A pile of smoldering wreckage lay in the center of a ruined wasteland that had once been an ancient forest. In the distance, the remaining forces of Azel were being soundly defeated by the human and faery army led by Barda Edison. Her Leviathan had wrestled the Ancient Terrors down into the earth, and several faery had committed themselves to becoming the spells that would hold them there. Numerous demons had been purged from their unwilling hosts, and as the cloud-filled red sky began to clear, Nightwalkers were igniting every time a shaft of sunlight hit them. In the midst of battle, all the remaining shadewights fell at once, the dark power that animated them having been banished from the extant universe. As she led her army, Barda sang, driving out the compulsion that had caused so many living human soldiers to join the side of the Thrice-Damned One. This had the fortunate effect of increasing the young woman’s army, and soon the defeat had become a rout. Many demons and Nightwalkers would escape, but not enough to be of any significant threat.
While all of that was going on, the pile of wreckage shifted, and a woman’s bruised and bloodied arm emerged. It was joined by another arm soon after, then both limbs dragged the rest of the woman slowly from the pile. It was Jennix the Harbinger, and she had most definitely seen better days. She had used the last of the lifeforce she’d stolen, as well as all the power she’d been given by Azel, to survive the crash, and she was barely holding on. One leg was so broken as to be nearly shattered, an entire side of her ribcage had cracked so severely that it threatened to collapse her lung, and she would have suspected she had a concussion, if she’d been able to remember the word and what it meant.
“...my ...lord...” Her words were little more than a gasping wheeze, as she begged her infernal master to save her. “...where... did you....” She could no longer feel His presence in her mind. Unlike most who followed Him, Jennix did so freely and enthusiastically, so His absence was distressing, to say the least. A thought made its way through her brain. Azel had been defeated. He was gone, and could no longer help her. This thought soon met up with another thought that had been floating languidly about her mind, waiting for her to catch it. She didn’t have her sword. “Sword...” she mumbled. “Use... sword... get power...” As she pulled herself free of the twisted remnants of her barge and the former Legion flagship, dragging herself across the ravaged battleground, she saw her sword. It was right in front of her. Unfortunately, it seemed to be standing on its tip, which meant someone else must be... She looked up.
Myselle Wescott looked down at her, holding the sword with both hands. “I’m going to guess,” she said, “that you need this.”
Jennix attempted a laugh, but just coughed a wad of bloody phlegm into the dirt. “You... haven’t... strength... to wield...”
“Yeah,” Myselle said. “I figured that out. The thing of it is,” she went on, “I don’t have to wield it. I just have to pick it up...” she lifted the sword so the point of the blade was directly over Jennix’s neck.
“...nooo...” Jennix begged.
“And then drop it.” Myselle dropped the sword, and it sliced through its former mistress’s neck, severing the head. As Jennix’s head rolled toward her feet, Myselle kicked it away, not really caring where it landed.
A fire spirit was passing by, and Myselle called out to him. “Hey, you with the flaming head!”
He turned. “Yes?”
Myselle pointed to the wreckage. “Can you burn this down to nothing?”
The fire spirit smiled. “Easily.”
Myselle nodded. “Good. Wait here, if you don’t mind. I need to get someone, then I’ll want you to turn this whole business to ash.”
The fire spirit nodded.
Myselle glanced down toward the headless corpse at her feet, then looked back at the fire spirit. “Make sure this doesn’t burn, though,” she said. “I want it left out to rot.”
“Of course, ma’am,” the fire spirit bowed. He looked around. “Is there a head?”
“Eh,” Myselle waved her hand dismissively. “Somewhere.”
“Very good, ma’am.”
Later, as the sun was setting, Myselle stood with Loren before the massive blaze.
“Dad’s body...” Loren’s voice was raw from crying.
“I know,” Myselle said, pulling him close. “But I didn’t want to see what the crash must have done to him, and I especially didn’t want you to see it. Best we remember him as he was, and not have that clouding our memories. Besides, he’s sky folk, like us. He’d rather burn with his ship than wind up in the ground.”
Loren could only nod.
Mother and son turned, and saw Barda standing there. She, too, had been crying.
Myselle smiled sadly, and opened her arms. “Come here, girl,” she said.
Barda rushed to her, and Myselle gathered Barda and Loren to her and held them close. After a while, they all stepped back and stood together, arms loosely around each other.
Jaxon approached, coming to stand beside Loren, his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Did you tell them?” he asked Barda.
Barda shook her head. “No,” she said. “I was about to.”
“Tell us what?” Myselle asked.
