I raced down the sidewalk as fast as the overweight street pony would carry me toward the scene of the disaster. IRP were everywhere, and Xane, of all people... was handing Edgar over to them. As much as Gloria didn't like Edgar, she knew that if he were to fall into the hands of the IR, an open-and-shut trial would either sent back to Antares or more likely still, to his death. Edgar didn't deserve such a fate.
Though he was irritating more often than not, and though I constantly suspected him of causing mischief or ruining any formal occasion, Edgar was unfailingly loyal to his companions, his subjects... and my beloved Empire.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. In the days of the Dynasty I had considered Sir Tradewind a friend. We had fought together in the battle to save his city, lived together for months! I would never have betrayed him. Evidently, he had no such love for the rest of us... or perhaps years of exile had simply burned away what decency the man had once possessed.
It was high time to give the Peacekeepers a more interesting target. I swung from the back of my borrowed horse onto the traffic light over the street and balanced on the bar, directly above the hovering IR cruisers. Gloria saw me, and at that moment so did everyone else... for about three blocks in either direction. I threw off my purple cloak.
The Peacekeepers all stared. "Make a break for it Edgar!" I shouted, as they raised their rifles to shoot. Without hesitation, they all fired. These IRP weren't as foolish as the men we'd escaped who were patrolling the coast. Zenith was a dangerous assignment, and they knew well how to deal with rogue magic-users and insane Etone.
"Get out of the...way!" I warned. Edgar dunked under a car. I closed my eyes and braced myself, jumping high onto the metal framework over the street, bounding across the wires and sliding down to a lower level via the nearest street lamp. The bullets… or at least most of them missed. Below me, Gloria elbowed one Peacekeeper in the face, hacked her chains on another's sword and fled.
"Come on!" Gloria shouted to a woman who stared out from her third-floor window. "Turn off your television and come see for yourself! We're taking back our city!" The woman's gaze drifted in my direction and I waved. At that instant, the wires beneath me snapped and I leapt into the air, defying gravity for a moment before landing soundly on my feet on the hood of a car below, nearly flattening it and setting off the alarm.
The Peacekeepers fired a second round.
I was hit, once or twice... enough to make me wince but not enough to slow me down. Without hesitation, I scooped up a handful of stopped bullets and flung them back towards the men who had shot me with the addition of some fire. The end result was sloppier than I had expected, with bodies scattered everywhere. The man whose car I had destroyed only stared, baffled, and retreated back into the alley he had emerged from.
"Think about what you've done." I stared Xane down until he turned away as well. The remaining Peacekeepers weren't stupid, and while the IR armies were zealous, their police force was hardly paid so well. Quietly laying down their weapons, the men let me pass.
"Fools." I muttered. I despised the lot of them, and knew they deserved punishment, but I could not find it in my heart to kill another person, not even a traitor like Xane. More than enough death awaited me after sunset. I still had a mission, and that was to pry the Archives of Teyme away from the IR, hopefully from the clutches of President Fairfax's cold, dead fingers.
I started walking back towards Mad Mack's Magic Users, only to stop on a street corner still several blocks away. A wave of sickness washed over me as an eerie howl echoed in the distance. I thought back to my so-called 'premonition' in the Shadow Alley pit and screamed aloud despite myself, blood blurring my vision, Geruth's eyes laughing victoriously in my mind. Obsessed with bringing down the Republic, I had forgotten once again that my other enemies still lived. Though they dwelt in darkness, the I'Eloshir craved pain, and despite the condition of Zenith, the people... the people who loved the Dynasty could still suffer more! I could still suffer more!
Our revolution, our grand plan could still fail... and then all that would remain of any of us would be, not only the memory of our failure the great war, but the more recent, more terribly poignant pain of a second loss. If all the remaining resistance was crushed in one fell swoop, everything was indeed over.
I began to run, past Mad Mack's, and on towards the harbor, feeling as if I were struggling on the stairs of Raedawn, ever further from my destination, faster than sight but still too slow... too slow to stop the terrible downward spiral that had already consumed us all! A figure waved at me less than a block away, a shadow staggering forward, reaching out for me.
"Artemis!" Phineas yelled.
"Phineas!" I shouted back, starting to feel the effect of the four bullets I already had in my body. I could not run, not fast enough, never fast enough... not for all my power!
There was something terribly wrong. My friend, he moved slowly, awkwardly. He was out of breath, and more than that. Wounded.
The world shattered around me in an instant. I dropped my staff and threw myself forward with all the speed I possessed. I raced to his side and at last caught him, a split second before he would have hit the black pavement. Visions flashed through my mind. I saw Terry leap into oblivion, the Imperial Palace shatter, the city of Phoenicia in flames. I saw every battle of every war I had ever fought flash before my eyes in an instant, every death I had ever witnessed! And I knew, somehow with grim certainty that the darkness I feared did approach.
"Phineas... what's going on?" I demanded. "Breathe, damnit, talk to me!"
He shook his head heavily but did not respond. "He has her." Phineas hissed. "Artemis, he has her!"
"Who?" I cried. "Fairfax? Who? What happened?"
I lifted my hand away from his chest and gasped at the blood, red staining my white palm. Phineas had been run through with a heavy sword. If I didn't get him to a cleric or a doctor right away... he could die, I realized. He would die, not peacefully in his sleep, not as the natural course of events, but horribly and senselessly as he had always feared he would! Never in his days would he live to see the world he so desired. Never again would he wake in a place without hatred or fear.
"Help, someone!" I screamed futily. But no help came.
"Cal! Gloria! Edgar!" I begged, my own echo mocking me cruelly. We were alone on the near-dark street, the street that was steadily growing colder as the second sun began to set.
"Hold on... I'll help you." I muttered, my fingers moving mechanically to bind the wound and stop the blood flow as I knelt there, all the while wondering if I even could. Too many times I'd had people die in my arms, friends, strangers... old people, children. There had to be something I could do, something I wasn't doing! I only wished I knew what.
"Artemis, I have to tell you something." Phineas whispered.
"Save your strength. Don't talk to me. Save your last words for someone who deserves them. Your... great, great grandchildren!" I ordered, though I was already crying. I had seen enough wars, enough wounds and enough deaths to know it was hopeless. There was so much blood from such a large wound. Only magic could bind such an injury, only magic I had never learned, wasting centuries perfecting the art of killing and thinking of nothing else! Raphael could have saved Phineas! Why hadn't he lived instead of me? "Help is on the way." I whispered, though I knew that I lied.
"This can't be helped." Phineas shook his head, coughing. "We were insane to try this. I did believe you, I believed we could do it, but... it was all my own fool hope that we could... make it good again. But nothing can change what happened. This is where we are now. We can't go back."
"Don't say that." I argued. "We can! You believe in magic. We can change this! Magic can change this!"
"Only the greatest magic in the world." Phineas shook his head.
"Then we will find it!" I cried. "I will get it for you! I willmakeitfixeverything!"
"Magic is not something you can force." Phineas whispered, laughing a little. "I keep... telling you. You have to... let it be." Phineas shook his head heavily and then suddenly grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, staring into my eyes in such a way that I knew he was about to say something terribly important. "Listen. Geruth attacked us. He came out of the dark when we thought we were safe as if he had been anticipating this... all of this! Geruth, he... he killed Ruveus and he took Brin."
"Ruveus?" I gasped, utterly horrified. It could not be... it simply could not be so! "Ruveus is dead?" I bit my lip, fighting the wave of cold fear that threatened to overwhelm me. "Ruveus?" I repeated for the third time.
"No, Brin." Phineas pressed. "Damnit, Artemis! Geruth took Brin, and he will kill her too if you don't do something!"
"Brin? Why Brin?" I wondered. "What does he want with Brin?"
"Only the descendants of Raedawn's defenders can write in the Archives of Teyme." Phineas whispered. "You... you're the one who's meant to have the thing, as Cal said, but you're not the only one who can use its power. Geruth must know that he's not really Arduh's son." Phineas paused. "But Brin..."
"Brin?" I wondered. "But she…"
"Errida isn't a name, it's a title. An Elvish word that means 'light'. The Emperor is the 'light' of the people." Phineas smiled. "God, I love the Elves. They make everything so beautiful."
"Phineas, don't. Don't do this!" I begged, wiping one of my tears off of his face.
"I… can't believe you don't know." Phineas whispered. "Brin's mother Rose was a Mage of Kalyzar-Lost. Her father was Kieran Falchon, Raphael's brother Kieran."
"That means..." I began, suddenly understanding the enormity of what had happened. I had always seen something in Brin... something I had never understood! I had only briefly met Raphael's elusive brother, who up until the war had always been off on one adventure or another. I knew he had been married to one of the Falchon women, but I had never suspected that his wife and the Lady Rose were one and the same, or that Brin was his last surviving daughter.
Why had Raphael hidden such a thing from me? Distantly I could hear his voice, and remembered him speaking about the Traverser's half-blood children, the children they loved and needed so much, who very often died before they ever reached adulthood. It was best that one… didn't get too attached to them. Raphael had avoided speaking about Brin because he had feared that she would never make it past fifteen. But she had, and that meant…
"Brin's a princess." Phineas whispered. "The last of Kaora's line."
"How are you?" I wondered. "Does it still hurt?" It was a fool question, but I felt compelled to ask it.
I knew there was more. It seemed strange that we had spoken so long, and yet the situation had remained so dire, so utterly hopeless. I felt as if I were trapped within the pages of a long-forgotten tragic novel, time running slowly enough for the hero to spill his heart out before finally fading away. And yet the pages now were turning quickly, too quickly! Phineas smiled, despite his obvious pain. "I am Master Galwick!" He announced.
