Embers glowed a feeble maroon, exuding a bitter taint amid the fir and pine twigs, tossed onto the dying campfire. The needles crackled when the fire licked the green. A man and a woman enjoyed the interplay of shadows and smoke. The forest crowded around them, cocooned them.
Jane lifted her eyes from her firegazing to watch her friend. Rob was transfixed by the dying fire.
He muttered, "Twilight lady."
He spoke it so softly that Jane wasn’t sure she had heard it, that it wasn’t a tongue of flame crackling against the pine. "Robert?"
He stared into her brown eyes then, admired the shadow forged silhouette of her strong nose, soft chin, slender arms. Robert moved his arm, touched her cheek with an outstretched index finger. "Twilight lady."
Jane smiled, somewhat nervously. "You’re very romantic tonight, Rob. I thought we’d agreed to be just friends, friends forever, until the end of time. Wasn’t that what you said?"
"Mmm." Rob nodded. He softly laughed. "Sorry. Didn’t mean to confuse you. I still mean it. Alpha through omega, we’ve always been there for each other, haven’t we? But I wasn’t calling you. I was calling her."
He was gazing over the fire, had been gazing over the fire all this time, Jane realized. She tried to see what he saw, but nothing was there, save scrub and pines, the chirrup of crickets, and the occasional spark that jumped from the fire into Rob’s line of sight. Jane frowned and said, "This mountain makes you imagine things. I thought we finished the ghost stories hours ago. Besides, who could be on my property? It’s fenced in."
Rob clutched her hand. "Don’t worry about it. She comes and goes where she pleases. I can’t see her anymore." Rob stood and scooped dirt onto the fire with the side of his boot, smothering the ash mottled red coals. "It’s warm enough. We don’t need a fire while we sleep. C’mon, let’s turn in."
Jane wanted to talk, but she knew Rob too well. A constant daydreamer, it was hard for him to talk, to relate. Jane gazed at her companion. Rob was always off on another world, his world, a very solemn place. In the weak light he seemed like a statue that moved, firm, assured with a quiet and unchanging solitude that her friendship could never wholly pierce.
Rob had been right. It was a warm night and Jane had difficulty sleeping. She turned and saw Rob’s sleeping bag, empty. He was probably relieving himself. She waited. Minute. Five minutes. Ten. "Rob? Rob? Where are you?"
Jane crawled from her sleeping bag, stood, and searched for her friend. A gentle light gleamed in the darkness between the low branches of the pines. She hesitated, not knowing why she was afraid, other than the loneliness, the darkness. Rob might need her. He could have fallen. She crept toward the light as quietly as she could.
Hearing his voice, Jane sighed with relief.
But her sigh caught in her throat. Rob was talking to a stranger. A feminine voice, deep and smooth, answered him, "You were almost too late, Robert. I had to wait for you and twilight has almost passed over the enemy’s demesne."
"I couldn’t risk Jane. She’s innocent; she doesn’t know magic. I want her to stay that way. I’ve had too many friends die over the centuries."
"Was not the loss worth the gain, Robert?"
Jane listened; curiosity compelled her to creep closer, to bend a pine branch quietly to the side until she could see the woman. Tall she was, almost seven feet. Her silk dress was white. A tiara, silver with a single large diamond in its center, sparkled on her brow. The lady shined, a soft, somber light that illumined only the air around her.
Robert was tense. Jane could see it in the way he shrugged his shoulders and turned his head to the side. Robert replied, "Yes, yes. But that doesn’t stop the pain. I don’t want anything to happen to Jane. I’d stop caring altogether then."
"You cared for me once." The lady murmured.
"That was before, when I was young. We are not the same now. You chose to be a creature of magic, while I am just a man."
She frowned and the light around her brightened. She stared hard at Robert, but he kept his head down and to the side. Then, she said, "We must hurry. Our latest adversary has begun his spell. I feel it. Jane must come with us."
Patiently, Robert explained, "Haven’t you been listening to me? I don’t want to involve her. It’s too dangerous. It always is. Anyway, why would we need her? She knows no magic; you’re the lady in twilight; I’m the magician. How could she possibly help?"
The lady sighed; her frown turned to sadness. The crickets stopped their chirruping. She said, "You speak, yet do not hear yourself. Your new friend knows no magic. Enough." The twilight lady raised her arm; her silk dress had long cuffs that billowed in the breeze. Her slender finger pointed behind Robert. "It is too late, Robert. I have allowed her to see me."
