"There is still something of himself - something of the Wolfbane who would always love her - that rallies against the slime. It says, 'lie in the bed you’ve made'. So he gathers the covers and tucks himself in." -- Wolfbane, written by Calcifer
She remembers what it is like to step into the afterlife as a living thing, though she had gotten there by a far less direct route than they. The world had been gray and empty and lifeless. Her parents, when they found her (for she had not been there to look for them, not even knowing they were gone), were insubstantial, something ghostly and other. When she’d come back as a shifter, the afterlife was the same. When she came back in death, everything had changed. It was a vibrant jungle of her own that gave way to quiet meadows where she found her parents. The scars that riddled her father’s back were still there, though here he had the power to will them away. He kept them because they were scars from her, which she found both silly and wonderful given that they had all the time in the world together now.
When she wasn’t doing anything though, life in the afterlife simply ceased to exist. She found that long stretches of time were filled with blackness, as if timed skipped the parts that she didn’t much care about. It was an easy existence, one vastly preferential to coming back and living, to the pain of a life long since over. She has never understood the desire to be immortal, though occasionally, she understood the desire to come back even if it was not her own.
They disappear into the afterlife and she cannot tell what their experiences are. Only the thinnest tethers of magic keep her tied to them, aware that they are here, somewhere, but nothing more. Even if she could know more, she would not want to. These moments are personal and short, and she does not want to take away what privacy she can give.
When they have all finally found their loved ones, when they have had a few heartbeats of time together, her voice comes through the magic. It is a distant thing now, but they should hear if they are listening. “It is easier to get in than it is to get out. To complete the ritual, you must escape the afterlife. You cannot return through the rift, but you must break through the gates of death themselves. To crack them is to leave the barrier between worlds open just enough for the ritual to work in the future. Your loved one will know the way - all the dead do. Find the gatekeeper and figure out how to escape. You may be able to take your loved one with you, though I can make no promises. Certainly, you can try.”
The tethers of magic that tie her to them disappear, and she can only hope it is enough, can only hope that she has not led them on a fool's errand. That was never her goal, never her intention. Though her intentions were selfish, if nothing else, they would benefit more than just her.
the electric lioness of riagan and rayelle
Ruinam for not replying you have been cursed with bats that follow you around squeaking constantly for the next RL month (ends Nov 30)
For this round you must find the gates of death and meet the guardian. You can make up any details you like about how the doors work, what the guardian is like, etc. Please powerplay the guardian and end your round by escaping the afterlife. You may have your loved one try to escape with you. You’ll end up back on the beach at the end of your round.
i swore the days were over of courting empty dreams
-----------------------------------------------i worshiped at the altar of losing everything
He hears her, the ghost.
But he feels her words in the marrow of his bones, too.
It’s time to go. And maybe he thought himself impervious to the sharp sting of panic here in the afterlife. He is dead now, he knows, and the heart in his chest is just as useless now as it was when he stepped through the rift. But he doesn’t want to go. What does he have left back there anyway?
‘We’d better get you back,’ Keiran says and nudges his shoulder. He shakes his head, tightly closes his eyes, exhales his useless breath. “I don’t want to go,” he murmurs. This is the fate he deserves. It should be him here, not her. He should have done more. He should have driven himself between them – his sister and the vicious animal desperate for her blood. He should be the one condemned to this. But even this seems too peaceful for what he deserves.
‘Come on,’ she says and extricates herself from his fierce grip. He grits his teeth and studies her face. So much like their mother, he thinks. Fitting that she should have inherited all of her kindness, too. He kisses her head again. ‘I’ll show you the way,’ she adds and then turns from him and he can feel the edges of the moment dissolve into mourning. The useless heart twinges in the cavern of his chest and he swallows down his sudden want to weep as he follows behind her.
He imagines digging in his heels. Collapsing himself here in this ghostly meadow. Dissolving himself into the soil. Can he do that? He is dead now, he thinks and then wonders if there is a certain set of rules the dead must subscribe to. But he follows his sister, obedient. He asks about her afterlife here, he asks about her life on earth. He can sense her sadness as she relays her stories. So he coaxes out memories that make them both laugh and it makes him ache. Because it could be this way forever. She would not have to be alone because he would be here with her.
He says none of this out loud, just fits it into the space around his dormant heart. ‘Will you tell mother that I love her?’ Keiran asks and he knows without having to ask that they are getting close. “Of course,” he whispers and the voice catches on the rust collecting in his throat.
‘We’re almost there,’ she mutters and he nods but does not speak. He does not know how much time has passed – minutes or hours or even days – because time is not the same here. It is not linear and he does not try to understand it.
It happens so quickly that he is left reeling, wondering where he’d lost time. The landscape transforms so suddenly that he is convinced great swaths of time have passed without leaving an impression at all. The meadow has given way to a great ridge of mountains and he follows Keiran closely as she leads him to the mouth of some great pit. He feels no fear, just a sliver of trepidation slipped between his ribs as he moves slowly to the edge.
‘This is it,’ she says. He blinks down into the pool of hot magma, glowing brilliantly. He cannot feel its heat. “This?” he asks, his brow furrowed in confusion. The ghost had mentioned a gate. Keiran nods and then casts a glance over her shoulder as a darkness falls over them. He looks up sharply in time to see the darkness take the shape of a dense shadow that vaguely resembled a horse but more closely resembled something else entirely. He thinks of the soft edges of the ghost on the beach, how brilliant white she had been. Such a stark contrast between the two of them.
You will not get far, the figure says but it does not make a sound. Instead, Kensley can feel the words burning holes through him. They echo in his chest and all the empty space in his head. It is a warning, of that he is sure.
Can you feel it? Before he has time to consider the question, he is awash in brutal heat. It would have stolen the air out of his lungs if he had not overcome the useless habit of breathing on the way here. Instead, it merely sets the nerve endings ablaze. He can feel pain again. He can feel the exhaustion in his muscles from the climb. He can feel every inch of his skin on fire.
‘It’s a trick,’ Keiran says, fiercely. ‘It’s not real, Kensley,’ she continues as he fights the urge to sink to his knees beneath it. ‘It can’t hurt you, it’s all in your mind!’ she shouts.
But it does hurt. The pain is blinding and then it is gone.
That was only a taste. He sucks in a sharp breath purely for the small glimmer of comfort it provides. Go back to where you came from, the figure breathes into the marrow of his bones, there is nothing for you here.
‘Go,’ she says, insists, and he shakes his head. He turns to her then, studies her face, his gaze imploring.
“You,” he counters, “you go. You deserve to be there, Keiran, not me. They’re right, there’s nothing for me there anymore. But mother, she will be so happy to see you. This is my fault, Keiran, let me pay for what I’ve done.”
She glances between him in the pit and then grimaces sharply and he knows that the figure has injected a message into her this time. Her expression collapses around the barbed edges of her pain and she seems just as paralyzed by it as he had been.
‘It will only,’ her is strained and it catches, hitches before she continues, ‘work if it’s you.’ He can only imagine the dark force she is fighting against, the phantom pain the figure has ensconced her in. He cannot fight this but it does not stop him from wanting to fling himself across the pit to rail against the dark force. But this would be just as useless as trying to tear the tiger’s teeth from his sister’s throat had been. He stands there and wishes again that he could take her pain on himself.
