The Chosen One died slipping on an off-patch of a broken-down bridge over a river of lava. He was making a quip. We never heard what the quip was, exactly, except that it sounded an awful lot like he’d been insulting the Lich King’s mother. Poor form, even as he died.
We all watched from our place on the far bank, hidden inside the charred ruins of the village that used to thrive on the banks of whatever the river had been when it wasn’t filled with lava. We watched, as the Lich King watched, as the Hero of our Age stepped to the left, slipped, bounced, and plummeted to the lava below, where he landed with a great, flat, thlop. Barely any time to scream in anguish at all. We watched, as the Lich King watched, as the lava’s viscous flow churned around the spot where our Deliverer had fallen, and soon enough, there was no sign of the man at all.
The Lich King turned, scanning the bridge and the far bank of the river for any sign of another attacker. We shifted uncomfortably in our hiding spaces, wondering if that meant us. After a moment, however, the Lich King gave up, and with a stunned shake of his mighty and terrible crown, he turned and walked back into his tower with his ghouls in tow.
We all sat, stunned.
“Well, shit,” said Porkey. He was the first to emerge from his hiding space, crawling out from beneath a tumbled-down archway. He brushed the soot from his apron, smearing it with more soot as he did. When Porkey wasn’t immediately peppered with arrows or turned to a frog, we all reluctantly unfolded ourselves as well and crawled into what was left of the shabby, charred little camp. We all looked at one another, a bit perplexed, from Ronn to Porkey, from Gillian to The Lump. To me. All of their gazes landed on me, eventually, with that twisted hint of sadness and fear as though I was about to explode into a ball of tear-soaked grief. Which was ridiculous, because I’d only dated the man for a few weeks.
I cleared my throat. They all leaned back.
“Time for a pint,” I said. Caught off-guard, the party nodded. I was already pushing through them, back down the mining camp’s street, and out towards the last pub we’d passed.
The trail was thin and trecherous, winding in a vicious switchback back and forth across a cliffside. My mind drew loops and circles all the way down. I led the donkey by the reins, barely watching where I was going. Every so often, Buttercup would nudge me to keep me from bouncing off the cliff face and rebounding out into space. A gesture for which I was distantly grateful.
The last pub we’d passed was in the abandoned village at the base of the mountain. A long trek, but our feet carried us like the living dead down the winding path, each one of us trapped in his or her own thoughts. For hours and hours, I could hear Gillian’s soft, hiccuping sobs from somewhere behind me. I could hear Porkey’s great, big, hacking sobs from somewhere above. I shook my head and gave Buttercup a pat on the nose, then tromped my way along the final dog-leg of the path, out along a perilous drop.
Off in the distance, just beneath the setting sun, was the old village. Finally. My feet ached and my mind pulled in a million different directions at once, each more inane than the last. Did I remember to pay rent for my room above the fishmonger’s? He was a nice man, that fishmonger, would probably understand. Off saving the world, as I had been. Except the world wasn’t saved, now, was it? What would that mean for my rent? Would prices go down?
The trail dipped down into a valley, lined first with scrawny wind-bitten trees, followed by thicker, sharper pines. We passed the spot, just beneath the great white rock, where we’d camped the night before, all giddy with anticipation. It seemed like a hundred thousand years ago, that we’d been staying up late around the campfire, talking about what we’d do once the Lich King was defeated. Patrick just sitting there, a little back from the fire, with that imbecillic, vacant smirk on his face. The one he thought made him look mysterious.
Even then, I’d wanted to punch him. I suppose I didn’t want him to plummet to his death in a river of lava, really. Just punch him to get that stupid look off of his face.
When we reached the outskirts of the old mining town, the sun had fallen well below the mountains, casting everything in chalky blues and blacks. Low-lying huts and creaking bunk-houses cropped up to either side of the thin, dusty road. Vacant windows covered with grease-paper stared at us, surprised to see us back so soon. The pub was halfway along the thin, dusty track– I sighed, and tied Buttercup up at its trough full of snowmelt, then began to undo her pack as the others wandered down the lane behind me.
The pub squatted like an elderly frog before us. The Lump lit a few lanterns from our packs and passed one to Ronn and Porkey, then the three of them pushed their way through the bat-wing doors of the pub and into the darkness beyond. I could see them drift from room to room behind the grease-paper windows, little balls of mournful glowing light.
Gillian stood behind me as I rubbed Buttercup down, saying nothing. I tried to ignore her for a while. Eventually, I looked up. Her slim face was ruddy and puffy, her elegant nose red and raw. She smiled a watery smile. I nodded.
“We’re clear,” came Porkey’s voice from somewhere inside. I looked from Gillian to the door of the pub, and nodded towards the building. “Go ahead,” I said. “I just want to grab a few things.”
She nodded, and wandered up the sun-bleached wooden steps to the pub in a daze.
“Drink some water!” I called after her.
Eventually, I followed the others inside. The Lump and Ronn had hung their lamps from the old chandelier—or, Ronn had, as the Lump could barely clear my shoulder by jumping—and were in the process of lighting a number of tallow candles and stacking them along the vacant bar. It gave the common room a soft, warm glow, making Porkey and Gillian sitting at the table in the center and squeezing hands look noble and heartfelt.
I sighed, grabbed a candle, and gestured to Ronn. “Give me a hand?” I asked. The Elf nodded and, sparing a glance backwards into the common room at the Lump, patting Porkey and Gillian roughly on the backs, followed me into the back room.
There, in among the splintered crates and ruined food, was a rough-hewn wooden staircase leading down into the cellar. I stepped lightly on the first couple of steps and hopped the remains of the third, landing lightly. A puff of dust rose from the stairs, and the whole structure creaked ominously.
“What are we doing?” asked Ronn, a few steps behind me. Walking in that eerie, etherial way that didn’t even make stairs creak.
