Elck took a deep breath, leaned over the marble basin and plunged his face into the warm water. The world went silent; even the gentle recitations from the other students disappeared. Elck opened his eyes and saw nothing but darkness, but this darkness seemed more desolate than usual. Surely that was a good sign.
Breathe, came Brother Jerun's voice in his head.
Elck cleared the distractions from his mind and focused on the nothingness. This was the hardest part. His body would thrash against taking the breath. But the mind was stronger than the body. At least, that's what he was told. Elck had tried for three weeks, and while his peers had eventually succeeded, he had yet to touch the Eternal. Not even close.
With shaking hands, Elck grasped the edges of the basin and tried to pull in a breath of the other side. As he did, he heard the voice, the voice he heard every time he got close: a lighthearted giggle. And suddenly, his previously blank mind was filled with thoughts of her. Her long brown hair, pointed chin and charmingly haphazard dress sense.
Instead of enlightenment, Elck got a mouth full of water. He choked, spluttered and pulled his head back out into the air. Brother Jerun pounded his back.
"I'm sorry," Elck said through gasps. "I tried." He coughed, spewing the last bit of sanctified water from his throat onto the temple floor.
"I know. It's not your fault, Brother Elck." Brother Jerun's lowered brow communicated the opposite.
"I just don't know why I can't do it. I study all your lessons. I pray. I clear my mind, only … I can't. Every time I feel myself getting closer to the Eternal, I hear … a voice." Elck chose his words carefully. "Is that possible? All souls are in the Eternal, right? Is it possible to hear their voices?"
Brother Jerun placed his hand on Elck's shoulder. "You know the answer to that, Brother. The souls are part of the Eternal, but only as a collective. There are no individuals in the other plane. No bodies. No voices. The Eternal is everything, but it is nothing." Brother Jerun turned to the rest of the youths chattering in the pews. "You all may leave. You can have the day for independent study and prayer."
Elck took a step forward but felt Brother Jerun's hand holding him back. "Elck, I'd like you to come with me."
"Am I in trouble?"
"No, not at all. I wish to show you something."
Brother Jerun led Elck down a set of winding stairs into the temple's basement, around a corner and down again, even deeper into the bowels of the abbey. He pushed open a stone door and ushered Elck inside. A large pool of water stretched to all four walls, leaving a small, dry marble ledge on which Elck and Brother Jerun stood.
"What is this?" Elck asked.
"This is the privation room."
Elck dipped a hand into the water. Warm, like the water in the basin upstairs. "What's it for?"
"Students like you, struggling to touch the Eternal. It aids in removing your distractions and freeing your mind."
"Why doesn't everybody use it?"
Brother Jerun stroked his long, washed-out brown beard. "Using the privation room can be intense. The mind will fight the emptiness, creating shadows and hallucinations. It is not something we wish to use if it can be avoided."
Elck stared at the pool, running his hands through the water once again. "Do you really think this will help me?"
"As it's helped many before you, yes."
"Thank you," said Elck, his spirits rising. Maybe this room would be just the thing he needed.
"Good. Then disrobe and float. I'll close the door when you're ready."
"Close the door?" Elck pulled his arms out of the sleeves of his robe. He let it fall to the ground, and he suddenly felt very cold even though the room was pleasantly warm.
"There can be no light, no sound. Nothing to distract your mind."
Elck nodded and entered the pool. The water felt wonderfully cleansing on his skin. When he reached the center, he flipped onto his back and spread his arms, staring at the ceiling. The water's oscillation overtook his thoughts and muted his senses. Judging time was difficult, but it didn't seem long before a tangible feeling of relaxation tingled in his fingers and toes.
"Trust in the God-Pair, Brother Elck." It was the last thing Brother Jerun said before leaving the room and closing the door behind him, plunging the privation room into silence and darkness.
Elck closed his eyes. It didn't make a difference, since not a single ray of light entered the room. He focused his mind and pushed everything away, and as before, he felt himself edging closer to his goal. He could feel the warmth from the intangible but ever-present Eternal, the other side from which all things came and to which all things went.
