Zada remembered—through the pain, through the tears, through a new and permanent blindness—how this had all started; with four simple words.
"Can you hear me?"
Even through her razor-keen memories, Zada didn't remember how long ago, exactly, she'd heard those words. She didn't remember where she'd been at the time. She didn't remember at what point she'd been traipsing the length of her hollow life. She'd lived so long in Inoptica, so long feeling nothing toward her fellows, nothing toward her House, nothing toward the blood spilled in the moon-strikes, nothing toward the old fables she had heard time and time again.
All she remembered was, at that point, she hadn't met Jondi—the brightest light in her life—but she did remember the surprise she'd felt the first time she'd been acknowledged as anything more than a hole in the crowd.
"You can hear me, can't you? Say something if you can!"
She remembered there had been no origin point for the strange voice talking to her, save for within her cavernous mind. She remembered those words hadn't been of disgust or vitriol—as most were when directed toward her—but instead curious, direct, and enthusiastic. She even remembered she herself had been taken aback from a response, at first, but the three words that left her mouth sealed what was to come.
"Who are you?"
She didn't mean to ask that—not exactly. The word on her mind wasn't 'who,' but 'what.' The voice speaking to her had not been Inoptican, hadn't been from any person she recognized. It was a voice that belonged to something utterly removed from any concept of 'person' entirely; a voice that whispered in her head, incorporeal and intangible as any of her own innermost thoughts.
Yet she still said 'who' instead of 'what' because that was what she'd trained herself to do. Everyone around her had always been a 'what' in the first place. Yet the strange voice seemed elated at being acknowledged as someone rather than something, totally oblivious to the hollowness of that sentiment as it continued to speak to Zada.
And even in its joy, its impatience to finally tell this new ear everything about itself now that it was finally being listened to—the great being speaking to her hesitated, as though unsure of where to begin.
"That's a good question," it said, as though it never considered it in those terms before. "Who am I? Well...I have a name. It's..."
The great being said a word, produced a sound Zada's mind twisted a bit in an attempt to recognize. It was a word from a language long swept away into dead winds, a word that hurt her mind somewhat to think about. She couldn't replicate it, not near perfectly; the closest she could get to reproducing it was 'krylyrk.'
But then the thing in her head—the thing that named itself the krylyrk—saw the way she strained at its name, and seemed upset.
"But...but," it continued—hesitating, stammering a little, in a way that made clear to Zada her own tongue was a challenge to it—"there's something else you might know me by. You know about the Watcher, right?"
Another, more religious soul might have felt a tinge of divine ecstasy in their breast, hearing those words. Another, more skeptical soul may have renounced them on the spot. But Zada merely blinked, neither impressed nor shocked, reacting no more to the god in her head than she ever had to anything in her hollow life before.
"You're God?" said Zada, with nothing more than trace bafflement. She remembered the way the krylyrk—the Watcher—had chuckled, quietly, at Zada's response.
"I'm a god," it replied. "You know I didn't create you, though, right? Something else—maybe another God—created you, with a shape and a name you've forgotten. But then you fell into here from the world you were created upon. And you changed to become who you are now. I'm...the one who brought you here. Or, at least, the mirrors I left on Earth did."
Zada listened impassively. The Watcher spoke of another world—that 'Earth' she'd lost all memory and conception of—with dreamy familiarity, It explained as though it had been ready to say this for some time; yet even now seemed to dodge full culpability for what it had done to her in bringing her.
This Watcher had brought her to Inoptica, consigned her to a life of being unable to feel anything true for anyone. She'd suspected some time ago this was what it was like for everyone in Inoptica, but she'd since come to the grim realization hers was a unique circumstance. A hell from which she couldn't be pulled from.
So she spoke again, and asked a question: "Why did you make me empty?"
The Watcher seemed taken aback. There were other questions on her mind, perhaps more objectively important—"why did you bring me here?" "why are you talking to me now?" "how are you in my head?"—but nothing else came forth.
"Did I lose something when I came to this world?" Zada asked. She could have accused just as easily; this thing had all but admitted its responsibility for the person she was now. But she couldn't say that for certain. "Or is something just wrong with me?"
She waited for a reply. The Watcher didn't seem to know what to say at first. Maybe this thing had come here with an answer. Maybe it had come here with an offer of revenge. Maybe it had come here to fix her, to teach her what all the others it had pulled into Inoptica felt. Then it finally replied.
"...I don't...understand the question?" the Watcher said, with such sincere confusion Zada gave up on pursuing the inquiry further.
"Then why are you even speaking to me?" she replied. She finally felt a dim, muted emotion; not anger, but a small whiff of disappointment. "Why are you here? What could I possibly give to you that you'd want?"
"...You can hear me, for starters," repeated the Watcher. "I've been trying for so long to regather the strength to do this. You're the first person who's been able to hear me since..."
The Watcher paused to ruminate something; and as it did so, the memories raced through Zada's mind.
A flash of fire and diamond. A gnashing diamond face and a blazing phoenix beak. The brief feeling of being sundered through—limb from limb from limb from limb—taken apart by the seams, pieces drizzled upon an entire world. Blood left to soak in the earth, a discorporate mind and a screaming voie trapped underneath with it.
Then silence—years of silence, watching, waiting—and then now.
"I am not the god of this world anymore," the Watcher sighed. "I am—but I am not. There are other gods, Zada, and two of them took my place. They ripped me apart, rained me down, and then they took my place. That's why I'm calling out to you—why I've been trying to call out for so long. I want to take my place back. I want to take my world back."
Zada's gaze turned skyward—like a small amount of the urgency in the Watcher's words, finally, had communicated to her—but even now she was scarcely roused.
"...So what do you want me to do about that?" she asked, bluntly. "I've never done a thing on this world that's mattered, my Watcher. I've tried to save people before. I've tried to do things—good things—for this world. It's never worked. Death follows me like a shadow. I don't know why or how it is you can speak to me now, but whatever it is you want, you've found the wrong person."
"Have I, though?"
