"My name is Robert. I live in Philadelphia, the first of my family born in the New World. We run a newspaper, and I love a woman who works for us. Her name is Abigail, and I think she loves me too . . . but she disappears one night without a word."
"My name is Niccolò. I'm an artist in Florence. It's 1497 . . . and there's this woman . . . this amazing woman. Her name is Bianca, but . . . she betrays me."
"My name is Andrew. I'm a priest in southern England. There's a woman named Cecily, but I can't allow myself to love her, not even when the plague takes me. . . ."
On and on it went, and with each step Hugh helped Seth take back, part of my heart broke. All of this was impossible. Seth couldn't have lived all these lives and times he was describing - and not just because of the obvious problems of life and death as we knew them. Seth wasn't just describing his lives.
He was describing mine.
I had lived every one of these lives that Seth described. I had been Suzette, Josephine, Abigail, Bianca, Cecily . . . They were all identities I'd assumed, people I'd become when Hell had transferred me to new places over the centuries. I would reinvent myself, take on a new name, appearance, and vocation. For every one of my identities Seth mentioned, I had lived a dozen more. But the ones he talked about . . . the ones he claimed to know as well, they were the ones that stuck out to me. Because although I'd had countless lovers, in countless places, there were a handful who had struck some part of my soul, a handful whom I had truly loved, despite the impossibility of our situations.
And Seth was touching upon every one of them, checking them off like items on a grocery list. Only, he wasn't just talking about these men I'd loved. He was talking about being them. Whereas I had created these lives, he was acting as though he'd been born into them, born as these lovers I'd had, only to die and be reborn again in some other place with me. . . .
It was impossible.
It was terrifying.
And eventually, it stopped.
"That's it," said Seth at last. "I can't go back further."
"You know you can," said Hugh. "You've done it before. Are you at the blackness again?"
"Yes . . . but it's different than before. It's not like the others. It's more solid. Harder to cross. Impossible to cross."
"Not impossible," said Hugh. "You've already proven that. Cross back to the next life."
The thing was, I was beginning to agree with Seth. I didn't think there was anything else he could go back to, not if he was paralleling my lives. I'd jumped ahead of him at one point and made some educated guesses on what he would say, and I'd been right each time. I knew how many great loves I'd had as a succubus, and there were none left. Before Seth, there had been eight.
"Push through," urged Hugh.
"I can't," said Seth. "They won't let me. I'm not supposed to remember."
"That life. The first life."
"It's part of the bargain. My bargain. No, wait. Not mine. Hers, I think. I'm not supposed to remember her. But how can I not?"
It was another of those rhetorical questions, and Hugh looked to Roman and me for help. The imp had been confident there for a while, once the lives began rolling off so easily, but this was something different. Seth wasn't making a lot of sense, not that this had all been particularly crystal clear so far. Roman made gestures that seemed to be both encouraging and impatient, with a general notion that Hugh should improvise.
"Who's this bargain with?" asked Hugh.
"I . . . I don't know. They're just there, waiting for me in the blackness. After the first life. I'm supposed to go on to the light, but I can't. There's something missing. I'm incomplete. My life has been incomplete . . . but I can't remember why. . . ." Seth furrowed his brow, straining with the effort of remembering. "I just know I can't move on. So they make a bargain."
"What's the bargain?"
"I can't remember."
"Yes, you can," said Hugh, surprisingly gentle. "You were just talking about it."
"I don't remember the details."
"You said it was about you being incomplete. Something was missing."
"No . . . someone. My soul mate." Seth's breathing, which had been so steady throughout all of this, grew a little shaky. "I'm supposed to go on with her, into the light. I can feel it. I wasn't supposed to live that life alone. I wasn't supposed to go to the light afterward alone. But she's not there. She's not anywhere I can get to now. They say they'll give me a chance to find her, a chance to find her and remember. They say I can have ten lives to be with her again but that one is used up. Then I have to go with them forever."
"This life that you can't remember," prompted Hugh. "You said it's your first life, right? The one that's on the other side of this, uh, extra thick wall of blackness? The life they say you've already used?"
"Yes," said Seth. "That's the first. The one I'm supposed to forget."
"You can remember it," said Hugh. "You're already remembering parts of it, things you aren't supposed to. Go to the other side of the blackness, before the bargain, before your death. What do you remember?"
"Do you remember a woman? Think about the bargain. The soul mate. Can you remember her?"
Seth's silence stretched into eternity. "I . . . yes. Kind of. I feel her absence, though I don't understand it at the time."
"Have you made it back yet?" asked Hugh. "To the first life?"
"What is your name?"
"Do you know where you are? Where you live?"
"I live south of Pafos."
The name meant nothing to Hugh, but it meant everything to me. I began to slowly shake my head, and Roman gripped hold of my arm again. I'm not sure what he was afraid I'd do. It seemed to be an all-purpose attempt to keep me from interrupting the nightmare unfolding before me, either with word or movement. He needn't have worried. The rest of me was frozen.
"Do you know the year?" asked Hugh.
"No," said Seth.
"What do you do?" Hugh asked. "What's your job?"
"I'm a musician. Unofficially. Mostly I work for my father. He's a merchant."
"Is there a woman in your life?"
" No. "
"You just said there was. Your soul mate."
Seth considered. "Yes . . . but she's not there. She was, and then she wasn't."
"If she was, then you must be able to remember her. What's her name?"
He shook his head. "I can't. I'm not supposed to remember her."
"But you can. You're already doing it. Tell me about her."
"I don't remember," said Seth, the faintest touch of frustration in his voice. "I can't."
Hugh tried a new tactic. "How do you feel? How do you feel when you think of her?"
"I feel . . . wonderful. Complete. Happier than I ever believed possible. And yet . . . at the same time, I feel despair. I feel horrible. I want to die."
"Why? Why do you feel both happiness and despair?"
"I don't know," said Seth. "I don't remember."
"You do. You can remember."
"Roman," I breathed, finding my voice at last. "Make this stop."
He only shook his head, eyes riveted on Seth. Roman's entire body was filled with tension and eagerness, anxiously straining forward for the last pieces of info to fill out the theory he'd put together.
"She . . . I loved her. She was my world. But she betrayed me. She betrayed me and tore my heart out."
"Her name," said Hugh, catching some of Roman's excitement. "What was her name?"
"I can't remember," said Seth, shifting uncomfortably. "It's too terrible. They made me forget. I want to forget."
"But you didn't," said Roman, suddenly standing up. "You didn't forget it. What is it? What is the woman's name?"
Seth's eyes flew open, either because of his own inner turmoil or from Roman breaking the trance. Either way, the calm state of relaxation was gone. Raw emotions played over Seth's features: shock, sorrow, hate. And as he gazed around and reoriented himself to his surroundings, his eyes - and all of those dark, terrible feelings - focused on me.