A short story by Sam Oliver
Weightlessness, a warmth, a queer floating feeling, as if enveloped by cloud- if clouds could be warm. A bubble surrounds her, and at its edges there are hundreds of other bubbles, floating, transparent, all visible before her eyes. Deep blue eyes with red pupils, half-open, half-closed, barely looking out at anything at all. Engrossed with something, with nothing, pleased to be here, pleased to be gone.
Something is eating at her awareness, some small, dangerous thing, something she can’t quite credit with existence. Her arms and legs float beside her, drifting. She turns, sculling with her hands, twisting around in her timeless bubble, in the warmth. Is she upside down now?
She stares out beyond the film of her bubble, of her life, gazing down on upon rows and rows of bubbles just like hers, transparent, showing things, green things, red things, yellow and white things. Blurry through the film, but nevertheless there.
And next to her bubble, something blue, like her eyes, something safe and separate from her.
Time passes, and there is nothing but the warmth. A flicker in her eyes, something changes. She blinks, eyelids fluttering, open, then panic. She flips herself, panic slowly fading to wonder, gazing out at the bubbles, really staring at them.
Green slowly forms in her vision, becoming trees. White becomes cloud. Yellow becomes sun or fire and flickers hazily, grey forming smoke. Smoke which she breathes in, chokes on. She coughs, and the bubble around her begins to crack.
For a moment she doesn’t believe that it’s real that it happened, and then, as her eyes open fully and everything dissolves, she really doesn’t believe that it’s real.
Wind is streaming past her.
She is falling. She doesn’t know why she isn’t screaming. Instead, she’s laughing, even as she tips, even as her eyes fall on the ground rushing up to meet her, even as she slams into the ground face first and her skull knocks against stone. Cracks spiderweb through it. The force of the blow seems to shatter every bone in her body- she can feel the tortured twang of nerves set aflame by her impact.
For an eon she lies there, facedown, flat, unwilling or unable to roll over to get more comfortable, doing nothing but lying there, breathing unevenly through bruised lungs and cracked ribs. Each breath sets her body aflame. But there’s a… a fierce joy in her, so great that it makes her want to burst out laughing.
Her hands- blackened hands, brown hands, skin like charcoal- press down on the ground, push her up to her knees. Her eyes, wide and aching from harsh light after being closed for so long, turn to the ground around her, marveling at every detail in the cracked stone surrounding her, and at the bruised and broken skin on her body. Her mind loves the pain- and why? A word comes to her- perverted? Is she some twisted creature, to love this agony?
She stretches out from her knees, then slowly rises to her feet on numbed legs. Her hands clench. Unclench. She throws her head back, gasping, smiling helplessly, happily- and at nothing, at the grey smoke surrounding her like mist, at the basalt beneath her feet. Her breath comes deep and deliberate, the stabbing pain welcomed. And another word comes to her mind, on the tail end of a thought so powerful it causes her skin to tingle all over. She shouts it, the word, a word in a language she hasn’t used in ages escaping all at once.
She spreads her fingers, standing up straight and reaches up for the sky, grinning. Every part of her aches, but her mouth forms the word again, whispers it. “Alive. I am alive.”
The euphoria lingers for a time, buoying her up despite her aches and pains. Then a cold wind blows and brushes her body, washing over her all at once and making her gasp with the suddenness of it. Without quite realizing why, she turns, and immediately her happiness is replaced with a sudden, cold fear.
The girl feels alone and she doesn’t have a name. To her the latter matters more, and she finds herself hoping one might solve the other. Without any real direction to travel in, she walks off, stumbling slightly, trying to find her balance once, and then twice.
Her feet trip on stones hidden in the rock, but as time passes she can find her way easily, one foot in front of the other. It seems as if forever goes by as she walks. Finally though, her feet take her to a part in the grey smoke, to a place where it suddenly stops and, not five feet from her, blue begins.
As the smoke hisses away from her and her heart thumps in her chest, she spreads her hands, and the grey mist around her rises.
