails. Blood smeared her thighs.
"Don't worry," said Char. "You'll be as good as new in a minute." His cold hands spread over her, and she hated the feel of them on her but at the same time they soothed the dull burn that she feared would turn into a wildfire if he didn't heal her…so she let him….and tried to shut down her mind, thinking only of Ember, and when that got too painful, thinking of ways she could end it all before it got much further…before he tore out her core and made her dead inside….
Char laid her back down in the petals after he was finished. She savored the absence of his hands. Perhaps that's what her life would be like from now on, if she couldn't gather the strength to end it….living for the moments that he was not touching her, violating her….
She floated along in a haze of gray…clinging to the absence of pain….letting the numbness consume her.
A touch on her shoulder. She flinched.
Char turned her over. Kissed her on the mouth, his lips devouring hers with a blast of ice. She tried to struggle but she was too weak—always too weak to resist him—just lay back and let him take her… the only way to not betray Ember, she realized, was to end her life. The first chance she got, when she'd recovered a little and he wasn't paying attention to her….
She could barely breathe as he kissed her, his tongue shoving deep into her mouth—she choked as it pressed to the back of her throat—
He pulled back. He didn't seem to notice she didn't respond, or he didn't care….Giving her consent to stay with him must have been enough to assuage what little conscience he had left.
He crushed up against her, his massive body trembling. She struggled—he laughed and grabbed her wrists, pressing them into the turf. Consumed her mouth again, darkness overpowering her….
He nipped down the side of her neck, then over her chest. She dreaded what was to come—somehow even more than the pain—the feeling of what he was, his oppressive coldness, the deadness of love, the complete absence of anything good he might have once possessed, passionate intensity without any real warmth of affection….
He bit harder and laughed as she writhed—he leaned forward, sucking the blood from the wounds, sparks of madness burning in his eyes, mirroring the look she'd seen in his brother's….He flipped her over onto her stomach. Took one finger and stabbed into her back, slicing a slow agonizing line down its center.
Her heart pounded hard with fear. She trembled with shock…she didn't know if she could bear this—
He licked the blood that pooled in the center of her back. "I can see why my brother likes this….I had no idea I would like it too….but if it gives pleasure I don't see why not…."
A hard bite into her shoulder. She cried out. He maneuvered over her, hands pressing down on her back, pinning her to the turf, its soft denseness smothering her. Perhaps this was the way she would die. Not very noble, but that hardly mattered now. It would fit how she had lived…she'd always been of little significance. But soon it would be over.
Char didn't seem like he even cared this time whether he hurt her. She would let him crush her beneath him….when he withdrew, she would no longer be his.
She closed her eyes, waiting to meet death. Though it almost seemed sacrilegious as she was being raped by another, she brought Ember's face to her mind, so it would be the last thing she would see.
Waited for Char to tear into her—
But his weight lifted from her, as if he'd vanished.
Perhaps somehow she had skipped the painful part, and now she was free….floating in the featureless void of the afterlife, its endless, mindless, peaceful oblivion….
But she could still feel the pain from before. And she heard something—the zap of lightning against lightning. The sharp tang of electricity mixed with the neutral, dust-like smell of the turf….light singed her eyelids—
She lifted her head.
Brilliant golden light burst onto her vision, blinding as the sun. Its edges flickered against a malaise of darkness—a roiling turmoil of midnight, writhing, struggling—violent malevolence emanating from it, making her feel sick. The roaring supernova blazed against the dark thing, searing heat emanating from it, along with it a feeling of anger, pure like cleansing flame, stabbing at the creature till it collapsed into a pool of dark silver, then slithered away into shadow.
The light dimmed and condensed into the form of a man, his skin like burnished bronze, his hair cascading over his shoulders like a river of fire. She shrank in the face of someone so powerful, but his gaze was full of compassion. He came toward her cautiously, as if toward a wounded animal, reaching out his hand.
