The world was empty. The world was dead. It no longer carried depth or color or shape or borders. All hills had been flattened. All trees buried. Every rock eclipsed. Nothing remained but feeling, sensation, visual input. There was purple and there was desert. A horizon kept them apart. It was true, then. The world had ended.
Cirian, Calimander's younger sister, had ascended. With her, the very last piece of the cosmos Calimander could still understand became light. She had shaken the earth and obliterated the sickness plaguing this realm. It had all made him blind and quiet. Every speck of rage he had once felt was now a thick coat of ash weighing down the atoms in his body. There was nothing to even scream. Cirian was gone. The sickness had taken her with it.
He had lost all names for everything. All the faces he had ever known were a blur that made them all look the same, like the one in front of him. Calimander could still recognize a nose, two eyes, two lips, a chin, two cheeks, a forehead. Bangs of hair fell over the eyes, glued to where the forehead dribbled blood from open scratches. The cheeks were filthy with dirt, dust and sand. The lips were broken and swollen and curved into what Calimander recognized as a smile. It was full of kindness and warmth.
He had let go of her name too, but he knew who she was. Somehow she was to blame. She helped. The sickness might not have vanished but at least it never would have taken his sister either. But Calimander had helped too. He, too, had been purely driven by instinct, by impulse, by prophecy. Prophecies were some of the concepts he understood the least. Fate was a nice sounding word but it meant nothing to him. That he had known, that his drive had been fuelled by nothing short of illuminated purpose, meant no more to him now than it had then. It happened. It was out. It was over.
"Calimander," the bruised girl in front of him said, still smiling.
He had gotten lost in the pastels of the world around him. Her voice was a song against the density of that silence.
"Yes," he replied numbly.
"We remain. Only us."
"Yes," again, number.
"I did not come to learn much about him in the end, but one of Graceheart's favorite things to talk about was how queer it was that the gods had placed all these pieces like this."
"Yes," a third time, numerously.
"He found it very curious, for example, that he was summoned from Essler to Gloria for Cirian Silward and happened to stumble upon me. At least that's how I remember him framing it. What a coincidence it was the old professor knew me, and what a coincidence that I was one of his favorite students after my mother."
"Your mother," Calimander repeated, trying to recall the face of his own.
"Do you know about prodigies, Calimander? Your sister was one."
"Is," he corrected her sharply, "My sister is one."
The bruised girl shrugged.
"I suppose that can still be true. One of the things I learned from the professor was that every moment in time exists simultaneously. He used to put it that we are like beams of light, piercing through the suspended raindrops of time, to form the optical illusion of a rainbow. Life itself is as deep, he said, as rainbows are deep."
"Deep," repeated Calimander, recalling the moment he unearthed the silverwork.
"He used to talk a lot about symbolism in his classes. How the idea of a rainbow itself can be used to mean something else. How the Cathedral used symbols to exert its power, for example. The professor asked us once, as an exercise, to ponder how space is distributed inside and outside a Cathedral. How the very flow of movement within the Cathedral was an exertion of symbolic power, since we always moved in accordance to what was initially intended for the space. He then asked us to imagine the Cathedral as a townhouse, and to me that was a shocking, almost revolting thought… I'd like to think I know better now…"
"Are you…" Calimander began asking before he had to blink for an elongated period of time. When he opened his eyes back up, he finished, "… still talking?"
"We have to talk."
"… About what?"
"Power." The bruised girl paused to draw in a long breath, added, "And what it truly means to relinquish it."
Calimander shut his eyes again. The pastels were making him dizzy.
"Power is control," he said, "Gil said so."
"Afergil? …His mother was sister to the woman who was once my mother. I liked him. They're all gone now, the Clovesons. I would have liked to be friends with Afergil. He had a good way of looking at things."
"I don't think I would agree with him about power. It's not control. Power cannot be summarized in simple words. That is one of the things I am coming to understand just now. The old professor had a point when he talked about symbols. Have you ever thought about how that is entirely how we communicate with one another? Be you a stranger to me or family, the only way I have to express to you what I want to express is through common symbolism. It is one way of looking at it. So words are just symbols, and so power is just a word. So power is, if we want to do the impossible and put it into words, a symbol. But what that symbol represents is something unquantifiable, something so inciting and seductive it corrodes the soul of the humblest person. Something that powerful, for lack of a better word, ought to be feared as a god. Most of us do fear it as a god. Most of us mistake power for divinity. But power is not divinity. Power is a perversion of divinity. A lie."
