The world was new, and bright, and packed with vibrant life, and all Grunvan wanted was to sleep like a rock for the next thousand years.
“So, we won, right?” Argwin asked, each word fighting through a heavy blanket of exhaustion. She was splayed out on the ground a few feet away from Grunvan with seemingly the same absolute lack of energy left.
Neither of them were broken, or even hurt though. The injured had been evac’d to a healing facility a half hour ago. The rest of the Apple Plate Air Guard, [Goblins] and [Wraithwings] both, were merely enjoying some direly needed downtime.
A few, the lucky ones with the strength to lift their limbs still, were using the global communications grid to talk with family members they’d left behind. The rest were collapsed into boneless heaps similar to the one Grunvan found herself in.
They’d won. Or so everyone was saying.
And Grunvan didn’t disagree.
She was happy to still be alive. Delighted Argwin had made it too. Even the world being in more-or-less one piece was an acceptable outcome.
It should have been a lot more than that though.
Across the planet wild celebrations were breaking out everywhere. The [Dead Gods] were back! The invasion from beyond the stars had been thwarted! New friends and allies had emerged! And, in a miracle beyond all reason, a countless number of apocalypses had all been cast down.
And Grunvan had been there for it all.
She’d ridden the fiercest of gales into the heart of the world’s end and she stood strong with so many others to form a fulcrum on which history had turned.
They’d won. Even though there’d been no hope of winning, no hope of surviving, no hope of even being remembered, they’d still won.
Grunvan knew all that. She could feel the awareness of it looming over her like the shadow of a vast wave. She knew it, but she couldn’t accept it. Not yet.
Maybe it was that she still had too much left over fear to process. She was a [Wagon Driver]. She wasn’t cut out for saving the world, or being in dire peril, or almost losing everything and everyone she ever cared about.
Grunvan felt a sob go through her, silent, but still wracking her body from head to toe.
She could smell the mountain exploding around her. The terror of seeing the Consortium’s corrupted troops charging at them when all she had to defend herself was a spikey stick still lived in her heart. Each frantic report of certain dooms multiplying beyond count still rang in her ears.
It had all been real. Much, much too real.
“You know they’re going to have us report in tomorrow at the normal time, don’t ya?” Argwin asked.
“Report in for what?”
“Work still needs to get done don’t it?” Argwin said.
“Yeah, but I…” Grunvan started to say and came up short.
She wasn’t a [Wagon Driver] anymore. She’d seen that in the final battle.
She wasn’t what she’d been. That was lost to her.
Just like the comfortable world she’d known was lost.
The new one she found herself in, the [Risen Kingdoms], they were magical, and wondrous, and new. Everyone was excited and amazed by them. Everyone but her.
She missed her old wagon routes. She missed knowing the turns of the road she would travel down, and which paths to take when the weather turned back, and where she could stop each night for a comfortable bed.
They’d saved the world but they hadn’t preserved it. There was a world out there for, waiting for her, but it wasn’t the world she’d fought for. It wasn’t worn, and broken in, and familiar.
“Yeah, I know,” Argwin said, a soft note of sympathy in her voice. She had her head propped up on her arm and was watching whatever expressions were playing across Grunvan’s face. “This wasn’t where we were supposed to be, was it?”
“I was supposed to be delivering pumpkins,” Grunvan said. “Had a nice little three stop trip all laid out.”
“Planning on bringing back a pie?” Argwin asked.
“Was planning to bring back two,” Grunvan said. “That’d let me eat one when it was fresh and still have one to share.”
“Sounds delicious,” Argwin said. “So what’s stopping you? Aside from how nice sleeping on this particular rocky bit of ground is?”
Grunvan sat up too. Argwin’s sarcasm was right about one thing; the pokey little rocks Grunvan had been collapsed on were starting to get a little painful.
“Who’s got pumpkins anymore? They probably all got blown up. Or turned into Jack-o-Lantern monsters or something,” Grunvan said. “Anyways, how can I go back to wagon driving? I’m not even a [Wagon Driver] anymore. I’m a stupid [Folk Hero] now. I’ve probably got to go off and kill monsters by the bushel now or something.”
“Do they measure monsters by bushels?” Argwin asked.
“I don’t know. This didn’t come with an instruction manual,” Grunvan said.
“Then who says you can’t drive a wagon?” Argwin asked. “The world’s saved right? Why not go drive wagons, if that’s what you want to do? You get to choose what your life is.”
“A lot of those apocalypses were ‘handled’ or ‘postponed’ rather than completely stopped,” Grunvan said. “From what the [Lord of Storms] said, we’re sliding to our doom anymore but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
“Sure. And we’ve got a lot of people who want to do the fighty parts of it,” Argwin said. “How many of them do you there are who want to make some simple, unexciting wagon delivers?”
“But what if…” Grunvan began to ask. Argwin interrupted her though.
“What if this happens again? Then we deal with it again. If we only live for the worst future that we can think to be afraid of, we’ll miss out on living for the future that actually winds up happening.”
One of the more pleasant aspects of having inherent fire powers, Baelgritz had discovered, was that any reasonable sized body of water could become a hot tub if the occasion called for it.
It seemed somewhat taxonomically incorrect to label the spacious pool the [Sisters of Steel] had reconfigured their training area to contain as a ‘hot tub’, but given that everyone who was soaking in it seemed at least mildly blissed out by the warm waters, it was at the closest description he could find for it.
