“If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Where once there was silence, now there was the steady drone of the swarm. For all their struggles, they never seemed to put a dent in it.
They worked together, despite it all. Woolyne, pouflon, vespire and ursuki acted in shifts, forging friendships and strengthening bonds. The swarm was a weapon without a hand to wield it. If they pushed harder, they would overcome it! They had to.
Villains rise between the cracks, spectres of ages past. Woolynes complain of usurpers and worse plaguing the corners of their vision. These evils have a name, but most refuse to speak them.
“You’re seeing them too, aren’t you?” Axel asks Tiny one night, hushed, laying low beneath the unrelenting buzz above them.
Whispered wishes spiral skywards all around them, reaching for something familiar. They slip through the beating wings and chittering teeth, hoping, daring. There had to be something else. There had to be a way out of this.
“Me? I’m--” the woolyne shifts uncomfortably, curling their fingers in their tail. “There’s… something. It’s… I don’t know. It’s probably nothing.”
The vespire frowns but doesn’t push it. His heart makes a wish of its own, a small spell that wisps away from him, joining those that came before it. Those whispered wishes mingle amongst themselves, a tireless deluge of color, hopes and dreams. There had to be something. There had to be something else.
The wish breaks through the swarm, a single thread of fate. But it doesn’t find an answer. It doesn’t find the way out.
All it finds is nothing.
It was midnight. Well, maybe it was midnight. There were no clocks ticking the hours here. There were no city guards calling the minutes. It was dark in this hypothetical midnight, hungry mouths devouring the sky. Their wings swallowed what light the evergolden shards cast.
In the darkness, Tejat sits alone with herself.
The hours were tedious. They drifted and flew by at the pace of time, and it irritated her. Everything about this situation irritated her. Even now, she searched for any scrap of color on the horizon. Any glimmer of anything. But there was nothing.
A billow of ash foretells her company. She doesn’t look at Jishui as he sits beside her.
“Hey,” the darkstar says quietly. The lighter twin glances sidelong at her other half before she looks back to the blackened sky. Jishui sighs from his nose before following her gaze.
The two that were four sat like that for a while. Silence wasn’t unusual between them. They’d traversed much greater distances than what lay between them now. It shouldn’t be this daunting, but…
“...No hard feelings, alright?” Jishui says finally. “You’re right, I wouldn’t really have… I was--”
“Shhh,” Tejat cuts in, rubbing her jaw. “You talk too much. Just listen, this once.”
Her twin falls silent, a petulant curve to his mouth that slowly fades as he does just that-- listen.
The realization dawns on him. “There’s nothing,” he says quietly, voice just above a whisper. The drone of thousands of beating wings, the wind whipped by the swarm-- it was all gone. The Bridge was completely, utterly and eerily silent.
Tejat works her jaw, popping it. Then she twists her head back towards Tejat, eyebrows up. “You can feel it, can’t you?”
He could. He could feel the tension creeping into his teeth, a dull ache that was as familiar as it was unwanted.
“Yeah,” Jishui grumbles, pushing himself back up. “I do.”
“....So... what’s your plan?”
The dark twin was already headed back towards the camp. He calls behind him, “Wake them before it’s too late!”
Tejat wrinkles her nose before settling back into her vigil.
“It’s already too late,” the cynical star mutters to herself.
It’s just past hypothetical midnight.
The Bridge is quiet. Ash rolls across the severed plains, swallowing rust. The world is dark and ominous, wearing a cloak of wings. A star careens towards inevitability. Sleep while you can.
Nothing is well.
Pressure is building. There’s no solace in this oppressive place. It’s too late to wake up. It’s too late to go home. It spirals beyond control.
How could silence be so deafening?
It would be a comfort, to sink into the disquieting quiet. To relish familiarity in an alien place. The growing, screaming pressure in their heads was a comfortable misery, as suffocating as a blanket wrapped too tight.
Axel sits still as a statue, a sentinel staring into the darkness above. His jaw tightens as a comforting wing sweeps over him. Azariah rumbles in her chest. The Arbiter breaks the silence with the first note of a song--
--Throughout the camp, more join. The vespire first, then others. Jishui waves his arms frantically from too far off to matter. It was not the star that alerted the camp, but instead a note that zipped through their sleeping minds and brought them, slowly, cautiously, back to reality.
Salvation in B minor.
The song winds through the camp like a snake, drawing more bodies into its thrall. It does little to ease the pain in their heads, building now behind the eyes.
