Oblivion was supposed to be a place of solitude. It also wasn’t supposed to hurt. These and other misconceptions were dispelled when I woke to find myself floating in a great empty void.
“That looked incredibly painfully.” Pen said. I opened my eyes to find him floating a few feet away, a concerned look on his face. The remains of the orb he’d been trapped in, the one I’d wrested away from the Oblivion Knight, floated in pieces behind him.
“It wasn’t even in the top three worst things I’ve felt tonight.” I joked. On consideration though, it was the truth. Between clutching the Shadow Court’s Heart and the various other abuses I’d suffered or inflicted on myself, giving myself over to Oblivion had been almost seductively easy. That made it even more surprising how deeply I ached. I couldn’t tell if I was in my real body or my Dreamlit one or neither. Either way I was a mess.
I tried to raise my hand to see if I was burnt and shriveled. I didn’t feel burned but it felt like my hand weighed a million tons. Paralysis drifted through my mind as a possible explanation but it wasn’t that, I was just tired beyond the scope of words to convey. Vanity and morbid curiosity pushed me onwards and I was pleased to see when I finally dragged my hand up into view that my skin looked fine. It was only what was inside that was damaged.
From our relative positions it felt like I was laying down and Pen was hovering over and to the side of me. With no reference points to judge by though I could have as easily been standing up. It didn’t really matter but my brain wanted an “up” to orient itself by.
“I can’t believe you had to rescue me twice!” Pen groaned.
“Had a promise to keep.” I replied sleepily.
“But I didn’t want you to have to wind up here!” he said, his voice pained.
“Don’t worry, it wasn’t a promise to you.” I said, fighting off the lethargy that was weighing me down.
“What? You weren’t just rescuing me? You promised someone you’d come here? Who did you make a insane promise like that to?” he asked.
“The Oblivion Knight.” I said.
“Who…wait…him? You named him?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.” I smiled. It was cute seeing him clueless and flustered.
“I don’t understand. How could you do that? He’s a Remnant!” Pen objected.
“Well, see, I could tell you, but it’s pretty dangerous knowledge to have. Maybe you could play twenty questions for it?” I said with a completely straight face.
Pen’s jaw dropped and I couldn’t control myself. I burst out in a fit of giggles that left me gasping in pain and out of breath.
“It’s really not that funny.” Pen deadpanned.
“Yes it is. Oh, ouch.”, I winced as my sides ached again, ”The look on your face? So, worth it!”
“I’m glad you’re able to enjoy this.” Pen said, his smile dropping into an undercurrent of sadness.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him. I felt better for laughing, but still achy and spent.
“Nothing a little imagination can’t fix.” he said with forced cheer..
“What do you mean?” I asked, more curious than worried still.
“Well, we can’t stay here like this. You’re holding yourself together for now, creating your own bubble of reality, but if you stay like that for too long you’ll go crazy. Or I guess “crazier” given that you chose to come here in the first place. Don’t worry though. I can show you how to make your own bubble universe. You can make it as awesome as you want. It’s what I did inside the pendant that you caught.” he said.
“I notice you didn’t stay in that pendant. Sounds like it’d be a lonely place? A whole world of nothing but me? No thanks, I’m not that narcissistic!”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to be. It’s the only way Remnants like us can survive. Otherwise we turn into things like your Oblivion Knight. Or worse.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I didn’t come here to become the new Oblivion Queen. I’m looking for something.”
“Huh? What could you possibly be looking for? There’s nothing here. Literally Nothing. The fundamental, primal, definitional, ‘Nothing’.” Pen objected, throwing his hands out to gesture at the great big emptiness that surrounded us..
“You sure? What’s that then?” I asked. I ‘rose’ to my feet by shifting my position relative to his. In the distance the flicker of a fire appeared. I felt a light breeze on my face from the direction of the dancing light. Breathing in, I smelled the scent of wood smoke and the aroma of meat roasting over the flames.
“You’re imagining it?” Pen asked, sensing what I was doing but lacking the information to grasp why.
“Yes, and no.” I said. I saw the appeal of being enigmatic, in producing more confused flustering in Pen, but I knew he didn’t deserve that. If he was a remnant like the Oblivion Knight, he’d been through something horrible too.
