Prince of Pain

by unicorndisco1977

His brothers had it easy. They always had. But Dolorum—he had to do the dirty work.

"Oh God, please." A woman clutched at her head, her nails digging into her brown hair. "Please make it stop."

A long time ago he would have rolled his eyes at this, but now he only stared, his right hand crumpled into a fist. He watched with dull eyes as the woman in front of him balled herself up on her carpet, still holding her head. She turned, pressing the right side of her face against the rug.

Dolorum squeezed his hand harder, crushing his fingers into his palm. The woman opened her mouth and spat up blood. One more wobble, then she lay still. Her eyes remained open, cold and glassy, never to see again.

A sigh stirred the air. Quiet and soft, though no one would ever hear it. Dolorum turned around and folded the collar of his jacket up to shield his neck from the November chill. He left the woman's house through a kitchen wall and strolled quickly down the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, head angled down. On his way home he made his usual rounds. Hospitals, schools, prisons, houses. With a simple flex of his fingers he sent tremors through them all, delivering his gift to the mortal world. Sometimes he heard screams, gunshots, loud noise. The beautiful soundtrack of pain. But mostly it was silence.

He liked it better that way, he decided, slipping his hand back inside his pocket.

The route home was an ugly one. A knobby, twisted path off a black forest. Dolorum took his time, stepping carefully over the trees' knuckled roots, kicking hard little rocks with his boots as he went. When he reached the rusted grate in the center of a patch of burnt grass, he leaned down and flipped it open before descending inside.

Of course, his brothers were already there. He could hear them the moment his body slit the seal, propelling him down, down, down.

When his boots touched solid ground, he picked back up with his quiet stroll, hoping to return to his chamber without being disturbed.

"Hey, Dolorum's home!"

He stopped with a sigh.

"Dolorum! Get over here!"

There wasn't much Dolorum could do but obey their request. As the middle brother he wasn't exceptionally commanding like the eldest, Odis, nor was he the manipulative sort like Tenebri, the youngest. Sandwiched between them over the years, he did his best to dodge the battles they waged against each other, the black crows and shadows they shot back and forth. Several times they tried to pull him into their wars, for a Prince of Pain would no doubt make things more interesting in a fight between the Prince of Hate and the Prince of Darkness, but Dolorum only frowned and hid behind his sheath of floppy black hair, completely uninterested in their childish games.

He sighed again as he rounded a corner into the throne room. There they were, sitting in their chairs on either side of his empty one, already watching him.

"You've been doing that a lot lately," the youngest noted with a tilt of his head. "Sighing, I mean. Something wrong?"

Dolorum shrugged. "I'm fine as ever."

Odis laughed. He was the only one of the three who insisted on wearing his crown all the time, even when there were no visitors. It sat atop his head right then, a crusted tangle of loops and barbs, black as the short hair cropped close to his ears.

"What?" Tenebri asked him. "What's so funny?"

"Dolorum's attempt at nonchalance," Odis replied, stretching out his limbs languidly, like a cat. "We all know—well, everyone but you, Tenebri—what draws nearer and nearer to the Earth, even as we speak."

Tenebri looked confused, his dark eyes squinted into slivers. Then, as Odis raised his eyebrows, it dawned on him. "That's right!" Tenebri exclaimed, whipping to face Dolorum, who still stood reluctantly under the archway. "Your soul! Jeez, how long has it been since we last saw it?"

"A million years," Odis said, his eyes on Dolorum. "And then another million from now it'll come around again, as it always has and always will."

"So that's why you've been so moody lately." Tenebri paused, ran a quick hand through his spiky hair, then chuckled. "Or at least, more moody than usual."

"You going to try and catch it this time, Dole?" Odis asked innocently enough, but his brothers could sense the acid bubbling beneath his tongue.

Ordinarily Dolorum would have turned around and headed to his bedchamber without a word, but something fierce and boiling—something almost angry—compelled him to spit out a curt, "Maybe."

