#2270

“Sweet, the brownies are ready,” With her left hand Mage pulled open the oven door and with the other she grabbed the hot tin inside, not bothering with a cloth since she couldn’t feel the heat through the obsidian-like claws on her hand anyway. Alice, watching from the kitchen table, rolled her eyes at the reminder of Mage’s alien appendage. “Weren’t you going to get rid of that thing?” she asked as Mage set the tin down between them. “It’s so creepy.”

“Oh, this?” Mage flexed her hand, the strange black material glittering in the light as she moved. “Uh, so it turns out I don’t… precisely… know how to get it off.”

“You don’t know?!” Alice jabbed an accusatory finger at her. “This is what you get for messing with unknown magic! What if that awful thing’s attached to you for the rest of your life? What if it keeps crawling up your arm until you’re just a big black statue?”

“Uuugh,” Mage slumped back in her chair with a stubborn pout. “You sound just like my dad.” When Alice only blinked back at her with a look of perplexity she raised one eyebrow. “What?”

“Nothing,” Alice shrugged but her expression didn’t change. “It’s just weird to think of you having family. I guess I just sort of assumed you like… clawed your way out of the dark core of the earth to become my nemesis or something.” Mage snorted, using the offending hand to scoop a chunk of hot brownie into her mouth. “You wish. No,” she continued around the mouthful, “I had family once and it was the literal worst. Exile was a fucking godsend. But since we’re on the subject, let me guess…” She licked clean one shiny claw and pointed back at Alice. “Oldest sibling of like ten or something, always mothered everyone, probably made them do their homework before they got to watch TV.”

“Actually,” Alice gave a small shrug and helped herself to a piece of brownie with far better manners than Mage had. “I don’t really have a family. I was sort of birthed out of the ocean fully formed, more or less.” It was Mage’s turn to blink dryly. “OH.” She threw her hands up in mock disregard. “Okay. Yeah, sure, that makes perfect sense. Born out of the ocean. Right.” They ate in contemplative silence for a moment before Mage shook her head with a disappointed sigh. “So… you’re the intrepid orphan and I’m the runaway princess? How cliche.”

Alice began to nod in agreement, then did a double-take. “Wait, you’re a what?”

#2219

Tal’reth, are you finally coming to stay with me? Will we be together now, forever and ever?

“TAL’RETH, NO! TALRETH!”

The paladin revives with a gasp as the health potion jumpstarts his heart and his empty lungs spasm for air. For just a second it seems like the whole world is paused; where he lays collapsed in the mud he can see a dark sky filled with suspended raindrops, their glittering forms lit by a strange white light. Then the moment bursts, the light winks out, and the rain resumes in an abrupt downpour.

“Tal’reth!” Sani runs up out of the darkness and throws herself at Tal’reth, giant toddler tears running down her cheeks. “I thought you were gone! I thought you were gone forever like Mommy!” Despite the fact that he’s muddy, wet, and in quite a bit of pain even with the potion, Tal’reth gathers the little avatar into his arms and holds her tightly against his lightning-scorched chest. If she can feel his hammering heartbeat, he figures she’ll assume it’s just from the fright of his near-death experience. “It’s okay,” he reassures her with a voice less steady than usual. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m not going anywhere, I promise.”

Keeping Sani cradled in one arm, Tal’reth slowly climbs to his feet with a stifled groan, muttering, “I’m getting getting too old for this,” under his breath as he does so. He surveys the little clearing. The hag’s limp body lays crumpled in the mud, her head a few feet away. His companions seem to have handled the attack in his brief absence; Loch is awake once more, no thanks to Galas and his ill-timed misfire, and looking as if she feels about the same as Tal’reth. She flashes him a wry smile and slaps him on the shoulder. “Walk it off,” she advises in her thick Skovan accent. “You’re fine.” He’s curious about her own near meeting with the Raven Queen, or whatever will come for the warlock in the end, but he wouldn’t be open to telling his own story in return and so he says nothing.

