I have no excuse for how late this is. All I can say is that I am so sorry. The good news is that I've figured things out, and I know how it is going to continue and end now. If anyone still cares, that is, and after a year I wouldn't be at all surprised if no one does. I am so sorry.


Chapter Twelve

The Cycle Corrupted, The Lock on the Door

"Mother?"

"Yes, little one?"

"What is death?"

A pause. All was silent, save the gentle crackling of the fire.

"Death is the final, and yet also first, stage in the cycle of life, my love."

"But how can it be both at the same time?"

"It is called a cycle for life and death are irreversibly entwined, a circle that forever turns but never ends."

"If life doesn't end, then where is Grandfather? What has happened to him? He is gone."

"Death is the stage where we all must leave the form of life we have become accustomed to, and thus many see it as the end of life, a break in that circle. He is not gone, darling – his life is in us all now. In his life, he gave us many happy memories, and through our memories, he has life."

"Then where is he, if he is alive?"

"All life ends, and those memories pool in the endless facets of the Great Crystal. And all life is born again, renewed within that pool. As we live, we gather memories, and when we die those memories give birth to new life. The energy of life flows throughout our world, starting and ending in the memories shimmering in the Crystal's light. One day we will meet your grandfather again, with all the spirits of those long past – alive in the world, flowing and overflowing as part of that stream of energy, and alive as memories, little embers that never quite fade away."

remember

can't wake up

please remember

am I even asleep?

Forget.

The cycle of the world had been broken. The Great Crystal was shattered, and in that instant the pattern of life and death that had governed the world since the beginning was forever altered. At once, the energy that flowed through the lands like a river of life was halted – the river's current stopped, its source gone.

Little 'pools' of life held out in little corners of the world, mere puddles left over when the river went dry. In those few havens the people of the world huddled, clinging to what warmth and protection they could find.

It is no coincidence that those havens popped up wherever a shard of the Great Crystal landed. When it was shattered, its pieces were scattered far and wide. Broken and weak, they still held some of its power, and while the flow of life was broken, those crystal shards would gather and hold as much of that energy within them as they could.

For a time, people thought they could live that way, that all would be well again eventually. They rebuilt towns and cities around those shards, and those towns and cities survived. The survivors of the Crystal City formed an entirely new province, a place governed by the people rather than a monarchy, a place that any person of any tribe could call home. The Yukes of Shella mourned the loss of their grand and ancient homeland for a time, but they quickly rebuilt. New Shella was less than a day's travel on foot from the old city, and it grew to be as beautiful and powerful a place as the old, a city of waterfalls and rivers, high towers and magical bridges, all bathed in the calming green light of their shard. The strong and proud king of Alfitaria would not abandon the heart of his empire – instead, in a display of the might and power of the Lilty army, he had a shard brought to the city. It took a team of engineers and the strongest soldiers in the land to find a way to bring the giant rock home, but they did it. Selkies came and went – many were seen returning to the sea, to a mysterious new home that no outsider had ever seen. Many of the peaceful Clavats remained in their lowland by the river, creating sprawling farm towns wherever they could.

For a time, they could pretend that everything was the way it should be.

everything is wrong

don't let him

Not wrong. Different. Perfect.

Perfect for me.

I can't breathe

It was midday, and the light was harsh – far too harsh given the time of year, for it was only spring. Two days ago, they had parted ways from the remainder of the city refugees, who had decided to find a place to settle. They had remained at the ancient crossroads north of the ruins of Rebena Te Ra.

Aurantha had declared that their task was far from complete.

"There is more to be done…much more," the Yuke sighed, leaning heavily on her staff as she gazed at the smoking, smoldering horizon which had once been a sacred mountain. "The impact was only the beginning. It was…I feel as though the impact was merely the breaking of the gates, to let the army inside."

"And what army would that be, exactly? What are we to fight? Star men? Or demons? I've heard you mention fell spirits here and there. I'm a fine soldier and I've sworn to protect you, Lady, but I cannot face an army," Geirr said. His voice was grim, but there was a layer of respect to it that had become more apparent since the refugees had left. "Even if we were triple our current number, I doubt that we would stand a chance against an army of the flesh-and-blood – if our enemy is something of smoke and spirit, what could I do?"

"And I, well, I'm no fighter, you all know that. I barely know which end of a sword to hold, let alone what to do with it. I'm all eager to go along and record what we've done so far, and I'm sure it will be quite the tale – but I shouldn't like to have it end with our grisly deaths," Terrand added quickly, looking extremely anxious and just a little embarrassed, shifting his posture and glancing about furtively. The ordeal had been very taxing on him – that much was obvious to anyone. In fact, privately both Geirr and Izha Lul wondered if it was taxing him too much, if he was going to crack. Geirr rolled his eyes and glanced away as the Clavat spoke.

"Your concerns are…valid. We face a great deal of danger. But as for this army…I do not know. I was speaking in metaphor – or I meant to be. In truth, I do not know for certain. There could indeed be some sort of army, or perhaps the danger is something less tangible," Aurantha replied, spreading her feathery hands in apology, or exasperation, or both. "All I know for certain is that while there is a great danger to us if we proceed, things are even darker and more terrible if we do not. Darker and more terrible than I have words to describe."

"Yes, well, perhaps I've had enough of dark and terrible, though!" Terrand snapped. He began to pace, one hand at his hip and the other at his forehead, as if it could hold back his thoughts. "I don't remember signing up for certain doom, you know."

"Then why did you even come?" Geirr drawled, crossing his arms and staring expectantly at the writer.