Tenebri and Odis stared at him. Tenebri was shocked, but Odis' eyes shined with a challenge, his mouth the slightest bend away from a smile.

With that, Dolorum turned his back on his brothers and swept away.

It was their mother's fault.

Sometimes Dolorum could still see her. Faintly, he could see the blurred outline of her form, her long wavy hair, her outstretched arm snatching his soul from Father and flinging it up into the stars, where it disappeared on the back of a comet. He could almost see her face, her nose, her mouth. One thing he could see quite clearly, however, was what happened after. With a tug, the entirety of her being was pulled, sucked away. And he hadn't seen her since.

He didn't miss her. Or maybe he did. He wasn't sure, and it nagged at him, this uncertainty. Most days he decided he didn't care, and that contented him for a while. But lately it had been harder. Everything had been.

Dolorum looked into the crack behind his bed. It was his window to the mortal world, his view of their stars. He put it there a few thousand years ago so that the next time his soul hurtled past the Earth, he could watch it sail along, skimming through space and time like a pebble along the water's surface.

And that was why things had been so difficult lately. His soul was getting closer every second. Dolorum could feel it in his fingertips. Warm, like summer. Tingly, like sunlight baking on his back. He squeezed his right hand and for one infinitesimal moment wished that that was all it was. Just a squeeze.

It was another cold day. Real cold, with wind that seemed to knife straight to the bone whenever it sliced past. Dolorum pulled his coat tighter around him as he strode down the sidewalk. He was a bit too good at his job sometimes; he had a knack for putting an edge to wind, a burn to sun.

He looked up at the sky. The latter was nowhere to be seen, sheltered behind a heavy blanket of clouds. Tenebri's work, no doubt. He liked overcast days. They were his favorite.

His brothers' jobs were done for the day. Odis, Prince of Hate. He toiled mainly with human relationships, made sure countries remained at war, couples divorced, children ran away. Tenebri, as the Prince of Darkness, had it easiest. He was the one who kept the nighttime frightening, supplying it with crows and bats and roaches. He oversaw everything in the darkness, made sure terrible things happened as they should. He had most fun directing nightmares, though, and even saved tapes of his favorite ones.

There was much overlap in their occupations, and the brothers worked together constantly. Odis would make a wife hate her husband. Dolorum would make her stab him repeatedly with a kitchen knife and Tenebri would set the nighttime stage for it all. Sometimes they even traded duties, just to switch things up, make everything a little more interesting. Odis would play with the weather, make the snow more slippery for the cars on the road. Dolorum would pull the moon up for the night. Tenebri, with a wiggle of his fingers, would make a bear eat a man.

It was all great fun, until the comet rounded the galaxy and came barreling back again.

Now Dolorum found himself facing a hospital, his first stop for the day. A bit half-heartedly, he raised his right hand and pulled it into a fist.

Nothing appeared to happen from the outside, but he knew that, inside, one child had a seizure, one man died in a coma, and an old woman fell down a flight of stairs, breaking her legs. There were the little things, as well—the pinpricks of needles going into skin, aches, pinches, burns. The usual pains of the living. All delivered.

He lowered his hand and moved on to his next stop. A house in a run-down neighborhood.

An old man was sitting at a piano, his back facing Dolorum. With his gnarled fingers on the keys, he started playing a tune. Something sad and patient, its notes dipping low off the end of the keyboard. It sounded faintly familiar to Dolorum; he thought he heard it once, far away, long ago, in the remnants of a dream.

For a moment he stood there by the old man's favorite recliner, his eyes halfway closed as he listened to the song. He could almost put words to it, he realized, raising his right hand. Birds screaming from the trees, a distant melancholy cry, a buckling splintering shatter as they hit the ground and die

"Stay away from him."

Dolorum froze. There weren't many things in the world that could rouse that kind of reaction from him. But then, the being that spoke to him wasn't of that world, was it?