Calimander's patience was beginning to waiver. All he wanted now was to lay down and become dust. If he could have made himself deaf he would have, but he lacked even the energy to so much as lift his arms. How he was still standing he could not explain.
"All of this," he said bluntly, "We could fix all of this with enough power."
"All of this happened because of and exclusively through power."
"And we could fix it the same way."
"We could only pervert it further. Make it worse."
"Calimander, there are two colors left to this world. There is no fixing this. There is nothing to fix. We are all that remains, you and I. I think I am starting to piece together why."
"A higher power."
"Isn't that what you want us to give up? What you want to destroy? Isn't that what you want to bring us down to?"
"Destroy? Destroy what?"
"The very idea of power. You want to flatten the cosmos."
"Wouldn't that be an exertion of terrible power on my behalf?"
"That is my point!"
The bruised girl paused, blinked and breathed in. She pushed a fallen bang of hair out of her eyes.
"It is impossible to live in a world without power. We are subjected to forces greater than everything we could ever aspire to be every day. It is possible sometimes to communicate with these forces, to tempt their tolerance, like with gravity or space. Other powers, like time or death, are beyond us entirely. Attempts to bend those always bring about corruption. Often when we are successful in turning the tides in our favor through our very own influence, our idea of ourselves is validated. What we stand for is right. This by itself can be healthy, enriching. It is when we convince ourselves that our circumstance, our very connection with the tissue of the cosmos, has nothing to do with it that we begin aspiring to be gods. A god has no beginning and no end. It is there and it is not. A true god lasts eternal. It does not acknowledge death or time. These are the things we have tried to build in our every attempt at civilization. We refuse to accept our natural cycles, our phases. Everything about us must always last forever. Our very wish is to alienate time and cheat death. It is natural. As civilized humans, as beings capable of a certain degree of self-awareness, we do not wish to die. Somehow we have managed to convince ourselves we are the only beings who do not wish to die. But beings die all the time. They must in order for the air to circulate, for life to continue on, for evolution to occur. This is something we are never comfortable with. Death is always sudden, and it is always permanent. So is its sister, time. Their grip on our species is the grip of a god. They rule over us, and they do it without even knowing it, the same way we think we rule over other beings. But they do it naturally, without having to know it. We do not have that capacity precisely because we reject our very mortality. Someday, we will end. Someday, the world will end. It will come and it will be sudden and permanent. Here we are, Calimander. Now what is the use of power?"
"So what is the solution? To die?"
"Sure. When it is fit for us to die."
"And how are we supposed to know when it is fit for us to die?"
"Well, I suppose that depends on your connection with the divine. Do you believe your life is above all others? Or do you believe there is something worth dying for?"
"Cirian is worth dying for. Afergil is worth dying for. In some fucked up way, even the Moonlit is worth dying for."
"So then, there it is. There is room for us to agree here, Calimander. You already believe the same thing I do. Some things – some people – are worth dying for. For me, balance is worth dying for. The holy equilibrium of everything the gods have created is worth my life and more. We think ourselves too important in the grand scheme of things because we can be aware of ourselves, and we can make choices. And once we make those choices… we convince ourselves the reason we were able to was because we could, and not because we were guided to make them by our place and circumstance. These things are what the gods dictate for us, without even willing it, by mere virtue of existing."
"Everything that happens, happens because it should," Calimander remembered, the memory fading as quickly as it appeared.
"That sounds familiar," said the bruised girl with a sad laugh.
"You're saying the gods brought us here."
"The gods are giving us this chance to build a bridge, yes."
"A bridge to what?"
"A new beginning."
"But you're also saying the gods are the reason this all happened. You're… you're saying he…" The name was wrapped around his tongue so tight he could not say it. "You're saying there was nothing we could have done. You're saying this is the natural course of things, that we were just—"
That made Calimander laugh. It was an empty, humorless laugh, in the low octave of despair, just heavy enough to make his body tremble and give out. He went to one knee to keep from falling on his face completely.
The girl tiled her head at him. "What's so funny?"
"For all your talk of choice and self-awareness…" Another laugh crept out of him as he wiped a tear from his eye. "You're not really speaking for yourself, are you?"
The beat of hesitant silence from her was all the confirmation Calimander needed.
"Yes, now I am coming to some understandings myself… And it's funny how it's all so blurry in my memory but so present in my gut. You would call this a divine connection, wouldn't you? When your intuition speaks so loud you can barely hear any other of your voices, of your thoughts."