And then he heard it. That giggle. The childish tittering that goaded him time and time again. He opened his eyes, but this time, there was nothing to see. He clenched his eyelids and forced the thoughts of Leah out of his mind, forced himself to think of only whiteness, of a blank canvas. But the laughter stormed his barriers. The more he fought, the louder it became. He could hear her voice now, as if she were right next to him.
"Elck … Elck …"
"Emptiness. Emptiness," Elck chanted, though he wasn't sure if he spoke the words or just thought them.
"Elck, what are you doing?"
Trying to ignore you!
"Elck, open your eyes!"
With a defeated moan, he complied.
Leah leaned over him, staring into his face with exasperated hazel eyes. Her amethyst pendant – the one that never left her neck – hung down, nearly smacking Elck on the nose. "You were always such a weird boy, you know that?"
The privation chamber had disappeared. Elck found himself in his childhood home. A stout fire burned in the corner hearth.
"Where … what …?" Elck stood, surprised. If this was a dream, it was the most lucid one Elck had ever experienced. "I'm not here. I can't be."
The brown locks of Leah's hair draped from her head, just a shade darker than her eyes. A wide grin spread across her face, the same infectious smile Elck remembered from years ago.
"Leah … you look so real."
Leah raised an eyebrow. "That's a strange thing to say. Normally, you're supposed to tell a girl she looks nice, or something like that."
Elck felt his throat constrict. Since his time in the abbey, he'd forgotten the nuances of Leah's voice and face. But here she was, just as she'd always been. Complete. Alive.
"I've missed you so much," Elck said. "It's been so long." He reached a hand toward her face. He prepared for his fingers to pass through her illusory body, but he found only the comforting warmth of her skin.
"Almost two years," Leah replied.
Two years. It seemed impossible that someone who'd been such a part of his life had ceased to be so for two years. Elck's mind couldn't comprehend the reality of it.
Don't worry, because this isn't reality. It's just a dream.
Elck knew he shouldn't be here. He was devoted to the God-Pair now – Leah was a distraction. He couldn't allow himself to think about her, not even in his dreams. He soaked in the view of Leah's face one last time before he closed his eyes. He waited a few moments for the crackling of the fire to dissipate and the gentle sloshing of the water to return.
Upon opening his eyes, Elck was greeted not by darkness, but by the blinding light of the sun. He probed the ground beneath him and found he sat on a patch of sharp grass. Through blurred vision, he could see the wide, sparkling banks of the Salz River in front of him. It was a familiar sight; this spot lay only a few miles north of his hometown, Maron's Ridge.
As the image focused, he could make out a thin figure standing close to him. Long brown hair. Tanned skin. As she turned, he saw her face: Leah, the same impossible Leah who had appeared in his house a moment ago. His eyes wandered down her body, to her round, naked breasts framing the oval-shaped pendant around her neck. Elck turned his head and covered his eyes with his arm.
"Leah, what are you doing?"
"What do you mean?" She spoke with genuine confusion. "Let's go swimming!"
"Leah, you're … naked!"
"No I'm not," she replied. "I still have my bottoms on." Elck heard the rustling of Leah's feet in the grass. "Now I'm naked. Come on, take your clothes off!"
Elck felt his face growing warm. "Leah, no, I can't … it's not proper."
"Proper? Don't be stupid, we've gone swimming every summer!"
"But we're not kids anymore." Elck opened his eyes and looked up. He kept his gaze on Leah's face.
"Of course we are," Leah said. "Come on. If you want to be a stubborn heifer, you can swim with your clothes on."
Elck kept his eyes on the back of Leah's head as she turned and stepped toward the listless river. Eventually, the rest of her body came into view, and Elck didn't turn away. His eyes traced her shapely backside, paler than the rest of her body and far more firm and enticing than it had ever been before. Her lower half disappeared beneath the water and Leah turned to face him, covering her breasts with an arm and grinning.
