The cold didn't suit them, but perhaps that was a strange thought. In the middle of the night, with only the light of the moon to guide them, they traveled carefully, holding each other close because they were the only comfort available. Simon made a point of keeping Maxine near. Whenever she would wander and get too far away, he would reach out and grab her, pull her close, make sure she was safe. He thought that maybe he was being obsessive, but he didn't care. She was all he really had at that point, after he had given everything up to venture the worlds.
"Where are we going, anyway?" they would ask from time to time. They didn't really know, though. They were just traveling, trying to get far. It didn't matter if they ended up anywhere special, because they were running away—waiting to save their energy and return, to stop Greenwitch. And Greenwitch was everywhere, so they could go anywhere. They just needed to run.
Finally, when both Jamison and Simon were too tired to magically propel the group forward, they collapsed upon a small clearing no larger than a cottage. They set up the tent haphazardly, pulling up poles and canvas without thought, until there was enough shelter for everyone involved. Grimly, silently, they climbed into the tent and drifted into sleep like corpses, like death.
They slept until the sun danced into view, until fear was woken by the light of day.
Simon was the first to wake up, and he was all the more miserable for it. He crept out of the tent, sore in various places for various reasons, and came to stand amongst the chill of the morning. It was a nice feeling, but that was probably because he didn't feel well. Even so, he found the cool to be comforting—it lapped at his heated face and soothed the growing pain in his stomach. He should have known better. Stress wasn't good for him.
He had just hoped that he would be able to hold out until the whole mess blew over.
He walked over to a tree and sat beneath it. He looked up at the sky, the rather clear sky, and thought about random things. He didn't nap. He really wished he could have, but sleep was evasive, especially when it was voraciously craved. Instead, he merely thought—thoughts that were petty, thoughts that were grand. They filled his mind until there was no more room for worries.
It was as comforting as the chill.
Maxine joined him after twenty minutes or so. Her face was pale, probably paler than it usually was, and her eyes were listless. He didn't doubt that it was depression. Even he felt it gnawing at the fringes of his psyche, threatening to emerge as a serious problem. He didn't even doubt the relevance of the depression. He knew where it came from.
They were cornered, stuck, doomed—it was hard to stay optimistic.
"Do you worry about what will happen when this is all over, Simon?" she asked after she sat down beside him. She let her head fall lightly upon his shoulder. He could feel her warmth through his shirt. He knew she wasn't feeling well either.
He sat there for a moment, taking in the sensation of having her so near, and then he said, rather somberly, "I worry all the time, and so I just don't worry. It's easier that way. I just hope that, whatever happens, I make a difference."
"Why make a difference?"
"Because I feel unaccomplished if I don't. I don't want to skate through life without touching anyone, without changing anything. Even before I knew about other worlds, I felt that way. I…I don't
want to be the sort of person that everyone forgets as soon as I'm dead. I want a few people to remember me, even if it's for failing." He figured it to be true, even though he said it without any thought behind it. But he figured, since he had been rather motivated since his newfound abilities, that he had always wanted to do such things. Now he had the opportunity. "It's kind of scary, and I feel a little lost, but…"
"What if we die?"
"Then we die."
"What if I die?"
"Then I won't know what to do anymore."
She looked up at him, her glasses slightly skewed from being pressed up against his arm, and frowned. "What if you die?"
"I…don't know," he admitted sadly, straightening her glasses gently before he leaned back against the tree, "but I'm not going to die. Don't worry about it."
"I'm not worried." She rested beside him again, and, though she tried to hide it, he could feel the slight release of the tension inside of her. He knew she worried about him, but he didn't know she was so sure he would leave her in such a tragic way.
"Simon, when this is all over, and I really do hope that such a thing will happen, I want you to take me somewhere peaceful, all right? I don't care where or how far away it is—I just want something peaceful, where people can't betray you right or left or get you so confused that you don't know what's going on anymore. Can you at least promise me that?"
He felt relieved. "Yes, that's definitely something that I can promise you."
She smiled, and it wasn't one of those horrible, forced smiles—she really meant it. He smiled down at her, and he really meant it.
Things might have been getting worse minute by minute, but at least they felt somehow content.
"Max, I think there's something I need to do, though," Simon said after perhaps thirty minutes had passed by very slowly.
"Something dangerous, right?"
"How'd you know?"
