Lyra sat near the edge of a lake, a small paper boat in her hands. The lake was back from the edge of the cliff that housed the temple of Aael, and she was sure she would be alone for a while. Everyone else was preparing for the inevitable attack. She knew she should be with them, but she needed to say goodbye first. She sat down and held the boat in her lap, closing her eyes and offering a silent prayer. Then she held up the boat and whispered to it.
“Maryza al Martene, Lady Commander of the Legion, Mistress of Magic, hero,” she drew a shuddering breath, “and the last family I had left in the world.” She kissed the fragile paper boat, then placed it gently in the water, letting it float away. “May your death redeem the mistakes you made in life, and may your victories be written across the heavens.” A light breeze blew the boat out to the middle of the lake, where water bubbling up from the spring that fed the lake splashed over the side and soaked the paper. Lyra watched until the boat sank completely, then stood, wiped the dirt from her pants, and walked into the temple.
The temple itself was nearly empty, as was the village. Most had been evacuated to the Secret Cities, as they’d come to be called, but those able and willing to fight had remained behind. Barda and Jaxon had returned from their mission, as there were precious few people left for her to sing the song of sanctuary to, and nearly all the remaining sky ships were moored at the cliff’s edge. They were waiting on the Skybreaker, which was transporting Athos and his new army from the Cities. They all knew an assault on the Sanctuary was imminent, and they intended to meet it in force.
Loren looked over at Lyra as she entered, offering a smile. “Said your goodbyes?” he asked.
Barda, who stood nearby, joined their conversation. “Did you...” she looked away, embarrassed. “I mean,” she stammered, “that is to say, I hope she knew that I...”
Lyra smiled. “I think she knew.”
Barda offered a quick nod and wiped her arm across her eyes. Lyra came to her and hugged her, and they shared their grief a while, each crying one last time for their mothers.
“Okay,” Myselle said from the dais, “Skybreaker’s nearly here, and we’re getting reports of a massive force making their way toward us.”
“What kind of force?” Jaxon asked. “Humans? Demons?” He grit his teeth. “Nightwalkers?”
“All of them and more besides,” Myselle answered. “As I understand it, Jennix has Ancient Terrors walking with her army, plus she’s managed to find some Vothlanders to possess, and even got the remaining lizard clans with her.”
“Lizard people?” Loren asked. “I thought they were all hunted down after the Imperium fell.”
Myselle shrugged. “Scouts say they saw them, so clearly they weren’t. Anyway,” she went on, “even with whatever and whomever Athos is able to bring, we’re going to be significantly outmatched. I know Jennix has us beat for pure numbers, and we’re a bit light on magical folk.”
“What about the Ba’altuuri?” a Raptor asked. “And what happened to Gloriel?”
Myselle shook her head. “Gloriel nearly died at Azel’s hands, and the last I heard, is barely holding on. The Ba’altuuri are needed in the Cities,” she said, “and, powerful though they are, they’re next to useless in a fight. We--” her words were cut off as the ground began to shake. In the distance, they heard a roar. The ground continued to shake and the roaring sound grew louder, as the dread forces of Queen Jennix the Harbinger approached. “Well now,” Myselle said. “This is it then.” She jumped down from the dais and strode toward the main doors. “Come on,” she said.
“Are we going to die?” someone asked from the back of the group.
Myselle stopped and looked back over her shoulder. “Yes,” she said, “most likely to the very last of us.”
A murmur ran through the crowd.
“Fine,” Jaxon said, drawing his sword and joining her. “I’ll be sure and take as many of them with me as I can.” Barda’s heart went out to him. In all their travels across the broken world, they searched for his cousins, who had last been seen on the back of one of the massive dire wolves, fleeing from Azel’s arrival. They never found the girls, and Barda knew he blamed himself. She had assured him the wolves would care for the girls as though they were their own cubs, but he took little comfort from that.
Jaxon and Barda followed Myselle out the door. After a moment, the rest of the group followed as well. They did so silently, knowing they marched to their deaths.
Queen Jennix stood at the fore of the barge, her great red sword resting on its point, and her hands resting on its pommel. The corpse of Jax Edison’s poor copy had been stripped naked and tied to the bow. Purple flames burned in her empty eye sockets and she screamed the endless cry of the Thrice Damned One.
Behind Jennix in the barge, various slaves and servants went about the tasks involved in running the ship. One such servant, an older man with no eyes, approached. He was naked, save for a loincloth, and covered in welts from the numerous whippings he’d taken since his enslavement at the Harbinger’s hands. He held out a tray, and upon the tray was a large goblet containing a thick red liquid.