To reveal a curtain, a wall of unending clear blue- an incredible, shining crystal wall of- water. Fear vanishes, replaced by awe- the wall stretches on into the sky. Every part of her screams that she should run, but the water simply stays there as if there is- some barrier that prevents it from crashing down on her. She can see it flat against something- the wall of water is pressing up against something it cannot pass- the wall before her, the blue rising into the heavens can’t fall on her.
For a time she simply stands there, gazing into the depths of blue, her heart skipping beats, then slowly calming down as she eyes it, as she gets used to the idea of it. She lets out an nervous laugh, a relieved sigh.
She works up her courage slowly, but eventually begins to walk along the wall- for it seems to stretch on into the horizon.
She reaches an ebon hand out to touch the wall as she walks, tentatively, and gives a pleased, wondering gasp as her fingers slide through something with the consistency of glue, and then on into the water. It’s cool- pleasantly so against the aches of her hand and wrist.
She leans forward, pushing her hand through the invisible barrier and into the water, up to her arm…
But as she does, she looks down into a murky shadow, a blotchy patch of darkness down below her, over the edge- edge?
The basalt here drops off completely beyond the invisible barrier, leading into nothing but blackness and oblivion. The girl shudders and pulls her hand back from the water. And no sooner do her fingers pass the barrier between water and smoky air something enormous darts up from the black, a blurry shape all dark grey, with white ivory teeth flashing at her in a savage, saurian grin.
The shape brings memory to her lips and lets it out in a stutter. She stumbles back away from the invisible wall, catching herself on her hands.
“D-dragon,” She breathes, to no one, to nothing.
Its mouth opens further, a long scaled snout, sinuous, lithely scaled, its tail stretching down into the depths, its eyes flashing at her, cold, cold blue in the clear water, making her shiver. And then it speaks.
The words are in her head.
“Little demon girl, you are lost and alone.”
For a moment, she doesn’t understand that it addresses her, and of all the questions she has, her first feels stupid the moment it leaves her mouth.
“You have horns and cloven hooves, a long charcoal tail and burning red pupils, girl.”
Its tone hurts her ears- its voice is loud in her mind and echoes around her head. And for the first time, she also can feel her tail. Her toes, which she’d thought were rather hard, are shaped into hooves, and her hand, trembling slightly, reaches up- she can feel horns, one above and behind each ear, curling around under them and ending in points. It seems odd to associate them with herself.
“Who are you?” She asks quietly, her voice trembling.
“My name is Ashrinael. I am the Lady of True Depth, the realm you attempted to enter.”
“Who am I?” the girl asks, then, pushing herself up onto her knees and gazing at the creature curiously- now that it doesn’t seem about to snap her up. “What do you want of me?”
“I have waited for someone to indebt themselves to me for a time- few brave the depths anymore. I have… a task which need be done, that I myself cannot do.”
The girl nods slowly. She doesn’t quite understand, but she feels a tingling in her limbs. Her gaze wanders up to the massive expanse of blue rising above her.
“What do you require of me?” She asks quietly. “And what might I take in return?”
“Daring to assume you are allowed to ask a favor in return. You are faster than the others. But that is not important- you will be rewarded. I shall give you a name as payment before you start your task.”
“Done,” the girl says quickly. She suddenly doesn’t care what the task is- she’s felt a, a burning need for a name for a time now. Since she dropped.
“I will take you to what need be done, girl. Are you brave enough to enter the water?”
The nameless demon stands, walking to the edge of the barrier, hesitating. “How will I breathe?”
“Are you afraid?”
“No,” She lies, the word slipping out sharp. Her whole body hurts still from her fall. “Of course not.”
“Then come, little demon.”
The girl takes a deep breath, lungs stinging, ribs aching, and presses beyond the barrier into the cold.
The water presses all around her like a vice- and a current tugs at her a mere foot away from the barrier. She struggles in it for a moment, panics when she realizes she can’t swim, and begins to sink for a few awful seconds. A blue blur arcs through the water, sending a barrage of bubbles into her face, and then something long and sinuous wraps around her wrist. There is a brief tugging sensation, and then, abruptly, blurred, fast movement with water sliding around her, over her, drenched, towed behind an immense blurry shape, so fast that the water streaming around her forces her eyes shut.