The Watcher's voice did not sound so easily dissuaded. It seemed aware on some level that perhaps it had stumbled over its introduction. It was considering a question, one of the first Zada had posed to it. Zada felt as if she were being scrutinized under a great, watchful eye; yet no matter how much that watchful eye strained, it could not figure out all the intricacies of her being on its own.
Yet there was something else that was propelling the Watcher forward, a confidence it had in talking to her that genuinely started to take her off-guard. There was a bizarre kinship in its words, like it was familiar with the isolation she felt from her own people.
"I can't be quite sure if I've got the right or wrong person until I know who it is I'm talking to," the Watcher said. "And...well, I haven't given you much of a chance to tell me about yourself, have I? I'm sorry! That's right? I'm 'sorry' is the right word?"
The apology was meaningless to Zada, but she knew, from research, 'sorry' was indeed the right word. She nodded, tentatively, and the Watcher only seemed to eager to continue from that point.
"Like I said, this is the first time this has happened to me in so long. I've spent all the time I've been soaking in the earth doing what I do best; watching my ants. Your Houses you've all made are fascinating. Your cultures you've all developed are sprawling. The people you've all become...are extraordinary. You're not just copies of the people you used to be on Earth. You all fell through the mirror and you became something beautiful."
The Watcher's voice became quieter, more forward.
"But...I'm sorry if this is wrong, but you don't feel that way about yourself, do you? You called yourself 'empty.' Is that what you think you are?"
"I don't think so," replied Zada, with utmost conviction. "I know so."
But then the Watcher giggled, dismissing the hell Zada had lived her entire life in with a childish whimsy, and told her otherwise.
"No, you aren't. I can't understand my ants, but I can see what they're like. It's like...staring at a still picture, admiring its details...without actually understanding what it is. Does that make sense? You're not empty, Zada. I can tell; you're different from the other ants, but no one of my ants is ever exactly alike. You have subtleties to you. You have potential."
"I've hurt people," countered Zada. "Killed them and felt nothing. Be honest. Is that beautiful to you, my Watcher, or is that ugliness in its purest form?"
Again, it was not a barb, but a mere question she asked. Part of Zada didn't want to humor the Watcher's introspective on her broken being anymore, but another part of her wouldn't let her take any shred of her attention away from the conversation. Nobody had ever spoken to her like this. Nobody had ever seen past her facade and told her she was worth being as she was now.
The Watcher did hesitate, but only for a second longer, the vigor burning brighter in its voice. "No. Ugliness is many things. Ugliness is ending a life and finding joy. Ugliness is bringing someone down and then never giving them the chance to get back up. But ugliness isn't a curse. It's a choice. Sometimes people come into Inoptica, ugly...but if they're ugly here, they're ugly on Earth."
"Is there ugliness on Earth?" Zada asked, trying, futilely, to remember anything about the world she'd originally come from.
"More than you could ever believe. No matter how many of my ants suffer here, in Inoptica, it won't ever match an instant of pain on the world I pulled you all from. But that doesn't mean Earth is without beauties. And that doesn't mean Inoptica is bare, either. I can't help who comes in through the mirrors anymore. I haven't since the gods who took my place ripped me apart. But I've been here long enough to see all of your wars and all of your fighting and all of your hatred. I haven't ever been able to understand the details of why you all kill each other. I never have and I don't think I ever will."
It chuckled, as though regretful of that fact—but in a way that it once again dismissed, shunning away the horror of its world to focus on what was beautiful for it.
"But that's why I like to focus on the good things. Because...all of you managed to come into this world, and you all managed to make lives of your own again. You managed to make things like—what are the words for them? 'Families' and 'friendships' and 'treasures' and 'heroism.' Even with all the...the ugliness, and the pointless pain, and everything the gods of fire and diamond want you all to suffer? My world is worth protecting. Do you think so?"
Zada wanted to assent, but only in some fear that if she didn't, the conversation would stop and she'd be left alone again. The Watcher talked about its world with such zeal. Its current, incorporeal situation did not damage its zest; it hardened its resolve. Somehow the Watcher had seen all the agony of its world from one end of history to the next and found a reason to keep smiling.
But none of those good things that the Watcher had described were anything Zada would ever know for herself. She'd accepted that long ago. A sinking feeling welled in her gut; the Watcher, indeed, had the wrong person.
Yet it continued to speak, to her, sure of its decision as ever.
"You might think there's nothing in this world for you. But there always is, and there always will be so long as it lives and breathes, for everyone no matter how different they all are. I want you to know that before we begin."
"B-begin what?" Zada asked, frantically. If the Watcher needed a hero, she wouldn't fit; if it wanted compassion for its circumstance, she couldn't offer it; if it wanted her, in any minute way, to protect this world, she would never be able to find a reason to.
But again, the Watcher continued: "I want to get to know you. There's so many wonderful little things that make a person that I want to ask about...so many questions I want to ask everyone would have a different answer to. But right now, I just want to ask two things. First...what's your name?"
All the time they'd been talking, Zada realized she'd never given the Watcher her name in return for its own. Her name on its own carried negative connotations throughout her own House; a name she sometimes wish she never had at all.
"I'm Zada," she replied.
"Zada," the Watcher replied. It liked the name; liked how it sounded, liked the suggestion of personage it carried, liked the idea one of its own ants trusted it with such a detail. It was such a tiny detail to her, but to the Watcher, it was one step closer to crossing a threshold it had never been able to breach before. "That's a good name. I like it. Zada...my second question, since I haven't talked to someone in so long, and since I'm not sure I will be able to again, for a long time...will you be my friend?"
She wasn't sure if she could have been. Not with those words alone, not in this scenario. But the Watcher continued speaking, and she listened to every single thing it had to say.
"I hope I'm using that term right...I've spent thousands of years watching you all, but there's still so much I don't understand. There's a great, cosmic distance between us. I'm not like anyone you know, Zada. I'm not a 'person.' I'm too...too chaotic to call myself something like that. I could never be a person like you. But I am something that wants nothing but for all the other people in my world to flourish, through the beauty and through the ugliness both. But I've got so much to learn about my own world and my own people if I'm to even begin trying to save it. And...you're the first person who's heard me since I called out. Maybe that means something, Zada!"
