I somehow published this before I was done editing it. Hopefully no one noticed~
Was written after playing around with an idea from the last chapter of my other DGC story. Not necessarily connected, but I liked the concept. That and re-reading Fire Sea way too much for my sanity. It's also fun to write characters that were really minor in the books- gives me free reign to interpret them my way.
Just for emphasis, I do love Alfred. Really. D: He doesn't believe me though.
I always appreciate feedback! (Yes, really!)
I…I heard a sound.
Alfred swore they were being followed. Every so often, he would whip his head around, looking out to the vast cavernous world of Abarrach; at the large stalagmites jutting from the ground and the meandering streams of magma that cut through the rock. The dark underground was lit up by the red-orange heat, the ceiling covered with a deep fog, obscuring his sight, unable to see just how high the caverns reached.
Haplo was ahead of him, scouting out the trails before them, while his dog straggled behind with Alfred. They had just left the port that was placed next to the fire sea, its buildings completely abandoned.
Alfred looked back, waiting for the glimpse of a face, a hand, anything. But none of the sort appeared. He only saw the empty village in the distance, remembering the overturned chairs of the dining rooms, the doors standing ajar, and the numerous debris that littered the streets. He saw the outline of Haplo's ship hovering next to the stone pier, the faint glow of the runes on its surface, keeping the large contraption afloat, as well as shielding it from the dreaded heat.
Was he expecting a resident of that town to peek out from behind a boulder? He wasn't really sure himself. A wet object touched his hand, nearly sending him into another panic attack. He looked down quickly to find the Patryn's dog, pressing its nose against him, its dark fur up in tufts. It gave the Sartan a quizzical expression, one the man was familiar with ever since he first saw the strange creature on Arianus.
"Perhaps…I am just tired," Alfred spoke to the dog, giving it a small pat on the head. Its warmth reassured him, steadied the beating of his heart. He and the Patryn had examined the place thoroughly enough. Everyone was gone, making the world of stone seem like a dead place. The thought sent a cold shudder through him. This world, so very dead…
"Sartan!" Haplo's voice cut through the hot air, violently pulling him from his thoughts. He turned back, finding the young man on the outcropping of a small rock hill, body slightly turned, his annoyance made clear in his expression. His hands, wrapped in strips of white cloth, were clenched. "What are you doing? Hurry up!"
"Y-yes, I…I'm sorry!" He quickly clambered over to Haplo, tripping over his feet every five or so steps to the delight of the dog that barked at him joyously.
The Patryn's glare was vicious, but the ancient enemy was his only companion in this world. Alfred bore the blunt of the man's eyes, which had grown more unkind- though a bit more tolerant - after their travel together through Death's Gate. He kept a few steps behind Haplo, carefully maneuvering his awkward body among the uneven ground, concentrating on his magic to keep his body from withering in the harsh atmosphere.
He only risked one last glance, certain that his shoulder had just been touched, a light brushing of fingers that hovered near him for barely a second. I must be seeing things, he would tell himself later. Perhaps it was just the mist. Abarrach was empty, lifeless- it made him experience such strange illusions. His entry into this world, along with his alliance to the enemy, was putting a strain on his mind.
But he had seen her- and he was so sure that it had been a woman, even if the figure had been so far off that there was certainly no way he could have told the difference. She had been slim, dressed in long, white robes, her face hidden in the shadow of her hood. He was also certain, even though she was really nothing more than a shape against the rock and flowing fire, that she had been smiling. What was even more astounding, was that he did not find her image the least bit frightening.
Then he had blinked, and she was gone. Just a trick of the eyes.
I heard…a voice.
The iron ship was a monster, sluggish in its journey, ruthless in its movement. It carved a pathway through the fire sea; the magma that was said to have suffocated the mensch all those years ago with its fumes, slid harmlessly around the ship's metal hull. Bits of rock and debris that had fallen from the cavern ceiling, from the natural pillars that extended their way to the misty heights, was brushed away by the Sartan's creation. The bow, shaped like the head of a snarling dragon, blew dark smoke from its nostrils, its open mouth looking ready to breathe out flames at any moment.
Bethel had been stuck inside the ship through most of its travel, cramped in a small room where dead guards kept a lookout on her door. Long and painful hours passed by. She had crouched in a corner, head in her hands as she felt defeat sink into her bones. The events that led to her imprisonment were muddled, overtaken by pouring fire, by hands that bound her arms and covered her mouth. She woke to the dull, rusted surface of the metal ceiling, to the narrow cot on her side, to the sound of churning magma pushed through the rudders with hissing steam.