"Snap out of it." I ordered, fighting off a sudden chill. An image came to my mind immediately, something that frightened me very much. I saw a seven pointed star, drawn in blood, painted in black… carved into the earth and filled with water. The same symbol flashed in my mind over and over again, drawn on walls, doors and bare human skin. What did it mean?
"Don't talk like that, you're scaring me!" I protested, shaking away the visions that had so very nearly consumed me.
"One day you'll understand, I promise." Phineas smiled, clasping my hand with as much strength as he could. "Think, Artemis! Do things never ring strangely false to you? Do you ever feel as if everything that is happening here and now has already happened before? Do you ever feel as if you know the world all too well? That you've known people since before you've ever met them?"
"Maybe none of us would never have to live at all... if you could only remember! Try to remember!" He pressed.
And that was the last he said.
It was over. Our grand adventure had come to an end.
I willed the life back into him, I begged and pleaded and cursed the Gods. I would have gladly thrown myself to the hells for all eternity, if only... if only he would breathe again. But... that is not the way of such things.
Gloria and Cal approached, followed by Mouse at a distance.
"It's just the four of us. We're the only ones left." Gloria was pale. She clutched Edgar's signet ring and I knew without a word that he was lost as well.
"The book then." I paused. "Can we still take it back from the Republic?"
"This has gone far beyond the hands of the Republic." Gloria shook her head. "Lucy… she just told me that Fairfax is dead. Murdered. In the middle of the day, some dark thing finally claimed him."
"Geruth." Cal finished, his eyes fixed firmly on Phineas, just barely red with tears. "Geruth already has the book. I know it."
I stood slowly, picking up Phineas who weighed so little in my arms, so fragile even still, and Gloria picked up my staff, which lay where I had left it in the middle of the sidewalk. Mouse loped behind her, every so often glancing at me with wide, frightened eyes… and a few steps ahead of us, Cal led the way. We took Phineas to the old White Cross hospital where a few clerics still worked, some who remembered well the days of the Dynasty and promised to see to our friend with all of the honors he so richly deserved. As much as I desperately wanted to wallow in my own dark memories until the pain went numb from time, I knew I did not have that option. I would not allow another of my friends to die.
Climbing to the roof of the hospital, I stood overlooking The Frozen Sea.
If only I could turn back time! I had to find the Archives now more than ever. Once we rescued Brin... what remained for any of us? I was heading into almost certain death with a young man, a mere boy who had fallen from childhood to self-inflicted immortality virtually overnight, a woman who followed her own path and a creature I knew almost nothing about. All those I had ever... loved were dead.
I warmed Phineas's cold dragon pendant in my hand. Alone, I was nothing more than a bitter Immortal with too much power and too little purpose. I wanted more, not just for myself... but for all the people of the Chaos Realm, an end to this agonizing cycle of death and loss and fear. They deserved better.
"There's a place I know of." Cal announced finally, slowly approaching me from behind. "Something I drew... a long, long time ago." He paused. "We should go to Raedawn." He held up his sketchbook, a picture of an immense stone arch pouring forth a stream of pure, white light. "This gate will get us there."
"Where is it?" I demanded.
"Northern Accoloth." Cal explained. "Deep in the mountains, hidden. The most desolate place you can imagine. But I don't know how we'll get back to The Hathor with that going on." He pointed towards the battle that was steadily overwhelming the city, fires burning out of control, overturned cars and leveled buildings at every corner, the sounds of screams and gunfire burning at my ears.
"We won't have to." I paused. "The ship stays here." Slowly I knelt down, closing my eyes and folding my hands on my lap. No one spoke. The three of them, Cal, Gloria and Mouse stood, eyes focused on me, all silent and patient, though still fearful.
A painfully long amount of time passed as I worked slowly, sign after sign flowing from my fingertips, words rolling off my tongue though I had not attempted such a working in ages. I focused, waiting... and at long last the power came to me.
I shuddered at the sudden rush, the eerie influx of energy coursing through my entire being, washing over me, brushing away the past, the pain, the shadows, absolving me of any and ever sin, forgiving all failings... the great unknowable darkness welcoming back into its fold one of its own wayward children.
"What are you doing?" Gloria wondered uneasily as the world around us began to ripple, losing shape, losing color and consistency.
"Unfolding eternity." I replied as the Ta'arblossomed in front of me, a thing of my own creation... made of my will and no others. How long had it been since I had done such a thing?
Mouse scurried forward and clung to my leg. I took Cal and Gloria's hands each in my own and drew them forward, through space and shadow, away from the bleakness of Zenith, sliding into a piercing white plane of snow, an ancient valley ringed by monumental peaks.
Before us stood a blue-white frozen lake and the Gate itself, one tall arch surrounded by a ring of seven stones. It was an exact copy on a much grander scale of a room I had seen once before, a round room of nine mirrors with a deep, dark pool in the center of the floor.
I stepped inside the circle and the doorways each opened in a blaze of fiery light.
Gloria and Cal shielded their eyes, and Mouse latched around Cal's neck. I took both of their hands and stepped forward again, this time across the bend of time and together we entered the realm of Raedawn.
"Here we are." I whispered. "Raedawn."
The golden wheat fields had faded to gray and a sense of overwhelming wrongness hovered over the entire plane. I felt weighted down by a thousand pounds... and apparently Cal and Gloria were not faring much better. They looked at one another and then at me, uneasy and ill accustomed to traveling through so much space and time. We trudged slowly towards the white stair. Leading the way, I took the first step of the staircase and then moved back, expecting to be fired upwards.
Nothing happened. The ancient power of the Gods, the magic that had made Raedawn so cruel and yet so heavenly, the magic that had formed flowers of glass and called up strange winds, speaking in ancient tongues... that magic was gone!
Something far more terrible than the deaths of my dear friends had indeed occurred.
"Follow me!" I ordered, running as fast as I could manage, and then finally slowing to a walk. The others were far behind, and though I knew I had to protect them from whatever dangers lurked in this powerful place, and especially from my father, I could not force myself to wait too long.
I had to save Brin, and I was running out of time! Strange that an Immortal should know time at all, let alone fear it, but at that moment each passing second may well have been a century in my eyes. I would not fail!
No more of my companions would die at Geruth's hands... least of all Raphael's niece. Phineas and Ruveus had already lost their lives guarding her. I owed that much to them, and especially to Raphael. I would protect Brin as they had done. Breathing heavily, Cal finally caught up to me and Gloria followed, not more than a pace behind.
"Look!" He pointed, and I wheeled around quickly, seizing my staff from Gloria's grasp. I did not know where my sword had gone, and was very tired of the thing vanishing on me. Seeing what we had stumbled upon, I immediately relaxed. Hopping forward, Mouse stared up in awe at the Sentinel Dakor, who towered over her.
"Grr." She growled, looking even smaller than she was in the shadow of the great lion.
The Sentinel eyed her warily but said nothing. I searched for his companion, but Vatra was nowhere to be seen. Sensing, perhaps, that the creature was no threat to us, Gloria and Cal slowly approached Dakor, keeping some distance behind Mouse and I followed them.
"You, mortal beings!" Dakor growled. "How dare you come here!"
"What has happened Dakor?" I asked, chilled by the fierceness in his voice. He didn't answer, still bristling at the sight of the motley crew I'd dragged with me, two humans and a Tree Rat.
An old, old dream came flooding back to me then, of three riders on horseback. Though they had been cloaked in black making their bodies and faces unrecognizable, I had seen their eyes.
Mouse gazed up at me, uncertain yet fearless. Her eyes were a pale, unusual blue-gray like an oncoming storm. She, out of the four of us was most clearly out of her element, having followed not because she knew what we were up against, but simply because she could. Her innocence was startling, overshadowed only by her remarkable courage.
Cal would not look at me directly, but his eyes were brown, calm and calculating. He could analyze things down into their tiniest components without losing respect for even the smallest particle of life. He was a builder, a creator who regarded all things with equal respect. He was firm without being harsh and confident without thinking too highly of himself.
I turned to Gloria, seeing in her green, fierce eyes the soul of a coolly arrogant woman who would not take no for an answer. Sometimes too stubborn, she nevertheless set the standard for those around her.
They were the three riders who had carried me like the wind, the three horsemen who had brought me to the place that held... the secret. They were the first three steps, like the cards of a fortune-teller... the fool, the magician and the priestess.
"Dakor." I whispered, suddenly realizing with absolute certainty that my time had arrived, that I had come at long last to the moment of my true destiny. "I dreamt this once! Why?" I begged him, though not a flicker of emotion crossed his stone face.
"Proceed, Ireval." The Sentinel responded stiffly.
"DO NOT call me that!" I Ordered before realizing just who it was that I stood before. Was I mad, to threaten a creature of the Gods? Immediately I composed myself.
Cal and Gloria were visibly pale, but only the Mouse dared to speak. "You mean it's true?" She whispered. "You're really..."
"It's true." I shook my head. "And I suppose I should have admitted that long ago."
"No." Gloria paused. "You were right not to tell us. I've... suspected things for some time, but I didn't want to know."
"Proceed, High Commander." Dakor repeated, addressing me with a title that he must have assumed I would find less offensive. Still, why should the Sentinel attempt to humor me? I didn't know, but I sensed that I would learn of my purpose in Raedawn soon enough.
"If I go in... so do they." I announced, standing firm. "You once called me a child of this place." I paused. "If this is my home, then I should certainly be allowed to have a guests."
"Be reasonable." Dakor shook his head heavily. "If my master learns that I have..."
"The Gods can have their fight with me." I replied. "This is the way it must end." I would not budge.
"Proceed then." Dakor cursed silently... I could tell from his eyes. And yet his power so completely overwhelmed my own that I could not fathom why he would not simply strike me down and return me to my proper place.