She's not real, he reminded himself. She's gone. He knew it, but he couldn't help himself. He wanted this. Even if it was a dream, he wanted the chance to spend a few moments with the woman Leah would have become.
Standing, Elck spread his toes out in the grass. It felt wonderful; there was no grass at the abbey. Just endless, barren hills, usually covered in snow. Elck walked until his feet hit the water. Leah giggled and waded out further into the river. Her breasts were no longer fully visible, but even the sight of her cleavage rising above the tide heated Elck's blood.
He took another step, then stopped as the cuff of his trousers dipped into the water. It was silly; they had swum together for as long as he could remember. And besides, this was a dream. What difference did it make? Elck pulled his tunic over his head and threw it on the dry ground behind him. He slipped his fingers underneath the buttons of his trousers and drew his legs out of them, lifting his feet up to keep the cloth from getting wet. He left his underclothing on; at the very least it might protect him if he had any embarrassing stirrings, a threat which started to become very real as Elck allowed himself to relax.
The midday breeze cooled his skin, and the flowing river washed his sweat away, providing a pleasant, crisp feeling on an otherwise sweltering day. He approached Leah, a smile on his face, and she beamed in return.
"I love this river," she said, twirling with her arms outstretched. "Do you remember the first time we came here?"
"No," said Elck. "Not really. I guess it must have been when we were little."
"It was at the Moons' Day picnic. I dove right in. Your parents tried to get you to follow me, but you refused. I had to practically drag you in!"
"You remember that?" Elck asked. Fuzzy memories of a Moons' Day at the river filled his mind, but he couldn't make out anything specific.
"Of course," Leah replied. "I remember a lot of things." She wrinkled her nose and pointed behind Elck. "Hey Elck, what is that?"
Elck quickly turned. He had only a moment to realize he'd been tricked before he felt a shove from behind that sent him flailing forward.
The warm, sunny river disappeared. Cold blackness surrounded him. Elck reached out below him, searching for the bottom of the river to push against, but he found nothing. Desperate, he flailed and pointed his head upward. His nose broke the surface of the water and he gasped for air. Just as he prepared himself to sink back down into the depths, he saw he was no longer in the waters of the Salz River. Instead, he sat on fluffy linens on top of Leah's bed, a thick wool quilt draped over his head as if he were a tent pole. Leah lay in front of him, propping up her head with her hands.
"You could say that," muttered Elck. Both of them were dressed now, a fact that relieved and disappointed him at the same time.
"If you're tired, you can go to sleep." Leah had told him that often during their sleepovers. And though he usually was tired, he never went to sleep. Not until she did. "Hey Elck, can I ask you something?"
"If it's about the giant spider or bloodthirsty monster behind me, I don't want to hear it."
Leah snorted and let her face fall into the sheets below them. "No, it's not that."
"Then ask. I don't keep secrets from you, Leah."
Leah turned on her back and looked up into his eyes. "Why did you join the Brotherhood?"
Of all the questions she could have asked, Elck hadn't expected that one. Leah – the real Leah – passed before Elck ever considered leaving Maron's Ridge.
"I don't know," he said. "I guess … I guess I just didn't want to be a farmer like my father. I wanted to show my devotion to the God-Pair. Joining the Brotherhood was the best way. It's fulfilling."
Leah stared into his eyes with a look of understanding. Slowly, the corners of her mouth turned upward, and she burst out laughing.
"What?" said Elck, folding his arms. "What are you laughing at?"
"'Show my devotion to the God-Pair?' You sound like our teachers! 'Fulfilling.' You've got to be joking!"
"I'm not joking, it's true!"
"You're lying," Leah insisted, poking a finger at him. "You made fun of the Brotherhood every chance you got. Something else happened."
Elck turned away. His stomach churned; it felt empty. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Why not? You said we don't keep secrets, remember?"
"You know what happened."
Leah let out a breath of air, fluttering her lips. "Whatever. I'm going to go see if we have any bread left. Are you coming?"
