I live in Transylvania, now.
The castle is large and hollow, with just me in it. There are whole wings and towers which have been closed off for years now, collecting dust. Sometimes I go for weeks without leaving my study. Sometimes a restless mood strikes me and I rise to wander the empty halls, looking for I know not what.
At times I feel the need to leave, and I go to the forest instead. I take on the form of something that pretends to be a wolf, rather than masking myself as a man, and I hunt under the trees. Sometimes I stay there only hours. Sometimes I go on four feet for months at a time.
Aiko is still the Maiden of the Midnight Court, the youngest Queen of the Unseelie Sidhe. I am still her champion. Those choices were made for good, and there can be no turning back on them. She spends much of her time on the Otherside, going about the work that her role demands. I don’t try to understand it anymore. The Courts are beyond my understanding. I’ve made my peace with that.
Every now and then she visits me in my castle. We make love, and eat, and talk about the way things are and the way things should be. I know she seeks her entertainment in other places much of the time these days. I don’t blame her. I can’t be what she needs anymore, and it would kill her to live the life I’ve chosen. We still love each other, as best we’re able, and that’s enough.
And then she goes back to her work, and leaves me to my empty castle, awaiting a visit that will come I know not when.
At times I do the work my role demands, as well. Not as often now as in those first years. My reputation precedes me. Sane people tend to fear the mad god who refused his title and cut himself off from the world. Those who thought they could manipulate me to use as a weapon learned otherwise in those first few years. Now Aiko seldom needs me to act against her opponents. The threat, the fear of me is enough.
I seldom have other visitors. Most of those I knew in my life before are gone now. Dead, or alive but disconnected. They moved on, and I cannot. The world has changed, in the years since I left it. I don’t have a place there anymore.
The locals, too, avoid me. My castle, and the forests around it, have gained a reputation as a place of darkness and death. Though it’s only relatively recently that I took up full-time residence here, a sort of folklore has already sprung up around the lonely castle on the hill, and the monster that calls it home. Aiko tells me the stories sometimes. Mostly they get it wrong.
That isn’t the only bit of legend that’s sprung up around me. In the ritual books of the new mages, those that entered into it after the world changed, there is an entry for me, the actions that will draw my attention and the sacrifices that might placate me when I arrive. I’m listed as an entity to summon only when absolutely necessary, and even then only with a great deal of care. I’m dangerous and volatile, according to the text, liable to lash out violently at any provocation and difficult to stop if I do.
I don’t know who created that ritual, but it does work, and every now and then someone does invoke it. I’ve thought about having Aiko look into the matter, but it doesn’t seem necessary. They aren’t wrong. And it does me good to get out on occasion. Sometimes, when I notice the ritual tugging at my attention, I follow. Sometimes I don’t.
Perhaps once a year Loki visits me. At first there was an edge of confrontation to it, an edge of tension. Now we’ve long since settled into a sort of comfortable disagreement, and his visits are more social than anything. He tells me of the world, the things that have happened since his last visit. I tell him about the small goings-on within my little piece of it. I think he appreciates the difference in scale.
He never asks me to take up the task I once declined, to accept the mantle of the wolf and become an unholy terror to his enemies. The offer is never spoken, but always there. Hunter is still out there; the things that live in the void are still out there. The work still needs done.
I never tell him I won’t do it. But every time he leaves alone.
I don’t sleep, haven’t slept in years and years. I don’t dream. But at times I remember, memories preserved as perfectly as a flower trapped in the ice, that cut deeper than a knife. I remember the man I was. I remember blood and fire. I remember death, so much death. I remember Snowflake. I remember Tyrfing. I remember holding the fate of worlds in my hands.
I remember me.
At times like that I sometimes think of going back. I think of taking up the sword again, and being that man again.
And then the moment passes, and the memory fades, and I go out to the forest to wash the memory away in blood and snow and moonlight. I know that I can’t go back. I can’t be the person I was. There are wounds too deep for healing, and there are things that can’t be undone.
I made my choice. I’m at peace with that.
In name I’m still the jarl of Colorado Springs. It’s been years since I set foot in the city. The work is done by Aiko, now. By Nóttolfr, who took over after Kyi left to seek her fortune elsewhere, on her own rather than as a follower. Selene, they tell me, is still there, and in truth she might as well be the jarl herself, these days.
I fill my time in other ways, now. I hunt when the mood takes me. I read a lot. I think a lot. I spend a great deal of time making things. These days I make things to please myself, rather than out of necessity; they’re works of art rather than weapons. Sometimes I spend days getting the color or the pattern of something just right. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to come to terms with what I’ve done, the blood on my hands. I’ve had some success.
It’s not a bad life, as such things go. It’s not how I would have seen myself ending up, but in some ways that’s not a bad thing.
In the evening I make myself a cup of tea, and I begin the long, slow climb up the tower. There’s no rush. There’s never any rush anymore, for me. No need to hurry when your days are empty anyway.
At the top, I sit on the parapet. I sip my tea, and I watch the sunset, and I pet the squirrels who come to eat the food I leave here. As the sun slips behind the mountains and the world fades to grey, I look down at the ground far below and I watch it be swallowed up by the shadows.
I think of jumping off, of the wind whistling past me as I plummet into darkness. I think of broken things. I remember that plain at the end of the world, and the infinite void that lay beyond it.
I remember Fenris’s blood on my hands.
And then I finish my tea, and night settles in to stay for a time, and I go back inside. I take the empty cup back to the kitchen and I wash it, and dry it, and put it back into the cupboard. I go to my study. There’s a book in German lying open on the desk, with a page of neatly written vocabulary notes next to it. There’s a half-finished poem not far away.
I ignore all that and walk to the bookshelf instead, tracing my fingers over the spines of the books. I linger over a photo album, but I don’t look inside. I don’t need to look to see the images in my mind’s eye, clear as day. The memories are all there, sharp and fresh. An echo of times gone by.
I remember what I did. The lives I took. The evil I did, in the name of a greater good. The sacrifices I made.
With the perspective offered by time and distance, I see that I was a monster back then. I’m a monster now, albeit a mostly retired one. I’ve made my peace with that, as well.
In the end, we can all be only what we are.