Unless… by entering Raedawn I was somehow returning to it? Was that my fate? Had I been brought into the world so very long ago, a Traverser from the very beginning? The gates unraveled before me and I noticed for the first time that the gold and silver roses had begun to wilt.
"But be forewarned." Dakor interrupted.
I paused... and then noticed the body of Vatra lying dead within the courtyard. I knew who had slain the younger of the Sentinels, but I had never imagined that he possessed the power to destroy such a creature.
It could only have been Geruth.
I turned back to Dakor. A great silver tear in his chest made me wonder for a moment if he was hurt as well. That thought alone filled me with fear. "Be forewarned." Dakor repeated. "For though you may possess the power to alter eternity, Ireval Ithraedol… you may not possess the wisdom to change it for the better."
The great Dakor collapsed then, on those final words, the white light gone from his eyes. If I had not known better, he would have simply appeared to be a lifeless stone... but as it was, I was overwhelmed with a horrific sense of loss.
I knew not what the Sentinel's cryptic warning meant, but I knew also that I had no choice but to proceed. Followed by Cal and Gloria, I made my way through the eerie gray courtyard. The Tower I saw before me then was not the one that I had seen on my first journey to Raedawn. It was much taller, continuing straight into the shifting storm clouds overhead, hundreds of feet high and completely smooth, a pale silver-white without the smallest ripple in the solid stone.
This was the true White City, the gray realm of forgotten dreams that the Sentinels had spoken to me of... not the heavenly realm I had once imagined, and although it was beautiful, it was also cold. In front of us were two massive doors, carved from the same marble as the tower itself.
Cal pushed against them, his efforts clearly an exercise in futility. "The doors won't open." He announced, the look in his eyes revealing that he would very much like to go back already.
"They will for me." Mouse pushed him aside and heaved, sliding the first open a mere crack. "All doors will open for Mouse!" She proclaimed, pulling even harder. The door, which had only opened barely wide enough for a person to squeeze through slammed shut again with a sound like a gong. Mouse staggered back towards us.
I turned, catching sight of a brass plate on the white wall, the symbol of a seven-pointed star burned deep into the metal. "It says knock." I observed, though I still shook my head at the madness of the thing. The four of us knocked... all as one, and the doors disintegrated into grains of sand. Four shapes appeared over the archway, marks that anyone who had spent years living amongst wizards would recognize instantly, the alchemical signs of the elements. Gloria led the way, and as she stepped inside, the mark for fire lit up.
"Strange." Gloria stared. She had spoken my thoughts exactly.
Cal moved to join her within the doorway and the earth symbol began to glow. Mouse stood beside them, and water shimmered faintly. I followed myself, the last of us… wind. Though I had assumed that fire was my own element, especially considering my gift, apparently Raedawn perceived me differently. Then again, who besides a Traverser could move so quickly between realms… solid form one moment and empty air the next? Wind indeed!
We headed further into the dark hall, all of us inside, and at that instant, the piles of sand behind us melted back up into a solid wall. "I don't like this." Cal muttered. "It just got very dark in here."
"Me neither." Mouse admitted. "Smells like... monster."
I shuddered at the thought. The ceiling had begun to drop, and the corridor was becoming increasingly narrower. I remembered again the dream that I had... so long ago! Before us on the far wall of the trap was a mural of an immense dark tree, the painted surface pierced with swords... and no sooner had I laid eyes upon the thing than I knew! I knew at once what had to be done.
"Wrap something around your hands." I ordered. "We're going up."
I threw Cal my gloves and Gloria a few strips from the back of my cloak. Mouse clung to Cal's neck and we climbed. Despite my precautions, my hands were cut, raw and bleeding by the time I reached the second floor, pushing aside a tile and pulling myself out into what appeared to be a corridor of the Imperial Palace.
White marble surrounded us and blinding sunlight filled the room, radiating from some unidentifiable source. A pillar in the center of the room bore the mark of a seven-pointed star and a short inscription, carved both in the language of the humans and that of the I'Eloshir.
The last word had been rubbed off magically. I couldn't begin to guess what it had been.
"Sounds like we've got a few more trials before us." Gloria whispered. "And there's the first one." The apparent daylight before us was coming from a white burning flame. I could feel its heat already where I stood, some fifteen feet away and gritted me teeth. This Tower had begun to seem very dangerous, a puzzle as I had never before seen! My long-ago dream had told me nothing after the wounded tree, at any rate. All the more I knew was that in the end I would have to fight, and considering that Geruth had already passed ahead of us… that came as no surprise to me.
"So we walk through it and it doesn't hurt us?" Cal wondered. "Is it like a leap of faith?"
"The swords cut." I shook my head. "The fire will burn."
"But we got to go?" Mouse asked, obviously hesitant.
I nodded, collected myself and jumped through the fire, rolling on the ground to put out what I could of the flames... and then realized the danger the others were in. Cal was lost, coughing somewhere in the thick, white smoke.
"Follow the sound of my voice!" I begged and then jumped back into the inferno. My armor, which Igor had carefully retrieved for me after our ordeal in the pit had nearly melted, hissing and red-hot against my skin until finally it released itself and slithered away. I led Cal through the light and then went back into the white fire for the third time after Gloria
The three of them were burned some, but not badly. My clothes were almost destroyed to the point where they were almost nonexistent, but my body was unharmed. It seemed that nearest me the flames were the hottest, as if it somehow knew I could withstand the most.
Could such magic tell human from demon?
I did not know.
Gloria coughed, looking up at me with tears in her eyes. She had never been one to fear her own element, the power of her Ardran jewel. "Never... never..." She stammered madly.
"We won't have to." I looked down the corridor. "Next is wind."
No sooner had I spoken those words than a roaring hurricane blew out of nothingness, pushing us back towards the flames we had only narrowly escaped. Every step we took forward flung us another three back, but finally we reached a turn in the hall and stepped out of the storm.
"Rain." Cal muttered.
I looked up to the sky... and then ahead to a large, deep pool that loomed before us. Cal put a hand in the water. "It's not so cold." He admitted. "We can probably swim."
I took a step back, unwilling to go further. The ripples in the black pond terrified me. Harsh winds and fiery pits I did not fear, but a lake, an ocean... that was something else entirely! Most I'Eloshir were afraid of water, but my fear was somewhat stronger than most. Had I… drowned before, in a time that I could not remember? I shuddered at the thought.
"What's wrong?" Gloria wondered, holding her clothing and her crossbow atop her head as she pushed away from the wall. "The water's almost nice."
"I... can't swim." I stammered, staring into the depths.
"I can. I was a lifeguard one summer. I'll help you." Cal offered.
"No! No!" I stammered, staying as far from the edge of the pool as I could.
"Artemis, get in the water!" Gloria ordered. "Don't be a child! We have to go on! Gods, you're the last person I thought would ever have such a silly, irrational fear!"
"GET OUT!" I Ordered.
Something moved in the darkness below them
"GET OUT!" I screamed for the second time.
Mouse surfaced for air, paddling towards Cal and clinging to him again. She seemed to have decided that her place was on his shoulder, and he made no move to force her off, though it must have been awkward for him to keep treading water with a Tree Rat clinging to his head.
"Eeee, Artemis-su!" Mouse winced, sounding oddly… Etone. "S'just me!"
I staggered back in horror, unable to bring myself to speak. The shadow in the water hissed and the leviathan rose to the surface. Mouse leapt away from Cal and launched herself onto my neck, shrieking in her indistinguishable mix of languages, and Gloria scrambled out of the water after her, accidentally dropping her crossbow into the pool's depths. Cal stared in my direction for the briefest of moments, his face very pale as he realized he was caught in the serpent's coils. The monster pulled him under.
"Snake!Bigfishafishasnakeafish! Kill it! Kill it!" Mouse rambled.
Gloria cast a fireball, her opal sparkling dangerously, and struck the creature in the head. The leviathan thrashed, drenching us with a wall of water and shot down into the depths, dunking Cal again... and then surfaced for a second time, screeching.
Mouse seized my staff, a look of determination on her little face. The weapon was many times her size, but I'd seen the Tree Rat take down tremendous enemies before, so I trusted she knew what she was doing. In return, I took her dagger, a thing that was almost too small for my hand. Mouse grinned very broadly and the two of us leapt for the snake. I jumped, swinging onto the serpent's neck and fighting my way to some point soft enough to kill the beast. Mouse's sharp little blade cut deep into the monster's back, but I slipped as the snake thrashed again, losing my grip. The leviathan submerged for the second time, dragging me with it.
I choked, desperately trying to worm my way free, drowning under the dark waves, when suddenly I heard a piercing scream. There was blood in the water. I struggled futily for the surface, still sinking, until all at once, a hand from above drug me out. It was Cal.
I gasped, so glad to breathe air once again.
The four of us still lived, and my staff harpooned through the dead leviathan appeared to be the only source of bloodshed. The creature's body sank slowly under the surface into shadow.
"Your dagger." I offered the knife back to Mouse.
"You keep." Mouse sighed, gesturing to the sinking shadow.
"We've lost all our weapons." I muttered in disbelief, surveying what little remained of our already minimal gear. Cal still wore his backpack, though its contents were clearly drenched to the point where I doubted his pens and paper would be of any use to us. He'd made the decision to swim in his clothes, an odd choice that seemed to have served him well, but his shoes were gone. Gloria still wore her fire opal and had managed to save at least her pants and her undershirt, but she'd obviously lost her crossbow and was also barefoot. "If there are more creatures like that, I'm not sure what we can do." I admitted uneasily.
There was a sickening crunch as Gloria forced Cal's shoulder back into place.
"You saved my life. Well, you and Mouse both did." I shook my head, resolving not to consider the possibility. "I don't know how..."
"I told you I was a lifeguard." Cal grinned. "Besides, you pulled me out of the fire, so we're even."