“You,” Loch points at Galas, who still looks as petrified as he did when the hag was alive. “Take watch.” With that she limps toward the tent, and Tal’reth follows stiffly after. He eases himself gently onto his cot and curls up, Sani still cradled against his chest. As he drifts off, Tal’reth just catches the soft voice which whispers close in his ear, It’s okay, Tal’reth, we’ll be together soon. He shudders involuntarily and holds Sani a little tighter.

#2202

The fur on Tal’reth’s back prickled as he sat at the bar counter. Someone was watching him, and not in the surreptitious manner of spies or thieves; this was a frank, pointed stare that felt more curious than threatening. Curiosity could be a good thing or a bad thing, though, especially when it was aimed at a leonine tabaxi almost eight feet tall. Nodding casually to the barkeep, Tal’reth took his ale and moved to a table near the back of the tavern where anyone who wanted to watch him would have to expend more effort to do so. There he nursed his drink and waited for whomever found him so interesting to act.

He didn’t have long to wait. After a few moments a young aasimar woman on the other side of the room stood and wound between the tables toward him. She wore a fine black traveling gown edged with black lace and a small silver bird skull at her throat tied with a black velvet ribbon. A follower of the Raven Queen, he guessed, maybe an initiate or newly made priestess. It was always hard to tell age with aasimar; she could be as old as him and not look a day over eighteen. Her features were especially hard to judge as her hair was a shining white and her eyes such a pale blue they seemed to belong to a specter. Tal’reth knew ghosts, though, and this girl was vibrantly alive in comparison.

“Can I help you?” he asked as she stopped before his table. The aasimar stared at him for a moment, her brow creased as if what she saw in him concerned her greatly, and then she replied, “Have you sought forgiveness for your crimes?” Tal’reth managed not to roll his eyes; instead, he said with as little irritation as possible, “I’m not in the market for a religion, but thanks anyway.” He then pointedly turned his focus back to his ale in the hopes the woman would accept the polite dismissal. Instead, she sat down across from him and asked, “Who is she?”

Tal’reth’s hand clenched around the tankard. He wanted to bare his teeth but settled for a curl of his lip. “None of your business,” he growled. “That’s who she is.” Normally even his slightest ‘don’t fuck with me’ expression got someone to back off, yet the aasimar only responded to his hostility with a sad shake of her head. “You’re on a very dark path,” she sighed. “There’s much death behind you and only more death ahead you if you keep to it. I can help you if–”

“I’m not in the market for free advice, either,” He stood abruptly and glared down at the young woman. “I think we’re done here.” With that Tal’reth turned toward the stairway to his rented room. As he walked away he caught the aasimar say softly, “I will pray you learn to set down your burdens.” He shook his head and muttered, “Fucking oracles”.

#2181

Tal’reth doesn’t sleep that night. He rarely does the night before battle; his dreams are always troubled on these eves, especially if the situation involves children. And these two half-elf siblings are children still, even if they have seen enough horror to age them beyond their years. As he sits up in the small cabin’s main room, sharpening his sword and checking his gear, the tabaxi reviews the conversation he had with the older sister Peri. Since taking up work with Graymalkin he’s met dozens of children with stories like hers – loved ones lost to war or pointless brutality, homes destroyed by greed, futures endangered by people with too much corrupted power. That these two teenagers bear the burden of protecting their god’s holy land against an empire set out to destroy “false” religions just means their cause is that much closer to his heart. In the end, though, they’re kids who have just lost their father and have nowhere else to turn. Of course he’s going to help in any way he can.