“I remember seeing a few unbroken casks, last time we passed through here,” I said. “And I don’t know what’s appropriate in your culture, but to humans, this is a great time to get absolutely wrecked.”
Ronn nodded, brushing his long, black hair back over his shoulder. “Alis,” he said, letting my name drift off into an unfinished sentence. I turned and stalked through the rough dirt cellar, poking the candle into each nook for signs of un-drunk booze.
“What?” I said, after a while.
“Are you all right?” asked the elf from behind me.
“Oh, I’m just fine,” I said, reaching back behind a jumble of clutter to rap my knuckles on the side of a cask. It rang with a hollow thud, and I cursed.
“Sarcasm,” said Ronn, a distant hitch in his voice.
“Pointless observation,” I said, going for the same tone. My impression was getting better.
The elf sniffed. “I merely mean to point out—”
“No, Ronn. I’m not all right,” I said. “We failed. The world is going to end. We all just watched our last hope plummet into a river of lava. So I’m going to drink until the Lich King tries to reanimate my liquor-pickled body. Then, if he’ll let me, I’m going to drink some more.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Ronn, gently. I knocked on the side of another cask and felt it slosh. “The two of you—I know you had your differences, but…”
I heaved the cask off of the shelves, and pressed it into his arms. “Take this upstairs,” I said. For a moment, the elf looked as though he was about to continue, but then I turned and kept looking through the abandoned barrels.
When it seemed like the elf was gone, I unclenched my fists and let out a long, slow breath. He could be such a prick, sometimes. I poked around for a little while longer—more to mutter what I needed to mutter than to do anything productive—then dusted off what looked like an old glass bottle of something deep red that I found and headed back upstairs.
Everyone sat in the middle of the pub, around a great big wooden table. It was solid, square—more than enough room for the few of us. Porkey and Gillian still sat together, Gillian now rubbing Porkey’s back as the man heaved great big shaking sobs. The Lump sat across from them, and down, her legs dangling from the bench. She’d taken a knife from her belt, and was scratching something into the surface of the table in a noncommital sort of way. Ronn had set the cask on the edge of the table, and was in the process of scrounging mugs from beneath the old bar.
I set my bottle down next to the cask, and sat. Near them. Within arm’s reach. Ronn walked around the table and set a scavenged mug in front of everyone, after wiping out the dust and debris with his sleeve. He’d hardly set mine down before I leaned over and filled it with beer. I downed it in three good bursts, then reached for the glass bottle I’d found.
The rest looked at me.
“Alis,” said Gillian.
I stared at her. She did not continue.
While the others filled up their mugs with beer, I wrestled the wire-bound cork from the neck of the mysterious bottle. It came loose with a pop, and fumes rose from the neck. Excellent. I sniffed.
“What is it?” asked Porkey.
“Lamp oil,” I said. I sniffed again. “And cherry.”
The others looked on in a mixture of horror and interest as I poured myself a dollop, swirled it around, then downed it. I could feel my nose-hairs curling.
“Well?” asked Porkey, after I was done coughing. It was all I could do to nod, and pass the bottle. He didn’t hesitate; he took a swig straight from the neck. His face went beet red, and he hollered at the ceiling, “Hoo! Hoo!” Then he poured himself a good measure into his mug, then leaned across the table to pour some into the mugs of our companions, whether they still had beer or not. When he was done, I leaned over and shook my mug at him. Solemnly, Porkey nodded. He put a little extra in mine.
When he was done, Porkey stood. “Friends, I would like to drink tonight to the Chosen One’s memory. To the Chosen One!” he shouted.
“To the Chosen One!” everyone yelled.
“To Patrick,” I mumbled.
After the sputtering and gasping was done, Porkey poured us another round. The bottle was just about empty at that point, and he took the final swig like a punch to the face. Then he sat, and held his mug in both hands. His hands were blocky, scarred and knicked from long years of work. I stared at him, feeling the drink tip-toe its way up my neck. After a moment in thought, staring at his mug, Porkey spoke.
“When the Chosen One came through my town, I thought he was a loon. Had the Elf with him, and not much else. But my Pa had just died, and he left the Butcher’s to me, like he always said he would. Funny thing, I never wanted to be a butcher. I wanted to do something important, like in the stories old Beckett would tell me, in the back of the shop. And I knew how to hunt, a bit. And I sure as Hell knew how to butcher a hog and salt it down. Two things those two hadn’t the first about,” he said, waving his mug towards Ronn. Ronn smiled lightly and shook his head. “Anyway,” continued Porkey, “I was part of something. For a little while. Something bigger than myself.”
“That’s sayin’ something,” said the Lump, with a grin. Porkey looked up, stunned, then coughed a laugh, and then the laugh dissolved into another sob. Gillian patted him on the back, and Porkey took another hefty slug of whatever it was that we’d been drinking.
“It’s true,” said Ronn.
We all looked over to the Elf, who was standing a few paces back from the table. Lit by candles and lamps, the Elf looked as dramatic as he always did, in his too-nice traveller’s robes with his water-fine black hair. He gripped his mug in finely-wrought fingers, and took a sip.
He cleared his throat. “We didn’t know the first thing about surviving outside of a town. I lived my life inside the Tower, in contemplation of the Divine Truths. The Chosen One, so far as I understand it, was likewise born of humble origins. A thief? Or a rogue. I can’t quite recall.”
He’d been the son of a schoolteacher, I thought. Working as a clerk. But I didn’t have the heart to interrupt Ronn just then. Or rather, I wasn’t quite drunk enough.
“Regardless, after my vision, I found the One by following the signs. I rescued him from prison, and convinced him to accompany me on a quest to rid the land of the darkness that loomed in the West. We found the Blade of the Prophet’s Gaze and travelled as far as we could on civilized paths, but there was only so far we could go on our own two feet, so to speak. And so, on behalf of the journey, Mr. Tibbs, I thank you. I know he would, too.”