She would not live through this day. The war that had gone on between her followers and the dynast's armies had lasted much too long. The magic in her was weak, her reserves spent just to keep her body alive through the heat. She had to leave it to her younger followers to fight for her, keeping them close- and that was how she came to be betrayed.
Bethel knew the end of her journey was near when the guards came to retrieve her. They clasped her arms in their cold hands, pushing her upwards toward the deck, their movements dictated by the necromancers that stood nearby. The ship had been even bigger than she imagined. The fire sea looked so far beneath her, even though she could still hear the loud magma shifting in the current, resounding inside her ears. Cadavers plodded around the deck, performing maintenance that they did by rote, passing her by with no interest, no intelligence in their eyes. Straight ahead, she saw the city of Necropolis, the city of the dead. It was built into the walls of the cavern, its strange rock formation keeping much of the city's structures hidden from view. Stalactites jutted down from the ceiling, merging with the stalagmites from the floor, creating the image of a sharply filed mouth, grinning, ready to swallow her whole.
A morbid city, a morbid thought. Melodramatic even. She knew this, but it didn't stop her from shaking. Cold fingertips dug into her skin. The feel of their dead flesh, preserved beyond their time, seeped through her blood. She was small compared to the guards, shorter than most Sartan. An abnormality, like everything else about her. She could not move.
Footsteps echoed behind her, done deliberately. Booted feet, the tips encased in iron, were stomping in intervals. She didn't need to see to know who it was. Kleitus the VII moved next to her, keeping a close distance, just out of her sight. The dynast was not intimidated nor impressed by this woman who was once termed the most powerful wizardess in Abarrach, who had threatened the extinction of their entire race by removing a large portion of the population out of the city walls.
"How much have you accomplished?" The dynast was asking her casually, making pleasant conversation as the city before them grew larger. It was a wonder how she heard his voice, echoing through metal, over the constant sound of bubbling magma. But his words cut through her, planting themselves in her head. "All these years- have you truly found Death's Gate? Have you seen the wonders of other worlds through it?"
She said nothing. Her face was hidden in the hood of her robe- a robe that was starkly white. A strange attire, compared to the usual black that the magic users wore- the color of the necromancers. There had been no sign of her unease- nothing physical, nothing the dynast could have seen. But she knew he smiled. Despair poured out of her, tainting the air.
"People can only hold onto such fruitless faith for so long. Do not be surprised that those who followed you into wastelands delivered you to me in the end."
She wasn't, of course. The days had grown darker, unbearable. The same frenetic zeal of those early years had drained from their faces. It had drained from hers as well.
"Misguided, hopeful youths. They will not be punished harshly- which cannot be said for you."
The dynast moved forward, entering her line of vision. He reached the bow, back to her, standing near the carved dragon's head. Heavily chain-mailed armor covered his frame, a large sword hung at his side, wearing his dark helm. Not as magically-inclined as his ancestors, the man was a skilled tactician, and an experienced general. He had spent a majority of this time being at the forefront of the war, his ships becoming his home more than the castle at Necropolis ever was. It had been his strategy to acquire more dead to fight- doing so by slaying down his own soldiers to create a larger, unbeatable force. Barbaric, complete savagery; that was what her followers had called it, but all knew that in the end it was still an ingenious move. The dead couldn't die a second time. Like stone, they brushed away sword thrusts and magic spells. It had worn the living down, while the cadavers kept going, and would have done so forever.
Kleitus had counted on it. Fatigue had set in on everyone, and Bethel could see that the dynast himself was no exception. She saw the stress and tension built up through the years finally ease off of him. He had won, and he was taking the traitor, the corruptor of minds, the rebel leader, back to the armored city for judgment. Her first thought was that she would be cast into oblivion- but perhaps that was not it. Alive, she would resist any interrogation from the most skilled of torturers. But dead, she would be more than compliant, revealing to them the reason why she had done something so radical, risking everything.
Bethel glanced to her left, only slightly. The guard kept his face forward, expressionless, his skin colored a sickly blue. Behind him she could see the phantasm of the soldier, barely perceptible, a mass of fog with what might have been eyes and a mouth. A mere shadow of the corpse, not worth paying attention to, for it was the bodies that did the work, while the phantasm trailed after.
