There were no more stairs further down in the chamber. This was the final room. Marvie sat in a dead end. When Lasha’s footsteps echoed through the room, she turned around. She smiled, as if elated. For a moment, Lasha thought it was her friend.
“It’s only you two?”
“Just us.” Lasha said. Celeste waited on the stairs, unwilling to get involved in the fight. Valyra still figured she was here too.
Valyra stood up. “I’m strange, aren’t I? There’s no one like me.”
“If you leave my friend, you may flee from here.”
“But you will kill Jaliehv.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“You will. One of you will. Unless I kill you all first.”
“It may be too late already.”
Valyra turned around again and paced in circles. “I was made so I could copy the powers of the gods. And I can. With me, Jaliehv succeeded. I can. At least the powers she cared about. Not their immortality though, or their shapeshifting. Only the power over their aspect. But Marvyad gave me her shapeshifting, temporarily, while I occupy her. I’ve been wondering what I would look like if I was born with a body. Jaliehv used Attejs for her experiments, so I’d probably be one. But would I look like one if I had the choice? A body is the reflection of the self, right? Even when most of it is predetermined, we make ourselves at home in it, right? I’ve only made few experiences in my life, but this is what I came up with.”
Valyra changed. She took on the appearance of a human. It was clearly inspired by Lasha’s but had long red hair and a tail like Marvie’s but in red. “Does this look like me?”
“It’s a stranger.”
“Of course. This is the first time we’ve truly met. I’m Valyra.”
“I don’t care about you. Release Marvie.”
“I can’t. Without a body, I cannot use any of my abilities. I need her in order to fight you and save Jaliehv.”
“Then switch into the body of another henchman, I’m sure you’ve got another lying around down here.”
“Strategically, that would be foolish. And I don’t trust you. Do you want to kill one of my friends? Why should I let you? Kill your own if you must.”
“I don’t want to kill anyone but how else do we stop you at this point?”
“Why would you want to stop us?”
“Because Jaliehv killed people. Her own allies even, to produce you.”
Valyra struggled with this one. “I- Jaliehv wants to make a better world. She told me. It all made sense when she told me. Your father let them all die. Midori is a mental wreck who regularly beats herself half to death. Apolomyem is an easy to manipulate coward. Should these people be our gods?”
“Maybe not.” Lasha was a little startled that she said that, but now she had. “But Jaliehv shouldn’t either.”
“I just don’t want her to die. She is all I know.”
“Cynthia is fighting her right now.”
“Then I’ve wasted enough time.” Valyra used Marvie’s shapeshifting to produce an axe. She swung it at Lasha, who blocked it with her hand. As expected, Valyra couldn’t make sharp objects either. Lasha lunged forward and threw Valyra on the ground. She wasn’t done trying to convince her yet. She held her arms down and yelled at her.
“Jaliehv wouldn’t want you to die here. Just flee. She is already dead. There is no point.”
“I know what she wants. But everyone here, they’re my friends, are they not? No matter how futile, I want to save them from you.”
“I want the same thing.”
“Then you understand why I can’t just give them up.”
“But these people, you barely know them. I’ve known Marvie for five years, I’ve grown up with her.”
“I’ve not had five years yet!”
Valyra stretched out a long tongue. They must’ve equipped Marvie with mutations for Valyra to use in preparation for this fight. Lasha thought it was going to wrap around her neck, but instead it just licked across her eyes, blinding her. A distraction.
Lasha felt heat approaching from the side and figured that Valyra shot a concentrated pillar of fire to push Lasha off her. Hadn’t she rolled out of the way and gotten hit directly, that attack would’ve done more than burn her body in half. Her skin blistered in the heat. Valyra shot another beam of fire down on her. Lasha rolled once more to the side and jumped up on her feet, wiping the saliva off her face with a sleeve. She was certain these attacks would kill her if they hit. She wasn’t sure if she could reach that level with her shadows.
Celeste came rushing down the stairs. She must’ve heard the fight break out, which was her cue that Lasha’s plan to convince Valyra to give up had failed and they’d continue with the original plan.