Elck consciously slowed his breathing. There was no use letting this fantasy play with his emotions. "Sure," he replied. "Let's go."
"Race you!" Leah shouted as she jumped off the bed.
Elck laughed. Switching from one topic to another – from a heavy, brooding discussion to a lighthearted joke – was Leah's specialty. Elck untangled himself from the blanket and threw it off his head. Outside, the cold darkness engulfed him once again.
"Leah?" Elck turned his head to either side, but he could see no light. No figures. Nothing. "Leah?" he said again, nearly shouting. "Where are you?"
Leah's voice came from nowhere and everywhere. Elck. I have another question for you. What do you see when you think of the future?
Elck's mouth opened, but he didn't know what to say. "I … uh … what?"
The future. What do you think about?
"I don't know. I think about being a cleric. Why are you asking me?"
You're lying again! You're not supposed to keep secrets!
A flash of light blinded Elck. A brightly lit room appeared around him, and he seemed to be looking down, holding himself up from a prone position with both hands. Leah lay below him, older now, her hair disheveled and her eyes half open. He felt her hands on his back, caressing his bare skin.
"Elck," she murmured. "Darling, what's wrong? Don't stop." Leah lifted her head and pressed her lips to his, her tongue darting in and out of his mouth.
Elck gently pushed her back, frightened and excited. "L-Leah," he stuttered. "I d-don't..."
"Shh." Leah put a finger to his lips. "Keep going. Keep going."
Elck's arms trembled. He looked again at Leah's blissful expression, and just as he did, the image faded in another flash of light. When it dissipated, he was standing in his house. Leah sat in a wooden chair in the corner, flanked by two kneeling women.
Leah raised her hand and waved at him. In the other arm, she held a bundle of blankets to her chest. Elck walked toward her and saw that the bundle held a towheaded baby suckling contentedly on one of Leah's breasts. Elck looked at the child in wonder.
"Elck. It's a girl."
A girl. Elck mouthed the words. A girl. "Ours?" he asked.
Leah's face brightened. "Ours? No, I stole it from the neighbors." The two older women chuckled, but Leah just looked at Elck with joyous exasperation. "She needs a name."
A name. Every woman he'd ever known filled Elck's head. But one stuck out. "Addison," he said softly. "What about Addison?"
Leah raised an eyebrow. "My mother's name. Are you sure?"
Elck nodded. Addison had been more of a mother to Elck than his own. He could always count on her for advice, guidance, and a piece of spiced pear pie.
"Yes. I'm sure."
"Then Addison it will be. Thank you."
Elck reached out to caress Leah's daughter – his daughter – but another flash of light blocked his hand. He fought it, desperately clinging to the image of his family. But the light took him all the same.
Opening his eyes, Elck saw the same glowing riverbank he'd left only moments ago. He sat on a hill overlooking the water and Leah sat next to him, cradling his hand in hers. Her face was marked with wrinkles, and crow's feet spread from the corners of her eyes. Her hair had faded from its once glorious brown to a pale grey.
A cool spring twilight replaced the hot summer day of the previous visit. Elck looked into the river and saw a pack of children laughing and splashing, as well as a few older villagers dipping their feet into the water.
"Leah," he said, and she turned to him. "What is this?"
"What is what, darling?"
He waved his hand out toward the river. "Why are we looking at this?"
Leah frowned and patted his hand. "You're worrying me. Has your memory gotten that bad? Addison and Asher thought it would be fun to bring their children to the river. Aren't you having fun?"
"Addison and Asher..."
"Addison and Asher. Elck, your children! Are you feeling okay?"
Children. The word brought a smile to his lips. "Of course. I'm sorry, my mind decided to leave me for a moment. I'm all right now."
"Do you promise?" said Leah, leaning her head on his shoulder.
"Yes, of course." Elck wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. "This is wonderful. Heaven."
Leah giggled. Even as an old woman, she still possessed her distinctive laugh. "It can't be heaven. I'm not quite dead. Not yet, at least."