"But why? Why me?" she continued to press, still not understanding what someone like her could teach a god about all the beauties—let alone the agonies—of its own world.
"I don't know," said the Watcher again, but with perfect understanding of the question itself this time. "Zada...you said you were empty. You said you couldn't feel a thing toward any other living being. Right? Maybe it's not as simple as that, Zada. Maybe that's just what you've convinced yourself of. I thought I'd never be able to reach out to one of my little ants again...but here we are. Is the 'why' really the biggest thing to ask right now?"
The Watcher's voice became gentler, reassuring.
"I don't think things are as simple as you've made them out to be, Zada. If you feel incomplete...maybe you can complete yourself. Maybe you can find something—many things—about Inoptica you never thought were worth paying attention to before. I know you're not empty, because if you were...you wouldn't be listening to me right now. You don't have to be trapped like this. Neither should I. Maybe...if we get to know each other...we can help each other. And maybe, with that...I can find the strength to help save my world. What do you say, Zada?"
Everything the Watcher had told her raced through her head. There were things that should have been urgent she didn't register as such—she felt no immediate alarm at the fact that the world she hated so much was in danger—but there were things the Watcher had offered her that she couldn't stop thinking about.
It had spoken about good things, emotions and relationships and concepts she knew other, more empathetic people treasured. The Watcher didn't seem to understand these things on anything more than a surface level, but there was nothing superficial about the way it talked about them. It recognized the value of them.
She had thought she couldn't understand them either, that they were truly and simply incomprehensible to her, but now she was reconsidering. If a god—an alien deity, a being that didn't know rules or boundaries the way she did, a thing almost completely removed from her own state of existence—could learn to appreciate the softer details of its world, why couldn't she?
That—that, exactly—must have been what the Watcher had seen in her.
She answered—cautious, fearing her answer would be invalid simply by virtue of who said it—but then she spoke through trembling lips: "I'll be your friend. If you can help me, my Watcher, I...I can help you."
An eldritch emotion suddenly filled her from top-to-bottom. It was pervading; overwhelming; seizing her completely and electrifying her with an intense energy. She'd never felt an emotion like this before, so acutely, so powerfully, but when the Watcher spoke next, she realized what she was feeling—happiness.
"Thank you, Zada! I promise...I promise I'll make this worth it. I promise you...I'll show you the beauty of this world together. You'll show me the beauty of personhood. And together..."
"...we'll complete one another," Zada murmured to herself in the darkness, as the world screamed around her.
She was delirious of her own pain, barely cognizant of the way her breath rasped with blood with every breath. The ground was sticky and wet underneath her, the soil soaked in with blood, squishing entrails and the bilious fluids that bubbled out of them. She was crawling forward, one pathetic step at a time, one hand navigating through the bloodied ground and the other over her eyes. Everything was black and white and shapeless.
The very last thing she'd seen had been Wydel's invigorated look, spattered head-to-toe in blood from all sides. Twice Zada had used the seed-fang's presence as an advantage in battle—now she'd paid the price for it.
She didn't know what was happening to Wydel, or Ahandi-Jack, couldn't hear them through the roar of the ongoing battle and the ringing of her ears—until a piercing wail stung the air, a cry that unmistakably belonged to Wydel.
Zada had no idea where it was coming from in the darkness. The sounds of frenzied battle started to transition into something else; cracking and crunching, like splintering twigs and fracturing bones, trees breaking apart at the trunk. Wydel's scream filled the air, electrified it, infested it with its agony; and soon the world around Zada started to feel whatever unspeakable torture Wydel was going through.
Zada tried to cover her ears when more screams started over all the cracking noises. Wydel's scream was lost to hundreds; a choir of people, united in agony and howling out as one. The cracking and crunching didn't stop; the earth trembled around her, like the roots of the trees underneath were started to go out of control.
She didn't know why everyone was screaming; didn't care. The battle was almost over. She knew Jondi and her Watcher must have finished it by now.
She crawled away until the last sliver of energy had exhausted itself, and collapsed, riddled in wounds, her eyes bleeding out, her body almost overcome with shock. She tried to press her clammy palms back into the ground and push herself back up, but the vice enclosed over her body would not release. Sheer exhaustion weighed her back down, her lungs worked ragged from how hard they were working.
She laid there, on her back, as the world screamed and snapped and broke itself apart all around her; like Inoptica's bones were breaking out of place and its people were crying out in anguish in response to it. She took a dim second to realize the screams could only be coming from one source.
The other seed-fangs.
The smallest shimmer of an idea of what had happened to Lady Wydel crossed Zada's mind, but no sooner than it had, she felt a new feeling starting to overcome her pain; suffocation.
A pair of hands had suddenly wrapped around her throat. The ringing in her ears muffled a bit, and her rasping gasps for breath stopped. She couldn't see who was on top of her, but they were squeezing, hard. It didn't hurt any more than the rest of her body did, but she knew her aggressor only had one thing in mind.
The screaming of the seed-fangs did not stop. Whatever was happening to Wydel was affecting all of them. The earth shook more and more violently underneath her, the faint sounds of earth rupturing and tearing and twisting out of control present to Zada as the life was strangled out of her.
She tried to speak, mouth a word, but her lips wouldn't hurt. She tried to kick out, fight, even clasp her aggressor's hands, but her body was too exhausted to move. She laid there, unable to do anything but wait until her neck was broken or the last breath of life escaped her.
She didn't even know who would be the one to do the deed—until finally, a broken voice spoke out to her.
"...What...have you done...to my sister?!"
The voice was faint, but the words still simmered. The voice was familiar, yet almost totally strange to her. Through the delirium, the blindness and the suffocation, Zada mouthed out one word.
The Sprucequeen's—not Ahandi-Jack's voice, not Wydel's—roared out even over the outcry of her people. "What have you done?!"
The screaming became louder, and Ahandi's hands squeezed tighter, and Zada felt herself beginning to die—
—then there was a vague flash, and everything stopped.
A portal to the salt field still behind them, Jondi and the Watcher stepped out from Earth, back into Inoptica. There was one person the two had agreed on seeing first; but when he light-bent her to his position, he found she was not alone.
