Be careful when promising your firstborn! Make sure you stipulate your first born human child, blood of your blood and flesh of your flesh. Otherwise the fae with whom you made the fateful arrangement might one day come for your first novel, your first painting, your first album. They are wily ones who find even the smallest loopholes in an agreement; if that contract isn’t airtight, it won’t matter if you never have a child in the traditional sense. On the day you complete your first and most precious creation, no matter what form it takes, the fae will come knocking. Will the bargain have been worth it when they leave with the product of your sweat, blood, and tears?
“Point,” Alice scowled as the practice blade darted through her defense and poked at an unpadded joint. She shifted her stance and went on the offense.
“Point,” The blade whipped around Ali’s attack to tap her unguarded throat. Blowing a sweaty strand of hair off her face with an impatient huff, she responded with a renewed assault, her own rapier a flashing blur in the sunlight.
“Point,” Mage grinned as she slipped around the whirling blade, snuck a quick jab through another gap in her opponent’s light armor, and jumped back before Ali could retaliate. “Jeeze,” she called, “did you line your armor with lead or something? Why’re you moving so damn slow?”
“I’m just tired,” Alice growled, trying to close the distance between them with each swing of her blade. “Some of us have been dreamwalking to aid the defenseless instead of lazing about the palace all day.” Mage only scoffed at this. “Oh darling,” she retorted, “you and I both know that’s not what this is about! You’ve been out of sorts for weeks. Something on your–” she dashed in, bopped Alice on the crown with her free hand, and dashed back out, “–mind?”
“No!” Ali rubbed her head and fixed Mage with a baleful glare. “I’m fine! Just drop it.”
“You suuuuure?” The elf danced in a circle around Alice, feinting with the practice blade just enough to force the other immortal off-balance from dodging. “‘Cause you seem pretty distracted lately! What is it, huh? What’s up? What’s going on?” Her sword moved in time with the rapid-fire questions. “Are you mad? Are you sad? Are you hangry? Are you–“
“I’m not mad!” The shout echoed through the training ground, followed by the clattering of Alice’s falling sword. It startled even Mage into stillness. Ali’s next words were a mutter through clenched teeth. “I’m jealous, okay? I’m jealous that you got to have your revenge. You spent years meting out your own brand of justice for what Tivius did. You broke the Lighthouse, for gods’ sake! I’m not saying I wish I had done it instead, or that I agree with what you did, but…” She shrugged. “At least you let all your wounds bleed themselves clean.”
“Ali…” The sound was more sigh than actual commentary. Mage set her rapier down with a bit more care than Alice had and closed the distance between them. Before she could offer any platitudes, snarky or otherwise, Alice held up a hand to stop her. “It’s true,” the woman continued. “I fought for Tivs’ legacy until the very end, even when I was utterly alone. And then we came here and all that’s suddenly in the past, we’re free, time to let it go, and I guess I never dealt with the emotions I’d buried during the war. Not the way you did.” She hugged her arms around her thin frame. “I think I tried to heal the wounds he left so quickly that I never bothered to drain them and now they’re…”
“Infected and full of puss?” Mage offered helpfully. The lump that had been building in Alice’s throat broke free in a burst of laughter. “Yeah,” she chuckled, “something like that.”
“Hmm…” A sly smile pulled up one corner of Mage’s mouth. “You know, normally I’d suggest tracking down the motherfucker who hurt you and exacting some very physical revenge as therapy, but in this circumstance that’s rather complicated. So…” The training ground blurred around them with a snap of Mage’s fingers. When their surroundings sharpened once more, Alice and Mage stood on the swaying deck of the Jolly Roger. Lightning jumped between storm clouds overhead and briefly illuminated the dark hulk of an island on the horizon.
“There we go!” Mage clapped Ali on the back and bent to retrieve her sword. “Why don’t you try reliving one of my battles? Blowing shit up can be very liberating.”
Behold, my 2020 book list! 2020 wasn’t kind to me reading-wise, as being part of my state’s covid response really messed up my overall schedule, so I read way fewer books this year than in most years. Still, I made up for that by reading some REALLY good books – including 26 with queer characters and at least 13 from authors of color. Highlights included The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, The Shadow of Kyoshi, and the Locked Tomb, Broken Earth, and Ascendant trilogies. House of Leaves was good, but I was expecting it to have a higher body count and I wanted more spooky house shenanigans and less relationship angst.
Did you read any of these books? DO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT THEM WITH ME?? Let me know!