Her mouth opens and she tastes saltwater, loses air, feels it hissing past her in a stream of bubbles, and with nothing to cling to, she’s helpless to steady herself and stop its escape.
It goes on. Her lungs ache to draw air in.
Presently, it stops, and she dares open her eyes. For a time now she realizes that she’s felt nothing around her, no water. Just cool- then freezing, the wind taking the heat from her bones. And there is much wind here.
She spits out her mouthful of salt water, coughs reflexively, feels it dripping down her chin. Her lungs have stopped aching, and she realizes that she no longer feels the need to breathe either. She lets the breath out again in a rush, but this time doesn’t draw in any air to replace what remains. Her lungs and her chest feel empty.
Her vision, blurry with salt, clears, and her heart pounds at what she sees. The wind isn’t all that is cold here. She kneels on a plain of pure ice that stretches out, obscured by heavy snow mist. Something wrapped around her waist- blue and comparatively warm- drags at her attention, and she hears the Lady of True Depth speaking in her mind again.
“This is as far as I take you, Emberais. That is your new name- take good care of it.”
The tail unwraps from around her waist- it is long, tipped with a spade- and where it had gripped there are the marks of scales on her charcoal skin. As the last of it unravels from her, the voice speaks again before she can voice an answer.
“Wings for the dead, breath for the dying, souls for the soulless- you are not the only hope, but you are a hope, Emberais. You must create an imbalance in order to restore it.”
Then the tail disappears, sliding into a pool of water- she must have been pushed through it!
The ice surrounding it is warmer than it should be, so she lingers near it while she tries to get her bearings.
Just like the smoke, though, the snow surrounds her on all sides, and there is no way for her to understand where she is. Was she pulled up or was she pulled down? It seems a bit irrelevant, but she’s curious.
She can feel her limbs warming on the ice, and the sheer contradiction of it makes her smile through the chill of the snow on her arms and legs. Ice should be cold.
She doesn’t know why she knows that.
Emberais, as she is now called, stands. She flexes her fingers, stretches out on her hooves, wobbling a little, unused to the way they stick to the ice. Her eyes still burn from the salt, but no matter how she stares into the snow she can’t see anything. Still, she isn’t breathing. She should probably be dead, but she doesn’t want to let that stop her. She owes a favor for being taken here and being given a name.
Everything else can wait until after she finishes this favor, whatever it is. She steels herself, gathering her strength, staring out into the snow until her eyes sting. She takes a deep breath, out of habit, and steps out into the white mist.
A time passes. She doesn’t know how long. The dragon’s words are ringing in her head nonsensically, in bits and pieces.
Wings for the dead. Souls for the dying, breath. Breath for the dead? Wings for the dead, breath for the dying, souls for the soulless. Souls…
Eventually, she comes across an immense rock structure- it fades into view slowly, as she approaches, barely more than a hill of snow in the mist until it becomes apparent that it is open, and that inside it is warm. She is cold- Emberais can feel her frozen hooves ache in sympathy for the difference in temperature. Already she can feel her fingers melting away.
She looks down at her hands and gasps- her fingers have curved into wicked talons!
She stares at them for a few moments, then carefully steps into the cavern, and the heat. Steam rises up around her- she’s beginning to understand the pattern. First smoke, then snow mist, now steam.
It feels good, soothing away the ache of the boneshattering cold. It feels incredibly good, in fact, and it’s only when she looks down that she realizes the steam here is near solid, swirling around her, caressing charcoal skin, along tail and her arms, shoulders and calves with an almost impish purpose.
To her further shock, it forms a shape in the air- a pair of glowing green eyes and a mocking smile.
Outrage boils in her blood. She can feel it pushing the last remnants of frost away, and set a sick tinge to the pleasing touch of the steam.
