In the days when the Flood receded, and magic once again flourished in the world, it came to be that man discovered the Chronicle of the Daevas, that ancient compact. Hands misled by doubts and dark whispers took it from its dusty tomb, and cast it into the sea.
In a forest, there was a small lake of cool, clear water. In the center of the lake was a small, rocky island, upon which was built an ancient stone watchtower. The trees of the forest were old and strong, their heavy roots buried deep, and their broad branches seemed to hold up the sky itself. The dappled sunlight shifted as the breeze moved through the leaves high above. Great boulders, draped in moss, sat amongst the roots and trunks of the trees. The air was both cool and warm, and the world was quiet, save the shifting of leaves.
There was a scraping sound, the sound of metal upon metal. Then came the rustle of underbrush being pushed away, and the sound of something being dragged through the dirt.
Pages scattered upon the water, and like a mighty wave the Daevites clawed out of the black leaves of history, with their armies and their cities and all their empire. The Flesh too, emerged, crawling from its ark deep beneath the frozen earth. Together they made great sacrifice and horror. They called out to their master, and their master answered them.
The Scarlet King rose up from the Pit of Megiddo, with all his Leviathans and demon lords. Creation trembled, for its extinction was at hand.
A soldier walked out of the forest, onto the bank of the pool. Its armor, dent and torn and punctured, was caked and crusted with brown and red and burnt with black. The soldier’s skin was burned and dirty. An eye socket, and the temple above it, had collapsed under a blow. The scalp had been torn away, the hair had burned to ash. Flaps of skin exposed a jaw of cracked teeth. An arm flopped limply, its bones broken. The soldier looked as if a corpse, rather than a human, and the heavy stench of hell was upon it. The soldier dragged a pitted, nicked broadsword behind it, carving a little trench in the loam.
The soldier walked along the bank until it came to one of the great boulders draped in moss. Here, the soldier lifted the sword high, and then drove it deep into the ground. There was no need for the sword anymore. A long and winding journey had ended.
But mankind, in this late hour, did not go quietly into the dark night. No, it was as if a great final flame burned brightly. With mankind stood the ancient guardians: Hakhama, broken no longer, with her fleets of dreadnaught-angels vast enough to blot out the sky. Nahash, returned from his exile at last, his plumage bright and fire upon his mouth.
For the briefest of moments, brother and sister were united, and with them mankind fought and died against the King and his servants.
The hand that once held the sword began to unfasten the armor's buckles and belts. Each piece fell to the mud and was still. There was no need for the armor anymore. The soldier began with the armor on the arms, and then the armor of the legs, and then unfastened the cuirass it wore. After this, it removed the mail shirt, and then the ruined vest and breeches. When all of this was done, the soldier arranged the armor in the shape of a human next to where the sword had been driven into the mud. There would be no burial, for the grave would not be disturbed. There was no need for swords or armor anymore. It would rest on the bank, by the great boulder draped in moss, and be still.
The Brothers Three, marking that the time was at hand, gave the command for the doors of the Silent Halls to be opened. The dead streamed out, an army uncountable. They stormed the King’s Court and freed the six Brides who remained and all the countless souls imprisoned in torment there.
The soldier, now wearing nothing but blood and dirt and grime and ash and salt and scars, knelt by the stream and reached a hand into the water. The current washed away the filth on the hand, and underneath the coating of grime there was clean skin, smooth and pink and healthy. The soldier cupped water in its clean hand and drank. Rivulets ran down its chin, staining it with mud.
Three brothers in black rode upon three white horses. Behind them marched every being who has ever died, from every world, from every facet, from every sphere, each mortal and god and stray soul. The sum of all the dead in exodus. A song rose as the column passed through the shattered obsidian gates of hell. A song of joy. The dead marched, to strike down the King.
With the clean hand, the soldier reached over to the shattered arm. With yanks and tugs, it shifted the bones back into place. Mangled fingers twitched, and then bent, and then the arm moved. The soldier flexed its once-broken arm, saw that it moved as it should, and was satisfied.
Thus the final battle was met. The gods and all their hosts descended from the heavens and rose from the abyss, to make war with each other. The Stars burned with hate. Creation crumbled under the terrible strain. No world was spared, no sphere passed over. The Ways were torn up. The Library burned. Gods were cast down from their thrones, and the earth was laid to ruin. A million, million warfronts poured torrents of blood down the branches of Creation. The King made Yesod his throne, and all things were reduced to ash.
The soldier stood up, and waded into the pond. When it reached a point where the water was up to its waist, the soldier began to bathe. Layers of burnt flesh and dried blood peeled away, revealing healthy skin beneath.
Far below that vast and terrible mountain, two sons of Adam met for the last time, and died at each other’s hands. Nahash was torn in two, and Hakhama shattered a second time. The flame of mankind, of all thinking beings, dimmed, sputtered, and went out. Stars were eaten alive. The dead were reduced to dust. The heavens went dark, choked with smoke and ash. The abyss was fattened with blood. All lights had been extinguished, across a billion, billion worlds.