Elck's smile disappeared. Thankfully, Leah's attention was focused on the children playing and she didn't notice.
"Why aren't we in there with them?"
Leah lifted her head to look at him. "What, in the river? We're far too old for that. You'd break your neck."
"That's nonsense," he said, rising to his feet. It took considerably more effort than he was used to, his joints popping with the exertion. "You said it yourself. We're not dead yet. Come on."
Elck extended his hand. Leah stared at it for a moment, then smirked and used it to pull herself to her feet. "Fine, but if anything happens, it's your fault."
Hand in hand, the pair made their way down the grassy hill and stepped down to the river, past the adults sitting on the bank.
"Mom, Dad," said the oldest of the group, a woman with flowing auburn hair. Her resemblance to Leah caused Elck to stare. She must have been Addison. "What are you doing? You're going to kill yourselves!"
Leah shrugged and placed a foot in the river. "It's going to happen eventually. Besides, your father and I have more experience in here than you." Leah's face reddened at the word "experience," and Elck felt himself blush in response. Leah did not shed her clothes this time; instead, she lifted her skirt to her knees and walked until the water touched her hemline. "Are you coming?"
Elck bent over, his back creaking, and rolled up the cuffs of his pants. He followed Leah and laughed as she splashed him playfully. He returned the favor using both hands, leaving her dripping wet.
Leah feigned shock. "How could you? Your own wife!"
Elck grinned. My wife. "I apologize, my lady."
Leah let her dampened skirt drop into the water. She placed her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. "That was a mistake."
"Please forgive me!" Elck clasped his hands together and bowed his head.
"On one condition."
Leah pointed a finger behind Elck's shoulder. "Look behind you."
Elck's heart sank. He shook his head and pulled Leah's hand back down to her waist. "No, wait – "
"Elck, what's the matter?"
"I don't want to play this. Not right now."
"Okay," said Leah, defeated. "Fine."
"Let me explain! It's just …" He let out a heavy sigh. It was going to end, and he didn't want it to. Not yet. "Promise me you'll be here when I turn around."
"What are you talking about? Of course I'll be here. I'll always be here."
Leah rolled her eyes. "I promise. Now, will you please look behind you?"
With solemn steps, Elck pivoted. His children and their spouses smiled and waved. Addison, in particular, glowed, bursting with lively energy just like her mother. He waved back, and then he turned around.
Leah was gone. Everything was gone, except the darkness.
This time it didn't subside quickly. Elck shouted her name over and over. He ran but got nowhere. He looked in every direction but saw nothing.
This is it, he thought. It's over. It's time to return to the abbey. The thought made him sick. He lay down on the bleak, formless ground and closed his eyes, waiting for the ebb of the water in the privation room to return. Instead, a voice called out beside him.
"Elck, what are you doing?"
Elck's pulse quickened and his eyes snapped open. Leah lay beside him, stretching her arms into the air and staring at her hands as if they were some exotic animal. She was young again.
"Where did you go?" he shouted, more forcefully than he'd intended.
"Go? I've been here. I'll always be here."
"You said you'd be there when I turned around, and you weren't."
"I wasn't? That's odd. I'm here now. I think I've always been here."
"Here?" he asked. "Where is here?"
"That's a good question," Leah responded. "Anyway, I'm not the liar. You are."
Elck huffed. "What do you mean by that?"
"You still never told me why you really joined the Brotherhood."
She’d caught him. He had lied about that, but for good reason: it embarrassed him. He would never admit it to Leah, but then again, this person was not Leah. It couldn't be.
"I left because of you."
"Because of … me?" Leah pushed herself up off the ground and sat cross-legged facing Elck. "What do you mean?"
"You were my best friend." Elck stared up into the ebony sky. He couldn't bear to look at her. "After you … died … I didn't know what to do. Nothing mattered anymore. I didn't want to live in Maron's Ridge. Everything I saw reminded me of you. I looked for you. It sounds strange, I mean, I saw your father bury you in the ground. But I couldn't believe you were actually gone. I kept expecting you to show up one morning and tell me the whole thing was a prank, and you couldn't believe I fell for it. I kept hoping I would find you hiding somewhere."