Robert twirled. Surprised, Jane stood. Robert shouted, "Jane, run! Run away!"
Jane stepped beyond the pines and joined Robert in the small clearing. "What happened to alpha through omega, Rob? I want to help."
The twilight lady smiled. Her blue eyes watered as she looked on Jane. In the soft light and slow turn of her head, the lady’s face shifted differently each moment: grey haired, cherubic, masculine, gaunt. Jane stepped closer, not trusting her eyes.
The lady said, "Robert chose well." She raised her hand to Jane’s cheek and pulled a tear from her eye.
Robert watched her begin the spell, resigned to Jane’s company, fearing–expecting the worst. The tear glistened like a diamond, surrounded by the soft light of the lady’s radiance. She held it pinched between her thumb and finger. Putting the tear to her tongue, she tasted the salt of Jane’s flesh, remembered the metered rhythms at the end of the seasons, youth releasing its hold on childhood, the coming of the grey, and Venus, the first bright star on twilight’s horizon.
Jane trembled. Her eyes stung. A hot breeze blew sand in her face. It was no longer night, no longer the mountains. The sun was setting beyond a flat horizon. She heard Rob to her left: "You’ve got to be wrong. It can’t be him. He’d never try to rule nature. I’ve known him for decades; we studied cabalas together."
Jane said, "Rob, we’re in a desert."
The lady spoke to Rob, "Have you known me to be wrong, throughout our time together? And I feel the change, the nexus of the change, is here, stronger than I have ever felt any petty magician before this one. He lusts after the change, hungers to bring in the night. Robert, I am afraid."
Jane said, "Rob, we’re in a desert. Where are the mountains? Where’s my house?"
Rob said, "You’re afraid, Twilight? I’m glad to hear it. You’ve got good reason. That’s Erich Cassavettes’ house."
Jane raised her voice, "Wait one second. This isn’t supposed to happen. It can’t happen. You can’t be in the mountains one moment and in a desert the next. Rob, what’s going on?"
Rob was staring at a mound, jutting up from the flat desert. The walls were made of tires packed with adobe, and solar panels covered the roof. A wooden cross, freshly painted white, had been pounded into the ground next to the house. Its long shadow pointed toward Rob.
Rob said, "If Erich–"
Jane grabbed him by his shirt collar, pulled him to her, and gritted her teeth. "Listen: What is going on? How did we get here?"
Rob’s eyes ballooned. Jane had a fierce temper; he hated it when she was angry with him, never understood her quick temper. Her breath was sour–She was queasy, Rob guessed. Travelling with Twilight could do that, could upset your sense of balance. He put his hands over hers where they clutched at his shirt. He kept them there, patiently massaging, relaxing, comforting.
Jane let go.
Rob said, "I’m sorry, Jane. There hasn’t been time to warn you."
Twilight interrupted, "True. Night is coming."
Rob craned his neck upward to look at her. "I know. I know. But Jane deserves some answers."
Twilight did not stir or reply, but with her dark blue eyes she watched Jane as Robert spoke to his friend, "Jane, we’re here because of magic, her magic." He pointed at the lady. "She comes to me. I have magic, too. But it’s different. I’ve learned how to use magic; she is magic, a part of Earth."
In his mind Robert heard the twilight lady. You lie about yourself too easily.
Robert gritted his teeth. She doesn’t understand. It’s too much, too soon for her. I can’t destroy her image of me.
You underestimate her.
Robert kept his eyes fixed on Jane as he spoke, "Jane, she comes for my help. She senses great change, any great change. There are certain magicians who don’t like the idea of natural selection, unthinking environment, survival of the fittest. Some think they can do a better job of it if they controlled nature. Certain rites, mystic rites, can give a magician control over an area of land: the more puissant the magician, the greater amount of land he can control. If it’s large enough to attract the twilight lady’s attention, she comes to me for help. Magic’s strange stuff. It can unsettle the mind, so the lady and I think that things would be better if left to the natural way. Do you understand, Jane?"
Her eyes were glassy, but Rob could see the wheels turning. She blinked and her will was again in her gaze. She nodded. "Ok, ok, ok . . . No, it’s not. I’ll accept what you’re saying. I’ve got to. I’ve just been part of it, but you’ve got to tell me what we’re supposed to do. I can help."
The lady said, "She speaks truth. Her ignorance makes her invisible to the magician. Can you not feel it, Robert?"