Except she heard their voices. They cried, they whispered. Misery incarnate. It was when she first heard them that she discarded her own necromancer robes, taking the ancient white instead. She had studied the old spells, those that her own people had once performed before necromancy took hold. No one else seemed to hear the ghosts, and it was after she started listening to their intelligible words that the visions came.
Everyone knew the magma sea was shrinking, just barely, but the shores grew larger by a couple of inches each cycle. She had seen the way out, fantastic in its existence, and drew a following much larger than she had anticipated. Yes, she had seen the way out- but it had proved much harder to reach it, let alone find its exact location.
In that ghost's suffering, she saw herself, trying to reach for her body, for her own self, unable to do a thing. But would oblivion really be preferable- an eternity of endless darkness, complete nothingness?
It would not be long. Their arrival in Necropolis was due in less than an hour. She would be taken, they would kill her, then resurrect her, leaving her trapped, demanding her to detail all those visions that must surely be the product of someone mad. Or would they simply cut her down, leaving her body to rot in the dungeons?
She grew terrified. What could she do now? She may have one spell left in reserve- strength she gathered during her imprisonment- but the soldiers would quickly catch up to her. She would be dead either way.
Bethel looked down at the floor of rusted metal, hearing the rock inside the ocean of fire crumble beneath her. The dead kept her in their grip. The city was getting closer, stuck in the same grin it had shown ever since her ancestors first arrived on this world. She was surrounded by lifeless things. So unlike what she had seen, when her words offered escape from a world where the only source of heat was deteriorating.
When her words…
Her mind dropped.
"Look." Kleitus gestured to her, prompting the guards to bring her forward. "The people have gathered for you. Would you like to make a speech?"
His mocking tone never reached her, the feel of being pulled along lost on her senses. Because she was already gone, lost to colors and pictures, to sight and sound that was not of her time.
Her feet dragged, her arms went limp, her head craned backwards. Kleitus turned to her, his eyes through the slits in his helm narrowed in annoyance. "What is she doing?" he asked his necromancers who was staring at the wizardess in undisguised alarm.
The visions she would have were not common enough to be a daily occurrence, but rare enough to be frightening. It was how she had known about Death's Gate- that through the devastating myriad of colors she had glimpsed a world of floating isles, a world of overbearing, fascinating greenery, a world of deep, endless water…
Now she saw faces, she saw men, and a strange dog, moving through the darkness, moving through ever-shifting faces of the angered dead. She saw souls ripped from their chains, reliving their pain, becoming free. Events played through her mind, chaotic, muddled, except for certain scenes that were painfully clear. A ship, made of a substance she could not name, covered in foreign runes, was coming out of a frightening portal, a hole carved in the air, something she had searched for so long. Then suddenly, a tall, frightened man, magic flowing from his mouth without his will, like a living entity.
Her mind pulled back up again, through the hard earth, through her feet, her chest.
Bethel gasped, her breath moving through her lungs much too fast. The dead's cold hands slowly brought her back. She heard the necromancer's chanting, frantic in their rhythm.
Kleitus was standing before her, suddenly very close, his stance rigid.
"What did you see?" he asked.
Of course he would know about her visions, one other fact her betrayers had shared. Unimportant now. She knew what she had to do. She would not live through this day- but she would meet the end on her own terms.
Bethel extended her fingers, and softly started to sing. She was no longer afraid.
It may have been the dangerous nature of their mission- rescuing both Haplo and Edmund from the dungeons of Necropolis- it may have been the sight of corpses walking through the darkness, performing their menial tasks with a macabre normality, but Alfred knew that someone was trailing after him, and him only.
He traveled with the duke and duchess, Jera and Jonathan, Jera's father, the old Earl, and the young man named Tomas who led them through the tunneled streets. Haplo's dog followed close behind, tongue lolling from its mouth, more at ease than the tall Sartan it stuck by. The small rebellion group, except for Alfred, had argued against its presence, but if the creature wouldn't stay down after being dumped into a pit of boiling mud, it certainly wouldn't stay at the Earl's home alone. It remained close with Alfred, who also refused to remain behind, his worry over Haplo overriding his cowardice just slightly.