"How could it not be dangerous?" She laughed to herself, an ironic laugh that made her chest quake and feel hollow, cold.
"I won't be gone too long—just an hour or two." He carefully wiggled out from under her and placed her gently so that she was leaning against the tree. "If Jamison asks, just tell him I went out to scout or something. Maybe he'll be stupid and won't actually check to see that I'm not even in this world anymore."
"Why can't I go with you?" she asked. And, for some strange reason, she really wanted to go with him.
For him, too, he wanted her to come. He hadn't really even considered it until she said it. He was so accustomed to leaving her behind that he had nearly forgotten the grand times of when they would go off together in the most dangerous of places… It was scary, because that was how she had ended up so vulnerable to begin with.
"Would you be safe if I took you?"
"Would I be safe if I didn't?"
He couldn't know the answer, and so he didn't lie to her. "I'm not sure."
Maxine got up, dusted the small twigs and crushed, dried leaves from her clothes and then linked her arm with his. "Then lead away, Noble Knight. Take me to some uncouth world where they pull out your teeth and dangle you from flagpoles."
"We're going to a place so terrible?" he asked with alarm.
"No, but, if we do, I'd forgive you."
Maxine placed a slight spell on the area around them so that the rest of the group would sleep longer and so that they would know where the pair had gone if they woke up too soon. It was the sort of preventative magic that they would have to rely on. They could no longer afford to hide their activities—they could only mask them in the guise of sleep.
"It reminds me of the times when things were simpler," Maxine commented as soon as they fell into the void. The feel of nothingness all around them, carrying them about gently, like a mother would fondly handle her infant child, was so familiar that it almost hurt. It was the wonderful sort of sensation that one never wanted to part with despite the awkwardness of it all.
"Things were never simple—not as long as I've known you," Simon said with a chuckle. He drew her in close to protect her, and he didn't even know what he was protecting her from. He just knew that she was vulnerable in a way that she never had before.
Maxine shrugged. "You were a lot happier then, anyway."
Well, truth be told, there wasn't a gaping hole in his gut at the time, but he doubted that he was happier. He might have been calmer, not as anxious as he was then, but he didn't have the sort of…sort of understanding that he currently possessed. He didn't yet know why Freya had betrayed him; he didn't yet know the path of his life.
"I don't know." He squeezed her hand, for they were joined together as they traveled. "I don't know if you could call that happiness."
"Could you call this happiness?"
"I don't know what I would call this."
The journey was peaceful, but that was because the void so seldom saw violence. It was the mass of magic—the living creature that lived off the very energy that ran through their veins. It was an alternate reality, where people who died could be brought back by the hand of a magnanimous goddess. It was a bizarre realm, and yet they both carried an unusual fondness for it.
"I just want to warn you," Simon began slowly as they neared their destination, "that she's a strange creature, that Goddess."
"No, I remember her," Maxine replied. "Why are we going there anyway?"
"She needs to tell me where Freya is." His expression was set, strained—it was the face of someone thinking of a matter that didn't go over very well. His ears were red from shame, and his eyes were wet from sadness. Simon really had gone through too many things because of that girl. It made Maxine want to hate her even though she didn't really know her.
"What is that going to do for
"I want to appeal to Freya's emotions just one last time, to see if she's still human under all that. I want to ask her why she sent Pascal—I want to ask him why he betrayed us. I want to know a lot of things, but, most of all, I want to be able to face them head-on. I don't think they can hurt me very
badly at this point, so I'm going to have to chance it." He turned to her and smirked. "It's not the most clever plan, but something tells me that we ought to try before we jump into an entire war."
"No, plans sound better than wars in my opinion," Maxine agreed stiffly. "It's just…I'm afraid."
Simon sighed. "You're not the only one." He reached out and opened the door. "But I can at least say…that…this…"
He didn't finish his thought, but it was the sort of thought would have been so ironic that it would have been sinful to finish it. There, where there was once a harsh difficult world inhabited by a Child Goddess, laid a waste of a different sort—of a different variety. It was horrific, it was beautiful, it was foreboding.
The sky was the most spectacular quality. It was not made up of singular stars or even constellations. No, the sky was one giant display of lights—a twisted, gnarled nebula that swallowed up the moon and made the middle of the night bright enough so that Simon could see each individual strand of Maxine's hair. The world was bathed in the purple hue of the celestial body, and it as such a view that both of them stood on the edge of the void with awe and fear and amazement.
