“I was a good man. No…more accurately, I still am a good man. I never stopped being a good man.
But I sure as hell will never be the same man I was before.
It all began on a sunny day. I was born at noon twenty years ago, under a clear blue sky. I have no way of verifying if this is true, but my mom used to say to me that I cried so loud the entire ward of babies screamed with me, driving the nurses nuts. I wonder if I ever met any of those born in the same hospital on the same day again later on in life—at any point in life, really. I don’t think so, since it should be pretty easy to tell if you meet a kid born on the same day, right? That shouldn’t be hard to recognize if you actually run into them somehow.
Well, I didn’t.
Anyway, I digress. As I was saying, I was born the loudest baby in the ward—my mom’s words, not mine. She decided to name me Conal. Her plan, she claims, was to raise me as a sweet gentleman…wait, no. A smart gentleman, apparently. I don’t really see the difference. A gentleman is a gentleman, right?
In any case, that doesn’t matter now—for a gentleman I was not. At age two, I was just walking around when I saw something extra sparkly in the fireplace. For reasons I still can’t figure out, I reached into the fire and tried to grab it.
This is the part where I get burned and bawl like the toddler I was…except I didn’t. I actually did grab something. This part I remember well, even though it was such a long time ago: from the fire, I got a glowing speck at the center of my palm. It didn’t hurt at all to put my hand in the fire, and at first, it didn’t hurt to hold that speck either. Mesmerized by that glow, I stared at it until I finally noticed that it was growing into my hand, becoming a splinter. Yeah, I only noticed because the splinter was starting to hurt. Now this was the part I cried. Mom came a minute later and asked me what was wrong. I showed her my hand—but by that time, the “splinter” was already gone, buried deep beneath my skin.
From that day on, fire became a friend of mine. I could cup a flame in my hands, I could throw it—yes, yes, I found that out by almost burning the house down—and eventually, I could produce it. With her scarred hands over mine, my mom warned me again and again not to let anybody know.
Did I tell you I have a twin brother? No? Well, I do. His name is Wyatt, and he, too, was born on a bright sunny day under the clear blue sky twenty years ago. My mom used to say that maybe because of how loud I was, Wyatt ended up being the exact opposite of me: I loved to just run around, explore the world, play with this and that; he just stays put. If it was possible, I bet he’d never even go to school. When I was reaching into the fire that day, I think he was just sitting somewhere behind me curled up on the couch. He probably rolled his eyes at me, but I don’t have eyes at the back of my head anyway.
We grew up watching a lot of superhero movies. We watched the same movies, we played the same games…and you know, all of that was after I got this power. I remember there was this video game with lots of characters. One of them was entirely made of ice and another was entirely made of fire. Every time we played, I picked the fire one and Wyatt picked the ice one. We both wanted to know who’d die first if we both attacked each other at the same time. Every single time, he turned me into an ice cube before I could kill him. I don’t know, maybe ice really does overpower fire—but hey, I’m not giving in. I’d just try again every time.
No, that’s not stupid. It’s called having perseverance.
I digress. Where was I going with this? Uh…oh, right. We watched a lot of superhero movies. With my power, I always wanted to become one myself someday and save the world from whatever nemeses I might meet. A typical dream, I think, for a kid to have.
So there was this time—one of many—when I was talking about that at school with my friend Zusa. Zusa is cool. She has crazy black hair but really green eyes. Her hair was always just…wild. I don’t know how else to describe it, it was just wild. Hell, she was wild. Back when we were just six, she was already playing with the guys instead of the girls—but it’s not like the girls didn’t like her, she just liked guy stuff more for some reason. Anyway, that doesn’t really matter, we’re all friends. Zusa has the heartiest laugh. Her laugh would always stick out among us because she had a higher voice anyhow, and every time she laughed, everyone near us would look to see what’s funny. Sometimes, there was nothing funny. Sometimes, even I didn’t know what she was laughing about.
At us, maybe.
Anyway, I was talking with Zusa, and I was telling her about my superhero dream. She laughed, as per usual, and she was saying, ‘Nice, I’m gonna give you a call and you’re gonna save me from a burning house, right?’ Of course I said yes. My clothes might burn away but I can certainly save someone from a burning anything.
Give me a second. My memory’s a little fuzzy. We were kids, I was talking about my superhero dream with Zusa, and…ah, right! Then this mean girl walking by just said, ‘You can’t be a hero without a villain to fight.’ She said that in a really dead tone, like she was very unimpressed with my heroism. Like heroes was the one thing she hated most with her entire being. ‘Without a villain, you’re just any pea-brained boy,’ she said to me.