Slowly, he pivoted around to face her. The angel. He'd dealt with a few in his lifetime. Mostly they ran in different circles, never quite colliding, aside from the occasional error. Which was always, always the fault of the angel. Dolorum did his job just fine, with the skill and expertise one can only acquire after billions of years in the field. Newly appointed angels, still unaware of how the cosmos operated, attempted to derail his destiny with their sanctimonious prattling.

But it was a rare occurrence. So rare that Dolorum couldn't remember the last time he found himself face to face with an angel. As a result, he couldn't stop staring at the one before him. Or maybe he couldn't tear his eyes away because she was, to his disgust, quite beautiful.

She narrowed her ice-white eyes at him. Yes, Dolorum admitted to himself, she was stunning. She had a small round face and a pointed nose, blond hair flowing down either side of her head like golden waterfalls, so long that they mingled with the white hem of her gown at the floor. Typical angel, all shimmers and glows and brightness. But she reminded him of someone. Someone from a very long time ago. Someone dear to him.

"Did you hear me?" the angel asked over the sad pinging of the piano, her voice gliding easily over it. Dolorum bristled. That voice. Even when it was angry, it was gentle enough to sing lullabies, recite poetry, confess love. It was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.

The angel's eyes narrowed further at his silence. She waved a pale hand at him. "Hello? Anything remotely functioning in there?"

At the sight of her moving arm, something cold and hard solidified in Dolorum's stomach. He glared back at her. "Why did you do it?" he demanded as the old man neared the end of his piano song. "Why couldn't you just let him eat it?"

The angel stilled her arm and stared, wide-eyed at him. "What?"

But Dolorum was already hurrying out.

"How foolish of me—how utterly stupid."

The sun was bleeding out its colors as it set below the horizon. Dolorum, hands stuffed deep into his pockets and hair a bit more wild than usual, trudged along the twisted path home, cursing to himself. When he had called himself every name he could possibly think of in several different languages, he moved on to the angel. And he found it much easier, being angry with her rather than himself, so he kept at it as he climbed into the tunnel home, rushed to his bedroom, and attempted sleep. When he woke up the next morning and left for work, he was still at it, blaming the angel for everything. By the time he stopped in front of the old man's house, back to finish the job he had never completed, he was positively enraged with the angel. A part of him even hoped she would pop up again just so he could yell at her.

There was no need for that, though. When he walked through the wall of the old man's house, he found her already standing there beside his recliner. The old man, breathing with some difficulty, was sitting there reading a newspaper.

"I thought you'd be back," she said, not even looking at Dolorum as she said this, her eyes on the old man's paper.

"Of course I'm back," he snapped. "I'm here to do my job."

She took her time examining an article, then casually looked up at him, as though it were an afterthought. "Well," she said, "so am I."

"Let me guess. You're his guardian angel."

She smiled, and it literally lit up her entire face. "I am. But who did you think I was yesterday?"

"Never mind that." He raised his right hand. "I have several stops to get to today, so step aside."

The angel glided in front of the old man, blocking him from Dolorum's view. "I'm sorry," she told him, not sounding very sorry at all, "but I have a job to do as well, and I won't let anything or anyone harm Frank."

Frank. Dolorum winced. He hated learning the names of his victims.

"You must be new," he said to the angel. "There's only so much you can do before the inevitable. Life is pain. It begins and ends with it." He nodded toward the old man, still hidden behind her white gown. "His end has come. Now move aside, lest you witness yours, too."

She only stared at him. "Was that supposed to be a threat? Because I was under the impression that threats were frightening."

"Losing your life doesn't frighten you?" Dolorum asked, more annoyed than anything now. "I can send you straight to the Void, where you would cease to be anything. That not scary enough for you, angel?"

She smiled a little. "Please, call me by my name. Solia. Calling me 'angel' almost sounds like an endearment, and coming from you, that's a little disturbing."

Dolorum smirked. "Trust me, any term of endearment would be the last thing I would ever attach to you. There are plenty of other things I'd like to call you right now, though."