- All the Windwracked Stars – Elizabeth Bear
- The Grand Escape – Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
- Flaming Lioness: Ancient Hymns for Egyptian Goddesses – Chelsea Luellon Bolton
- By the Mountain Bound – Elizabeth Bear
- The Sea Thy Mistress – Elizabeth Bear
- She-ra and the Princesses of Power: Legend of the Fire Princess – Gigi D.G
- House of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski
- Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition – Paul Watson
- Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer – Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer
- The Cat in Ancient Egypt – Jaromir Malek
- Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
- March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown – Ed. by Elmer Luke and David Karashima
- Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic – Steven Biel
- Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone – Richard Lloyd Parry
- Deathless Divide (Dread Nation) – Justina Ireland
- Stone Mad: A Karen Memory Adventure – Elizabeth Bear
- The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home: A Welcome to Night Vale Novel – Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
- Lord of Strength and Power: Ancient Hymns for Wepwawet – Chelsea Luellon Bolton
- Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women – Sylvia Brinton Perera
- The Essential Rumi – Trans. by Coleman Barks
- The Best of Elizabeth Bear – Elizabeth Bear
- Mongrels – Stephen Graham Jones
- Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb Trilogy Book 1) – Tamsyn Muir
- The Shadow of Kyoshi – FC Lee
- Harrow the Ninth (The Locked Tomb Trilogy Book 2) – Tamsyn Muir
- Drowning in the Floating World: Poems – Meg Eden
- Lord of the Ways: An Anthology for Wepwawet – Ed. Dianne Bolton
- Seven Devils – Laura Lam and Elizabeth May
- The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) – N K Jemisin
- The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth Book 2) – N K Jemisin
- Heathen: Volume 3 – Natasha Alterici
- The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Book 3) – N K Jemisin
- Dragon Pearl – Yoon Ha Lee
- Excuse Me, Are You A Witch? – Emily Horn and Pawet Pawlak
- Crow And Weasel – Barry Lopez and Tom Pohrt
- Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan
- Wilder Girls – Rory Power
- The Scapegracers – Hannah Abigail Clarke
- The Deep – Rivers Solomon
- The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon
- Three for the Road: Stories from Dread Nation – Justina Ireland
- The Tiger’s Daughter (The Ascendant Trilogy Book 1) – K Arsenault Rivera
- The Phoenix Empress (The Ascendant Trilogy Book 2) – K Arsenault Rivera
- Girls of Storm and Shadow – Natasha Ngan
- Witch Pilgrim Heretic – K.D. Hume
- Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy – George Behe
When the Lighthouse was completed and the Magician first lit the beacon, its light swept across every universe in existence. It called to all the lost and wandering, the hurt, the exiled, the unwanted. This was his intention, that the Light should be a guiding star to all those wayward souls stumbling in the darkness and lead them to the island of Sanctuary. They would be his Lost Boys and he their Pan; a little island kingdom of his own to rule. Yet in his arrogance the Magician never considered his message might reach someone who had been exiled for good reason, nor did he imagine he might summon someone who would not bow to him and could not be cowed by his stolen magic. But he did. The one the Lost would come to call Mage felt that first pulse of the Light from universes away and turned toward it, curious. And then she began to walk.
Some nights Mage lays on the bowsprit of the Jolly Roger and listens to the monsters in the deep groaning against their chains. She dangles her fingers in the icy seawater and sings them lullaby promises of wreckage and ruin. I know what it means to be confined, her songs soothe with wordless melody. I know what it means to be so full of rage, so lost in madness, and yet be denied your rightful vengeance. Hush, she croons, I will free you soon and we will break worlds beneath us. It is a promise to all the maligned beast-horrors exiled to the unkind places of the universe. It is a promise to herself.
You thought yourself so gifted by the Sight that you could miss nothing, not in the Otherworld and certainly not in this one, and look what a fucking fool you’ve been for it. He says “Let me go, Adrian, I’m not worth it, don’t risk yourself,” and you see for the first time what this man was trying to tell you with all those years of faithful service that you never once questioned, only took for granted because you thought them your due as the greatest Spiritualist of your age. Well congratulations, your name and work are certainly well known indeed to have drawn the attention of Hell itself! Now you bend over the bed and take his hand in yours, though his skin burns so hot it sears your palm, and you swear you will find a way to free him from the Devil’s clutches. His smile is a pitying thing (does he doubt your abilities or that you care enough for him to risk your life at all? you can’t tell because you haven’t bothered to learn to read him the way he’s learned to read you, oh you really have been an arrogant fool) and then it’s wiped away as he folds over with a cry of agony and you watch, helpless despite all your lofty arcane knowledge, as the taut flesh of his back splits apart, revealing a trench full of grasping, waving black tendrils where muscle and bone should be. This isn’t in any of your books, nor any tale of possession you’ve ever encountered in your travels, but you know instinctively that if you let those things touch your skin you’ll be taken over too. You tear your hand away just as fissures open along his arms, his chest, those tentacles that make you think somehow of fungi reaching for you eagerly. “I’m sorry, Damien,” you choke out, “I’ll fix this, I will,” and you run like the coward you truly are, leaving him alone to do battle with Satan while you plan your next move from the safety of your study.
Liberty Palace is perfect. It really is. After all, it was made with sympathetic magic to be the perfect home for its two occupants, a place of peace and healing after centuries of pain and struggle. And yet… some nights the beds are a little too soft or the marble floors too still, the halls too silent. No matter how Mage tosses and turns, she just can’t sleep. Her restless blood sets all her limbs twitching and her senses strain against the quiet darkness. Eventually she abandons hope of real slumber, throws on a cloak, and lets her feet take her where they will. Better than staring up at the ceiling until dawn.
