You collected outcasts with hearts of broken glass, promising to fill their cracks with gold, but you made a grave mistake with me. My heart is not a fragile piece of blown glass – it is a chunk of volcanic glass, deep black obsidian, and when it breaks each shard is sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. I was never an outcast, you see. Outcasts yearn to be told their worth yet I inherently knew mine, for I had been born and tempered in the earth’s deep fires where no mere man may survive. I loved you, yes, and I believed in you, but I did not need you like the others and thus was the first to see through you when my rebellious edges drew your blood and then your anger. It’s no wonder you could never fix those broken hearts you hoarded; without one of your own, how could you know how the pieces fit together?
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
It’s just her, in the end. It has always been just her.
Mage paces the Jolly Roger’s decks in silence save for the brush of wind through the rigging and waves against wood. No voices, no footsteps, no sounds of human habitation. She forgets how long it’s been since Tanim and Daren disappeared. Weeks? Months? Even longer? She wasn’t surprised to find them gone, of course; they were never truly loyal, only temporarily entertained by her quest enough to play along for a while. She has no real need for their power now anyway, but she does miss what passed for companionship with them.
As she walks, Mage runs a hand over the rail of the ship. The Jolly Roger has been her home and power base for twelve years; its timbers are drenched in her blood and magic, her anger and obsession and desperation. It is the closest thing to a home she has had in a millennium and the thought of leaving it behind would fill her with terror if she wasn’t so terribly tired. Yet to do what she plans, she cannot bring it with her. The ship must return to its grave at the bottom of the sea, this time to slumber eternally as it deserves.
If only she could be rid of the hook so easily. But one thing at a time.
Completing a final circuit of the deck, Mage returns to the quarterdeck and lays her hand upon the helm. For her final act as captain she dismantles the magic layered throughout the ship, spells of protection and speed, firing power and stealth. The last to go is the oldest spell, that with which she raised the ship from the seabed and set it to her purpose. Beneath her boots the wood groans and begins to decay and above her the sails split. “Well,” Mage gives the helm a pat and allows herself one sentimental sigh. “Thank you, ship. You did well. Now rest.”
And with that she steps off its decks for the last time.
~ * ~
Ali hadn’t even bothered putting on her armor. Standing at the beachfront at four in the morning, watching the tide come in, she sensed that Mage was coming. Walking out from the waves, a shadow clad in night and mirrors, her nemesis came ashore.
Mage can see the exhaustion on Ali’s face. “I’m not here to fight,” she confesses, “I just wanna talk.”
It was never about you, my dear; it was always about him.
At first I thought his little fantasy world would fall apart on its own, but no: you had to step in and take up his work. Plenty slipped through the cracks anyway, though, didn’t they? Yet still you persisted, still you lit the beacon to draw in all the wayward moths. Did you never wonder why? Why the island, why the names and games, why all the lost little children? After, I did. I walked the island, I read the stories, I examined the web and I found it wanting. If I had realized sooner, I would have crushed the spider beneath my heel. Lacking him, I decided I would destroy his web and all it had touched.
I don’t hate you. I think I pitied you, once, after my eyes had opened. Yet you inserted yourself between his island and my ship too many times, and I knew you had made your choice. Did you ever feel the sticky strands of his webs clinging to your wings? Did you ever question, ever wonder, ever doubt? If you did, it’s too late now. I will wipe that island off the map. I will tear open the sky and obliterate his legacy. Only then will I feel his crimes have been adequately avenged.
Mage’s voice pursues her even in this place where none know her and none who do know her can find her. She is anonymous here, friendless, tetherless – and yet on the edge of sleep, on the verge of waking, still she catches the sibilant whisper in the darkness.
It isn’t possible, she tells herself. Not even her creator can find her here, to say nothing of her nemesis. Her fears run wild, that’s all, leftover from the years when paranoia kept her moving and thus safe. Alice’s body long ago learned to expect the hidden dagger, the poisoned ring, the needle in the velvet. Nothing less than constant vigilance keeps a captain alive, and it feels like she has been alive a very, very long time. It’s natural, then, for her instincts to kick at the slightest sound or movement. Many more years must pass before those instantaneous reactions ease.
At least, that’s what Alice tells herself. Still, in her more vulnerable moments she touches the scars left by Mage’s wicked hook and wonders if some of the madwoman’s darkness has infected her too. She has seen how the weapon slowly fuses itself with the sorceress, twisting from a single silver curve to black claws long and sharp as obsidian. Can whatever it is – curse, infection, parasite – help Mage track her beyond the realms of the universe, or perhaps connect them on a higher level entirely? Does a little chip of those talons sleep beneath her skin even now, waiting for an opportune moment to spread its roots and begin its takeover as well?
In the darkness she gives a small sob, half laughter and half wild desperation. Would it be ironic if in the end she became the thing against which she fought and lost so much? And if she did finally return to the island, half-monster or not, would there be anyone to greet her anyway?
They have forgotten much about her since she first came to the island. How she did not wash up on the beach, like so many others, but walked straight out of the waves like a queen from her throne. How when she arrived her hair had been so long it trailed on the ground, and she cut it only later when she took up ship and hook. How she told them what she was called, in other lands, but they gave her the name she bears now. How she had never been young, there on that island of perpetual youth, and thus had never truly belonged. How she had not needed the island – not its promises of friendship and family, safety and solace, redemption and rebirth – and therefore she saw through its glamours to the bare bones beneath. They have forgotten these things, and imagine her story to be like all the others’. Yet she needed no home, she wanted no king, and if any had asked the cards they would have foretold her arrival in crumbling towers and falling swords.