“No, not yet!” Lasha urged her. But she realized there was no point in talking. Maybe if Lasha could attack with a similar strength, it would scare Valyra and make her flee. When the flames died, Lasha took control of the shadows and lashed them at Valyra. She tried to channel all her power into it. If she could just put a little crack in her soul and put mortal fear into her. The reason she chose to possess Marvie over Madrian was because she was afraid to die. Because they could’ve killed her in Madrian without hesitation. The shadows served like tentacle extensions of her arms. The earth powers protected her body from harm but her attacks only had to reach the soul. But she was exhausting her reserves fast to muster that power and Valyra wouldn’t stop fighting without injuries. Then Lasha felt Valyra’s soul give way a little. And Valyra did too. For a moment the two stood still. Valyra struck out her palm and a bright light emitted from it. Lasha wasn’t fast or prepared enough to dodge a light attack. The fear of death only made Valyra fight more desperately. She won’t give up Marvie. Lasha’s body went numb, all her attention focused on her final thoughts. She regretted doing this to Algasath. Regretted that Valyra made Marvie watch this. Regretted never talking to Julia.
“Lasha, now!” Celeste yelled. It took Lasha a moment to process why she wasn’t dead yet. Celeste halted Valyra soul, saving Lasha’s life in the last second before the beam shot out.
“I can’t hold her for long. You have to do it now. I’m sorry.”
Lasha looked at the unfamiliar face that looked similar to her own.
“You should’ve just fled.” She said with tears welling up.
“Maybe I should’ve.”
She didn’t know if it was the shock of near death or something else, but she acted without much thinking. She put all her remaining strength into her shadow and pierced it through Valyra. She felt a soul within, resist, then break away. The body collapsed to the floor. Soulless now. Dead. Lasha fell to her knees and took the stranger’s hand. She wanted to say she was sorry, but couldn’t speak between the tears.
Celeste collapsed next to her. “What have I done?” she muttered.
Cynthia led the group going down to the last floor. A shaken Celeste met them halfway.
“Give them some time alone.” She said. Everyone was hit with a deep sorrow as she walked past them. As the dream she carried washed over them. They descended no further, seeking comfort in each other’s arms.
Eventually, Lasha came up, carrying a body no one recognized. It was a long way back to the surface.
The funeral was held in Amieredetta. The town had no graveyard, so Lasha decided she should be buried on the surface, at the edge of the forest, just above the beach they went to when they first met. She didn’t say a word during the whole ceremony, but everyone else had something to say about the blue goofball that had come to their town. The funeral was attended mostly by Sjetta, the townspeople that had known her for years.
Duuri decided to watch from afar. It didn’t feel right to stand among Marvyad’s friends.
“You came too?” Celeste appeared from behind.
“Go ahead.” Duuri stepped aside.
“I’d rather stay back here. I can’t face her either.”
“I regret never giving us a chance to talk. I feel like, only now that she is dead am I finally ready to listen.”
“At least she finally inspired you to be better.”
“It wasn’t worth it at all.”
“No. But you can make the best of it.”
“...You did the best you could.”
“It doesn’t always feel that way.”
“So we meet again.” Jaliehv said, defeated.
“Is it over?” Madrian asked.
“For now, at least.”
Madrian summoned the book of fates. He didn’t need to check if Jaliehv had fulfilled her fated task, she clearly had, though he was quite surprised at what it was.
“It was a legitimate death. You may enter the Afterlife.”
“Thank you, Madrian.” Jaliehv said. “I promise I won’t stay long.”
“No, you won’t.” Madrian assured her. “Your soul will be recycled right away.”
“What?” But- I’m not ready to move on yet!”
“I won’t have you in the same realm as my daughter after what you did.”
“I can’t hurt her like this. Please, Madrian, don’t burden an innocent person with a turmoiled soul.”
“Just tell me, how many souls have you broken?”
“Just two. It was just two.”
“Where is that sword?”
“I teleported it away. I don’t know where.”