“The blood of the last virgin, Majesty,” he said, bowing.
“Really?” Jennix sheathed her sword, raising an eyebrow as she lifted the goblet. She sniffed at it and smiled, then took a small sip. “Mmm,” she rolled the blood around in her mouth before she swallowed. Had there ever been a time she didn’t care for this taste? It seemed absurd. “She truly was the last?”
“Yes, Majesty,” the servant said, his head still bowed.
“I trust you bottled the rest of this,” she said.
“Indeed, Majesty,” he stammered. “As... as you instructed.”
She nodded absently, waving him away. Then, “Wait!” she called.
He stopped and turned. “Majesty?”
“What did you do with her remains?”
He swallowed and drew a shaking breath. He prayed for death, every day. In fact, there was little else he prayed for, but he knew death at the hands of this dread queen would indeed be far worse than life as her servant. “They were...” he cleared his throat. “Majesty, my most humble apologies...”
She turned and stared hard at him. “You burned her, or performed some other forbidden funeral ceremony?”
“Majesty,” he stammered and stuttered, sweat rolling down his face. “Please...”
“At least tell me you preserved her heart,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “Tell me you did that much right.”
The servant hung his head. “We... we did, Majesty.”
Jennix nodded. “I would have preferred a feast of her flesh tonight, but her heart will suffice. That said...” She took a whip down from the wall. It had broken glass and shards of jagged metal tied to its frayed end. Without warning, she gave her servant three lashes across his back, all without spilling a single drop of the blood in her goblet..
He fell to his knees, desperately stifling a cry. “M-my th-th-thanks, Muh-Majesty,” he said in a shaking voice. “Through your... your lessons, w-we will all buh-become b-better suh-suh-servants...”
“Mmhm,” Jennix took another sip, barely listening. She sat down in a plush lounge to finish her drink as her army of monsters made its way across the ravaged landscape of a world about to die, determined to enjoy every sip.
Soon, she would be very very busy. The last pitiful remnant of life on this festering boil of a planet wasn’t going to snuff itself, after all.
Athos stood on the deck of the Skybreaker, Captain Lienne Roma at his side. They flew at speed toward the battle they could already see as a great cloud of dust on the horizon. The roars of Ancient Terrors echoed toward them, and they could see the forms of the great beasts through the cloud.
“I hope your people are ready,” Captain Roma said.
Athos nodded. “This new armor created in the Cities should give them the advantage,” he said, “or at least even the odds somewhat.”
Roma sucked at her teeth. “Wasn’t talking about the armor,” she said.
“No,” he agreed.
“So?” she pressed him. “You think they’re ready?”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The armor should make them brave, at least at first, and I’m hoping that’s enough.”
“Enough for what?”
“Enough to stall for a miracle.” He turned and called up his armored forces. The ship was rapidly approaching the site of the battle.
Captain Roma laughed. “You think there are any of those left?”
Athos smiled without humor. “I don’t know,” he said, “but if there are, I’d say we’re due.”
To say the battle went poorly would be an understatement. Almost everyone was dead. Only Myselle, Barda, Jaxon, Loren, and a dozen soldiers were left, including a handful of Raptors. Two sky ships remained intact, and fired down into the attacking horde. It was the only thing keeping the beleaguered defenders from being overwhelmed.
Barda sat on the ground, Lyra’s head in her lap. The young woman had died minutes earlier from wounds she’d sustained fighting a rampaging Vothlander, but still Barda stroked her hair and whispered comforting words to her.
“Barda,” Jaxon knelt down next to her. “Barda, she’s gone.”
Barda nodded, still stroking Lyra’s hair. “I know,” she whispered. “I know.” Tears streamed down her face and she looked up at Jaxon. “I tried to heal her,” she said, “like my mother would have. I thought maybe...” she shook her head. “I...”
“Shh,” Jaxon put an arm around her. “Take heart in the knowledge that you managed to keep the enemy from claiming her corpse. But it’s no wonder you couldn’t heal her. There’s not a living thing besides us within miles of this place. I doubt even your mother could have helped.”
Indeed, where once the temple had stood deep within an ancient forest, the trees had all been burned, trampled, or uprooted within moments of the arrival of Jennix and her horde. Now all around them was little more than mud, filth, blood, and splinters. There were few bodies. Any who died became shadewights in service to their enemy, or possessed by demons.
Barda said nothing. She was unable to take her eyes from Lyra’s face.