“Well,” Barda said, “the faer folk have chosen to stay, and help us put the world right.”
“Kind of them.”
“Yeah.” Barda smiled. “They’ve decided to make the waterfall,” she gestured toward the cliff, and the water that tumbled from it, “a sacred place of pilgrimage. The dryads are going to bring the trees back, and there’s been talk of erecting statues - one for each of those we lost to the End of Days.”
“We were hoping to include Trav among them,” Jaxon said.
Myselle smiled, tears in her eyes. When he saw that she couldn’t speak, Loren spoke for his mother, though his own voice was thick. “Yeah,” he said. “That... well, I think he’d have liked that.”
Myselle laughed through her tears. “Oh yes,” she said. “He’d have never shut up about it, he’d have liked it so much.” Then the thought that she’d never hear his voice again struck her, and she turned away from Loren and Barda. “I’m... I’m sorry,” she said between sobs. “I can’t... I just need to...” She walked off into the darkness, leaving her son to his friends.
Jaxon put his arms around them, and joined his two best friends in the world to watch the fire burn down.
That night, in a room within the tallest tower of the Secret Cities, Barda slept. Given what she’d learned from her union with the dryad, she was not surprised to find a visitor in her dreams.
She stood just outside the forest that had once surrounded the temple of Aael. A path wound its way among the trees, and Maryza al Martene stood upon it.
“Aunt Maryza?” Barda took a step forward.
Maryza smiled, tears in her eyes. “You would still call me that,” she said, “after I...”
Barda ran to her and hugged her. “I forgive you,” she whispered, “and I’m so sorry for the things I said...”
“Shhh,” Maryza held her and stroked her hair. “You had every right, and I deserved every word. I’m just happy to know that you forgive me.”
Barda nodded. “And I’m glad I had this chance to tell you.” She stepped back, studying the woman before her. Maryza was dressed in her old legionary uniform. “It is really you, right? This isn’t just a dream?”
Maryza laughed. “No, it’s me,” she said. “Someone needed to greet you, and I was happy to be given the chance. It gave me an opportunity to apologize to your mothers, as well.”
Barda’s face lit up. “Are they..?”
Maryza nodded. “See for yourself.” She gestured, and, where once there had been nothing but forest, a house appeared on the path. It was the house Barda had grown up in. When Barda looked from the house back to her, Maryza nodded again. “Go on in.”
Barda approached the house, and the vines and branches that had covered it moved away to expose the front door. She turned the knob and the door opened, revealing her house exactly as it had been when she’d left. She was just about to go looking for her mothers when the whistling sound of a boiling kettle drew her toward the kitchen.
The kitchen was empty, but Barda lifted the kettle from the stove and poured boiling water into the waiting teapot. She placed the kettle in the sink and looked around. The kitchen was still empty.
She stared down at the tea steeping in its pot and sighed. “Where are you?” she whispered.
“Waiting for you to pour the damn tea, girl.”
Barda gasped and looked toward the table. Her mothers sat in their usual places, empty teacups in front of them.
“Jax,” Nikki scolded, “don’t tease her. She’s had a very long day.”
“I’ll say she has,” Jax said, standing up and smiling. She opened her arms. “Come here, little bird.”
Barda was in her arms in an instant, and soon felt Nikki join the hug. Tears began to fall, and she couldn’t stop them. “I muh-miss you... s-s-so much...”
“Oh, little bird,” Jax said, her own voice catching, “we miss you too.”
“How long do we have?” Barda asked as she stepped back from the hug. She went to grab the teapot off the counter by the sink.
“Just long enough for a cup of tea,” Nikki said, sitting at the table.
“And one last goodbye,” Jax said, sitting next to her.
“Last?” Barda poured tea for her mothers, then some for herself. She took hers with a dollop of honey, Jax with sweetener and cream, while Nikki drank it black.
“Sorry, dearest,” Nikki said, sipping her tea. “This is the only time we can visit you.”
“For one thing,” Jax said, “I’m dead.”
Barda grinned. “You don’t look dead.”
“Yes, well,” Jax grinned back, “being the host for a goddess apparently has its upside. It’s through the grace of Aael that I’m able to do this.” She shrugged. “That said, I don’t actually have what one would call a body any more, which makes it hard for me to walk about visiting and having adventures and getting up to other things I’m far too old for.”
“And it turns out,” Nikki said, “that I didn’t bond with the World Mother, so much as take her place. So, unless I want the entire world to die, I need to remain a living planetary sentience, rather than a simple wood spirit.”
