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.”
“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.
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.
Coins rain down amid bursts of shocked laughter and startled, delighted gasps. The crowd has long forgotten the other market vendors at this chance to flirt with danger, to see something so rare and vicious here in their tiny provincial town. Humans love to feel a little fear when they know there is no actual risk and the townsfolk have thus blindly put their faith in the greasy man who gathers up their coins with one greedy hand while the other prods through the cage with a stick.
The creature in the cage can technically speak Common and should therefore be able to plead with her captor, or at least for sympathy from the crowd, but rage clouds her mind too much for her to do anything other than howl and launch herself at the bars. No one stands close enough to grab with her long claws yet still she tries, lashing her arm back and forth in the hopes of drawing blood. Her blue-gray skin bleeds where she has rubbed herself raw on the metal.
“Yep, wrestled this little bitch right out of the sea itself!” the man brags, jabbing her side with the stick. “She almost had me, too, but I was too strong for her! Not a man alive has ever caught one of these!” His words are lies; this oaf wasn’t even the one who cursed her into a human form, only a lucky idiot who stumbled across her while she was still dazed from the transformation. A feminine creature with long black hair and shark-like skin and teeth? He’d known exactly what she was and how much people would pay to see a monster like her up close.
“A real siren, incredible!” someone cries, while another asks with obvious concern, “Can’t they put a spell on you with their singing? Are we in danger?” The man scoffs at the question and, despite not actually knowing why she no longer has that trademark ability, uses it to his advantage. Kicking the cage, he laughs, “Yeah, but she won’t try anything funny on me. She knows who’s the boss here. Besides, I’ve been starving her down, she’s no match for me.”
Amid the tumult of voices and the siren’s furious snarling, someone whispers an unlocking spell. Even through her frenzy the siren senses this burst of magic and her keen ears catch the sound of the lock slowly turning. This time when she hurls herself against the cage the door bursts open and with a predator’s speed she leaps for her oblivious captor, howling in triumph. The impact sends him crashing to the ground and by the time he lands she’s already tearing at his throat with rows of serrated teeth. The humans who just moments ago had laughed and stared at her flee in terror, not a single one brave enough to attempt to contain her again.
Hunger partially sated, the siren tears off one of the man’s arms for further snacking and climbs to her feet. While she’s still unsteady on these strange human legs, used as she is to gliding through the water with her long, sinuous tail, she’ll adapt. With a little food in her belly she can finally think clearly for the first time since the awful spell that took her from her home was cast. Her thoughts burn hard and bright in their brute simplicity: Find the wizard. Make him reverse the curse. Eat him. Go home. Chewing on a meaty finger bone, the siren picks a direction and starts walking. She has no idea who this wizard is, where to find him, or how she’ll get him to lift the curse, but she’s not a creature of any particularly deep or complex thoughts and so this doesn’t much concern her. She can hunt and she can kill, and that’s good enough for her.
They say to cross the Bridge of Ghosts you must wear a mask so the specters cannot recognize you and silver bells to disrupt their voices. If you do not wear a mask the spirits will take the form of those you love to lure you over the side. If you do not wear bells they will whisper lies in your ears until you take their words for truth and leap to your death. Even with these protections in place you must walk quickly and never stop until you reach safe earth on the other side. The mask and bells are no guarantee of protection.
No one crosses the Bridge of Ghosts without good reason. It spans a chasm high in the mountains where the wind wails and the cliff faces sharpen the gusts to knives. Nothing grows there. Nothing lives there. Nothing chooses to linger there longer than it must, for to linger is to tempt fate too boldly. Yet it is also said that if you cross the bridge successfully, never succumbing to the ghosts’ illusions or lies, you may at the other end ask them one question which they must answer truthfully. Such a reward has thus lead many, many fools to attempt the pass.
Someone stands now at one end of the bridge and the ghosts swirl hungrily in anticipation, appearing as a white mist which ascends from the valley far below to shroud the bridge and cliffs in wintry half-light. The traveler wears a finely wrought mask of silver with rays like the sun’s with bright little bells tinkling softly from each point. One foot moves to step out onto the bridge; the spirits take up their howling din. They cannot physically touch the man and so they seek to stop him with trickery, yet the mask and bells render the deceptions powerless.
The traveler thus passes through the fog with ease, never faltering, never fearing, and arrives safely at the other side of the bridge. As he removes the mask he speaks to the empty air, “Did you keep your promise?” Behind him a familiar voice answers, “Yes. I have waited long for you.” The traveler turns back to the bridge to find his lover standing upon it with arm extended. “I am here now,” he responds. He steps forward and they join hands; both disappear, leaving behind only the fallen mask.
It is an ancient dance – white teeth and lolling tongue, sharp hooves and swift legs, predator and prey united in survival’s endless contest. Breath mists white in the cool morning air of a summer solstice while wolf and stag twist in choreographed ferocity; feint and fight, snap and stab, blood and brutality. Life, death, to nature it is all of a kind, one long revolution like the earth upon its axis. The stag does not begrudge the wolf his hunger. The wolf does not begrudge the stag his resistance. They were born for this combat, hunter and hunted, and without the one the other cannot exist. Thus when skill or chance contrive to spear leaping wolf upon lunging antlers, sharp tines sinking through flesh and muscle, there is neither regret nor animosity. Today it is the wolf who lays bleeding out on the tundra, but in six months the stag may just as easily take his place.