"Even?" Gloria sighed. "At a time like this, it doesn't matter who comes out even, so long as everyone comes out."
"Is right." Mouse muttered. "Keepa'moving."
Wading through what remained of the floodwaters from our fight with the snake, we passed through a dark cavern and under several cascading waterfalls. Torches lined our path, and when the cave let out, we found ourselves standing on a ledge surrounded by sky. In front of us, some ten feet towards oblivion was a white platform on a single narrow post, hovering over what appeared to be a bottomless abyss. The challenge was representative of yet another one of those things Gloria had called 'irrational' fears, the terror of heights. In Raedawn, it was hardly 'irrational' to be frightened, however, as we had all learned. Everything, absolutely everything was dangerous, and I gathered that our newest stumbling block would be no exception. Gloria seemed vaguely concerned, and Mouse shrugged, unimpressed, but for the first time, Cal winced.
"Oh wow." He muttered, clearly uneasy. "That does not look structurally sound. And how deep is that pit anyway?"
"Several hundred feet, and then I cannot see further." I paused. "I'll go first."
I took a running jump and dropped onto the platform which was only about ten feet from the ledge we had stood on before and about five feet lower. I helped Cal and Gloria pull their way up when they both almost tumbled over the edge and caught Mouse in midair when she very nearly fell short.
"Where do we go from here?" Cal wondered, still uneasy from his awkward jump. I shrugged and searched the sky around us, suddenly catching sight of a white pillar floating above our heads. Sitting atop the pillar, the shape of a hand pointed to a white statue of a horseman, floating disconnected from anything. He gestured to the west, and far away, a second platform.
"There's no simple way to get so far." Mouse observed. "But I still got a rope. Lots longer than it looks." She explained, unraveling the thing from around her waist. "This thing we stand on sways n'ough that I maybe pull it down... but we's got to get over there an' tie up."
"I'll see if I can fix things." Pulling out his sodden notebook, Cal quickly sketched out the platforms with his water-filled pen and attempted to draw a bridge. Nothing happened.
"This is beyond our control, even yours, Cal." Gloria shook her head. "I think we can use magic, but only of a certain level. I might be able to move the rope over there. I could try a GravityBubble if I can remember all the words to the spell..." She paused. "I had six years of magic school at Dainor Academy that my mother paid for and all I learned was how to ski." Gloria winced. "I could levitate myself out with a KaiDarabut..."
"You will do no such thing." I cut her off. "Give me that rope."
Mouse nodded, cinching the end she'd already tied around the post.
"I'm jumping." I announced.
"You'll never make it." Cal argued. "That must be fifty feet away!"
I didn't care. I had to prove that I could. I ran and jumped.
"Holy..." Cal swore, and I realized that I had very nearly made the leap, but not quite. I was falling short by a few feet and beginning to drop, sliding down my rope with terrible speed, the rough fiber searing the palms of my hands as I slipped. I had to fly. Had to... or I would never make it back again. Yet at the same time, I resisted my desire to change, gritting my teeth and clinging to the rope for dear life. Above me, something snapped.
"Rope's breaking!" Mouse screeched.
I couldn't see them, I was too far down in the darkness for that, but I could hear their panicking and screaming. And I was still swinging with terrible speed, back in the direction I had come from. I gripped the rope tightly and braced myself as I came flying close, suddenly catching sight of a brilliant, red-painted lever on the underside of the platform.
A sign above it read 'Pullme.'
"There's some sort of machine down here!" I yelled. "I'm going to reach it!"
Hitting the underside of the platform with remarkable force, I let go of the rope and grabbed the lever, my weight pulling it down just as the rope snapped. The platform began to move.
"Hey... we're goin'!" Mouse shouted. "You did it, Artemis-su!"
I pushed up through the floor with a few strong punches and flopped onto my back in the piles of rubble and marble dust, scarcely breathing, my palms bleeding and knuckles virtually crushed. We moved towards the second platform slowly, and then away from it, our course already set. Passing a dozen more platforms and another two frozen white riders floating in the sky, we approached a door in what appeared to be a second Tower of Raedawn, rising from the bottomless abyss.
"More stairs?" Cal groaned, and I looked up from where I lay.
Sure enough, the platform had hovered to a stop and we were faced with a second flight of apparently limitless white marble steps. Sliding down from our moving platform on the remains of Mouse's rope, the four of us stood before an open archway.
Above the gate, a sign made entirely out of scissors read: 'Beyond'.
An immense thirteen-hour clock hovered in midair directly before us, its hands spinning madly in all directions... and the floor we stood on was scattered with hundreds upon hundreds of many-sided rainbow-colored dice.
"This symbolism is fascinating." Cal observed. "Scissors... that would be Fate, cutting life's threads, and dice would be Chance... and what better than a clock to signify Time?"
"Three in one." Gloria snorted. "Why do I get the feeling that we're not going to like what's at the top of these stairs?"
"We've got no choice." I replied, shaking my head. "We have to go on."
"Onward." Cal grinned, walking up the first few stairs. "Beyond time and chance and fate!" He laughed, presumably at his own obscure humor.
I stepped forward, but no sooner had I passed under the sign 'Beyond' than I slammed headfirst into nothingness. The pain was extraordinary. I might as well have walked into a stone wall, except that I could see nothing in front of me. I reached out to touch the air with my hands and was surprised at how solid it felt.
"What's wrong?" Cal stared from where he stood, already ahead of me.
"Take off your coat." Mouse advised. "That's what the sign says."
"What sign?" I wondered.
Mouse pointed. Posted over a lonely park bench that I had not seen before and beside a black coat rack, a small paper sign read:
It, like the plaque at the front door of the tower, the pillar before the ever-burning flame and the sign on the underside of the moving platform… was also marked with the shape of a seven-pointed star. What did those stars mean? And why was I seeing them everywhere? I sighed heavily and glanced to Mouse.
"What coat?" I demanded.
"I can't get through either." Gloria admitted. "And I'm not wearing a coat. Or even anything that might be like a coat."
"A disguise spell!" I realized suddenly. "It must be!"
"Is that it?" Gloria wondered. She rubbed her face in a handkerchief and instantly aged twelve years. "Someone certainly has a peculiar sense of humor." She remarked dryly. "Well, here I am powers! Without my face on!" She announced waving to the statues of the horsemen, to the pit below and the white clouds high above us. Gloria laughed a little, glancing in my direction. Though I wouldn't have dared say such a thing, I liked her much better without all the makeup she usually wore. She was hardly beautiful, but her hawkish nose and the weather-lines in her face well-suited her fierce eyes. "I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad." Gloria admitted. "Truth be told, I am even older than I look."
Though the dragon I had taken from Phineas possessed no illusion currently, it had been the subject of considerable spells in the past. I looped Phineas's pendant around the arm of the bench where Gloria had left her makeup-smeared handkerchief. I tried the stairs again and fell backward, pushed violently by the invisible force.
"What now?" Cal wondered.
I rolled my shoulders anxiously, tasting blood in my own mouth from the force of that second collision. "There's only one other thing I can think of." I admitted. "And I'd rather not do it."
"It looks like you may have to." Gloria shrugged. "Honestly... how old are you? Or is it worse? Are you hideous?" She teased, though she apparently sense that her attempt to lighten the situation had failed miserably.
"Age is irrelevant. And looks have nothing to do with it." I shook my head. "I want you all to be careful." I explained. "I have a tendency to lose myself and become... someone else. I may not recognize you when I am through with this, and if I do not... you must all run as quickly and as far away as you possibly can."
"Gods, what is it with you and the drama?" Gloria demanded.
I did not respond, only closing my eyes, reciting over and over the names of my friends, imprinting their faces upon my mind, lest I forget who I was and where we had come from. The change came... but like never before!
I wasn't surrendering to the darkness or collapsing with unforgivable weakness, I was harnessing my own power... the power that I had thought possessed me! But in truth, I didn't belong to it… I owned it. If only I had understood how simple it was!
Bones cracked and reformed, and the sound itself sickened me, although I was amazed at how aware I was, aware of the world around me and even of the remarkable expressions on Cal and Gloria's faces. And within me, something was freed... not the rage and hatred I tried to keep hidden, but a strange and giddy delirium. So utterly alive I felt, not because I held any power over those around me, but simply because I was... and my existence alone seemed like the most remarkable thing in the world!
For a moment I almost understood that thing that had always been so foreign to me, the mage's mind, the dragon's mind... Or no, I did not understand it! Truth be told, there was nothing to know, nothing so complicated as I had suspected.
All that was necessary was to accept that what was... was, and what was beautiful was...
Oh, as if I even knew!
At that moment, nothing dark existed.
I felt as if I were formed of glass, as if all the light of the sun and the stars could simply pass through me, as if I were loosened from all earthbound ties, set free amidst the heavens for every possible reason and yet no reason at all. And Gods, was Raedawn glorious! Out of the cloud-filled sky behind us, a sun emerged, revealing that the abyss beneath us was no hellish pit at all, but a distant, beautiful world, a world of green forests and oceans that had only, until recently been cloaked in night. Where was the realm that was I looking at? It seemed like a paradise!
I almost lost myself entirely, fully willing to abandon my mission just for the chance to fly in such a wonderful place... until I caught sight of Cal's troubled eyes and remembered where we were and why we had come. I stretched, leaning back a little and adjusting my balance.
So much for my 'hat and coat'.
I sighed, not speaking a word and began up the stairs.
A door at the top of the staircase swung open as we approached, revealing a familiar space... the mysterious room of windows and mirrors between worlds. The Archives of Teyme, glittering red and gold as I had remembered it... hovered open over the central pit. The same shimmering red feather stopped, poised above its pages with a drip of gold-white ink glimmering at its tip, almost as if it were waiting for someone to pick it up.