A younger brother clings to his older sibling. Quietly, oh so quietly, Titan whispers, “I want to go home.”
Tight lipped discussions happen in the dark. Nouvel begs for clemency. “We have to evacuate,” the queen pleads with Ericius. “All of us.”
“We cannot spell all of you,” the dark king fires back. “It’s that simple! Stay put or drown, what’s your choice?”
There is no right answer. No. Nothing is well.
The pressure builds until the two are arguing, the king putting on a colorful display of flashing lights that flicker against the dark canopy. Their voices ring throughout the camp, contrasting the song and the dreadful silence beyond.
Something had to give.
Something did, in the wee hours of the morning. It was not a release, like before. The pressure lifted in a cold, trickling way, slipping and sinking from behind their eyes to the pits of their stomachs.
There it sits, becoming hard like ice. Frigid, sick dread. It creeps insidiously throughout the camp, sleep a distant, fond memory. Anxiety of anticipation, they wait with growing trepidation for the sky to fall.
It doesn’t. Distant worlds glimmer between the darting of the silent plague. Something imperceptible shifts. A tremor rips through the Bridge, shaking everyone on its back. Ash kicks up, shrouding the camp.
“CLEAR IT! CLEAR IT!!!” shouts someone, but who?
No number of beating wings could do the job, magic sputtering and failing at their fingertips. The pressure builds again, running under their skin and prickling the hair along their necks. Something immense was just out of sight. They could feel the weight of it. Looming. Waiting.
“Wait-” someone pleads, their wish choked before it could fly.
The veil pulls over them like gossamer, silk caressing them before it was gone. Axel points skyward with a shaking claw.
As the ash settles, they can all see the sky as it twists like a piece of fabric. How could it be taut in one place, and flowing in the next? The sky does not fall so much as drape languidly, little pieces of other worlds becoming little more than a colorful swatch on a quilt.
Following the line of motion was madness. The sky ate the horizon. But it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t natural. It twisted and took and took and took until there was nothing left but the facsimile of atmosphere. Nothing remained. It swallowed the ground as it moved, kicking up more ash.
The sky had form but it was… nothing. The eye slipped over the form consuming the horizon line like water off a tin roof. It pings, painfully, but you could not perceive it. Those that gazed too long felt it in their heads, the pressure building and building and building--
--this shouldn’t exist, it couldn’t exist. Some mumbled prayers as the form shifts, stretching the sky and bulging where there should be no mass. The swarm flocks to it, darting in and around its pieces. As they give back the sky, the camp discovers that it’s dark. Empty.
There’s nothing left.
Every bit of sky now lay before them.
“It’s gaining!” warns a scout as Queen Asaaj claps Tiny on the shoulder.
“Do as I told you, both of you,” the Queen smiles at the siblings. “Stick with Avalon, alright? She’ll take care of you.”
The plucky shifts uneasily on her hooves but puts on a smile for the two kittens. “That’s right, ain’t it? Never let y’down before. Now, let’s hightail it.” Her tail sweeps behind her as she looks up at the dragon queen, brows pulling together.
“I’ll take’m through the portal,” Avalon promises, “Just… come get’m when yer done here.”
The queen nods as the farmer turns, ushering Tiny and Titan with her wings. When, Avalon had asserted. If only they could all be so sure of their uncertain fate.
“Queen Asaaj,” her guard murmurs, beckoning with a hand. The fire along the queen’s tail spits and flickers as the Queen sees the two children off before joining Kilau.
Their battle lines had been hurried, a song still worming through the camp. Stay awake. Be ready. Be strong. Kilau watches the approaching mass, gesturing with her claws. “It’s split. There are smaller bits now. Don’t stray, Queen Asaaj. The ash is thick.”
Asaaj places a hand on Kilau’s shoulder and squeezes. “Look for the fire and you’ll always find me.”
Kilau glances sidelong at her charge and smiles halfheartedly. She opens her mouth to reply, but before the shifter could speak, a darkened form streaks out of the ash to collide with her, knocking Queen Asaaj away as the two tumble into the darkness.
“KILAU!” the queen screams, staggering back to her feet and searching the ash. Guttural growls and feral screeches clasped her heart and squeezed. She takes a step towards the source but Jishui’s arm thumps hard into her chest just before a shot of fire lances through the ash near enough to singe the star’s whiskers.