They all stood in the center of a blasted ruin that used to be the village of Oridian. Almost no structure still stood, most of the area devastated by the White Queen, even the cliff side shattered to pieces. Though the remnants of bodies poked out from the ash blanketing Oridian's ruin, Jondi was confident he'd seen most of its population escape.
Before him were Zada and Ahandi. The latter collapsed from on top of the former in shock as soon as they'd been light-bent. They were both pasted with blood, green and white and black, riddled in cuts from the battle. Ahandi looked more like herself than when Jondi had last seen her; the person before her was free from any trace of Trick-Jack. Bits of the mutation had still not gone away, though; her skin was still more red than green, not quite coral, not quite flesh and not quite wood. Her hair had withered and her face was locked into one expression. She looked as though she'd been stabbed, right in the gut.
Zada barely seemed alive. She had neither her right eye nor her left, the moon eyepatch gone, both her eyes blind and blood-soaked. Ahandi had done far more damage to her than she had to Ahandi. Even on the cusp of death, Zada was quickly starting to recover, taking long, shattered breaths in and pushing herself, slowly, up.
Jondi felt a palpable sensation within the Watcher—relief. He looked upon his former aide, his old friend, the one who had transformed him from a whinging drunk into a living god, and felt nothing. She looked pathetic, blindly stumbling up, her face a lost frown as she stared at Jondi and the Watcher with eyes she didn't have anymore.
The devoiding process had still not reversed. Even with the Watcher's mirth filling up every square inch in his body, Jondi himself had nothing more to feel for Zada, nothing more to feel for the world. She'd stolen something from him that had made him a complete being, robbed him of his ability to truly appreciate the world.
It had been, ultimately, for the greater good, but Zada had never accomplished anything without stealing first from someone else—lives, trust, and loyalty had been lost to her. The least keen on forgetting that, right now, seemed to be Ahandi herself, who was leaning back up on shaking legs, staring at Zada with fury.
Ahandi was wobbling, unsteady on her own legs, her withered hair blowing in the wind, even the anger on her face half-formed. She looked more confused than angry now, like she'd only now processed that she was herself again, or as close to "herself" she could ever be again. Her gaze slowly went from Zada, to Jondi and the Watcher.
"...Was it you?" Ahandi asked, in a quavering voice. She turned around to face Jondi, each step slow and clumsy. "What's...what's your name?"
"It depends who you're speaking to," said the Watcher, a voice too discordant for Jondi's elderly body to do anything but unsettle Ahandi. Jondi spoke, again, this time on his own, the voice in his head remaining quiet in the back of his throat. "My name is Jondi. The being occupying my body is the Watcher."
Zada murmured, her voice faint. She'd managed to get up to her knees, her gaze staring aimlessly, trying to pinpoint Jondi's voice. Her limbs shook as she crawled forward, blood dripping from her chin.
"Jondi," she said again, her voice a quiet plea. "Tell me it's you. Tell me...t-tell me you have my Watcher with you."
"I'm here, Zada," replied the Watcher, talking to an old friend. "We're fine. We're safe. The White Queen's dead...and I'm not feeling the Red King anymore, either."
A smile crossed Zada's face, the kind Zada was used to putting up—but now Jondi could see just how much torture it was to Zada simply to do that much.
A groaning cry from Ahandi caught Jondi's attention. He turned to see Ahandi falling to her knees, her face lowered. She was tuned out of the conversation, grunting as she tried to focus on something, her hands clutching the sides of her head like she had an intense headache. Her breathing was labored, and picking up.
"I can't...remember...anything..." she murmured. "Not clearly. I remember—I remember my people transforming. Into...into things they weren't. What...what have I been doing? What was I?" She whirled around, her fraught expression apparent to Jondi now. "...Where's...where's Wydel?"
Jondi didn't have an answer for that—but somehow, the Watcher did. It seemed like it was sensing something innate upon its world; a wound that had not been there before.
"The seed-fangs..." the Watcher whispered in Jondi's head, not daring to let Ahandi hear yet. "I can feel something happening to the seed-fangs, Jondi. Something from the Pane was left in Inoptica and it's spreading through them like a virus."
"Where is she?!" cried Ahandi, sick of Jondi's silence.
"...It's Trick-Jack's curse," said Zada. Ahandi shifted her frantic gaze back to Zada. The Watcher's prophet had lost her smile, her blind gaze now in Ahandi's general direction. "Forgive me...my Sprucequeen...but you remember that day in the council room, don't you? You remember Trick-Jack...taking over you?"
Ahandi clutched her head harder. Her face twisted a bit, as though attempting to recall the memories hurt.
"No..." she said, even though she knew exactly what Zada was talking about. "Everything's...everything's unclear to me..."
"You and Trick-Jack became one," Zada said. "Its blood ran through your veins. Its mind tangled with yours. Now...I couldn't see for myself...thanks to your sister...but I think what must have happened is Wydel did to you what you did to Trick-Jack."
"Fly me up," said the Watcher. Jondi quickly obeyed as Zada talked to Ahandi down below. Upon the great light-wings, he lifted up, and saw, over the broken cliff-side and the mangled forest, what was over the horizon.
Growing over the horizon was a massive, crimson oak. It was standing tall and gruesome over the ruined landscape, like it had raked away the life from the land around it with its clawed branches. The jagged wood making up the enormous oak tree looked made of dried blood; the leaves were bloody cerise; and rising to encompass it was a hedge of red thorns, growing out of control and drowning everything around the base of the crimson oak's trunk.
Faintly, Jondi could hear screaming.
He almost moved to stop them, but the sinking, despairing feeling the Watcher emanated from within him forced him to a stop. Jondi knew, by that, it was too late for House Dawn.
"They're not...even close to seed-fangs, or even human anymore," said the Watcher, horror in its voice. The earlier victory against the White Queen seemed trivial now. "Jondi, do you—"
"I see them," Jondi replied. If he could have felt horror, he was sure he would have; if he could have felt guilt at not being horrified, he was equally sure he would have. "Can you do anything?"