Madrian stared down at her. Jaliehv stopped looking up to him with a pleading frown. Her arms and head slumped down.
“Sixty.” She said. “I’ve broken about sixty Attejs souls for my experiments. Most of them still live as incomplete Fleshless.”
“Fleshless.” Madrian repeated.
“They are souls without their own body. Without their own flesh.”
“There’s only one sword and we only made ten heart prisons. That’s it.”
“The creator has given us a finite amount of souls, Jaliehv. To destroy them- You’ve relinquished the rights to yours. You will not hold it hostage anymore. Maybe the next person will have nightmares of your regrets, but by the next cycle, your remains should have been completely washed from it.”
Jaliehv exhaled. “Okay then. It doesn’t matter. This is no longer my world.”
“Goodbye, Jaliehv.” Madrian sent her soul away. Some newborn in the world will receive it. Sixty souls broken. One freed from immortality.
“Can I go back home now?” Sinder asked after lifting up her earphones.
“Let me process the remaining dead, just to be sure.”
Sinder put her music player back on. Daniel returned to the entrance hall.
“Welcome back, Daniel.” Madrian said.
“So this is real…” Daniel mumbled to himself.
Madrian opened his book. His fated task was one he had to check. He was given limited time travel abilities for this purpose. He could observe the past or present but not interact with it. Daniel’s contribution to the best timeline was to skip school in his last year, on a specific date. The entrance hall brought them to a copy of that moment.
“Why are we here?” Daniel asked.
“There was something you needed to do this day. I cannot allow you into the Afterlife otherwise.”
“So if I didn’t do it, you’ll bring me back to life?”
“I’m sorry, no, we’ll have to change events accordingly. I would’ve brought you back if what you needed to do was yet in the future.”
Daniel watched his teenage self on his way to school. “I vaguely remember this. Someone on the internet said skipping school at least once was a vital experience to make as a child. I’ve never done it before and my chances were running out.”
“Sometimes authorities should be defied. Maybe not the obligation of attending school, but it is a relatively consequence-free way to do it.”
“Is that what I was supposed to do?”
The two watched the young Daniel stop and think. Then change directions and walk into the inner city.
“Yes, it was.”
“I bought a pizza for myself for lunch. I saw a movie at the earliest time they were showing.”
“Looks like everything checks out then.”
They returned to the black nothingness of the entrance hall.
“So I’m truly dead now?”
“I’m sorry. Some people just die young.”
“You said you would have good news for me.”
“The person that had you killed came in earlier. I hope you can derive a sense of justice from that.”
“I see.” Daniel laughed for a second. “Go ahead then. Bring me to the Afterlife. Will I meet that person there?”
“No.” Madrian simply said and sent Daniel away.
“Why was him skipping school so important?” Sinder asked.
“I’ve long stopped wondering. Something bad would have happened had he gone to school. Or maybe his actions inspired someone else. If you ever take over for me, you are free to explore these things. You have all the time in the world here. All you need is the person’s book.”
“Is it safe now?”
“Yes, you can go home. Decide what we have for dinner, okay?”
Sinder smiled, her torture of boredom finally over. She vanished back home.
The next soul arrived. Madrian hated seeing familiar faces.
Eight gods met in the central chamber of Amieredetta. It was time to wrap up the Jaliehv incident. It was decided that Malai would become the new light god. She was unsure of it, but the others thought her to be the best choice. She was worried, as many Attejs were still supportive of Jaliehv. Revealing the full extent of her crimes may change some people’s minds though. Furthermore, Apolomyem was also turned mortal. After being released from the heart prison, he was left to live his life as he pleased. Most of Jaliehv’s allies simply moved on or vanished off the face of the earth.
Milala travelled from place to place, but she wanted to settle down somewhere, she just didn’t know where. Corpix was a big reason she felt ready to do so. Whenever one of the two missed the wilderness, they would start a fight again. The two became good friends in a short time.