"Oh?" Solia tilted her head, her smile still in place. "Let's hear them, then."

He was about to say a very nasty word when he caught himself. In his moment of clarity he saw the old man shift in his seat, turning a page of his newspaper, and he wondered just what he was doing, quarreling with an angel, of all things.

Dolorum straightened his back. "That's enough of your games," he said. "I have a job to do. Stand back or meet the Void."

She didn't move.

Ordinarily Dolorum would have no qualms sending her to the Void, where her very existence would fray and unravel, but with the comet headed toward Earth he hesitated. The hesitation stretched and stretched until it wasn't hesitation anymore. It was something much worse.

Dolorum swallowed. He couldn't do it. He couldn't send her to the Void.

But he wasn't about to admit that. Folding the collar of his jacket up, he took a step back and muttered, "I'm running late. I'll take care of this later." With that, he left.

True to his word, Dolorum tried. Day after day he returned to the old man's house, his right hand at the ready. And day after day instead of sending the man to his end, he faced Solia.

When he wasn't cursing her name, he had to hand it to her, she was diligent. Even when he visited at different times of day, from early sunrise to black midnight, she was there at his side. And while Solia grew increasingly more proud and Dolorum increasingly more irritated, Frank himself grew more fatigued. Eventually he didn't leave his bed at all, just stayed bundled up in his sheets, eyes closed.

One day when Dolorum entered Frank's bedroom, vaguely determined to finally put an end to this madness, Solia jumped in front of him.

"Make it stop," she commanded.

Dolorum blinked, distracted by her sudden closeness. He could count each golden eyelash if he wished, but there were so many of them. Her little nostrils flared wide, and he blinked again, right out of his stupor. She was angry—very angry.

"I'm not doing anything," he said. "I haven't been doing anything since you made it your life purpose to glom onto this man like some sort of gooey, angelic body armor."

"You're lying. You're making him suffer. Look at him!"

Dolorum did. He looked at Frank. Frank was barely breathing, his chest rising and falling so shallowly it took a careful eye to see it.

"I repeat," Dolorum said, turning to face Solia, "I'm not the cause of this."

"Then what is?" she snapped. "He's clearly in pain, which is your job description, isn't it?"

Dolorum looked at Frank again. "It is, but he's not in pain. He's tired."

"Tired?" Solia asked.

"Yes. How old is he?"

She crossed her arms. "Ninety-eight."

"That's long for a human," he said. "They can't go much longer than that. They wear out. Frank is winding down, but he can't find any relief."

"Well," Solia said, her eyes on Frank, "how can we help him find it?"

"He doesn't have to find it." Dolorum brandished his hand. "I can give it to him."

Solia's face flared. She opened her mouth to fire something at him but he cut her off.

"You want to know what's causing this? You are. It's his end. It's the natural order of things. And yes, it's pain, but there's a certain relief in pain. By keeping him alive, you're denying him of both."

It was as if he had stabbed her; Solia gasped, and looked mortally wounded as Dolorum watched her. She glanced at Dolorum, then at Frank, asleep in his bed. "Oh no," she whispered, her focus back on Dolorum. "I'm worse than you!"

He gritted his teeth. "Technically, yes."

"An angel causing more suffering than the Prince of Pain," she murmured to herself with a short laugh, shaking her head. Her smile faded as Frank shifted in his sleep. "All right," she said to Dolorum. "Do what you have to do. But please make it quick, and not too painful, okay?"

"That was never my intention," he replied. "Not in this case, anyway."

Solia took one last look at Frank, then swept away to the foot of his bed, leaving Dolorum plenty of space. He wasted no time. He held his right hand up, level with the ground, and drew his fingers into a fist. Frank stopped breathing.

Solia's hands were clutching the metal railing of the footboard. She squeezed it, her knuckles turning white as glaciers. She didn't move when Dolorum loosened his hand and lowered it, or even when he stuffed his hands in his pockets and stepped back. He was walking through the wall when she finally spoke, her back facing him.