You can imagine how that pissed me off. This is the part where I shoot fire from my hands and hurt an innocent kid, get scolded, maybe locked up, experimented on…and come out a stronger but more careful man. Except, no, wrong again. Gosh darn it.
I did shoot fire from my hands to show her I could. Instead of getting hurt, though, she shot friggin’ ice beams at me. With one hand! One! Her ice swallowed up my fire and even started to cover my fingertips. Only when I yelled ‘Stop!’ did she withdraw.
We called her Ro, but I think her name is…yeah, give me a moment here, her name is really hard.
Hrodohaidis. That was her name.
And she looked just like Snow White—the one in Disney. Except she glared all the time and rarely ever smiled.
The day Ro told me I needed a villain to be a hero was the day she kind of became my villain. For absolutely no reason, she’d try to frame me for all sorts of things to get me into trouble—cheating, fighting, stealing…okay, I did fight sometimes but I definitely didn’t steal or cheat. My grade was always a glorious and solid C-. She didn’t hit me with her ice unless we were completely alone though, and I tried to fight back every time but she’d freeze the room and make me surrender that way. It’s no fair—after freezing something, it simply melts into water. If I burn something, it’s just gone.
We grew up and we graduated. I barely passed everything but I did pass. I got older but never gave up on my dream—I will say this again: it’s not being stupid, it’s called having perseverance. As we got older, Zusa was pretty much the same girl she’d been her whole life, and Ro got more…Snow White-like, if that makes sense. She’s pretty but she’s cold, and most of my friends would always steal a glance at her when she walked by but never longer than a second and they avoided talking to her as best they could. I think part of that was because they remembered her almost freezing me that one time.
We still fought every so often, and we only did so when nobody was looking—but, though being classmates, I think she really was trying to kill me a few times. That hatred in her eyes is unmistakable. I haven’t got the brightest mind, but even I can’t have misread that. At least once every brawl, she’d go straight for my heart. My panic helped me melt her ice sword right in time, but those attempts were very real. While I strived to be a hero, I had a feeling she strived to be a villain—and she was doing a damn good job. You know how heroes and villains have a few different phases in their character development? Usually, the hero loses some things, gets thrown into some situations, and then he grows up and saves the world, everybody’s proud of him. The villain has a grand ambition, a great brain, and everything goes well for him until the last minute when that meets the timing of the hero’s awakening.
…well, Ro’s doing a damn good job, and I’m not really catching up to the plot. At this rate, the story might actually end with her victory—that’s what I was thinking when I dropped everything and went looking for a way to grow stronger. It’s not an absolute rule of nature that fire can never beat ice, right? Ice does melt, I was just not strong enough. Or maybe my resolve wasn’t enough in comparison to her anger, whatever it is she’s peeved about. So…I looked, and I looked, and…fell into this place.
Sorry about that, it must have been a really long story, but…how long have I been here again?”
The brown-haired young man finally paused, finishing his tale. His bright blue eyes looked into the other man’s eyes, lively but obviously lost. The other man had crinkles around the corners of his gentle gray eyes, a hood over his head, and he was sitting in what seemed to be nothingness.
“Roughly an hour in our time, Conal,” said the older man, “But it will have been a year on Earth.”
“A year?!” Conal exclaimed.
The two were surrounded by a galaxy made of splashes of color. They seemed to be floating without the constraint of gravity, yet they were sitting—or standing, in Conal’s case—without issue. As Conal gazed into the endless galaxy of nothingness, a small space in front of him showed his world as it was: Wyatt seated on the couch with his eyes glued to the TV screen, his mother in the kitchen cutting a chicken open, Zusa playing basketball with her friends in college.
Slowly, Conal shook his head in disbelief.
“I’ve been watching this thing the entire time I’m here, and no one is looking for me. Not even my mom. I’m a good man—I’ve been a good man. Where did I go wrong? Why is nobody missing me?”
The older man did not give any reply, although his gaze indicated that he was listening.
But then again, he, too, had nothing else to do.
“I found my way here when I punched a hole through some cave. I don’t know how this works.”
“You penetrated a vulnerable wall between the physical and spiritual realms. Normally, your soul alone would pass through, leaving your body on Earth. However, as I see it, you could not separate from your body and came in one piece. Now, you are simply completely missing in your home realm,” the man explained calmly, as if he had already done so a thousand times before. “Your soul and body are one.”
“Is…that a good thing? A bad thing? I’m not getting it.”
Again, the older man did not reply.