One clear night Alice finds her on the roof of the observatory, crouched on the ledge with her knees drawn up against her chest. “The moons are beautiful tonight,” she comments as she sits down beside Mage, letting her long legs dangle over the edge. The women pass some time in companionable silence as they gaze up at Liberty’s star-strewn sky. One moon slips toward the horizon while another climbs higher over their heads. A cool breeze carries the heady scent of night-blooming flowers from the nearby gardens.
“I miss it,” Mage says finally, breaking the silence as she gazes out across the dark landscape. “The ship. It was the first place I felt like I truly belonged. Like it was really mine. I never felt that way on the island, not even in the good times before everything went down. But the ship…” She shrugs, a wry smile pulling at one side of her mouth, half sad and half making mockery of her own feelings. “It was home. I didn’t even realize I had grown so used to all the little things, you know? The sound of wind in the rigging, the snap of the sails, the creak of the timbers; the constant sway and roll of the deck under my feet. But now they’re gone and sometimes I feel their absence like a hole in my heart.” Her eyes flick self consciously over to Ali and then she turns her head away to hide the flush burning her cheeks, muttering, “It’s stupid, I know.”
A soft laugh from her companion makes Mage wince until Ali rests her head on her shoulder. “It’s not stupid,” the other woman sighs. “Sometimes I can’t sleep because I keep waiting for the bright pulse from the lighthouse to wash through the room. That damned thing was broken for years and yet I still find myself longing for the comfort of its steady rhythm, even after all that’s happened and despite all it represents now. Because it was home.” She tilts her head so her cheek is pressed against the curve of Mage’s neck. Mage can feel the flutter of long lashes as Alice closes her eyes and murmurs, “It will pass. We’ll fill this place with new memories and it will become a home too. Our home.”
Angel, angel, what have I done?
I’ve faced the quakes, the wind, the fire.
I’ve conquered country, crown, and throne;
Why can’t I cross this river?
He comes in the afternoon lull, after lunch and games. The younger children are all napping in the dormitories; the older children are at their chores or studying quietly. Few visit the Temple at this hour, save for the occasional childless mother wanting to light a candle or friendly beggar hoping to escape the day’s oppressive heat in the cool of the sanctuary.
He is certainly no beggar. The priestess barely has to look up from tidying the pillow-strewn pews to know this; the shadow that falls across the open doorway is much too large for its owner to have ever had to beg for anything. When she straightens and turns her full attention to him, however, a thrill of fear chills the sweat beneath her robes. What stands in – no, FILLS – the doorway is the largest tabaxi the priestess has ever seen. His white mane and fur are caked in road dust, crisscrossed by old scars and several still-healing wounds. Strapped across his back is a sword easily as long as she is tall, maybe longer, and his fingers gleam at the end with curved claws. No armor, but with that much weaponry and muscle he hardly needs it. A mercenary, most likely, or one turned bandit.
“We don’t keep much coin on the premises,” she manages to assert with a modicum of steel, “if that’s what you’re after.” The Temple of Kodkod is served almost completely by women, many of whom came to it from domestic lives of motherhood, wet-nursing, or midwifery. It is a quiet place, a gentle place, yet that does not mean its staff will not lay down their lives to protect the orphans who dwell here. The priestess has only a simple dagger, hidden away so no chubby child hand may grab it, but she will fight until her final breath if need be.
“I’m not here to rob your temple,” the tabaxi rumbles as he steps forward, raising one hand toward the sword’s hilt. She flinches back as he draws the bright, ringing steel from its sheath – but instead of swinging the sword at her, the tabaxi kneels and lays it at her feet. “I’m here to serve it.”
Pay no mind to the battles you’ve won;
it’ll take a lot more than rage and muscle.
Open your heart and hands, my son,
Or you’ll never make it o’r the river.
–Pucifer, The Humbling River
It have many names. A/pep. Abbadon. Satan. Fenrir. Dragon, Wyrm, Snake. Many names, same entity. Immortal, strong enough to crush world in claws. One day it learn how to take seeds of itself, make lesser monsters. Demons you call them. Some immortal like it and some not. But all very powerful.
I was one. Chalix. Humans call me hell hound. I like them, they little but fierce. Candle flickers, lifes so short, but full of living. Demons are forever but do not so much living. Boring to serve Dragon always.
Demons cut through humans like leaves, many ages, until few left. Other creatures like Dragon, ones humans call gods, give some magic. They last longer. But magic not enough. Technology not enough. Endless war come to close in far future. Humans so few yet still fight. They love life so they give it for others. Demons do not do this thing.
But we can. So Chalix chose. Humans. They are so fragile, but not Chalix. Demon make good sacrifice. Piece of Dragon? Very powerful. It not understand this. It crush Chalix like bug but can not undo giving. So humans have chance now. You have chance now. Last stand. Do not waste, yes?
Chalix good boy.
The library is, perhaps, Liberty Palace’s ultimate gift to Mage. It has been so very long since she was cast out of her first home, and so long since she has let her thoughts dwell on that time, that she had almost forgotten the reason for her banishment. The true reason, at least; not the council’s fabrications.