It was the slumber hours, where very few of the living would be walking about. The group had gone through one of the "rat holes" carved into the city walls, quickly traversing through the narrow, drizzling caverns, barely lit up by the gas lamps that made the atmosphere even more foggy than it was. Mindless bodies passed them by, some of them falling apart. Alfred made sure to avoid touching them, which kept resulting in him tripping over his feet until he had to keep Jonathan nearby to catch him in his next inevitable fall. There were necromancers as well, keeping their walking corpses in check. Everyone had kept to the shadows of the dilapidated stores and houses, unseen by the living, ignored by the dead.
Yet no one but Alfred could see her. She was everywhere.
His fear, which had been strangely absent from his first encounter, was heightened to an incredible degree. He kept swiveling his head around, expecting the figure to be just behind him. But it was during those moments when he dared take it easy, letting his heart slow, that he would see her off to the side- among the crowds of cadavers, eerily still to the ever-moving bodies, behind a shop window, nearly transparent, staring ahead. She looked like the phantasms that stayed near their shells, except there was no dead body near her. A ghost that was free to wander, free to stalk him down.
He breathed such incredible relief when they arrived at Thomas' home, which was built straight up like the rest of the structures to save on what little space the city had. Moving over the doorstep, Alfred resisted every urge to turn around. At each sighting, she came closer, faceless and unreal. He didn't want to see the eyes that he was sure would have shown clear to him. He let out a long sigh when he heard Tomas shut the door.
"Please forgive the mess," the young man was saying, gesturing at the living room that consisted of a large metal table and some comfortable looking chairs. He then proceeded to explain about how his father left him such a dwelling, his own bitterness at being nothing but a courtier for the dynast, but such words went past Alfred's head. The tall Sartan had sunk down into one of the chairs, looking dejectedly at the floor while the dog made itself comfortable, curling up by his feet.
Though the room was warm and well-lit, with the table soon set with shining plates of cookies and cups of tea, it didn't push away the image of the ghost from his mind. Was he simply just imagining her? Why wouldn't she go away?
He dimly heard the group move into another room, discussing their plans. They didn't trust him, this strange man from another world who could somehow kill the dead, but kept up a polite front about it that only made Alfred feel that much more alone. For a modest home, the living room was large, sporting grand windows that provided a good view of the misty streets. He wanted to pull the drapes over the glass, but didn't have the courage to walk up to them. He continually patted the dog's head, who was responding the affection with a grateful wag of its bushy tail. The warmth of the animal was comforting, but just barely.
I must be going mad, he thought with bitter humor. The only time he had seen such figures was when he woke up on Arianus, alone, alone with all the dead…
He felt a slight touch on his knee, followed by a timid, "Excuse me, sir."
Alfred nearly jumped from the chair. He raised wide eyes to the young duke, Jonathan,, dressed in finely made dark robes, sporting the long white hair of the Sartan, tips ending in a light brown. The man stared back at him in obvious concern.
"Are you feeling well?"
No, not at all. He was trapped in a world ruled by death, where its people were obsessed with necromancy, where a ghost that may or may not be in his head was following his every move. "I- I am fine."
"If you're sure…" Alfred nodded adamantly, prompting the duke to give a relaxed smile. "Everyone else is discussing our next course of action, and since I was no real use, they pushed me out." The man shrugged rather good-naturedly. "I remember you saying you would be interested in hearing about our war history, but if you're too tired, I can have Tomas send you to bed-"
"No!" Alfred snapped his mouth shut, trying to control the panicked fluttering in his throat. Another voice was what he needed. He couldn't fall back to that time of misery, where nothing had been clear. "Please…I would be very interested in hearing about…wars."
Generously not taking note of the Sartan's outburst, Jonathan pulled up a chair, already reaching a hand for the snacks that hadn't been touched. "The only ones I can tell you about are the ones around here."
"That's fine," Alfred quickly said, resigning himself to hear more of his people's downfall.
"Very well. Now where shall I start?" Jonathan smiled, oblivious, his mouth full of the freshly made food. "Tea? Biscuits?"
The dynast was blind. Only for a short moment, but his eyes watered, trying to see past the smoke that had suddenly descended onto the deck of the ship. He shouted at the necromancers to restrain the prisoner, who in turn, shouted at the guards with the same command. But Bethel had slipped from their grasp. She sang the runes of her ancestors, summoning wind to push away the cadavers, calling out the possibility for the dark smoke to cloak the deck, blowing forth from the carved dragon's head, pulled by her words. It concealed her movements. Every step was placed in an intricate, but quick dance, every syllable she sang pronounced strongly.
