This/Lost ones song

From Zaori
< This(Redirected from This/Lost ones' song)

0: Enter the world

She was in a tree. This became abundantly clear because of all the leaves and twigs poking her in the face, and the fact that she was sprawled across a large tree limb, bark digging into her chest and thighs. It was decidedly uncomfortable.

She tried to rearrange herself and promptly fell out.

The grass, at least, was softer. Now the tree was above, leaves and branches glistening in the early dawn, taunting her with their general up-there-ness. She glared at them.

She stopped. It was almost midday. She needed to quit doing this. Time passed so easily. She needed to move. So long as she moved too, it wouldn't matter that time was moving also.

Right. Logic. She got up and shook herself off.

Moving.

"Did you just fall out of this tree?" Someone asked behind her.

"Of course not," she said, turning. "Whyever would you think such a silly thing?" It was a child of some kind. Human? The distinctions were weird. She didn't understand why people would care. She didn't understand why she was arguing with the child, either.

"I dunno, why would I? You tell me!" it said.

"Er."

The child looked at her askance. "You really aren't much fun, now are you?"

"Fun?"

"Yes, fun!" It stopped. "You do know what fun is, right?"

"Not really," she said. "I mean, theoretically, certainly. I've seen enough of it fourth-hand to know it as it is, but... that doesn't mean I really know it. It's just sort of there. Like flowers. And cats. And black holes."

It looked at her uncertainly.

"Geese?" She said hopefully.

The child turned and fled, for whatever reason.

Okay, she thought to herself, that works. She headed in the same general direction, then broke into a run.

Had there been any poetry in her soul, she might have noticed the idyllic beauty of the land, with its rolling hills shimmering like a dappled sea of red, blue and purple flowers. Instead, as she bounded through the grass and shrubs, she ran collision avoidance in her head. Rock ahead. Current trajectory indicates best bet is to jump over it. Bushes now. Need to go around. Avoid that tree. More rocks. Go over again. Except that rock had been a bear. Okay.

She caught sight of the child a few times before losing it completely, but it didn't matter now. She knew where it was going: it passed this way often, and the path was well-written in the air. The space itself remembered.

Then, swinging around one last tree (a collision there would have proven impractical to the structural integrity of her skull), she stopped a few paces past. Here lay a road, sculpted out of the land and paved for permanency. It was important, somehow.

She looked up at the clop of hooves approaching. An armoured man on horsback. He tipped his helmet at her as he passed, and said, "Evening, ma'am."

She stared at him, and then at his back. Then she stared at the horse's butt for a bit. Then horse and rider rounded a turn and were gone.

Then, in a remarkable feat of self-awareness, she remembered what she was doing and turned - the child had gone the other way, so she headed that way as well, completely failing to notice as the sun's dusk set the clouds ablaze with colour to rival the hills.

The clouds had subdued to a dull golden glow when she passed through the first of the arches approaching the town itself. Its simple elegance was an offset to the landscape, at once contrasting and fitting in perfectly - white against the green and blue and brown, like the crest of a wave, glitter on the sea. White limestone shaped by magic and rain. Transported quickly, built to last. Good geometry.

Buildings, archways, terraces, and walkways gleamed in the twilight and magelights alike.

The child from before was sitting on a wall with two of its friends. It made a face and bounced a nut off her head. One of the friends looked slightly apologetic at that, but the other laughed.

"Nerrin, git!" a woman yelled at them from one of the doorways. "Dinner's on!"

The laughing child immediately jumped down and ran inside after his mum - and his dinner.

The wayfarer made a face right back at the remaining two, then continued on toward the centre of town. It was marked by a plaza with a statue in the middle, with a few older folks lounging around it, sharing the latest gossip.


Heap of disorderly bits

Arah

This was Arah.

Vast, towering, a sea of golden light, a city of golden shadow. A city of doorways without keys, and wanderers without homes, a place where things came together across the realms and generally got lost as a result.

Shifts in time

Begin

"This is wrong," Rahah said.

Aekrin looked around, but saw nothing apparently amiss. "Wrong how?"

"Who are you?"

"What?"

"Who are you?" she said. "Are you Aekrin Dri? Are you Fred? Or are you someone else?"

"Fred?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. Don't look at me like I know."

Dead worlds

In the forest, in the glistening spires, the jagged edges, the empty hollows, in the darkness and the quivering cold, there was no hope. The trees were not trees. The air was not air. The ground was not ground, but simply rock and dust and no moss, no grass, only the dry bones of the earth.

The world was dead.