“But why can’t you just keep visiting my dreams?” Barda asked. “Surely even a planetary sentience has time enough for that.” She looked at Jax. “And you don’t even need a body. I’ll bet the power of a goddess would let you visit my dreams any time you wanted.”
“It would,” Jax said, “while I have it.”
“While you have it?” Barda raised an eyebrow.
“What’s this?” Nikki demanded. “While you have it? What is that supposed to mean?”
Jax sighed. “Nothing,” she said. “It means nothing.” She sipped her tea. “I was just thinking, you know, that I maybe don’t actually want to be a goddess, and it’s possible I’m better off just letting myself be properly dead.”
“Nikki,” Jax said, “can we just have a nice visit with our daughter and fight about this later?”
“Oh, you can bet on that, Jax Edison.”
Jax looked at Barda and spread her hands, a helpless expression on her face.
“I’m so glad you’re enjoying this,” Jax said.
“I am,” Barda told her. “It’s like...” she looked down at her tea, then back up at her mothers. “It’s like it was... you know... when...”
Her mothers put their hands over hers.
“We know, dearest,” Nikki said. Then, she said, “And I know it seems like we should have the power and ability to visit whenever we’d like, but...” she shook her head. “Being the World Mother is changing me. I’m becoming so much more than I was, but at the same time, so much less. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be someone you’d recognize as your mother.” She scowled at her wife. “And if a certain someone is planning on being ‘properly dead’...”
“Nikki...” Jax warned. Nikki fell silent, and Jax sighed. “So, yes,” she said at last, “much as we’d like to do this kind of thing regularly, neither of us is certain we can. So, if this is the only time,” she smiled, “before it ends, I want to say that I’m proud of you.”
“We both are,” Nikki said, smiling. “Neither of us wanted to leave you like this, but, seeing how you handled yourself through the End of Days, we just...” her eyes teared up, “well, we know you’re going to do just fine.”
“For yourself and the world,” Jax said. “I didn’t want to bring you out into it, but I can see now that it’s going to need you.”
Jax nodded. “I can’t say too much, but being bound to Aael lets me see the future - well, a few of them, anyway- and I can say that you’re going to be very important to whatever new world grows up out of what’s left of the old.”
“Oh.” Barda smiled and sipped her tea.
“Do you have any plans?” Nikki asked.
Barda nodded. “I think I need to get away from people for a while,” she said. “The world is still broken, and I think I could do some good if I got out in it.” She shrugged. “Maybe work at putting it back together.”
“That’s a good plan,” Jax said, smiling.
“The faer folk should be of great help with that,” Nikki said. “I’ve commanded them to remain among humanity for as long as it takes to set things right.”
Barda chuckled. “Have you seen the world? That’s going to be a while.”
Nikki laughed. “I am the world, dearest. So yes, I know.”
Barda smiled. “Thank you, mother,” she said. “Without them, we never would have beaten Jennix and her army. Even if we had, we likely would have starved to death when winter comes. As it is, the dryads are making the land fertile and helping the crops grow quickly, so we should have some sort of decent harvest by autumn.” She thought a moment. “It is odd, though.”
“What?” Nikki grinned.
“Well, the way the dryads have made the land fertile is... um... it’s rather unique,” Barda said. “Was it your idea to require them to have sex with humans in order to restore the land’s fertility?”
“Maybe,” Nikki said, a coy look on her face. “You’ll notice some interesting births happening about a year from now.” She smiled. “You may also notice a marked... attraction between all the faery races and humanity.”
Jax pointed at her daughter. “You,” she said. “The world could use more like you.”
Barda blushed and drank her tea.
“Well,” Jax said, finishing her tea and rising from her chair, “I think we’ve embarrassed the poor girl enough. Time to say our goodbyes.”
Barda stood as well, tears in her eyes. “Do you have to?”
“We do,” Nikki said. “I need to return to my place within the world.”
“And you need to wake up,” Jax said. “C’mere,” she held out her arms. “One last hug for your old Mama.”
The Edisons stood in their family home one last time and shared a final embrace. As the kitchen began to fade around them, Jax said. “Remember how much we love you, and remember, even if you can’t see us, we’ll always be there.”
“Oh, so does this mean you’ve decided you’d rather not be ‘properly dead’ after all?” Nikki asked.
“Well, obviously,” Jax replied with a sigh. “Did you really think I was going to just go be dead and miss what happens next?”
And then, her mothers’ affectionate bickering a fading echo in her mind, Barda woke. She looked up through the glass ceiling to the brilliant blue sky above her, smiled through her tears, and whispered, “Goodbye.”