Again silence was the girl's choice of an answer.
"I was told to embrace what was happening to me once, and I can't say I listened. Perhaps if I had, all this might have gone differently, but how was I to know? I—well, I guess I should say, my vessel has never had any affinity for the gift. But here we are now, like you were just saying, the two of us. And you know what, Raelison? This that you're saying about place and circumstance, it really is clicking for me."
She took a step back as Calimander rose back to his feet, his chest scorched with the fire of realization. Her name coming to him that bright in his mind was further fuel to the feeling of having opened the door to some blinding truth he had been kept from this whole time. Perhaps even he had done his best to keep it unseen until the very end, though seeing it now was inevitable, at once terrifying and freeing.
"So what you really want," he went on, "or rather, what your gods want, what that power inside you wants, is to put me out. To end this."
"Yes," she said without hesitation, her face a solid mask of determination.
"And it's plain to see we are no longer speaking to a clueless boy, are we?"
"We are equals, Calimander. We are the two remaining atoms in the cosmos. The very last particles of a dying universe. We alone hold the burden of bringing it all back from the brink, of rebuilding it completely."
"In our image?"
The smirk he gave her tasted grim, rotten, ancient. Some sickness extended a tentacle in his depths and began to make its home in his ribcage. Raelison did not seem fazed by any of this. He knew she could feel it too, she could see it, yet her resolve was in no percentage deterred.
"Once we give up our shapes the cosmos will heal back. It will take millions of years, eons, but it will heal back. We will get our shapes back."
"The both of us?"
"We will not be the same people if that's what you're asking."
"But we will still invite the forces that animate us now, that keep us in this everlasting limbo, into our bodies?"
"If the gods so will it."
She took a step forward and immediately Calimander felt her influence, a silver cloud hovering over the sickness growing into his heart.
"Is this how you want to play this?" he asked, his smirk slowly coming undone.
"This is no game for you or I to pretend we are players in."
"Pawns or otherwise the power is ours to choose, isn't that what you've been saying?"
"What is keeping you so intent on remaining? If how you feel about Cirian and Afergil is true then where is all this resistance coming from?"
"I don't just speak for myself anymore, just like you don't speak for yourself either! That is where the difference remains. I have a choice, and that choice is opening the gates to something neither of us have ever seen or experienced before or allowing it to be put out under the pretense that everything will be fine if I do."
"You assume too much, Calimander. Don't be naïve, don't speak as if you are clueless yourself! In so many different ways we have seen what happens when you let power speak for what you want. Power does not bring about closure, it does not bring about life. At best, power emulates all of this, and you know it in your core that will never be enough."
"And how am I supposed to feel that you, with all the forces speaking through you, are worth the trust you demand?"
With that, Raelison hesitated. The determination in her eyes softened into hesitance, hardened into denial, melted into understanding. The silver cloud dissipated and Calimander's heart felt cold again, taken by a familiar form of darkness, though this time it also felt wrong.
"That's not part of you," she said.
"I know," he admitted.
"It's not yours to keep."
"And what am I supposed to do with it? Why do I have it?"
"I'm not any more qualified to answer for the gods than you are, Calimander."
"Every time I tapped into it, I… there was something grounding me. There was a reason I touched it. It's like you were saying, something—someone worth dying for."
"Or was it worth killing for?"
"Maybe that's why it chose you. To show you there is a difference."
"And Gil? And Cirian?"
"Cirian's always had it, and Afergil… Without him we never would have gotten to this point. We might not have been able to stop the doom from spreading. Had he not held it back, had he not seen me, found me…"
"Where is he now?"
"He was taken."
"Calimander, we can ask each other questions for the rest of eternity but we will eventually need to take a stand. We will need to make that choice. Mine has been made for a very long time."
"Easy for you to say. You've got prophecies speaking through you. That knowledge, I see it now because I am—I have… whatever this is. Without it, who are you?"
"Still only a vessel, simply an empty one."
"Purposeless, like me. And now I am fulminated with it, with intention, with the ability to actually craft weavings into being, to spin the threads of the world to the rhythm of my speech and truth. I can change this. I can undo it."
"You are so stubborn."