Assuming everything goes just fine, Gray won’t take issue with a slight detour in the greater plan; he knows full well where Tal’reth’s priorities and loyalties lay, after all. The others, however… well, Tal’reth suspects his companions won’t be happy when they wake in the morning to find out he’s agreed not only to destroy the crownsguard watchtower nearby, but also to help get the siblings to their remaining family. If they refuse to take part, though, that’s fine. The warlock and ranger can continue down the road and he’ll catch up with them once he’s confident Peri and her brother are safe. He refuses to entertain any alternatives while the memory of their father’s butchered body weighs so heavily on his mind. What if the crownsguard decide the poor dead man’s children are next? Surely it’s the will of the gods that Tal’reth found the teens first, before someone more malicious did. Certainly they would have received no help from his party members if he wasn’t there. If he won’t protect these kids, who will?

Movement at the edge of his vision catches Tal’reth’s attention and he whips his head up, right hand dropping the whetstone and gripping the hilt of his sword. But it’s just shadows moving, or maybe the candlelight playing tricks on his eyes, or he’s just more tired than he thought. Yes, that must be it; he hasn’t slept all night, save for a brief catnap before Peri and her brother appeared in their camp. Half-convinced, Tal’reth returns to his work once more – though he shifts slightly so the dark corners of the room aren’t visible at all as he focuses on the sword’s keen blade. If the shadows in one corner seem to move independently of the fire’s dancing glow, he would rather not see.

#2179

I saw the light fade from the sky
On the wind I heard a sigh
As the snowflakes cover my fallen brothers
I will say this last goodbye

She yields to nostalgia and allows herself to walk the island’s overgrown paths one last time. Though it has not truly been that long since she left, everything feels smaller to her. Were these lintels so low before? Were these steps, these windows, these honeycombed rooms and secret passages so tiny? She can almost imagine her childhood self running through the woods and along the beaches, playing chasing games or hide-and-seek, yet she was never actually young in this place. She thinks, Perhaps time does this to any location we once called home, even if only temporarily. Surely she has not grown, nor has the island shrunk, and yet she feels a giant who must step carefully so as not to harm everything around her.

Night is now falling
So ends this day
The road is now calling
And I must away

Despite the familiarity, the years have not been kind to the island’s settlement. Sapling trees burst up between the paving stones; vines climb along walls and wrap themselves around every available surface. Wind and rain have torn away roof shingles, left great puddles of standing water, and sent great branches crashing down. The once beautiful murals are faded from sun and storm, now nothing more than old graffiti. Even her own handiwork, the years of destruction wrought on the land with magic and cannon, is softened beneath layers of green growth. Nature is slowly reclaiming this place now there are no lost ones to bless its halls or bolster its protections with their love. It is truly abandoned.

Many places I have been
Many sorrows I have seen
But I don’t regret
Nor will I forget
All who took that road with me

She knows the others must assume she’s forgotten them, locking away her memories of the time she spent here in her quest for revenge. She has not. She remembers them all; names and faces, quirks and foibles, kindnesses and cruelties. She remembers those who left and those who stayed and those who fell out of reach completely. She remembers those who fought against her and those who never bothered to take up arms at all, who chose instead to stand for nothing. No matter where she goes next, no matter how many years pass, she will not forget a single one of them. She loved them all, once, and still may. They were her sisters and brothers, after all.

To these memories I will hold
With your blessing I will go
To turn at last to paths that lead home
And though where the road then takes me
I cannot tell
We came all this way
But now comes the day
To bid you farewell

After she has walked the length and breadth of the island she returns to the shore and gazes one last time upon the lighthouse. It was first a beacon of hope for her, then a target for her sorrow and rage. And now? Now it is merely a symbol of the past, both the good and the bad. She can neither hate it nor love it, so instead she releases it. She releases the island and its light from her idyllic memories. From her extinguished anger. From her heart that beats for a new future. Let this place return to the cosmos from which it was formed now that its purpose has been fulfilled. There are no paths which lead here now, only away. And that is as it should be, she thinks.

I bid you all a very fond farewell

#2112

It’s just her, in the end. It has always been just her.