“Stop,” She says quietly. The eyes, staring at her still, do not budge. Her heart- had she ever felt it before?- is not beating, but there is a tingling, an undeniable sense of power in her blood, urging her on. “You have no right.”
Her voice is steady, without a tremble. She has stopped as well, staring the green eyes down, taloned hands clenched, tail flicking back and forth without her really willing it.
A voice in her mind, slick and cool where the dragon’s was overwhelming. “Why should I obey you, little half-blood?”
A taloned hand rests on her hip while she replies, eyes narrowing, still staring steadily. Something makes her say it, and she isn’t sure why it comes out, but her lips form the words before they even enter her mind. “I bring wings for the dead.”
“You’ve come to set me free?” The voice is eager, but also taken aback, as if it couldn’t fathom her purpose- the purpose that had sprung from her mouth full formed. The tendrils of steam stop toying with her.
“I suppose,” She concedes, still wondering at her own words. Is that why she is here? But how could she do such a thing?
“HAVE YOU COME TO SET ME FREE?” The voice is unspeakably loud, and the entire cavern seems to quake, setting her aquiver, confidence shattered.
“Yes!” She replies in a shaky shout, above the rumbling of the cave. “I have come to set you free! I just- I don’t know…”
“You do not, but I will show you the way.”
“Can I trust you?” She asks, suddenly suspicious. The change had been so immediate it hurts her in her bones to try to switch from defiance to distrust. It’s moving too fast for her. “Wait-”
Her mind is set aflame. Her body- every part of her is jarred by something- something immense forcing its way into her, her head and body shaking with its passage. Her nerves are fire, boiling her blood away into steam- the steam that rises around her, dizzies her senses and rattles her bones.
She collapses to the wet floor of the cavern, panting, trying to gather her bearings and failing. Taloned fingers dig into stone with insolent ease, screeching as a razor drawn down glass.
The presence is there- slippery, cold, calculating- and dead. She can feel it resting in the back of her mind, and she feels thrice again as heavy as before, and thrice again as strong. Wondering at it, she finds- she feels– heavy wings on her back, feels her body larger and stronger than before, thick hooves now cloven and tipped with spikes that dig into the stone as her fingers had.
Her tail is longer now, charcoal still, but tipped with a red spade and with two long spines. The rest of her feels about the same.
Marveling at it, at the power as her tail flicks this way and that and she stands- struggling, spine curved slightly under the weight of wings that can’t be for anything other than ornamentation. She experiments with them, trying to fold them this way, and then that.
“What are you waiting for?” The amused, cool voice asks. “Give me wings, little demon girl.”
Emberais shivers. But she knows where she needs to go. First smoke, then water, then snow, then steam… She walks into the steam without thinking about it, and the heat dries her new, drenched wings. Slowly, the scales harden, and she can feel the strength running through them- ornamental?
No. Not a chance.
Gradually though, after what seems an eternity, she can see an end to the cave. Her wings, stiffening in the heat, fold as she stretches. Then unfold again, a dry wind blowing over her, boiling hot against her skin. It smells of spice- thyme, dried mint. Good, the voice whispers. It seems to be filled with a form of ephemeral satisfaction.
“Good?” She asks back, wonderingly. “I did nothing!”
You are the vessel.
“But what does that mean?”
You are the vessel!
Emberais sighs, hooves clacking on stone that gradually gives way into sand- pressing through another glue-like air barrier. Grinding hooves into grit.
Can you find the dying?
Emberais shrugs. “I found the dead, how much more difficult could it be to find the dying?”
And in her ears, an unholy shrieking and the screech of metal on metal is heard. Clangs, hisses, howls. The unearthly sound of combat whispers to her on the dry, dry wind. It chills her to her bones in a way the snow could never have done. But here she can see for miles, and the combat does not seem to be anywhere- just open plains of striped yellow sand for as far as the eye can see.
Impatiently, she feels her wings flicking, opening up, stretching out. Without warning, her heart jumping in her chest, they flap, reacting with her thoughts. If she could just fly.
