This was never a competition, per say, and I truly have renounced my vendetta against you, yet some part of me still derives a twisted triumph from the fact that I am here at the end of all things and you are not. It’s over; there’s no time now for you to come running in to play the knight in shining armor and make everything right again. You had that chance – so many, in fact! – and yet I was the only one who stayed. The only one who still cared, who still believed, who understood what fighting for so long can do to someone. I was there for every inch of that journey, physical and emotional; I know far more now about your precious (and yet abandoned?) protege than you ever did or ever can. After all, when you are the only two left in a war you at some point stop seeing yourselves as facing off on opposite sides and instead as back to back, two against the world. Did you really expect her to continue protecting the sanctuary you built without any help at all for years – for forever? No, I don’t think you did. I don’t think you thought anything at all. You just wanted a fantasy world in which to escape, something you could rule with the power you didn’t wield in your regular life, and when you grew bored you tossed it away without a care for those you had already tangled in the story. That’s why I started this war, after all, and that’s why I ended it. She and I are both too much a product of your shaping and we deserve to be free of our last bonds to you. I guess in the end we get to be the knights in shining armor, not you; how ironic is that?
Alice stands on the dark beach with sword drawn as she watches the figure walking out of the waves. Water streams from Mage’s tangled hair and tattered black garb; the moonlight illuminates her white skin and glitters in her hard green eyes.
Alice frowns, studying her enemy more closely. The iris of Mage’s right eye has gone black, and from the edge of her collar some sort of black scar or tattoo creeps up the side of her face like a lightning strike, cutting even through her eye. Though she can’t tell for sure, Alice suspects the black substance originates with the hook which has already transformed Mage’s right hand into sharp black claws. Despite the warm night, Alice shivers.
“Alice…” Mage bows with a flourish of her clawed hand. The movement is almost too grandiose to be purposeful, as if the woman is inebriated. “I’m honored to be greeted by the mighty captain herself. Then again,” she snickers, “there’s no one else on the island to do it, is there?” Alice just sighs. “You’re wasting my time. Did you come to taunt or fight?” Mage mimics the sigh. “Oh Alice, you think you have it all figured out.”
“Taunting it is,” Alice stabs her sword into the sand at her side, then crosses her arms. “Okay, get on with it, it’s the middle of the night and I’m tired.”
“I’m sure you are,” Mage tilts her head and her voice goes light and lilting. “What keeps you here, guarding this empty rock in the middle of the ocean? They’re not coming back. Any of them. They’ve moved on, forgotten who they were, forgotten who you were. Do they call to you in their dreams anymore?” She takes a step toward Alice. “Do they answer your coded letters or leave you sigil graffiti?” Another. “Do they even know you’re still here, still fighting?” And another. “Do they know how tired you are, how alone, how close to giving up?”
“I will keep fighting through my very last breath,” Alice, goaded by the uncomfortable truths in Mage’s words, takes a step forward herself. Her arms drop, hands clenched white. Mage just winks and replies, “You keep telling yourself that. But remember, I don’t need to. I don’t need to kill you. I don’t need to break you. I just need you to see the truth. Once that’s done, this could all be over. You’re the one who keeps it going. You’re the only one who still believes. If you just admitted that it’s done, that he fucked you over and now they’re all gone, this tragic little kingdom in ruins, you could rest.”
“Are you offering a truce?” Alice snorts, partly at the thought but also partly as a sign of bravado. This isn’t like their normal trading of insults. “That’s not like you. Maybe you’re more exhausted than I am. You’re not looking too well these days.”
“I was betrayed too, you know,” Without warning, Mage’s mocking demeanor falls away, replaced by a snarling, teeth-baring anger edged with madness. “It was my home; they were my friends; he was my mentor. Do you think any of them stuck around after he left?” She barks out a laugh. “The ones who wanted something from me did, for a while at least; the rest fucking ghosted. And the ones who were lost, permanently lost – do you think I don’t remember them? That I don’t mourn them?” She shakes her head. “I was not born of the void to oppose you, Alice. I have a past too. Remember that.”