Despite how exhausted I already was, I knew that everything could not be so simple as that.
I glanced around the room at all of the shimmering mirrors, those unknown gateways. Geruth could come out of any one, at any time. Anyone else might use the passages as well... a God, a mortal or a monster, perhaps even a beast more terrible beast than Geruth.
But the book was there, and I had a pen.
It seemed dangerous, yet I still reached out. The book called to me, and not just as it had in the beginning. I wanted to hold the treasure, not because of its power, but because I felt a strange affinity towards the ancient artifact, a bond I could not begin to understand the nature of. Written by Teyme, the sorcerer whom many called a God, the Archives had been created to act as a link between the mortal world and the will of the multiverse, like the crystals that Brin had held before the Imperial Court or the magic of a Ta'ar. The crystals had spoken to me as the Ta'ud always had, and the Archives were no different. They summoned me forward, and obediently I came.
"Artemis, don't touch that book." Cal warned. "This isn't how it's supposed to happen."
I stepped back. "I... don't know what came over me." I admitted, somewhat truthfully. I bristled as I sensed another presence entering the room. Thrown through the third mirror on the right, Brin hit the floor.
But she did not appear as I had always seen her. The Brin I had known was delicate and eternally childlike, never too loud, never daring to show much power, perhaps out of fear. Yet as the phoenix that was her symbol and namesake as the Empress Kaora's rightful heir, Brin fell wreathed in flame, a shower of red feathers following behind her as she collapsed to the floor, shedding her fiery... wings.
"Break it!" She screamed, dunking. "Smash it, someone!"
Brin scrambled to her feet and turned, wrenching an iron bar from one of the mirror-like windows with incredible strength... and smashed the glass of the gateway that she had come through. The mirror burst in a flash of white energy... but yet another gate across the room had already begun to ripple.
"Break all of them!" Brin screamed. "Break them all!"
Gloria extended her jewel's energy claws and Mouse tore the ancient glass from the walls, smashing the mirrors with her bare hands. Cal reached into thin air with a determined grimace, producing a slick, soaking wet baseball. He wound up and pitched.
Only I remained motionless, though I could have easily broken all the mirrors in an instant, had I willed it so. I watched in horror as they all shattered and I stared around the chamber at what remained of the glass. We were truly, truly trapped! There was no way out, no stairs, no mirrors to traverse! We were trapped now, trapped in the tomb we had made for ourselves… and we were not alone!
A dark shadow began to rise out of the central pool, but it was not Inapsupetra.
I recognized Geruth's face in an instant, though the sight of him wearing a hooded Black Robe disturbed me far more than his formal 'God-colors' ever had. The Black Robes were most terrible of the I'Eloshir. Though I had long since known my father to be one of the priests, I had never actually seen his face under that hood, and it was the look in his eyes that truly chilled me.
He held in his hands the pen and the book, about to write.
What would he do? Would he will Chaos Realm itself out of existence? He could transform all worlds into his image of perfection... and recreate me as a slave under the power of the darkness I had once led. Yet having felt joy, known love...
I would not, could not lose such precious things!
But... there was nothing I could do.
All it would take from him was a single word.
Except that... somewhere I found that ounce of strength I so desperately needed and forced my eyes to meet his. Spurred by a sudden influx of power, I dove forward and Geruth to the ground, stabbing him in the chest with Mouse's dagger, the same blade I had tried to return to her, the weapon she had gifted me with. Geruth's claws cut deeply into my shoulder and I returned the slash across his face.
Blow for blow, we fought, rolling through broken glass. Dodging the two of us, Cal, Gloria, Mouse and Brin all cowered in the shadows as we struggled for the book. It was wise of them to keep their distance. Never in all of my life had I fought so hard, desperate not to lose my ground. And each time I lunged, each time my wild attacks connected with Geruth's body... each time he hit me in return, visions flashed before my eyes of the past... the present... and the future, not as it was, but as it ought to have been.
Our claws locked, Geruth brought his knee into my chin, throwing me into the wall. I slid underneath him, ignoring the blood that welled up in my mouth and swept him to the floor, his colossal bulk sending a shudder through the entire room. The Archives flew from his grasp and I threw myself forward, jumping on his chest in a vain effort to reach the book before it hit the ground.
Cal caught the book. He stood there for a moment, holding it out as if he were offering up the thing, motionless. Suddenly recognizing the moment we had reached, perhaps remembering the portrait he had once drawn, Cal shook his head in disbelief and swore incoherently. He knew then what he had to do.
"Take it!" Cal screamed, opening the thing to the page marked by a ribbon, pushing the Archives into my grasp. I grabbed it as quickly as I could, but Geruth had recovered quickly and was already back on his feet. He threw me against the wall and reached for the Archives again. I slid across the floor and seized the manuscript, tearing from his grasp the feather pen.
I pulled back in my haste and terror and realized that I had accidentally scratched a line across the golden paper. I had written in the book not a single word... but a line!
The light was so brilliant I couldn't tell to read what it said. It was simply one motion.
The second I put ink to paper the room itself shattered into a million pieces of white light. A heavy shadow descended over me, still, silent, foreboding. Figures surrounded me, faceless, moving in all directions, like ghosts made of black smoke, all whispering to another as they passed by, laughing at me. Who were they?
TheOthers, I knew! It was they who hid behind the bloody door, the shadow I could never escape. But… who were The Others? What did they want from me? Utterly bewildered, I dropped the Archives of Teyame and the book vanished completely in a sudden burst of flame.
The darkness cleared and I found myself, no longer bloody and bruised on the floor of the Tower, but seated in a high-backed silver chair... in a room of many columns and balconies, human again. I was dressed, somehow, in my Imperial colors. Two Republic generals knelt before me, surrendering what was left of their pitiful armies... after the Battle of the Equinox. It was a stunning victory for me, but it would not last. Soon I would be called back to the front, to the Frozen Sea.
I remembered that day!
Though I could scarcely believe it, I knew where, or more precisely, when I was.
Almost ten years in the past... in the days that had become legend. Anything was possible then...
Before the fall of Errida.
"They, like their swords, are forged in the fires of the stars."
My gaze drifted from the floor to the ceiling, to the balcony where a young Brin sat, her mother brushing her long, red-brown hair. I stared, not only because I realized that I had somehow stepped back in time, but because I knew now that Lady Rose had killed herself and all of her family long before the first army had surrendered. History hadn't simply been reversed, it had been changed!
Brin... she was younger than she had been as well, perhaps because she had been robbed of what should have been her childhood. I couldn't imagine what she must have been thinking at that moment, but in her eyes there were tears. My mind whirled with possibilities. Brin was a child again, Lady Rose was alive? I didn't know about Phineas, Raphael or any of the others, but I felt that because we had wished them to be, they most certainly were.
But how had I done such a thing when I was still unsure of what I had written in the Archives? It was preposterous.
Gloria on the floor, sobbed with her arms wrapped around Devonny's neck, and Cal and Mouse stood beside her, where they could not have possibly been... wheretheyhadnotbeen, not the first time! It wasn't a dream, or an illusion, I realized.
It had actually happened. I had a second chance to see Phineas and Raphael... a second chance to go back and un-make the mistakes I had made, but more than that, I now possessed a second chance to save... or utterly destroy the world. I had never meant for such a thing to happen.
It was wrong! It should never have been possible!
And Gods, I was terrified! At that instant, as I found myself there, in my chair before council and a hundred prisoners of war... I fainted.
I awoke in my chamber with a slew of servants hovering over me, and almost panicked, before I remembered what had taken place. I was crying uncontrollably, so cold, so shocked that I had changed the course of time itself, rewritten the past without ridding myself of my horrific memories. What I had desired, more than anything... was to erase the pain of the empire's people. I had hoped, perhaps selfishly that I would be allowed a release myself.
But no... that would have been merciful! The Gods were clearly not merciful. Everything they did suited only themselves, and whatever necessity they believed ought to come to pass. I had fufilled my purpose. I had used Teyme's Archives to change the world. And now, the five of us alone, Cal, Brin, Mouse... Gloria and myself would bear the knowledge of what had come to pass the day the Dynasty failed!
I brushed the servants away and sat up, perhaps a bit too quickly. Someone passed me a glass of ambrosia... and I drank deeply, closing my eyes and collapsing again into my bed. I could smell the familiar scents of my quiet room, lavender, soft suede, the faint smoking of incense and even the dogs, where they had been. There were so many little, subtle things that I had never truly appreciated. I loved them then as I had never the chance to before.
"Let us through." A voice demanded, out in the hall and I gasped in recognition, sitting up suddenly for the second time. The servants all jumped back... and he came to my bedside.
"They told me you fainted." Raphael whispered softly. Seeing the tears in my eyes, he took my hand and clasped it tightly as he sat down beside me, exactly as I had remembered him. "Are you all right?"
I could not respond. It had been so long since I had felt his touch, and ages since I had seen his face. So often had I wished, desperately that we would be reunited! Yet I had know the truth, that he was dead, and with that knowledge came the emptiness, the cold that had gripped me for so long... until that moment. All at once, the wave of emotion swept through me and I closed my eyes, falling helplessly into his arms, expecting to pass through Raphael as if he were a shadow and nothing more.
And yet... there he caught me. Our eyes met the way they had that very first day in Ardra; and I saw in his the same face the expression I had missed most. It was the way that he had always looked at me, his gaze speaking volumes, the faintest of smiles on his lips. It was as if we could talk forever without ever uttering a single word. I shook my head furiously, not facing him but holding him close, stubbornly... unable to speak, scarcely knowing how to breathe and desperate not to lose him, never again!