And she does, her legs bunching under her, pushing off of the sand awkwardly, wings flapping down, fanning out- the ground drops away and she gasps, nearly squeals with a mixture of delight and stark terror. Her wings seem to know what to do even if she doesn’t, flapping once, twice, rising on a thermal. The rapidly receding ground vanishes from her mind, replaced with something else- a sort of abnormal determination, alien and foreign to her. She wants- needs- to go somewhere, and her wings are taking her there.
She doesn’t even need to think about what she is doing or where she is going. Her body makes all her decisions for her.
When it releases her, when her body is her own again, she feels herself touch down on stone, lime and rock together. Her nostrils flare, and she totters forward, then back, reeling from the smell of blood, rot and filth. It’s strong- so strong.
It makes her weak in her knees, but her hooves clack on the stone as she steps forward, staring into the sandy mist. Finally her eyes comprehend what she’s seeing, and the sight deadens her heart.
Men lie on the ground, sightless, soulless, staring above at nothing. Blood-soaked stone, cracked, hewn by blows from hammer or sword- shattered pieces of it lie scattered all around, glimmering faintly in the light of midday, in the heat of some glowing thing that scalds her back. Emberais steps forward uncertainly, kneels- with some difficulty, her hooves refusing to curl- next to one of the dead men.
Breath for the dying.
But these men are dead. She can feel them- they have no pulse, her fingers can feel no heart beating in their chests, their eyes are glazed. Yet the sounds of combat still carry to her ears. She pushes herself to her feet, standing again. She leans down, stooping to pick up a dropped hammer, but recoils, hand burning as if stung when she touches the metal handle.
Her fingers ache as she leaves it where it lies, wondering at it. Why did it hurt?
Breath for the dying!
It’s more of an urge, more of a need now. She stumbles off towards the sounds of battle, following metal on metal, treading sandy tracks in stone.
Her weaving path leads her to another clearing, stone and sand, nothing but stone and sand. Columns here, broken by some immense force. And two men, lying, glaring hatred at one another, weak and snapped hatred, but hatred all the same. Both have clapped hands to what can only be mortal wounds- the blood, the ragged, shallow breaths that pass their lips.
They freeze, though, almost in unison, turning their respective gazes to her with fear.
She walks closer, stands directly between them- they each sit with a back to a column, one with hand to chest, the other with fingers to his shoulder. Red drips down arm and belly respectively.
She can scent death on both of them, can smell it, almost taste it, and can feel the presence in her mind- the dead- yearning for them. She swallows hard, but fights down her fear and sits between the two dying men.
Words come to her, forced from her mouth by the urge in her breast.
“Two souls lie here in mortal agony, two souls. To one I give breath so that he might live, the other I’ll take as my own. Who will be a soul to the soulless, and which of you might live so the other will die?”
When the words are through, the force holds her tongue, and again she feels helpless, she is aware of her body fighting her, but helpless to stop it.
The balance must be broken before it is fixed.
“So ye are the judgement t’ be passed down on us,” The first says. She sees he has white skin, his eyes are blue and his hair as white as first snow. Wrinkles have only just begun to mar otherwise near perfect skin. His chest is a mess of red, and his hand is tense with pain. Weathered hand, veined hand, tired of battle.
Still, she doesn’t know how to- and cannot- respond to the man’s statement.
“It has the look of a devil!” The second hisses. She notices his tan-darkened flesh, the horrible broken mass of bone that used to be his shoulder and the wound on his chest also, a nasty puncture that seems to cause him immense pain with every drawn breath. His eyes are brown, and his hair is blacker than night. “Surely it is here for you, not me?”
“That no’ be my decision,” the elder one replies. “She be a valkyrie. Tis up t’ her who goes and who is left behind. Chooser o’ th’ slain, so she is. My part be over.”
“That is not so,” Emberais finds herself replying. “You must choose. What is more, you must agree.”
“Agree? To let some succubus wench of a devil decide my fate for me?” The man hisses.
“No,” Emberais replies stonily. Her voice is not her own. “You must agree with the man before you, your former enemy.”
