Hand pressed to the thick glass, she watches as beyond the radiation shield the dark sky blooms with bright flowers trailing petals of fire, and though the glass dome seals out all sound she imagines she can still hear the screaming of those trapped outside. How many dead now, since the first bomb fell? Millions, perhaps tens of millions: those too close to the epicenters to escape; those who could not buy their way onto planes and ships and caravans and so perished somewhere along their thousand-mile trek to safety; those who arrived at the safe zones with nothing but the clothes on their backs, exhausted and sick with radiation poisoning, only to be told there was no room for them. “No room,” she scoffs, and tries not to weep. She’s only safe inside this shelter because she’s necessary to its function, as so few of her team remain who can run the machines and reboot civilization when it comes time. That’s why she’s in here, a young black woman among so many old white men, and thousands of equally worthy people are out there awaiting the end. And so she wonders – is there even a point to trying again? Will there be enough humanity left in humanity to make the struggle for civilization worthwhile? Or does this dome just ensure there are sufficient witnesses left to testify to the finality of the apocalypse? She doesn’t even know for sure if the machines will work – and maybe that’s best.
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
I return amid sirens to the immortal city of Amber, hoping therein to find some understanding of your absence that is so much like a bloodstain at the center of the world, a cancer eating reality from the inside out, see how this sickness is reflected in every shadow I cross, how everywhere I go in my search for you I feel the gaping void which once contained at least a trace of your presence, but that is impossible, it must be, for you reside in the one true Amber and thus you are reflected reverberated reiterated in every shadow from core to chaos, you must be somewhere because for you to cease is for all to cease and I am still here, I am still searching, so if I must walk the blood-black road so far that madness warps my mind then I shall do just that, I shall hellride through strange lands until I find where you are kept and win you back, tell the courts of chaos I am coming, I am coming, I am coming
Look, you don’t have to be such assholes about this. If you’re not coming back, you’re not coming back. You don’t have to mock me. You don’t have to be cruel. If I am truly abandoned, must I still see you in everything? Must I catch glimpses of your beautiful sneer, your elegant hands, your disdainful gazes wherever I look? I feel the ache of your absence with every fucking breath. I have no will to write, no energy to even summon a memory of you to keep me company in my suffering. Is that not punishment enough? Please, you don’t need to torture me. I’m a fool, true, but I get it now: everything I feared has finally come to pass. It’s over. We’re done. So just let me rot in peace, okay? I think you owe me at least that much mercy for my years of service. Trust me, this wound will never heal; I’ll suffer plenty whether you rub salt in it or not. So let me be. Please. I’ll even beg if you want. It’s not like I’ve got anything left to lose, right?
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?
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.”