She hesitated, then lifted her hand up toward him. Somehow she knew she could trust him. If she was mistaken, it could not be worse than what she'd been expecting.
His skin touched hers with the glow of soft warmth. Her pain dissolved; a pleasant tingle flickered over her entire body. He lifted her to her feet, and took the cloak from his back, draped it over her shoulders. Gratefully, she tugged it around her chest.
"Thank you," she said. She dared not look up into his eyes of molten gold.
He nodded. "I am sorry I was unable to rescue you before this." His voice was like running water, musical, full of many undercurrents of emotion.
"Who—who are you?" The thought crossed her mind he could be a god, though gods were not supposed to exist.
"I am what your people call Winged, though we have many names on many worlds. You may call me Glimm."
"Is Ember safe?"
"See for yourself." He turned, and behind his glowing form she saw Ember.
Ember caught her, wrapped her in an embrace. She pressed his cheek to his, tears burning her eyes, his own tears hot on her skin. The joy in his eyes matched what she felt in her heart—bursting with the pain of it but it was welcome pain and she pressed her lips to his, her arms wrapped around his neck.
A sob of sheer relief tore through her and her knees gave way—Ember knelt on the ground with her, his arm around her, his fingers trembling as they slid through her hair. They lay there, wrapped up together in immeasurable relief. She just let him touch her, his skin against hers, after she thought she'd never touch him again…
"My beautiful Ember," she breathed. He kissed her cheek, still wet with tears.
"My beautiful Sky…." His arm draped over hers, and clasped her hand in his.
She could not move, but that was okay. He was here, that was all that mattered.
She raised her eyes to the fiery being. "Are we safe now?"
He nodded. "I have defeated the creature that calls itself Char. He won't bother you again. I cannot kill him—our kind cannot die, not in the way that you die. I am sorry that this has happened."
"It wasn't your fault." She hardly dared think of what had happened to her—couldn't let the shadows contaminate the light.
"We thought we had made the worlds safe from Char and his kind. But we did not consider someone would come through the other side. We were not aware that someone had discovered this world. Not until—it was Ember, actually."
"He will tell you."
She looked at him. His hair was disheveled, his skin tearstained, he had the rough growth of a beard, but he was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen. "I wish I could've done something," said Ember. "I was unconscious until I was almost to the Portal. It went part of the way through it, then I turned it around. I didn't care what happened to me. I just had to get to you before….it was too late." His voice faltered. His eyes told her he knew. Shame suffused her, dampening her joy a little. What would he think of her? He'd accepted her after he knew what her father had done to her, but this time she belonged to him. Would he think she should have fought back?
Glimm continued. "The world-skin is thin where Portals are, and we live between worlds, where the edges of the Portals meet. When Ember turned the car around, we sensed his distress, and more importantly, his love. So much love… he would sacrifice his life for you. And we heard the source of his distress—the banished ones, who are our responsibility. We asked our Commander what to do, and he sent me through to deal with it. I found Ember, healed him. We came to you, hoping it wasn't too late."
Ember ran his hand down over her shoulder. "When I saw—what he was doing, Glimm had to hold me back to keep me from trying to fight him. I wish I would have got here sooner, but I wouldn't have been able to do any good. Sky—I'm so sorry." Brokenness tore his voice.
"That's okay. It's all in the past." Even as she said it, she knew it wasn't true. She was with Ember, but she was not okay. Something deep inside her had broken—or very nearly. She had to struggle to keep it together, to focus on what was good, to keep the darkness from overtaking her mind.
"I am sorry, Sky," said Glimm. "I can see the edges of your mind—it's just on the verge of collapse. Not even your goodness and strength is enough to overcome what was done to you."
"What do you mean?" said Ember.
He looked at Ember. "The darkness has taken its toll on you as well, but not as much as it would have had Gorge had been allowed to go further. Had she not sacrificed herself for you."
"I wish it had been me. I would have."
"I know. But what happened cannot be erased. The most I can do is suppress the memory where she cannot access it."