‘I will see you soon, Kensley,’ she coughs out and then, before he can brace himself, she is throwing herself against him. It knocks him off-balance and he scrambles for purchase but finds none as he hurtles toward the magma. He does not have time to cry out as he plunges into the pool. He can feel himself fall, fall, fall. The pain is extraordinary but he cannot open his mouth to scream as he falls. He does not know how long he plummets until he crashes into the sea. The ice cold water immediately soothes the burning of his skin as he frantically swims for shore.
He staggers onto the sand and out of the surf before turning sharply. “Keiran!” he screams it at the sky, the voice hoarse. His chest heaves as he sucks in a sharp, world-swallowing breath. The heart beats useless in his chest and his skin tingles with the memory of all that burning as he collapses in the sand.
but you had a halo made of diamonds resting on your head------------------------------- i should be dealing with my demons but i'm dodging them instead
The moment he turns around, the ghost speaks again. He knows, however, that she is still on the threshold, on the beach, now that he is made aware of her again. But he does not ponder how she speaks to him for long; she breaks something off, she says goodbye, and in that moment, a creeping feeling of alarm comes to him.
Honestly he wouldn’t mind being in this place - but it would be such a shame to break off all his experiments in the living world, for some in a place that he will eventually travel to again, anyway - and stay forever.
And so he turns around, leaving the odd forest behind easily. It was hell for him, and the squirrel’s heaven, or something of the like, he wasn’t exactly sure how it worked but he knew it was not his final resting place. Perhaps horses and animals didn’t go to the same place, he deduced.
That meant getting back would be that much harder, too. He grimaced as he found the first guardian - a sphinx-type beast towering over him, and yet, didn’t even seem to notice him. Rajanish, ever the tester, draws closer and closer; he wonders if his translucent appearance had tricked the guardian into thinking he was just another ghost, yet when he stands before the horse-faced lion, no comment is made even as the sphinx stares him right in the eye.
That makes the appaloosa bay brave enough to touch the beast, who reacts with a soft growl and a swishing tail. ”Why’d you let me go?” Rajanish then asks, determined to get his answers.
Finally, the lion stands, moving his paw to shove Raj backwards. ”This isn’t your place. Get lost.” it says, then sits back again, a snarl forming on its face.
The translucent horse debates, but eventually decides that his earlier thought must be right - he’d entered the squirrel’s afterlife by travelling through his own, so going back to the horse version isn’t considered out of the ordinary.
He travels for days afterwards. He loses his sense of direction, loses his sense of time, loses his sense of feeling, because the world around him is numb and forces it unto him. He doesn’t eat and doesn’t drink, because his body isn’t alive to demand anything of the sort and there’s nothing this world has to offer him. He only remembers to search for an exit, and then, after a time, that he was looking for something, and then that he was looking, but can’t remember why.
All in all, from the outside looking in, he might be on his way to become so similar to the world around him, that he might as well be a ghost.
But then, at some point in time, something attracts him. A sparkle relights his curiosity as he follows the light; curiosity that was his main drive when he was still alive - no, wait. He never died! He doesn’t belong! He was supposed to go back… an exit, that’s what he was looking for!
Shaking his head to clear it, he trots towards the gleam, and finds it to be a crack in a rock wall. Peering through, he can see the beach; this must be another entrance, or exit, between the real-life world and the dead one. He’s just about to try and see if he fits (he had never been a very broad stallion, always looking a bit scrawny), when a strong gust of wind blows him sideways so hard, he stumbles a few feet to his left. ”HALT.” a voice demands, one that sounds just like the wind, and not at all horse-like.
”No. I have no reason to be here. I’m alive.” Rajanish declares, his eyes searching for the source of the wind but can’t seem to find it. Ears fall flat on his skull, and he stalks towards the gap once more. It’s there, he knows, and he also knows that this is the way through which ghost shifters might enter, or bring someone back, and through which the ghost said others might be able to follow him, if only for a day. After all, they’d be dead and so, would have to return by the end of the day.
But the guardian sees his thoughts or senses him moving, because once again, he cannot pass. This time, with each step Rajanish takes, the crack slides over just as far as he walks. ”I DON’T THINK SO.” the voice declares. Perhaps, unknown to Raj, the guardian senses the latent ghost-shifting ability that he carries; perhaps Raj had simply stayed in the Afterlife for too long to be recognized as alive.
Gritting his teeth, the translucent bay appaloosa stops moving for a while, and focuses on arguing with the voice. ”I am. You’re just too blind to see it. I came with the others through the crack a ghost made.” he explains, though his voice gets more irritated with each word of explanation. He shouldn’t have to explain this. It should be plain obvious that he doesn’t belong here.
”YOU DIED WHEN YOU PASSED.” A chuckle follows, but Rajanish shakes his head at the play of words, denying what was being said. He remembers he stepped through whole, body and mind, and it’s not like his body is lying on the beach right now. Yet as he peaks through, he sees a lot of horses lying awkwardly on the sand. No, he thinks, it’s a trick. He irritatedly clicks his tongue, glaring around but still, the guardian is only a force and a -now silent- voice. Raj still feels the presence though - pressure in the air all around, pressure that silently seems to force him back.
He decides there’s only one way. Smart as he thinks he is, he walks away from the wall, muttering to himself. ”I’ll find another exit,” hoping to trick the guardian.
Then, a swift turn on his heels, and the anglo-arabian hybrid charges for the crack head-on. The pressure thickens with a menacing laugh and for a moment, the translucent horse realizes his mistake, but it is too late.
With a loud CRACK he breaks through the wall of air that is between him and the exit, shattering the veil in that particular place.
But that’s not the only thing that shatters in the moment; immeasurable pain follows in his head and shoulder, making him unsure in the moment right before the light goes out: if he made it, if he didn’t, or if he made it but killed himself by cracking his skull… only time could tell.
No cost too great. No mind to think. No will to break. No voice to cry out suffering.
She can hear the voice clearly, and she knows who it belongs to.
And what it means.
“Gates of Death,” she breathes, repeating aloud what the voice had said. She looks, unconsciously, around the temple for any sort of direction. But it is her mother who speaks. I will take you to the Gates. The path is treacherous, but I know the way.” the Oracle says, her voice calm but wary. “Come, daughter,” she says, beckoning her only child forward.
Thia can’t help but think how strange it is, stepping out of the temple with her mother. When they had been together, the had been bound to the temple - unable to step outside its marble foundations. But she hesitates when her mother does not stop as she approaches the steep cliff face. However, her mother simply turns and offers a reassuring smile before gesturing to a narrow staircase leading down the cliff face. It was a path clearly not designed for equines, but her mother did not hesitate as she began her descent. Thia balked, for a moment, pulling the wing she must press against the rocks as tightly against her side as possible while extending the other for balance. Again, she found herself grateful to have been given wings, for at least a misstep wouldn’t mean certain death.
Rationally, she knows she could have simply met her mother at the bottom or simply asked for directions. Selfishly, she wanted to spend each and every moment she was allowed with her mother. So she followed, saying little, and trying to remember to breathe as she watched the stones dislodged by her hooves fall into the crashing seas below.
