"How did things get so messed up between us?"
Levi opened his eyes and stared blankly above him. He was in a dark room, a small lightless space—a void really.
And sitting there beside where he was laying down, was Elicia.
"Seriously." She asked again, gently combing her fingers through his brown hair, tussling the cowlicks this way and that as they relaxed together. "When we were kids we used to just play around the Creek all day. We didn't have to worry about the Town, or the Soldiers, or our Parents. Life was great. Back then. Wasn't it?" She ended that with a smile, blue eyes shimmering beneath golden bangs.
His eyes started to well up tears, and though he felt ashamed of crying like this in front of her, he just couldn't help it.
He started to break down, to fall apart.
Crumbling all over again.
"I'm dreaming." He cried, choking through his words, "I-I'm dreaming, aren't I?"
"You are." Elicia's arms wrapped around him, and her warmth though fake, started to calm him down. "I'm sorry, Levi. I'm so sorry."
"I don't want you to go." He told her, clinging to her as they laid there in darkness. "Please don't leave me like this… Elicia…"
"I don't want to go." She replied, her eyes tearing up as well, the blue of them glowing behind a watery glaze. "But I have to."
He pressed in close and kissed her hard on the mouth, hanging onto her as if she was about to blow away in the wind. He felt so weak all of a sudden, like everything he was made of no longer had anything to stand on and was beginning to crumble, making his stomach jump to his throat with every breath.
When they parted, they continued laying together, the tears drying and the exhaustion rolling over them. He wasn't sleepy, but he felt so slow and heavy. He wanted to rest, he needed to rest but if he closed his eyes, he knew that when he opened them again she'd be gone.
He wasn't ready for that. All he could do was stare at her, memorizing the curves of her face, the gentle slope of her cheeks, the ferocious light in her mischievous grin, the way her nose scrunched up when she was trying not to smile, or how she pretended nothing was wrong when she was clearly upset.
Levi didn't want to forget a thing.
"I love you so much, Elicia."
"Yeah I know you do… you keep saying it." She giggled and nudged his cheek with her's. "You're lucky I like that sort of thing."
"I love you too." She kissed him on the cheek, her fingers warm and gentle as they traced over his arms. "So, when you wake up… please do me a favor."
"Don't blame yourself for this, and don't let others blame you either. I knew what I was doing. I knew you couldn't stop them, and I didn't want to go… I'd rather die than use my powers for them, in the way they wanted me too…" She closed her eyes, and tears began to fall again, pouring down her cheeks until they were shiny and red. "I don't want to die Levi… but that's just how it happened… and I'm sorry I'm leaving you behind, but you can't come with me."
"Please." He pulled her close, squashing her against him, reliving the memory of her death all over again. "Don't do this."
"I have to… goodbye Levi." She kissed him on the forehead and then vanished into smoke.
Just like that, she was gone all over again… and his dream came to an end.
Levi opened his eyes.
He was in another dark room, but it was nothing compared to the nightmare he had just endured. Underneath him was a finely polished, tan wooden floor. Ahead of him, dominating his view, he saw a door, the tiny space underneath it providing him with a single light source.
He tried to move toward it instinctively, but chains wrapped tightly around his wrists were anchored to the floor and wall, yanking him back when he went too far.
"A holding cell…" he murmured to himself, "great… just great."
He sighed and pressed the back of his head against the wall behind him, relaxing against it as he listened to the slow pitter patter of rain outside. Like any town, they needed some sort of area to house the drunk idiots and the dangerous wife beaters, but they built it more like an actual room than the typical iron cell. Not too much crime happened here, so they made cells that could also be used for storage purposes, for efficiency.
"And here you are."
He blinked, and then looked toward the door. He felt like he had heard that voice before, but all he saw was shadow.
"Is someone there?"
"I have been for some time now." The voice replied, this time louder, closer. It was mature and feminine, breathy as if she was carrying her voice in her chest. "Did you know that you snore? Women don't enjoy men who snore. You should try and develop that habit later in life when they are already invested in you romantically."
Levi blinked, depressed, confused, and now oddly frustrated.