But it couldn't last. Though she had been able to knock out one or two necromancers against the floor, she was losing her breath. They were close to the port, and through small breaks through the smoke, she could see a large crowd that had gathered, waiting for the notorious rebel wizardess. Some appeared to be shouting, though she couldn't tell if they were cheering for her victory, or for her denouncement.
It didn't matter at this point. She had witnessed the arrival of those who would come through the long sought-after gate, seen the man who could turn back the dead, as well as another who would understand, much more than she would ever understand herself.
She rushed toward the metal railing, looking down at the people. Some of the shouting had stopped, and she knew it was because they saw her eyes, blazing with fervor, with frightening knowledge.
Bethel turned back quickly to see the dynast regain his composure. The smoke was clearing fast. He had taken off his helm, his face much more aged than she had believed.
"A desperate attempt by a mad woman!" he shouted. She knew he said it for the benefit of the crowd than for her alone. "Will you not even face your end with dignity?"
Then Bethel did something she hadn't done in years. She smiled.
"You will not decide for me."
Quickly, she sprang to the bow of the ship, standing on the thick railing gracefully. She heard the gasps of the crowd, felt the seething anger of the Dynast. She had their attention, but only for a short while.
She took a deep breath.
"Our people became more adept at war," Jonathan related, taking a quick sip of the kairn-grass tea. "Skirmishes broke out against neighboring cities ever since the discovery of the magma sea receding. Everyone grew desperate over their resources. We had to put all our strength into our own survival. There was simply none to spare for the mensch."
Alfred was beginning to wonder if he should've let Jonathan talk. The history lesson of wars- Sartan, his own people, waging war against each other!- and their eventual abandonment of the mensch, piled onto his shoulders until he was sure he would sink to the floor. But Abarrach was a harsh world. It took a toll on his very own magic just to stay alive. How could one keep themselves alive as well as a mensch that had no such defense?
"So our people began to train as soldiers, forming themselves into armies. We fought with our magic at first, but we soon realized we needed such magic just to survive. We studied the making of weaponry, using them for our fights. Cruder than magic, but efficient. Eventually, the small brawls erupted into full-scale battles, leading to the War of Abandonment. Now, if I remember correctly, this took place about a century ago- Alfred, are you feeling alright?"
The Sartan didn't answer right away. He was looking past Jonathan's shoulder, to the shape in the doorway. He could still hear Jera and the others talking from the other room, and he knew it could very well have been any of them. But the shape was still, completely covered in shadow- an odd phenomenon in the brightly lit up room.
The figure was staring at him, even though he couldn't see their face. He blinked, but they remained. My imagination, but he wasn't convinced.
Feeling Jonathan's gentle tapping on his shoulder, Alfred turned to him, flustered. "I- I'm very sorry. Please continue."
"But you look so pale. Are you sure you don't need some rest?"
"No, please!" The figure had moved forward, their robes colored the much-too familiar shade of white. Slender hands peeked out from the long sleeves. Their face, thankfully, was still covered by the hood. "I just have a little headache, that's all." Just keep talking and maybe she'll go away. This has to be in my head!
Jonathan didn't look completely reassured, but he smiled anyway, continuing the tale.
"The start of the war was because of the powerful wizardess named Bethel, who claimed that she had found the legendary Gate that would provide an escape from this world. She drew a large following, but her journey was denied by the current dynast, Kleitus VII. If the people left, it would have reduced the population dramatically, not to say what forces would have come through the Gate had it opened."
The ghost glided toward them, its robes waving with the movement of silent footsteps. Alfred tried to keep his eyes on Jonathan's face, but he kept straying to the figure whose details became much more clear with each step it took. Despite his fear, he thought he felt no real malice in the figure, even some hesitance in its travel forward.
"Bethel refused the dynast's orders, and took her followers across the Fire Sea to the Pillar of Zembar, preparing themselves to leave through the gate. The rebellion and the dynast's armies fought throughout the years, preventing them from ever making enough progress to find the Gate's exact location. Soon enough, Bethel was betrayed and captured. She was being ferried on the dynast's ship until she escaped her captors."
Alfred, whose attention was being overtaken by the silent figure, wrenched his head back toward Jonathan, just now picking up the meaning of his last words. "How did she escape?"
The duke took another sip of tea, sighing contently. "She escaped by jumping into the fire sea."
