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“Am I to hear any more stories?” asked little Hjalmar, as soon as Ole-Luk-Oie had sent him to sleep.

“We shall have no time this evening,” said he, spreading out his prettiest umbrella over the child. “Look at these Chinese people.” And then the whole umbrella appeared like a large china bowl, with blue trees and pointed bridges upon which stood little Chinamen nodding their heads.

“We must make all the world beautiful for to-morrow morning,” said Ole-Luk-Oie, “for it will be a holiday; it is Sunday. I must now go to the church steeple and see if the little sprites who live there have polished the bells so that they may sound sweetly; then I must go into the fields and see if the wind has blown the dust from the grass and the leaves; and the most difficult task of all which I have to do is to take down all the stars and brighten them up. I have to number them first before I put them in my apron, and also to number the places from which I take them, so that they may go back into the right holes, or else[165] they would not remain and we should have a number of falling stars, for they would all tumble down one after another.”

“Hark ye, Mr. Luk-Oie!” said an old portrait which hung on the wall of Hjalmar’s bedroom. “Do you know me? I am Hjalmar’s great-grandfather. I thank you for telling the boy stories, but you must not confuse his ideas. The stars cannot be taken down from the sky and polished; they are spheres like our earth, which is a good thing for them.”

“Thank you, old great-grandfather,” said Ole-Luk-Oie. “I thank you. You may be the head of the family, as no doubt you are, and very old, but I am older still. I am an ancient heathen. The old Romans and Greeks named me the Dream God. I have visited the noblest houses,—yes, and I continue to do so,—still I know how to conduct myself both to high and low, and now you may tell the stories yourself”; and so Ole-Luk-Oie walked off, taking his umbrellas with him.

“Well, well, one is never to give an opinion, I suppose,” grumbled the portrait. And it woke Hjalmar.

Ole Lukøje,  by Hans Christian Andersen

The church bells pealed out over the water, reverberating through Clara’s skull. The happy couple burst through the entranceway, hand-in-hand, showered by millions of tiny glittering stars thrown by the cheering crowd.  

 Olympia smiled modestly at the adulation, her veil thrown back over her head and her cheeks flushed a becoming pink. The flush in Nate was darker, almost feverish. His grip on Olympia’s hand was that of a drowning man, yet she didn’t cry out, bearing it with little more than a sigh.  

 They ran through the parting crowd down to the edge of the lake, which, in their honor, remained as still and clear as a pane of glass. The grasses and reeds at the shoreline stood straight to attention, and even the sky had blessed their union, cloudless, and blue, and eternally day. A small boat sat moored on the water’s edge, elaborately painted with gilt and festooned with massive chrysanthemums.  

 As they stood on the shore, Olympia raised her arm and pointed out over the lake. “Do you see that, Nathanael? Everything before us?”  

 “Yes.” Nate’s eyes didn’t follow his bride’s finger but remained fixed on her face. Any will to look away from her had deserted him at last. He’d surrendered, wholly and completely. Clara’s heart threatened to break, even as his own swelled.  

 “That is our future. Look.” She pressed her hand to the side of his face to turn his head. His eyes strained to stay on her face, but at last, with a strangled cry of regret, he acquiesced and joined his bride in looking out over the water.  

 “What is?” Nothing was there but a vast, empty ocean stretching out to the horizon.  

 “Anything you believe.” Her voice had an odd, discordant quality, an almost masculine edge, as though another voice had blended with hers. “With your resources, we can do anything.”  

 His resources? What an odd thing to say. It certainly wasn’t the speech of love Clara would’ve expected from a new bride. It must be Coppelius at work. Perhaps the bastard would give more of his intentions away.  Come on, you old monster. Keep talking.

 “What would you have us do, my love? Everything that’s mine is yours.” Even in his dreams, Nate’s speech was as flowery and trite as his recent poetry.  

 Olympia smiled, a wolfish grin that stretched her face unnaturally, and the grass at her feet shuddered. “But you must agree, Nathanael, that you will never go back. You can never go back. If you do, it will kill me.”  

 Nate snatched up his bride’s hands in his own and clutched them to his chest. “Don’t speak like that, please, my love. I can’t bear the thought of you being anything but here with me, right now. Whatever you want, I’ll do it.”  

 “We will get into this boat and cross this lake, Nathanael. And once we do, you can never go back.”  

 His only desire was to go forward, and quickly, away from this place. There was something here he had to get away from. Something merciless. “I won’t, I promise you. I have nothing to go back for. Nothing. You are my life, my love, my only love.”  

“Take one last look then, because this is the last time you will ever see your old life, my dear. Take one look then make your decision.” She pointed back the way they’d come.  

 The church was in ruins, the stone walls caving in on themselves, and the bell, which had rung so joyously only a short time before, had cracked in two, never to be rung again. The ground around the church lay wasted, all burned and salted earth, and a choking ash hung thick in the air.  

 Among the barren, blackened ruins stood Clara, reaching for Nate, her voice a beseeching wail. Dirt and ash smudged her sour, unkind face and tattered clothing, and her fingers were tipped with blood.  

 Nate clapped his hands over his ears and dropped to his knees. One hand stretched out toward Clara’s dream-twin then dropped back down to the earth, where he clenched a fistful of dirt. The grains slipped between his fingers, carried away on the wind. And yet, this dirt was real, as were these ruins. And comforting, somehow—  

 “Why are you fighting, Nate? I thought you wanted this.”  

 “I do. I just… I want…Clara.” That was right. Clara. Not this woman next to him. How had he forgotten her?  

 Olympia frowned as though dealing with a naughty child. “Clara will be fine, Nathanael. She doesn’t need you. She never has.”  

That’s not true, Clara tried to shout inside him, but an errant wind snatched the words from his mouth.  I do need you. I always have. We need each other.

 “You see all this destruction around you, Nate? Do you?”  

He nodded. So much devastation.

 “This is what Clara has wrought. And she will ruin you too. If you look back, your life will be over. Her conditional love will grind you down until you’re nothing but dust, a dead man inside a young body.” Olympia grasped Nate by the hair and rocked his head back. “Is that what you want? To keep dying every day, over and over, until death itself feel like a gift?”  

 Nate swallowed and choked against the angle of his neck. “No. No, I don’t want that, but—”  

 “Look at me, Nathanael. Look at what I’m offering you.”  

 He turned his eyes toward her, a vision of life and beauty. She’d grown even more radiant while he’d been looking away, and now her beauty was almost painful. She guided his face gently toward the lake again, and he gazed out over the shining water to the city now glittering on the horizon.  

 “That city will be ours. We will change the world beyond its wildest dreams. We will rule the Blackmoth Republic, Nathanael. With your assets and my mind, we will be unmatched.”  

Your assets and my mind.  There it was again. Coppelius was getting desperate, to be so blunt. He must feel Nate fighting him, his victory no longer a sure thing.  

 “You must choose now, Nathanael. Choose between the life you see behind you, or the one in front of you. Take a leap of faith, or else be stuck in limbo, stuck in a war between duty and the true feelings of your heart.”  

 Nate clutched at Olympia’s skirts and buried his face in them. “I— I choose you, Olympia.”  

 She turned her head to where dream-Clara stood, her lips pulled back from her teeth in an ugly snarl of victory, and Clara’s heart turned to glass.  

 She’d lost him. Her Nate, her love. She hadn’t been enough for him. Hadn’t fought hard enough, passionately enough. She’d given in to logic and reason, had underestimated the fragility of his heart. It was over.  

 – Clara, Dreaming by A.W. Cross