Robert looked toward Cassavettes’ house again, but this time he opened his heart, loosed his magic to see what spell Erich was weaving. His skin tingled; his heart thumped. Pain, rage, grief warded the house, assailed his empathy. "Uh," Roberts gasped. "I see what you mean. God, Erich must be eating himself alive in the middle of that."
Twilight replied, "It is his home; he is comfortable with the wards he has forged from his thoughts. Any other mortal magician’s heart would burst long before reaching the door. Jane is not a magician; she will not feel what Erich projects to keep others at bay."
Jane had been listening closely. "A two pronged attack? Magical and physical?"
Roberts nodded. He could not dismiss Erich’s pain wards. A sweat broke out on his face. He had trouble keeping the pain out of his voice, "Yes, yes, you’re both right. I–I agree. Come on. I want this over with as fast as possible, one way or the other."
The three began walking toward the house of Erich Cassavettes. Tears streamed down Rob’s face; his breath caught in his throat; his nose ran. He gulped air and concentrated upon putting one foot ahead of the other. Erich’s madness and magic infused the air and grew thicker, heavier with each step Rob took toward the magician’s home. The intimacy of Erich’s spell made it difficult for Rob: He couldn’t distinguish himself from these new, terribly bright feelings. Erich’s wards hurt him, but at the same instant he savored this pain. Next to Erich’s pain, Rob felt as if he had only been pretending to live over the last centuries.
Jane saw him cry. She hugged him. Rob clutched at her tightly, hungrily to no avail and he sobbed, unable to continue.
Jane looked up at the twilight lady. "We can’t go on. You said that a magician’s heart would burst. I can feel Rob’s heart against my chest. It’s racing. We have to stop. He’ll die."
A silhouette appeared at the recessed doorway of Erich Cassavettes’ house.
The lady said, "He will not die. Robert cannot–"
"No!" Rob screamed and pushed Jane roughly to the sand. He clenched his teeth and whirled to face the twilight lady. "Shut up! I’m not like you; I’m human!"
The silhouette left the doorway and entered the fading light as a man, garbed only in ripped jeans. Bare feet jogged over the sands toward them.
Twilight was riveted on Robert. "No. You are immortal; you never know death, never know change. I am herald to change; I know. Erich’s passions rip at you, for you have not tasted such for millennia; shadows are never sweet enough. The endless years have drained you of color long ago, jaded man."
"Arrh!" Rob screamed and lunged toward Twilight. He ripped her tiara from her brow. The shining silver pained him, burned him.
The glow of the twilight lady faded.
Night descended on the desert. The moon appeared, changing everything to dim shadows. Jane shivered, engulfed by a cold wind.
Erich had joined them. His hair was scraggly and long, grey with streaks of red. Angry bloodshot eyes contrasted a calm, slow grin as he said, "Welcome to my desert, Twilight, Robert. I am pleased to see how pleasantly the crisp desert air affects your dispositions."
Rob moaned, howled, but would not let go of the burning tiara.
The twilight lady said, "Erich, make him return what is mine. I am stranded without the star."
Erich laughed, quietly. "Yes, you do have a problem. It seems that Robert doesn’t like himself very much anymore." He snorted. "Perhaps he just doesn’t like me, eh? Doesn’t like what I’ve been forced to endure, watching all this madness, birth and death and–and–and–all of it, spinning around and around and around."
Robert howled, deep and powerful.
Erich half-smiled. "See? I do think he agrees with me. Yes, it’s time for a change, my change for the world, not the petty season turning you oversee."
Jane pulled and tugged at the tiara, but Rob held it fast against his bosom as he gulped air to howl again.
"Anything." The lady said. Her shoulders sagged; her breathing labored.
Erich smiled broadly, leaned closely toward the lady’s face. Twilight collapsed upon the sands. Erich whispered to her, "Do you understand? No more winters, no more deaths, no more autumns, no more endings. Forever springtime, bright and beautiful, fresh and young." Erich put his hand to Twilight’s throat, softly leaving the threat of violence.
Twilight looked into Erich’s eyes with suddenly hoarfrost eyes, reflecting his pale visage to him. She said, "Then what of you Erich? What of you? You are old, like jaded Robert. You have lived too long; there will be no place for you in your new world."
Erich grinned and tightened his grip. "I’ll make the sacrifice."
Life bloomed in the desert: Grasses, rainbows of flowers, cypress trees pushed their way up through the sand, rustling and groaning in their haste. Vines encircled the trees, wound through the grasses, covered the foliage.
