I would eat groves of pomegranates if by their seeds I could be cursed to remain in your kingdom of death forever. I would eat them until my teeth stained red and my fingers yellow, until that bitter juice so infused every cell in my body that I could not pass through to the realm of the living if I so desired. Come try your hand, o lofty gods, come make an attempt o you angels and demons! I would be so tainted that all the powers in the universe could not drag me from your cold realm. Every bite would win me another year until I had swallowed down a victorious eternity of darkness with you. And there I would stay, no need to name me queen – I am content merely to remain by your side.
Despite being both sun and moon, you are truly winter gods. You rule over a city of darkness and storms where summer is merely an abstract concept. Even the summer solstice is soaked in blood, after all, and the sun’s inevitable triumph is something to be mourned, not celebrated. Between the solstices are a succession of long, starless nights bleeding into short, rainy days. Or perhaps it is all the same day, the same night, the same moment drawn out into eternity; I admit it’s hard to tell. Either way, your realm is not for those who wish to honor the ever-turning wheel of the year and its balance of light and dark, death and rebirth. You are gods of death only. Each solstice is ushered in with blood and in between darkness reigns.
Mage opened her eyes to an unfamiliar room. The floor and walls were all of dark stone and the tall arched ceiling disappeared into darkness. Only weak light filtering in from recessed windows high above provided any lighting, and that served more to strengthen than dispel the shadows.
“Hello, nameless one,” A voice from somewhere behind and above her made Mage twist around in a ready stance. “Who–” She tilted her head back to see the speaker fully and then sighed, relaxing her defensive pose with a slump of her shoulders. “Ah shit, am I dead?”
“You are indeed,” The figure before her nodded, face hidden by a raven skull mask. The goddess stood several times taller than Mage’s not inconsiderable height, her body hidden by a cloak of raven’s feathers that stirred on the ground as if from an unperceived wind. When she spoke her words echoed both through the stone chamber and within Mage’s mind. “Welcome to the halls of the Raven Queen.”
“Thanks… I think,” Mage’s eyes wandered as she searched her memory for what had happened before she’d woken up in this strange room. At first the thoughts were too slippery to hold onto, like half-remembered dreams, but then they solidified. She remembered a battle, fire and lightning and earth all torn up and hurled together. Someone yelling and someone else – her – cackling in joy. “Oh!” She looked back up to the Raven Queen. “Did I at least take the avatar out with me?”
“Yes, for what that may be worth to you,” A hint of amusement crept into the goddess’ voice, though with the mask on it was difficult to determine at what exactly she was amused. “As you know, their path to reincarnation is a little more straightforward than yours. Somewhere a baby takes its first breath and the cycle begins anew.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Mage waved the news away. “It was still fun though.” Clearly unconcerned about her own death, she began examining the hall with marked disappointment. “Huh, I was kind of expecting, like… a lake of fire or something. For my misdeeds and stuff.”
“That can be your fate, if you prefer,” The towering figure shrugged elegantly. “However, I have a better proposition for you. I have need of your… particular skills… in regards to souls which have escaped their appointed fates and have thus unbalanced the worlds. If you are willing to act as my avatar on the other planes when necessary, I am prepared to offer in return a place within my halls.” She spread black-clad arms to encompass the realm over which she reigned. “No lake of fire, no eternal darkness. Plus you can kill things. So very many things.”
“Hmm…” Mage pursed her lips and rolled her head back and forth in contemplation, then shrugged. “Sounds pretty sweet. I’m in.” She spit on her hand and held it out. The Raven Queen grimaced behind her mask but shook the proffered hand anyway while replying, “Then let this pact be sealed.”
Yes. You promised. And yet here I am, as alone as I was before you came. You are gone and I wait like a fool for an end I swore to you I would not hasten. Please, darling, could you keep this one promise, could you do just this one thing for me? I asked so little of you while you were here and you know it. You owe me this. Please, don’t make me break my word to you by breaking yours to me. I can’t wait any longer.
it occurs to me that perhaps my life is just like The Others, you know, and – SPOILER ALERT – it turns out i was the ghost all along, what a fucking plot twist, no wonder all the things i tried to hold onto kept slipping away, no wonder all the times i tried to stop you from leaving you just passed right through me like i wasn’t even there – because i wasn’t there, was i, i wasn’t on your mind or even on your same fucking plane of existence, so yeah, maybe all these years ive been haunting you and not the other way around, wouldn’t that explain some things, and maybe you finally found some priest or medium to exorcise me so you can sleep at night without my chains rattling in the hallway, good job i guess, sweet dreams, but you know ill be back
“You can watch them. But you can’t help.”
Dhashi leans over the Raven Queen’s stone basin, hands gripping the sides. Tears roll down her cheeks and splash into the water below, sending ripples through the image displayed on the surface. “Row…” she sobs, “Ilkan…”
Through the basin she watches her friends struggle to grasp what has happened. In the living world there is nothing left of her, only a smear of black ash, her staff, and Charlie the betta fish in his little glass bowl. Row kneels over the ashes, nearly hysterical with guilt and disbelief; Ilkan, tears even leaking from his own eyes, gently scoops up the fish bowl and cradles it in his giant calloused hands.
She watches Row smear a palmful of ashes onto the knitted scarf Dhashi made her. She watches as Ilkan and the priestess Solenna try to resurrect her, not knowing they will summon someone else into the aasimar’s body. A champion, the Raven Queen had said, sent as a ringer to ensure the party’s success against Bezos. Mage, the champion is called. But this Mage is a cruel soul, mocking and arrogant, and her presence only serves to rub salt in the wounds of Dhashi’s friends.
She watches as the trio travels on to the next temple, even more eager now to see this awful quest done. She watches Row try to drown herself in drink, in battle, in anything that makes her feel differently or not at all. She watches Ilkan shoulder Row’s grief and carry it silently with his own, just as he carries the little fish bowl with such care. She watches a stranger parade around in her body, someone far stronger and cleverer than she, and Dhashi wonders – just for a brief, lonely second – if her friends are better off with someone more useful than her.
Dhashi watches but can do nothing to comfort her friends, to let them know that she is okay, if not… okay. She can only hope they find the strength in their grief to keep fighting, to complete the quest for which she died. They do not trust the creature that inhabits her body and she does not either, but she knows she must trust the Raven Queen. The goddess is not unkind, after all; she told Dhashi she had done well by her friends, and Dhashi knows it was not the Raven Queen who made Row use the curse. Plus, she has already told Dhashi that she might return to the living world, albeit in the goddess’ service as another of her champions. The girl agreed without hesitation or question. She must go back as soon as possible. What will her friends do without her?
Eventually her tears are too many and she must turn away for a moment. But she will continue to watch. She will be with her friends even if they cannot see or hear her. She will become the Raven Queen’s champion, no matter what this means, and she will return to her friends. She will tell Row it wasn’t her fault. She will tell Ilkan he’s not as unfeeling as he pretends to be. They’ll keep traveling together and do good deeds and save the world again, maybe. Everything will be okay.
It has to be.
o wounded Lucifer, beautiful in your pain, your wicked smile daring make it quick as the blade presses against your bared throat, there are none more perfect than you, none more suffering than you, none who dare lay claim to your crown of madness for you were born to wear it