"So that's why you left Maron's Ridge? To look for me?"
"Eventually, I figured I'd never find you. I stopped looking."
Leah rocked back and forth. "I'm not surprised you left. I always knew you would. But I never thought you'd join the Brotherhood. Why them? Why didn't you go explore the world?"
"I was afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"Afraid that I'd find someone … find someone that wasn't you. I don't know. I loved you, Leah." The words came out all at once, and Elck felt a wave of relief to have them out in the open air.
"Well, I know that. I love you too, Elck. Like you said, we're best friends."
"No," he replied, disappointed that she didn't understand. "It was more than that. Maybe not at first, but as we got older … I could never imagine myself with anyone else. After you died, I felt sick just thinking about other girls. I felt like I was betraying you. So …"
"So you joined the Brotherhood, where there wouldn't be any girls around?" Leah smacked Elck's leg. "That's the stupidest thing you've ever done, and you've done a lot of stupid things!"
"It wasn't just that there wouldn't be any girls. I heard …" Elck trailed off. He couldn't tell her this – even if she wasn't really Leah. But when he looked in her eyes, warm and comforting, her words echoed in his head. We don't keep secrets, remember?
"I had heard that the Brothers abstain from all contact with women. They don't get married … they never … you know."
Leah turned her head to the side. "Have sex?"
Elck winced. Leah was never one to hold back. "R-right. I thought that maybe the Brotherhood had tricks they could teach me to get rid of the desire. I hoped that they could make me not want to think about girls … and to stop thinking about you."
"And did it work?" There was no sarcasm in her voice.
"No," he said. "I guess not. You're here with me, aren't you?"
"Of course. I told you, I'll always be here. You can't get away from me."
Elck placed his hands behind his head and let his body relax. "I wish you were here, Leah. You know, here for real."
"For real?" Leah rose to her feet. "You think I'm fake?"
"I know you aren't real. How could you be? Leah is dead. She's dead."
"Who says I am Leah? Who says I'm alive? What is 'real?' Just because something happens where no one else can see it, does that make it 'not real?' If anything is real, everything is real."
Elck rolled his eyes. His mind was just playing tricks now. Brother Jerun warned him of that. He took the bait anyway. "If you're not Leah, who are you?"
"I am everyone," she responded, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "And no one."
Everyone and no one. The words brought an odd familiarity. Everyone and no one. Everything and nothing.
Elck leaped to his feet. Had the privation chamber had actually worked? "Are you trying to tell me that this is the Eternal? That you're part of it?"
Leah's eyes twinkled, but she didn't respond.
"But that can't be. The Brotherhood says the Eternal is without form. Just a void." Elk sighed and fell onto his backside. "This is all in my head, isn't it?"
"Why does it have to be one or the other?" Leah asked. "Can't it be both?"
"What are you talking about?"
Leah pressed her hands together. "Maybe it's not the Eternal or your mind, but … I don't know, a space between the two."
"A space between … Leah, that doesn't make any sense."
"And why not?" She folded her arms. "I think it's a perfectly good explanation."
"If that was possible, someone would have told me about it."
"Well," Leah said with a wink, "maybe it's a very narrow space." Leah touched Elck's arm lightly with her fingers.
"I just want to know if you … she ... was really there with me."
"I was there. I am everyone – "
"And no one," Elck interrupted. "I know." He leaned backward, using his wrists to support himself. "What now?"
Leah tapped a finger on her lips, and then held a finger aloft. "Would you like to see her? Physically?"
"Of course. But Leah's part of the Eternal now."
"Yes, but she wasn't always. Come with me."
Leah bent over and offered Elck her hand. He took it, and as he did, the bright flash of light beat back the darkness once again.
He appeared in Leah's bedroom, the sun shining in the window above her bed. To his left, Leah stood, her arm touching his.