What her people had seen as a thirst for power was a thirst for knowledge, and a belief that all knowledge should be free to those who would seek it. Even knowledge which could be misused. Even knowledge which had been misused. But no, their fear ruled their hearts and clouded their minds. They locked that darker, truer knowledge away behind glass cases and sealed doors. They forced ignorance on their people. That was what she had rebelled against; not the lack of power, but the lack of choice.
It would not be an exaggeration to say the library in Liberty Palace contains every book which has ever existed. In fact, it would be an understatement. The library in Liberty Palace contains not just every book but every scroll, every parchment, every scrap of papyrus. It contains texts long lost to the histories of a thousand different times on a thousand different worlds. It contains writings no eyes but those of their authors have ever seen. It contains books thought mere myth from lands thought mere legend. Even given an eternity, one might not reach the end of the words contained in this one room.
Some of the texts do contain exceedingly dangerous information, of course. In the wrong hands such knowledge could enslave nations or destroy whole planets, slay gods or raise them from the dead, even tear apart the very fabric of space and time. But Mage has been there and done that, and her interest in such things is only academic now. She finds infinitely greater satisfaction in rushing to show her latest discovery to Alice or in spending an evening together by the fire translating and discussing some cryptic passage.
This is not a side of herself Mage shares often; even back on the island she guarded it closely, recalling with bitterness how easily her passion and knowledge could be turned against her. Yet it feels natural to bring these things to Alice, who finds them fascinating as well, and so Mage never notices the fond glances or amused smiles on her companion’s face. She doesn’t realize that Ali is watching a flower slowly uncurl upon a vine that has for so long grown only thorns.
Liberty Palace had several rooms that the Lighthouse didn’t … mainly the Wings in each cardinal direction. Ali liked the East and Mage liked the West, and they shared the other Wings between themselves.
Unlike the three other Wings, the West Wing wasn’t technically a wing at all. Its hallway from the main atrium looked like the others, yet instead of leading into a grand room it ended at an archway beneath which wide stone stairs descended deep into the earth. These stairs lead to what Ali and Mage called the West Wing – a vast network of interconnected caverns filled with all manner of stones and crystals. The walls of some “rooms” were held up by massive quartz columns while others were covered with countless tiny crystals that glittered in their own light. Stalactites and stalagmites turned some caverns into gaping beast mouths; layers of smooth, rippled calcite transformed other walls into frozen waterfalls. Many crystals were familiar – amethyst, citrine, fluorite, smoky quartz, malachite, tourmaline in a hundred colorful variations – while others were like nothing found on any other world.
Mage spent hours wandering the labyrinthine paths of the West Wing. It was she who discovered the underground river which fed the pool in the East Wing, and a great chamber in which a ring of crystal towers made a perfect casting circle. So too did she discover the chain of hot springs, where heat and mineral water worked to soak away her pains after a long day in the gardens or a few rounds in the armory. Now that the centuries of battle and vengeance were past, Mage found her long lack of self-care catching up with her. Immortal she might be, and capable of wielding frighteningly powerful magic, but that did not make her immune to exhaustion’s lasting effects. And cold! She had been so cold for so long she had forgotten how wonderful it felt to be warm through to your bones. Ali would join her from time to time, and in between leave little packets of herbs and oils on a nearby stone ledge as a surprise.
The problem is that he tried to build a perfect world. His perfect world. And like all humans (for he was naught but human, no matter what the tales say, and a man at that) he equated perfection with an absence of that which humans find most evil: change, unpredictability, loss. Chaos. Yet a changeless world is a static world, an unbalanced world, and an unbalanced system cannot survive. Chaos always finds its way in to establish equilibrium once more – and the greater the correction needed, the more violent the catalyst. Thus my coming was almost foretold. He practically invited me in. Perhaps if he had not so arrogantly assumed his world unassailable I might never have been drawn there in the first place. But it was so fragile, that pretty little island where you could hide away and pretend everything was perfect, and its fantasy needed shattering. I never expected gratitude, of course, not from those who were lost in the lie. Reestablishing balance, bringing darkness to a place where only light reigned, was compensation enough. All fools meet their folly; I was his.
Another year, another book list! Some of this year’s gems included Dread Nation, The Rise of Kyoshi, An Unkindness of Ghosts, and the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. On the other hand, The Abominable was frankly quite abominable. Only 23 books with queer characters, though, so I gotta do better next year!
