“The Last Temptation of the Outsider” by Simon R. Green
The world is haunted by a past no one remembers. Of a time when Magic ruled the Earth, elves and unicorns came as standard, and good things happened every day. Unfortunately, it was also a time of dragons and ogres and sudden death for all—which is why some things should stay legends. All that remains of those far off days are myths and stories and unquiet dreams, but it is still possible to stumble over weird artefacts and infernal devices, long buried remainders of forgotten civilisations, and weapons left over from ancient wars between gods and monsters. Think of these things as unexploded bombs, still waiting to detonate under just the right conditions.
My name is Jack Daimon, my title is the Outsider, and it’s my job to defuse these things and make the world safe from a history no one should have to remember.
Which is why I found myself walking down a deserted city street in the early hours of the morning, under a starless sky with only a sliver of moon, and just enough morning mist to diffuse the amber streetlight into something bearable. I hate the early morning calls. I don’t see why the supernatural can’t keep normal office hours, like everyone else. I was wearing my usual black goat’s-skin leather jacket, over a black T-shirt, workingman’s jeans, and stout walking boots. Partly because style and fashion have always been things other people do, and partly because in my job it’s always wise to be able to disappear into the shadows at a moment’s notice. And run like hell if you have to.
If it matters, I’m in my late twenties, in good enough shape, with a face no one remembers. Which is probably for the best. As the Outsider, Humanity’s last defender against the war crimes of a previous reality, I perform a necessary function, but not everyone approves of my solutions. I’m a bomb disposal expert; I don’t have time to hold your hand and tell you reassuring lies.
I carry a backpack over one shoulder, containing all the tools of my trade. Cold iron and cursed silver, fresh garlic and bottled wolfsbane, a mandrake root with a screaming face, a key that can close or open any lock, and an athame: a witch knife that has been in my family for generations. It can cut through anything, in this world or out of it.
Barchester Abbey stood brooding at the end of the street, a dark and looming presence with more solidity than style, and rather more history than was good for it. When my secret lords and masters send the door that appears out of nowhere right in front of me, to summon me to where I’m needed, the moment I walk through I immediately know where I am and what I’m there for. In this case, it seemed Barchester Abbey was being haunted by a Lady In White. So far, so traditional, though apparently no one had seen her up close, or even got close enough to talk to her. It wasn’t clear why. I smiled slightly. I was looking forward to finding out. After all, if this was just another ghost, they wouldn’t need the Outsider to come and sort things out for them. I specialise in things that go Boom! in the night.
I stopped a respectful distance short of Barchester Abbey and looked the place over carefully. Old but not ancient, big but not sprawling, just the usual solid stone and carved wood under a spire rising up to Heaven. The gargoyles looked a bit restive, and the whole building seemed to crouch unhappily in the night, as though still trying to decide which way to jump, but there was no obvious sense of threat or danger. Warm candlelight glowed through the stained-glass windows, and spilled out the open front door, which was currently being guarded by a uniformed policeman. Though whether to keep people out, or something in, had yet to be determined. I walked right up to the police officer and showed him my best confident smile, followed by one of the many official-looking ID cards from my collection.
When it matters, I can be anything from Military Intelligence to an Income Tax investigator. None of my IDs are real, in the sense that the person on the card doesn’t actually exist, but they’re all real enough in that every organisation involved would quickly back up the IDs if questioned. Because they all know they might need the Outsider’s help some day. The policeman studied my ID card carefully, but didn’t actually relax much.
“Constable Harris, sir. I’m glad you’re here, Inspector. This is a bad one.”
“Tell me things,” I said grandly. “Starting with: why are you out here, instead of in there?”
Harris started to look behind him, and then stopped himself. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and did his best to look like someone with a backbone.
“No one can stay in the church for long, sir. Whatever it is that’s in there, it doesn’t like company. And it feels . . . dangerous.”
“It?” I said. “I was told to expect a Lady In White.”
“No one’s actually seen a ghost,” Harris said carefully. His face was suddenly pale, with beads of sweat popping out on his forehead. “I did take a look inside, just to make sure no one was in any danger, but I didn’t get far. I could feel something on the air, a building tension like an oncoming earthquake. I had to force myself forward, step by step. More and more it was like walking into a raging storm, full of teeth. That is why I’m standing guard here, sir; so no one else will have to endure what I went through.”
“Not to worry,” I said. “I’m here now. How did all this start?”
“Workmen were brought in to dig up an ancient stone, set into the floor before the altar,” Harris said carefully. His voice steadied as he moved onto more familiar ground. “All that was left of some pagan shrine, apparently here long before the church. In fact, some old stories still insist the church was built around the stone, to contain it and make it safe. The stone was all cracked and crumbling, and some people said it was an eyesore . . . So it had to be removed. The workmen had only just started, when people outside heard them screaming. A few minutes later they came bolting out of the church and ran all the way down the street, before they could be stopped. I haven’t been allowed to question them myself, sir. The doctors say that whatever it was they saw, they’ll probably never be able to tell anyone.”