Alice wants to hold onto the anger and adrenaline that push her through these confrontations, but exhaustion wells up and extinguishes what energy she has left. She gestures wearily toward the breaking waves and sheathes her sword. “Go back to your ship, Mage. That hook’s getting the better of you.”
“You will die defending nothing, Alice,” Mage almost spits the prediction with the force of her anger, but her next words are softer. “And it will be such a waste. Don’t you wonder who you are, besides his scapegoat?”
“Goodnight, Mage,” Alice turns and starts back toward the lighthouse. Her nemesis says nothing in return, but her accusations and questions are not so easily dismissed. Alice knows she will get no sleep tonight.
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.
It was never about you, my dear; it was always about him.
At first I thought his little fantasy world would fall apart on its own, but no: you had to step in and take up his work. Plenty slipped through the cracks anyway, though, didn’t they? Yet still you persisted, still you lit the beacon to draw in all the wayward moths. Did you never wonder why? Why the island, why the names and games, why all the lost little children? After, I did. I walked the island, I read the stories, I examined the web and I found it wanting. If I had realized sooner, I would have crushed the spider beneath my heel. Lacking him, I decided I would destroy his web and all it had touched.
I don’t hate you. I think I pitied you, once, after my eyes had opened. Yet you inserted yourself between his island and my ship too many times, and I knew you had made your choice. Did you ever feel the sticky strands of his webs clinging to your wings? Did you ever question, ever wonder, ever doubt? If you did, it’s too late now. I will wipe that island off the map. I will tear open the sky and obliterate his legacy. Only then will I feel his crimes have been adequately avenged.
Mage’s voice pursues her even in this place where none know her and none who do know her can find her. She is anonymous here, friendless, tetherless – and yet on the edge of sleep, on the verge of waking, still she catches the sibilant whisper in the darkness.
It isn’t possible, she tells herself. Not even her creator can find her here, to say nothing of her nemesis. Her fears run wild, that’s all, leftover from the years when paranoia kept her moving and thus safe. Alice’s body long ago learned to expect the hidden dagger, the poisoned ring, the needle in the velvet. Nothing less than constant vigilance keeps a captain alive, and it feels like she has been alive a very, very long time. It’s natural, then, for her instincts to kick at the slightest sound or movement. Many more years must pass before those instantaneous reactions ease.
At least, that’s what Alice tells herself. Still, in her more vulnerable moments she touches the scars left by Mage’s wicked hook and wonders if some of the madwoman’s darkness has infected her too. She has seen how the weapon slowly fuses itself with the sorceress, twisting from a single silver curve to black claws long and sharp as obsidian. Can whatever it is – curse, infection, parasite – help Mage track her beyond the realms of the universe, or perhaps connect them on a higher level entirely? Does a little chip of those talons sleep beneath her skin even now, waiting for an opportune moment to spread its roots and begin its takeover as well?
In the darkness she gives a small sob, half laughter and half wild desperation. Would it be ironic if in the end she became the thing against which she fought and lost so much? And if she did finally return to the island, half-monster or not, would there be anyone to greet her anyway?
The city doesn’t make sense. The streets are empty, the windows dark, the roads go on and on. Time stands still, runs backwards, or perhaps it doesn’t exist at all. Does anything exist? Is this a real place or just a stage set with the bare minimum needed to tell the story? I fear if I go too far down the wrong street, if I peer through the wrong window, I’ll glimpse the raw fabric from which the universe constructs this place. There is no entrance or exit, beginning or end. Is this Purgatory? Is this Hell? I cannot imagine it to be Heaven, unless Heaven is just a Hell of our own devising. No brimstone or lakes of fire here, though, just the repetition of memories so familiar they become all that ever happened or ever will. Is this place incomplete because all those other details – other people, other needs and demands, all the mundane realities of a fully fledged world – were simply not worth remembering?