She can say no more. She isn’t sure what she would say even if she could say something, but she does not like this feeling.
“Th’ day I let garbage like him decide wha’ our fate is t’ be is a sad, sad day indeed,” the older man grunts, laying back fully, wincing.
“Then you will stay here forever,” Emberais says quietly, and she realizes that no one forced her to say it, taking comfort from that. “You must choose.“
“Who are you, demon?” The black haired one asks. Fear makes his strong voice tremble.
“My name is Emberais,” she replies warily. “Or at least, I am called Emberais. Who are you two, and what brought you to fight?”
“I be called Soulshatter, the White Hand,” the white haired man states, and for a moment he seems to regain some of his composure. “Champion o’ the Frozen Halls. My true name be yours already, aye?”
Emberais feels herself nod. And then realizes she does know his ‘true’ name- it tingles as it settles in her mind. “It is.”
“Some call me Bladebreak, the Grey Hearted,” the dark haired one says quietly. “I’ll not tell my true name to any demon.”
“You don’t need to,” Emberais says into the silence that follows. “I know of your true name already. All Carriers need to know this. Why are- were- you fighting?”
“Why? Are ye daft?” the white-haired man, Soulshatter asks sharply. “He be on th’ other side o’ me! He be th’ Champion o’ the Southland Fells.”
“That I am,” Bladebreak replies moodily. “You neglect to mention that the fight began because of your rather unchivalrous behavior.”
“If yer enemy can’t see ye and ‘e dies from ye attackin’ while he’s blind, th’ fault rests with ‘is corpse, no’ yer own. History t’ th’ victor,” Soulshatter grumbles. “None o’ tha’ “chivalry” shit. Ye know it all amounts t’ the same.”
“Craven bastard,” Bladebreak snaps. “You have no honor!”
“There is no honor in war,” Emberais says quietly, but her voice is lost as the two men fight, with words rather than blades.
Around them, the sand and wind pick up at once, blowing back and forth with each stinging volley. Emberais, caught in the middle of it, frowns at first, then as sand stings in her eyes and grit chafes at her wings, stands up and flexes them stamping a hoof, cloven points digging into the stone with a screech and a crash.
“Enough!” Emberais snarls, temper flaring. “Your arguments are both flawed. The land you knew is dead and gone! Here you are judged, and you behave like children!”
The air around her suddenly trembles with heat, the stone under her hooves smokes. “You are both near dead,” She says flatly. “You have not made any headway in centuries now!”
The knowledge comes to her- the dying’s eternal struggle with one another, the inability for them to choose- a challenge, an ordeal for warriors greater than any other.
“Before you give in and die, you must make this choice! Do you mean to run away, to postpone judgement forever?” Ember asks harshly, her eyes flashing. “If so, I will leave you to your respective fates now.”
This pointless bickering makes her angry- her angry, not the voice inside that seizes control. She had moved, had acted on her own. On memory that remains only as a blur…
Soulshatter stares at her, then stares at his feet, looking cowed. Bladebreak grumbles, but subsides, gaze falling as her piercing eyes meet his.
To her amazement, Soulshatter rises, leaning back against the column, sitting up straight and sighing heavily, raggedly. “Lass, ye strike th’ point squarely. We ‘ave been arguing for so long, be it any wonder the Fates ‘ave finally seen fit t’ send their angel?”
Bladebreak doesn’t respond, but she sees him lift his eyes, his mouth a twisted mess of emotion. He nods to Soulshatter, then shakes his head and stares at the stone again. After a time, he finds himself again and speaks. “When this- I can’t imagine being here forever. I suppose I always knew I was dead- from the moment I got this wound. I just did not think that I would ever… die. But I have been here with this abominable pain for what seems forever- I can’t remember when it happened any longer, and truth be told, I’d forgotten where I hailed from. Soulshatter has a much better memory than I.”
“Aye lad, but ye sell yerself short on combat,” Soulshatter replies, smiling a little. “Ye bested me.”
“No, I believe you bested me,” Bladebreak replies ruefully, smiling. “It should be I who gives this woman a soul.”