“Does that mean there’s no clue where I even went?” Conal pressed.
“I have not been on Earth for many human years,” said the gray-eyed man. “That is a finding I cannot make.”
“Hm…you know, I never did meet my dad. I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead. Mom would never say anything about him either. Maybe my powers, everything up to n—AAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHH!”
Before he could finish, the space Conal had been staring at and watching for the past hour suddenly cracked. A spiral of color replaced the scenes he had been watching, and then an all-too-familiar blade of ice broke through. The blade split into two and then four, spreading like flower petals and surging upward until they reached Conal. In one swift movement, the ice pulled him downward through the crack through which they had pierced in the first place.
Mid-scream, Conal stopped—his voice suddenly started to echo. That was when he realized he was back in the cave he had been just before punching through a wall he knew nothing about.
A pair of cold brown eyes looked right into his, clearly able to see right through him. It was none other than Hrodohaidis, with a pure white, feathery scarf draped loosely around her shoulders. Her arms were crossed and she herself stood a few feet away from him, though her ice had covered all of the space between them. Like vines, the ice was still curled around him. In his shock, Conal did not yet struggle.
“You never saw your father because he abandoned your mother the moment he found out she was pregnant with twins,” Hrodohaidis continued, “Your brother isn’t looking for you because he was never sure if you really meant the things you said or if you were delusional and a good riddance. Your mother isn’t looking for you because you’re a grown-ass man and she trusts that you’re able to take care of yourself, that you’re probably adventuring somewhere, possibly losing your way but your fire will keep you warm. Zusa isn’t looking because you, Conal, are a clown and she doesn’t actually give a damn, much like your friends.”
Her words penetrated the walls of his mind like her ice had penetrated the wall in her stead. For once, Conal’s mind quieted down just a little.
“Wait…” He spread flames onto her ice. This time, Hrodohaidis let him melt it enough to be free of her restraints on him. He didn’t try to melt anything more after getting to his feet, and she didn’t attack him either. “This is the most you’ve said to me all our lives, first of all. And second…how do you know all this?”
“I looked for you, obviously.”
“No, I mean…yes, but why?”
“You can’t be a hero without a villain. My victory ends when I personally end you.”
“Why do you try to be my villain though? All of this is…”
A cold chuckle left Hrodohaidis’s lips.
“Delusional?” she guessed.
“What have you saved? All of this is child’s play. A thousand times I could have killed you easily and you never acknowledged defeat.” Leaving these words behind, Hrodohaidis began to make her way out of the cave, sliding her way out by forming paths of ice beneath her feet along the way. “If this is not enough…”
“Ro, wait.” Conal followed the path she had created, having figured that was the most efficient path anyhow. “I was telling the old man my story earlier, and—”
“You have no story, only delusions.”
“Listen to me first, Ro—”
“You are always talking.”
“What if I…” He halted, his mouth hanging open in hesitation.
Perhaps sensing a change in the atmosphere, Hrodohaidis skid to a halt as well, turning back to look at him.
“What if I try to just…live like a normal person, actually make some friends…”
“Disappointing.” She turned back around.
Hrodohaidis sighed. “Get out of that cave first.”
“You don’t know a thing about yourself, and you don’t know a thing about your power. You wanted to be a hero but didn’t even know what for. If you went on like that, you’d just die to some force someday anyway—why not use you as my training dummy?” Hrodohaidis confessed, seated on the sand later that evening. As she spoke, she looked up at the stars, refusing to meet Conal’s gaze.
“Well…yeah, that’s true. Were you serious about killing me all those times?” Conal asked.
“No,” she said, “I have no right to take another’s life—but I was and am prepared to do anything and everything except killing you. If you don’t even survive me, you won’t survive the life of a ‘hero’ anyway.”
“You’re talking like you know what’s out there.”
“I don’t, but I don’t believe we got these powers out of pure coincidence. I don’t believe we’re the only ones, and I don’t believe everyone else who has any sort of power is guaranteed to be up to nothing but good.”
“I think I know what you mean now.”
“Good for you, because I would have gauged your eyes out or something eventually if you didn’t.”
“Absolutely anything except actually killing.”
“That’s…even worse, you know.”
“Unlike you, I never claimed to be good.”
Surely a trip to the otherworld and seeing that nobody but his villain looked for him in his absence ended up changing Conal’s mind about…some things. He stretched and lay on the sand, not caring that it would take a long time to wash up later on.
“I’m gonna stop too—I’ll still try though,” he said.
Then, for the first time in two decades, Hrodohaidis smiled—up at the vast night sky.
~ fin ~
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