"What – ?" Elck began.
Leah shook her head and pointed at the bed. It wasn't empty. Leah – a younger Leah, the age she'd been the last time he'd seen her in the flesh – lay bundled in the covers. She was pale, and her breathing was strained. Elck turned back to the Leah who had brought him here. "This is before she died?"
"But I was with Father, selling our harvest at The Crossing. I wasn't here. I didn't get to say goodbye."
"You are here now," Leah responded. "You should go to her. We can't stay long."
Elck approached the bed with short, cautious steps. Leah's eyes were only partially open, staring at the blank ceiling. Her chest heaved in fatigued spasms and her knuckles gripped the bedsheets. The quilt they'd used as their fort was wrapped around the lower half of her body like a funeral shroud. The amethyst pendant rested on her chest above the linens.
Leah turned her head and looked at him. Her pained expression instantly dissolved into joy. "Elck. You came." Leah spoke in halting staccato. "Are you … real?"
Elck knelt down beside her, brushing the sweat-soaked bangs from her forehead. "Of course I'm real, silly."
"I didn't think … you'd make it … before …"
"I know. I didn't either. But I'm here now. I'll always be here."
Leah tried to giggle, but it came out as a cough. "You can't … always … be here."
Elck smiled. He studied every detail in Leah's face; he never wanted to forget this moment. Despite dried blood stuck to the corners of her cracked lips and dark bags under her eyes, Elck still thought she was beautiful.
"Elck … I'm not … going to … get better … am I?"
Elck felt tears well up, blurring his vision. He wiped them away with the back of his hand. "No. No, I don't think you are."
Leah's bottom lip quivered, and she sniffed. "That's … not fair … it's not fair."
"I know," Elck said, placing his forehead to hers. "Curse the Pair, I know it isn't."
"I don't … want to … leave you." Leah had started to cry as well, their tears pooling on her face.
"You can't, Leah. You won't. You can't get away from me." Elck forced himself to smile.
"Will … I … see … you … again?" Leah choked out the words between heavy sobs.
"Yes, Leah. I promise. You're going to join the Eternal. You're going to be a part of everything and everyone. And one day, I'll find you there. And we'll be together. I promise, Leah. I promise."
"How … do … you … know?"
"Because I've seen it. I've touched it." Elck briefly turned his gaze to the other Leah, wondering if she'd object to his oversimplification. She only nodded.
"Elck … will you … take … this?"
Elck turned back to the real Leah. In her right hand she held the pendant out toward him.
"Please … Momma … would … have wanted you … to … have … it."
Leah had been buried with that necklace, along with a dazzling yellow summer dress. Both had been a gift from Addison, her mother, who died only a year before her daughter. Elck remembered the purple gleam from the jewel … the last thing he saw before they closed Leah's coffin. It wouldn't be right to take that from her. And yet, it didn't seem right to refuse her either.
"Are you sure?"
Leah thrust her hand higher. "Please?"
Elck took the chain and lifted it from behind her neck. He placed it around his, and though the stone wasn't any bigger than his fingertip, it seemed to hang heavy on him.
"Thank … you." Leah's breathing grew louder, and her eyes no longer focused on him.
Elck felt a touch on his shoulder.
"Elck. We must leave."
"No," he said without turning. "No, just a few more minutes."
"It's time, Elck."
Elck leaned his head against Leah's chest. "Leah," he said, fighting back more tears. "Leah, I have to go now."
Leah gave no response. Elck leaned down and planted a kiss on her lips. They were cool. He did the same on her forehead, which was burning with fever.
"I love you, Leah."
Leah reached out with her hand and caressed his cheek. "Love … you … too."
"Elck." It was the other Leah's voice. "Now."
"Goodbye." he said.
The room went dark.
Elck opened his eyes. He floated stiffly on his back, bobbing up and down in the pool. The darkness blocked his vision, but he knew where he was. Instead of getting up, Elck let himself drift along in the water. He hoped the experience had numbed him. As soon as he thought about Leah's dying face, he realized it hadn't.