Porkey’s lip wobbled. The group held up their mugs to the man and drank, and he wiped his sleeve on his nose and nodded.
“He—e was so… So goo-ood!” cried Gillian.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” said the Lump, shaking her head. “So quickly, too. I didn’t get a chance to know him too well. Wish I had. He seemed like good people. You’d have to be, going on a mad quest like this one.”
“I don’t think he ever thought about it,” I said. The others looked at me. I cleared my throat.
“He wouldn’t, would he?” said Gillian, nodding. “He did it because it was the right thing. The good thing. A good person doesn’t have to think about that.” The group seemed to agree, and they lifted their mugs again to drink.
I nodded, relieved that they’d taken the wrong thing away from that statement. But really, I don’t think he ever thought about it. He rarely thought about much, when it came to real life. The ass.
“How’d you come to know the Chosen One?” asked the Lump. I looked up. Everyone was looking at me, sorrow and expectation in their eyes.
I took a sip.
“Oh,” I said. “We… knew each other. For a while. Back in the day,” I finished, lamely. When nobody moved to take up the conversation, I took another sip. “We were… friends.”
“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it,” said Gillian, her voice tinged with saccharine understanding. I looked up at her. The sorrow and benevolence on her face made me want to puke. “There is no pain on this earth like the loss of your lover—”
“Lover?” I said, a bit louder than I’d meant. The drink had slipped its arm around my head without my noticing, and had begun to throttle me. “He wasn’t my lover,” I continued, ignoring the startled glances. “He was— he was a lot of things, Gillian, but he wasn’t my lover. Besides, you were the one who loved him so much, weren’t you? Always mooning over him like he’d put the stars in the sky. Don’t think I didn’t notice how much nicer you were to me once Patrick and I were through.”
Gillian sputtered. “I’m not— Look, we all lost something today. We watched as our last hope, as the Chosen One fell to his death.”
“He wasn’t—” I began. I looked around the table at all of the faces pointed towards me, all of them on the edge of some sort of pit. The words wasn’t the chosen one curled and died in my mouth, leaving a bitter taste. Suddenly the cherry-flavored toxin wasn’t enough.
I stood, and pushed myself unsteadily away from the table.
“Where are you going?” asked the Lump. “Getting something from the packs,” I mumbled. I weaved my way through the ruined pub towards the bat-wing doors, and pushed out into the silence of the night.
Buttercup harrumphed at me. I harrumphed back and tottered over to her, gauging the possibility of missing the water trough. I sat. Nothing splashed. Good first step.
She nuzzled me. I reached up and stroked the smooth coat of her face, getting up the courage and wind to dig through the nearby packs.
The bottle of fine gold brandy lay where we’d hidden it, wrapped in the center of the spare bedroll. It was intact—we would have realized if it’d broken by the way the spare bedroll caught on fire. I pulled it out and held it up to the moon, just now peeking out from behind the cloud of billowing ash from the distant volcano. It glowed, red from the ash, and pale yellow from the light of the moon. I stared at it, swaying a little, and then let it hang by my side as I walked back into the pub.
“Alis, where’d you get that?” came Porkey’s voice from the table.
“Rhetorical question,” I said, in my imitation of Ronn’s voice. I was getting good at that. I snorted.
“What can’t I do?” I asked, swinging around. The bottle swung with me, bonking the table. The group watched it, and winced. “I can do whatever I want. Do you understand? The game’s over. We lost. If the ‘Chosen One’ failed, that means the world is going to end. We’re all going to die. Or did you not realize?”
I set the bottle down on the table, a bit rougher than I’d meant to. The clear golden liquid sloshed inside. Part of me wanted the bottle to break. Good bottle, though. Damn fine craftsmanship.
“We’re all going to die,” said Gillian, in a quiet voice. “We were all, always going to die.”
I stared at her. Those were the most maudlin words I’d ever heard coming out of her bright, chipper mouth. She went on. “Alis, I know you’re upset—”
“—I’m not upset—”
“—But is this how you want to honor his memory?” she asked. “By drinking that? Now?”
I stared at the bottle in my hand. It swayed, along with my grip on the table.
One of the last times we’d been happy together, we’d lifted a bottle from the High Priest’s private collection. In the sepulchre of the Blade. He didn’t care about the sword. I could see it—it was just now sinking in that he’d gotten in way over his head. The looks people had been giving him. That look, like he meant something to these people. I saw it, if nobody else did: the look in his eyes, pulling just to the left, towards some imagined exit.
He didn’t say anything about being Chosen when we drank that night. All he said, after the quiet knock on the old wooden door, was “Get drunk with me.” He was holding the bottle up, sloshing it around. It was the color of emeralds, and there was fine golden lace etched into the crystal of the decanter. I asked him, “What—where did you get this?” He replied, “High priest’s. Special bottle. For when the Prophet returns, to anoint her feet.”
“You can’t drink that!” I hissed. He smiled that stupid, obnoxious, childish smile, and sidled into my room, sliding the door closed behind him. “’S all right,” he said. “I did this all the time when I was a kid. We drink, we put water back. Works best with clearer liquor, but I have a feeling that nobody is gonna notice.”
I stared at the bottle. “But what if…” I said, trailing off.
“What if the Prophet comes back?” he asked. “From one ‘divine being’ to another, I think she’ll understand.” Then he waggled his eyebrows.
I laughed. We drank.
In the pub, my vision began to swim. “Stupid,” I muttered, though even I wasn’t sure what I was referring to—the stupid tears rolling down my face, the others being stupid, Patrick’s stupid, stupid death…
A knotted, blocky hand came to rest on mine. I looked up. The Lump looked back, through knotted bushy eyebrows. Gently, she lifted my hand from the bottle and pulled over a chair. “Sit down,” she said. I sat. Ronn pushed a mug into my hand. I took a sip; cold, clear water. The bastard.