The Watcher tried to find it in itself to say 'yes,' but the words never came.
They returned to ground level. Zada hadn't been talking for very long, but Ahandi's expression seemed ready to blow.
"Something's happened to the seed-fangs," the Watcher said—vaguely, ill-prepared to deal with the grief this would incur from Ahandi. It struggled to find the words. "Something's..."
"...When you became Ahandi-Jack," said Zada, "the rest of your people...twisted to accommodate. Wydel was the only seed-fang who didn't. Now the opposite's happened. Hasn't it, my Watcher?"
The Watcher could say nothing. The victory seemed nearly hollow now, Ahandi's wretched expression now turning to the god in Jondi's body.
"What did you see up there?!" she demanded. "Answer me!"
"Your people are gone, Ahandi," said Jondi—bluntly, to the point. "Whatever Wydel did to make you yourself again infected her and the rest of House Dawn. I don't think they can be saved."
"...What are you talking about?!" Ahandi cried, totally failing to understand the severity of what Jondi was talking about. Tears were starting to come to her red-tinted face. Each second she seemed to process more of the reality she lived on, grasping more and more that her sister was gone. "What...are you...?!"
She tore a bit at her desiccated hair, tuning out again and leaning to the ground, trying and failing repeatedly to wrap her head around what had happened.
"Zada..." spoke the Watcher, "what happened?"
Zada shook her head. "Wydel interrupted when I was trying to kill Trick-Jack. She must have drained that thing out of Ahandi, and..."
She frowned, and looked away, but Jondi saw only superficial regret. She was trying to force the smile back on, trying to find any increment of joy she could in this moment.
"But...we won, my Watcher. We won. Inoptica's free. We saved the world. We saved..."
Jondi took a look at the devastated village, the swathes of havoc the White Queen had left in her path. At best, House Dusk and the Bishops were lost and scared; House Noon was an unpredictable mob frightened into surrender; House Dawn was gone; and House Midnight was shattered.
"How many people did you kill, Zada?" Jondi asked, cutting off Zada from any other shallow self-congratulations. "I know—I remember, before you turned me into this...when I was still a bitter old brood surgeon and you were my smiling nurse, one of the ways you always used to perk my spirits was list all the lives I'd saved. You'd memorized them. Did you memorize the deaths, too, or were they always irrelevant?"
Zada opened her mouth to reply, but her response didn't come. Jondi had light-bent again; two solid white swords, the bladed ends of them now crossed upon Zada's neck. He forced him back into her knees, seeing her hollow smile fall into a look of true and utter horror.
And still, he felt nothing—except perhaps that this needed to be done, and if he still felt that way about it, it was a decision he had made with every inch of his remaining being.
"Jondi?!" said the Watcher, reacting in panic from within his mind—but it didn't react. Jondi's power over his own body was still absolute.
"Is this how little you've always felt toward life, Zada?" Jondi asked with the blades on Zada's neck, ready to take her head off with one stroke. "I've lived everything past my glory days with you, with your smile, with your words of advice—and my glory days have long, long been over. I've known you for my entire damn life. If I killed you now...I wouldn't feel a thing. I'd feel more at ease with myself than I would be before."
"Jondi, please don't!" cried the Watcher, from within his body. "She's—she's my friend! She helped saved the world!"
"She killed thousands," Jondi said. "I spared her once. It led to her shattering House Midnight. Zada, when you took away my feelings, you left me only with the core of who I am. The cold, hard truths and the beliefs I hold to be sacred. If I leave her here now...she'll end up killing someone else. She'll hurt more people. Death follows her wherever she goes."
Zada was not speaking in her defense. Something else dripped from her face—tears, tinted white from the blood, her head bowed low and broken between Jondi's blades as she awaited for the execution.
"Jondi, you can't, you can't, you can't!" the Watcher continued to protest, like a sobbing child, as frantically as it could. Jondi could feel it, fighting, within his body, trying to steer his blades away, but this was the one thing Jondi felt needed to be done with conviction before he moved on to restoring what was left of Inoptica.
He stared down at Zada, once again in the killing position, once again seeing no inch of resistance he could see from her, nothing more holding him back. He prepared.
And he turned away to see Ahandi looking at him with an expression equally as broken, equally as resigned.
"...Don't kill her," Ahandi said, quietly. "Or if you kill her, kill me. I made mistakes. She made mistakes. Nothing different between her and the rest of the people in this world. Nothing different from you."
Jondi held his tongue as Ahandi took a deep breath in. Again she had assumed the image of the queen, even though she shook all over and she looked ready to collapse, but she faced Jondi with firm, authoritative dignity.
"This must be the great vengeance our House prophesied," she said, in a low voice. "When the order of the Watcher is disturbed, the Watcher itself shall descend from the heavens and inflict its wrath upon the Houses. How very prescient."
The horror stirring from the Watcher was enough to force Jondi to let it speak again: "I was...I was trying to save you..."
Ahandi's expression was inscrutable. He couldn't tell if she was smiling or scowling, if her face was firm or just about to fall. He couldn't tell if there was anything hidden under the expression; an emotion, a look neither he nor the Watcher could ever hope to comprehend.
"Indeed you have," Ahandi said, in a calm and level voice. Then she turned around, and started to leave.
"Where...where are you going?" said the Watcher.
"My sister isn't gone," replied Ahandi, utterly convinced of herself. "My heart almost stopped when you told me so—but no. It can't be so. I feel her in the roots. I feel her in the earth. She is one with the Wilt, and so am I. My people—"
"My people still live." Ahandi turned around. Jondi saw she was smiling. "My Watcher. Thank you for saving Inoptica. Thank you for saving my world. The future is guaranteed, thanks to you." Her gaze turned down to Zada, her neck still between Jondi's light-blades. "This person—unfeeling, unrelenting, a murderer a thousand times over—you call her your friend, my Watcher?"
The Watcher lapsed in sad confusion at the accusation lobbed at it. Before it could respond—if it could respond, and Jondi wasn't sure it would have been able to—Ahandi's smile returned. There was an element of understanding as she looked at Zada, even though her eyes were thick with contempt.