The seas grow louder with every footfall. It’s disconcerting, seeing the stones that had taken her mother from her up this close. But her mother doesn’t seem at all perturbed buy this fact. So Thia keeps her thoughts to herself and simply focuses on taking each step one at a time. Eventually, the path begins to flatten - widen. They’re close enough to the sea now that the sea spray soaks them both.
Thia shivers as the mixture of sea breeze and sea spray chill Thia to the bone, but her mother seems impervious to the cold. Thia’s gaze drifts out to sea - to the horizon that had once been so familiar. But not her mother’s. No, the Oracle turned and walked into a narrow opening in the sheer cliffs - one not visible from the clifftop.
The cave opened dramatically once they stepped through the narrow opening. It was nearly double double their height and wide enough for the pair to walk side by side. Thia slips into step beside the oracle as they walk deeper into the cave. It strikes Thia as odd that, while dark, light seems to emanate from deep within the cave, though the source is indistinguishable. The pair walked quietly for what felt like near an hour before the light began to grow brighter. Eventually - a discernible shape appears.
A gate, clearly metal, as the light glints eerily off the metallic surface. The gates look ancient, but for as old as they must be they are strange in that they appear pristine. She can see the points of polished silver, untouched by tarnish or age. The light comes from somewhere deep behind the gates, but the source remains indistinguishable.
But before the gate - blocking the path of those that may come to escape the afterlife - lies a guardian. The creature is made of stone and has settled at the center of the gate. The creature’s horns nearly brush the roof of the cave. It’s bat-like wings were spread wide, so as if to shield the gates from prying eyes. It appeared similar to a dragon in structure, but it was sitting on its haunches. The creature had feline and humanoid features as well. This was not a dragon at all, but a gargoyle, regarded as many as a creature of evil. But they were not evil.
They were protectors.
And this creature had been charged with guarding the gate between the world of the dead and the land of the living. However, unlike the untouched gates, the age of the stone is undeniable. Moss grows upon the creature’s legs and arms. It is evident where time has taken its toll upon the creature.
Thia steps cautiously towards the creature, her gaze lingering on a large, polished silver bowl that sits nestled between the creature’s clawed feet. The basin is empty, but equally as pristine as the gates behind the gargoyle.
It is only than that her mother speaks. “The dead cannot pass these gates. There is a price the guardian requires, one that the dead can no longer pay.” Thia turns to her mother, the confusion evident on her face. “Blood, my darling. The guardian requires blood. And the dead no longer bleed,” the Oracle says, with some reservation, knowing that it is her daughter that must pay this price. For in the guardian’s right hand is a sword - made of the same silver. The blade has remained sharp and unblemished.
Thia follows her mother’s gaze, and dips her head in understanding. She moves to stand alongside the sword, and sucks in a deep breath as she moves her right shoulder against the sharp blade. The skin and flesh gives way immediately. A small sound escapes her lips as she moves to position the leg above the basin, letting the river of crimson flow down her leg and drip into the basin below. The wound is not so large as to disable her, but the blood flows freely.
Each drip of crimson into the silver basin seems to breathe more life into the stone structure. A deep rumble comes from the chest of the creature, and dust begins to rise around it’s joints. The creature retracts its great wings and turns its stone gaze upon Thia. He says nothing, but dips a large, stone finger into the basin smearing the warm, crimson blood as he draws the finger up to his lips. He slips his finger between his stone lips. The rumble from his chest grows in volume.
“You may pass.” It says in a voice unlike any Thia has ever seen. As the monster clumsily gets to his feet and steps aside. As he moves, the gates begin to slowly move of their own accord - beckoning Thia towards the light.
Thia turns towards her mother - her dark eyes glinting eerily in the strange light. “She said that you may be able to come with me --” Thia begins, but her mother is already shaking her head.
“Darling, it was my time. I belong here. You do not. Go. Live.” The Oracle breathes against her daughter’s neck.
“But I - I don’t know what I’m doing, mother. I don’t know how - “ Thia says, her voice small.
“And that tells me that you’re on the right path. Try things. Find what you like and what you don’t. Make mistakes. Celebrate your successes. Live, daughter.” the Oracle says, as an encouraging, maternal smile appears on her lips. She had foreseen her death, but not this reunion with her daughter. And she was grateful even for these few, precious moments.
“I don’t want to leave you, Mother,” Thia says, watching as the gates continue to swing open to the fullest extent in the narrow cave. Thia cannot see what is on the other side, but she can feel it calling to her from the very depth of her bones. The light, quite literally, is blinding.
“I’ve never left you, darling girl. I am always with you and always will be. And I’ll be here waiting for you when it’s time. With that, the woman presses a kiss to her daughter’s crescent mark brow and steps away.
“I love you,” Thia says, the tears brimming in her dark eyes, trying to memorize every detail of her mother’s face before turning and facing the light. Thia steps through the gates as the light blinds her. For a moment she feels everything and then feels nothing at all.
And then she is back.
Her hooves sink deeply into the soft sand of the beach.
She turns to look behind her and sees...nothing. A small gasp escapes Thia’s lips as she sinks to her knees, the grief crashing over her like the waves crashing upon the sand.
The soft, ghostly whisper filters through the trees, recalling Ion to the reality of his time here. Limited and so very finite. Blinking back tears, Ion pulls himself from Atom’s embrace as he draws several steadying breaths. Atom is smiling faintly at him when he glances at his twin once more. He reaches forward to touch Ion lightly on the bridge of his nose before saying softly, “We should go.”
Ion can only nod in response, throat too tight to form words.
They walk, side-by-side, through the massive trunks as the filtered golden light melts away into a warm and dusky twilight. With a faint trill, the small bird that had clung to Ion’s mane hops forward and flutters into the branches. Ion follows it’s retreating form, gaze lingering as he tries to impart his gratitude without words. As though it understands, the bird chirps once more before disappearing into the foliage.
Returning his attention to Atom, he finds his brother watching him with a bemused expression.“That was my guide too.”
“Oh,” is Ion’s only response, blinking with surprise as he stares at Atom. Atom laughs at that, reaching out to touch him lightly once more before skipping forward with renewed exuberance. Ion follows more sedately, his attention remaining fixed on his brother as he greedily absorbs every moment they have together. When Atom slips alongside him once more, tousled and breathless and grinning, Ion stares at him wordlessly for a long moment, brows furrowing in consideration.
“Atom. What if… What if you came with me?” he asks slowly, mind tumbling over the possibility. Atom’s grin slips, features growing more serious as he appears to consider it.
“I.. I’m not certain I could,” he finally replies cautiously. “But what if you could?” Ion insists, gaze earnest as he stares hard at Atom. “What if you tried?”
Atom seems torn, his gaze darting from Ion to a distant point as his ears flick worriedly atop his head. “I suppose I could try,” he finally agrees hesitantly. Ion’s heart leaps inside his chest, eyes brightening with excitement as he bumps his nose encouragingly against Atom’s neck. “Ok!”
Their journey from there is much quicker, Ion too eager to introduce his brother to the possibilities of life to consider the endless pitfalls that might await. He barely notices the changing landscape, the waving grasses and sandstone they pass. Until a mist begins to swirl around them, obscuring the picturesque scenery. Before long though, a rough, impossibly hewn gate rises from the fog. They both come to a halt, staring at the gate, Atom in trepidation, Ion in awe.