“Don’t,” the twin warns just before another shadow leaps for him, fangs bared in the form of dual steel. The swords sing as a guard cries the warning--
“IT’S THE ARCANUM!”
As the camp dissolves into chaos around her, Asaaj tries to follow the movement of Tooth, Tail and Nail, fire whipping between her fingers. If she could only get a clear target-- maybe she could burn away the ash? But would that risk hitting someone else?
With grit teeth the queen calls upon her bonded spirit, fire pulsing down her arms and filling her veins with the aching, terrible desire to burn. She raises her hands as a figure steps from the direction Kilau should have been.
It wasn’t right, a shifting amalgamation of color. An otherworldly glimmer clings to him still, even like this, dripping like wax. The king of lies reaches for her, his voice strained and gravelly, “I thought I told you to s̶t̷a̵y̵ ̵o̸u̶t̸ ̷o̸f̴ ̸ A̵͈͕͒̅l̴̨̍̓d̸̞̀͗l̸̮͛͠i̶͉̜͌g̷͔̹̈́h̶͙̒t̴̖̂?”
The Mazri queen clenches her fist, fire escaping through the cracks. She stares Baldric the False King down, a grin slowly twisting her mouth.
“Finally,” Queen Asaaj comments just before going supernova.
“Single file! One at a time!” the darkstar directs, glancing now and then over his shoulder as those that could evacuate, did. Despite King Ericius’ protests, as many as Aequor could handle were pouring back into the temple built around the tear.
Woolyne were welcomed, too. Anyone who could was stumbling away from inevitability as fast as their legs could carry them. It was too many. It wasn’t enough.
Queen Nouvel and the Arbiter discussed strategy hurriedly as the camp shifted behind them. They would distract while the rest evacuated, and then… and then--
“Take this down for me,” Nouvel instructs, the dutiful messenger whipping out pen and paper from her pack. “Dear Princess-- no. My dearest Fi.”
As the queen finished her letter beneath the watchful eye of the vespire representative, the messenger whisked the scroll away. As Nouvel turns from her, the pixie speaks, “‘Scuse me, miss Queenie, but…”
Nouvel turns to face Quincey, “...Sorry, but you make it sound like you don’t plan to come back.” The messenger adjusts her goggles with a snap. “None of my business, ‘course, but I thought I should say… come back, y’know? Fi’ll miss you.”
With that, Quincey turns with a jaunty salute of her wings. “Hurry,” Nouvel murmurs. “She’ll need you now more than ever. Fly fast, Quincey.”
At length, Azariah asks, “Do you think your daughter will be a good queen?”
Nouvel shoots the ancient a look before sighing from her nose. “Yes. Without a doubt.”
“Good,” the vespire responds, turning her attention to the horror on the horizon. “Then we can fight without regrets.”
Nouvel joins the Arbiter, frowning. “Yes,” she responds, despite herself. Still, this isn’t how she wanted it to be. Fiorel wasn’t ready yet. She wouldn’t be for a long time. Were any of them ever ready, though? The crown was heavy. That weight was hard for even her to bear.
“You were younger, when you reached for the throne,” the Arbiter reminds her.
Nouvel’s muzzle wrinkles. “That... was different.”
“Not so,” Azariah counters. “You were protecting the kingdom, just as you are now.”
“For all the good it will have done,” Nouvel murmurs, watching the shape beyond them shifting. “I’m… grateful, that you’re here with me. This time.”
“Mm,” the Arbiter sighs. “As am I.”
As Asaaj dealt firmly with her past, so too did theirs appear. Slowly at first, then faster, greedily clutching at the colors and claiming all of them, a dizzying array. The way they moved was sickening, undulating and pendulous and formless-- until they weren’t.
Where once there was nothing, their fear takes form. Mountainous, like the regrets they had yet to overcome. Worlds stack high, up and up and up, scaling over top the ones that came before. The young evacuate, one fearful face turning towards the queens as they confronted their combined history.
To the child, it was just the mass. It was nothing. Queen Nouvel reared back, wings splayed. Azariah the Arbiter grew stiff, ears flicking back and pneumir wafted from her mouth in spades.
To them, the mountain spirals from a molehill, a towering reminder of the rift between them.
“You,” hisses Azariah.
The Old King smiles, rictus grin. Then he lunges for the vespire, tail swinging like a morningstar at his usurper. The arcane burns through the air as the ash swallows the trio.
Just like that, they were gone
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