"I envy you. I wonder what the world of the future will look like in the hands of people like us, my Watcher."
Then Ahandi turned around, and from the blasted earth roots burst upward to carry her up the battered cliff-side, with masterful grace.
That left Zada. Her breathing had returned to normal and her expression was still silent and resigned. The light-blades remained precariously crossed around her throat, but they had not crossed yet.
"Jondi..." the Watcher said, through Jondi's mouth but still unable to draw away Jondi's own hands. It pleaded, innocently, a sad failure to understand why its friend deserved death in every word. "Please listen to me. I know you don't want this. She means so much to us. To...me, at least."
"...What would you know about how much a single life is worth, my Watcher?" Jondi replied. "...My entire life was devoted to that. Or was that why you appointed her to watch me?"
"Jondi..." rasped Zada, taking his attention back to her. "Jondi...I told you. It was never as simple as you being a pawn."
The tears were fresh in her blinded eyes. Something about them bespoke a little more than emptiness—just a little.
"Just...do what you have to do," she said, sighing sadly. "I wanted to have a future with you, in some way...but...maybe that's just one other way I messed up. I'm sorry. Please believe I want to mean that, Jondi...please."
Jondi looked down upon Zada, taking a deep breath in, his hands still firm on the handles of the light-blades. The Watcher was quiet. The wind blew, but it carried nothing but silence in the blasted aftermath. He held his breath.
Jondi forced himself to wonder, in a mind that thought as objectively as it could—did she deserve it? Or was that just something left of a person he used to be?
He held the light-blades firm. Then, finally, he dispelled them. Zada took a wheezing breath in, and he, in turn, exhaled.
"...Thank you, Jondi..." replied the Watcher, in heart-wracked relief.
"It's not as simple as that, I'm afraid," Jondi sighed. He turned back toward the portal, a great tear in the skin of reality behind him. Right now it was cast over an empty salt field. He held his hand out toward it, and the image within the portal begun to shift. "I'm still forced with a choice. Zada—you saved Inoptica. For that, this world and its god will forever be grateful. But your methods inspired the death of thousands; the destruction of culture. Your carelessness could have swallowed this entire world whole. You were so desperate to find some shred of goodness for yourself you stole every bit of it from me. For that, I think you and I are unable to coexist any longer, Zada."
He took Zada and brought her back up by the hand. The image in the portal finally settled—a street of stone, painted by moonlight, in the midst of a city upon Earth. A world Jondi couldn't possibly comprehend; but a civilization that, in spite of everything, could at least care for Zada from now on.
Zada murmured quietly, with a fearful frown. "Jondi...?"
"I banish you from Inoptica, Zada," Jondi said. "I consign you to Earth."
He wheeled back, and threw Zada threw the portal. He saw her phase through one world to the next, and caught a final, frightened expression on her face as she hurtled to the other side. She was still reaching out, like she wanted Jondi to grab her—
—yet she said nothing, nothing but a small, surrendering frown on her face as Jondi closed the portal and sealed Zada out of Inoptica.
He was alone, in the ruins of the village he had crafted with his own hands, the wind still howling against the desolate forest. Finally, the Watcher spoke.
"Did you...have to do that, Jondi?" it asked, stunned. "She was done with killing. She could have lived a life here..."
"You're never really 'done' with anything as major as that when it starts, my Watcher," Jondi replied. "If I'd been born like this—this devoided thing I am, right now—well, I sure wouldn't be able to tell you that. But now...her legacy is already set in stone, my Watcher. And that's going to affect the future. Tell me, how many life lessons did she teach you? How much did she tell you that you accepted as absolute truth?"
"She wanted to be complete," the Watcher defended, quietly—less certainly. "She wanted to do something...good. Truly, absolutely good."
"Is there any such thing?" replied Jondi. He took in another deep breath, and looked around at the blasted skeleton of Oridian. "Well. Something good's been done, at least. Your world's still standing upright. Two monsters are dead. And we've got a future—people—to look after now."
Even now, Jondi had no idea what was coming next. The world had been saved, but that had not saved its future.
"...Zada made me promise that you two would be able to see this all together at the end," said the Watcher. "But there is no end. I'm back. I have a world to watch over. I..."
The true god of Inoptica almost seemed unsure of where to start, now that it finally had its world back, scars and all.
"...Giving me my body back would be a good start," Jondi said. "You promised Zada that much, at least. You need to reconstitute yourself."
"I do," said the Watcher. "Thank you. Jondi...thank you for this. There's so much about you all I still have to understand. So much I wish I could take back about all of this. But I'm back. I promise I'll make this world better."
"Don't promise, my Watcher," said Jondi. "Never promise. And you're welcome."
"Maybe we'll see each other again, some day," said the Watcher, as its divine essence began to leave Jondi's body. He felt his blood cooling down, the maelstrom of fantastic emotions dying down, the godly power bestowed to him starting to leave. "Jondi...wherever you go...whatever you do...even devoided, I know you're going to do great. Keep saving lives, okay?"
Jondi had nothing planned but.
The Watcher finally left his body, seeping into some other transcendent phase of existence entirely. He felt frozen-cold as it left, and then, standing there alone in the raging wind, he realized how numb he truly felt.
He took in a deep, shuddering breath, his mind coming back to Zada one final time. He'd left her with the knowledge the one person she truly cared for now felt nothing for her—but even then, he wondered if exile to Earth would be more of a punishment or a release. Earth could be nothing but flawed, like Inoptica, but perhaps what was returned to her on Earth would help her to move on.
Jondi hoped, at least, she'd be alright. Even now, even if he'd been capable of it, he still wouldn't have been able to hate her.
Jondi light-bent, back to the nearest Moonside village, back to where his people were congregating.
Batlord Avis had been commemorating the beginning of his reign not in the shattered remains of House Noon, but in a cloistered room in an inn in one of House Midnight's villages. The night the diamond serpent had burst from the ground seemed to have conjured a unifying peace across the land, a ceasefire in which the Houses had laid their arms to a halt even at the threshold of total war.