“Ye can’t mean tha’?” Soulshatter asks, incredulously. “She’s- well, ye know. She’s a she- er, no offense, yer angelship. Bu’ she no’ be of- her shell- ye canna expect t’ be you-! ”
“Souls are souls,” Bladebreak says quietly. “If mine is a price to pay for yours, then so be it. It is time to tip the balance, so to speak. It has been an honor knowing you, though I did not want to admit it. This demon- if demon she is- has… opened my eyes more with a few words than ever I could alone. I should be angry, but she is telling the truth. I owe it to her to provide wholeness now, a life debt.” He chuckles, coughs painfully and grimaces, hugging his shoulder.
“Do you find this agreeable?” Emberais asks of Soulshatter.
“Ach,” he whispers weakly. “Aye, tho’ it hurts t’ say it. I ‘ave no intention o’ becoming a woman. No offense meant, again, yer angelship, but I ‘aven’t got th’ courage t’ lose myself for ye, fer all that ye obviously be strong an’ brave. Best o’ luck t’ ye, Bladebreak of the Grey Heart.”
“Goodbye, Soulshatter, the White Hand. Good fortune until our paths cross- but truly, I hope they do not cross again,” Bladebreak says quietly.
Emberais reaches out, then, moving on instinct, and in a flash of light and a hissing, popping, crackling noise, Soulshatter disappears.
In her outstretched hand, Emberais holds a tiny figurine carved out of ice- strangely warm ice, that doesn’t melt in the intense heat. It is exquisitely detailed, a replica of Soulshatter down to the apologetic, slightly bewildered smile on his face as he’d disappeared.
“Keep it safe,” the dead whisper in her ear.
She turns to Bladebreak, who holds up his hands in weak protest, plainly horrified. “Where did you take him?”
“He is with me until he is to be reborn,” she replies, voice soft and soothing. “I have him here- see?”
She shows Bladebreak the figurine, but, far from making him relaxed, he seems to tense up further, eying her suspiciously.
“You’ve made your choice,” She reminds him.
It seems to ease his panic slightly. “I have. I am ready.”
“You are,” Emberais says quietly. She knows somehow- though she’s no longer questioning it- what to do, walking over to him, reaching down and settling her fingers against his forehead, palm flat against his skin. Black on tan.
There’s a tingling, queer cool sensation, and she closes her eyes but a moment. When she opens them again, Bladebreak is gone.
But she can feel him in her, dwelling there in a part of her, she can feel something- like an inner fire, an inner warmth that wasn’t there before. And the memory washes through her in a dazzling flood- violence, blood! Battle and glory!
Celebration in victory, a wife and children. Tragedy, deaths of the family, long, bitter struggle against the clans in the North, ice and steel leveled against friends….
She takes in a breath, stunned, and feels him- no, her- feels her own exultation at it, joy a hundred times more intense than at the pain of being alive, of being there. For the first time, now- she can feel her- her – thoughts. She can call them her own, rather than shades, half-memories. The feeling of the sand on her is uncomfortable- the wind beating at her stings like little specks of fire, her hooves grinding into the stone- it all adds into one true feeling.
Living. The pain is real. The memories are real. She feels as if she is here above all else.
And while she can’t hear his voice, his story lingers- Bladebreak is here with her. She hadn’t realized what he was giving to her- willingly or not. Now… she could never, ever give back what he gave up.
The knowledge makes her tremble.
Are there tears on her cheeks? Salt on her lips, salt and sand.
But something still pulls at her. Even with everything completed- a soul for the soulless, breath for the dying, wings for the dead…
She has one last task to complete, and it’s one which is ingrained in her very bones. Turning, hooves biting into the stone, she sets off into the grit again, following her heart.
The cavern is near empty. A lone desk sits in the corner, and the clerk is obviously busy poring over a book. Near the northern end lies an immense pool. It’s exactly what Emberais has been looking for. Days ago, she would be thrilled to have found it. Now she is simply tired. Too tired to even experience her amplified excitement.