- The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury
- The Machineries of Joy – Ray Bradbury
- The Spoon River Anthology – Edgar Lee Masters
- The Terror: A Novel – Dan Simmons
- S Is For Space – Ray Bradbury
- Long After Midnight – Ray Bradbury
- The October Country – Ray Bradbury
- The Ruins – Scott Smith
- The Cat’s Pajamas Stories – Ray Bradbury
- Death In The Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition – Karen Ryan
- The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth By Day – Dr. Ogden Goelet
- The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Troop – Nick Cutter
- The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R Tolkien
- The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien
- Dust (Jacob’s Ladder Book 1) – Elizabeth Bear
- The Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien
- Mutiny on the Bounty – Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
- Men Against the Sea – Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
- Pitcairn’s Island – Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
- Chill (Jacob’s Ladder Book 2) – Elizabeth Bear
- The Archer’s Heart Book 1 – Astrid Amara
- The Archer’s Heart Book 2 – Astrid Amara
- The Archer’s Heart Book 3 – Astrid Amara
- Dread Nation – Justina Ireland
- An Unkindness of Ghosts – Rivers Solomon
- The House of Dust: A Symphony – Conrad Aiken
- The Fur Person – May Sarton
- Grail (Jacob’s Ladder Book 3) – Elizabeth Bear
- The Oathbound (Vows and Honor Book 1) – Mercedes Lackey
- Oathbreakers (Vows and Honor Book 2) – Mercedes Lackey
- The Ancient Egyptian Prayer Book – Tamara Siuda
- The Buying of Lot 37 (Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 3) – Joseph Fink
- Oathblood (Vows and Honor Book 3) – Mercedes Lackey
- Magic in Ancient Egypt – Geraldine Pinch
- Dreamdark Book 1: Blackbringer – Laini Taylor
- Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat – L.A. Vocelle
- Hathor: A Reintroduction to an Ancient Egyptian Goddess – Lesley Jackson
- The Wicker King – K. Ancrum
- Who’s A Good Boy? (Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 4) – Joseph Fink
- My Name Is Inanna – Tamara Albanna
- My Name Is The Morrigan – Tamara Albanna
- From a Cat’s View: An Anthology of Stories Told By Cats – Robin Praytor, et. al.
- Avatar the Last Airbender: The Rise of Kyoshi (The Kyoshi Novels) – F. C. Yee
- The Abominable: A Novel – Dan Simmons
- Sekhmet and Bast: The Feline Powers of Egypt – Lesley Jackson
- Mesopotamian Goddesses: Unveiling Your Feminine Power – Weam Namou
- Cleopatra’s Daughter: A Novel – Michelle Moran
- Five Dark Fates (Three Dark Crowns Book 4) – Kendare Blake
- The Heretic Queen: A Novel – Michelle Moran
- Nefertiti: A Novel – Michelle Moran
- Remember Me – Christopher Pike
- The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt – Kara Cooney
- The Wicked and the Divine Vol. 9: Okay – Gillen McKelvie
- Tremontaine: Season 1 – Ellen Kushner, et. al.
- The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons From the Natural World – Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
- Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World – Vicki Myron
- Tremontaine: Season 2 – Ellen Kushner, et. al.
- Tremontaine: Season 3 – Ellen Kushner, et. al.
- Tremontaine: Season 4 – Ellen Kushner, et. al.
- Swordspoint – Ellen Kushner
- Heathen, Volume 1 – Natasha Alterici
- Heathen, Volume 2 – Natasha Alterici
- The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire Part 1 – Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino
- The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire Part 2 – Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino
- 100 Cats Who Changed History: History’s Most Influential Felines – Sam Stall
- Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl – Mary Mycio
You had the chance to be better than the ones who cast me out. You had the chance and yet you threw it away. It wouldn’t have even been hard; they weren’t exactly tough competition. All you needed to do was accept me as I was, to let me show you more than just a polished surface without judgment or correction, but you couldn’t even do that. You who prided yourself on being so noble, on building a haven for the unwanted, you glimpsed the truth of me and found me… what, wanting somehow? Not quite as worth your time and effort? Or did you, like those who first rejected me, gaze into the depths I revealed and glimpse something beyond your control? Did you see a steel spine which would not bend to your demands, or perhaps all the sharp edges I’ve honed over the years? You’re just like my last sorry excuse for a family; cowardly, weak, grasping at every little scrap of control like the misers you are. How pathetic. How disappointing. How predictable.
I still believe you loved me, even despite everything you did and everything you are. I think your claim that your profession of love was just a trick, a game, a twisting of the knife was as much to fool yourself as it was to fool me. Love and cruelty are not mutually exclusive, after all; I believed you capable of both and I always will. Does the year we spent together matter, though, if you chose to throw it away at the end to retain your precious reputation? You fool, I accepted you as you are – sadist, killer, monster, demon, I loved those parts of you and never once did I seek to repress them, even to my own detriment. If you chose not to act on certain desires, if you chose not to torture me like all your other victims, you have only your own battle of heart and mind to blame. I never intended to love you. You never intended to love me. Yet I did, you did, and the sum of us might have been a truly unstoppable force if you had but reigned in your stubborn pride just this once. Pride and fear: do you realize how much you let such mortal emotions rule you? You like to think you care for nothing beyond your simple carnal pleasures but really you are just like the rest of us, riddled with complex needs and reactions you cannot simply ignore. You love me. I know you do. And that knowledge will be of some comfort, albeit small, when I one day find your knife in my chest. That will hurt you more than it will hurt me, you know.
“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?”