One of the sky ships, the Bastard Sword, attempted a strafing run of the enemy’s forces. It was plucked from the air by two Ancient Terrors, who set to fighting over it like dogs with a bone. Within moments, it was in pieces, its crew and captain dead. That left only the Vanguard, with Trav in command, to keep the attackers at bay.
Loren and his Raptors made a defensive arc around his mother, their wings extended.
“Ship’s got to be running low on ammunition,” he said.
His mother said nothing, simply nodding.
“Any ideas?” he asked.
She shook her head.
All at once, weapons fire rained down from above, strafing the monsters and their corrupted human allies. Following the bombardment, a score of armored figures jumped down from a new ship - Myselle could see now it was the Skybreaker - putting themselves between her people and the attackers. They opened fire with an assortment of weaponry that had been built into their armor, and the horde was pushed back.
Before anyone could celebrate their good fortune, a demon Vothlander rushed through the barrage and tore through the armor of one of the new arrivals, then cracked open the chest of the man inside and began to eat his organs. Another of the armored defenders turned and put a massive bullet through the Vothlander’s brain.
The damage had been done, however. The armored soldiers were frightened, and began to falter. Soon, more fell, and eventually their number was down to Athos and barely a half-dozen others, who joined the Raptors in their defensive formation.
“Thanks for the respite,” Myselle said to Athos, who had opened the visor on his helmet.
“Wish it could have lasted longer,” he said.
“Why,” she asked, gesturing toward the approaching horde, “you looking to prolong this?”
“Have faith, Admiral,” Athos said with a smile.
Myselle’s only response was a derisive snort.
More demonic Vothlanders surged forward to engage the armored defenders, while Nightwalkers rushed after to feed on the rest. Everyone braced for the end.
Suddenly, a rain of sharpened wooden stakes came down from above and behind the defenders, spearing the Nightwalkers through their hearts and killing them. A literal rain fell then, and those possessed by demons began to shriek, while the Vothlanders’ heads were set ablaze.
“What?” Myselle looked up.
“Faer folk!” Barda smiled wide. “It’s a veritable army of Faery! Spirits of all four elements have come to fight with us!”
Gloriel floated above the tallest cliff of the Secret City, encased in a bubble of pure healing energy. Azel had very nearly split her open, and she was a long time recovering. The Ba’altuuri had taken her in and were slowly repairing the damage, though even their formidable skill was sorely tasked by her injuries. The process was very nearly complete, however, and Kinessa, one of the healers, was confident the last of the Celestia would wake soon.
Gloriel’s eyes snapped open, and at first she did not know where she was. The memory of her last waking moments returned to her and she began to struggle, fearing she’d been taken by the Thrice Damned One.
“Celestial, please,” Kinessa rushed to her, dispelling the sphere and allowing Gloriel to move freely. “Please, you are among friends! We have been hard at work repairing the damage done to you at the tree!”
Gloriel looked around warily, finally recognizing her surroundings and the being that stood before her. “You’re a... Ba’altuuri, yes?” she asked.
“I am Kinessa,” the other woman said, smiling. “It has been my honor to work at your healing.”
Gloriel smiled. “Thank you, Kinessa,” she said. “Now, tell me all that has happened. While I was unconscious, I received a message from Aael, but it does not make sense. I hope any news you can provide might help me decipher it.”
Once she’d heard all, Gloriel was less confused by the message. “This... ‘other Jax’,” she said. “Where is she? I think she will be essential in crafting the weapon Aael requests.”
Kinessa’s face fell. “I am sorry, Celestial,” she said, “but she died, soon after coming to us. She was attempting to aid in the rescue of some refugees, when she was slain by Queen Jennix the Harbinger.”
“What happened to her body?”
“As I understand it, her body is in Queen Jennix’s possession, and is currently being used as decoration for her barge.”
“Hmm,” Gloriel considered this. “That shouldn’t be terribly challenging. Where is Jennix now?”
“She leads an assault on Sanctuary - the old temple to Aael in the forest on the edge of Pash.”
“Very well,” Gloriel said. “Then that’s where I must go.” She smiled at Kinessa. “Thank you again, for the healing and the information. You’ve given me a chance to save this universe.”
Then she was gone.
Myselle, Barda, Jaxon, Loren, Athos, and their meagre army stood within a protected enclosure. Walls of stone and wood encircled them, with rings of fire encircling that. A moat of holy water surrounded the enclosure, and a tempest of wind formed another wall beyond the moat. The Skybreaker and the Vanguard floated above the enclosure, protected by the fire and wind.