After a while, the Lump began to sing.
Her voice was deep and rich, rough but resonant. I didn’t know the language she sang in, but I could feel the meaning pressing down on the room, filling it, twisting between the ceiling beams and the broken furniture. Sadness. Loss. Nobility. I snorted again into my cup, trying to reconcile my image of Patrick with a virtue like nobility. The Lump continued, unabated.
When she finished, the Lump sat. She raised her glass, but said nothing. The others raised theirs, and a solid, quiet moment held them there for what seemed like eternity. Then they drank.
Afterwards, everyone sat around the table in silence. Lost in thought. They stared at the table, the ceiling, each-other, nobody saying a word.
Finally, the Lump broke the silence.
“So, what now?” she asked.
One by one, we looked up.
“I suppose,” said Porkey, slowly, “I suppose we should go home. Shouldn’t we? I want to find my brother, before all this is over. Give him a hug. Tell him that we miss him.”
“I have to finish my studies at the Tower,” said Gillian. “If there’s one thing I want to do before we’re done, it’s that. Get my degree, finally. Lots of notes on what we’ve seen. I could finally finish my thesis.”
Another silence fell over the table, each of us thinking of the world that might soon not be. The last business that we’d left undone, the grim head-start we had on wrapping up our affairs.
“So that’s it, then?” came Ronn’s quiet voice.
We looked up. Ronn stared back at us from where he stood, a few steps away from the table. His arms were crossed. His face was blank. “We’ve given up?” he said. He looked at each of us in turn, and took a step forward, waiting for an answer.
“We’re not giving up—” said Porkey, but Ronn cut him off. “We fight the Lich by going home? Leaving all of this behind? Is that the tactic we’ve chosen?”
“Ronn—” said Gillian, stunned.
“I stood there and watched the Chosen One die, the same as any of you,” said Ronn. “I knew him. I knew what he meant to us—to the world. And I know that he wouldn’t want us to give up. To give up,” he said, thumping his fist on the table.
The bottle of brandy jumped and rattled. I looked up at the Elf, my head reeling. His eyes, normally placid, were hard and cold as a lake frozen over. I looked over to the Lump, who looked back, concerned.
“But the Blade,” said Porkey. “It was lost with the Chosen One. Not even a sword made by the Prophet could withstand that.”
“Stuff the Blade!” said Ronn, pointing at Porkey. “Whatever we have, we must throw against the Lich King. We can’t give up. We can’t—not when there’s so much at stake! We do not know why the Chosen One died. Fate? Chance? Divine will? But the one thing we do know is that he died doing what was right.”
He died mocking someone’s mother, I thought. I said nothing, struggling to find my tongue.
“I, for one, can think of no better way to remember the Chosen One than by finishing the job that he started.” said the Elf. He stood straight, staring at each of us in turn.
“But,” I said, staring at the bottle of brandy, trying to pick out words. “But… we’ll die,” I finished, lamely.
“We were all, always going to die,” said Ronn. Gillian looked up. The Elf dipped his chin towards her.
It was like static breaking. Everyone sat, shocked, but something had been drawn off of the room. Some tension, some imbalance.
Porkey nodded. “What’s the next step?” he asked, and that seemed to settle it.
Ronn leaned back and sighed, rubbing his fine fingers over his eyes. “The next step is to get some sleep,” he said. “Tomorrow, we prepare and we plan. And then, one way or another, we finish what the Chosen One started.”
There wasn’t much else to say. The group stood, pushing the benches back with an old wooden squeak. The Lump stopped up the cask and tipped it on its end, Porkey went around to collect the mugs. When he got to me, I shook my head and hugged my cup to my chest. He sighed, and nodded, and set the rest of them on the old bar before turning to get ready to sleep.
The group trailed out. I remained sitting, hugging my cup of water, staring at the bottle of brandy. Ronn went around to extinguish candles, the Lump followed him, collecting lamps. Then they, too, walked to the door.
The Lump was the last one. She said nothing, but hesitated, then turned around and set a lantern in front of me in the darkness. In the dim glow of the lamp, the Lump looked troubled. She looked at me and I held her gaze for a moment, then the Lump shook her head and turned to go.
I was alone.
One by one, the shuffling of the others diminishing to the quiet sounds of sleep. They’d all camped out in the big room above the pub. For awhile, I listened to their sounds above me, tracing their way across the room and back, until it made me dizzy and I stopped.
I sipped my water, in the dark.
After a while, my head began to clear somewhat. I tucked my legs up, hugging my knees, thinking about what would happen if the rest of them tried to face down the Lich King, armed with nothing but belief.
Patrick would have thought it was ridiculous. After a while. He’d have gone along with it, at first. That was his way—go along with something, have fun with it, until it was two steps too far to ever take back. Gods, what an asshole.
I would try to explain it to the others, how even Patrick would think they were being absurd. Even Patrick. The Chosen One, himself. But then again, he always went along with the Chosen One gimmick, two steps too far. It got away from him. Got bigger than him. Made him do progressively dumber and dumber things, until at his very last, he was shouting insults at a Lich and tripping over his own feet.
And if I tried to explain that to any of the others, they’d shake their heads sadly at me. Say that I was being naïve.
What a joke.
If I could just tell them—get them to listen… But it was too late for that. Ronn had made sure to whip the others into a frenzy of righteous numbskullery, while I, too drunk to muster a response, sat there like the gormless idiot that I all too often am.
I relaxed my legs and slumped across the table, tucking my head in my arm. My fingers brushed something, smooth and cold. I looked up at the brandy bottle, reached over with bleary fingers, and wiggled the cork out and took a swig.