Ion swings around, circling the gate as he tries, unsuccessfully, to determine how it works. When he makes his way back around, he finds Atom just where he had left him, still staring at the gate. He frowns at him for a moment before turning abruptly and asking, “How does it work?”
Setting his shoulder against the gate, he tries to shove it unsuccessfully open. With a huff, he turns to look at Atom, only to find him standing stiff and wide-eyed, the mist swirling heavily around him. His gaze jumps abruptly to Ion. “Ion,” he whispers, “I can’t.”
Panic rises abruptly in Ion’s breast as he lunges forward, pressing himself against him even as the fog begins to drag him back. “ATOM!” he yells desperately, even as he tries to dig his feet in. The mist seems only to writhe more determinedly between them, tendrils winding around Ion’s feet now even as it begins to seep into Atom.
And when Atom speaks once more, his voice is hollow, not his own. “I am the guardian of these gates, and you haven’t the right to pass.”
Panting, tears gathering in his eyes, Ion presses harder. “Please,” he begs, his voice uneven and desperate. “Please, let him pass. He was never supposed to be here.”
He doesn’t even notice when the gates begin to creep open. He only notices that, for a moment, it’s once again Atom looking back at him as he whispers, “Ion, go. Please.”
Ion begins to stiltedly shake his head until Atom suddenly rears back and slams into him. Shocked, Ion stumbles a few steps back. His desperate gaze jumps back to Atom even as he screams, “GO”, his voice hollowing again just as a gust of something like wind, improbable as it seems, slams into Ion, sending him tumbling through the open gate.
With an incoherent yell, Ion tries to fight it, throwing himself back towards the gate as it rumbles shut. Rather than crashing into rough stone as he expected however, he bursts forward onto the beach, tumbling into a jumbled heap upon the sand.
It takes him a moment to register what had happened, but when he does, anger draws another anguished shout from his deepest corners of his soul before he collapses into sobs, face pressed against the sand.
She could have spent forever here next to her beautiful daughter in this muted place. Her presence filled her with light and peace, the giggles that escaped her daughters mouth sending joyfully tears down her cheeks as she talks of all of her siblings and their chaotic adventures and Lethy tells her how much she would love them and how she knew they would of loved her as well. The perfect piece to their family that was missing, like a puzzle piece that had been lost beneath the table waiting to be found.
Lethy had always believed in a higher power, someone giving and taking in her world, and she had thanked them a million times over since finding her daughter here. "Mama, it's time to go," her daughter said. The feeling a peace slowly drifting from Lethy's face as the voice of the ghostly girl tingled softly across her mind. The gates of death. Lethy's eyes met her daughter's locking for only a moment but that moment seemed to last an eternity. The laughter had left them both and Lethy nodded solemnly at her.
Her blue daughter turned to lead her, blue flowers sprouting from the ground in her wake as she went and Lethy's eyes dropped to those flowers focusing in and out of reality as they went. The certainty that this moment would end gripped her mind as the perfect smile of her daughter, cast over her shoulder, pulled strongly on her heart.
They traveled in the absolute quiet of this world for what seemed like a million lifetimes. A beach that never ended it seemed, until her daughter took a sharp left disappearing into the thick forest. Lethy followed the iridescent blue flowers until suddenly her surrounding opened up wide. Before her stood her daughter facing her and behind her a salt blue lake. Lethy's eyes widened as she moved closer to the lake, her shoulder softly drifting across her daughter's as she passed her. This was the first lake she had seen when she came to Beqanna. The one Lepis had brought her to. The place where the plague had riddled her body useless. The disease that she had claimed took her daughter's life.
She turned to look desperately at her daughter, No… no, this can not be it, she said mouth hanging open slightly as she shook her head in utter defiance. My precious girl, do you know what this place is? she asked her gaze moving back to her daughter.
"Yes. It is your gate. The gate of death. The one true way you leave this place," her daughter responded, certainty in her voice. Where her baby girl once stood now stood a woman. The woman her daughter would be had she lived. "You do not belong here mother," she said advancing on Lethy. Lethy backed up as her daughter closed the gap, stepping back belly deep into the cold, salty water. I can't. I can't leave you, she said tears flowing freely now as a shiver ran the length of her body.
The blue dipped mare touched her muzzle to Lethy's softly before exiting the lake. "You are good, mother. You kept fighting when there was no reason to fight. You brought two sons into this world, and you found two daughters that needed love. You taught a man to love unconditionally, and you befriended a woman the rest of the world is against because you, mom, only see the good in the world. Go before I force you to go."
You, you are my gate keeper aren't you? panic bubbled in Lethy's gut, not because she was scared but because reality had slapped her full force in the face, she would have to leave her daughter here. Come with me, please! You can live the life you never had the chance to live! she pleaded with her daughter.
Her daughter closed her eyes and shook her head softly, "I was never meant for your world mom. I have never been apart of that world. I was gone before I even arrived," she said softly. "There is one thing I need you to know before you go. You were never the reason I didn't make it, it was never your fault," and with that Lethy's eyes shot open in surprise as she felt the ground beneath her feet slip away. The salt water engulfed her, penetrated her, drowned her. It burned her lungs as she screamed, as she fought to find her footing.
Color filtered through the slits of her eyelids. She felt the grainy sand beneath her as she coughed, salt water spraying from her mouth. Reality settled in and she pulled herself up finding herself upon the beach once again, her beach. Of all the feelings she could be feeling at this moment in time, as she looked out across the sea, she only felt peace. She had gotten the closure she needed. Her eyes drifted to her hooves and there upon the ground was the blue forget me knot that she had brought, and a smile pulled itself across her lips. She was not alone, she would never be alone.
Rhy’s voice is distant but it still manages to echo inside of her. She flinches when she hears it, because she had been dreading it. She knows she is being called back, and it is all at once a relief and a disappointment. Her head had turned towards the direction of the faint call, but now she looks back to Dhumin with a soft, muted kind of anguish evident in her nearly black eyes. There is so much more that she could say; so many things to try and convince him to see how he had destroyed her, whether he meant to or not.
But then, how could she ever place the blame on him – or anyone – when she had always done everything so willingly?
“I refuse to believe that coming here was a mistake,” she doesn’t know if he will fully fathom the earnesty in her voice, but she offers it to him anyway. She was vacillating between keeping her guard up, the way she always had when he was alive, and finally letting all of her walls come crumbling down. She could tell him that she loved him, she could tell him how he is the only one that has ever ignited even a small spark of jealousy in her. She could tell him how she would have done anything for him, how even though she had finally found a true, unquestionable love in Skellig that she still couldn’t be loyal – that she was still so easily led astray. “I refuse to believe it, but it feels like it was.”
She was close to touching him now, and there is a fleeting moment where she thinks she sees him flinch, like he thought about touching her, too. And in that moment, she thinks her heart might have stopped, but just like countless times before she is left waiting for a kindness that never comes.
And so she recoils, and though tears glitter along her eyelids she blinks them away and they never touch her skin. She does not say goodbye when she turns, and she does not retrieve the shimmering seaglass that still lies on the jungle floor. She leaves him, the token, and the phantom-like forest behind, and she fights every urge to look back.
She walks back along the path from which she had come, but when the jungle fails to give way to the dismal beach from before she can feel her pulse begin to quicken in fear. She hadn’t anticipated getting lost in the afterlife, and she doesn’t want to wonder what happens if you become trapped here as a living thing.