They thought exile a fittingly cruel punishment, yet instead it blessed her with the only thing she had ever desired: freedom. For the first time in all the long years of her life she had no name, no family, no home and thus no rules, no chains, no gilded cage. She was free to finally stretch her cramped wings, to fly or fall as she wished with no one to catch or constrain her. She had been born to captivity, no choice there, but now that she was free she would never let herself be imprisoned again. No more masks! No more fetters! As a nameless and homeless wanderer none could claim dominion over her. In the wilderness she would grow teeth and claws, become proudly feral, a thing of fierce autonomy earned and protected through bloodshed. They expected her to suffer in exile, far from the courtly comforts of home, but only because they never understood – the cage was all that had restrained her.
They will never believe you, just like they never believed poor Cassandra. Except in her case it was the curse’s fault; what convenient excuse do you have? No god-given curse, no fatal prophecy, no unavoidable destiny. Nothing to fall back on but your own shortcomings. And at least Cassandra knew she was telling the truth, even if no one believed her. That was surely some small comfort in the end. Do you know if you’re telling the truth? Do you know if any of this is even real? Maybe no one believes you because they know it’s bullshit. Or maybe… maybe no one believes you because no one’s listening in the first place. Even mad Cassandra didn’t have that problem. How pathetic.
They say the world of the dark sisters is all shadow and that is why only in the light of moon or flame may they appear in ours. If that were the case, I would never spend a moment in daylight again. I would shun the day and wake only once moonlight or candlelight could call you forth. I would only ever want you by my side, even if that meant I’d never feel the warmth of the sun again. Your presence would be worth any sacrifice. I would wait every day, every night, every heartbeat for you to step forth from your dark world. No matter how long it might take, I would wait. I will wait. I am here. Sister, will you join me?
It has been a very long time since Mage worked to create, not destroy. Seeing the fruits of a day’s labor in trees planted or bricks laid, not in buildings destroyed or ships burned, feels strange indeed. Satisfying, yet strange. The work could be done faster and easier with magic, but she finds solace in the sweat and blood of manual labor. Dirt under her nails, leaves in her hair, it’s all so delightfully mundane. When did Mage last have a true place to call her own? A home to tend with mindful love, and no threat of it being ripped away? She had long ago forgotten what “home” really meant. She is slowly relearning its meaning here on Liberty. Mage is the Wanderer, the Exile Queen, no more.
The hook is not a tool of creation, though. While it can be bent to any task, its true dark nature bleeds through when used for good. She gardens and her clawed right hand leaves the soil slightly parched; she builds and a little stone flakes away with every touch; she cooks and the taste of char seeps into everything she makes. The effects aren’t devastating, it’s true, yet they rankle her, sour her every accomplishment. She does not speak of it with Alice, however. Mage accepts this burden as payment for the ruin she inflicted with the hook, a fitting penance now that she wishes more than anything to be rid of the damned weapon.
What will be will be, she tells herself. She tries to take one day at a time now, and that too is strange yet satisfying.
I am negation and I am destruction
I am entropy and I am anarchy
I am Nemesis, I am Charybdis
I am a black hole, I am a rotten soul
I am your undoing
and I am coming
It was never about the girl or her grandmother or even the woods; all that was incidental. It was always about the wolf and the hunter. They are brothers, after all, twin apex predators caught in the same orbit. Only one may rule the forest at a time and so the dance continues as the sun and moon revolve endlessly overhead. On another day it might have been the hunter who caught Little Red unawares and the wolf who came to the rescue just to rob his enemy of a nice meal. After all, are they really so different? When you’re walking along the forest path and hear the snapping of a twig, can you tell what manner of monster follows you from the shadows? And does it even matter once you’re sitting in its stomach?
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.
There and Back Again, or: How The Hobbit Trilogy Let Me Down (and I’m clearly not over it)
So I’m a little late to this particular party (haha, party pun for ya), but having recently reread The Hobbit and finally finished the associated movie trilogy, I need to get some things off my chest. Before I get into all that, though, let’s establish my ring-cred so you understand why I feel so let down. The Fellowship of the Ring came out in theaters when I was in eighth grade and I, along with many of my friends, was immediately obsessed. I probably saw it ten or fifteen times in theaters and attended the midnight releases of the second and third movies in costume. My friends and I religiously attended our local Lord of the Rings (LOTR) convention and were so well known in the fantasy con/renaissance faire circuit that everyone called us The Fellowship. My room was filled with LOTR posters, figurines, replicas, games, books, trading cards, and just about every other related thing I could beg my parents to purchase. I even had a LOTR-themed birthday party with a buffet spread of which any hobbit would be proud. So when I say I was a fan, I mean it – and I still am. My wife and I routinely quote the books/movies and I’m currently rereading the trilogy. Hell, I took a LOTR-themed writing class in college! What I’m saying is, this is a love that will never die. I am loyal to LOTR until the end.
All that being said… I was supremely disappointed with the Hobbit movies. In fact, I was so disappointed by the first two that I didn’t even see the third one in theaters (sacrilege!). I rewatched them recently hoping to change my mind, thinking perhaps my expectations had just been too high the first time around, but my opinion remains the same: they’re just not good movies. And believe me, it truly pains me to admit that. I feel like I’m betraying a piece of my childhood merely by offering criticism where criticism is justly deserved. Maybe cloaked figures will show up at my door in the middle of the night to whisk me away to Mordor, or other fantasy fans will cross the street to avoid passing by me, yet still I have to speak this truth no matter how it breaks my geeky heart.