It was a world. It was not theirs. Theirs had gone long ago, and the sickness had simply spread, and spread, and spread. The doors had adapted. If they no longer went anywhere, they went somewhere else. The gods of the 'verse had adapted much the same, adjusting their views to see nothing at all.

And so there would be no hope left, simply the inevitable death that awaited all who lived too long.

Dark Sister

It was her. Herself. Etched into marble taller than life, a beacon of something amidst something else. Bloody bizarre.

"Of course," she whispered. "Trust Eapherod to survive. Even dead she still survived."

He gave her one of his looks. "You say that like it's happened before."

"Hasn't it?" She sighed. "No, I suppose it hasn't. It's different every time."




"Dark Sister," Rahah said.

I know you, it whispered. The form flickered and danced, trailing ribbons of shadow behind it and gleaming with its own empty light.

"Of course. As I know you."

But how? How can you be here? Who are you?

"Would that I could say. But here I am. Here you are. Can you tell me how things are?"

What's to tell? Only silence. Only loss. The worlds fade, and move on.

"They're dying."

Yes. They have been dying as long as they have lived, though it was not always so. Before the beginning, there was a future.

"What happened? What was the beginning?"

How can you not know? You were there! It shrieked.

"Coraline?"

No. Before. She came here on the bones of its creation, but the thing itself was the size of the state of Nebraska. It looked like a little girl. It spoke like death. Its name was Rhi.

"We know the name."

Yes. It opens holes as it passes, in and out, and from there everything falls apart. Past and future.

"But the Rhi of Sarathi de..."

Moved on! When her worlds fell, she moved on! As Dreamers do.

"Some worlds live. Some worlds fall."

Yes.

"This is why we do what we do."

And for what? So our worlds too may fall at the first slip?

"Sure, that might happen. But it might not."

We have no King. Our King has fallen.

"No. He is here. He does not know, but he is here.

He is useless. He does not know.

"It doesn't matter. He will. You survive, Dark Sister, for the same reason we always have. What has happened?"

The form shifted in front of her, and suddenly it was everywhere, and there was only blackness. And the voice, now filling every corner of her consciousness. Come, then. We will show you who we are.

No cats

"The thoughts of cats," the man whispered. "The place in the world where the cats should be. Saucers of milk vanishing. Curtains ripping. Meowing. But no cats."

"Cats?" Aekrin asked. "But..."

"Aekrin," Rahah interrupted. "Have you seen any? Since we've come here, have you seen a single cat anywhere?"

"Why would I have? We've not exactly been... well, doing anything where we'd be likely to see them."

"I haven't. And I look."

"For cats?"

"Always. They're... let's just say they're important to me."

"Cats."

"Yes."

He sighed and shook his head. "That doesn't mean anything. Just because we haven't seen them doesn't mean they're not here."

"Even if they were here, that doesn't mean we could see them, either," she said, and skipped on ahead.

Midnight: new plan

They sit in silence for a time, suspended in darkness. Then she smiles slightly. "There is a way. Rally the gods what remain. Bring them together for the end times, for the final fight. Call, and they will come." She pauses, then elaborates: "It is a pretence. With it, we can use their power to go back. Try this all again."

"There is no honour in that."

"To the hells with honour! What use is honour when you're dead? When the whole damn world is dead? We stand at the end of time, and it's already too late as is. It's been tried. With honour, all is lost. But we can still go back. We must go back."

He gives her a long look. "You want to make it so none of this ever happened?"

"No, no..." She shakes her head. "Once something happens, it cannot unhappen. We'll still remember. The worlds will remember. But it'll buy us a chance at a proper outcome. I want to make it so that something else can happen too."

"That's insane," he says flatly.

"Oh, love," she says, smiling. "You should have seen my day job. But here. I will show you." She stands as the darkness shifts and fades. Shapes grow and tumble, swirling through unspent time, and aspects of the plan drift from stage to stage. "This is how it will go..."




It didn't exactly go as planned. They had had to improvise. Kyrule panicked. Eapherod took the fall.

The other gods caught them in the act, or so they thought. What the act was, or what the goal might have been, they did not know. What they did know was that Eapherod had gone too far, overstepped her bounds, trod upon the fabric of the law. So they stopped her. Kyrule bound her, and broke her, and said nothing about the truth, that there had been no grand plot and nothing to stop, that 'too far' was not far enough, that they had just killed their only hope of surviving the storm to come.

He was redeemed in their eyes. Not an accomplice at all, simply too brazen for a young god, who tried too hard and would have failed to stop her himself had the rest not stepped in...

"They will remain blind for so long as they choose not to see," she had told him. "You should know. You, too are blind." He did not know what this meant. As much as he thought he knew, that she was referring to the simple incident, that it was about what they had faced and fled, there seemed to be more, but he did not know what it was.