The liquid burned like a greasefire, doing the work of—at least temporarily—waking me up. I winced at the taste and stared at the bottle as it weaved back and forth in my vision. Thinking of the events of the day. There’d been another person there, who’d seen the Chosen One die. Who knew literally nothing about the Chosen One, or the people who followed him. Slowly, I fumbled for the cork to stop up the bottle.
There was one person who might still listen to me.
Well. I say person.
Hours later, I was sobering up enough to realize that this was an awful, awful idea.
The trail wound back down the mountain behind me, and the ruined ashes of the mining camp sprawled beneath. At this time of night, long after the moon had set and before the sun had thought to rise, the bones of the camp looked like ribs in the light of my lantern. Femurs. The bodies of giants, long picked clean by scavengers. As I walked between them, it seemed like every swing of the lantern was one of their bones shifting, leaning forward in the ash to watch me pass.
I shook my head. Unreasonable, I thought. Silly. There was nothing left moving, here. Nothing to see me pass, a single speck of light walking towards the dim orange glow of the river.
The tower ahead loomed dark like a thundercloud, a patch of ash-stained blackness a few shades darker than the world around it. No lights came from the windows that I could see, either because it was the pitch-black depths of the night, or because the Lich had long since given up on human things like simple illumination.
For a while, I stood in the small square of the ruined camp, staring up at the tower. That thought, more than anything, made me hesitate. I looked down at the bottle tucked in my belt, and up again at the tower, and snorted.
What had I even come here for? I walked drunkenly back to the place where we’d seen a man die, in the dim, woozy hope that I could talk to the person that he’d been about to attack, to… what, exactly? Tell the Lich about my friends who would follow in that lunatic’s path and try to kill him? Ask him politely to either ignore them or try not to kill any of them while they fought?
I sighed, and sat on the edge of an empty well. The lantern hung between my legs, unmoving. For a while, I did nothing. I simply stared up at the tower, or up the slope to the volcano as it spewed a constant slow gush of dim orange lava.
Images of the others flickered through my mind. Porkey, and his dumb jokes. The Lump. Nobody was calm like the Lump—it radiated off of her like head from a woodstove on a cold winter’s night. Even Gillian, who I’d never gotten along with, I could respect. Nobody was smart like Gillian. She honestly scared me, sometimes.
Tomorrow, they would die. Because of Ronn. Because of his twisted, monstrous, wrong idea about Patrick. Ronn wouldn’t even say his name—it was always “The Chosen One.” Nobody deserved that as a legacy. Nobody deserved to have someone send others to their death in his name.
I stood, brushing the ash from the seat of my pants.
Fuck this. New plan. I was going to go back down, sober up, and talk to them. Do something. Anything. Convince them not to follow through. If we died, if the world ended, it wouldn’t matter—they’d live the rest of their lives as they were meant to, and not on a fool’s errand to throw themselves against the walls of the tower. Patrick didn’t need that. He didn’t need those deaths hung on him, wherever he’d gone.
There was a snap of dead wood.
I spun, holding my lantern up. In the darkness of the village, there was no sign of movement other than the swinging light casting hazy shadows. Slowly, I turned.
I hadn’t brought weapons. Of course I hadn’t. I was drunk. And this plan seemed so foolproof as I sat alone in the pub down the mountain. Which meant that, when the pale, rotted face loomed at me in the darkness, I cleared my throat and said, “Hello?”
Then a burst of stars as something hit me from behind. I collapsed, and the last thing I remember thinking was that I hope they didn’t break the bottle.
I awoke with the worst hangover the world, collectively, had ever known. A visegrip clamping down on my temples. Nails in my eyes. Molten lead writhing like a snake in my stomach. All of these would have been preferable to the feelings that rolled across me as I tried to keep my eyes shut.
“I wondered when the rest of you were going to show yourselves,” came the same words out of half a dozen voices simultaneously.
Slowly, squinting against the clashing colors and whirling room, I tried to focus on the world around me. I was sitting. My wrists were bound to the arms of a chair. There was a table before me, with the few belongings I had brought laid out in a row; my lantern, my travel pack. The bottle of brandy, miraculously unharmed. Beyond all of that, in a silent, staring chorus, were six gaunt corpses, staring at me with clouded, unblinking eyes. As I looked up at them, something wriggled in the nose of one of the bodies to the left. I gagged.
When I’d managed to get my stomach under control, I looked around at the room. It was old, faded, unused—the room had once been a bedchamber, or a retiring room. Faded, tattered hangings covered the walls. Wrought iron braziers held ash and brittle grey charcoal. One of them had been re-filled, and now lit the room with a glowering orange glow. A broken bed and a ruined wardrobe were the largest features of the room, and both had once been fine scrolled woodwork.
“Where… who’s room is this?” I asked, trying to keep my head from waving about.
“Not important,” said the chorus.
I looked up at each of them. They were people, nothing more—four wore funeral clothes, and the other two were dressed in mismatched rags. Besides the ominous feeling that only comes from being stared down by six animate corpses, I was a bit underwhelmed.
“Now,” they said. “You will tell me what I want to know, or things will become… unpleasant.”
“Wait—” I began, but one of the corpses walked silently forward with a rusted hammer and chisel, and began to set the tip of the chisel against the knuckle of my little finger. I began to writhe in my chair, kicking and twisting.
The corpse raised the hammer with grim fluidity, and let it hang in the air for a painful second. He swung it down.
I jerked, kicking the table and tipping the chair backwards. The chairback thudded to the stone floor, and a wave of pain and nausea crashed through me.
“Asshole!” I yelled. My legs waved uselessly in the air. “Ask a question first, before you try to mutilate me!”