Many critics have already dissected the movies’ main weak points – mediocre special effects, bloated plots, and unnecessarily lengthy action scenes to name a few – so I won’t repeat them here, but all of these issues lead back to what I believe is the real flaw in the trilogy: its creators just tried too hard to recapture a magic that can’t be forced. You see this with many popular franchises that have become very dead and very beaten horses (like my beloved Jurassic Park, alas!), so it’s obviously an easy pit into which creators frequently stumble. The thought process seems to be something along the lines of, “They liked what we did last time, let’s just do that again exactly the same way” without actually considering what they did and why it was so successful. Sequels in these franchises become copy/paste plots with so many allusions to the previous movies that even the most faithful fan grows tired of being pandered to. We don’t want old characters and old plots dressed up in different outfits, we want new characters and new adventures!
The Hobbit trilogy tries so damn hard to be dark and edgy like LOTR and it just doesn’t work. It’s obvious the creators threw the book out the window, along with its humor and lighthearted vibe, and just pasted Bilbo and co. into the LOTR framework. All of our heroes are updated with tragic backstories and noble, selfless motives: Thorin becomes the burdened, exiled prince trying to save his remaining people, Bard is now a widower forced to smuggle so he can care for his young children, and the dwarf who falls in love with an elf (because every movie needs a star-crossed romance) is somehow stabbed with a morgul arrow so his lovely lady can dramatically save his life in the nick of time. It’s just all so cookie-cutter obvious and feels like LOTR played out with different actors. They even managed to shove Legolas in there because why not? We definitely need another ten-minute action scene of Legolas shooting arrows and surfing on vines.
There’s no heart in The Hobbit. I don’t doubt that it was a labor of love, of course, because you can’t produce a movie trilogy that complex without people who love what they’re doing, but it lacks the essential magic that made the first trilogy so captivating. The action scenes feel meaningless, primarily because there are so fucking many of them that you become oversaturated with the constant high-stakes drama, and the plot bits in between feel too repetitive to be truly engaging. By the third movie this horse is not only dead and beaten but practically unrecognizable as a once-living creature. All you really want to do now is kick some dirt over the remains and leave. And that sucks, honestly, because I went into this trilogy ready to renew my obsession with a childhood passion and yet came out of it feeling… well, tired, mostly. Like butter scraped over too much bread, if you know what I mean.
I didn’t really have a point to this rant; I mostly needed to get it out of my head so I would stop harassing my friends about it. I just… I really love the LOTR universe and I strongly believe The Hobbit could be made into a fantastic movie. By pandering to the box office, though, we missed out on that potential awesomeness and instead got a LOTR prequel trilogy that didn’t really add anything to the franchise. There’s probably a good metaphor here about what happens when you’re driven by money (*cough* gold *cough*) instead of a more noble desire, but I’m ready to bury this horse once and for all. Rest in peace, mellon.
Alice floats through space, sliding past stars and the dark bulk of distant planets. She bumps against a glyph and loops her arms around one end, leaning on it as she sees what looms before her – a gaping black hole. It’s ancient, a monster that has lurked at the center of the universe for countless eons, swallowing everything in its reach. Yet overshadowing this event is an even greater threat: Mage rises beyond and over the black hole, grander than the hungry beast itself, and when she smiles her eyes are twin suns and her teeth are supernovas. Her jaws unhinge, devouring the black hole, and Alice’s glyph shatters into stardust. Alice feels herself start to fall toward that cavernous mouth, pulled inexorably into the waiting jaws and their eternal grin–
and then she wakes in a cold sweat.
Mage travels through a forest, a beautiful walking staff adorned with mother of pearl in her hands, and on either side of her walk Tanim and Daren. Through the treetops a low hanging moon winks in and out, its pale glow casting soft shadows on the forest floor. Suddenly the moon peels wide into a sun which blazes brighter and brighter as it climbs into the sky. The face of it becomes Alice’s helmet; its fiery tendrils burst forth, becoming her wings that engulf the entire sky. The light touches everything, so bright and burning that the leaves on the trees burst into flame, so white hot that it becomes magma boiling the earth alive. Mage’s clothes catch fire, her hair chars, her skin blisters and peels back in crisp black strips–
and then she wakes in a cold sweat.
The blankets shift and Mage looks over to Alice who sits up, breathing hard and still trembling. She meets Mage’s haunted gaze with her own. “I dreamed you… ate me alive. I was so small and you were the entire universe. You sank your teeth into me and every atom of me was crushed.”
Mage pushes herself up with a shaky laugh. “Well, I dreamed that you shone so bright there were no shadows. You outshone the moon, the sun, blotted out the stars from the sky. You were the sky. My clothes burned, my flesh charred, my bones were exposed. I was naked and had no secrets.”
They look, at each other, each thinking, Did I choose right? Is this who I want to spend immortality with? And then, without a word, their hands meet across the space between them. Because yes.
