#2219

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.

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#2209

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.

#2208

“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.

#2202

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”.

#2192

“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.

 

 

#2189

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.

#2181

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.