“Very well,” came six voices. Four clammy hands lifted me back upright, and set the chair down away from the table. The corpse with its hammer stood by my side with the certainty of death, looming as only a torturous ghoul can. “Then tell me, where are the others?”
“Down the mountain,” I said. “I can’t be certain. They hadn’t made their plan yet, when I left. I’m not sure what they’re going to do.”
“Try and kill me, like the others,” said the chorus.
I opened my mouth and closed it, then nodded. “Probably,” I said, after a moment.
“What are their forces like?” asked the chorus.
“Forces?” I said, and shook my head. “No. It’s a group. There were six of us. Five, now. Four, if you don’t count me.”
“What?” asked the corpses, puzzled tone in their voice clashing with their slack faces. “Six of you, coming to challenge me?”
“Well. One of us—” I paused, and shook my head. “Look, could you choose one of these people to talk? I’m going to be completely honest: I had a few last night, and they got on top of me. This is… a bit overwhelming.”
The corpses looked to one another, then turned back to me. Thankfully, only one of them spoke. He was dressed in a black suit riddled with rot and eaten by insects. “Go on,” he said.
“It was just the one, really,” I said. “We’d put all our eggs in the one basket.”
“Why?” asked the corpse.
I shrugged, eyeing the corpse that still held the hammer and chisel. “Because we believed that he was the Chosen One,” I said.
“Chosen by whom?” asked the corpse, bewildered.
“The Prophet. He had her mark, and the signs were right. He successfully retrieved her sword, and everything.”
“This ‘Chosen One,’” said the corpse, quietly, after a pause, “did he hear the Prophet’s voice?”
I shrugged. “He never said.”
The corpse said nothing. Just stared, with unblinking, clouded eyes at me.
“It was not the Prophet who chose him,” he said, slowly.
“How do you know?” I said, with a spark of defiance.
“I… knew the Prophet,” said the corpse. “I cannot believe she would call a champion to destroy me.”
“Who told you that the Chosen One was the Prophet’s champion?” asked the corpse.
“A priest,” I said. “One of her devoted. He saw the signs, and tracked Pa—the Chosen One down. Told him what he had to do. Got the others to believe, too.”
“And you?” asked the corpse, after a moment. “Are you devoted? Do you believe?”
I opened my mouth. Closed it. Opened it again.
“No,” I said.
“Then why are you here?”
I looked over, and caught sight of the light in the bottle of brandy. Stared at it, for a second or two. “I was friends with Patrick,” I said. “The one who was chosen. We grew up together. When he set out, I wanted to come along to make sure he made it through all right.”
The corpses were silent. I looked from the bottle of brandy to the floor, scuffing the rotted carpet with the toe of my boot.
“Why are you here?” asked the corpse, finally.
I looked up. “Because…” I began, then I swallowed. Sniffed. “Because this was never his fight. Not at the start. Not until he got wrapped up in whatever this is.”
The corpse said nothing.
“I came to make peace,” I said. “To apologize.”
“To me?” asked the corpse.
I nodded. Then shook my head. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking. If the world is going to end, I’d like it to end with some kind of honesty. I guess I didn’t have a plan. I just… I came because I knew Patrick. And I know that, before all of this started, if you and he were about to fight, he’d buy you a drink and tell a joke.”
Again, the corpse was silent.
“What is your trick?” asked the corpse. Next to him, the body that held the hammer stood forward and set the chisel firmly in the center of my hand. Set the hammer on top of it. I stared at the hammer, then the corpse, then closed my eyes.
“If that’s it, then,” I said, voice shaking. “If that’s it, just kill me. There’s no trick. No plan. I barely even know why I’m here. And if the world’s about to end, then I might as well call it.”
Nothing. Shuffling cloth. I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the hammer to fall.
“Why would the world be ending?” came a voice. A voice rough from disuse, but warm. Human. I opened my eyes. Darkness moved at the other end of the room. And there, standing in the door and framed by the chorus of corpses, was the Lich.
There was nothing remarkable about the man who stood in the doorway. He was dead, yes. His eyes were clear and glowed like embers. But the man in the doorway, dressed in a simple black shift, was nothing but a man. Short cropped white hair. Nose a bit too long for his face. Plain, in other words.
I cleared my throat.
“Because you’re ending it,” I said, in a tone halfway between a question and that voice you use when explaining something to a child. “You’ve thrown off the balance between life and death.”
The man in the doorway cocked his head and studied me.
“I beg your pardon?” he asked.
“The… balance between life and death,” I said again, grasping at the last thing in this conversation that had made sense to me. “You… want to end the world,” I said.
The Lich snorted. “No I don’t,” he said.
I opened my mouth to speak, and found that every single thing I could possibly say in this instance was completely and irredeemably inane. And so I shut my mouth, and stared at the man in the plain black clothing.
He sighed. I did not expect a gesture as human as that, coming from the man whom we’d been sworn to kill no more than a day ago.
“I want,” he said, walking into the room, “to be left alone.”
“Ah,” I said, the stupidity of my plan gaining clarity in my mind.
The Lich walked to the table and pulled the chair from the other side. I watched him like a mouse watches a cat who shows no sign of pouncing, all too aware of the ghoul who still held a hammer and a chisel over my hand. Of the fact that I had just waltzed into the lair of a man who animated corpses for fun. He sat, and stared at me.
“You know,” he said, “after all of this, I still can’t decide if you’re trying to trick me? If you are, I must say that your plan is going abysmally bad.”
“What gave you the idea that I wanted to end the world?” asked the Lich.
“The priest,” I said. “The follower of the Prophet. And we saw that corpses were rising, attacking villages. We had to save a few towns from the maurading dead on the way here.”
“Ah, yes,” said the Lich. “I’d wondered where they’d gone.”
I stared at him, and squinted. “Wait,” I said. “You lost track of your maurading dead army?”