“I’m imagining the path to something that I know is out here. Like you said, I’m still real, so other things can be too right?” I explained as I started walking towards the fire. The road beneath my feet sloped gently downhill and was lit by delicate paper lanterns. Pen floated along beside me.
“That’s true but what could be out here that you’d throw away everything to find?” he asked.
“I didn’t throw away everything for this. This is just a bonus. I came out here to bring the Oblivion Knight’s power back where it belonged. How much of the fight did you see?” I asked.
“None of it. Your Oblivion Knight caught me in a bubble of closed time. I don’t know how many times I looped over and over but I’m guessing it was a lot. How long has it been since you saw me?”
“Less than a day.”
“Oh good. For me, I was in bubble for about 5 minutes. I’m guessing the loop was probably twice that, so he could interrogate me for a bit and then I’d loopback and forget whatever happened. I don’t even want to think what he might have been able to find out that way.”
“How to kill a planet.” I said.
“No! No no no!”, Pen’s eyes were wide in terror, “What happened?”
“Everything’s fine. It worked out ok in the end. We stopped him. I’ll tell you the story later.” I said as we reached the outer edge of the campfire’s glow.
The campfire was in a small grove just inside a thicket of woods that extended off into the night of the void. Beside the campfire the grove held a large comfortable looking tent and a man sleeping on a hammock between two trees. The man was tall and broadly built. He wasn’t gorgeous, his nose had the mashed in look of having been broken several times and there were scars that spoke to even less pleasant fighting in his past. His smile though was wonderful. It reach all the way to his eyes which were crinkled in happiness even in his sleep.
Beneath the hammock lay a suit of armor in a design I was very familiar with.
“Who’s that?” Pen asked.
“That’s the Oblivion Knight. Or, to be accurate, that’s the part of himself that he lost. The part that Way loved so much.”
“How could he possibly still be here? This isn’t a junkyard people toss things in. It’s the Unreal, or oblivion as you say. Forget disintegration, even the concept of him should have evaporated into nothingness.”
“You didn’t. And neither did I.” I said.
“What do you mean?” Pen asked.
“When the Oblivion Knight captured you, I tried to fight him, or distract him at least. That didn’t work out so well. He hit me with the Unreal fire just as I was trying to world walk and I wound up in the Shadow Court’s realm. I didn’t get what that meant for a while though.”
“That I could survive the black fire. Once the Oblivion Knight recognized who I was he stopped trying to attack me with it, even his minions avoided that, probably to keep me from clueing in on the fact that I could manipulate it too.”
“So how did you figure out that you could?”
“I got mad. Really mad. After the Shadow Court took my parents, I sort of lost it and lashed out as hard as I could. That was after I’d escaped the black fire, after I’d touched oblivion myself, so when I looked for the worst, most destructive force I could smash the Court with, that’s what came to hand.”
“That’s…I’m sorry.” Pen said, gazing down as the ground as a worried frown creased his lips.
“It’s not your fault.” I assured him.
“Doesn’t matter, you still wound up here.”
“It was my choices that put me here, with you, and with him.” I said, gesturing to the still sleeping human half of the Oblivion Knight.
“Yeah, but those choices have cost you everything.” Pen said.
“Not everything. I still have my memories, all of my memories. Jin’s, Jenny’s, Molly’s, even Glory’s. More importantly, I still have my friends and loved ones. Even if they don’t remember me, they can dream about me.”
“I don’t know how that’s going to help us. Dreaming something doesn’t make it real.”
“I’ll show you in a bit.” I said as I stepped into the clearing.
The man in the hammock was a light sleeper. He stirred and opened his eyes as I step into the little grove.
“Begone shade. I know you for the phantom of my own mind that you are.” the man said wearily. His smile was gone.
I blinked. Of course he would think I was a hallucination. There was “nothing” out here. Even the campfire, tent and trees were a product of his imagination, a nascent bubble universe like the one Pen had spoken of.
“Sorry, I’m not an aspect of you. My name’s Jin and I’m here to bring you home.” I told him.
“I am alone here and evermore shall be. If you are not a vision conjured by my own spirit, then you are a phantom of some sort more deadly sort. I say again, Begone!”, the man turned in the hammock so that he was sitting and looking straight at me. I could see traces of fear in his eyes. The worst torture here was allowing yourself to hope, knowing that no hope was possible.