Phineas touched my hand uncertainly, but I could not bear to open my eyes. Without looking I saw him sitting there, desperately waiting for a response, but what pained me more were the thoughts that rushed through my mind. My friend, he slowly stood and left the room, glancing towards Raphael who nodded without speaking. I would have begged Phineas to stay a little longer, if I had found my voice... but no words would come to me. In silence, I clung to Raphael, determined not to let go of him until he forced me away. I couldn't bear to think that I would have to live through their deaths over again, both Phineas's and Raphael's... unless I could somehow change things!
"Raphael?" I murmured under my breath, attempting to compose myself slightly.
"I'm here." He promised, lying down next to me. The terrible pain that overwhelmed me was a combination of joy and deep, profound sorrow at the fate that I knew still awaited us.
Yet even for so short a time, we were reunited. "There is something I must tell you." I whispered, now that I had the chance. He would believe me. Raphael deserved to know the truth, all of what I knew, whether he could possibly fathom what I was about to tell him or not. I didn't know what had changed or what had remained the same along our altered line of time, but I knew that the greatest battle still lay ahead of us. If... if somehow protecting the Empire would cost me my own life, I was prepared to give it gladly, but I did not want to die with such terrible thoughts still on my mind.
More importantly, I wanted to tell Raphael everything I had never gotten the chance to tell him about both of my visits to Raedawn and my escape from Antares. I wanted to introduce him to Bruno Fargrove and GW, to tell him that I had learned to catch ether raptors and even fly Spellcraft like a professional! More importantly, I needed to warn Raphael about the terrible things that had happened to Mariel, Ruveus, Phineas and Terry. He needed to know everything I knew about what had happened and might happen still, the hell I had been through!
And yet, I knew that I would not be given enough time to finish my entire confession. Only the most important unsaid thing could be said! A knock came at the door. One of the servants opened it from the outside... and I thought I saw Cal.
"Be on your way." Someone said.
"Let him in." I ordered. Cal stepped into the room.
"Artemis?" He wondered, obviously shaken. He stared at Raphael and I remembered suddenly that the two had never met. Raphael yawned in a ridiculously undignified manner and grabbed me by the shoulders, yanking me back into bed as I made an attempt to get up.
I shrieked and panicked as I nearly rolled head over heels and onto the floor.
Raphael caught me. "No." He ordered sternly. "You're working too hard. Sit! Lie down!"
I scowled at Raphael and elbowed him. He grinned broadly, seeing that I was suddenly well and proceeded to force me to lie down again by flopping on top of me. "Raphael, get off!" I argued, shoving him halfheartedly.
Cal stared. "Is this..." He began, suddenly understanding who the stranger he faced must be. After all he had heard in the days after the Dynasty's fall about Raphael Errida, I wasn't sure how Cal had begun to picture the Emperor, though I gathered that the poor boy hadn't expected to first encounter Raphael to involve him sitting on me in order to keep me in bed.
"Go away." Raphael growled, though any fool could tell he was hardly serious. "Don't you know that I am a dangerous creature of terrible dark powers? You should be afraid of me, you know." He added, grinning. "In my true form I'm quite terrifying."
Cal laughed, a genuine smile on his face.
"There's nothing funny about it!" Raphael argued, though the look in his eyes alone seemed to suggest that soon he would be unable to contain himself. "The High Commander is ill and delirious and I am making her my prisoner!"
Caught offguard, I started laughing myself and would have doubtless lost all control in a moment's time if I had not forced myself to stop. "This could be important, you know." I tapped anxiously and glanced at Raphael.
He frowned and loosened his hold on me for a moment. "Oh, but it isn't!" He argued. "Rest, that's what you need! You ought to get out of all that stuffy clothes you're in and under those covers for at least a few hours! Preferably with my company, of course!"
I ignored Raphael's comment, knowing full well that the color of my face most likely matched the red of my curtains.
"Is there any way we could actually talk?" Cal wondered.
"Talk, by all means!" Raphael announced, gesturing to the nearly empty room.
Phineas frowned, stepping in from the corridor. "You know this boy?" He wondered, glancing to Raphael and then to me. I nodded.
"He's a friend of the Prophet." I explained, somewhat truthfully. "He's harmless if a little… odd. And for your information..." I pushed Raphael. "I am absolutely fine! There's no need for you to sit your great beastly bulk on top of me just to prevent me from getting out of bed! I can't breathe with you lying on my chest!"
"You're sure of that?" Raphael wondered. "Because I'm perfectly content to waste the rest of the day right in this position."
"Yes." I nodded, trying to seem serious. So much depended on my composure, and while I wanted for myself as much time with Raphael as I could possibly find, I knew that there were bigger things at stake. "Don't worry, I've currently no desire to leave this room."
"Very well." Raphael sighed, sitting up and composing himself with a ridiculously over-dramatic disappointed sigh. "I'll be back as soon as I can, of course... but if you are well, I should probably go talk to the Court. Oh, the horror!" He exclaimed.
"Good idea." I nodded. "Thank you for your… noble sacrifice."
Raphael and Phineas left together, whispering as they headed down the hall. I couldn't help but feel as if they were both disappearing out of my life forever.
"He's awesome." Cal whispered, gesturing in the direction that Raphael had left. "Of course, I knew him before I switch-backed the last time, but I'd almost forgotten how cool he was."
I nodded, smiling despite the circumstances. Cal had put it perfectly, of course. I'd never known anyone who didn't like Raphael. Even those who often found themselves on the opposite side of Imperial law, like my uncle Elhil, had to admit that that "the boy" wasn't 'too bad'.
Walking very quickly with her chin somewhere near the level of her chest, Gloria entered, followed by Mouse. Not one of the servants in the hall moved to stop them.
"Dogs." Mouse glared. One of Raphael's wolfhounds growled from his place under my bed, and the Tree Rat backed away uneasily. The dog barked and Mouse shrieked, scurrying up the curtains and perching on the ledge above the window.
"He won't hurt you." I shook my head.
Mouse frowned. "All dogs is out to get me." She argued. I supposed I had to take her word for that. Slowly, Mouse slid back down to the floor, growling at the dog as he growled at her. Finally, the dog fell silent, tucking himself very far into the corner and watching the Tree Rat warily, clearly as afraid of her as she was of him. It made a degree of sense, really. From what I'd seen of Tree Rats, they were frightening creatures!
Mouse put her hands on her hips, stuck her tongue out at the dog and leapt onto the foot of my bed. At that moment, Brin squeezed into my room, slamming the door closed behind her. "What's going on?" She demanded, absolutely hysterical. "My mother should be dead! My father... I just saw him in the hall! And why am I eleven? What is going on!"
"That's what I came to find out." Cal explained. "It evidently has to do with whatever Artemis wrote in that book, so what did you write?"
"Nothing." I shook my head. "A line."
"That can't be good." Gloria whispered uneasily.
"Obviously not." I sighed. "Look at what has happened so far! I can't imagine where this might go. Though I've lived through this past, it was different then! I should know the future and yet I cannot see it, not from where we now stand!"
"So what do we do?" Brin wondered.
"Whatever we can." I forced myself to my feet.
"Is it right that we even try?" Cal asked. "Teyme may have created the Archives, but I'm sure that he never suspected that this might happen..."
"I'd rather not worry about what's right." I took a sip of the ambrosia on my nightstand. "All I want to know is if it is possible. Can we do it?"
"Do what?" Mouse wondered.
I took a deep breath "Save the world." I finished, my eyes slowly drifting from Cal to Gloria, Brin, and then Mouse. The room fell utterly and completely silent.
The Frozen Sea loomed across the horizon line, massive waves of ice overwhelmed with thousands upon thousands of soldiers. Below me, a purple sea of Imperial knights ran to join the fast moving green of King Rowanoak's calvary. The Spellcraft Gemini raced overhead, firing on a Ta'arthat seemed to be on the verge of opening, trailed by a flock of dragons, our incredibly fast, destructive and maneuverable strike forces that challenged even the best of the Republic's fighter planes.
Charging down another snow-covered hill and into the fray was a force of Barbarians from Accoloth, their swords and axes held high as Ejora and Ordo led them into the field. I could not tell if my uncle had joined the fight or not, but there was a black blur cleaving through the line of Red Robes who carried Saade clan banners, so I assumed that Elhil was helping somewhat… in his own perverse way.
"FIRE!" I Ordered the three dragons that crouched on the stone outcropping below me. "FIRE!"
Spellcraft raced across the frozen waves towards the never-ending flood of planes rolling out of the steadily increasing black Ta'ar.
On Earth Realm they call it déjàvu… the feeling you are doing something that you might have done before. I'd known the feeling my whole life but had never had such a word for it until that day.
"High Commander!" A voice shouted. "Well, if this doesn't defy the very laws of this universe! I see you're dressed this morning!"
"Lord Admiral." I smiled, turning around, well aware of how close we stood.
"News from the spies!" He announced, rubbing his snow-goggles clean on his red scarf. "My boys have been doing overtime this week. One of em' even got so far as the demon's camp. You'll never guess what he found out this morning."
"Let me guess." I sighed, remembering our conversation so clearly I was almost frightened. "Zaeth's been poisoned?"
"No." Maurice laughed, obviously uncomfortable with my remark. "Orin has. Though I would dearly love to see that wench follow her husband. I'll lay my life on it, she murdered him. Probably found out he wanted to kill her."
That troubled me. Yet another little difference that could mean the end of everything! A scout on a horse slid to a stop in front of us. The animal he rode was a winged beast, like my uncle's gift-horse, Erudite. A number of other such horses were scattered around the field. I wondered what such a peculiar sign meant.
"High Commander!" The scout bowed, dismounting. Though the scene had played out somewhat differently than I remembered it, an eerie familiarity struck me then. Some things... some things were very much the same!
