Side A – Yasgrid
The final station in the ceremony was all that remained. Yasgrid forced herself to take a calming breath. The elven New Year ritual was silent and peaceful, but had somehow proven to be more stressful than even the loudest and most out of control Stoneling ceremony she’d taken part in.
Well, perhaps not the Calling Nia had sat in on, Yasgrid decided after a moment’s reflection. No matter what happened at the last station, she was reasonable sure the would be no existential danger to the world involved. Any apocalypse that occurred would be highly personal in nature.
“Troubles Unbounded,” Nia said, looking upwards towards the crystal sword that floated over the central dias. “That’s our last station.”
Yasgrid looked around and blinked. Everyone was moving back to the seats where they’d been meditating. She’d been following Nia’s mother as a guide from station to station but somehow she’d missed the final one.
Or had she?
She thought back to when the braziers had been placed on the dias. Four processions had carried them, placing one brazier at each of the cardinal points of the compass. She looked at Nia for a clue as to where the last station was hiding.
“Our unbounded troubles are the ones which we should be done with but have taken on a life of their own,” Nia said, leading Yasgrid back to the meditation couch. “They’re the things that we can’t fight anymore, and can’t abandon. Maybe it’s a problem that we’ve done everything we can to resolve but is still lingering. Maybe it’s something we need distance from that we can’t escape.”
“Aren’t those the ones that we’re supposed to help each other with?” Yasgrid asked.
“Ideally yes,” Nia said. “The problems that we can ask for help with though tend to fall under one of the other stations. They’ll either be ones we’re still willing to fight but need a hand with, or one’s we can abandon if someone else can help pull us away. An unbounded trouble is one where there really is no help for it.”
“So something like waking up in a stranger’s body for no discernible reason?” Yasgrid asked.
“In theory, maybe?” Nia said. “Usually our troubles are more personal and less weird than this though. The weirdness is supposed to come from the Darkwood reacting to our troubles and breeding strange monsters out of them, not with the weirdness kicking things off. And…”
She paused, her brow furrowing as she chewed through what she was about to say.
“And this doesn’t feel like a ‘trouble’ does it?” Yasgrid asked. It was certainly strange to be living another person’s life, and terrifying to think how easily she could be discovered as a fraud, but beneath that ran an electric thrill of freedom too. She hadn’t lost her old life, not exactly, and there was this whole new one to explore too.
“Yeah,” Nia said. “I mean we’re going to get in huge trouble at some point, but, hey, I survived the Calling, so that’s got to count for something right?”
“So how do we make our offering to the fifth station then?” Yasgrid asked. “And what should it be? If we even mention our switch, your gods might ‘fix it’ right? Only that could leave us permanently switched?”
“It’s a concern,” Nia said. “They’re not exactly talkative, so I think anything they do is mostly reflex. If we say ‘this is a problem’ and they actually do something about it, I think it’d be to just squish whatever our connection is.”
“Let’s not do that then,” Yasgrid agreed as she reclined back into the meditation couch.
Side B – Nia
Endings hung glittering above the dias when Nia turned back to look at it.
“That’s the final station,” she said. “If you have an unbound trouble, you call to Endings, usually silently, and offer it up. Since these are the kind of troubles that can cause literal monsters to form, we minimize the public display aspect of it. Everyone gets to sit back and reflect until the end of the ceremony.”
“How long is that?” Yasgrid asked. She was watching Endings too, with a look that said she expected it to erupt in flames any second. Nia couldn’t blame her. The braziers rarely even flickered during the Mid-Winter ceremony and they’d flared up three times for her and Yasgrid. There would be questions about that later, and she wasn’t sure what answers they could give.
“Until Endings descends,” Nia said. “Once everyone who’s going to speak to the crystal sword has, Endings decides whether it needs a bearer. If it does, it will fly to their hand. If it decides it doesn’t need to act this year it will sink back down to rest on the dias until next Mid-Winter.”
“Should we speak to it then?” Yasgrid asked.
Before Nia could answer the sword shifted, catching a beam of light and scattering it into a rainbow which splashed across Yasgrid and Nia both.
“Yes,” Nia said. “Yes, I think we should.”
That Endings had stopped spinning lent a silent gravity to her words, but for a long moment neither Nia nor Yasgrid spoke.
Nia tried to call to mind what she’d been planning to say at this station. In previous years she had nothing for Endings. That’s how it was for most people, she thought. If the earlier stations had shown her anything though it was that this time around she needed to look within and speak the truths she’d been hiding from even herself.
“I’m afraid,” Yasgrid said. “Down in my core, right at the center of me, when I’m really tested, I don’t find bedrock, just a big pool of fear. That’s what I am. I think that counts for this right? I mean, I can’t seem to fight it, and it’s too much a part of me to abandon or get away from.”
Endings flared with brilliant light but it wasn’t the angry surge the braziers had shown. If anything, the enveloping rush of light felt warm and comforting.
“I think it does,” Nia said softly, casting her gaze downwards, as though she could find the courage to match Yasgrid’s declaration below her. “I think that’s what Endings wants. What’s real inside us, no matter how it looks.”
She was silent for another moment as she tried to sort the unspoken words within her into a proper form. Turn and tumble them around as much as she could though, she couldn’t find an order that made everything clear.
So she just started speaking.
“I’m angry,” she said. “I shouldn’t be. I live a golden life. I’ve got nothing real to be angry about. My Mom’s practicality royalty here. I can do anything I want. I shouldn’t be so damn angry. And I’m not. Not all the time. But it’s there. Down deep like you said. When I get pushed, or when I’m tired, or sometimes for no reason at all, I just get so incredibly angry.” She paused for another long moment before continuing. “I don’t think I’m a good person. Not really. I can be good, I can act like I’m good, but it doesn’t change the ugly thing that’s a part of me. That’s maybe the real me.”
She fell silent for a third time and as she finished a slow breath, Endings began to move.
The sparkling sword turned in place and flashed through the air, cleaving the light into a riot of color in its wake.
Nia stood frozen at the approach of the glittering blade, watching as it soared towards to them, her heart hammering in her throat in wonder as to what divine judgment her words had invoked.
She’d given Endings the darkest secret she could think of, and the gods had chosen to hear her. To make her, or Yasgrid, their agent.
Except it wasn’t either of them who clasped Endings and halted the sword’s flight.
Before the blade could reach Nia’s hand, Kayelle took hold of the Endings’ hilt and brandished the sword aloft, shining a chromatic flood across the room as her eyes beamed in victory.