“No.” I said. He was eloquent. Almost certainly gifted in rhetoric and debate. He could build a fortress of logic around himself that would leave him deaf to any counter-arguments I could make. I wasn’t going to win him over with words alone.
“No? You cannot refuse me, I am still master of myself.” he bellowed and rose from the hammock. He was a big guy. A lot bigger than me. I wasn’t too worried though. Size wasn’t a principal concern in a realm where nothing was physically real.
“Actually, you’re not.” I told him. It didn’t help my case in the short term, but he needed to understand that he was missing a vital piece of himself.
“Though night stands all around me, though my way is lost, though I am forgotten by heaven and hell both, I shall not yield or doubt my conviction!” he reached for a staff that lay propped against one of the trees the hammock was slung from.
“You did and you have.” I said, gesturing to his campsite. “This isn’t a resting spot, it’s your tomb. You cast yourself onto the void, daring the impossible for one reason, one person and when you failed to find her you broke apart. Just like Pen did. Just like I did.”
“No.” he said, but I could see the cracks of doubt forming in his facade. He spoke a good game, but he no longer had the same monomania that had launched him into the void originally. The Oblivion Knight embodied those pieces of him.
“Yes. We’re broken in different ways, but we’re still alike. I let the Unreal in and became an impossibility. Pen transformed and you? You split. Each part still a functioning whole but also so terribly out of balance.”
“No. That’s not possible.” he protested.
“Of course. Nothing here is possible. You know I’m telling you the truth though. Phantasm or vision or just a girl, what I am doesn’t matter. You’re still connected to your other half. To the part of you that can’t give up, that can’t stop. He dimly remembers you, you must be able to remember him. The fire that you once had, turned black by despair?”
“NO! You are madness! You are lies! I cannot be as you say! I am no monster! Thrice I say, and thrice I command thee ‘Jin’, by my name, by my power, by my very soul I command thee depart and trouble me no more!”, he was shaking and clutching the staff with both hands. He’d invoked my name. He had my attention. What he didn’t have was the power to compel me.
I laid my hands on his and smiled gently at him.
“You don’t have to believe in me. Just believe in her.” I said.
“She…she is gone, lost more terribly than even I and forgotten by all.” Tears rolled down his cheeks freely.
“What’s lost can be found, and she’s never forgotten you.” I said and gestured upwards.
In the endless and absolute black of the sky above us there shone a single diamond of yellow light.
“Jin, what is that?” Pen asked.
“I can’t make it back home on my own. I gave that up in order to return the Oblivion Knight’s power to its source. I had to embrace the black fire and let it consume me so I don’t have anything left in me to make myself real anymore.”
“So even being able to do the impossible, you can’t make it back?” Pen looked dejected.
“No. But I can meet someone halfway.”
“What? How does that help?”
“I can manipulate the Unreal. Give shape to the nothingness and find paths through the void. If I could find our friend here, what makes you think I can’t find the person who can bring us home?” I said.
“Who could hold such power?” the human half of the Oblivion Knight asked.
“Her.” I said as the yellow star grew brighter. An instant later the glow flashed downward and landed with an explosion of light brighter than the birth of a new star.
As the light faded to a bearable level, Way rose slowly from the position she’d landed in. The men beside me, large and small, were speechless, so I stepped forward.
“You came! You found us!” I was so ridiculously happy to see her that I nearly knocked her over with my hug.
“Always.” she replied with a warm smile.
Behind me, I heard a piercing wail split the night. The man, Way’s father, had collapsed to his knees and was weeping hysterically. For the first time I saw fear in Way’s eyes too.
“You cannot be real. You cannot be her. She is lost. You are…” Way’s father floundered. She couldn’t be real because that would mean he’d failed her, abandoned her completely. He’d taken the hardest road he could imagine, made the toughest choices that were laid before him and in the end fallen into a despair believing with absolute certainty that it had all been for nothing.
“She is more than you knew. Far more.” I said. Reaching out, I touched Way’s hand and drew her over to her father’s side. She sank down wordlessly beside him, afraid to touch him as though he were as fragile as a soap bubble. I crouched down on my knees beside them both.