The trees begin to thin and fade, and in its place there is a vast field cloaked in fog. There is a melancholy that hangs thick in the air, and it is with trepidation that she continues forward. She is overcome with such an overwhelming sense of sorrow that it feels like lead in her lungs; like all her heartache that she has so artfully buried is suddenly being forced upon her. She wonders, then, if a heart can truly shatter to pieces in the afterlife, and she is afraid that she is about to find out.
There is a haunting melody, one that is at first so faint that she fears she is imagining it; that this is where she will finally go mad. But the further she walks, the louder it becomes, and the stronger that feeling of crushing sorrow grows. Ahead the mist begins to twist and swirl, parting to reveal a figure. She stops, and the figure stops too, and though she tries to focus, the creature never seems to fully form into anything clear. The song slowly ends, and she lets a silence hang between them for a few heartbeats, before she finally asks in her soft, uncertain way, “Who are you? And where am I?”
“Orpheus,” comes the almost disembodied voice, “And I think you already know. There is a place in the afterlife carved out for souls just like yours – souls that break their own hearts, that live a life full of injured love.”
“But I’m not dead,” and she tries to keep the panic from rising in her throat, she tries to fight the tremble that threatens to shake against the syllables that leave her tongue. “I’m not supposed to be here.” Yet she cannot help but to think that maybe she is. Maybe she is meant to be lost here in this heartbreaking land, without all the toxic ways she finds to soothe her wounds in the living. Maybe she is meant for this punishment, instead of an eternity being alive and at least standing a chance at intermittent moments of happiness.
“You came here to find a lost love, though. I saw you. You’re not going to try and bring him back?” He asks her, and she can feel heat rush to her cheeks, and she again has to swallow the tears away. “I suppose you could say that. Some things are better left lost.” She looks away even though she cannot see his face, willing the hurt from her eyes and smoothing her mask of composure before looking back and whispering, “I just want to go back.”
“Well...I could help you get out, I think,” he says, and she pretends to not notice his uncertainty, because as of now, he is the only hope that she has. She is used to clinging to tenuous threads of hope, at least. And she is used to placing her trust in those that are sure to let her down. There is a subconscious part of her that has accepted that she is meant to be trapped in this mourning field forever. "You won't make it past Cerberus on your own, I can promise you that."
She follows him, this shadowy, obscure figure, clear to the edge of the vale. Through the veil of fog she can hardly make out an entrance to a cave, and just outside of it a strange beast unlike she has ever seen stands sentinel. Like some demonic canine, she feels her apprehension take root when she notices the multiple heads that look in every direction. She can feel her faith begin to fade, and she looks to her guide with doubt clouding her eyes.
Orpheus drifts to the side, and again that low, sweet, sorrowful melody begins to play. “When you get into the cave just run, and remember, don’t look back.” She would never understand how important that was, because she does not know his story, but she has always done as she was told. Sometimes a flaw, and sometimes a strength.
She waits with her heart hammering in her chest and her breath caught in her lungs as the creature is lured from the entrance by the enchanting song, and then seemingly locked in a sleep-like trance.
And she runs.
Her footsteps echo across the stone floor and bounce off the walls, and she does not listen to hear if she is being followed, and she does not dare to glance over her shoulder. She runs through the endless black of the cave, and it is only by some adrenaline-fueled instinct that she remembers to call upon her infrared vision to decipher where the walls are to keep them from hindering her pace.
She doesn’t even know when she finally breaks from the afterlife. There is no great shattering of the veil that she can feel, she just knows hard stone suddenly gives into shifty sand, and the sounds of the waves crashing against the shore are the loudest that she has ever heard. She does not stop until the smell of the salt of the sea and the rotting of corpses reaches her nose, she does not stop until she hears the distant cry of a lone gull.
And when she does stop, with her lungs burning and her legs trembling, and she finally dares to look back, there is no cave to be found. Just a long stretch of beach, riddled with bleached bones.
even angels have their wicked schemes
I took some liberties on the greek mythology to make it work lmao hopefully that's okay.
Their love has never been a tender one. It was many things—passionate, powerful, earth-shattering—but it was never tender, and he does not expect it now. She doesn’t either, he knows. Instead, they regard each other with a gaze that is both cool and heated—furious and needy at once. He smiles, that familiar roguish smile tilting up scarred, weathered lips and his yellow eyes flicker as he studies her face, memorizes it.
“Twinge,” her name feels so right on his bastard tongue that he nearly shatters with it, but he has always been so good at keeping these things hidden—at pretending that they don’t even exist.
Until he finally breaks the space between them.
Between the two of them, it was always him.
His steps toward her are not hurried or panicked, even though they both know this moment isn’t meant to last forever. They are confident, sure, and he steps into her as if he was always there. His nose in the tangled, matted pieces of her hair, her teeth against his neck. He feels the way she tests the flesh, and he remembers the spice of her—the way her small body always felt collided against him.
She doesn’t give an inch and takes more than he in these moments, but he doesn’t care. He loses himself in the familiar patterns of it, the weighty feeling of stone in his chest—the anchor of her through it all.
And before he can possibly understand, he is hearing the woman’s voice and he growls in frustration. Snaps his suddenly feline teeth together as Twinge rolls her eyes at him. “It was never meant to be forever,” her voice is fainter than he remembers—the only piece of her that does not feel rooted in this moment—and he looks down, frowning. “I know,” he mutters, inhales sharply before laughing.
She nips at his jaw.
”You left me here, remember? You don’t get to complain now.”
There’s nothing for him to say about it because it’s true. He had picked her over the Chamber during the flood and then the Chamber over staying here forever with her—and now? Now that the Chamber was long gone, he was choosing himself. Perhaps his greatest love of all, if he was ever being honest.
And, in the end, there is no conversation about whether she was coming with him. She has no place in this new Beqanna—he barely has a place—and she has long since accepted her death in a way Atrox never could. So he doesn’t let the moment become anything more than it is. He accepts it and presses a rough kiss against the dirtied swirl of her forehead before pulling away. “I know the way,” he says with a wink, painfully cavalier because it was easier than untangling the knot of emotions in his empty chest.
And she nods, fading without another word.
Until it’s just him.
Atrox takes a moment to gather himself, to gain his bearings, before he feels that familiar tug in his belly. He finds the path he has walked before, hooves heavy and thudding against the hollow ground, until he sees the faint glow of the gates. So embarrassingly literal, he thinks, with a huff, before pausing, looking for the guardian that he knows well, his teeth set in a straight line when he sees him—old and blind.
Recklessly optimistic, he shifts into his panther form and begins to move forward, crawling along his belly, barely making noise as he pads along. He nears the gate, nearly reaches it, before he hears that thunderous voice of the guardian, and he groans. “I would know you anywhere, Atrox,” the guardian shifts—younger now, made of bronze—but still blind, sightless eyes peering into nothing.
“Not many approach without a heart.” Atrox rolls his eyes.
“Yes, well, it appears I have misplaced my keys. I got lost and wandered and somehow ended up here. I forgot to feed the dog,” he yawns, showing his incisors to no one in particular. “I can keep going if you would like me to, but really, I just want to go home and sleep for a while. So if you don’t mind.”