“’Army’ is a bit strong, don’t you think?”
“No! Not at all!”
“Well,” said the Lich. “You have my apologies.”
“Great. Good. Exactly what I came here for,” I said.
“Sarcasm,” said the Lich, in an arch, distant voice.
I wanted to scream.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked, nearly shouting. “What can be so unbelieveably important that you just let a bevy of ghouls off their leash to terrorize the world at large? Are you insane?”
The Lich leaned forward, and the chisel tip dug into the back of my hand. “You have no idea how hard I work,” he said. “What I work for. There is no loss that you have suffered that matches mine.”
I stared at him, mouth hanging open. He shut his eyes and ran his hands over his face, then took a deep breath. “You do not know perfection,” he said. He dropped his hands and looked at me, tired. More tired than I’d seen anyone. “Tell me, are you a pious woman?” he asked.
I shook my head slightly.
“Then you do not know,” he said. “The Prophet. I knew her, did they tell you that?”
“You… what?” I asked, feeling a miniscule spark of interest in spite of myself.
“I knew the Prophet. I travelled with her, became her disciple,” said the Lich. “The world made sense, when you spoke to the Prophet. What she meant to us was nothing less than the cause of it all. The meaning of existence.” He leaned back in his chair. Deep circles ringed his eyes, as if he had not slept in a hundred years. “I was with her when she died, you know,” he said. “Pierced by the arrows of nonbelievers. I held her body as the light left her eyes. A spark that lit the word, extinguished.”
I stared at the man across the table from me. Small, unnassuming. It was almost impossible to me that this man had learned at the feet of the Prophet. There was something in his voice, however. Something familiar. A tone, or a pattern of speech.
He continued. “My work,” he said, “is nothing less than trying to rekindle that spark that has gone from the world. Make something perfect again.” His eyes focused on me. They were half-mad, glassy. Devoted. Sad. “She was perfect,” he said. “She was perfect.”
I snorted. “No she wasn’t,” I said.
The Lich looked up, more stunned than anything. “Are you—how dare you!” he said. “Blasphemer!” The chisel sank into the back of my hand. I flexed my fingers, trying not to gasp in pain. “Are you ready to die for those words?”
“I watched as the only true friend I have ever had died because no-one was brave enough to say the same for him,” I said. “And if I die here, if you cut my body to bloody chunks and sew it back together, then at least I can die with the truth on my lips. No-one is perfect. No-one is chosen. To say that of anyone—of anyone—is to spit on their memory.”
The Lich’s eyes burned with a cold, brilliant fire. With a certainty, telling me that I had sealed my fate.
Well, shit, I thought. Here’s to you, Patrick.
“When we were seven,” I said, before the Lich could muster a command, “the Chosen One stole a sweet-cake from the baker down the street. He blamed me. I got my ass striped that night, once from my Ma with a spoon handle, and once by my Pa with a strip of leather. As I was laying on my stomach that night, the Chosen One came to my window with the sweet-cake. ‘I know you didn’t get dinner,’ he said. He gave it to me, but never apologized.
“When we were seventeen, I wanted to kiss the Chosen One. So very badly. He said yes to meeting on the bridge over the pond, and I felt like I would die from happiness. Then, I waited and waited. He’d gotten drunk with friends of his, and forgotten to meet me.
“When we left on our quest to kill you and bring balance back to the world, I told him that I would never forgive him if he died. That I would spit on his grave, and never look back. He told me I was lying, and finally, finally kissed me. Those were some of the happiest weeks of my life, until I realized that I didn’t love him. Not like that.
“And then he died,” I said. “He was an idiot. He was self-absorbed, cocky, couldn’t plan past tomorrow. He was the sweetest man I’ve ever met, and could make you feel like the world revolved around you. He was amazing. But he wasn’t perfect. To say he was would be like killing him again.”
I finished speaking, feeling the rush of adrenaline coursing through my body like ice. I realized I was shaking. Waiting, now, for the Lich to give the order to have me torn to pieces.
I waited, my hands shaking, icy sweat pouring down my back.
The Lich did nothing.
Then, suddenly, the pain in my hand slackened. I looked at the Lich, and at the corpse who was backing away with stiff, shambling steps. The Lich stared at me. Eyes unchanged. Fury still crawling across his face. But, something had left his expression. Some certainty, some inevitability. Instead of fire and wrath beneath his skin, there was hesitation. Sadness.
He raised his hand a fraction of an inch, and two of the ghouls stepped forward and began to undo my wrists.
“If it is as you say, you stupid, stupid girl, I will come after you,” he said, as they worked. “I will destroy you in her memory, and I will feel elated that this interruption was nothing but a distraction from my true purpose. If you or any of your comrades seek to disrupt my work again, I will break you. Ruin your bodies, and bring them back singing lamentations of your actions. Do you understand?”
I said nothing. To be perfectly honest, I did not understand in the least. Not until the ghouls finished undoing my wrists and stepped back, and even then it took one of them handing me my traveling pack to really drive the message home.
“You’re letting me go?” I asked, staring at the man.
“Against my better judgement,” he said. “You are… harmless. Addled, most like. I have pity for you. Against my better judgement. Now, go.”
I said nothing, not moving, barely believing that I was about to walk out of the Lich’s tower, still on this side of vitality.
“Go!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the table.
I jumped and made my way towards the door, stopping when one of the corpses held the bottle out towards me. It sloshed, mostly full. The light from the brazier caught the golden liquid, making it dance in silent laughter. I stared at it.
“Keep it,” I said, turning back towards the Lich. “He’d want you to have it.”
The Lich said nothing, moved nothing, his back towards me. His head turned, slightly.
The sun was almost rising and I was almost to the front doors of the Lich’s tower when I heard the shout.
“Lich!” came the hard, sharp voice. Familiar. Somewhere outside. My throat squeezed shut, and I winced. I had completely forgotten about the others.