"If you're one of the guards." He slid his legs out, trying to get comfortable on the hard floor. "Can you bring me some water? I'm thirsty…"
"I bet you are." The woman said with an amused melody in her tone. "You were screaming your head off for a long while before the General knocked you out. Poor little thing. He beat the guts out of you."
He shrugged, not quite remembering much after Elicia's body went cold. Besides, if what she said was true, then why didn't he feel any pain? He had no aches and saw no visible bruises… he felt fine actually. At least his body did. Inside of him, where his heart was, Levi felt only pain. It was the strangest sort of pain too, it made his body feel heavy and sluggish, every breath hollow as if he was sucking in icy air.
It hurt so bad, and he didn't know how to handle it.
"I'm Sorry child." The woman changed her tone quite quickly, as if she had just realized she was being rude. "Truly, Levi. I am sorry… and it is because I am sorry that I'm here."
"Oh yeah?" He smirked, but there was no laughter in it. "Who are you?"
"That is a difficult question to answer like this. Look up please, because I tire of this whole avoiding me while we talk thing."
Confused, Levi looked up and there on the pale ceiling, framed by the thin light streaming in from the adjacent door, he could see the silhouette of a person, a shadow puppet projected onto a flat surface. It threw up a hand and waved down at him, before a glowing, crescent moon smile cracked abnormally wide across its paper-thin face. "Hello, friend."
The Shadow peeled itself off the ceiling and dropped down onto him, slamming a misty hand over his mouth to shush him.
"Stop screaming boy." She leaned in then, not removing her hand. "Stop screaming and listen to me. If you do, I promise I will release you and help you escape. Alright?"
He blinked, but ultimately nodded. The hand clasped around his face was chilly to the touch, like snow.
She pulled her hand back when he agreed, and the odd grin sank back into her inky body. Whatever she was, she was no longer flattened against the wall and had taken a more three-dimensional form. It was shapely like a curvy woman, but her fingers were tapered into elongated claws and she had no eyes or nose.
"You're going to help me escape?" He asked when he managed to control himself. "Are you… are you with the Soldiers?"
"A soldier? Maybe once or twice in my life. This time no, I am not. And a name? I've had many names over the years." She tapped a long, claw tipped finger against her chin. "Would you like to know my favorite?"
"The Shadow on the Wall."
"The Shadow on the Wall?"
"That's ridiculous." He raised a brow at her.
"What is ridiculous… is the current state of your being. Look at you! You're a defeated man. I've seen more life in a fungus than you. Now Tell me. If I help you, what is it you'll do next?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well. Think about it. You have nothing here anymore, and even if you did you can't stay here." She moved her body back as if she were about to take a seat, but before she could fall down and hit the floor, a chair made of pure black mist burst to life behind her, rising from the dark floor and catching her. "You'll be a wanted man for the rest of your life. Its not an easy life, not for a child anyway."
He looked down. Hearing the truth like that spoken aloud so boldly and so casually, it left him angry and, it left him lost.
"I don't know what I'll do." He murmured. There wasn't any Elicia to run to when he got out of here, no more lying beside her on the hills, no more goofing off while they walked around the market, no more cuddling in the cold and gasping for air in the heat.
Their life together, was over… and without her, he became painfully aware of how empty he was.
"Don't start crying again."
Levi glared. "I won't."
"Good! Because I can help you see her again. If you want."
"It's true." The Shadow crossed her legs as she got comfortable in her black chair, her face poised directly down at him. He imagined that if she had eyes, she'd be an intimidating person. "I came here to help you."
"Because of love." She whispered, "I've been watching you and her for a long time now, Levi. And in you both I see nothing but pure love. Seeing it taken away from you like that? It isn't fair."
He agreed, but taking help from Shadows was a little farfetched and unbelievable. Something about this didn't seem right, as a thief, he could smell a trap a mile away.
"How can I trust you?" He asked her. "What even are you?"
"Me? Well, see I'm…" she raised a hand and gestured to the sky, "I'm an experience. I'm something everyone wishes for but rarely ever gets. I'm bringing you a Gift Levi, a Gift that will make the impossible possible."
"A power. A power unlike anything you've ever seen before. And with it, you can see your beloved Elicia again."