"Down!" I demanded. The scout hit the ground.
"High Commander! We've broken the western line!" Ruveus shouted from above.
"Good! Now roast em'!" Maurice yelled in reply before I even had a chance to speak.
"High Commander!" The scout begged.
"STAY DOWN!" I Ordered, and he cowered in the snow.
"What's the meaning of this?" Maurice wondered, glancing at the bewildered scout who lay with his face in the snow, holding up a message clenched in his fist.
"Watch." I scanned the sea. A crossbow quarrel shot towards me and I dunked, the bolt bouncing harmlessly off of the side of a tank of Spellcraft fuel.
"Ah. Now shoot him!" I pointed to the cliff edge where the very surprised assassin stood. My men fired, and the would-be killer fell.
"How did you know there was an archer up there?" Maurice asked, raising an eyebrow as he stared at me.
I shrugged. "Clairvoyance, perhaps." I paused momentarily, gathering strength for my next command. "REINFORCE THE CITY WALL!" I Ordered.
"What?" Maurice frowned. "Why the hell are you so obsessed with the wall today?" He demanded, clearly a little uncomfortable with my unusual orders.
"DO IT." I countered. Maurice only shrugged, sprinting off in the direction of the Fifty-First Ranlain. He had a horse waiting there, I could see, and from the looks of it, the crazy old man was planning on leading a few charges himself.
"Artemis!" Cal yelled. I turned, surprised to see the Architect out on the battlefield when I'd specifically requested that he do everything in his power to fortify Zenith's defenses. He staggered through the snow, which was really only piles of ice sheared from frozen waves. In either case, the powder was nearly up to his knees as he struggled towards me, lugging a heavy book.
"What is it now?" I wondered.
"Did you get my message?" He demanded, suddenly catching sight of the scout who still hadn't moved, breathing heavily and holding his roll of paper out for me to take while lying face-first on the ground and shielding his own head. "I guess not." Cal paused.
"Your message?" I wondered. "But..."
"Listen, I know what's going on!" Cal interrupted me, taking a deep breath. "I ran all the way from the Library... I know why things aren't the same!"
"Well, say it!" I demanded.
He shook his head. "Everyone in the tower went back. What happens is that the past is twisted to fit each person's vision of what it ought to be. One individual would create an imbalanced fantasy-land which is why four people have to together reach the Tower of Raedawn in order to wake the Archives."
"But with Brin there were five..." I argued.
"That doesn't matter. It never said there couldn't be more than four people to unlock the book, just that there couldn't be any less." Cal corrected, and I froze. "You've also counted wrong." He whispered. "There were six of us."
"Everyone went back?" I fought the sickening sensation that was creeping up on me. "Everyone?"
"Including Geruth." Cal opened his book, revealing a diagram that meant absolutely nothing to me... but his certainty, that was proof enough.
"That means he's one step ahead of us." I muttered.
The last dark Ta'arwas already forming... I could sense it, but not directly above the palace. Lightning crackled overhead. We had been too close to victory the last time. Geruth had intentionally set his final card into play farther back... on the edge of the world. I did not know what his target was, but I could only assume that allowing that liquid death to rain down upon Chaos Realm in any amount would be utterly devastating.
"Mages! Clerics!" I could hear Phineas's voice. "There's a big one! Destroy that before it opens!"
Cleric's spells flew through the sky and I knew in an instant what I had to do. I ran to the airfield and jumped aboard The Hathor, firing up the engines.
"What are you doing?" Cal demanded, following me.
"What has to be done." I shot back.
"I'm coming too." He threw his book aboard. I threw it off and he swore as sheets of paper fluttered off in all directions, carried away by the wind. "No one comes with me!" I ordered. "This may be a one way trip."
"Artemis!" Cal begged, gazing up at me with a desperate, weary expression. "I know you still think I'm a kid, but I'm telling you, I know exactly what I'm doing! I fought for Raedawn, damnit!"
I ignored him and rose slowly off the ground, firing skyward, arcing towards the Ta'ar at top speed. A third Ta'ar burst, and out came the planes, dropping their payloads of mag-bombs onto the ice.
"CLOSE!" I Ordered. The Ta'ar snapped shut.
I took a deep breath and concentrated, searching the skies for the dark shadow I had already seen, the Tear that was itself a weapon which carried our defeat with it. A door opened behind me... and all at once I was distracted, knowing that I had unwillingly brought some other unfortunate soul onto my suicide mission.
I slowed the ship in midair and turned slowly, half-expecting to see Phineas... or stubborn Maurice... Cal, any of my fool companions, all who were fearless enough to laugh in the face of death.
Yet the man who stood behind me was Raphael.
"Damnit, when I said noone, I meant..." I began, turning to face him. "Raphael?"
"I know what you're doing." He smiled faintly, interrupting me, putting a finger to my lips. "You are crazy."
"Then you must know you can't stop me." I shook my head and pulled away.
"I'm not here to stop you." Raphael sighed. "Brin told me last night... she collapsed and confessed everything. Or at least everything she knew, which I gather is something of a fragmented story."
"You... know?" I shook my head. "But Goddess, then why are you here?"
"The fabric of time is a tricky substance." He explained, shaking his head heavily. "Your friend the Architect said that... well, it honestly wasn't what he'd meant but..."
"You know Cal is the Architect? Gods, Brin, how could you? Is there nothing she missed?" I sighed, on the verge of tears once again.
"Not much, I imagine." Raphael admitted. "And as far as Calvin is concerned, that was obvious. I knew him in the past, remember? Besides, he draws incessantly and I've yet to see him with his nose out of a book. And as if that wasn't obvious enough, you called him 'a friend of the Prophet's' in front of my face. That narrowed down the possibilities quite nicely." Raphael paused with a grin. "After all... Deiunthel only has so many friends."
I shook my head. "Raphael, I cannot let you do this!" Despite how wonderful it felt, knowing that, once again I had been forgiven for all my many shortcomings, it was then that the desperation hit me. "You shouldn't be here!" I begged him. "Go... go somewhere! Raphael, I..."
What could I say at that moment? The things that I had done, the battles I had fought since the end of the Dynasty, from the Etone War to Raedawn... they had all been... not for myself, no... but for the Empire.
"Raphael, listen to me!" I bit my lip, and then sighed heavily, unable to hold back another word. "I have tempted fate and embraced death only so that this realm might be saved, not because it is mine... but because it is yours, because you love it! Because what you love... I love." I turned away. "You must go."
"And let you chase down those planes on your own? No matter how good of a pilot you are now, you can't possibly fly and shoot at the same time, and if you don't have someone watching out for you, you're not going to get very far before you get blown right out of the sky. A waste of a good Spellcraft if you won't consider it anything else?" Raphael laughed. "How could I permit such foolishness? How could I possibly consider deserting you in this... your hour of need?" He winked. "You know me muchbetter than that."
"But you could..." I began, though I couldn't truly argue with him, not then. I sat down at the controls and stared at the bewildering mess of buttons before me. Everything I thought I had predicted about the war we faced, everything that I was sure I understood... it was all meaningless and foreign to me. My world had been turned upside-down once again!
"Raphael, you could..." I whispered.
"We could die." Raphael shook his head. "And imagine how ridiculous that would be! An adventure most worthy of our efforts."
"So." He sat beside me, steadying my trembling hand. "Let's "save the world", shall we?"
In all the years I had spent reliving the final days of the war, I had never once imagined that it would end in such a way. Raphael fired as I composed myself and flew the ship, trailing after the planes. Two of the Republic bombers went down and a third cut sharply across the edge of the world.
We were hit with a sudden burst of blue fire from behind, a B560, I assumed, the massive explosion taking out our mana converters instantly. The Hathor plummeted from the sky, scarcely level and then struck the waves, coming to a stop... still almost afloat, yet motionless, her engines fizzling and freezing beneath the surface. I scrambled to my feet and stared in horror as I realized that we were done for, trapped in the center of a ring of ice. The Ta'arI had sought stretched overhead, growing ever larger and more ominous, devouring half of the sky and bleeding towards the palace, a sea of fractal clouds and shadows. I concentrated, focusing my energy on a spell.
The wall would not break.
The city would not fall.
The war would not be lost, not so long as I lived!
And yet I could not reach my target, slow it down or command it to stop, I knew before I even loosened the energy I held in my clenched fist. We were too far away. I turned back briefly, unwilling to believe that giving everything I had would still not been enough to save the dynasty. But then, quite suddenly, I felt something behind me. It was Raphael, holding me close... passing along his own gift. It is said by some wizards that Menders have no talent for real sorcery. Nothing could be further from the truth! What is healing, after all, but the very greatest magic there is?
The spell that formed was like none I had ever before cast, no violent purple flames, but a steady sphere of white light, light of a thousand colors... a light so pure and good and whole I could not believe that I held it in my own filthy hand.
I gasped, turning to face Raphael, looking into his eyes. He had surprised and amazed me once again. Was there truly nothing that we could not achieve?
We were two sides of the same whole person, completed in one another, unified and strengthened by something beyond all imagination. What I felt then, I knew was the power that Phineas had once promised me would save the Dynasty. It was a magic never forced, never controlled but always present, a gift that I could not have touched without first learning the most important of lessons... how to simply letgo.
"I love you." Raphael whispered.
I closed my eyes, yet saw it all... the power we released, shooting through the sky like a falling star, the great darkness exploding into shards of silver… raining down on the battlefield where soldiers stared in awe.
And all the Tears contracted at once, closing and drawing their darkness with them. The Republic fled, and the I'Eloshir who still fought against us shattered like so many mirrors, blown into dust on the wind, leaving only their bloodstained weapons and silks behind.
The war was over.
The battle was won.