Chesster and Lilorett moved to Ishaeul and gained another friend with Monique. They hope to one day see the rest of the world. Duuri came to visit Monique more often and was generally more open to things she dismissed as unnatural and harmful before. Still, she was easily overwhelmed with frustration when things didn’t go her way. It may take a long time to change her.
Rule lived away from civilization, her only interactions with those that stumbled into her. She was overwhelmed by too many people at once. It was unclear what her connection to Jaliehv was in the first place.
Doowu moved to Amieredetta. She and Nelub had a lot in common and started to live together. They found things they admired in the other and flaws they thought they could help the other with.
Remic disappeared without a trace, along with her double. It is unknown whether she managed to undo all the spells she cast on herself and reunite with her other half. Sometime in the future she would return, having perfected her method for producing soulless bodies.
Lumie remained in Jaluxar. She was made the leader of the Attejs that supported Jaliehv and Malai would have to find a way to deal with her in the future. Lumie and her party romanticized Jaliehv’s unabashed use of war and violence in particular.
Nereza did visit Monique every now and then but was occupied with exploring the dry land most of the time. She did eventually learn where her parents lived nowadays but hasn’t contacted them or was certain if she ever would.
It was unclear who should be the new god of earth. In the end it was decided that it should be a human. The president of PEPRR was chosen, already a leader of humans. With that, the handling of the aftermath had only begun though. Apol was now littered with abandoned human settlements. There weren’t enough people to repopulate and rebuild them, so many will just have to be left to rot. A lot of Apolese humans refused to move to Red City though and would rather stay close to home, in the climate and environment they knew.
To help with that, a new settlement was founded in Apol, amidst the ruins. One built up and inhabited by humans, Asterians, Sjetta, Attejs, maybe even Fleshless or Lemadoren one day. The people staying in Apol would not be left alone and could move into this new place once they were ready. And as the settlement would grow, it could give new life to the ruins around it. It was called New Years City, in honor of the new age starting for all people of Nalisatna. Though it would be a while before it truly was a city.
Lasha liked the idea of having a human settlement nearby again. It was a bit further away than her old home, but not too far a distance to travel as a demigod. As more information was shared, the human media eventually grew interested in the story of the girl that lived with Sjetta years before the reveal. She had hoped New Years would be a place where she wasn’t recognized by everyone she passed, but many felt their spirits lifted by this story, as tragically as it began.
“Hey.” Lasha said.
“Hey.” Marvie responded. Only a day had passed since the two had last seen each other. A lot was different now.
“You don’t look like the other souls.” Lasha noted.
“I guess as a shapeshifter, I have a much better grasp on my appearance.”
The two stood in silence.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise. Of living forever with you.”
“I’m sorry too.”
“My last five years were a blast though. Back on Shandi, I didn’t hope to be happy for such a long time.”
“You deserve at least a hundred more.”
“It is okay.”
They enjoyed being around each other quietly for a little longer.
“How are you?” Marvie asked.
“I’m grieving. But I haven’t self-harmed in a week. I want to try and keep it up.”
“That is good. Hang in there, Lasha. Don’t wait to be happy.”
“You don’t look surprised. Have you known too?”
“Not for sure. Not for long.”
“I was debating telling you. Either way, I’m glad you know now. I just wish you had the time to see me pull through.”
“I was planning on heading out once we are done here. There wasn’t much left unsaid. But I can wait if you want.”
“No.” Lasha shook her head. “No, no…”
“You’re right. That’d just make it harder on both of us.”
There was one last still moment between them.
“I tasted your face.” Marvie said. “The only thing I ever tasted. Would you say you taste better or worse than cake?”
“Then I truly have no regrets.”
Lasha laughed and Marvie joined in. Afterwards Marvie stood up.
“I’m ready to go. You too?”
“Yeah.” Lasha wiped away the tears and hugged Marvie.
“Live a good life Lasha.”
Lasha let her friend go. Marvie went to Madrian, who had watched silently from a distance. The two exchanged some words Lasha didn’t hear. Then Marvie disappeared. Madrian moved over to her but didn’t say anything. Lasha let herself cry. She remembered her friend and found that many memories still made her smile.