The guardian laughs, but it is a mirthless sound.
“And you thought because you passed once that I would let you pass again?”
“Well, that was the general idea. Be a pal.”
The guardian shakes his large, metallic head.
“You know there is no such thing as free passage. Not even for you, heartless one.”
Atrox shifts, tilting his wide-jawed head back, yellow eyes narrowing. “You must be a real treat at parties,” he snarls. “It’s not enough that I’ve been dead, had my heart ripped from my chest, lost the only person that I’ve ever cared about to this godforsaken place. Now I need to pay just to go home?”
The guardian rolls a shoulder, but says nothing more.
For a moment, Atrox just stands there, feeling the heat of a familiar rage wash like the tide against his chest—before he locks it away with the rest of his emotions—and shrugs.
“Take whatever you want,” his voice is weary. “Just let me go.”
“You say that you only cared about one,” the guardian muses, thoughtful, staring into the nothingness that surrounds them like there was something. “But there is one other.”
Atrox frowns, confused for a moment, before he finds his mind wrested from his control. He sees his memories begin to play back. Visions of Twinge and the little golden son by her side. The boy growing up wild and free in the jungle before coming to the Chamber and then, to his disgust, leaving for the Gates. The boy who became a man who loved too fiercely. Who fought wars and led raids and died. Who fought the tides of death like him and came back stronger than ever—who found it in him to love again.
It takes everything within him to keep his face still, to bite back the rage.
“What do you want with Magnus? He’s a weak-hearted fool who barely speaks to me.”
The guardian chuckles.
“It is so easy for you to fool others, Atrox, that you sometimes fool yourself.”
A pause, a breathless breath.
“But not me.”
Atrox says nothing, feels his throat constrict.
“You recently fought a war for Magnus. Have settled in the hills of his home for him. You watch over him because he is the only child you ever truly felt anything for—that you ever loved.”
“And now he will forget your name. He will know nothing about you. Your name will be like dust in the wind and his children, and his children’s children will never know your legacy.”
The guardian shifts, considers. “But I am not entirely cruel,” the gates open and he steps aside to open up the way for Atrox. “He will remember you again, will know even more of all the ways you have silently helped him over the years. That is, when you get your heart back.”
Atrox feels something like grief, like hatred, flood him as he bounds forward into the light.
And the only sound that he hears chasing him is the ringing sound of the guardian’s laugh.
And that faint pounding of a beating heart buried in a place that no longer exists.
They aren’t allowed a long reunion, but at least they got something and for that Agetta is grateful. The voice of the ghost-mare comes, so quiet that the white mare almost misses it entirely, so entirely has Plume grasped her focus. Even as she listens though, her gaze doesn’t leave his face.
But at the mention that their loved ones might be able to come with them… her head turns as if to find that mare, to see if she has heard correctly, only to look back to Plume. The words stick in her throat and she cannot speak them out loud, though she feels as though the question must be burning in her eyes and plain as day for all to see. It’s not fair of her to ask it, to ask him to disturb his restful peace, and she’s not sure she has a right to the words. After all these years, Agetta does not think that she needs him - but it is a simple, selfish truth that she wants him.
He smiles at her, seeming to know as always the conflict within her that she does not hide well.
And he also seems to see the reluctance to broach that subject and gives her the time she needs to fret and wonder. The words that come to him are not an answer to that unspoken question, but in response to the task at hand. “Let’s find those gates.” He says, nudging her gently. She is unwilling to move from their embrace and presses close to him for another moment before his wing slides slowly off of her back. Agetta cannot take her gaze off of him, even as he moves to lead the way. Her body follows him without hesitation - she’d follow him anywhere, really - though her mind is still wondering if it’s possible for them to be together.
If she cannot stay here with him, could he truly try to come with her?
The Gates, that is - Heaven’s Gates their old kingdom, begins to fade away as they wander. Moments ago it had stretched forever but now that their purpose seems to have changed, the landscape drops away. It’s not really darkness or light that is left in place of the grasses and hills, more of a swirling nothingness. Almost like mist, but the swirling colours of twilight. It is warm against Agetta’s skin where it touches her, inviting her to stay.
They are mostly quiet as they move. For one, Agetta is far too busy overthinking whether or not she should ask him to come with her back into the world of the living. But also - she is simply too ashamed of the life she has lived since she parted with him last time in the afterlife. She has been so weak that it disgusts her and she cannot bring herself to share any stories with him.
Even stories about their children aren’t easy to come by - how can she mention how proud she is of Depp, how worried she is about where Cyprian might be, without also talking about how much she misses Risa? Their only daughter, dead before she had truly started to live. Guilt eats away at her, dividing her mind and fracturing her heart even further. Maybe she should have sought out Risa after she had heard the siren call of the dead - did they have time to try to find their daughter here so Agetta could bring her back? Give that sweet girl the life she deserved?
Every time her worries threaten to boil over and drown her, a gentle brush of Plume’s wings brings her back to the present.
Just as she’s about to work up the confidence to sort out her thoughts with him, he stops. Her attention turns before them and she sees a large archway out of the swirling mists. The sides look like trees, though the crowns have bent together and there are few stray branches. The two trees are twisted together but if Agetta focuses, she can see that one is living and one is dead.
Just as Agetta is thinking about how the ghost-mare had mentioned a guardian, a figure appears before the doorway, forming out of the swirling mists. The white mare steps a little closer to Plume, pressing against him (though never too hard, even though he’s dead she does not wish to harm his wings) as though she fears they might be separated here and now. Both of their attentions are on the figure before them. It is horse-like in shape and stature, but it is in constant change and fluctuation. One moment Agetta thinks she sees her mother, and then Rooke, then Risa (she gasps and Plume sucks in a breath as they face their daughter for that single heartbeat), and then other faces flicker. Some Agetta recognizes but most she doesn’t - the guardian is borrowing the likeness of the dead. Each familiar face feels like a blow - especially the ones that surprise her. Especially the ones that are foals.
But the eyes of the creature remain the same no matter how the body shifts each second - a deep, fathomless black. There’s no glint of light reflection in them, appearing for all the world as though they are just two deep holes.
“You escaped me once before, little star.” It isn’t so much a voice that comes from the figure, but a deep and alien rumble that echoes through Agetta’s mind. It is a splintered voice, stitched together from millions of other voices and it sends a chill running through her to hear it. “Why should I let you go again?”
This is Death.
And she does not have a good answer.
The truth is, she would not mind staying here - she might even be happier if she did. All her children have grown, hating her or not. Her counterpart is alive, and she does not know whether Atrox has been causing enough trouble to require her as a balance any more.
“She needs to go back.” Plume speaks when her own voice fails her and she feels a wave of love and gratitude wash over her. It feels true when he says it, as though it’s simple and not a decision that could cleave her in two. “It’s not time for her to stay yet.”
A clicking noise comes from Death and its ever-changing head tilts curiously to the side. “Perhaps. There are still things that must happen to her before she is ready.” ‘Uncomfortable’ is not strong enough of a word to explain the depth to which Agetta is unnerved by this discussion. Those eyes are not simply looking at her, but through her - into her mind, into her past… and into her future.
Kastiel’s face appears briefly as it remarks. “But she still escaped.” Although there is no possible way to tell which direction those shadowy eyes can be looking, Agetta nonetheless can sense when Death turns its attention to her. “A price is owed for the favour I granted.”