What were they even to think?
"She's, uh, redecorated since I last visited," Maxine quipped blankly.
Simon wished he could find such humor, but it was impossible with the burden of knowledge that he currently entertained. He knew, right then and right there, that he had lost an important ally.
And perhaps even the upper hand.
"What happened to it?" Maxine asked with slight horror. Though she did not know the world like Simon did, she did know that a great many things had changed. It was not as cold as it had been; it was not as forbidding. It was warm, safe, calm. Something had surely changed.
"I wish I could tell you, Max." He had a vague idea, but it was still in the formative stage. He didn't have anything to prove it. He didn't want to have anything to prove it.
For a second, the air seemed to vibrate—as if there were so much magic that even the structure of the world could not properly contain it.
Something tells me we shouldn't have come," she whispered. Suddenly, everything was very dangerous—like some grand being was staring down at them with all its might.
"I know how you feel." He reached out and waved his arm around in the world's mass. The air felt stable enough, but the warmth was overpowering. It felt like a summer evening. "But we can't turn back. Not now." Not when his curiosity had been strummed like a guitar.
Simon took his hat off as soon as they entered the world completely. Something told him that his reverence was necessary—that powerful creatures lurked within the world of a nebulous sky. They would not tolerate disrespect. "Just stick close," he told her, "and we should be fine."
Maxine didn't question his judgment. She kept her right arm linked with his left, figuring that he would need his stronger hand more than she would, and she pressed close against him. If anything were to happen, they would at least have the safety of togetherness. Things, after all, were rapidly changing.
As if by cue, the world began to decline in its state of dependency. The earth beneath their feet began to violently quake, and the sporadic display of light in the sky erupted into a vast explosion of energy—the image of the nebula itself began to move about, to churn like a tumultuous sea. The magic was so thick that it became a crystalline juice that poured down from above. But it did not fall with
gravity's blessing—it flew about, splashing against their faces and cascading like rivers through the nearby hills. When it impacted, it did not stick—it bounced in a rather animated fashion. It would shoot back into the air until it fell back down and started all over again.
Though it was terrifying, it was beautiful. And the magic rang out like a fine song, each splash a new note in a new song. It was the most marvelous thing any of them had ever encountered, and none of them quite realized what was going on. How could they? It was all so above them.
Simon pulled Maxine even closer, which was pretty difficult considering, and he said to her in a low voice, "I don't think we have to worry about this hurting us. Whatever it is, it would have killed us in a second if it wanted. Even so, I'm starting to feel that I know what it is, so I need you to promise me to accept everything that happens from this point on."
"What do you mean?" Her eyes were wide, her glasses were beginning to fog from the change in temperature, and her face was even paler than it was earlier. She was more terrified than he was.
Simon's grip on her thin arm tightened even more. "I mean that things are going to be very, very odd. Just—just—I don't know really." He couldn't believe how afraid even he was. "Just—if that's what I think it is—be on your best behavior."
"My best behavior? You're
not making any sense."
"That is because there is no Sense in this World."
They both looked up abject horror, because they knew what they would see would not go down very well—not when it was mixed with stirring nebulae and churning magic. From the heart of the storm, which continued to rage all around them with the melody of powerful magic, there stood a figure roughly five times the normal size of a person. There was no doubt. They were in the presence of a god.
"No sense in this world?" Simon repeated very carefully. His curiosity, he realized, would have to be slightly restrained when around such powerful beings.
"Nay. No more sense here than there is abundance in the Land Between Lands," the magnificent creature bellowed from above. He leaned down slightly so that he could see them better. "Are you the creatures that bothered my daughter?"
Oh, did Simon ever so wish to be clever or witty. He wanted to be snappy—to say something bold that would throw the god off—but he was afraid of what that would mean for him. He doubted that such beings had humorous undertones, if any undertones at all. "Is your daughter the Child Goddess?"
The god nodded. "Hmm…" Suddenly the storm of magic ceased. The nebula returned to its previous state, the liquid magic evaporated into a fine mist and then faded into the air, perfectly undetectable, and the music ceased. The world became calm once more—stable. "Then I need not punish you." He descended from the sky, and, as he got closer, he seemed to get smaller. By the time he was standing on both feet before them, he was only two feet taller than Simon.