“You didn’t see the greatness that was in her before, don’t make that same mistake again. See her now. Believe in her as she’s believed in you.” I said. I could have made it a regal command. He wasn’t one of my subjects, but royalty carries some authority even outside its own domain. Instead I said it plainly. Just as Jin. As the me that I most really and truly was.
I left them and retreated with Pen to the edge of the firelight to give them a space of their own to share.
The Oblivion Knight had almost destroyed my world. He’d hurt my family, terrorized my friends and essentially destroyed all there was of me. His loss, his pain, excused none of those actions. Forgiveness isn’t dependent on excuses though. It’s not something we have a right to, or can argue ourselves into deserving. If we wish to be worthy of it, we can strive to make amends for what we’ve done, but even so we can’t buy forgiveness. It is a gift that must be freely given.
Sometimes that can be hard. Sometimes it can be impossible. It’s not even always right to give it. The secret of forgiveness though is that sometimes it’s a more powerful gift for the giver than it is for the forgiven.
Looking at Way and her father, I knew that I understood him a little better and, in that understanding, forgiveness was easy to find.
“You look like you’ve let a great weight drop from your shoulders.” a woman’s voice said from behind me.
I turned to look into the darkness of the void and saw a woman who could have been an older version of Way standing there. The cast of her chin was slightly broader though and her nose bridge slightly higher. Not an older Way. Her mother.
I stared. In all my dealings with Way and the Oblivion Knight, this was the one person I hadn’t thought of at all.
“Hello.”, I said, “I’m Jin.”
“I am glad to meet you Jin. I am Terra.”, Way’s mother said.
“You’re not alive are you?” I said, intuition beating meta-awareness to the punch on that score.
“Not for a very long time.” Terra agreed.
“How are you here?” I asked.
“The dead have fewer restrictions than the living do.” she explained.
“But the spirits of the dead are as real as anything else aren’t they? I’ve been to Hade’s realm. I’ve seen them fight on Earth too.”
“I’m not the spirit of the woman I once was. Spirits can be bound, even destroyed. Think of me as the essence the spirit springs from, both more real than the spirit and not real at all.”
“You’re a paradox?” I asked.
“From the right viewpoint.” she agreed.
“Why are you here now then?”
“This is the first moment, real or imagined, when my family is together since I died. I wished to see them again before I passed beyond. Though I see now I won’t be leaving alone.” When she said ‘leaving’ it was clear to me that she meant someplace beyond even the Unreal void we were standing in.
I felt my stomach sink. I didn’t want to think of Way leaving, even though I knew that she was no more a part of the world than the Oblivion Knight was. It was just a touch insane. I’d known Way less than a day. We were literally from different worlds. There shouldn’t have been anything to bind us together.
Except that when we dream spoke we saw each other as we truly were. We’d each been too new to communicating that way to know how to hold back. By all odds we should have recoiled from that and hated each other, but instead we’d somehow clicked.
I didn’t know if we would always be friends. I didn’t know if we even had any interests in common. What I did know was that no one would ever see me like she did, and that I would never find anyone else like her.
“Do you have to go?” I asked.
“It’s not as terrible as you imagine.” Terra said.
“But you’ll be gone.” I grumbled.
“But not lost or forgotten.” she assured me.
I smiled and wiped a tear away from my eye. It wasn’t much, but it was all I’d asked for myself when I’d chosen to come out here. My sorrow was a selfish thing, the tears well up from the pit of what I wanted. When I thought of Way, I could pretty easily imagine that she might like to be with her parents, wherever they wound up.
“Come, let us join them. There is one more journey we need to make before we depart.” Terra said.
Together we walked back into the circle of the campfire’s light.
Time was an abstract notion in the Unreal. I could see that, in the few moments I’d spoken to Terra, Way and her father had spent many hours together. The campfire was burning low while father and daughter worked quietly together bundling up the tent. Meta-awareness said they’d cried for a while but that had faded and when we joined them the dim light of the fading fire illuminated comfortable smiles on both of their faces.
“So all it took to get you to help with chores was the end of the world? I wish I had known sooner.” Terra said.
“We knew you were coming.” Way’s father said, his smile deepening at the sight of his wife.