“Remr, which silk do you prefer for your pact-night dress?” Lady N’batshi strode into her daughter’s room without warning, a pile of expensive silks overflowing in her arms. She lay them gently on the bed and began sorting through them. “It’s traditional to wear red or pink in honor of Our Lady, but you would look so lovely in this dark blue; oh, maybe with this white for a trim, the gold embroidery would set off your eyes so nicely!” Ignoring the open book in Remr’s lap, she draped the bolts of silk over the tiefling girl’s shoulders and tutted to herself. “Hmm, or perhaps the white with the blue for the trim? Which do you prefer?”
“Oh,” Remr stared down at the cloth, frozen. “Um. Yeah, about that.”
“What?” Lady N’batshi cast her daughter a quick glance as she set out a selection of velvet ribbons. “Did you have another color in mind?”
“No. I, uh…” Remr carefully set the silks aside, afraid she might rip them to pieces if she held them in her nervous hands. She tried to remember the words she had rehearsed, the ones which she was sure would win her mother over without fail. They had fled somewhere, though, or perhaps were trapped in the cold pit of her stomach where they could be of no help. Instead she closed her eyes and quickly confessed, “I don’t want to make a pact with Verenestra. I want to make a pact with The Seeker.”
“What are you talking about?” Her mother laughed haltingly, as if uncertain whether this was some practical joke she didn’t quite grasp. “Every woman in our family for the past two hundred years has made their warlock pact with Verenestra. It’s the tradition which has built our family into what it is now; we have served her faithfully and she in turn has granted us countless blessings. How can you possibly think to turn your back on that history?”
“Because I don’t want to be a succubus!” Remr leaped to her feet, yellow eyes pleading. “I don’t care about love and beauty and sex and all that. I want to serve The Seeker! I want to make new scientific discoveries and uncover answers to the mysteries of the world. I want to learn everything I can about everything there is to know!” As she spoke she swept out one arm to encompass her bedroom and its collection of books, diagrams, tools, and jars full of various captured creatures. “It’s not fair to make me pact myself to a patron I don’t want.”
“This is not up for discussion, young lady!” Lady N’batshi waved one stiff finger in her child’s face as she lectured her. “You may be turning sixteen this month and making your pact, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still a daughter of this house. Being a member of the N’batshi clan comes with certain responsibilities which can’t simply be thrown aside because you want to keep…” She gestured helplessly at the cluttered room. “To keep running around in the woods collecting lizards!”
“You don’t understand!” Remr stomped her foot, her tail lashing back and forth. “You don’t even try to understand. Uncle Tao’rumi is the only one who does!” She dropped her head to hide her tears and muttered, “And they’re snakes, not lizards. They’re not even in the same suborder.”
Her mother ignored this last comment. “Uncle Tao’rumi,” Lady N’batshi replied with a weary sigh, “isn’t the matriarch of this clan. Now, let’s just calm down.” She took a deep breath; when she spoke again, her voice was gentler but no less patronizing. “I know you’re nervous to make your pact; I was too when I was your age. It’s perfectly natural to feel this way. You have a big journey ahead, and it’s okay to be a little scared of where it leads.”
It was no use arguing. Remr knew her mother would never understand what passions drove her youngest daughter, nor how confining were the expectations which came with the N’batshi name. If she wanted to change her fate, this was not the way to go about it. “You’re right, Mother,” she conceded, wiping away the tears shining on her red face. “Maybe I just need some time to think.”
Lady N’batshi smiled and patted Remr on the arm. “That’s my girl.” She rose, gathering up the silks. “Now, think about which colors you want, we need to place the order with the seamstress by the end of the week.” And with that her mother was gone, bustling back out the door to continue ensuring her miniature empire ran smoothly. Such arguments were so common place by now that she barely registered them as disturbances; she was certain her daughter would see the rightness of the path laid out for her in the end.
Mother’s right about one thing, Remr thought to herself as she shut her bedroom door. I do have a big journey ahead of me. She dug out a large traveling pack and began stuffing it with clothes, books, and parchment. If I leave now I won’t even be missed until the morning, and by then I’ll be far from here.
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”.
You know, I almost hope unicorns don’t exist. Dragons, too, and fairies and gryphons and harpies, the grim and the sphinx, even ol’ Nessie; all those mythical creatures so rare and beautiful. I hope they’re not real, or at least that they’re long gone by now. That sounds terrible, I know, but think about the shape our world’s in. Do you want such fantastical symbols to exist on an earth we’re running to ruin? I’m not sure I could handle that; it might just be the very last straw. Imagine unicorns treading daintily over cracked concrete with plastic bags tangled around their shining hooves! Imagine kelpies coated in oil, their organs full of microplastics and chemicals! If our trash has made its way to the very farthest depths of the oceans, even onto the moon itself, then where can these legendary creatures possibly hide to escape our touch? Sure, some of them might survive in a polluted landscape – banshees, goblins, other assorted spooks – but not many. And anyway, even a banshee deserves a nice lonely moor to haunt, not some drained and cultivated piece of land with condos sitting on top. It would just suck, is all I’m saying, if we had such magical creatures in our midst and dragged them down with us. If all those unbelievable beings do exist, I hope they can at least get the hell out of here while the getting’s good.
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.
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