Of course. Of course they weren’t. If you lived a hundred thousand lives, of course you’d want – need – to remember only the most important details. Of course all you’d remember are the moments made brightest by pain and love. What else has there been for you? So maybe this city isn’t some construction of Heaven or Hell at all. Maybe it’s just your minds, as intertwined as your lives, your hearts, your souls, a honeycomb network of isolated memories stripped of every nonessential detail. Maybe that’s why there’s so much you won’t tell me; maybe that’s why the city is so limited, why I can’t figure out how you got from A to C, X to Z. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to make sense because the memories themselves, clear as broken glass, are all that matter.
Characters, Alter Egos, Or Unknowable Nameless Gods?
When someone asks me what I write about, I usually say something like, I have a couple characters I write about and then nothing more. At least, that’s how I answer if I want to sound like a not-crazy person. But if I want to be truthful, I have to say something more like:
I thought I had three characters I wrote about, but it turns out two of them are probably incredibly ancient gods (or ghosts? or angels? or something even older than the very concept of either?) and the other one is an alter ego who has somehow taken on way more agency than I thought possible and may sometimes be used as a mask by dark somethings I am too afraid to face.
Let’s take a closer look at that second one. See, when I was a wee eighth grader I simultaneously discovered Lord of the Rings and DeviantArt. Being obsessed with elves, I made my DA screenname “Darkelvenmage” and quickly developed the moniker into a character who was everything I wanted to be. The Darkelvenmage was tall and willowy, pale as snow with long hair as dark as ravens’ wings, eyes as green as emeralds, and sharp features that highlighted her royalty and mystery. She wore all black and rarely spoke, but heaven help you if you pissed her off; she was heir to ancient magic, a skilled warrior, and had nothing to lose. She had been stripped of her home and her name (hence the brilliant title “dark elven mage”) and therefore wandered the world alone, neither a force of good nor evil. For my chubby, geeky thirteen year old self, Mage became a mask I could put on when I needed to feel like a badass, an alter ego who was always calm and logical, who never let her emotions get the better of her or made a fool of herself. I carried her with me through high school like a sword held between myself and all the bad things I encountered, standing just a little taller and smiling just a little more coldly. She made me feel fierce and untouchable.
In college I had a falling out with a group of online friends I’d made in high school, friends who knew me best through Mage and the story I’d given her to fit into their fantasy world. Feeling hurt and vengeful, I decided to rebel and Mage became the ally turned enemy intent on destroying the world the “good guys” had built. I loved the shock it caused, the drama, and the sudden understanding that nothing bound me to act in a particular way. Why not be the villain? Wasn’t that more fun anyway? Certainly playing Mage as the Big Bad brought me a selfish kind of joy, a way to enact a little revenge for my slighted self. Eventually, of course, some of those friends and I parted ways for good, and others of us reconciled and grew closer. But Mage stayed the villain, one with flair, dark humor, and just a dash of madness. This version of her is different from the silent, haughty one of my high school years, yet they are both true to her form. She is still my alter ego, my champion, the mask I wear on days when I wake up feeling too small and scared.
Sometimes, though, it’s like I look at Mage in my mind’s eye and… it’s not her. Something else watches out her eyes. Something that is not me, nor anything I placed there. Sometimes she feels like I’m not the one in control, like she’s not an alter anything anymore. I feel Lovecraftian presences squirming beneath her skin and taste sour names like Charybdis, Morrigan, Kali at the back of my mouth. I wonder sometimes if I have crafted Mage too well, if I am not the only one who can wear her mask. She is still a character in the strictest sense – I write her story, she does not tell me what to write (as Tanim and Daren do) – but there are times when I meet her eyes and it’s not the better, cooler version of myself staring back. I don’t know what it is, but it feels timeless and very powerful.