Levi narrowed his eyes. "And why should I believe a single word you say?"
"Because other than giving up and dying. This is your only option." The shadowy woman giggled, seemingly taking some perverse delight in toying with him. "I figured you'd be desperate enough to take power from anyone, especially to get revenge."
He thought about that for a moment. Revenge sounded good. The General took everything away from him. The villagers didn't offer any help. This life of his had given him nothing and taken everything.
Why shouldn't he take revenge on it?
"Powers aren't given to people like this." He told her, trying to understand what she was getting at. "I mean… nobody has ever mentioned someone talking to them. They mention their powers just… appearing one day. Out of the blue."
"Like I said boy, I'm something beyond those cheap parlor tricks. I'm something that can take you through the wilds… to a place where Elicia is waiting."
"I…" He stared at this odd creature, "I don't understand."
"There is a place called Paradise." The Shadow whispered, her voice lost in a fog of nostalgia, her voice dripping in fondness. "Known to many as the Kingdom of Dreams, this place is an ancient land where dreams are given life. Anything you can dream of has a place there, a home… and you dreamed of her, have you not? Of your beloved Elicia?"
"Many times." He answered, still unsure what to believe. "But… that surely is just a lie. I mean, Paradise is just a stupid story."
"Most incredible things are. But what if this time it is real? I know it exists, and with me by your side, I can help you find it."
He grunted, averting her face by turning his head away.
"It is true, Levi. And even if it is not, what more do you have to lose? Your life? I know you're desperate, but you aren't stupid." She rose from her shadowy throne and approached him "You may not believe me now, and you may not believe me later. But spend some time with me and let me show you. Let me prove it to you. Let me help you reunite with her."
He stared up at her, wary but… hopeful.
"I've been lied to my whole life." He murmured, "I don't think I can handle one this big."
"It is no lie." She assured him again, "the Wilds is a place that defies imagination. You'd be surprised at what you'll find there."
He twitched, "How is she there? S-she died. Here in this town."
"She was given new life by the power of your dreams. Its magic really, and she is waiting for you there in Paradise, alongside all the other things your people dream up. It is a difficult place to reach yes, and once there, it is treacherous, so you will need strength if you want to make it. That is what I can provide you. Strength and guidance."
He looked down, considering her words.
The Shadow reached out and slid a finger along his chin, her touch slick and cold, freezing his skin.
"Of course. Love and Loss are the most powerful motivators in the universe, Levi. Now, will you let me help give those feelings strength? Or must I find another desperate, out of luck human to help?"
If he didn't take her up on her offer, he'd die anyway. So why not escape? Why not plunge into the Wilds chasing after someone who was gone? Who would care? Who would be waiting at home for him? Missing and worrying? Who on this whole planet even wanted him alive to begin with?
If there was even a small chance that Elicia was alive somewhere, he'd die trying to find it.
"I'll do it." He glared up at her, fire in his eyes. "Help me. Please."
"Of course, darling." She leaned down and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him in close until her misty, shadowy form began to thin out and fade. "Then I will skip the formalities for now, we can talk all you want later on."
"I didn't know we were being formal here."
"Ah." She breathed against his ear, chuckling. "You remind me so much of him…"
He was about to ask more, but before he could, a loud, thunderous wave of force exploded through him. It violently shook the floor boards, causing them to clatter and warp. If not for the anchored binds connecting him to the wall and floor, he'd have fallen over, but even those began to shake and twist, popping and bending out of place until they snapped free.
"W-what is this?" He asked, clutching his chest and gasping for air. It felt as though his blood was filling up with ice, while other parts of him boiled over with a ferocious heat, a scorching lance of molten agony that seared his nerves, leaving him thrashing on the floor.
"I-it hurts!" He cried out, no longer able to keep his voice low. "Ah! What have you done?!"
"It's okay." The Shadow whispered, lovingly, misty black fingers combing through his hair as if she were trying to soothe him. "Stop fighting it… let it all out so that my Gift can blossom. Think of everything that you've lost, cherish those memories, remember how important they are to you, and let it all flow out. Your love. Your hate. Your sorrow. All of it, recognize it, take hold of it, and burn everything to the ground."
He screamed, and all went black