"What's your name?" she asked quietly.

He stopped. "Dolorum."

She nodded once, still in the same position. She remained that way, her hands holding the rail, eyes on a motionless Frank, as Dolorum left.

He had been positive that that was the last he'd ever see of Solia. And he had been wrong.

"Hello, Dolorum," she said, joining him on his trek down a sidewalk the next day. He had to take a moment to catch his breath; she had startled him, in more than one way. Mostly he was taken aback by how pleasant she had made his name sound, like it was some word that had a nice meaning. It hadn't sounded like his name at all.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, shaking off his shock.

She shrugged. "I'm currently awaiting reassignment, so I don't have much to do at the moment. I saw you and figured I'd say hi."

"Well, hi." He quickened his steps.

Solia matched his speed. "You were right, you know."

"I know."

"I'm not finished," she said, rolling her white eyes. "You were right about Frank, naturally, but you were also right about me. I'm new and I don't much understand how everything works."

Dolorum stepped over a piece of broken glass. "Don't they give you some sort of pamphlet up in Heaven?"

She nodded. "They give you a beginner's guide on your first day. But it really only explains guardianship, not the whole cosmos."

"That," said Dolorum, his pace relaxing, "would take several volumes."

Solia smiled. "I would read them. I've got eternity, after all."

"Exactly. You have eternity. To learn the ropes, as I did." He slowed as he neared a middle school. "Now, if you excuse me, I have business to attend to."

"Oh. Right." Solia frowned, drifting away, her body lightening and becoming transparent before disappearing entirely.

Dolorum surmised that that would be the last he'd ever see of her. But he was wrong again.

"Good morning!" she practically cheered the next day. It made Dolorum want to vomit.

"I was thinking," she continued, tucking a thread of golden hair behind her ear. "Maybe I can shadow you, to learn a little more about how pain and the underworld works."

A little boy crossed their path a few feet ahead on a bicycle, his helmet too big for his head. "You want to follow me?" Dolorum asked.

"Sure. Why not?"

"A thousand reasons," he replied. "The first, and most important of which, being that you're an angel and I'm just about the complete opposite of that."

"Just about?" She brightened. "So you're not completely evil?"

Dolorum looked up at the sky even though he couldn't see anything but blue, blue everywhere. It was up there somewhere, though. The comet. "I suppose I'm not," he said. "But I still do things that you would find reprehensible. Today, in fact, might not be the best day to accompany me."

"Why not?"

He sighed. Too late.

With the angel watching, he squeezed his hand, right as a car speeding down the road struck the boy on the bicycle. He was killed instantly.

Solia winced and looked away from the bloody scene.

"Pain is never pretty," Dolorum said, lowering his hand. "In fact, it's probably the ugliest, most disgusting thing there is, though my brother Odis would disagree. But like I said, there's some relief in pain, something a bit cathartic. And that, in itself, is sort of beautiful."

She nodded once, not saying anything. When he started walking again she followed along.

They spent the day together, mostly in silence as Solia grappled with the pain, the loss, the suffering. She left at sunset without a word, her glow visibly muted. But the next day they started again, and the day after that, and the day after that. Gradually they started talking more as Dolorum did his job. Solia learned not to look away when he did it. Dolorum learned to caution her anyway before he squeezed his hand.

"You're right," she said one day, standing beside him as they lingered in a hospital room. An old woman lay in a bed, her body connected to all sorts of tubes connected to all sorts of machines. Her eyes were open, focused on the old man sitting at her bedside, holding her frail little hand. "There is beauty in this pain."

The two glanced at each other as Dolorum raised his hand. He squeezed, and machines started going off, beeping all around them. The old man cried. Dolorum and Solia stood very close to each other, watching.

As nurses rushed into the room Solia's pale, shimmering hand folded into Dolorum's, holding the instrument responsible for this pain and so much more.

