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.”
It seems strange that I have to justify my intentions. Look around; is this world really worth saving? Is it deserving of your blood, sweat, and tears, or even your very life? Hardly. You only need open your eyes to see what humanity has done to the Eden it inherited. Concrete cities, cardboard slums, humans packed as thick as maggots on their planet’s moldering corpse. In only a few thousand years they’ve managed to irreparably poison the land, water, and air, orchestrate the extinction of hundreds of thousands of innocent species, and invent countless ways to torture each other daily based on race, religion, and creed. They are locusts devouring everything in their path; they are a plague worse than any deadly virus or unbreakable curse. I speak only the truth and for my evidence can but point to any place on the globe and detail the horrors unleashed there since civilization’s birth: pride, greed, envy, sloth, gluttony, wrath, humanity’s chronic rot touches everything. Given all this, is it still a wonder why I want to wipe the slate clean? Why I no longer think humanity can be redeemed and this world salvaged? A fresh start isn’t so bad, is it, when you consider how many more centuries of war and death must come before the inevitable end performs its final undeserved mercy and snuffs life out for good.
What’s in your head, zombie?
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.”
Do you think I wanted to be this way? she longs to scream. That I was made like this, with a rotting heart?
She remembers the beginning like it were yesterday and not a thousand thousand years ago: the white marble city sparkling on the edge of the primordial sea, the islands made of leviathan jaw bones, the newborn sun warming sand and water and immortal flesh alike. She remembers the weight of wings and the weightlessness of flying, soaring on lazy thermals through the eternal summer day. Her skin remembers gold and jewels and silk, her tongue ambrosia and honeyed wine, her ears the harmonious blend of laughter, music, and the susurrus of waves. Yet when she returns to those memories, painful though they may be, she most often chooses to remember the companions she once knew, those she danced with in the sky and those she lay with in the sea foam. Soft lips and sweet kisses on the sandy shore, open arms and hearts in the cool marble halls; love was so uncomplicated then. She was so uncomplicated then. She does not pine for home, but she does pine for those she left there.
Monsters are not born from flesh and bone, she wants to say, but won’t. They are born from betrayal and desperation. Remember that, because what was done to me can be done to you.
I can’t believe I haven’t talked about all the fun (ie terrible) things Mage has done in our recent DnD sessions! As you may recall, our DM and I killed off my magical girl warlock Dhashi and resurrected my psychopathic villain Mage into her body. Mage is theoretically there to help the others complete their quest to defeat the evil god Bezos, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have some fun (and irritate her
party members workplace associates) on the way. For example…
- While fighting a horde of zombies, she ripped the arm off of one and used it to beat its head into a pulp
- She has used Shatter and Eldritch Blast several times to make enemies explode
- When the group found themselves trapped by a thieves guild, she used Misty Step to teleport behind their leader and cut her throat (specifically in such a manner as to incapacitate the woman but ensure she died a slow and extremely painful death, which my wife was happy to describe in great medical detail*)
- She beguiled two guards into leading the group to a secret catacomb entrance, then forced the guards to come along in case they needed someone to “test” the traps and wards
- After one of the guards burned to death doing just this, she cut his arm off and used it to continue safely triggering traps
- She also might have looted a locket from him with pictures of his kids inside; too bad, so sad
- She tried to fight another PC who is waaaay above her level and immediately lost, but got a sick sidecut in the bargain so no hard feelings there
- She convinced the goddess of the ocean to defeat some enemies for them and in return told the goddess she could destroy a town full of innocent people
- She bought a jug that can produce anything; she used it to produce BEES and then set them free in a tavern for funzies (and before you ask, it wasn’t even that many bees, thirty is not a lot of bees, please tell my DnD group that)
*Yes, I asked my wife the best way to cut someone’s throat and she answered immediately because she’s AMAZING
Alice stands on the dark beach with sword drawn as she watches the figure walking out of the waves. Water streams from Mage’s tangled hair and tattered black garb; the moonlight illuminates her white skin and glitters in her hard green eyes.
Alice frowns, studying her enemy more closely. The iris of Mage’s right eye has gone black, and from the edge of her collar some sort of black scar or tattoo creeps up the side of her face like a lightning strike, cutting even through her eye. Though she can’t tell for sure, Alice suspects the black substance originates with the hook which has already transformed Mage’s right hand into sharp black claws. Despite the warm night, Alice shivers.
“Alice…” Mage bows with a flourish of her clawed hand. The movement is almost too grandiose to be purposeful, as if the woman is inebriated. “I’m honored to be greeted by the mighty captain herself. Then again,” she snickers, “there’s no one else on the island to do it, is there?” Alice just sighs. “You’re wasting my time. Did you come to taunt or fight?” Mage mimics the sigh. “Oh Alice, you think you have it all figured out.”
“Taunting it is,” Alice stabs her sword into the sand at her side, then crosses her arms. “Okay, get on with it, it’s the middle of the night and I’m tired.”
“I’m sure you are,” Mage tilts her head and her voice goes light and lilting. “What keeps you here, guarding this empty rock in the middle of the ocean? They’re not coming back. Any of them. They’ve moved on, forgotten who they were, forgotten who you were. Do they call to you in their dreams anymore?” She takes a step toward Alice. “Do they answer your coded letters or leave you sigil graffiti?” Another. “Do they even know you’re still here, still fighting?” And another. “Do they know how tired you are, how alone, how close to giving up?”
“I will keep fighting through my very last breath,” Alice, goaded by the uncomfortable truths in Mage’s words, takes a step forward herself. Her arms drop, hands clenched white. Mage just winks and replies, “You keep telling yourself that. But remember, I don’t need to. I don’t need to kill you. I don’t need to break you. I just need you to see the truth. Once that’s done, this could all be over. You’re the one who keeps it going. You’re the only one who still believes. If you just admitted that it’s done, that he fucked you over and now they’re all gone, this tragic little kingdom in ruins, you could rest.”
“Are you offering a truce?” Alice snorts, partly at the thought but also partly as a sign of bravado. This isn’t like their normal trading of insults. “That’s not like you. Maybe you’re more exhausted than I am. You’re not looking too well these days.”
“I was betrayed too, you know,” Without warning, Mage’s mocking demeanor falls away, replaced by a snarling, teeth-baring anger edged with madness. “It was my home; they were my friends; he was my mentor. Do you think any of them stuck around after he left?” She barks out a laugh. “The ones who wanted something from me did, for a while at least; the rest fucking ghosted. And the ones who were lost, permanently lost – do you think I don’t remember them? That I don’t mourn them?” She shakes her head. “I was not born of the void to oppose you, Alice. I have a past too. Remember that.”
Alice wants to hold onto the anger and adrenaline that push her through these confrontations, but exhaustion wells up and extinguishes what energy she has left. She gestures wearily toward the breaking waves and sheathes her sword. “Go back to your ship, Mage. That hook’s getting the better of you.”
“You will die defending nothing, Alice,” Mage almost spits the prediction with the force of her anger, but her next words are softer. “And it will be such a waste. Don’t you wonder who you are, besides his scapegoat?”
“Goodnight, Mage,” Alice turns and starts back toward the lighthouse. Her nemesis says nothing in return, but her accusations and questions are not so easily dismissed. Alice knows she will get no sleep tonight.