“Then why is it being called a Lady In White?” I said.
“A local historian dug up some old church records,” Harris said heavily. “Apparently there have been sightings down the ages of a beautiful woman in a long white gown. A ghost, a vampire, a monster who could eat your heart out with a single look.”
“Well,” I said, rubbing my hands together briskly. “That’s more like it. Something worth turning out for. You hold your ground, while I go in and see what’s what. But if I should come running back out, try and keep up.”
I strolled through the open front door, and Constable Harris stood well back to let me pass. I could tell he didn’t expect me to do any good. His eyes had the look of too many people when they bump up against the supernatural, a lost, defeated, haunted look.
Inside Barchester Abbey, it was very still and very peaceful. My footsteps echoed loudly in the quiet as I made my way down the aisle, between the long rows of old-fashioned blocky pews. All solid wood and no padding, with prayer books set out at regular intervals but not a trace of a kneeling pad anywhere. I made sure there was no one lurking in in the pews or the pulpit, but I knew from the moment I walked in that I had the place to myself. Deserted buildings have an absence that feels like a presence, an impact on the soul. Or perhaps, a warning. All the electric lights were out, and I got the feeling they weren’t being allowed to work. Someone had lit all the candles instead, to provide a warm glow and a spurious sense of comfort. To set the scene . . .
Someone was standing in front of the altar with their back to me, not even trying to conceal themselves. A tall woman in a flowing white gown, glowing brightly in the gloom. She looked entirely physical and solid, with nothing of the ethereal about her. An actual Lady In White. I stopped for a moment, to see if I could feel any of the dread and horror the policeman had described, but I wasn’t picking up anything out of the ordinary. There wasn’t even a cold breeze, to disturb the pleasant glow of the candlelight. I started down the aisle again, taking my time, my footsteps ringing out increasingly loudly as I drew closer to the unmoving figure, but she didn’t react until I was almost on top of her. And then she turned abruptly to stare at me, and I crashed to a halt.
She was as a beautiful as a full moon on a Summer’s night. Her face and her bare arms were as white as her dress, and pointed ears thrust up through shoulder-length white hair. The bones in her face were sharp and prominent, to bring her beauty into sharp relief. Her eyes were golden, without any trace of pupil, and the white mouth widened suddenly into a warm and inviting smile. Her presence beat on the air like the flapping of great wings, and when she smiled at me like I was everything she’d been waiting for, my heart pounded in my chest like it was trying to escape. I’d never seen anyone so wonderful in my life.
“I knew you’d get here eventually,” she said, and her voice was rich and sweet, like honey laced with opium. “Welcome, Jack Daimon. Welcome, Outsider.”
And that broke the spell, like a slap across the face. There weren’t many who could recognise who and what I was, on sight. I took a deep breath, and her perfume flowed over me like walking through a field of roses. I held on to my self-control with both hands, and made myself concentrate on the details of her appearance.
“You’re not human,” I said. “You’re elven.”
Her smile revealed dimples, just for a moment. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“There were good and bad elves,” I said. “The Light and the Dark, the Shivvareen and the Sheedra. All of them gone, long ago. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an elven ghost.”
“I’m no spirit, no dead thing,” she said. “I assure you, I’m entirely physical.” She took a step forward, putting her face right in front of mine. When she spoke again, her words hit my mouth in little puffs of perfumed air. “I’ve been waiting for you for so long, Jack . . . ”
Up close, her glow was almost blinding, her presence overwhelming. I took a careful step backwards.
“What’s your name?”
She looked at me as though the name should mean something, but it didn’t.
“Sorry,” I said. “I usually only get told the names of things I’m going to have to destroy. What are you doing here, Leanan?”
It was her turn to take a step back. She looked around the church, in a way that suggested she’d seen better before and hadn’t been impressed then.
“I’ve always been here,” she said. “Dreaming away the centuries, watching the generations come and go, all those terribly earnest souls at their joyless songs. I have been so cold, so alone . . . Until something woke me up.”
I looked at the pagan stone, set in the floor before the altar. Leanan was standing right over it. Intriguingly, the light that glowed from every part of her didn’t illuminate the stone at all. It remained cloaked in shadow, perhaps of its own making. Leanan made an impatient sound, to draw my attention back to her.
“How did you know who I was?” I said.
“You were promised to me,” said Leanan. “It was said a handsome Outsider would come, to free me from this place. I’ve been here so long, Jack. I want to get out of here, and see the world, and all the people in it.”
“Why did you scare off everyone else?” I said.