Things were different from then on. Dolorum, so used to Solia's presence, thought nothing of it anymore when she tagged along on his missions. In fact, he quite liked being around her. He had a feeling she felt the same about him, but he wasn't sure. Until Christmas Day.

It was raining. Dolorum loved the rain. It was one facet of the Earth he always enjoyed. He was walking in it when Solia appeared at their usual meeting place, next to a bus stop on the sidewalk. She was standing in a spot of light, a yellow pillar beaming down from the sky. Dolorum glanced up and noticed that, directly over Solia's head, there was a hole in the clouds.

"It never rains on angels," she said with a grin, eyeing the black hair plastered to his face, wet as ink. "Here." She reached out and pulled him closer to her by the arms. It was warm in her spot of light. And dry. As much as Dolorum liked the rain, he liked being near her more. Her crystalline eyes met his sooty black ones and in that moment, life was not pain. Life was something more wonderful than that.

They sat atop a brick wall during one of Dolorum's breaks. The rain had stopped, but everything felt slick, moist. Even the air. Dolorum noted this and Solia agreed, saying there was never anything like this in Heaven.

"What's Heaven like?" he asked her.

She thought for a moment. Dolorum liked the way she looked when she thought; she always looked up, scrunching her thin mouth, her eyes catching the sunlight. "Nothing like this," she said.

He was studying the soggy grass below them when she asked what Hell was like.

"Nothing like this," he said back. They stared at one another before breaking out into grins.

Dolorum's respite from delivering pain grew longer and longer, until very late in the day when it became clear he was not going to return to work. Not that he minded, or even noticed. He was too busy talking to Solia. They had been discussing the many foibles of humans, how silly they looked when they tried to do too many things at once—even sillier when it got them killed—when Solia abruptly asked:

"That first day when we met. Who did you think I was?"

That cold, hard weight returned to Dolorum's stomach. "My mother," he said. "I knew you weren't actually her, but in that one moment . . . I don't know what came over me."

"She was an angel?"

He nodded.

"What happened to her?"

No one had ever asked. He found himself hesitating, wondering what to do. Should he tell her? Keep it to himself, as he had for billions of years? Somehow, the latter prospect didn't seem like a realistic possibility to him, so he went with his other option. He told her.

"My mother and my father, they'd been together for many, many years," he began, twisting his fingers. "So during the Fall, when Father created Hell, she went with him. They had three sons, one right after the other. And Father ate their souls. Except one."

Solia leaned forward, her eyes wide with excitement and horror.

"Mother saved mine," Dolorum continued, glancing up at the darkening sky. "She threw it into the sky where it caught a comet. Every one million years the comet comes around. I feel and act strange until it passes."

"And your mother?" Solia asked.

"Father sent her to the Void."

It was quiet. Completely quiet. Dolorum kept pulling at his fingers but he wasn't sure why. Solia was watching him.

"Dolorum," she said slowly, "do you want your soul back?"

Two months ago he would have laughed at the idea, but Solia actually saying it out loud planted it straight into his head, where it grew and grew until he could hardly contain himself. He looked her in the eyes and said, "Yes."

She smiled. "Only angels can touch comets. How convenient that you should know one willing to catch one for you."

"You would do that for me?"

"Of course."

She said it like it was the most basic of facts, but Dolorum had never met someone willing to do something so nice for him. Well, aside from his mother.

So it was decided. At midnight, when the comet skidded past, Solia would try to catch it. She was confident about it, too, grinning rather arrogantly as she demonstrated to Dolorum just how easily she would catch his soul, as though it were a pop-up baseball.

Before the two parted, excited and nervous and scared, Dolorum asked the question that had been bothering him since the idea had been suggested.

"Solia, what will happen after?"

Her eyes warmed with feeling. "I'm not entirely sure, but I think we're supposed to live happily ever after."

He laughed. "You angels are so corny."

"You demons are so grim," she shot back with a smirk. "Meet me at our usual place at midnight. I'll be there with your soul."