“Name, please,” A bored looking woman asks of her, not even looking up. Reaching over, Emberais taps the sheet of paper, forcing the woman’s eyes up to meet hers. The woman’s skin goes white, and she fumbles. “Ah- you-”
“I am here to give my regards to the Lady of True Depth,” Emberais says quietly. “Tell her I have finished what she needed done, and that I have braved the bureaucracy of seven different Planes in order to find her. Tell her I wish to receive my reward now.”
“I’m a demon,” Emberais replies smoothly. “Carrier type. They don’t tell you these things, you know,” She adds grumpily.
“I don’t, er, actually know,” The woman says, one hand tossing golden curls behind her head. “I’m not, uh, dead.”
“Neither am I,” Emberais says cheerfully. She flashes the woman behind the desk a tidy smile.
The woman gives her a strange look, but then nods. Her finger traces a burning sigil in the air, and as the strange rune disappears, there’s a near instantaneous boom that comes close to rattling the walls. Some dust floats down from the cavern ceiling, and the clerk sneezes noisily, blushing and hiding her face. “She’ll be waiting,” The woman says quietly.
“Finally,” Emberais mutters.
A week of searching- to have the end in sight should make her feel something.
She walks over to the immense pool of water and, very carefully, sits down near the edge of it.
“So, my little pawn. Come back?”
Her voice doesn’t hurt the way it used to. Emberais folds her arms and stares down into the pool. She can make out the dark shape of the Lady- of Ashrinael. It makes her apprehensive, of course, but she doesn’t tremble in fear.
“I am no one’s pawn, Lady,” Emberais answers. She isn’t sure if it’s her newfound soul that gives her this courage, or if it is her own heart which strengthens her. She had found both in her journey, so why is she angry?
It had been what she learned when she started her search. Why did it matter what she did?
Because giving a demon a soul was unprecedented. Word of mouth had spread. Because her new soul was no longer allowed to enter the Cycle. The balance had been tipped, and then broken the moment she had taken her first breath. And the orchestrator?
Swam in a pool below her.
“Yet you have done exactly as I wished!” Ashrinael hisses, excitement in that cool voice. “With any luck, now the entire system may change! It must change! You cannot fix what was not broken.”
Emberais shrugs dispassionately, even as anger churns in her stomach. “It is not my business anymore.”
“Really? And where will you go without me to protect you? Do you think that you can simply walk away?”
A sense of motion, a startling burst of speed, and the creature hisses in front of her, snarling at her, the Lady of True Depth rearing up out of the pool with claws to either side of her.
Emberais feels small and weak- all of her trembles, but a part of her roars back.
“Yes!” She shouts back, so that the word echoes in the cavern. Heat flares around her, evaporating water as it cascades down over the Lady’s scales. “I do! My life! My soul! I will do what I want, and no one can control me or manipulate that! I am not your servant, and I am not your slave! I did this task for you, but I have found myself, and I will never lose that!”
Ashrinael blinks at her, tongue flicking out, serpentlike, smiling, sinking down onto her scaled elbows and staring Emberais in the face.
“Good,” The Lady hisses softly. “Go then, daughter, and be free.”
She slips away then without another word, the flukes at the tip of her long dragon tail slapping the water as she dives. The shadow of her disappears, swallowed by the inky black of her domain.
The demon girl, still shaking, stands and regains her composure. She’s about to turn, when she realizes that she never was given her true name….
…but it occurs to her that one’s true name lies with the soul they have. She knows the true name of Bladebreak, and, in knowing that, in knowing this one secret, and in being sent by Ashrinael- who is also apparently her mother- on this quest, she learned it- remembered and gained it- all on her own.
Emberais walks to the edge of the cavern and pauses for a moment, staring back at the clerk, who is reading her book, and at the silent pool of water. She doesn’t know what the truth of the matter is, but now she wants nothing more than to find out and to learn for her own sake.
With this in mind, she steps out onto the endless plain, and the wind below her accepts her wings as she takes flight- into the unyielding blue sky.