"You know, I have always been angry. I still am angry, right now, at you, at everything around me, at the fact every word you say sounds like defeat to me, like I found something I could finally do right and in the end I have to just give it up. And it's strange because when Cirian was born and my parents brought her home and she started wailing at the sight of me, I… I wasn't angry. At all. It felt like, well, she was crying out for me, not in fear of me. And our whole life there was never a moment I can remember being angry at her, ever. She always knew what to say, what to do, how to calm me down whenever something went wrong at the Moonlit or at home… It's so strange. Everyone I was truly angry at got what they had coming in some way."
"Do you blame yourself?"
"It's my job to fix this. It's my responsibility. It's the only thing I can do to make things right. I didn't mean to be angry at everyone and everything. My parents, I was angry at them a couple of times and I won't ever see them again. The Moonlit vanished. Bishop Petr Gimm, I got angry because I had to apologize to him for nothing that would have ever hurt him. I didn't mean to wish people away. Even your brothers, I… I didn't mean to do that to Alec. But then before I knew it I was angry at Gil, and now he's gone. And then, and you could really tell the world was ending if nothing else convinced you, then I found myself angry at Cirian. Now…"
Raelison raised a hand to thumb her bloody bangs off her eyes, the warm smile full of kindness making a return to her lips.
"So you see now that it was written in you as well the whole time."
"The whole time," he repeated numbly.
"The cosmos will heal, Calimander. But we need to relinquish what we've usurped."
"You mean we must destroy the vessels these powers have instrumentalized, and hope for the best."
"Do you think I'm not scared too? Death scares even the boldest, and I am far from thinking of myself as bold."
At once he was consumed with fury, with denial, with fire. Voices screamed inside him louder than anything he had ever heard before, and above it all a dark siren rose. Perhaps that was what ultimately led him to shatter the illusion. Whatever he might have sounded like at any point, that was not anywhere close. That was not him, it was not part of him. It was consuming him, filling his bloodstream with a rage that was centuries, millennia older than he could ever aspire to become, the sempiternal anguish of the powerless. Anger left a hollow that flashed full with fear as Calimander gasped, fell to his knees, began violently coughing. Something felt slimy in his throat and would not come out. The feeling faded agonizingly slow, leaving him wheezing for air for what felt like two or three season turns.
"I will take you, and you will take me," Raelison Gimm said as she kneeled beside him. "Without your consent, I cannot do this alone. But we must end this. Whenever you are ready."
Calimander supported his weight on his thighs and let out a sob. Crying did not help expel any of the despair contaminating his lungs, his chest, his throat and nose. Every scream died inside him before he could let it out, every protest, every counterargument. Being alive was the first thing he had learned and the last thing he would forget. The second thing, he felt now, was the exact shade of Cirian's hair.
"She had it again…" he heard himself whisper.
"Before she… when she vanquished the darkness, I looked up. Her hair was the color of fire, an ancient, ever-burning fire. Like our mother's." He looked up at the bruised girl with tears in his eyes. "She used to change it with weavings, to all kinds of colors."
"I once thought," Raelison Gimm whispered, "my brothers were clueless in calling her a heretic. I thought to myself, it takes talent to be a heretic. One does not become cut off from the Cathedral on light crimes. Now that I've learned what I have about Cirian Silward, I see why Alec was so frightened of her."
"They did horrible things to her."
"I learned my brothers were trying to burden your sister with a permanent arcanic weight, the same kind of density wanderers are branded with. The roving curse, we call it. They wanted your sister to be cast out by everyone."
"And they died."
"They died. They met their end, yes. You and I are left behind."
The bruised girl hesitated.
"Okay?" she repeated.
"Yes," he nodded, "Okay. I think I'm ready. You're right. This is not mine to hold. It is not me. I'm not… I'm angry, but I don't want to be anymore. I just want rest. I want Gil. I want Cirian. I want peace. I want this to be over."
The shadow of a smile appeared on Raelison Gimm's lips. "We can do this, Calimander Silward. Together."
A scoff fell out of him.
"Do you feel it? Do you hear that melody? It's very soft but it's approaching. Do you hear it?"
"Like the wind."
"Like the song of trees in the moonlight."
"I hear it. I'm ready."
She stood and reached out a hand. Calimander took it and rose to his feet.
"What if you're wrong?" he asked, emboldened by obscene curiosity, "What if it's not true and we just kill each other and then the world just burns on and on, forever, and nothing ever grows back?"
"I promise you, Calimander Silward," Raelison Gimm said softly as she extended her arm, her eyes glowing vaguely gold, almost amber. "Until every particle in my body dissipates…"
A black scythe appeared between them, its red blade like a single, sharp wing curving all the way down to the desert beneath them.
"I will carry that weight."