From that height, it was far easier to pick out his distinguishable characteristics. He had long hair, perhaps reaching down to his waist (it was difficult to tell because it moved about as if he were in the void), and he had a strong, hawkish nose. His skin was of a golden hue, as was his hair, and his eyes were a very penetrating orange. With the high contrast of the purple nebula behind him, Simon dare
even say that the many was pretty. But it was strange. Gods did not seem to conform to the same concept of life that humans did.
"And we are very humbled by that," Simon said in the most respectful voice that he could manage. He attempted to bow, but it was difficult with Maxine attached to him in such a way.
"As you should be." The god gestured to the area around them. "I must beg you forgive me for the change in landscapes. I switched the location of my world with her world so that you would come here as soon as he you sought her out."
"Is she all right, then?"
"Oh, as well as she would be." His voice was deep, gravely even. It shook the air with its depth. "You must understand, humans, that my daughter has done some very terrible things." He looked down to Maxine—and he really did have to look down to see her properly. "You were not supposed to be revived."
Maxine's cheeks colored. She turned away. She wasn't quite sure what she was supposed to say to that.
"If there's any blame to be placed, then it belongs to me," Simon said rather assertively. He didn't know why he was being so bold, but he was. It was unusual. The beauty of the world was altering his idea of respect. "I was the one that came to her."
"My daughter could have refused. …But it is not the matter at hand." He waved his arm loosely, as if his joints were not even made in the same manner as theirs. "For, you see, a great change is occurring throughout the worlds because of you."
Simon glanced to Maxine.
"This is not
blame I am placing but a statement. Since you started going into the
worlds, things have been changing. If it were my authority to do so,
I would stop you. No, I believe even now I would stop you. However,
there is something to what you do that has made me reconsider." He
whisked some of the air aside, if such a thing were even possible,
and revealed a bright image roughly the size of a vanity mirror. He
stepped aside so that they could see it better, and then he said,
"Won't you please watch what's unfolding as we speak?"
Simon and Maxine nervously walked toward the god and his mirror. As he spoke, they peered inside and saw an unusual battle unfold between two small bands of people. Those on the left were pale, wearing white clothing and having platinum hair, while those on the right were orange in hue—even their eyes appeared to be orange.
"This is the war that has been going on in a world for millennia. It's the usual sort of war, based solely on social disagreements and religious disputes, but there's something about this war that has suddenly changed." The image suddenly went to that of a young woman standing off from the battle, holding one hand in the air as she shouted something in a foreign language. "This woman has appeared from basically nowhere, and she has taken it upon herself to guide the losing forces."
"…And now they're winning?" Simon asked. He felt that he already knew where this lesson was going, and it made him want to wince away from the god. While he did not recognize the woman, he knew who she must have been affiliated with.
"Indeed. Now they are winning like they never have before. Barbarians who care for nothing but carnal pleasure. They have no literature. They have no art. But they are winning. These people are a scourge on this world, and soon they shall have a monopoly of it. Through war, both cultures were able
to develop—that of the white was getting to the point where they were industrializing—but now that will end. Change rarely occurs in times of peace."
"Who is that woman?"
"One from the people you so heartedly battle. She plans on creating a puppet government as soon as the White Government falls, and then that world shall be under the control of Greenwitch. No longer does your kind trifle with disputes within a single continent but within the scope of several wars."
"They aren't of our kind," Simon said stiffly. He was clinching his fist, squeezing his hat into a strange shape in the process. The wind whisked around them, lifting his hair from his damp scalp and rustling his coat. Maxine's hair was flippant, flying around her face wildly, and only the god was independent of the weather. "They are independent of us, completely and utterly."
"Their conflict in the world you are currently interfering with is only one of dozens. Within two years, they ambitiously yet accurately plan to hold twenty worlds within their firm grasp. With each passing moment they grow more and more powerful. They are no longer a pest but a menace."
"I really don't want to be disrespectful," Maxine began uneasily, continuing when she went unchecked, "but what do you expect us to do about this. You're a god—we're just two people."
"I don't think you understand," said the god.
"What don't we understand?"
"This is no longer a dispute but a war—a full-fledged war that is encompassing several worlds. You can no longer enjoy the luxury of peace or even of proper odds. You cannot escape this. Soon Greenwitch shall control most of the worlds—something that not even a god would dare to do."
Simon pulled his curious eyes away from the images and let them fall upon the god. He was scared. It was the sort of fear that stirred deep inside of him and transformed into an odd version of excitement. He couldn't run away anymore.