Mage paces the Jolly Roger’s decks in silence save for the brush of wind through the rigging and waves against wood. No voices, no footsteps, no sounds of human habitation. She forgets how long it’s been since Tanim and Daren disappeared. Weeks? Months? Even longer? She wasn’t surprised to find them gone, of course; they were never truly loyal, only temporarily entertained by her quest enough to play along for a while. She has no real need for their power now anyway, but she does miss what passed for companionship with them.

As she walks, Mage runs a hand over the rail of the ship. The Jolly Roger has been her home and power base for twelve years; its timbers are drenched in her blood and magic, her anger and obsession and desperation. It is the closest thing to a home she has had in a millennium and the thought of leaving it behind would fill her with terror if she wasn’t so terribly tired. Yet to do what she plans, she cannot bring it with her. The ship must return to its grave at the bottom of the sea, this time to slumber eternally as it deserves.

If only she could be rid of the hook so easily. But one thing at a time.

Completing a final circuit of the deck, Mage returns to the quarterdeck and lays her hand upon the helm. For her final act as captain she dismantles the magic layered throughout the ship, spells of protection and speed, firing power and stealth. The last to go is the oldest spell, that with which she raised the ship from the seabed and set it to her purpose. Beneath her boots the wood groans and begins to decay and above her the sails split. “Well,” Mage gives the helm a pat and allows herself one sentimental sigh. “Thank you, ship. You did well. Now rest.”

And with that she steps off its decks for the last time.

~ * ~

Ali hadn’t even bothered putting on her armor. Standing at the beachfront at four in the morning, watching the tide come in, she sensed that Mage was coming. Walking out from the waves, a shadow clad in night and mirrors, her nemesis came ashore.

Mage can see the exhaustion on Ali’s face. “I’m not here to fight,” she confesses, “I just wanna talk.”

#2067

She is steel wrapped in silk, head held high as she stands before a jury of closed minds and bitter hearts. Her own father reads out the charges (“witchcraft”, “sorcery”, “necromancy”, even “treason and rebellion” thrown in for good measure) and though he never meets her gaze she keeps her hard eyes locked on his face. Blessings last longer than curses and so she blesses him silently; blesses him with long memory, with long life, and with much time in which to remember her. Not just black hair and red lips, white skin and emerald eyes, but the carelessness of her laughter, the swiftness of her mind, the grace and surety of her every movement. No matter how many thousands of years pass, he will remember every aspect of the daughter he cast out – and he will remember this moment clearest of all.

She, for her part, already seeks to forget it all. Even as the court moves through the formalities of her punishment she is already discarding useless memories: the marble halls where she danced through the night (“exile”, her father declares), the silver trees and water sweet as wine (“may never return, nor seek to contact”), all the people who claimed to love her until she began seeking real knowledge (“surrender your name and your past”). Only when the king holds out one hand and demands, “Your ring,” does she turn her attention outwards again. The guards shift as if preparing themselves for battle but she does not fight; she merely lifts one pale hand, removes from it the little silver ring she has worn for two millennia, and drops it into her father’s waiting palm. Her eyes sweep over the assembly and her upper lip curls in disgust.

She says, “You may have my name; I neither need it nor want it. But yours you should cling to as long as possible, for by the time I return to this place it will be naught but ash and all your names lost to the wastes of time.” With a final glance to her father she adds, “You will weep to be so alone.” And with that she turns away from the court, walking out with the composure of a queen and nothing but the silk dress she wears to call her own, and she is no longer ———. She is nameless, homeless, kinless. She is nothing and no one.

She reaches the edge of her father’s lands by nightfall. Beyond the immortally green elvenwood the earth slumbers in winter’s deep grip. Any other traveler would shiver, turn away or beg shelter somewhere, but not her. In the shriek of the wind she hears welcome, wanderer… and in the distant cry of ravens we have been waiting for you… and she is not afraid. She will never be afraid again.