Or that was what Avis wanted to believe—he knew walking into the Midnight village and seeing it still intact after so long meant the White Queen could only be dead. What unnerved him more was the prospect of his own day-vamps in the village in the same vicinity as the night-claws Raphandas would be reintroducing into Inoptica.
Raphandas had made the decision on his own. The majority of the night-claws had evacuated House Dusk under the guidance of the Bishops before the battle had truly started. There was tell of old and ruined things hidden deep within the desert of glass, skeletons of things called 'cities'. Perhaps, on Earth, they flourished; but in Inoptica, the best they could be was temporary refuge. There was nothing past the Wilt that could sustain a living soul, and even when Raphandas had first left with a spark of confidence in his eyes, Avis feared he was walking into his own death.
He didn't know how long he'd been sequestered in his private room, barely daring to stare outside the window, before the first racing shadows first came into the village. He had only seen glimpses of the other day-vamps in the village from his room, fleeting and troubled looks on all of them. For every soldier press-ganged into Talvor's crusade against their will, there were others personally raised by Talvor himself. Kryce had always been the most rabid of them, but a bloodbath may have been inevitable. The night-claws, against all odds, had survived.
Avis turned to the sound of a familiar voice. There were other shadows racing into his room, too, and from each of them came forth one of the night-claw children he'd saved. Shyla was standing by the door, a quiet smile in her face.
Beside her, looking as contemplative as he ever had, was Raphandas.
Avis silently turned from the window as Milivis left Raphandas' side and made over to Avis, quickly taking him in a hug. It stung a bit from all his lingering wounds, but the warmth stirring within it overrode it.
"I knew you'd come back," Shyla said, a sharp sob in her breath. More night-claw children came into the room, into the hall outside, until every one of the children Avis had saved was there to see their adoptive brother safe. Avis let them linger in comforted silence for a long while before Raphandas spoke.
"Sometimes, even what you see with your own eyes hardly seems real," he sighed, his windy voice weary. He seemed ready to retire for the day. "You truly would call these children...your brothers and sisters?"
"The most important thing to a day-vamp is family," said Avis. "The most important thing to me is family. Without it...what am I but another weapon of war?"
He and Shyla looked back out the window. The clamor outside indicated to Avis there was a response in the village to the arrival of the night-claws.
"I'll already have to give the news to Milivia's brothers and sisters," he said, sadly thinking of his late sister-in-arms again. "But today...maybe today is the beginning of something new, Raphandas. I spent thirty years wanting nothing more than to destroy my own House. But my sympathies have...shifted. I think I would much prefer coexistence."
"Is such a thing possible among the Houses?" Raphandas asked. His gloomy gaze passed over the eyes of children who looked upon their Pitchwraith with veneration. "What you have created, Avis, is a miracle. But the world does not work in miracles. A message does not die because its author is slain."
"I know, Raphandas," Avis replied. "I know that better than anyone. There will be others in my House who won't let go of their hate. There will be people on your side who will never allow the rifts to mend. Peace might seem impossible, right now..."
Avis stared at the dimming sky. This corner of the Wilt seemed as lively as ever; the village was strung with the voices of night-claws, day-vamps and wing-sages alike. The seed-fangs were gone—even now Avis' heart pinched to think of Wydel—but right now, the seeds for Inoptica's future were being planted.
He thought of Kryce's face again, the way he'd quietly let go, and felt confident in what he had to say next.
"...right now, I truly do think peace is what everyone wants," Avis said. "At least for now. Will you join me to take those first few steps, Raphandas?"
Raphandas blinked his dark eyes, ponderously, before bowing his head. His raven wings unfurled and he stepped through the door to join the night-claw children and their day-vamp brother. Avis clutched Shyla's hand tight.
Avis Blinked out to the center of the village, where most of the people were massing. He saw rows of soldiers, day-vamps and wing-sages alike, many wounded but still standing, by the sides of the village's path. Other soldiers were undergoing treatment—which, Avis reluctantly admitted, he'd need himself after this was all done—by brood-surgeons. Wing-sage citizens, young and old, held by the sidelines, most remaining within their houses.
Atop a balcony, wings of light spread out behind him, was Jondi. He had a somewhat different look to him; more stoic, less anxious, an uncanny calm on his face. He didn't see Avis, never even looked in his direction.
Dark shapes formed on the path, and the night-claws began to return to Inoptica, among them Avis' orphans. He could see Shyla's face peeking out from the crowd, her eyes still on his. Many still looked wounded and crippled, fear on their faces as they returned to Inoptica for the first time in days. Leading them was Raphandas, and by his sides were the Bishops, speaking to the gathered people. More and more night-claws warped in, and Avis could see the exchange of glances between day-vamp soldiers and night-claw victims. He waited, his heart clenched, for any sign of violence.
But none came. Nobody seemed willing to fight anymore. Nobody else seemed any more willing to push the situation after what had been seen and done. Raphandas and Jondi masterful control over their people as Avis stepped forth to greet his own.
Day-vamp soldiers—hundreds at least—turned as their new Batlord came into their midst. He passed by scarred faces, by soldiers both forced into battle by Kryce, and others he'd grown up with in Talvor's own chambers. Even Talvor's soldiers seemed uncertain, some visibly bitter and angry with themselves, others quiet and ashamed. Some already seemed to have had their silent epiphanies; many others, Avis knew and dreaded, would not be won over so easily.
There was only one thing they all had in common; nobody knew what was coming next, least of all Avis himself. But the day-vamps were turning toward him, seeing his new wings and the power they commanded, a power exuding from Avis that had not been seen since the days Talvor had commanded his brigades.
With that fire, with a legion of expectant faces upon him, Avis had no idea what he was going to say until he saw Raphandas looking back at him again. He was standing over his own people, his wings unfurled, and he looked as nervous and unsure as Avis himself must have.
Without a word, the two nodded to each other, and faced their people to lead them into the first steps of the future.
The only thing Wydel could feel was pain and loss.
She'd stopped being able to vocally scream when her mouth had filled up completely with wood. She'd stopped being able to move and writhe when her skin had ruptured to transform into a swelling mass of oak. She stopped being able to see when her eyes had burst out of her skull, her perception of the world now limited entirely to the feeling of the Wilt mutating around her, through her. She started regretting what she'd done seconds after she'd done it, even though she held onto one single thought for the entire duration of her final moments—she'd done it for her sister.