They are quiet for a moment, watching the flicker of Death’s face as it shifts from one ghost to another. “What do you ask?” Agetta speaks now, doing her best not to make her voice tremble - though she just barely manages it.
“Memories.” Comes the response, so quickly and with such an obvious hunger that the white mare flinches. She can feel Plume tensing beside her, and she asks the question she is sure they are both thinking:
Again that considering, clicking noise before it responded. “I’ll make my selection. Nothing you’ll miss, I think. You’ll remember your life, your family and friends. You might not even notice that I’ve taken anything, I’ll just snatch a few from the dark corners of your mind.” When the white mare seems to hesitate, Death continues - that horrible, twisted voice attempting to coax her out of her uncertainty. “You’ve already forgotten so much, little star. What’s a few more memories?”
It is a strange price, and a confusing one. It is just so, so incredibly vague.
But Plume nudges her, and she looks to him instead - finding it easier to think when she’s not staring into the black holes of Death’s eyes. “You should go, Agetta. There’s still more good you can do.” He presses his muzzle against her neck, and though neither of them are truly breathing she swears she can feel a stir against her skin. “You don’t have to save the world, but you can make it a little brighter.”
Is that his scent surrounding her, or just her memories of it? She hopes that this isn’t the price Death will take from her.
“Plume…” This is it. If she was ever going to ask - it would be now.
There aren’t any words that come to her, however, and instead they just embrace. She cannot ask him to sacrifice his peace just to bring some peace to her life. And he won’t ask her to stay. Not when she’s still got the chance at living. Their ‘I love you’s are whispered against each other’s skin and she lingers long enough that she swear she can hear Death sigh. Only then does the gate begin to pull her away from Plume, and she takes the first few, awful steps away from him. They don’t get easier.
As she slips through the gate, flashes of a dapple grey mare with icy eyes appear in her mind. At first, the sight of this mare brings rage and grief but then the image fades away, and each step it gets a little further away as though she is leaving it behind. The mists of the afterlife swirl around her, washing clean her mind, reaching and sweeping out some of the most horrible, awful traumas of her life and the one responsible.
It will seem like a gift. But it isn’t.
When she arrives on the beach again, her mind feels light - and there’s a smile on her face. A sad, sweet one, but a smile all the same. She doesn’t look behind her, doesn’t want to see that Plume isn’t with her any more. She can only hope that she’s helped open the rift enough so that they can speak every now and then.
This time, she’ll have such wonderful stories to tell.
The colt's eyes snapped open as soon as he awoke, feeling that he dreamed something dark and couldn't quite grasp it. A soft touch ruffled the top of his head. Mother. Oh yes, that had been the dream. He yawned widely, unhappy with the way the dream has ended. It had been bewildering and sad, and he was glad it was over.
Blinking in the grey pre-dawn light, he lifted his head to see Sabra standing over him. The mare was beautiful, smiling softly down at her youngest son where he lay. She was pale in the half light, so very pale. Doubt nibbled on the back of his mind, a question he wasn't certain needed answering.
He rose on spindly legs, kissing his mother's cheek as he did so. She felt as insubstantial as down, and the question pressed a little harder. He ignored it, simply happy to be with his dam on one of her good days. "Come along now, little bird. It's time to go meet your sister." She prompted, nudging his shoulder with the lightest of touches.
"My sister?" He looked at her questioningly, stepping after her as the winged woman nodded and began walking away. It was so hard to see in the grey light, he didn't know how she could see where she was going. Had a fog fallen in while he dreamed? Not even the trees of their forest home loomed. The teal boy kept close to his mother's side, looking for whatever landmarks she steered by.
It was impossible to tell how far they'd gone when the ground began to change. No longer flat and empty, it rolled with soft hills and dunes, a path cut through that they followed one after the other. It seemed that day was blooming, he could see the landscape as it filled in the edges of his vision. Still, it was hard to tell. The light stayed stubbornly dim, a ghost of what he knew sunlight to be. A ghost...
"Where are we going?" He asked after a while, thoroughly confused with the soft, shifting surface beneath their feet.
"My home." Sabra answered, a nostalgic expression on her face. "Where I grew up, or something like it. We're almost there." She nodded ahead of them, beyond a particularly large dune. He sighed a little, but followed his mother doggedly along the rise. On the other side was a surprise. Trees like nothing he'd ever seen before rose on spindly trunks, sprays of humongous leaves crowning each one.
They wound their way down into the shadowed valley beneath, until the flat sky was obscured by paper cutout foliage. It didn't take long for others to join them.
"Sabra." A masculine voice preceded the entrance of a graceful stallion. He smiled as the pair halted, greeting his mother with a warm embrace. His coat was silvery-bright, standing out from the grey tones surrounding them with elegant starkness. "I was worried when you disappeared. You're alright? And," he paused to smile at the colt who huddled at his mother's hip uncertainly. "Who's this fellow? He's not-"
"No, he's not. And he's my son. My youngest..." Sabra cut him off. She paused then, suddenly looking stricken. Wide eyed, she looked at the boy with regretful realisation. "I never named you, did I?" He shook his head, more. This was getting all very overwhelming. The mare sighed, reproaching herself as she did. "Never mind. We'll fix that before we're through here." She promised, kissing his forehead.
"Is Mia around, Ari?" She asked, the trio now moving deeper into the palms. The little boy followed the adults, knowing if he lost sight of his mother he'd never find her again. They didn't have far to go, however. The palms broke open to reveal a pool of water bubbling from the sand. It was a monochrome oasis they'd come to, the kind of land he'd never even heard of. A small herd gathered around the edge of the water, whispered voices filling the air like the buzzing of insects in summer.
A glittering foal broke away from the crowd, only a little more grown than the teal boy himself. Her wings fluttered excitedly as she neared. "Mama! Who'd you bring back?" She cried out. The two children looked at each other curiously, Sabra watching their interaction with a strange look. This wasn't how she'd ever have imagined her children meeting. But she was happy that that were meeting at all.
"Darling, this is Miela. Your elder sister. She lives here with Ari and myself, and the rest of our family who've passed." The others looked on, but let the small family group do their introductions. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Family. Something the mare had been missing so desperately in life, and had finally found in death.
"But that means... No. No!" He backed away, tears flooding his eyes. In all this time, the boy was the only splash of eye aching color that seemed to exist. And he remembered what he'd been trying so hard to forget. Where he was and how he'd gotten there. "You're dead. I tried to find you, but I went the wrong way. And now you're dead." His voice trembled on the words, the world of shadows blurring around him.
Sabra watched him cry, knowing that there was no way to make this easier on the boy. It was simply the reality, that immorality had limits, and she had at last found that breaking point. It broke her heart to see her son so sad, but she could not change what was. Instead, she took the feather she'd been keeping for him, and tucked it carefully into the dense fluff of his flickering mane.
"There is work for us to do yet, love." She murmured, pulling him close, trying to communicate every future hug that they'd now never have into a single embrace. She held it for a long moment, releasing only when she felt her son begin to pull away.
"I brought you here for two reasons. The first, is so that you could meet your family. Remember us, little bird. As long as you remember us, we will always be with you. But I can't have you see the same fate as Miela. I couldn't save her from the plague. I won't see two of my children dead before their first year is out." She spoke firmly her, and he knew it would be pointless to argue with her.