"I have seen Death's Gate. Not only the gate, but the other worlds through it. I did not mislead anyone."
Bethel was speaking to the crowd, to Kleitus, to the necromancers, and even to the dead who, for the first time, looked on her with just the faintest expression of bewilderment. She had to shout her words to be heard over the churning magma, taking deep, careful breaths. Her magic was weakening- the noxious fumes slipping into her lungs, unchecked. But she kept her focus on her present movements, taking each step slowly. She shifted slightly on the rail, balanced, her robes sticking to her skin in a fine sheen of sweat.
"Abarrach is dying, slowly, but dying all the same. I only wanted to show others the way out, to maybe one day find our brethren that must lie beyond the Gate. But I came to realize that that time is not now. It is not my place.
"Yet you would deny the people their only hope for escape," she pointed toward Kleitus who was looking at her in extreme unpleasantness. "You know the legends about Death's Gate are true as much as I do. But you would rather keep everyone under your rule, despite that your realm is slowly heading towards disaster."
"Is that so, Bethel?" Kleitus answered her, his words showing no respect, only authority. "Is that what you saw in your mad hallucinations? Doom and despair?"
Bethel said nothing at first. She turned back to the crowd. Their faces were hazy, her vision overtaken by the constant fumes of the fire sea. She inhaled deeply, taking the poison in willingly.
"I saw change."
"She- she jumped?" Alfred asked, shocked.
Jonathan nodded, his eyes gleaming from relating Abarrach's exciting history. "Oh yes. She did so to prevent her body from being resurrected. But what really made it quite significant, was that before she jumped, she cried out what is now known as the prophecy."
And what is the prophecy? Those were not his words. They were not even his thoughts!
Alfred turned to his side. The ghost, suddenly much more substantial, was now standing right next to him. He thought he could feel the brush of soft robes against his hand. No one else, not Jonathan, not even the always perceptive dog, noticed her presence.
Why do you not wish to know? A voice resounded in his head, incredibly familiar, dear to his heart. It was the rustling chimes of the crystal hargast trees back on Arianus, soft and barely audible.
"I can't… just what would it mean if it talked about…?"
"I beg your pardon?" Jonathan asked, visibly confused. He looked to the right, blinking. "What are you looking at?"
You will always have a choice, the ghost said. He saw the lips move, heard it travel through his chest. She had heard his unspoken thoughts- his fear of the prophecy, that everything was pre-determined, that there was no such thing as control. There are always possibilities, hundreds and thousands of them. Choose one, Coren, or make your own.
She lifted her head, revealing her face in the light. He was not surprised, not at all. But a sob threatened to overtake his throat all the same.
Bethel spoke the words that would be remembered for a hundred years. It would be repeated to others in passing, its meaning becoming more and more cryptic as the words were held in each mouth, uttered with no true comprehension, becoming like a warning, a promise to a vague outcome. When she was done, she turned back to Kleitus, who was about to shout at the dead guards to grab her. He looked ready to charge at her himself, one armored hand lifting up, as if he would grab her by the neck.
She stepped back, placing one foot over the railing, touching nothing but air. Her body dipped backward, her white robes snapping around her in her descent. The magma was painfully bright, illuminating her figure. Just before she fell, her hood was pulled down, showing her face.
Jonathan's words beat through Alfred's head suddenly. The woman named Bethel, jumping into the magma sea, shouting the prophecy before her fall. He could picture her- clearly, much too clearly- standing on the ship, then take that fateful step toward death, ready to be swallowed by fire.
Lya, as beautiful as she ever was, slowly closed her eyes. The room went dark, covering everyone except for her and Alfred. He didn't move, too afraid to breathe. Her hand touched his, and there was everything in that gesture. It all played back through his head, cutting new wounds inside his heart.
"Truth be told…" she said, her voice uncommonly low, "I'm afraid."
They were not the only ones in the mausoleum. White-robed figures passed them by, weaving runes onto the walls, cloaking the coffins in thick magic. The preparation for their long stasis had lasted several weeks, the Sartan taking painstaking precautions until all were confident that they would be ready, centuries later, when their brethren from the other worlds would wake them up.
Except there was still doubt, however quiet it may have been.
Coren and Lya were standing in a far corner of the mausoleum, near their own crypts. Their hands were clasped, Sartan etiquette preventing them from showing their affection for each other any further. But Coren was so very tempted to hold her close, to be reassured by her warmth.