An opening formed at the rear of the enclosure, admitted a dryad, naiad, sylph, and salamander, then closed again. The representatives of the faery army each went to one knee before Barda.
She stepped back. “Why are you kneeling to me?” she asked.
The dryad stood, a smile creasing his face, the color of which matched her own. “You are the daughter of the World Mother,” he said.
The naiad also stood and offered a curtsey, blue hair flowing over her shoulders. “She has commanded us to come to you, to pledge our fealty to you, and to aid your human friends as best we could.”
The spirits of air and fire both stood as well, but neither spoke. The dryad smiled again. “Here,” he said, stepping forward. “She told us you would not understand, and there would be little time to fully explain. Fortunately, you are of our kind, so we can do this.” He offered his hand, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Barda took it. He pulled her close, and vines curled around them, covering them both from head to foot.
“Hey!” Jaxon stepped forward.
“Back off, ape,” the fire spirit stepped forward, his hair aflame. “This doesn’t concern you.”
The naiad rested a hand on his shoulder. “Of course it does,” she said. To Jaxon, she said, “forgive him. His kind are quick-tempered. Please, be easy. No harm comes to her, she is merely in communion with one of her people. When they are finished, she will... ah,” she smiled. “And so it is done.”
The vines fell away, and Barda stepped back from the embrace, an odd smile on her face. She turned to Jaxon. “It’s alright, Jaxon,” she said. “They really are here to help us, and my mother has apparently become this... World Mother of theirs.” When he would have asked questions, she shook her head. “Later,” she told him. “For now...” she raised her voice. “Human warriors, stand ready!” Everyone either donned pieces of armor they’d taken off, or hefted their weapons. All took defensive stances. To the faer folk, she said, “Drop the shields.”
The shields dropped one by one, leaving them exposed to Jennix and her forces, which had taken the time to reform into lines. Jennix’s barge floated near the front.
“So,” she said, “the half-breed’s got some power to her after all. Still, you have to know it isn’t enough.” She sneered. “Are you ready to die, little girl?”
Barda smiled. “Sure,” she said. “Why not? But first,” her smile turned to a familiar smirk, “I’d like you to meet my family.”
“What?” Jennix laughed. “Your family is dead, you idiot child! You...” her eyes went wide and the words choked in her throat.
As though from nowhere, the Army of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water hurled themselves upon the Army of Azel. Within moments, Jennix’s organized lines were in shambles. Fire spirits burned Nightwalkers to ash, naiads soaked demons in cleansing waters, dryads pulled shadewights down into the ground, burying them for all time, while the spirits of the air lent speed to the sky ships, which were lobbing artillery against Jennix’s own cannon. Emboldened by their new allies, the humans launched themselves at the rest of Jennix’s forces, with those in armor tackling the Vothlanders and the lizard people. The Raptors took to the sky, riding the enchanted winds of the sylphs.
Myselle held back from the fray and tried to reach her husband on her wireless headset. “Trav?” she asked, “Are you there? Can you..?”
“I can hear you,” he said. “We’re having a hell of a time keeping these ships under control with all this wind, but don’t let them stop. I think if we can... oh hells...”
“What?” Myselle looked up, and saw one of the Ancient Terrors reach up and grab the Skybreaker. It threw the ship against the cliff hard enough to cause an explosion, which tore a massive piece out of the stone, allowing the lake to flow over the edge as a waterfall.
Jennix laughed. “There!” she shouted. “Your ‘family’ might be keeping my army busy - for the moment - but there’s nothing you can do against two Ancient Terrors!”
“Think so?” Barda closed her eyes, then raised her hands above her head. Two massive giants made of wood and stone rose up beside her, with water flowing over them, and fire visible through the cracks in their bodies. Steam rose from them where fire met water and they roared. Barda looked at Jennix and smiled. “Like them?” she taunted. “I call them Leviathan.” She looked up at the giants and said, “Now, would you two be a couple of darlings, and kill those Ancient Terrors for me?”
The Leviathan roared and leaped forward to do just that, soon becoming locked in furious battle with their massive opponents.
Before Jennix could reply, Gloriel appeared directly in front of the barge. “Excuse me,” the Celestial said, “but I need this.” She untied the corpse from the front of the barge and slung it over one shoulder. At once, the purple fire in its eye sockets died and the screaming stopped. “Thank you!” Gloriel grinned and leaped back, coming to stand by Myselle. She lay her burden next to the body of Lyra, which had not been moved from where Barda had left it.