Slowly, I pushed open the front doors. Flanked by two of the Lich’s ghouls, I stepped out onto the courtyard that faced the glowing stream of lava. There was a whistle, and a thump—I looked to my right to see an arrow vibrating in the ribs of the ghoul next to me.
I jumped as another arrow flew past, clattering on the stone of the tower’s steps. “It’s me!” I shouted. “Stop shooting, you idiots! It’s me!”
“Aliss?” came Porkey’s voice, confused and shaking. I peeked out from behind the ghoul’s shoulder to see the others, arrayed behind Ronn in some semblance of a vanguard. Porkey was holding his bow, another arrow nocked but pointing to the ground. “Aliss, what are you doing? Come away from there, you dolt!”
I stepped out, my hands up and palms out. The others watched me, halfway between bewilderment and caution, as I walked across the bridge towards them. Gillian, with cool fire dancing across her fingertips. The Lump, holding her axe at the ready. And Ronn, standing, looking from the group back to me, sputtering.
“What are you waiting for?” he shouted. “Shoot her!”
“What?” asked Porkey, leaning back and looking at the elf. “It’s Aliss. What would I want to shoot her for?”
“She’s been turned! A pawn of the enemy!” shouted Ronn.
“Ronn,” I said, my hands still out. “What are you talking about? I’m not dead!”
“Listen not to her lies!” he cried. “The enemy speaks through her to break us, to shatter our resolve!”
“No, no,” I said. “It’s not like that. But we have to go, now. Okay? You have no idea what you’re up against, and I have it on damn good authority—”
Another arrow whistled past me. I flinched, teetering near the edge of the bridge. “Damnit, Porkey!” I shouted.
“Sorry, Aliss, but he’s right!” said the hunter. “We can’t take the risk!”
“Asshole, Ronn!” I shouted. “This isn’t what Patrick would’ve wanted!”
“Silence, fiend!” called the elf. “On my mark, you chosen! Fire at the revenant!”
“Damn it, if you shoot me, so help me—”
“Stop it, you idiots!”
“Patrick told me that you smell like the donkey’s ass!” I shouted. I closed my eyes, ready to die but distantly disappointed that those were going to be my last words. I waited, huddled against the oncoming shots.
Then, “He what?”
I opened my eyes. The group still stood, arrayed and ready to cut me down. I looked from one face to the next, through a haze of trepidation. My gaze landed on Porkey. He looked puzzled, and slightly hurt. “Porkey, I’m sorry. Patrick told me a few nights ago, after he lent you his tent. It came back smelling just as bad as Buttercup, he said.”
Porkey stood, looking as though I’d hit him. I went on, taking a few steps forward. “Gillian, he hated your laugh. He hated it so much.”
“Shut—shut your face!” shouted the wizard. “He never said anything like that!”
“He did. I’m sorry,” I said, walking forward. Ronn was frothing at the mouth, looking as undignified as I’d ever seen him. He was very nearly beet red. “And you, Lump,” I said, “You, he always admired. Said you could knock a man down flat with the farts you got after a cold bean dinner.”
The Lump adjusted her stance, a hint of a smile on her face.
“Why didn’t he ever say anything?” asked Gillian. She was tense, torqued, and very nearly on the edge of sobbing, now. The fire on her fingers began to sputter out.
“Because he loved you!” I said. “He loved you all so much! He loved you so much that he went to the ends of the earth to fight and die for you, because he didn’t want to let any of you down!” I was near to them, now, only a few yards away. “And now, you’re here, each one of you that he loved, and you want to throw your lives away?” I asked. “That’s not what he would want. He loved you so much that he would want you all to go home, and get old and fat, and die happy. Not this,” I said. “Not this.”
I reached them, holding my hands up, hoping against hope that they would listen. As I watched, Porkey lowered his bow, letting the tension out of the string. And the Lump let her axe hang by her side, looking at me with something like approval.,
Then the side of my face exploded in pain.
I tumbled to the rock of the bridge, sprawling out sideways. When I looked up, Ronn was staring down at me, eyes wide, whites showing past the sweat-plastered strands of his hair. “I have come too far,” he said, through clenched teeth, “Too far to let you stand in my way.”
The others stepped back in shock, pulling their weapons up. “Ronn!” shouted Gillian, “What are you doing?”
“The right thing,” said the elf. He pulled his sword from his belt, and it lit with a righteous golden fire. Behind him, the others ran forward, but he slashed at them, the tip catching the Lump across the chest. Porkey grabbed her and shielded her; the elf turned and raised his sword high above me—and then there was a crash and the sound of the world tearing open.
I saw the elf’s eyes grow wide as he stared past me, sword hanging high in the air. I turned. From where I lay on the ground, I could only see that the front of the tower had fallen away into a pitch black void. No light escaped it. I could see nothing but darkness, but there—there in the middle of it all, was the Lich. Floating, suspended, arms out. Blackness writhed across his arms like twin snakes, snapping at the air, eager to tear at reality.
“You had your chance,” came a terrible voice that seemed to rend the sky.
I looked up at Ronn, then over at the huddled group. Ronn stepped over me, lowering his sword to a fighting stance. I clambored to my feet and hobbled over to the others, grabbing them by collars and sleeves.
“Go,” I said.
From behind us came the sound of metal shearing, and screaming, and gurgling. As one, we turned and fled back across the bridge.
The sun was up by the time we made it back to the abandoned little village. We hobbled past the empty buildings, the Lump stumbling, carried between myself and Porkey.
When we reached the old pub, Buttercup looked up at us and huffed, as if to say Well, finally.
I nodded towards her.
“Porkey,” I said, panting.
“He said you smelled almost as bad.”
I looked over. For the first time in a long while, I saw the man grin.