"I don't know! I just – I don't know. I didn't exactly plan for it. I suppose I thought it would make a fine old tale, and I could retire the happy author of this generation's finest story, or something along those lines. I didn't really think it through," Terrand said, visibly deflated. He immediately stopped pacing and instead stood with his shoulders slumped and his head turned toward the ground as if it was the most interesting thing to look at. "I've always been a bit impulsive."

Geirr was momentarily taken aback by the sudden change in demeanor. It was almost amusing the way the grizzled warrior searched for an appropriate way to respond.

"Impulsive has a bad way of getting you killed," he finally replied, though his voice was not accusing this time.

"So does sittin' around like prey. Sometimes ya just gotta act, prove yer not so weak after all."

They both looked up, surprised. Sometimes it was easy for the two men to forget Izha Lul. She used her words wisely and rarely, and tended to blend in with her surroundings wherever she went. Of course, part of that was her muddied and stained skins, as both her own skin and those she wore tended to absorb the colors of the land around her.

"I do not believe that any of you are weak," Aurantha said, thoughtful. "There is something stronger than impulse at play here. Perhaps the only word for it is fate, though that implies that you had no choice, and I do not believe that. My gift of Sight has allowed me to truly appreciate the power that choice truly has, for those choices determine the very world around us, now and in the future. I believe…"

She stopped, wheezing a little.

"Are you all right?" Terrand asked, stepping closer. The wizened Yuke waved him off.

"Yes, I am fine. For a moment, though, it felt like…wait," she started, trailing off. She turned around suddenly, looking back at the way they came from.

"What is it?" Geirr asked, shifting to an alert stance.

"The army. It is coming on the wind," she whispered.

"What are you talking about? There's nothing th-"

The Lilty coughed a little, his eyes watering. When his spasm faded, he silently followed her gaze to the northwest.

"What's happening?" he slowly asked, his tone low and cautious.

Izha Lul crouched, raising a hand to cover her mouth and nose.

"There's somethin' wrong with this wind, all right. S'not the smoke smell you'd expect, somethin' else. Sorta like…sorta like the swamp. Like death," she hissed, eyes wide.

"I remember this feeling…" Aurantha whispered. "In my vision, it was worse, but I…"

She ceased talking. One hand gently held her golden helmet, while the other took hold of the crystal that hung decoratively from its right side, near where her ear would be.

"These two are of the same sort as the Great Crystal...they were found in a mine not too far from the city. Many keep them for their mystic properties, and they have a connection to the Great Crystal itself, for all such crystals were once one at the world's birth," she said, in an odd voice that was only half directed towards her three companions. She raised the small crystal high, and there was something about the way it sparkled that the group found reassuring.

"We have to go back. The crystals will protect us as we approach the heart of the corruption. We cannot halt the flow, but I know there is something else we must do."

so many lost

the embers faded, devoured

A welcome feast to celebrate my birth.

but you must remember

don't let him take it from you

Remember what?

it can be defeated

but too many memories, too much lost now

not until enough has recovered

not until those memories that burn

burn bright enough that he feels that light

They will be delectable. I will welcome that day – it is no threat to me.

so bright he can't take them away

remember

please don't forget

remember

your memories glow so kindly, so golden, so gentle

Yes, come to me, Seer, so that I may feast on those golden memories of yours.

You will forget. They will forget. Your story shall fade to nothing in time.

enough will survive

the cycle of life

flow of memories

they will seek the water of life

don't let him take them

let them flow

let the cycle be born anew

find them where they grow

What must I do?

life to life

memory to memory

they fade, the cycle broken

they are seeds, cast aside

a new cycle is sown

it is his doing, his feast

a cycle of remembering pain

a cycle of forgetting the past

it feeds him

but it will be his undoing

don't let him take them

let them fade

let them grow

they will seek the water of life

But what must I do?

remember

It was the same scene as they had left it, but a thousand times worse. A twisted, nightmare landscape, torn and broken and blackened earth that was harsh and jagged and bare of life. Stony knives clawed at the clouded, ash-choked sky, the only remains of the mountain that had once been so tall and grand. Deep gouges scarred the earth, opening up to deep pits that oozed and leaked like the wounds they were, never to heal but always raw and bleeding. Everywhere was clouded with the murky haze that poured from those wounds, making the air shimmer in that putrid purple-gray, the color of a wicked bruise. A few shards of crystals remained, at least crystals of a sort – but they had no glow, no sparkle, and no life, and were disconcertingly bloody in color. In the shadows were shapes that moved and writhed and hissed unnatural noises, always just out of direct sight, so that none of the four could tell whether they were the angry spirits of those who would not leave, or horrific beasts that were all too alive.

They stood in the narrowest point of the pass that led between the valley lands south and the ruined mountain ahead. What had once been a pleasant road leading up the mountain was now a dark and jagged path between imposing cliffs and gaping chasms, very nearly a tunnel. Already the haze, the miasma, swirled in and out of the pass, the terrain forming a terrible funnel that screeched with the force of the wind.

The crystals hummed with energy and life, wrapping protectively around the four like a bubble of safety. No matter how fiercely the miasma whirled and raged around them, it could not pierce that shield.

Aurantha stood forward, holding one of her two precious crystals forward while the group waited behind with the second.

Just as little pools of life were formed at the destruction of the river of life, so too were dry spots formed, places far out of the reach of the crystal's glow. Places like this, where the miasma could swirl and pool and strengthen, though no other would be as formidable as this, the door to the heart of the corruption.

This door required a lock.

'I remember,' Aurantha thought to herself. 'I remember what must be done. I remember what will be forgotten – for a time. Let it fade, not be taken, for if it fades…the memory will be reborn.'

The crystal she held glowed brightly as she let loose a stream of arcane chanting, culminating in a flash of light as she plunged the crystal into the tainted ground. The light intensified, and everything

faded

to gold.