Already the entire plan had become fuzzy, and in time, more than the details were forgotten. He would watch and see many things as the aeons passed, watch and not act as the blind gods acted out their blindness, not act and watch as the worlds died around, and not watch and not act as history played itself out.

Waiting, always waiting, until one day when he would be named, and finally see.

But not remember.


The Return

"Death puts holes in things. In families, in communities. Places where a person was, and no longer is."

~ Unknown

She smiled.

She never spoke. Throughout it all, she never said a word.

Only smiled.


They came through into utter chaos. As the worlds flooded back in all their noise and need, the other gods descended, reality made manifest, emblematic of everything that had been lost. Everything that was just the same as it had ever been.

Eapherod beside him smiled with all her love, the mask contrasting its swirls and intricacies against her serene expression.

Everything was as it was. Everything was different now.

She removed the mask and pressed it to his face, his own mask falling away, and suddenly he knew. He understood. He took the mask and backed away, then, with no hesitation, turned on her, fighting her, to tear her down, holding nothing back in the onslaught. She fought back, of course, and indeed she had always been the stronger, but all he had to do was stop her, slow her down. He reminded himself of this, and made it real. The details didn't matter.

Then the other gods were upon them, joining in, backing him, tearing at her, beating her down, and she could not face them all, though she tried, pushing forward, away, fighting with everything she had. They fought, a few fell, until she had nothing left, and fell herself, defeated before them.

The others backed away, leaving the final act to him. His burden, his responsibility. His trust betrayed, his insight that had seen it through. That was what they believed. That was how it must be.


She said nothing as he bound her down, nothing as he pressed for answers, threatening with pain and death as the other gods looked on, nothing as he stripped away every defence she had left until only the naked Eapherod remained.

So they held her for a time and waited. She let herself be held as they took her somewhere where there could be no question of escape, where she could not move nor act. She let her dreams be searched, her realm dismantled, her sphinxes displaced. Her followers taken from her.

She said nothing, only sat and waited too, powerless, unmoving, silent.


Finally the other gods called for judgement.

He asked what the judgement should be.

She has gone too far, they said. End her, they said.

Still she said nothing, and he pleaded for mercy on her behalf, arguing, begging, making offers of his own.

They refused.

So he slew her, for even in his sorrow he obeyed. But the tears were real, even as she smiled up at him, even as he brought the scythe down, even as she fell once more, an empty form, unanswering, unseeing.

He broke down and sobbed, for the sorrow was more real than anything they'd seen, anything that could yet come to pass. The sorrow and the guilt that would eat at him for an eternity. What he had done, and done nothing to stop. His own hands. His own will. His own power. It was all real, and present, and it would not fade.

But it wasn't over. It hadn't even begun.

Note on gods

Eapherod was a god, and the thing with gods is that without a proper weapon, you can't just slay them. Need to take them apart, keep them from reforming, scatter the pieces throughout the realms.

There were two things on this topic that Kyrule didn't know - that his scythe was one of the only weapons that existed that indeed could slay a god, and that Eapherod, technically, wasn't exactly a normal god. Having already been slain, she could hardly be slain again.

Line

After the return, she wasn't silent. Not really. Not entirely. She said one thing in the moment before she died. Hell if I know what.


"You'll have to stop me," she whispered in his ear, just as the whole world came crashing back. "Make it good."

The soul

He got to her cell at dusk, loosening the bars as she herself had done so many times before. She looked up as he slipped inside, and smiled, that beautiful smile that knocked men flat. Her elemental heritage was strong, but where it made some alien and terrifying, in her it only accentuated her perfection.

"You came," she whispered. "I almost did not believe it to be possible."

He merely said, "Shalias. Are you ready?"

She nodded. "There's time. They only check on the hour. Sit with me first?"

"You need to get out," he told her. "You are too important to leave anything to chance."

"Everything is chance," she replied, not getting up. "Sit." She patted a space on the bed next to her.

He gave her a long look before finally acquiescing and sitting, and she smiled again. Gods, was it a smile.

"That's better," she said. Even her voice was lovely. "You need to slow down once in awhile."

"I can fucking slow down after," he said, shaking his head, trying to clear it. This wasn't helping.

"But you won't," she replied.

He sighed.

They sat for a time. In her presence, even the worry dissipated, the need, the hurry. Even here, in the heart of dread, he felt himself relaxing for the first time in... in a very long time.

Later, she nodded again and said, "Very well."