Way hesitated with her corner of the tent, torn for a moment, before she dropped the pretense of being ok and appeared in a flash at her mother’s side, clutching her tightly. I hesitated at the edge of the circle and turned to look out onto the void again, giving them as much time together as they wished to make for themselves.
“I didn’t know I could still learn things like that.” Pen said by my side.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s there’s something beyond all of this. Beyond everything we can know or imagine.”
“Yeah, but what really matters isn’t what’s out here.” I said.
“Maybe. I guess it all depends on which perspective you look at it from.”, he replied.
“We’re ready.” Way said, putting her hand on my shoulder. I looked her in the eyes and she met my gaze with a brave smile.
“Ok, let’s get things wrapped up then.” I said.
She led us to the dim remains of the campfire. Wordlessly, we gathered around it in a circle and all joined hands. I felt power flow from Way’s hand into mine and out to Pen. From him it traveled to Way’s father and then her mother and finally back to Way.
With each pass, the energy grew and locked us more tightly together. We became our own summoning circle into which Way poured her strength, her courage and all the reality the name I had given her held.
I had no name to give, but I added what little I did have. My memories and the love that bound me still to those who cared for me.
The power flowing through us built to an unimaginable pitch as Way pushed against the walls of reality. Even together, even with all of our power and skill and knowledge and wisdom, returning was simply impossible. Until Way made it happen.
We didn’t burst through the walls of reality and explode back into the world. We didn’t need to. With Way’s strength and my guidance we brought ourselves back to the instant Way and I had left the real world. Before it had a chance to fill the void that we left.
The endless Abyss gave way to the over crowded stadium and the remains of the final battle against the Shadow Court.
“You ploy fails you! You have stolen my power, but I draw on a source without end or limit. Even if I cannot destroy you, I shall draw on the rift you yourself tore in this world and it shall burn!” the Oblivion Knight, the dangerous, monstrous one said.
It took me a split second to remember where we had been. To him, only a moment had passed but I had a whole block of memories from my time in the Unreal that I needed to get out of the way.
“What rift?” I said, waving my hand at the sky. The real world and the Dreamlit world were all too happy to expel the rift I’d made and seal the breech to the Unreal at my beckoning.
“No! It doesn’t matter, I will find a way! I cannot be stopped!” the Oblivion Knight railed.
“I’ve already found her, and it far past time that we stopped.” Way’s father said as he stepped forward.
When the two met, both popped gently into a cloud that reformed into a single figure. The madness of the Oblivion Knight was gone, his inhuman form replaced by the body of a human knight clad in battle damaged armor. In his eyes that I saw the echoes of the Oblivion Knight’s rage and sorrow.
“I thank you, once again Jin. For restoring my husband and for rescuing my dear daughter.” Terra said.
“I only played a small part in those.” I protested, thinking of how hard everyone else had fought and how often it had been Way who had saved me.
“You were the first one to believe in me. Even when I couldn’t. You gave me back myself.” Way said.
My breath caught in my throat and my heart froze when I saw her. She looked like Heather. A ghost. She’d given up her new life, given it to me to replace the one I’d lost when I’d carried the Oblivion Knight’s power back to the Unreal.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want this. I thought together we could make it back ok.” I said, tearing up again at the thought of Way losing a life she’d barely gotten to live.
“We did. You’re here with your family and friends.”, she said. Her lips were forced into a smile that her eyes didn’t share..
“You should be here too though.” I said. I couldn’t even hold her hand.
“I wanted to be. More than anything, I wanted to be.” she said, fighting to keep the tears from her ghostly eyes.
“It is time for us to leave my daughter.”, Terra said.
“I know, can I say goodbye to the others?” Way asked.
“No.” her mother replied.
“Because you must say goodbye to us.”, her father said, “Jin drew both you and I into the world. I hold a spark of reality, a bit of her life as well. I will not give you the name she gave me, but the rest is yours. Live the life that you should have had my daughter and know that we shall always love you.”
He placed a hand on her and I felt history shift.
Way had always been alive, just like she was still.
“Father? Mother?” she said, staring at her solid, living hands in disbelief and wonder.
“Our time is past my daughter, but yours is only beginning. I can make you no promises about it save this one: you will never lose us. Whatever path your life takes you down, we will be there with you and we will meet again, many times and in many guises.” Terra said.
And with that the Oblivion Knight and his wife faded away, together.