Hell was unusually quiet when Dolorum returned for the night. He hurried to his bedroom, as though that might make midnight come any faster, but all it did was make his heart beat harder in his chest. He glanced around at the dark marbled floor, the red firelight crawling up the walls, the black webs hanging from the ceiling like a canopy of branches. He took it all in as if for the first time when, in reality, it could very well have been the last.

He didn't sleep that night. He lay in bed, looking through the bars of his headboard at the crack in the wall, at the stars pinned to the sky. And then he saw it: A blue-white bullet of fire streaming across the blackness. He pressed himself closer to the crack, squeezing his hands against the wall. Then, as quickly as it had come, it went. It disappeared abruptly like a burned out bulb.

Dolorum couldn't stop himself from clambering to his feet, screaming in his head that she'd caught it. Surely she'd caught it. He couldn't imagine anything else.

It was fifteen minutes to midnight but he didn't care. He flung his door open and rushed out into the hall.

"Going somewhere, Dole?"

Dolorum turned around to face his brother. Odis. He was propped against the wall beneath a torchlight, shadows pulsing across his face. Even at this time of night he wore his crown.

"Yes," Dolorum replied. Odis knew more than he let on. He always did.

The eldest brother pushed himself off the wall, crossing his arms over his chest as he walked toward Dolorum. His veneer of amusement didn't fool Dolorum; there was worry and panic beneath all the plastic layers.

"You think you can just leave without saying goodbye?" Odis teased.

Dolorum laughed, humorlessly. "Forgive me. I didn't think I'd be missed. But, since you're here..." He took a step back. "Goodbye."


Odis' voice echoed everywhere. The webs on the ceiling trembled and the light flickered more violently.

Dolorum, unfazed, simply stared at his brother. "What?"

"Have you lost your senses?" Odis spat. "Imagine what would happen in a world without pain. Imagine what that would do to all of us down here."

"I have," said Dolorum. "And it's all the more reason to leave."

Odis uncrossed his arms, holding them stiffly at his sides as though one of them might swing out and connect with Dolorum's face at any moment. "You can't leave," he said. "You're the Prince of Pain, you fool. It's your only calling in life, the only thing you'll ever be capable of doing." He walked past Dolorum to his bedchamber, scarcely looking at him. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Dolorum highly doubted that as he climbed out and into the world. He ran over the twisted path, through the depthless black of the forest, over the sidewalks to the bus stop. She was there, her gown iridescent beneath the moonlight and shifting with the December breezes. Her back faced him, but her arms were in front of her, like she was holding something.

"Solia!" he called, only paces away.

She turned her head first, then her torso, then her legs.

Dolorum stopped when he saw what she had been cradling. Not a soul or a comet. Burns. Angry oranges and reds blotched her delicate, shaky little hands. Skin was frayed and torn, falling in flakes at her feet. It was the most painful thing he had ever seen.

"I tried, Dolorum," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I tried to catch it, but I missed. I'm sorry."

"No, Solia. I'm sorry."

She cried, and her hands shook harder. Watching her, Dolorum realized that Odis had been right. Even when he didn't mean to, he caused pain. It was the only thing he knew how to do. The only thing he could ever do.

"We can't see each other anymore," he told her, ripping the words right out, for they were the last ones he ever wanted to say to her.

She remained silent. Some of her tears fell on her hands.

Dolorum folded the collar of his jacket up and started to walk away.

"It'll come around again," she said in a small, sad voice. She sniffed, and when she spoke again, her voice strengthened back into a lullaby, a poem. Her eyes met his and she clenched her burning hands into fists. "When it does, I will catch it. I promise."

He looked at her a moment longer, at the golden waves of hair crashing down her body, her clear eyes, her thin mouth set into a determined line. Then he turned his back and left, squeezing his right hand as he went. It was pain, but it was relief. And it was beautiful, like her. A million more years would have to pass before she could try to catch that comet again. A million more years before he might finally know something more than pain.

A part of him hoped he would.