"You can do that?"
"It's up to her."
"I don't want to remember it," said Sky. Hope sprang up in her heart. Could that be possible? Never have to think of what happened again, and go back to how it was with Ember?
"A human, even a half-human, should never have had to deal with this. After what happened, a small trigger could send your mind over the edge. But you must know that healing minds is never exact, even for us. There will still be a possibility of a trigger. If you do not know its source, you won't be able to avoid it. And there may be other side effects."
"I don't care. I want this."
"It is the best way. I just needed your consent, Sky. And yours, Ember."
"You must forget, too."
"What do we do?" said Sky.
"Just—lie down. I'll give you enough of a residual feeling of unease so you'll leave this place, and then we will seal the Portal from the other side when you are through."
She lay down beside Ember. Took his hand in hers.
Glimm knelt beside them, and pressed his hand to her forehead, his other hand to Ember's.
She closed her eyes.
A white flash of light.
Sky opened her eyes. Ember lay beside her in the sunlight. Beside them, the pool rippled with a soft breeze. He stirred. Reached for her, and wrapped her in his warm arms.
She was just content to lie here with him, immerse in his presence. She didn't need any more than that; she was brimming with happy exhaustion. Whatever they'd done the night before—she was a little fuzzy on that—had her completely spent.
But something nagged at the edge of her mind….like a dream she'd forgotten…..
Perhaps that was it. Even last night, she hadn't told him she loved him, and she was a little vague about why she'd been so hesitant about it. She'd told him with her entire being…but perhaps she should use words, too, just to make sure there was no shadow of a doubt in his mind.
"I will never, ever stop loving you as long as I live."
"I will always love you, too, my amazing Sky." He kissed her on the lips, and she let the kiss burn every other sensation from her. Nothing existed but him and his love.
As they lay wrapped up in each other's arms, the sun rose higher into the sky, warmth spreading across her skin. Perhaps she should move….
Perhaps…they should get home.
They'd just arrived. There was so much to explore.
But the sliver in her mind wouldn't go away. Something uneasy sat in her stomach…something that hadn't been there before last night….She had the terrible feeling of a nightmare prodding the edge of her mind, wanting to be remembered.
"I think we should go home. Is that crazy?"
He shook his head. "I was thinking the same thing. Perhaps…we should go somewhere else. This place is perfect, but—"
"But there are so many other places to explore."
They climbed to their feet and looked for their clothes. They couldn't find them anywhere and gave up, especially since the nagging feeling seemed to increase. Her heart pounded as if there was some unseen danger.
She hoped the shuttlecar was still where they left it.
He took her hand and they walked back through the field, through the pink and purple bell flowers.
The shuttlecar sat in the clearing, the sun gleaming across its smooth surface.
They climbed in, and rose into the air toward the Portal. The flowers nodded below, as if saying goodbye. She felt a little regret, then—they were so beautiful.
"Where do you want to go next?" he asked.
"I…don't want to go somewhere so secluded again. I don't know…I just have this feeling…"
"So do I. There was something…not right about that world. I can't explain it…."
"It was beautiful. But I felt something….Something that makes me afraid inside. A…darkness…." The Portal shimmered around them, clothing the shuttle in iridescent light. For a moment, she thought she saw a face in the bright static—a flash of wings made of light—then it was gone.
They emerged onto the connecting world and flew across the city below, then connected the next Portal on the way to the world she'd chosen. It was relatively new, but Ember told her a few new cities had sprung up, and near one of the cities, a cabin just for Royalty had been built in the mountains.
She couldn't wait to get there. But beneath her excitement, a feeling pierced her heart—relief, as if she'd just escaped the worst terror of her life. A horrible, vivid nightmare she never wanted to revisit, even in memory….
The terrible feeling faded as she focused on her love. She looked at him, his face lit by the flash of the Portal as they emerged onto the new world, a mountain rising in the distance, ablaze with the brilliance of sunrise.