He broke her wards in the old fashioned way, taking the physical collar and cutting it off with bolt-cutters, and then helped her out first, lifting her surprisingly light form up to the window. As she scrambled the entire way out, the remaining bar clattered down, clanging and rolling across the floor. Sometimes it was a rock. Sometimes they just knew.

They froze, then there was a scraping at the door of a key in the lock. "Vardaman!" she whispered, panic in her voice, taking his hand to try to haul him up too, but he pushed her away.

"There's no time," he said. "Go! I will hold them off."

"You can't!" she said.

"Go!" he hissed, turning his back on the window and only hoping she really would. There was no point in prayer. Not anymore. Prayer was lost.

Vardaman drew his sword just as the door opened entirely, but the guard behind it had a fireball in hand.

"Put the sword down," the guard commanded, looking quickly about the room, but also keeping a firm, threatening fix on Vardaman.

Vardaman did, holding out his hands in surrender, and the guard kicked the sword back out the door.

"Where is she?" the guard asked.

"Gone," Vardaman said flatly.

Two other guards came in as well and gave Vardaman a pat-down, taking various knives and other weapons too, but he had come light this time. He could not have taken on a full bastion of mages even with the full assortment. Not anymore.

"Then you will have to do," the guard said. "Bind him," he commanded, and one of the others did so, taking Vardaman's hands and binding them tightly behind his back, placing wards to keep them.

The other guard picked up the broken collar, but the first simply shook his head. "There is no need. His magic will have already failed." Addressing Vardaman once more, the guard said, "High Priest of a dead god, and yet still you persist. It is commendable, but it only serves us."

"And Shalias?" Vardaman asked.

"With you here, we have no further need of her," the guard said, marching them out. "Perhaps you may take some comfort in that."

"So it is my soul for hers," Vardaman said.

"A good trade in the eyes of the God of Death," the guard said.

"Not my God of Death," Vardaman said.

"I'm sorry," the guard said.


Joined now by a full contingent of guards, they brought him through the citadel surprisingly respectfully. Despite his restraints, Vardaman held his head high as he passed through the halls of his captors; after everything, this was all he had. A few saluted, even using the old forms, the symbols of the old god, and one bowed. He frowned at this, but the guards did nothing to stop it either. They knew where he was going. They could allow him this last respect, and they were not the inquisitors.

They stopped before the high doors doors of the ritual chamber, the guards spreading out, two remaining with Vardaman once more, another knocking, booming, once, twice, with the long metal knocker at the left door.

It had always been the right before.

A moment later, the door opened, and a priest of the Black ushered them in. The two guards escorted Vardaman into the centre. The rest remained outside.

The room was nothing like what it had been when the old god had reigned, when it had been Vardaman presiding. Now the symbols were broken, desecrated with black gore, and indeed the priest's robes were stained through with the stuff. The floor was covered in black. Only a simple stone altar took up the centre of the space before them, but this was a much more familiar colour - a dull brown. Blood. The blood of his brothers, of his people.

They had been so very thorough, the followers of the new god.

"Fuck," Vardaman whispered.

The guards kneeled on either side of the altar, forcing Vardaman to his knees before it as well.

"Vardaman, High Priest of Kyrule," the priest said, standing over them. "Had you simply come forward in the beginning, we could have avoided so much blood, so much suffering. So many souls condemned only to slow the dying of a passing god." And then he listed the names. Not many, and by no means all, but a few. Enough to drive the message home. Enough to drive a spike into Vardaman's heart with each successive name, each building upon the last.

When they trailed off, Vardaman said flatly, "This was not my doing. And I stand by my actions. I chose my paths, and so did you."

"Peledeska requires one more soul," the priest said.

"I do not willingly betray my God," Vardaman said. "Not before, not now."

"And do you think that if you remain resolute, there will be some reward awaiting you in your afterlife?" the priest asked, sounding almost curious.

"No," Vardaman said.

The priest nodded.

The guards held Vardaman's head down to the altar, and then he could feel its cold roughness digging into his forehead, smell the blood of those he had tried so hard to protect, only to ultimately fail them all.

Then there was the strangeness of the spike at the base of his skull, and the clang, and impossible pain, and then nothing at all.


It was a soul like any other, suspended in the crystal maze, glittering brightly even despite its age. In life he had suffered greatly, but now he was here, condemned in full for the paths he'd taken and the choices he'd made.

It was a bad judgement. Rahah did not approve; his would have been a path to continue, fostering a chance for better odds, a better outcome. Even simple rest would have been better than this. But rest she would not have been able to use.

She touched the soul carefully, trying not to disturb the maze. His was a dream. A lifetime. A few moments. A damnation so specific it did nothing more than play itself out. She couldn't disconnect him from it, not without doing considerable damage. She needed to shut down the system before dismantling it.