Myselle didn’t notice, she was deep in conversation with Trav on the Vanguard. The ship was beginning to sink toward the ground, and it was clear it would crash soon.
“Air sac took a hit from one of the pieces of the cliff,” he told his wife over her headset. “Nothing to be done for it.”
“Well, get off the ship, then,” Myselle said. “Take one of the lifeboats and...”
“Can’t,” he said. “We’re out of boats, and if I let her go down now, she’ll land right on top of you.”
“Trav, I can get out of the way, and a Raptor can come get you,” she said. “Don’t be...”
“Besides,” Trav said, in a voice that told her he was wrestling with the controls, “I see a much better place to put her.” The ship began to dive toward Jennix’s barge.
“Trav, no,” Myselle said. “This isn’t fair. You didn’t let me do this, I’m not letting you...”
“You’re not in a position to carry me off the ship, sweetheart,” he said. He paused so long, Myselle thought she’d lost the connection.
“I love you, Myselle,” he said at last, “more than I’ve ever loved anyone or anything. Tell Loren I’m sorry, and that I’m proud of him.”
“Trav, no!” she screamed. “NO! Don’t do this! Don’t... please...”
And then the Vanguard crashed into the barge. The resulting explosion took out a third of Jennix’s remaining forces, while the defenders were protected by a shield of wood and stone. At once, pieces of debris rose up, coming to hover over Gloriel, who stood next to the corpses of Lyra and the ersatz Jax Edison.
“What are you doing?” Myselle demanded, heedless of the tears streaming down her face. “My husband’s body...”
“Is not part of this,” Gloriel assured her. As the two bodies rose up on either side of her, and the debris began to form itself around them, she looked over at Myselle. “Goodbye, Admiral,” she said. “I am sorry about your husband.” Then the odd conglomeration of wood, metal, and the dead settled around her, spinning rapidly. A glow emanated from Gloriel, and Myselle caught a fleeting glimpse of the Celestial’s true form before the glow spread to encompass the two floating bodies. Then the entire structure vanished, leaving Myselle alone.
She looked around, saw only death and destruction, then sank to her knees and wept.
Aael stood within the swirling vastness of a nebula and aimed Her gun at Azel.
He laughed. “Again?” He asked, incredulous. “I mean, sure, the suns do sting a bit, but I think we’ve established they don’t do much else. So, fine, if you want to empty your gun at me while you wait for this universe to die screaming, go ahead.”
“I think you’re forgetting something, Azel,” She said.
“You’re not the only one with a broken universe at your back.”
Azel laughed again, but the laughter died when Aael didn’t move or respond. She just kept pointing the gun at Him. “So, what,” He asked, “did you somehow manage to fit what’s left of that universe into your gun? Because you’ll do just as much damage to this one as mine will if you fire it.”
“Right,” She said, smirking. “Because I’m a complete idiot. Oh no, wait. I’m actually an omniscient supreme being, and the creator of everything. So, yes, Azel, I did manage to fit what was left of that universe into my gun, but no, this universe won’t suffer any damage at all. You, on the other hand...” She pulled the trigger, and an oddly-shaped projectile buried itself in Azel’s chest.
He cried out as elaborate pieces of machinery began to grow out of the wound to cover His body. The machinery was composed of equal parts wood, metal, flesh, bone, and pure energy.
“See,” Aael said, holstering Her gun with a flourish, “my old universe was already crafted into something that can travel into and out of the Conceptual Void. Thanks to sacrifices made by a few very brave souls from that universe and this one - not to mention a certain Celestial who had a bit of a score to settle with you - I was able to further change it into a weapon that will drag you out of this reality and into the Void, where you’ll be smashed back into your old prison. The force of that collision will then push the whole mess very far away from this universe. Trust me,” She said, “you won’t escape this time.”
“That... other... Jax Edison...” Azel grunted as He struggled vainly against the machine that was rapidly enveloping Him.
“Yes,” Aael smiled sadly. “She was never meant to be a credible threat against you. She was always meant to anchor this final weapon.”
“How did you know you’d need it?”
Aael grinned and pointed to Herself. “Omniscient. Supreme. Being. Also,” She pointed at Him. “Predictable. Bloody. Imbecile.”
“Anyway,” She said. “Goodbye, Azel.”
And then He was dragged screaming into the Conceptual Void. Aael extended Her awareness, and saw Him collide with the old broken universe that had been His prison, and then everything fell further back toward Idea Space.
“Okay then,” She said, fixing a wide-brimmed hat on Her head. “One last bit of business.”
Then She turned and walked toward home.