The falling clods of filth formed a cloud of pollution around the soldier, but this cloud quickly settled at the bottom of the pool. As the soldier washed, it grew less like a corpse. Hollow flesh became full. Life returned. Muscle stitched back together. Skin mended. Hair regrew. Bones rejoined. Gone was the dried sludge of blood and dirt and shit. Gone was the grime of salt and smoke. Gone was the cold, gone was the stench. The evil time and the evil place passed away.
One light remained. Thirty-six saints gathered on the mountain slope, and together fulfilled their ancient destiny. The passing of the world in this cruel and horrible fashion could not be helped - they had been waylaid by the forces of the world too long to prevent the horrors of the King, but they were not without power.
Creation could not be healed, but the King might be made vulnerable. The seals he had placed upon himself, all those ancient defenses, were dissolved.
The soldier dove beneath the surface of the water, and upon rising up was no longer a corpse, but a human. A woman, who was solid-built and strong, with wet hair the color of straw. She brushed a strand hair out of her face and smiled, for she was alive again.
These were the seven that would destroy the king. The little bastard Empress in her veil, her head swollen and her tongue mute. Harker, the man who shattered the dreamtime with a single strike. The Exile, who long ago cheated the Brothers Three. A’habbat the Unbroken, seventh Bride no longer. The apostate Fawn astride the Saturnian Stag. Set, third son of Adam. Isabel the Maker of Wonders.
The woman’s name was Mary-Ann, and she was no longer a soldier.
Seven spears pierced the Scarlet King.
One pierced his right eye - this was Harker’s spear.
One pierced his left eye anew – this was the Fawn’s spear.
One pierced his liver – this was Set’s spear.
One pierced his hands – this was the Exile’s spear.
One pierced his feet – this was the Empress’ spear.
One pierced his heart – this was A’habbat’s spear.
The last was driven down through his skull – this was Isabel’s spear.
The Brothers Three thus came to claim the King, as had been their right since the beginning. His body was cast into the Abyss, and Death hung over the waters.
Mary-Ann swam about in the pool for a time. She floated on her back, and looked up at the trees and their branches, and the sun in the sky. The occasional bird would flit through the sphere of her senses – she cooed back up at them. She dived underneath the surface and rose up, again and again. She would pick up handfuls of smooth pebbles and mud only to let go and watch it all fall back to the bottom. She swam about, with front stroke, backstroke, breaststroke, with the joy that her body might be exercised with something other than killing.
After a time, she rose, and waded back to the shore. She was naked, but there was no shame or fear to her nakedness. She found a patch of soft grass on the shore, nestled between two mighty roots, and here she lay down in the speckled sunlight.
She slept for a time, and her dreams were of gentle, formless things.
The seven stood upon the King's empty throne in silence.
When she woke, the shadows had grown long, and the sun now burned golden-orange. By her feet lay a stack of neatly-folded clothes. A grey shirt, sand-colored pants with many pockets, and heavy, strong boots. Mary-Ann dressed herself, and felt like she was whole again. Not Mary-Ann the soldier in those legions of the dead. Just Mary-Ann. A name, a face, a body, a life. All whole again.
She wandered into the forest without a direction in mind, her hands in her pockets. There were bright flowers of blue and yellow and red and pink and purple and orange. There were great mushrooms and molds, white and red and dun. There were birds, plain and ornate. There were little scurrying and burrowing animals. In distant shadowed hollows she could make out the shapes of larger creatures. Here and there were crumbling ruins of stone, or the mossy bones of giants, or a winding trail of cobbles. The evening waxed.
A leopard, grey like shadowed snow, sat perched upon a vast tree’s root, smoking a pipe. Mary-Ann scratched it behind the ears as she passed by. The cat flicked its tail and purred, puffing out a ring of applewood smoke.
Shadows grew longer, and the night birds began their calling. The path Mary-Ann had been following became more finely made, the cobbles younger and more neatly fit together. The ancient forest gave way to an expanse of grassy hills. The wide open sky was pink and orange and blue with the last remnants of the sun, and the fat silver moon had risen.
A man stood there, on the road where the forest ended. He was old and bent over, leaning on a cane, with short grey hair and a clipped grey beard. His clothes and air were proper, polite, wise. Gentle eyes sat in a dark, wrinkled face. He was feeding birds.
Mary-Ann ran. Tears welled in her eyes. Time stopped.
She tripped over her own feet, her momentum nearly carrying her to the ground were it not for the wild flailing and pinwheeling of her arms. Her boots pounded on cobbles. The birds scattered at her voice.
Her arms pumped madly, her legs strained as she urged herself faster, faster. A single moment longer would be intolerable, unendurable.
They met. She wrapped her arms around him, and his around her. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks, blinding her to everything but the warmth of his body, the sound of his heartbeat, the texture of his jacket, the smell of coffee and old books, that gut feeling of belonging. Here. Right here. Home, right here.
Home. Home. Home.
She buried her face in his shoulder and shook with laughter and sobs, and she cried. She held him close, and showered him with kisses, and she cried. She looked into his gentle eyes and saw that he too was crying.