"Ense Vardaman," she whispered, and entered the dream.


She found herself in woods. She was someone else, taller, more slender, but also more muscular, a player within the dream itself. And she was blue. Rahah, or whoever she really was at the moment, smiled to herself. This was a surprisingly good start. She had always liked blue.

"Okay, if this were my dream, where would I be?" she asked herself quietly, looking around at the woods. They were nice enough woods - old, full of plants and wet and life - but they were also a bit vague, not the focus of any of this. What was the focus?

She jumped up a tree and perched on its branches, peering out over the foliage. Mountains. Trees. A sky replete with stars, as well as old scars. The citadel, so pristine against the vagueness of everything else. Yes. That was what her character was fleeing. That was where Vardaman was.

There was something horribly familiar about all of this. Events were bleeding backwards.

She tried to shift herself to the edge of the forest, but the dream wouldn't let her, so instead she dropped out of the tree and ran, feeling the wind flowing around her, the night's dew merging with her skin, the mist embracing her like an old friend.


Rahah walked in the front gate like she knew exactly where she was going, daring anyone to disagree, but for the moment nobody paid her any mind. She needed to find him somewhere in all of this, but as much as she had no idea where to even begin, it was almost as though the dream were directing her toward him. It was used to a single player. It wanted a single focus.

The guards spotted her as she left the courtyard, and rose hands to cast, but she cut them down with her own magic, immediate and devastating. She needed no gestures, no motions to do this, even if Shalias - because that was her character's name, yes - did. The magic was the same however it was cast.

Shalias was a warlock. She didn't shift the world around her by dreaming it, she hurled vast energies at those who opposed her, twisting and reshaping them.

Rahah hurried on, but then there were more guards, so she hurled curses at them, breaking their minds, their bodies, their souls.

And then there were more. The more she pushed, the more guards she ran into, until it was all guards, everywhere guards, more guards than anything else. She pushed through them, leaving a trail of destruction before and after, until finally she came out the other side.

There were more guards waiting for her, but these were specific models, not simply the same one over and over like the ones before. These were real, to the dream, guarding a pair of high stone doors with long metal knockers, and they drew when she approached, not even saying anything, flinging their magic her way.

She threw up a ward, but she was already exhausted, and it faltered almost immediately. In a panic, she turned to mist herself instead, and the blasts went through, mostly, weakening her even further, but she flew at them and boiled the water in their blood, drawing it out and with as she seeped through the cracks of the doors.

She retook her form and her feet on the other side, stepping down lightly.

A man was there, knelt forcibly at the altar, two guards holding him in place. Vardaman. A black priest was standing over them.

"Vardaman!" Rahah yelled, and hurled another slew of curses at the black priest.

"Shalias? What? No!" Vardaman said, turning, but as hard as he tried, the guards prevented him from getting up entirely, still holding him down.

The priest, meanwhile, simply waved her curses aside and threw lightning right back. It knocked her clear off her feet, and then she could hardly move, let alone respond.

Then the priest was dragging her over, too, and before she realised what was happening, he had shoved her in beside Vardaman. She collapsed on the altar.

"No," she thought she heard Vardaman say. Everything was disjointed. Nothing fit.

"Two more," someone else said. Someone was holding her.

There was something on the back of her neck, small, rough, heavy. It lingered, before exploding into a brilliant bloom, all-encompassing.

The dream fell away.


Rahah looked around. She was in a room. A cell. The collar on her neck felt weird, numbing, putting an entire piece of the world just out of reach. She tugged at it, but it seemed to be solid metal, welded shut. No magic would come at all.

"Yer buggrit," she muttered.

There was a small noise from the window as Vardaman loosened the bars, then he dropped in with a strange feline grace.

"Oy, go away," Rahah said, shooing him back toward the window.

He looked at her like she was absolutely crazy. She supposed she probably was, but that wasn't really relevant at the moment.

"Go, get out of here" she repeated. "It's you they're after. I'm just the bait."

"Only because they don't know who you are," he said. "You're too important to leave anything to chance."

"More than you?" she asked.

"Yes," he said, nodding for emphasis.

Rahah blinked, but then said, "But this has all already happened. It doesn't matter. I don't matter."

"I wish that were true," he said sadly. "Gods, do I wish it."

"But it is," she said. "We just got killed and suddenly we're here. Don't you remember?"

"That was the dream," he whispered. "This is real." Then he got out a pair of bolt cutters and said, "You need to go."

"But..." she began, then realised he seemed to really believe what he was saying. This was all real to him. Every time, he believed it all.

