The ghost women in the walls sway with river current, hair drifting in reedy halos, eyes like fresh dug graves (a tired comparison but an apt one), they reach down from the ceiling for me while their viola voices vibrate a song which I will mourn the loss of upon waking, and though I know they mean to pull me through and switch our places, lock me in their two-dimensional tomb and steal my warm, vibrant life for their own, still I reach back, rising slowly up through the air to meet those filmy moonglow fingers, almost close enough to touch as the music swells; it is lovely just to be wanted, no matter the reason, and anyway I already know what it is to be dead, why should I mind being dead somewhere else?
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
O prodigal sun, come wash your red hands clean in my fount. Your sins are forgiven, your trespasses forgotten. You who can do no wrong, let your tears fall free to bloom up roses in the dark soil. Bow your head; I will smooth your furrowed brow and straighten your crooked crown. See? Absolution is your birthright. Amnesty is your privilege. O son ascendant, do you not know your flesh is too holy to hold blame?
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.
So often I am mistaken for the good one, the gentle one, the kind one. Compared to my lover’s ruthless nature I suppose I am, but that hardly makes me a safer bet. After all, though he fell for pride I fell for desire. In choosing to follow him that first time I chose to follow him forever, to serve him and raise no other love above him. Do not underestimate the power of desire to change and strengthen us. My holy fire no longer merely cleanses; it burns all I touch to ash. My radiance no longer merely illuminates; it blinds and sears. You think me benevolent but that is only because you have given me no reason to show you my wrath. Cross he who rules my heart and you will learn what devastation my kind soul can wreak.
You’re like an angel, you know. You’re beautiful on the outside but underneath I know you’re all blinding light and holy wrath and too many blazing eyes amid a dozen flaming wings. Yours is a terrifying, incomprehensible otherworldliness that makes me weep in awe. If you were to peel back your skin the sight of your true form might drive me mad or burn me to ash – and I would beg for either, if only I might glimpse your glorious truth in my final moments.
How is it that I am always the one pursuing you and yet still I feel your hot breath on my neck, still my heart pounds with the instinct to flee before the hound’s long white teeth. You are ever beyond me, distant as the moon, yet I swear I hear your laughter drifting on the wind as it chases me down dark streets. I can never catch you and yet I wake in a cold sweat with bruises around my throat in the shape of your long, lovely fingers. How can this be? How are you everywhere and everything?
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.
Sometimes I can hear you screaming in my head, that endless wounded animal howling of total devastation, and I want to imagine his arms around you for comfort – but that’s not possible, is it? Neither of you could ever comfort the other at such a time because the only thing that would break either of you so completely is the loss of the other. You care for nothing else enough to experience such soul-rending grief, and so as much as I wish to imagine you safe in the shelter of his arms as you weather out the storm of madness, it would be a lie. The hard reality is that you are always alone in the moment you must first face the truth of his absence, just as you are alone every moment following that. Again and again and again you are alone, alone, alone. There is no one to hold you, no one to ease your suffering, no one to stand against you and the dark chasm of loss. Of course all you do is scream.
Stay, you beg. Stay, you plead. Stay. Stay. Stay. Just this one word over and over like a prayer, like a spell, like a compulsion. Stay. Stay. But he never will. He never can. No matter how many times you ask, no matter if you implore or cajole or demand or threaten, it will not happen – and you know that, yet still you say it. Stay. These rooms are haunted by your pleading. Stay. I cannot think for all I hear is your desperate voice. Stay. I cannot speak for only one word would come out my lips. Stay. Stay. Stay. Each time with more futility than the last. Stay. But you never cease.
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.
I am my own shoulder devil
(do it, do it, do it)
my own shoulder angel
(you’ll regret it, you’ll regret it)
and these days I don’t much care what I choose
I’m always unhappy with the results
We are corpses rotting together; perhaps that’s why we work so well. A corpse isn’t interested in improvement, it cares little for change, it has no expectations. A corpse is content to slowly decompose into nothingness. Why not do so in the company of another if they too are content with dissolution? We corpses understand one another, you see. We are meant only to rot, and so only rot shall we.
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
Star-crossed lovers? What a bullshit concept. What is so romantic about the idea of two people the universe has chosen to especially fuck over? Why do we idolize the ill-fated as if the poignancy of their doom somehow outweighs in value the happiness of which they were robbed? I can assure you, there’s nothing romantic about losing your lover to violence or madness or a disease which rots them from the inside out. Nor is there anything particularly romantic about knowing you are helpless to change this fate no matter how many times you play it through. I would trade our thousand lifetimes of misery for one lifetime – no, one year, one month, one fucking day – of simple peace without the end looming near. I do not find our doom sexy or exotic or poetic. I find it merely wearying. But please, by all means, continue glorifying the tragedy of others.
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.
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”.
“I can’t believe she’s here.” “It’s a lie; you know she did it.” “She should be ashamed to show her face.” “Why haven’t the police arrested her?” “I bet she was jealous.” “I’d be afraid to be alone with her, what if she tries it again?”
The mutters follow Chelsea down the hallway Monday morning; few of her classmates bother lowering their voices as they gossip in her wake. During the assembly she feels one thousand pairs of eyes swivel over to her while the principal explains how Amanda Anderson fainted in the pool locker room and hit her head on one of the sinks, and how her friend Chelsea, the first to find her, was just minutes too late to stem the bleeding. There’s no criminal case here, the principal stresses, just a tragic accident that deeply shocks and saddens the community, but that doesn’t stop the assembled teenagers from jumping to the most scandalous conclusion. Behind Chelsea, one of the school’s queen bees titters and exclaims with mock concern, “Better not sit too close to her, you might be next!” While the teachers call for silence, Chelsea tries to ignore the accusatory stares. She fears if she meets anyone’s eyes they might see the guilt there, misplaced or no, and then she’s done for. It doesn’t help that no one ever understood how someone as popular as Amanda would hang out with someone as mousy and awkward as her.
The students are finally dismissed and Chelsea hurries to Biology, gaze firmly fixed on the ground as she winds her way through the knots of kids in the halls. At least Mr. Benham is a no-nonsense sort of teacher and won’t allow the class to spend all period goggling over the murderer in their midst. Even better, he starts class off with a pop quiz – no talking allowed – and silence settles over Chelsea for the first time since she stepped onto school property. She reads through the questions once, twice, three times before realizing with a twist of her gut that they’re all based on the weekend’s assigned reading. Which she didn’t do, of course, because she was busy talking to her family and Amanda’s family and the paramedics and the police officers, and then watching the whole thing blow up on social media. She barely slept, let alone worried about her schoolwork.
This stupid quiz is the final straw; tears well up in Chelsea’s eyes and she can’t blink them away fast enough. Choking back a sob, she grabs her backpack and rushes out the door. There’s no one in the hallways right now, which is a minor blessing, but as she rounds the corner to the front doors the truancy officer, Mrs. Colewick, catches sight of her. Arms crossed, she moves to intercept Chelsea. “Where do you think you’re going, Miss Paulson?” For once Mrs. Colewick’s dour expression doesn’t even phase Chelsea, who merely dodges around the woman while calling back breathlessly, “Home!” The officer turns as if to follow her, hand outstretched. “You can’t just–”
“Then stop me!” Chelsea hits the doors running and is gone before she can hear if Mrs. Colewick responds or follows her. She runs as fast as she can, not really thinking about a particular destination, just focusing on the rhythm of her feet pounding on the pavement. She runs until she’s lost among unfamiliar streets where passersby can’t possibly know who she is or what she’s done. She runs until her lungs can’t take it anymore, and then she stops. And sobs.
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