Elck wept. He wept until the tears failed to come, and then he wept more. None of it was real. None of it. Even if he had touched the Eternal for a brief moment – and Elck doubted he had – the rest of it meant nothing. "Shadows and hallucinations," as Brother Jerun said.
The pool was shallow enough for his feet to touch bottom, so he waded back to the entrance and traced his hand along the ground to find his robe. After dressing, he opened the door. The torchlight in the hall, as dim as it was, assaulted his eyes. He didn't know how much time had passed; it seemed like hours, but in the darkness of the privation chamber and the haze of his dreams, it was impossible to tell. Elck hoped it was late enough that Brother Jerun had retired for the night, as he wasn't in a hurry to tell the elder that his last resort hadn't worked.
Elck had hoped the privation chamber would help him move past Leah, but it had just tortured him further. Jerun had lied. The best Elck could hope for now was a servant position with the rest of the recruits who failed to progress. Maybe one day he'd be able to put Leah out of his mind and try again.
Taking short, slow steps through the deserted abbey, Elck tried to convince himself that forgetting Leah was still what he wanted. Dreams of her were nice, and this one, strikingly vivid as if she were really with him, even more so. But the inevitable crash when Elck awoke and faced losing her again … it wasn't worth it.
Elck arrived at his cramped living quarters, threw his robe to the ground and pulled on his sleeping breeches. His bed, barely wide enough to support him, groaned as he jumped on top of it. He closed his eyes and forced himself to clear his mind. Whenever the visions of Leah threatened to resurface, he doused them with passages of scripture and prayed he'd soon fall asleep.
Something poked at the back of his head. He thought it might be a headache, a remnant from the privation chamber. But when he turned, the discomfort turned with it. Elck reached a hand beneath his pillow and found a cold, metallic lump.
His throat tightened. No, he thought. Stop kidding yourself. It's not real. But even as he tried to tell himself otherwise, Elck knew what he'd found. He trembled as he slowly moved the pillow to the side. The golden chain appeared first, followed by the edge of his fingers, and then, at last, the gleaming purple stone in his shaking hand.
For all the effort Elck had spent trying to clear his mind, this moment was the first time he'd ever succeeded. Eventually, as his shock subsided, his memories flooded back. The pendant couldn't be here, it just couldn't; he'd seen it lowered into the ground around Leah's neck. It was an image he would never forget.
Something stirred in the corner of Elck's eye. He turned, expecting to see Leah in the doorway. Instead, Brother Jerun stood there, his hands placed neatly in front of him.
"Brother Elck. I expected you'd come find me after you were finished. Would you like to tell me what happened?"
Elck looked into Brother Jerun's dull grey eyes, then back to the amethyst in his hand. Lies. All the Brotherhood had told him. Lies. "Nothing," he said. "Nothing happened."
Brother Jerun approached and sat on the edge of Elck's bed. "Nothing? A curious choice of words, Brother Elck. Did you touch the Eternal?"
Elck blinked and closed his fist around the stone. "No. I didn't."
"You didn't?" Brother Jerun muttered something and rose to his feet. "That is … unfortunate. I thought … I really thought …" Brother Jerun placed a hand on Elck's shoulder. "I am sorry, Brother Elck, that you were not able to find it."
Elck barely heard Brother Jerun's words. He opened his hand, expecting the necklace to have disappeared. Instead, it shined up at him.
"It's okay. I found something else." Elck raised the necklace over his head and placed it around his neck. This time, it didn't feel heavy.
"Oh? What is it you found?"
"I'm not sure." A narrow space, she had called it, but Elck wouldn't speak it aloud. "But I'm going to find it again."
In the morning, before the sun crawled up over the horizon, before the first stable boy rose from his quarters to feed the livestock, Elck set off for the town of Maron's Ridge with a bag slung over his back and the amethyst gem hanging from his neck.
© Matthew Borgard 2014.