"Here, hold still," he said, navigating the bolt cutters around by the side of her neck. A moment later the collar was off, and it felt like all the feeling in the world was flooding back, full of awareness and possibility and power.

"Woah," she said, rubbing her neck, and then grabbed the collar and put it back on, just to be sure. It closed itself around the break, and immediately the magic all fell away once more.

"Hey, what..." Vardaman said, and then hastily cut it off again. "The fuck are you doing?"

"Just... checking," Rahah said.

There was a scraping at the door of a key in the lock.

Rahah poofed into mist and clung to the ceiling. It hadn't really been intentional.

Vardaman nearly jumped out of his shoes at this, but then quickly recovered himself. "Oh, fuck," he said, and scrambled out the window as quickly as he could.

The mist was just drifting out after as the door opened entirely. The guard behind it took one look at the empty cell, snuffed out the fireball in his hand, and called for reinforcements.

Vardaman quickly ran into more guards outside, a small group, and Rahah recoalesced beside him and took them out, but then more appeared, surrounding them.

"Stand down," one of them commanded. Rahah, a hand full of lightning, gave him an annoyed look.

Vardaman eyed her worriedly.

Then she noticed. These guards, too, were all the same.

Rahah dropped her lightning and whispered to Vardaman, "Look, they're all the same. Maybe theirs is the face of the dream protecting itself."

He gave her a surprised glance, but then he looked at them, really looked, and saw it too. "The fuck?" he said.

"I say we surrender and play it out," she said.

"They'll kill us," he said.

"I'm fine with that," she said.

"Well I'm not!" he hissed, raising his sword.

"Oh, no you don't," a guard said, raising a spell and sending the sword flying.

"Look, man," Rahah said, "You can't do anything about it. If you fight back, they'll just knock you out, and they'll still kill us after."

"Fuck," he said.


They were taken to the ritual chamber. The guards kneeled them both down before the altar, side by side.

"Vardaman, High Priest of Kyrule," the priest said, standing over them. "Had you simply come forward in the beginning, we could have avoided so much blood, so much suffering. So many souls condemned only to slow the dying of a passing god." So many names.

"This was not my doing," Vardaman said flatly. "And I stand by my actions. I chose my paths, and so did you."

"Interesting," the priest said. "And yet you, Shalias zu Harenai, are so important that after all of that, he would risk everything for you. Why?"

Rahah glanced at Vardaman, surprised, and then said, a curious smile playing on her lips, "Because I'm the Keeper of Stories?"

"Shalias!" Vardaman hissed.

"What?" she said. "I keep telling you, it's not real anyway."

Vardaman stared at her incredulously.

"Peledeska will be pleased," the priest said. "This will close the matter entirely."

"The matter of what, that you have terrible goop everywhere?" Rahah asked.

"I do not willingly betray my God," Vardaman said. "Not before, not now."

"I totally do," Rahah said.

"Do you give yourself willingly to Peledeska?" the priest asked.

"Uh... yes," Rahah said.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Vardaman hissed at her. "You, of all people!"

"And you reject Kyrule, and all that he stands for, all of his teachings and stories? Do you reject even the name?" the priest asked.

"Yes," Rahah said.

"Say it in full," he said.

"I reject Kyrule," Rahah said. "I reject him, all that he stands for, all of his teachings. I set aside his stories, and reject even the name. Kyrule does not exist."

Vardaman was staring at her in utter horror.

The priest was looking at her, nodding slightly. "If only it were true," he said sadly. "If only you believed the words you are saying."

"He's dead, you arse! Dead and gone!" Rahah yelled. "How much more bloody not existy do you want?!"

Then the guards were holding them down to the altar once more, putting the spikes to their necks, first her, then Vardaman.


"Aaargh," Rahah growled. She was back in the cell, the dusk gleaming dully through the bars. Then Vardaman was there, dealing with the bars, dropping in, asking if she was ready.

She nodded, not really paying attention. She needed a way out of this.

"Sit a moment, will you?" she said.

"You need to get out," he told her. "You are too important to leave anything to chance."

"So why are you?" she asked.

"What?" he said.

Rahah reached over and took one of his knives, not even bothering to hide the action. "Why leave it to chance? Why not simply be certain that the worst never happens?"

He frowned. "What are you suggesting?"

She backed away, and held the knife to her own throat, using the collar for support.

"Shalias," he said warningly.

"This is certain," she said simply. He darted forward to disarm her, but she ducked away and slit her own throat in one solid motion, and then there was blood everywhere, flowing, fleeing, floating away, and Vardaman grabbed her, swatting the knife away, covering her neck to try to stop it, to do anything, anything at all, but it was too late.

