#2165

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

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#2162

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?

#2161

I’ve never been tempted by the idea of immortality (surely all those years must drag one into another at some point, who wants to hang around for that long?) and I’ve never cared much for physical beauty or youth (I prefer the anonymity of mediocrity and look forward with eagerness to my first gray hair) but housing prices these days are just outrageous, it’s almost criminal, and thus if I’m guaranteed a little cottage in the woods, all paid up and legally mine, then sure I could use my witchy wiles to lure a couple kids a year into my cauldron and cook up whatever spells you want, my singing’s not half bad, does the talking cat come with the cottage or is he extra?

#2146

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?

#2145

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.”

#2144

“Therefore, the ecocatastrophe caused by the second Witch Queen War has a much farther-reaching impact on–” As Professor Nbat’shi stood at the front of the lecture hall scribbling indecipherable notes on the chalkboard the side door flew open and a halfling in a pirate hat popped her head in. “PSST!” she stage-whispered to the tiefling. “Remr! REMR!”

“Oh, hello friends!” Remr threw down her chalk and hurried over to where Tarcella and Never stood just outside the room. Her students, used to Professor Nbat’shi’s wandering attention and abrupt pauses, merely waited. “What’s up?”

“We’re gonna go save the world again,” Tarcella waved one hand vaguely and explained, “Something about stopping an evil god or a cult or something on Clairavoya. Should be pretty cool. You in?”

“Totally! Just a sec,” Remr leaned through the doorway and shouted back to her students,”Hey everyone, I guess the world’s in danger again, class is cancelled until whenever I get back.” She turned to her companions. “Okay, I’m good.”

“That’s it?” Never glanced skeptically into the lecture hall where a hundred students stared back at them in confusion. Remr smacked her palm to her forehead. “Oh! Of course, you’re right.” She leaned into the room again and added, “Read chapters five through thirty-six in Clemmings’ Compendium and someone tell the dean I’m leaving; okay, have fun, bye!”

As she and her friends hurried down the hallway Remr pulled out her Quall’s feather token. “Should we take Bao’ru to get there faster?” she asked, indicating the giant blue budgie which had flown them to and from so many other exploits. Tarcella shrugged carelessly. “Nah, it’ll be fine, my ship’s plenty fast. I’m sure we won’t miss anything.”

– – –

Several days and several hundreds of miles later, the three hurried up the steep path to the summit on the island of Clairavoya where it was rumored the dread god Bezos would appear. Tarcella, sitting on Never’s broad shoulders, first spotted the familiar group of adventurers standing in front of the cave mouth up ahead and jumped down. “Ah man,” she kicked angrily at the ground as she eyed Ro, Ilkan, and Dhashi’s expressions of stunned, exhausted triumph, as well as their battered armor and various bruises. “Did we miss all the fun?” She jumped so that she could elbow Never in the side. “Why’d you make us take my ship, huh?”

They merely sighed.

#2143

I extracted exactly one promise from you before you left, just one, yet even that you could not keep. Do you remember that morning? I woke on cold tile to the taste of vomit and a headache that pulsed in time to the sound of your lighter snapping open and closed, open and closed. I’d overdosed before so I knew what it felt like, though not since we became… whatever we were. I was already babbling apologies and trying to force myself up on trembling arms when you shoved me back down to the bathroom tile. You had that fucking knife of yours against my throat and I truly thought it was the end, that I’d bleed out while laying in a pool of my own vomit. It would have served me right. You didn’t finish things, though. You just held my gaze as you pressed that cold little blade into my skin and said very, very softly, “This will not happen again, do you understand? Your life is not yours to end. It’s mine.” As you walked away I asked, impulsively, “Do you promise?” You paused in the doorway for a brief second before replying, “Yes.”

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.