Erich dropped his hand from the lady’s throat; she was emaciated, eyes sunken. She fell onto the new grass. Erich stood and murmured, "Beautiful, beautiful. New and tender. Oh, I feel so much, so alive." He wept.
Robert whimpered and growled as he banged the tiara against his knee.
Erich put his hand on Rob’s shoulder, "Yes, you feel it, don’t you? My change is new; my anguish sings to your old soul, yes?"
Vines wound around Jane’s ankles, crawled over her jeans. She pulled at the vines, but they did not relent. Erich noticed her for the first time and smiled at her struggles saying, "See, Twilight? My world is stronger than the old. Life courses through it. We need only endure one last death, the death of the old changing world; then, all will be new."
The vines wound about her neck. Jane cried, "Ro–" as her air was choked from her throat.
Robert rocked back and forth, sitting on the new grass, clutching the tiara that seared itself into his mind. He mumbled, "Twilight change, ever new."
Erich shouted, "Yes, yes, I knew you were with me, Robert! I knew it! We’ve both seen too much, you immortal and I so wise."
Jane’s struggles grew feeble. Rob stared dully at her as he rocked and mumbled; he could barely see her. The vines had smothered her from sight. Soon, she would be wholly gone, like the others throughout the centuries, the ones he had at first loved, then cared for, then merely acted as if he cared. Jane was the last. The quiet in the woods had been sweet; he had felt her.
Rob screamed, "Take it back! I can’t; it’s not mine. I don’t need it. I’m not stone, not yet; I care." He flung the tiara toward Twilight.
It rolled on the grass before a vine caught it, wound around it. Twilight languidly reached for it. The vine lifted into the air and carried the silvery tiara from her grasp, toward Erich.
Rob ignored everything, save Jane. He pulled at the coarse, prickly vines, tugged, but he was only slightly stronger than Jane and she had stopped struggling. Rob fell to his knees and clawed at the constricting green. "No, no, no, no."
Erich clicked his tongue in pity, looking upon Robert’s foolhardiness. Like a humble servant, the vine held the tiara in front of the desert’s new master. Erich nodded, glancing to see if the lady was watching him. The vine wound around his chest and behind his head to place the tiara snugly on his brow.
The tiara shimmered, breaking the dull moonlight with a flickering silver, shifting shadows across Erich’s face.
Erich sucked air, his mouth agape. Then, he began to scream, "It burns; it burns! So much light! I’m blinded. So much dark. I’m cold. Twilight!" Erich collapsed upon the ground while still grasping the glowing tiara.
The vines stopped their unnatural growth. Rob pulled the now limp weeds from Jane’s face. Bending to her, he touched his lips against hers and breathed into her mouth an immortal breath.
Jane coughed, pushed herself off the ground, and tore the vines from her body. She stood there, looked at Rob, who was smiling stupidly at her. She had never seen him so excited, so open. Ripping the last of the vines from her waist, Jane said, "Geez, Rob, farmers’d pay us a fortune for this."
He laughed and looked a little better for it.
"The tiara," Rob said, "You have to give it back to her. I can’t touch it. It doesn’t belong with immortality."
Jane walked over to Erich. The magician was unconscious. She touched the tiara, pulled it from his brow. Erich smiled and lolled his head onto the grass. The silver was warm and cold to her touch, but not painful. It flexed in her hands, as if the metal sloshed around her skin, changed its shape to her pulse. Even the facets of the diamond glittered and danced in the weak moonlight.
Jane shuddered when she saw Twilight, thin as if she were starving. But her breathing, though shallow, was even. Jane placed the tiara on Twilight’s brow. Twilight smiled, though the shadows played with the curves of her lips as her somber glow returned to her. She stood over Erich, who was sleeping on the ground. The magician’s face was smooth, and he snored as he slept.
Jane followed her. "There oughta be a prison for guys like him."
"No." Twilight and Robert said in unison.
"What’s to stop him from doing it again?" Jane demanded.
Twilight reached out an index finger and lightly touched Jane’s eye, drawing out a tear as she said, "He has touched me and twilight always heralds a change."
Robert smiled and clasped Jane’s hand. "C’mon, let’s forget this ever happened; let’s pretend that nothing ever changes, that we’re still camping in the mountains, together."
Jane patted his hand. "Alpha through omega, right?"
Twilight tasted the mortal tear, silvered in the glow of her tiara, and she thought of tall pines, ashes from a cold fire, and two empty sleeping bags, soon to be filled.