"No, fuck, no, no," she heard him say, but there was so little to hear, so little at all.


She was in the cell. Another reset. She supposed she hadn't really expected that to work, and glanced at the dying light from the window. Sure. It couldn't be worse than the previous idea.

Rahah had just managed to climb up to the ceiling, hanging upside-down, when Vardaman loosed the bars and pushed his way in. This time, however, not seeing her inside, he stopped and gave the room a more thorough look-over. Then he looked up. Then she dropped off the ceiling, right on his head.

He reacted instinctively and punched her in the face.


It was later, fully dark. She was alone in the cell once more, but now her head was... not working. She sat up, and the whole room spun, digging pain into her sinuses, dried blood cracking in her nose.

She quickly lay back down as the room did further gymnastics around her head.

"Okay," she mumbled, staying about as still as she could. "That did not work."

Later still, the dream reset once again.


She tried killing Vardaman ahead of time. Reset.

She tried killing the black priest, but then the guards brought her down and took the ritual into their own hands, and then it was that same cold spike sliding into her neck. Reset.

She tried yelling at Vardaman, but that simply brought the guards in that much sooner.

She tried digging a hole right outside the window and hiding them both in it, but then the guards found them anyway.

She tried dressing Vardaman up as herself and then hiding under the bed.

She tried staying with him, refusing to leave, refusing to leave him alone. They went to their fates together, the cold, certain dread of the inescapable hovering like a promise, a growing shiver. Before the spike came down, she whispered, "This isn't the end. Remember."

And something stirred.

And settled.

She tried to distract him, welcoming him with a kiss, full and deep, and building, but he did not forget his purpose.

She tried simply sitting with him and talking in the small window before the guards inevitably came. Each time, she said a little more, brought a little more of the man Vardaman had been back to the fore. The pain and the loss of what had truly been a hard life, yes, but also the joy and the beauty and the purpose that had been behind it all. And then when they came, she refused to leave, instead insisting that they take her too, walking beside him, unflinching.

They always did her first. She didn't know why. The feeling of the spike was becoming a dream of its own, the strangeness, the suddenness, the bloom of not quite pain, the wait between placement and death. The roughness of the altar, the feel of the floor digging into her knees. The smell of old blood.

The names.

The names were starting to get to her.

She was starting to see them.

As they were escorted through the citadel, she said, "We go to the future. The next world will be different from this."

Beside her, Vardaman said, "It's not. It never is."

Rahah smiled.

When they got to the high stone doors of the ritual chamber, she leaned against him slightly. Then they were brought in once more, and pushed to their knees before the altar.

"Vardaman, High Priest of Kyrule," the black priest said, standing over them. "Had you simply come forward in the beginning, we could have avoided so much blood, so much suffering. So many souls condemned only to slow the dying of a passing god."

When he listed the names, Rahah recited them too, tasting their stories.

"And now Shalias zu Harenai too," Vardaman muttered.

"But that's not your doing," Rahah said. "None of it was. You chose your paths, and you chose to fight."

"If I could take it all back..." Vardaman began.

"You wouldn't," Rahah finished for him. "That's who you are."

He sighed.

"Now Peledeska requires one more soul," the priest said. "And yet you choose to give two."

"No," Vardaman corrected. "You choose to take two."

"So be it," the priest said.

The guards held their heads down to the altar, and it was the same cold roughness digging into their foreheads, the same smell of old blood, the same strange heaviness of the spike itself, placed so carefully at the base of her skull.

Before the spike came down, she whispered, "This isn't the end. Remember."


When Vardaman dropped into her cell, he eyed her curiously, and she smiled. "You remember," she said.

"None of this is real," he said.

"No."

"Fuck," he said, rubbing his head. "The fuck is this, then?"

"A dream," Rahah said. "You are dead, and this is hell."

"You kept trying to tell me," he said. "Who are you? You're not Shalias."

"My name is Rahah," she replied. "Or Eapherod. I don't really know."

He frowned. "Eapherod," he repeated, confused. "I know that name."

She nodded, and said, "The one you serve is gone. I want him back."

"Dead," Vardaman corrected.

"Like you," Rahah told him. "You know me, Ense Vardaman. I will be your salvation."

"Eapherod," he said again.

"Oh, man, that came out silly," she said. "Anyway, I think the way out should be pretty straight-forward now."

"Yeah?"

Rahah nodded. "I'm thinking of two possibilities," she said. "We may as well start with the less damaging one. You'll need to reject Kyrule and give in."

"What?" Vardaman said. "No, you've already tried that."

"I couldn't mean it," she said. "I love him too fiercely. I'm not my sister, who can simply speak words and make them true, not for this."