“You got old, Salah,” she sniffed, blinking at her tears.
“I hope that’s not a problem.”
“I’m not letting go.”
Mary-Ann rested her head back on his shoulder and closed her eyes. Everything was still. The night was soft. Moments passed, mountain-bone heavy. Time seemed to have lost all of its pretensions of before and behind, and was content to remain.
Mary-Ann lifted her head, and looked back into her husband’s eyes. He looked younger now, closer to the Salah she married. Still had a little bit more grey around the temples, though. She didn’t mind.
“Okay, I don’t think you’re going to vanish. I’ll let you go now.”
Salah laughed. Mary-Ann let go, but only with her arms. He didn’t vanish.
“Do you have plans for tonight?” He asked, taking her hand in his. She could feel the ring still on his finger.
“Only the ones that involve you.”
“I like those plans.”
Above their heads, a great celestial squid with a mane of nebuli twisted across the star-spilled sky. It was good to see stars again, instead of the thick smoke-and-blood smears of hell.
There was stillness. Creation was cold, and it was empty.
“But, before we do anything, there’s someone here to see you,” Salah said, motioning off into the night. Mary-Ann followed his finger to see a figure emerge from the darkness: A woman, short and wire-thin. Close-cut, dirty-blonde hair. Darkish skin, splotched with splashes of bright red.
Mary-Ann stared for a moment. Realization crumbled her heart into a painful dust.
“Fuck…” she croaked. “I thought I was done crying today.”
“Hi, Mom,” the woman said, waving a little awkwardly.
Whatever Mary-Ann wanted to say in response, the words where stuck in her throat.
“Go to her,” Salah murmured in her ear, but her feet remained rooted to the stones. Her mind flared with once-buried feelings. The horrible heat of a furnace. The crackling of burning tinder. The smell of charring flesh. The cries of her baby girl as she burned.
“Yeah. It’s me.”
To look was painful – a horrible, aching, dreading pain in the soul. Mary-Ann clenched her eyes tight, buried her face in her hands, shuddering as the tears came anew.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the mantra spilled out, over and over again.
She felt thin arms hold her…
“It’s all right, mom. I love you.”
The briefest and smallest of whispers.
“Love you too…”
…and then let go…
Mary-Ann opened her eyes, and saw her-daughter face to face. Naomi was older than she was – there were strands of silver in that hair, age lines around her eyes and mouth – but in those eyes she saw all the other Naomis. The little girl with curly hair and twiggy arms filled with books. The dirty-faced youth with the patched jacket and cap, shoes muddy and gun in hand. The clean-cut teen with slender glasses. The stern young woman. The stalwart mother. Mary-Ann wiped at her eyes again. Her daughter's scars had faded.
“Look at you… all grown up and respectable,” she said.
“You helped a lot.”
“I tried to kill y-”
“You saved me. End of story.”
Yeah, Mary-Ann supposed that would be it. End of the story. That was a good ending.
“You might not have been around, but I looked up to you,” Naomi continued. “I didn’t want to let you down."
“Oh stop it.” Mary-Ann punched her daughter in the arm. “That's just overkill.”
“I mean it!”
“I know you do, kiddo. I know you do.”
In the stillness, Isabel smiled. Flickers of the first fire danced and swirled in her eyes, spinning about like galaxies. There was a warm wind upon the throne, and it smelled of summer.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mary-Ann spotted a quartet of other figures lingering in the background, who had gone unnoticed in all the excitement. A huge man built like the offspring of a grizzly bear and freight train, with a beard that bent down to his waist, two teenage girls (the older one tall and plump, the younger one short and thin), and a young boy who looked to have singed his eyebrows off.
“Who’s the Viking?” she asked.
“My husband,” Naomi answered.
Mary-Ann paused for a moment, before grinning and hoisting her daughter off the ground with a tight hug. “THAT’S MY GIRL!”
“Sorry, sorry!” She put her daughter down, and cast a glance over to over to her newfound son-in-law and grandchildren. “They are not calling me grandma.”
“We can arrange that.”
Isabel closed her eyes, inhaled…and breathed out.
And there was fire.
She inhaled…and breathed out.
And there was a song.
“Well, Salah? Anyone else ready to pop up out of the woodwork?”
“No, I think this is everyone.”
“Awesome. Come on over, guys!” she shouted out to her new extended family. “Don't be shy!”
There was a gathering, and hugs and laughs and names and stories and a few more tears. The moon shone high above, and after a while the family began to walk down the road into the hills. They did not know where they were headed, but the tugging of their hearts drew them along.
There was a little house on a hill. The lights were on.
In the Fire, and in the Song, there was Wonder. Ways bloomed out from the Fire and Song and spread out across the waste and void. Though they were long and winding paths, they were strong and safe, well suited to the pilgrim souls that would soon tread upon them. This was the final wonder to be made, not by Isabel's hands alone, but by the hands of all her forebears, across all times and worlds and peoples. A final work.
The end of the world went like this: Everyone lived happily ever after.