"But when we wake, we won't be alone anymore," he said, trying bravely to smile. "We'll be able to accomplish so much." But his words were weak, simply repetitions of what other Sartan had told him over the weeks. His lips faltered by the end.
Lya gripped his hand tighter. "No one will watch over us."
A statement. There was simply too few of them left. Lya's siblings had passed away, so had Coren's parents, all of them to the strange sickness that struck the demigods down one by one. It would have been ideal to have several of the Sartan stay awake, maintaining the crypts through the centuries, but none had volunteered. Because who would want to remain there, alone, watching their brethren sleep away, as they remained in a world that kept breaking apart at their hands?
But the two young Sartan, standing away from the others, had thought about it all the same.
"Nothing will go wrong," Coren said, but he looked to the crypt warily. "It can't."
"I know." Lya sighed, smiling deprecatingly. "It has been difficult, but I still feel sad that everything will go on without us. We will miss so much."
"We could…" Coren suggested, but his courage left him as soon as he breathed. Stay awake, fix it all by themselves. All of it by themselves. And if Lya fell sick…
"I supposed I would feel braver," Lya entwined her thin fingers in his. "If I could be with you still."
Though their number fell while the mensch's wars rose, making all their efforts so useless, their perfect dream already withering away- Coren felt comforted in her arms, their breaths soft in sleep, their bed warm. The real fear was sleeping alone, closed off from everyone in his crypt- closed off from her hands.
"I love you, Lya."
She looked up at him- her hood was down, her long hair falling past her shoulders. She risked giving him a kiss- soft and quick. No other Sartan in the room reprimanded them. They had only so much time left, it would be fine to let the young indulge for just a little while.
Lya made him a promise, her voice lost to memories, the imprint of her lips on his- the only relic that made him remember. "Once we wake, once our brethren lifts us up, we can face this world again, together." And it was the love he could so easily hear, nestling inside his chest, that when the time came, it suddenly became so easy to climb into those coffins, certain now that everything would be fine as long as she remained. He couldn't doubt her, he never did.
But then he woke up.
Together, you said. Yet you left me here all alone.
Lya opened her eyes again, and they were suddenly outside, the cavern walls lit up by the fire sea. She vanished, even though he could still feel her hand. He stepped back, nearly stumbling in his confusion.
What- what's happening? Where am I? Alfred looked around. He was on an iron ship, like the one he and Haplo had traveled on with the duke and duchess, except it was very grand. The deck looked big enough to hold a good portion of an army. But immediately, he felt something ahead pull at his senses. He looked to find a woman standing on the railing, dressed in white. And then he saw her face.
A voice, her own and yet not- light as air, firm as stone.
"He will bring life to the dead, hope to the living, and for him, the Gate will open."
Lya was moving back, hurtling herself towards the magma. White hair flew against her face that was calm and at peace. Alfred stumbled over the metal floor, his hands scraping against its rusted surface. He made it to the railing, gripping it tightly, trying to grab her robes, shouting the runes that would bring her back up, safely into his arms. But his actions were useless, his hands just missing her, his magic having no effect.
She was falling slowly, dragging out his agony bit by bit. He watched in both horror and fascination as her body neared the searing sea. Her eyes widened in sudden, acute pain, her skin erupting into flames before she even touched the ocean's surface. Flesh was melting from her bones, her face completely engulfed in fire.
"Alfred? Alfred! Are you alright?"
"Jonathan! What happened?" shouted a female voice. Jera. "What did you tell him?"
He felt his body hit the floor- a carpeted floor, soft and cool- not the hot, metal surface of the ship. He was hyperventilating, tears leaving his eyes. He heard low growling from the dog, snapping at the others who came too close. Thick fur pressed into his shaking hands, trying to comfort, but the image of his Lya- Lya, Lya, no, Lya- burning alive, dying in agony, was shattering his mind.
He watched the ghost kneel next to him. She laid gentle hands on his head, banishing the fevered sweat, the horrible chills. She was speaking to him, her voice beautiful, her eyes taking him in. He was in the mausoleum, alone- but no. She was there, offering him comfort, giving him courage.
"Are you really…?" he started to ask. What had he seen? Why did he see Lya fall, when it should have been the one named Bethel? He was too afraid to know.
The hand pressed against his cheek. He thought the words, unable to say them aloud. Who are you? Are you even real?
A smile, slowing down his heart.
You are free to choose.