"And I could?" Vardaman asked incredulously.

"You're a priest, but you're also mortal," she whispered. "You can change your mind."

"I can't just..." Vardaman began, but Rahah interrupted him.

"You're strong," she said simply. "Stronger than this. Like him. Buckets, but you are so much like him." She sniffed loudly, holding back tears, but she was smiling again, shaking her head. "And Kyrule, he's just like you. So beautiful, so fierce, and stronger than even he knows, than anyone should ever have to be."

There was a scraping at the door of a key in the lock and they both glanced over at the door.

"Vardaman," she said quietly, turning his head back toward her. "You just have to change your mind."

"I love him too," he whispered.

The door opened entirely. The guard behind it had a fireball in hand, and he directed them apart.

"I know," Rahah said as she scooted away, her hands up in surrender. "That's why you must."

The two other guards disarmed and bound Vardaman, and he looked at her pleadingly, shaking his head.

She smiled sadly. Her lip quivered slightly. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.

As the guards took him away, Vardaman said, "My soul for hers."

"A good trade in the eyes of the God of Death," the guard said.

"Not my God of Death," Vardaman said. "Not mine."

"I'm sorry," the guard said.

And then the door closed and locked behind them, leaving Rahah alone once more.

And so she sat and waited. There was nothing else to do.


Joined now by a full contingent of guards, they brought him through the citadel at a steady pace. Despite his restraints, Vardaman held his head high as he passed through the halls of his captors, his old people. A few saluted, even using the old forms, the symbols of the old god, and one bowed. The guards did nothing to stop it. They knew where he was going. They could allow him this last respect, and they were not the inquisitors.

They stopped before the high doors doors of the ritual chamber, the guards spreading out, two remaining with Vardaman once more, another knocking, booming, once, twice, with the long metal knocker at the right door.

A moment later, the door opened, and a priest of the Black ushered them in. The two guards escorted Vardaman into the centre. The rest remained outside.

He hardly remembered what the room had been like in his own time. Now, the blackness, the desecration, was all it was. A place of broken death, that altar that took up everything. That feeling.

That dread.

"Fuck," Vardaman whispered.

The guards kneeled on either side of the altar, forcing Vardaman to his knees before it as well.

"Vardaman, High Priest of Kyrule," the priest said, standing over them. "Had you simply come forward in the beginning, we could have avoided so much blood, so much suffering. So many souls condemned only to slow the dying of a passing god." And then he listed the names, each one enough to drive the message home. Enough to drive a spike into Vardaman's heart with each successive name, building upon the last.

"I am here now," Vardaman said finally.

"Peledeska requires one more soul," the priest said.

Vardaman took a deep breath and said, "I give it willingly." He almost choked on the words, but this had to be done. There was no going back.

"And you, the High Priest, now reject Kyrule and all that he stands for?" the priest asked.

"I do," Vardaman whispered.

"Say it in full," the black priest said.

"I, Vardaman, High Priest, reject Kyrule," Vardaman said. "I..." he choked. He couldn't continue.

Standing over him, the priest nodded, waiting for him to finish.

"I reject Kyrule," Vardaman repeated, trying again. "I reject him and all that he stands for. I reject the teachings and the stories and even the name. I take back the words, the rituals, the sacrifices given. I take back my own name, for Kyrule is dead, and he is not mine."

"Peledeska welcomes your sacrifice, and thanks you," the priest said.

"I give myself to Peledeska, and I give her my name," Vardaman whispered. "Ense Vardaman." Undo everything. Seal the deal.

The black priest nodded, and the guards held Vardaman's head down to the altar with surprising gentleness, and then he could feel its cold roughness digging into his forehead, smell the blood of those he had tried so hard to protect, only to ultimately fail them all. Now, he had even failed Kyrule.

"No," he breathed. But it was too late.

Then there was the strangeness of the spike at the base of his skull, and the clang, and impossible pain, and then nothing at all.


The dream did not reset. As the birds warbled and then the dawn's rays tickled the window, Rahah knew. He had done it.

She broke into tears, sobbing into her knees, mourning the betrayal and the loss, the sacrifice greater than all others. The beautiful strength, the terror, the release. She had done this to him. He had been able to do it to himself.

Later, she stepped out of the dream entirely, and the crystal maze greeted her with its alien loveliness, glittering from all angles, the souls suspended within gleaming and glowing in their condemnation. One, however, was still, and so she took the soul of Ense Vardaman carefully in her hands, slipping it from its placement, and stepping backwards out of the maze entirely.


When she returned to Kyrule, Rahah said, "You did not believe me. I will show you your truth." And she presented him the soul.