Jin let the wave roll over her and carry her above the wreckage of the sinking ship. The smashed segment of the forward hull, the largest piece of the ship that remained intact, was still burning as it sank beneath the frosty waves. When Fire Giants set something ablaze, there was almost nothing in the world that could extinguish it.
That didn’t worry Jin so much as annoy her. She’d liked that ship. Even named it after her first pirate ship. Before she could chastise the Fire Giants for its loss though she had the small problem of an enraged ocean to deal with.
Common wisdom says there are three things you can’t fight; The change of the seasons, the wrath of the sea and the true longings of your own heart. In Jin’s case, only one of those was true. The seasons were already frozen into the Fimbulwinter by her hand and she was sorely tempted to put the sea into its proper place as well.
“Destroyer! Betrayer!” the unbound ocean screamed at her.
Jin frowned. Neither was technically true, but the mouthful of seawater she’d swallowed meant arguing back was going to be a chore.
In the storm wracked depths, she saw giant squid and sharks battling over the wreckage that drifted down to them. They wouldn’t find the juicy prey they expected. Jin had sailed into the storm alone, save for a band of friendly ghosts who’d plied the riggings and steered the craft through a tempest no mortal crew could have braved.
Floating beneath the surface of the titanic wave, Jin listened to the anger of the world as it tried to beat her out existence.
“It’s too late to wish me away,” she told the spirits of the ocean and kicked for the surface of the water.
The sea spirits were too enraged to answer her back.
“You’ve held back this day for far too long already,” she whispered to the spirits of the storm when she broke the surface.
“You let the Great Wolf slip free from his chains,” the waves said.
“You opened the paths for fire and ice,” the air spirits said.
“You have betrayed the covenant that held off the end of days,” all of the spirits of Earth said together.
Jin went to speak but the giant wave roiled and collapsed, plunging her into the stygian depths far below the ocean’s surface.
In the lightless abyss, things moved that were older than the world itself. Creatures that had arrived from distant stars or realms even farther removed from the earthly sphere.
The alien entities bore no resemblance to terrestrial life, yet they had been partially freed by the coming of the Fimbulwinter. In Jin, they saw a small human woman. In Jin, they saw the likeness of those who imprisoned them beneath the waves in the first place and bound them to power the enchantments that held the heart of the world. And in Jin they saw their only hope of freedom.
Without words, they linked together, fins on fins, hands in hands, tentacles on tentacles and lifted her up. Back to the air and wan light of the freezing sun.
The spirits of Earth gave a primal, wordless cry at the return of the great invaders that had breached their realm. All the powers of the sky and sea assembled to give battle. Even the Fire Giants and the Ice Fiends turned from their eternal struggle to stand against the unworldly threat that rose carrying Jin up from the surf.
“This day isn’t spent. We have not yet reached our end!” the spirits sang and crashed forward to annihilate the threat before them.
“Stop,” Jin said. “For once, just stop and listen.”
The world trembled at her words. They weren’t a suggestion or a request. They carried the weight of a fundamental edict of reality. The Dreamlit barrier around the world wavered but held, a warning to the spirits not to push her further and a warning to Jin that she was near the limit of what the world would bear in terms of outside manipulation.
“I am only going to speak to you,” she said, addressing the wind and the waves as though she was their equal. “What comes next will be up to you to decide.”
“Why should we believe your lies,” a storm spirit asked.
“I have never lied to you,” Jin said. “In this matter, lies would do me no good at all.”
“You broke the world,” an ocean spirit said.
“You let loose the Great Wolf, the devourer of all things!” a spirit of the waves said.
“Your world was already broken,” Jin said. “And the Great Wolf was the only creature who could stand against the one responsible.”
“How was the our world broken?” a forest spirit asked, her voice carried by countless tiny wind spirits.
“You were meant to be a cradle of life, to exist in the cycle of birth, growth, death and renewal,” Jin said. “But you’ve trapped the Earth Mother in amber.”
“That was a gift,” a thunder spirit boomed.
“She is immortal now,” a lightning spirit said.
“She was always immortal,” Jin said. “You’ve seen her die, each year in the deepest cold of winter, and have believed that a new Earth Mother arose with the first rays of spring.”
“Yes,” a mountain spirit said, “I have lost count of the Earth Mother’s I have seen rise and fall.”
“Don’t you understand though, she is always the same,” Jin said. “Her face may change, her voice may command in a different tone or comfort with different words, but she is always herself.”
“That’s not possible. When the Earth Mothers die they are gone. No trace of them remains,” an earth spirit said.
“Don’t you remember them? Isn’t the world different for their passing? None of us can live without leaving traces on the world of who were,” Jin said. “But you’re missing the point.”
She paused to take a breath and felt the spirits crowded into a tight circle around her. The crowd spanned the length and breadth of the world but all of them could hear her.
“Who we were and what we’ve done is important. It shapes our legacy and provides context for who we are.” Jin said. “What’s most important though is who we’re going to become.”
“How does that matter once we’re dead,” a spirit of the deeps asked.
“Where there’s an ending there are also beginnings,” Jin said. “You are eternal, but you haven’t embraced what that means. You froze the Earth Mother and then pretended that all was carrying on as usual.”
“We didn’t pretend,” a fire spirit said. “We fought every day against the darkness and the pain that you would send us to.”
“I know,” Jin said. “You fought so long and so hard, that you’ve started to break into pieces. To fracture apart just as the man-in-white who gifted you with the amber hoped you would.”
She looked at them, the mighty horde of the Final Day. Sometimes there weren’t any painless answers.
“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “It never is. Your pain is real, but you can’t hold on to one day forever. You don’t need to. You’re strong enough for what is to come. The question is are you willing to face it?”
“Yes, but what will become of us?” a stone spirit said.
“The bindings that sustain the amber are falling away,” Jin said and waved to the unearthly creatures who’d carried from the abyss. They ascended towards the stars, free at last of the earthly tethers that held them. Without their power, the enchantments on the heart of the world dimmed and faded to nothingness.
“The coldest day will come and, for a time, you will all sleep,” Jin said. “While the world is covered in ice, the rift you’ve torn in it will mend and the sun will regain its vigor.”
She spoke again in a voice that commanded reality’s attention, but this time the barrier between the real and unreal didn’t flutter. She’d chosen her words careful so that the world would cherish the fate she spelled out for it.
“On a distant day you’ll waken again to find the snows receding and life renewed,” Jin said. “And though she will be wearing another new face and speaking in a yet unheard voice, the Earth Mother will be there to greet you.”
“Will she forgive us?” a sky spirit asked.
“She loves you,” Jin said. “And she always will. Through days on end and past the end of days. Always and eternally.”