"This is a war from which none can hide."
Maxine let her grip on Simon's arm change to that on his hand—she held onto it so tightly that her fingernails began to dig into his flesh. He didn't even flinch.
what can we do?"
"You can stop this."
"Just us?" Simon shook his head. "That's insane! The Child Goddess told us that I only had to stop Greenwitch in Lucille's world. Why didn't she tell me this to begin with? If she had, I would have never agreed!" He could feel it. He was starting to panic. He didn't dare say it, but he wanted to so badly—"This isn't fair!"
"She didn't know."
"And that's supposed to make it all right?" he cried.The god sighed and then changed the image before them. The putrid stench of a thousand year's rot poured through the hole in the air and filled the area around them. It made it hard to breathe, and it made the chaos of only a few minutes earlier seem like paradise. Images of unimaginable horrors, of torture and famine and panic, filled the circular display for what seemed like hours before the god showed the mercy of his namesake. He whisked the image away, closed the hole in the air and looked grimly to his new wards, who were stiff and rigid with fear.
Was that what they would have to do for the rest of their lives—combat such tyranny, such misery? Simon shivered at the thought; Maxine quaked.
"That world has seen the violence of being assimilated into other worlds. It has far too many times been violated by the tactics of Greenwitch's translocation, too swift and too puncturing, and so the barrier that protected it from other worlds has broken down. I expect that, within a year, it shall completely fall into the void and become raw material for new worlds." Some of it didn't make sense, mostly because their knowledge of such things was so limited, but also because it sounded so terrible. They were rather sure that becoming raw material for new worlds was far from enjoyable. "You must stop this. We must stop this. No matter what the cost. This is no longer an idle matter to be decided by young goddesses and those she has pulled into the fray."
Simon squeezed Maxine's hand. "This…this is the sort of thing we can't run away from, right?"
"I'm afraid that there is nowhere to go from here," the god said solemnly. "I had no intention of bringing humans in, but you have been pulled into the matter so deeply that it is only natural that you be involved. Not to mention that you are a very powerful boy."
Very powerful, maybe, Simon thought as he looked up at the god so mighty, but he doubted that he would be useful. All the power in the world meant nothing if he didn't know where to direct it. How could a god expect him, a boy of less than seventeen years, to stop something so grand?
"I am more willing to be part of this," Simon told him slowly, "because I feel that there are just some things that you can't run away from…but…" He shook his head, because it was quite the confusing matter. It was difficult to accept that what he was saying right then and there would reflect what happened to him for the rest of his life. Those sorts of words, so very important, were always difficult to force out. "I don't think I can do much for you…sir."
The god reached out and patted Simon on his shoulder. The touch of his bare hand on Simon's suit left him with a odd sensation, like he was suddenly warm there. "That you question yourself is reassuring, because arrogance in such a situation would be your death."
"And if Simon decides to help you, what would that mean for us? Will we ever be able to return to our normal lives, or will we be stuck fighting this far for the rest of time? Will any happiness be won, or will this be our fate?" Maxine asked. She wanted so very badly to one day return to a state close to normal, predictable, dull—the idea of always running, always fearing, always planning was horrifying. That wasn't the kind of life she wanted.
"I cannot make promises that I cannot keep," the god said sadly, which was weird. None of them figured that such a being could be sad.
"Can you at least promise us that we can stop whenever we need to?"
"You wish to stop a war whenever you want?"
"No," Simon said, nearly cross. Honestly, creatures like the one before him made him so cross. They were always so arrogant, so set in their ways—things were always being misinterpreted by gods and misconstrued into insults that were not intended. It frustrated Simon. He wished they could communicate effortlessly. "What I'm wondering is if we can stop fighting when we grow too tired. See, when you can go on and continue to fight your war but we no longer can. I'm asking if we can change our mind."
The god released Simon, which made him feel better right away, and walked away. He only went a few steps before he came to rest, his entire body trembling with the bulk of energy that was stored within him. "This is not the sort of thing that you can run away from. If you stop fighting with us, we would most likely lose."
"But you wouldn't punish us?"
Simon nodded. "Then, until we've gone too far, we will fight for you." He wished he could sound happy about it, but he figured that there was nothing happy about what he was promising. There were just some things, he guessed, that were not meant to be celebrated.