“I still can’t believe we’re alive,” Hermeziz said. To anyone else the words would have sounded like a complaint, in part because they were. Baelgritz heard them for what they were though – the remnants of a bone deep fear easing themselves out of Hermeziz’s hard and brittle shell.
Baelgritz splashed some water at Hermeziz and caught Sister Cayman in the overly large wave he’d caused. That, in turn, provoked retaliation, which became a general free for all until everyone went back to blissful soaking a few minutes later.
Baelgritz cast a glance at Hermeziz when the frolicing was done to see a scowly frown waiting for him. That was a good sign. Hermeziz liked to frown when other people were around. It was a defense mechanism, though over time it had shifted from Hermeziz defending himself to defending Baelgritz and Illuthiz, thereby allowing the two of them to be more open and friendly as a sort of counterbalance.
“I heard we might be losing you soon?” Sister Cayman said. “Sounds like you all might getting one of the Consortium space ships that wasn’t destroyed.”
“Yawlorna’s still working out the details on that one,” Illuthiz said.
“They are not holding out on you are they?” Sister Cayman asked. “Not when you all saved the whole town.”
“We didn’t exactly do that alone,” Baelgritz said, recalling the dozens of times he’d seen Sister Cayman or one of the other [Sisters of Steel] fighting along beside them during the seemingly never ending battle against the [Brain Scourgers] forces.
The addition of the [Cursed Walkers] had definitely turned the tide for them, but neither the [Brain Scourger] nor its forces had fled when the ghost army had shown up.
The fighting had lasted for several hours longer and showered the [Barrow Hills] with enough destructive magic for their official classification to shift to the [Fields of Desolation].
Then the [Fallen Kingdoms] had died.
Which was bad.
Something about the void the spirit of the [Fallen Kingdoms] left had helped the [Brain Scourger] to rally. It had grown to massive size and looked like it was going to be able to turn the tide of the battle all by itself.
Baelgritz was proud that they’d managed to hold even a foe like the [Engorged Brain Scourger] away from [Dragonshire]. It had been a supremely costly effort, and not one they could have sustained for long. Baelgritz had a dim memory of wrestling with the Brain’s frontal lobe – he’d been so overcharged at that point the whole world had been little beside fire and rage – when the [Fallen Kingdoms] returned to life.
That was bad. For the [Brain Scourger].
Baelgritz’s power was fading at that point, which cleared his mind enough so that he was able to watch the monster begin petrifying from the brain stem upwards.
It was out of power too, and without power it fossilized into completely inert stone. Except for its eyes. Those became gem stones. Beautiful, gigantic, hypnotically alluring gem stones.
Yeah, those were going to be a problem at some point in the future.
“You did more than enough,” Sister Cayman said. “You deserve to be able to go home as much as anyone else does! More even! This didn’t have to be your fight at all.”
“Oh, there won’t be a problem with us going home,” Illuthiz said.
“They got the [Dimensional Comm Array] on the Consortium ships working,” Hermeziz said. “Yawlorna’s been in contact with our university so someone finally knows where we are.”
“The discussion now is whether the university will send a ship out to collect us, or whether we want to claim one of the Consortium ships and head home ourselves,” Illuthiz said.
“Wouldn’t claiming the ship be faster?” Sister Cayman asked.
“Yes and no,” Baelgritz said. “We’d need a crew for it. One that knows the controls and how to navigate dimensional space with that drive.”
“Which means we would need to recruit some of the freed [Artifax] to help us,” Illuthiz said.
“Sounds like we’ve got plenty of volunteers though,” Hermeziz said.
“So, problem solved?” Sister Cayman asked.
“Yawlorna’s arguing that the ship should belong to the [Artifax], not us, and that they should be free to take it where they want,” Baelgritz said.
“And they wouldn’t want to take you home?” Sister Cayman asked.
“It would be a side trip for them,” Illuthiz said. “Most of them want to go hunt down the remaining Consortium forces and use the liberation techniques that they’ve worked out to free the remaining [Artifax] there.”
“Which Yawlorna is also in favor of,” Hermeziz said.
“So you wait for the ship from your university then? That sounds fine. We can certainly put you up while you’re here,” Sister Cayman said.
“There’s some danger in that though,” Baelgritz said. “I mean, we did crash here, so there’s something in this planet’s dimensional walls that we didn’t account for properly.”
“And literally no one want to see a repeat of that disaster,” Hermeziz said.
“So, I’m lost. What are you’re options?” Sister Cayman asked.
“We can work with people here and study the dimensional walls,” Illuthiz said. “It’ll take time, which the university isn’t in favor of because they want to publish our papers as soon as possible.”
“In other words before some other university sends a team of expendable grad students out here,” Hermeziz said.
“Wow. That’s a lot,” Sister Cayman said. “What do you all feel about that?”
Baelgritz looked over at his partners, who nodded back at him.
“We’re thinking we might stay,” he said.
“Until the university ship gets here?” Sister Cayman asked.
“A bit longer,” Illuthiz said.
“There’s a lot to research here,” Hermeziz said.
“And a lot we can teach,” Baelgritz said. “In fact, you wouldn’t happen to know a spot that would been good for setting up a nice big campus would you?”