As much as the boy wanted to stay here, to spend the rest of eternity with the family he hadn't even known he had, it would be an injustice to his mother to do so. She would resent herself for it forever. So he nodded and enjoyed her feathery light touches. They'd be gone soon enough.
"Secondly, is the pool. Look inside it, and you'll see what I mean."
He stepped to the edge of the silver water, his mother and sister on either side. When he looked into the pool, he couldn't help but gasp. His mother and his sister looked back from the deep reflection, as vibrantly colored as they'd been in life. He was the one muted to grey and silver, a boy washed of every sign of life. Ari stepped into view, his mother leaning against his steady winged shoulder.
The young colt looked up and down, back and forth again and again, trying to make sense of what he saw. Brilliant chestnut, blue, pink, violet. Silver, grey, ash, white. They stood together, and so very far apart.
Sabra's tears rippled the surface, breaking their image up into a varigated impression of their damaged family. "You have to go. You have to, before I can't let you." She hiccuped. The rest of their herd targeted closer, warm comfort filling the flat air as they congregated around their errant child.
A lovely mare, as pearly white in the mirror of the spring as she was to look at directly, moved to stand before them. She held the same sadness in her eyes as his mother did, the same delicate lines marked her face. "Child, you must step into the water. It will let you return to the place you belong, and you will live the long life you are meant to. My name is Rani, your grandmother. Remember me."
One by one, the members of his family approached, gave their name, and wished him a long life. Mares and stallions, the young and the old, until he feared he couldn't possibly remember them all. But he must. It was through him that their lives would be preserved.
At last it was Miela who stood to face him. The girl who would have been a beautiful, gentle mare today if life had not been so cruelly taken from her. "I am Miela, your sister. Remember me, little brother. And beware of dragons." She added, with a wry look to their mother. Sabra snorted but said nothing. A mystery then, for him to explore when he returned.
He was growing tired again, and knew that he had things to do before he slept. Surrounded by family, he hesitated at the edge of the water. He was as blank as a plain of fresh snow in his reflection. He looked at his mother one last time, and took heart from the pride that glowed in her eyes. He could do this, and carry his family with him. One step. Two steps. And the water only rippled where the boy had been.
"Go with your the love of your family, Saphris."
His name. It echoed in his mind. The last gift of his mother, and it held on to him as he fell through the dark. When the emptiness faded, he expected to have returned to the world of the living. The sandy shore that had sent him on this journey. He had not expected to find a strange, black gate wrought of iron in his path, or more of the flat grey nothing. Nor the horse who stood on watch before it.
He could not decide if it were a white horse, or only the white bones of one who stood there. To look directly at it was to see the horse, but any sliding of the eyes revealed only bleached bone. The moment he appeared, the Guardian turned its head to look him in the eye. A sound like dry branches rubbing against each other filled the empty space; bone on bone. The horse had no eyes, only empty pits where the glimmer of flame lived deep within.
"Wh-who are you?" Saphris asked, voice barely more than a whisper. But it carried on the empty air, and the white being grinned.
"Thou art on the wrong side of the Gate to say thou hast not met me, child. All who exist in mine realm know the name of Death." The words filled the boy's mind, but the eerie horse's jaws only produced a clatter when they moved. It's head cocked sideways, an unnatural angle that turned Saphris' empty stomach. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the sky blue edge of the feather his mother had returned to him. Feeling braver, he stepped closer to the Arcane being.
"I came here to-"
"I know why thou art here. Rhys meddles with the way of things, and expects all to go as planned." The jaws clattered their sharp harmony to the silent voice, as ancient as life itself. "But I do not give up so easily. Thou stand on my side of the Gate, and I do not release mine own so easily. Not long before thine heart gives out and thou shalt spend eternity with thine mother after all."
Saphris swallowed hard. He had not considered the possibility that his mother might be wrong, that he would not be able to leave after all. "Please... I need to go. The lady called us, and I only did what she asked. I only wanted to find my mother." He shook where he stood, feeling the distant panic rise in his belly. He could not end the way his sister had, too soon, too soon. Already he could feel his heart stutter in his chest.
Death loomed large, jaws pitched in a gruesome wide smile. He would be swallowed up, and his colors turned to grey. The boy clutched his eyes tight shut, ready for the pain he was sure would come.
A voice like springtime rain broke through, and Saphris opened his eyes to see the source. A child only a little older than himself had appeared in the grey plain. She was beautiful, the sound of laughter and anger and sorrow made real. White in the way a rainbow is white. And she glowed, ephemeral against the backdrop of nothing. Behind her, the iron gate hung ajar. The faintest scent of ocean air made its way inside, a promise of things to come.
The word vibrated through the air, and it was not in a friendly way. The filly smiled anyway, and in that one expression Saphris saw a million lives pass by. From stalks of grass, to birds hatching from eggs, to creatures he had no name for. All lived, and all died. One could not exist without the other. Life gave them all to her love, and received the next generation's building blocks in return.
They were opposites, and they stood very close by each other. The very air throbbed with their proximity. The Gate stood between them for a reason. But Life knew when she was needed, and so had stepped through. Just for a moment.
"Let him through."
"Why should I? He knew the risks."
"He knew love for his mother."
"Tis no excuse. He stands on my side, he is mine. Infants are being born now, many more than this one. They are thine from the moment air fills their lungs. Be satisfied."
"Not this time. He is mine as well, as long as he has his life and he does. Take something else."
"What else? The scrap has nothing but his life to give."
How strange it was, to hear his fate being debated, his life a mere trinket for the collecting. These were forces beyond his comprehension, and he made himself interupt their bickering anyway.
"I do. Have something else, I mean..." He said, shaking with the effort. Both beings faced him simultaneously, and he knew what it was to be the focus of primeval powers.
"Well?" Life asked, curious in the way one might be if a dumb beast had suddenly taken up knitting. Death looked on, waiting to see what would be offered for his appeasement.
He didn't trust his voice, not now. Instead he reached around, and lifted the now somewhat bedraggled feather from where it was tangled with his mane. This was all he had of his mother. The last token of her love. But she would not be pleased if she knew he had not at least tried to find his way back into the living realm. The feather dropped from his lips to drift to the floor between all three of them. Death looked as surprised as a phantom could. Life smiled.
"Fitting, wouldn't thou agree, my love?" She hummed. Death nodded, sullen but satisfied. The feather melted into the grey, gone before Saphris could snatch it back.
"A token of thine family, the bond that brought thee here. I accept this as payment for thine passage hence. Now go, before I change my mind."
Life laughed, and it was the most wonderful sound he'd ever heard. "Well met, child, well met." She praised, seeming to not see the pain in the boy's eyes as they stepped toward the Gate. He could glimpse the sky through it, blue as his mother's feather had been. "Step through, Saphris. And do not squander this chance that thou hast been given. It was not given lightly." She smiled again, and disappeared as soon as her hoof passed through the portal.
The teal colt did not hesitate, did not look back to see if Death still glowered after him. He walked through on quivering legs and fell to his knees in warm sand on the other side.
It was all too bright, too colorful, too loud. But he had made it. Salt air filled the boy's lungs as he cried for what he'd lost on the Beach.
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