Her face was suddenly cold, though no less beautiful. “Because they weren’t worthy of me. Only you, Jack. Only you.” Her smile became a wide knowing thing, and her eyes held mine in a way that promised every dream I’d ever had. “We were born to be together, Jack. Separated by Time, but destined to find each other, and be together forever and a day. Don’t you want me, Jack?”
“You know I do,” I said.
My voice was low and flat, almost ugly next to hers, but she didn’t seem to care. She smiled at me happily, but even as I smiled back I was still studying her carefully, because that’s my job. She wasn’t any kind of illusion; I can always see through those. She was as real as I was. I had to fight to hold my ground, to keep control of the situation, as unfamiliar emotions took hold of my heart. It was more than love at first sight; it was two lost souls finding each other despite everything the universe could put in our way. The role of the Outsider is a lonely one, by design, so nothing and no one could get in the way of duty. But Leanan was different. I could be happy with her, I knew it.
“You are everything that was promised to me,” said Leanan. “Everything I ever hoped for. Am I everything you ever wanted, Jack?”
“Yes,” I said. “And that’s the problem. Because I don’t think you’re what you seem to be. You’re not even what you think you are.”
Her beautiful face was suddenly blank. “I don’t understand, Jack.”
“You’re too perfect,” I said. “Even for an elf. And I know everything there is to know, when it comes to defusing bombs.”
She bristled immediately. “I’m not any kind of bomb!”
“Of course not,” I said. “You’re the bomb’s watch dog. None of this is about you; it’s all about the stone.”
I reached into my backpack, and brought out a small hand mirror that had been made to reflect what was really there. I was careful to aim it at the floor, and not Leanan. The stone in the floor wasn’t a stone; it was a door. A connecting point, between two distant Times. Sealed shut for millennia, and with good reason. On the other side of the door, on some distant desperate day, I could see the Sheedra elves. Awful, monstrous things, all teeth and claws, hate and hunger, scrabbling forever at the other side of the door as they tried to force their way through. So they could escape the Past and go ravaging in the Future, and drown Humanity in a flood of blood and slaughter.
I looked steadily at Leanan. “It’s a very old story. Of how the Shivvareen and the Sheedra went to war. It’s hard to see them in terms of Good and Evil, because elves didn’t think like that, but given what the Sheedra would have done if the Shivvareen hadn’t stopped them, it’s good enough. One race wiped out another on that terrible day, but some Sheedra almost escaped. The Shivvareen arrived in time to imprison these last few Sheedra inside their stone door. And that’s how it stayed, until now. When some poor fools disturbed the stone. And it created you, to protect itself from me. By presenting me with someone so wonderful, it would break my heart to destroy them.”
Leanan shook her head. “I don’t understand. Why are you telling me these things? What do they have to do with us?”
“It’s hard to be the Outsider,” I said. “You have to give up so much. You walk alone because no one can be allowed to know about you. You can’t share your life with anyone, because that would put them in danger. All you have is your duty, and mostly, that’s enough. The door made you everything I ever wanted, but could never have. The last temptation of the Outsider: to walk away from everything, for love.”
“But I’m your reward!” said Leanan. “Don’t you deserve a reward, for everything you’ve done?”
“I don’t do this to be rewarded,” I said. “I do it because it needs doing.”
She stepped forward, holding my gaze with hers, her voice urgent and persuasive.
“I only want to be with you, Jack.”
“Of course you do,” I said. “But you’re not real. I could forgive you everything but that.”
I moved toward Leanan, and she reached out to hold me. Her hands dropped gently onto my shoulders, like falling leaves, and I raised my witch knife and stabbed her in the heart.
I held her in my arms as she collapsed. Like something small and precious, broken by rough handling. I lowered her to the floor, and she slowly dissipated into glowing white mists that blew away, leaving my arms empty. I looked at the pagan stone in the floor, reached into my backpack and took out the key that could open or close any lock. I jammed the key into the stone, turned it once, and then broke it in two, leaving one half of the key in place to lock and seal the stone forever. The candlelight disappeared, replaced by stark unrelenting electric light, as our reality reasserted itself.
I got to my feet and walked away, from what might have been. Trying hard not to wonder if just possibly, I could have been wrong about Leanan . . .
Copyright © 2023 by Simon R. Green
Simon R. Green is the New York Times best-selling author of more than fifty science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. Simon sold his first book in 1988 and the very next year was commissioned to write the bestselling novelization of the Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
From there he went on to write many more series of books including Deathstalker, Nightside, Secret History, Forest Kingdom, and the Ishamel Jones mysteries among others.
His books have sold over 4 million copies worldwide and have been translated into over a dozen different languages.
You can find Simon Green on his website, or follow him on Twitter @TheSimonRGreen
This story is set in the same world as Green's next novel to come from Baen: For Love of Magic.