A cheer of joy rose from the gathered, thousands of voices all crying out in unison. They had saved themselves from a force that threatened not only their lives, but their futures, their legacies... a power that would have destroyed all it was that they stood for. But now... they had been victorious!
And in time, the world would again be as beautiful as I had remembered it.
Still, we were already caught in the currents of the edge of the world, Raphael and I. Ice shattering around us as we tipped sideways into oblivion, the waterfall drawing us out into space. Nothing mattered anymore, save that I was not alone. At last, I was reunited with the light in my life... a man whose very soul burned with a rainbow of a thousand colors, a man I could not help but love, and who saw in me the things I most wanted to create in myself... and in his own way, made everything possible.
There was a flash of brilliant white light, and then blackness.
I felt no pain. No a single moment of my long life flashed before my eyes, and I heard no chorus of singing angels. Mortals have the oddest notions of what death is like. To put it quite simply, death is like life… only different.
Really, I did not even know when I died. I still felt very much like myself.
Yet somehow... I knew that something had changed.
It was then that I truly awoke.
I found myself within the council hall of the Imperial Palace, standing in the center of the shimmering mosaic floor.
Nearby, where none such monument had ever been before, stood a tall marble sculpture of The Hathor rising above a rejoicing army. So many familiar faces were gathered together, engraved upon that stone, with their swords and banners raised skyward as the ship hovered above then all. My gaze drifted towards a plaque at the monolith's base, which read quite simply 'DedicatedtotheHeroesoftheBattleoftheFrozenSea.' It was followed by a long list of names, many that I remembered well.
There had still been a cost. Terry Mack had died in the battle, as had Duchess Rosalind. Kieran Falchon hadn't lived to see the end of the war, and despite our turning back time, the rest of Brin's extended clan had still lost their lives, this time in a mysterious house fire. But even knowing so that so many of my dear friends had passed on left me with a strangely calm feeling. The battle had been won. They had died for a cause, to preserve something precious to them, and for making such a sacrifice they would be forever remembered as they deserved to be, not as nameless victims of a senseless war but as heroes.
A trickle of light passed through the shifting yellow-gold clouds of the sky above, and the memorial sparkled in the glow of sunset. That blessed sign alone should have been a comfort to me, but I still felt that something was incomplete.
The room was empty.
I heard voices down the corridor, and the tall doors of the hall opened slowly, letting a fresh ray of brilliant light into the now-shadowed room where I stood.
My eyes quickly accommodated the change, and I recognized the two figures in the doorway. Brin Falchon, an adult once more, stood at the threshold attired in a beautiful ceremonial gown, embroidered with the symbol of the House of the Phoenix. She gazed at me with a troubled look and then turned slowly away. Beside her stood an old man in the robes of a Master Wizard whose familiar eyes gave me no doubt as to his identity.
"Phineas!" I laughed, so thankful that he lived... though I couldn't imagine how he had aged so. I paused, wondering why neither of them had spoken so much as a word to me.
"It's been twenty years." Brin sighed. "And still I think that I can hear her in this room."
"Not Raphael?" Phineas wondered.
"My uncle was always happiest in the kitchen!" Brin laughed. "But Artemis was different. She would never have been satisfied if she hadn't left her mark somehow."
Was? Was I truly dead?
A blonde man in blue and red robes raced past me without so much as a glance, and bowed before Phineas and Brin. "Master Merlin. Empress." The man grinned.
Brin blushed. "Oh, Bennet... please just call me Brin."
"As you wish, Empress Brin." He kissed her hand.
I nearly fell to the ground, but then didn't, suddenly realizing I had no physical form to speak of. Brin... the Empress? Was Raphael dead too? And if so, where was he?
"I'll hunt you down Bennet of Istara, Gods help me I will! Don't you dare miss another session of court!" Phineas shouted. "Young fool, he's worse than the Prince!" Phineas sighed.
My two friends vanished, and somehow I found myself in the center of the chamber once again. This time it was Geruth who stood in the light of the hall, his black shadow glaring at me, full of hatred and anger.
"Daughter... you are mine!" He roared.
I walked directly through him. Though I didn't comprehend how I knew such a thing, I realized that Geruth was dead himself, that somehow my arrogant father had lost his life as well, in the very battle that had claimed mine. But did he know that he had perished? Did he understand that he was dead, or was he in denial, as Zaeth, Orin and The Grandmother had all been? It didn't matter. In either case, he held no power over me. So many things had seemed so great and terrible, I realized, smiling despite myself. And what were they really... truly? Nothing but small hidden fragments buried in the depths of infinity.
I turned away from my old life and followed the stairs, though they were not the stairs of the palace. I knew where I was headed.
The Tower… no, the Temple of Raedawn.
The white steps beyond time and chance and fate ended abruptly, leaving me before the open doors of the sacred chamber. There was no longer any broken glass, and the Archives lay undisturbed. That foolish God-book that had ruined, and at the same time saved ... so many, many lives, lay unguarded, open for all to take, as if in this particular plane of existence no being had ever given a second thought to its extraordinary power.
I looked to see what I had written, amazed. It was a single word.
Before my eyes, the line that I had written melted into a short passage, written in a hand far more elegant than I had ever believed my own to be. I read the words as they appeared to me, slowly fading in and out of being.
AndIhope therecanbepeace within it.
How unlike me it sounded, and yet at the same time, how perfectly right!
The water beneath the hovering artifact rippled invitingly, and I descended into the pool, fearlessly into the unknown. Beneath the pool was a room... a room I recognized all too well as my wicked Grandmother's chamber. Why such an evil place awaited me after all that I had been through, I did not know, but nor did it seem to matter. I recognized the shape of a seven-pointed star on the floor and stared at the mark for a moment, not sure why the symbol I had noticed so often in Raedawn also appeared deep in the heart of Tirs Uloth. Was it the star of destiny, tying two worlds together... or was it something more?
Where were TheOthers? I sensed I would find them soon enough.
I looked up and stared in silence, not daring to approach the figure that I saw seated across from me, gazing in the other side of the seer's pool. Neither stone nor light, Inapsupetra sat awaiting my arrival. Her mask and robes were divided cleanly down the center, between black and white, while her blunted sword and her deadly rose lay quietly at her feet.
She stood as I came forward, and all around her was the sound of silver bells. "So. You've come at last."
"Why am I here?" I wondered. "If I am dead." I added.
Inapsupetra laughed. "You are not dead. You are immortal."
"But I did die! And I'm still myself." I argued. "I find that strange."
"Why so?" The Goddess wondered.
I shook my head. "I... don't know. It simply is. I am done, aren't I? I have done everything you've asked of me. May I go on now?"
"Where will you go?" Inapsupetra paused. I could not respond. I knew what I wanted... that was to be with Raphael, but somehow I sensed that my greatest wish would not be granted.
"I don't wish to linger here with the memories that I have." I admitted. "If I cannot return to what I've left behind, I would rather be on my way... another life, as the stories say."
"Another life? Honestly! Must we do this all again?" Inapsupetra sighed. The tone of her voice when she was irate seemed very familiar to me. "Where we sit now is a timeless place. From here you can see both the past and the future quite clearly… that is, if you have the mind to look."
I looked, but saw nothing… that is, until my gaze came to rest on Inapsupetra herself.
The sensation was unnerving. Inapsupetra's eyes were like two mirrors... reflecting the world, both as I remembered it and as I had hoped it might have been. I felt as if I were flying high above the many places I had witnessed in my life, the Imperial palace, Safehaven, Galwick's tower, the Fargrove's home, Gelthar, Phoenicia... and Tirs Uloth.
But the Old World I saw in the eyes of the Goddess was not the place I remembered. The sky was clear, the forests were green, and the oceans... yes, the oceans... crashed against the rocks of the long-dry shores.
"Are you showing me the past?" I whispered, awestruck. "Was this how my home once was?"
"I am showing you how it will be again." Inapsupetra replied. "Time is not a thing that charges blindly forward from beginning to end. It is more like a jewel with many facets. When you look into it with an open mind, you become capable of perceiving not only what isand was, but what might have been, and what may yet be."
"There is a balance which exists. Everything that is born, dies. Everything that dies is born again." She replied, as the space around us suddenly shifted and we stood together on a beach that I thought I recognized, though the time that I knew it from seemed impossibly long ago.
"You judge yourself by what you have not yet accomplished and fail to see that you still have such potential. Because you were unable to do everything you desired to, you felt as if you had done nothing. If you could not save everyone, you believed you could save no one. And so you came to drift in your little boat on an ocean of troubles. You refused to see that someone had thrown you a rope."
"Raphael?" I paused.
Inapsupetra laughed. "Of course. You reached out to him. But it was your uncle who tried to pull you in first… you simply weren't able to perceive his intentions. And then you met Phineas, Terry, Ruveus… Mouse! Allofyoubecame inexorably tied to one another. And what began with you now moves throughout the entirety of creation, becoming a ripple... a ripple that will spread from a single drop of water throughout the vastness of all the seas in all the worlds."
"We are one." She whispered. "All of us, everywhere are one. Knowing this when we die, we do not so much return to our Gods as we return to ourselves... and our source."
That was when the Goddess removed her mask.
I saw that I held the priceless treasure in my own two hands, though I did not recall touching it... and when I dared to look up, I realized that I stood on a beach alone.
Very slowly, like a morning fog departing with the rising sun… I began to understand. I saw a new star forming in the shadows of brilliantly glowing nebula, and stood witness as it grew old and faded, only to rise again from its ashes, a celestial phoenix reborn. All around I could see a great web... a web of the most perfect white light, its ties stretching out in all directions, touching each and every life.
And I remembered everything.
I caught Ireval's reflection briefly in the surf as I began walking in the direction of the sunrise. She smiled at me, and we melted into one another, form and shadow reunited.