Yet those moments were not as final as she ever could have hoped. When she thought she was about to reach her breaking point from the sheer agony, the pain and loss only magnified.
There was no reprieve. There was no release. Her final voluntary act had cursed her to a worse fate than her own sister—and she realized, in her new, towering form, she'd dragged the rest of her House with her.
When Wydel had finally stopped growing, she was thrust and suspended in the middle of an agony she wouldn't have wished on Talvor himself. She could 'feel'—for a dim usage of the term—how she'd become a hundred feet taller, thicker than she had been as a diminutive seed-fang child. She could feel her thirsty roots digging in hungrily to the earth. She could feel horrific pain across every square inch of her new body—like the bloody oak she'd been warped into was comprised of nothing but tortured, flayed nerves—the wind against her wooden body like teeth scratching through her skin.
All around Wydel, the seed-fangs were screaming, screaming until they could produce no more noise than she could. Their bodies were no longer humanoid; they stopped being coral, but they never transitioned back into their normal selves, and their bodies warped and twisted out of control. A hedge made of seed-fangs had wrapped itself around her trunk, growing out larger and larger and larger; and Wydel could feel, through each layer of wood, through each tiny stem, through each rudimentary root, that her people were in as much agony as she was.
It took her despairingly quickly to accept, through the constant, horrible pain, that this was her new constant, and she had nobody but herself to blame for it. The screaming of House Dawn stopped before too long, and in its place reigned a grave and heavy silence.
She'd done this to her own people. She attacked Ahandi-Jack in thoughtless panic, lost herself to violent desperation, and infected herself with the same curse that had turned them all into raving fanatics of the Broodqueen, degenerating further yet. She remembered every moment she'd seen Ahandi at her lowest, and realized she'd done more damage to her people than the self-loathing Sprucequeen ever could have thought possible; that even Ahandi-Jack itself was preferable over the new state of the seed-fangs.
Even when the sky had stopped storming glass and the rumbling of the earth subsided, no help came. Nobody came at all. There was no point to it, anyways, nothing that could be done; the surrounding area had grown out of control with her own people.
If she could have cried, she would have sobbed, but being cursed into the form of a tree left more for her to express herself with, nothing but the bloodied rot underneath her oak.
So it stayed like that. It was minutes, at first, then longer, as her people settled into their new, wretched forms, their agony universal, a dawning realization among the seed-fangs they would be stuck like this.
And all throughout, through the regret and the anger, the swamping guilt, through the hatred of the world that had forced her into this state, through the unspeakable pain and the loss, Wydel still wanted nothing more than to see her sister again. But Ahandi was gone. Ahandi had died, long ago, when Trick-Jack had killed her from the inside-out. They really were sisters; bound not just by blood, but by the way they had destroyed themselves.
All Wydel had ever wanted had been to give Ahandi a world worth living in, even if just barely.
She was coming to terms with that—or she thought she was—before she suddenly felt a hand upon her trunk.
She could not see, but she could feel; felt a presence in the earth before her, a pair of feet crushed into the ground before her. She felt a hand coursing over her crimson oak, tracing over it gently, with the care of a Sprucequeen running her fingers through her little sister's hair.
"Can you hear me, Wydel?"
She heard—felt—a voice, resonating through the bark, into whatever shreds left of what Wydel called a soul. The words were faint, clotted, like they'd been drowned in sap, but Wydel listened, strained as hard as she could to hear.
"Wydel..." said the voice—comforting, soft, as gentle as a lullaby—to the monstrous thing that had once been Wydel. "I know you can hear me. I know you can feel me, sister."
The voice kept talking to her, calling the abomination that had once been Wydel 'sister'—spoke like she was familiar with her. But that was impossible; Ahandi was gone, wasn't she?
"You've been so brave," said the voice—starting to break a bit, starting to become tearful. "You've gone through so much, sister. You've done so much for me. You've always, always been there for me, no matter what..."
The voice stopped on its own tears, fighting them, trying to speak clearly through them; every word was full of pain, full of self-loathing. It spoke as though it were as much pain as Wydel—but how could that be possible? How could it hurt like she was, and still have the will to speak?
"I'm sorry," it wept. "I'm sorry for everything, sister. I'm sorry what I made you become. I'm sorry about who you had to look up to. This world's always been broken, Wydel, but we've always been together to look to the dawn. But I don't know what the dawn holds, sister. I don't know where I'm going..."
The voice sighed. Wydel felt the hand upon her bark shaking, about to pull away—but it stayed there, unwilling to leave quite yet.
"...But...wherever I'm going, Wydel...wherever we ultimately end up...we won't be alone. I promise you, Wydel. You're still here. You're still alive. I know you can hear me and I know you're listening. It's not over, Wydel. Not for you, not for me, not for our people. The dawn always comes, day after day, and always we've risen to face it. I'm going to look for a solution. Or...at least, I'm going to look for a new beginning."
It couldn't be what—who—Wydel thought it was. It couldn't.
"...Wydel...I hope you'll remember. I hope you'll remember what it was like to be my sister. I know you'll be able to hold on through whatever the future has for us. You always had the strength I didn't. You saved me, Wydel. And...even if I can't save you, Wydel, or my own people...I want you to remember my face, Wydel. I want you to remember the life we had. Because one day...we'll reach the dawn together, and you'll see my face again. No matter what...there will always be a warm hand waiting for yours, Wydel. Always."
Wydel finally remembered the face she was looking for in her fractured mind, realized who exactly was talking to her. She realized who was standing there, by her trunk, saying not 'goodbye' but 'until next time' with a heavy heart. She realized, finally, what she'd managed to accomplish, and tried to scream out a reply, through the mouth she no longer had—
—but then the hand slipped away, the voice went quiet, and the footsteps walked away, and Wydel was again left alone in her pain and loss.
And she was sure the dawn must have only ever been a dream, a dream she woke up from to face her new and painful future ahead.