Kamie Anne Do
The afterlife was peaceful. No tortured, screaming souls. No spooky chills, or disturbing voices. Even the washed out shroud that covered everything in the [Dead Lands] seemed to be glowing with a gentle warmth.
“Never really expected to act as a midwife to a god,” Buzz Fightyear said. He was slumped against the ghostly wall of the [Great Hall] in the [Dead Lands] version of [Dragonshire]. The rest of Grace’s party was similarly relaxing after the most harrowing run of every one of their lives and deaths put together.
“Congratulations, she’s a bouncing, baby planet,” Battler X joke mumbled. She’d dropped her gear during the run from the farthest depths of creation, but they’d changed so much in the process of traveling out and back that there wasn’t any need to be modest.
None of them were even vaguely human anymore.
“Not exactly a baby,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said.
She appeared mid-stride, and took a place along the wall, sinking down into the same sitting posture Grace was in before letting her head tip back to rest against the wall.
For the incarnate spirit of the planet’s life, the [Risen Kingdoms] hadn’t chosen to embody herself in a particularly Divine! and Powerful! form. Grace kind of understood that. They’d all had a really long, and really hard day, and everyone needed a break. Even the [Soul of the World].
“It worked?” Grace asked. She could have provided more context, but her dead eyelids were so heavy. She’d pushed herself so far, and lost so much of what she’d been, she had to wonder if when she let them close and allowed herself to drift off into dreams, if they would be ones she would ever awaken from.
“Most of it,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said.
“Only ‘most’?” Grail Force asked. “What did we miss?”
“You folks? Nothing,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “You went above and beyond the call. Far beyond. If [Gaia] and I had been forced to fight against the [Disjoined] while we were using the [World Fire] to reincarnate, what would have come back would have been very different.”
“How so?” Battler X asked, picking herself up into a seating position.
“We were merging in death, the walls between our spirits blurring so that we could share a deeper connection than was ever possible while we were tied to a physical world. With our barriers down like that though, other things could have crept in as well. If those other things had been the [Disjoined]?”
“You would have become [Disjoined] too?” Grace guessed.
“Sort of,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “We’re not exactly like you, but the self-annihilating strife that’s at the core of the [Disjoined]? That we could have been afflicted by.”
“I take it that’s not something we could have fixed later?” Buzz Fightyear asked. He tried to sit up too, but the [Hound of Fate] at his side nuzzled him to stay still for a little while longer.
“You all are capable of more than you realize,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “Cleansing us of that sort of infection though would have taken time and we did not have any at that point.”
“How are we doing now?” Grace asked.
“Provisionally, excellent I’d say. I’m here resting with you rather than needing to fight against the several hundred apocalypses that we’ve finally resolved,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “Also, [Gaia’s] back on Earth, and she’s got things pretty well in hand there too.”
“She’s stopped the Earthly apocalypses?” Grail Force asked.
“Stopped them and has been sharing the techniques we discovered for preventing them with our other selves,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “Well, most of our other selves, the other [World Souls]. Not all of them were receptive from what I gather.”
“What does ‘not receptive’ mean?” Grace asked.
“There’s several reasons someone may become [Disjoined],” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “When you have a world that’s founded on misery for miseries sake, it’s apparently possible for the entire world and everyone in it to become [Disjoined].”
“What happens then?” Grace asked.
“I think the [Oblivion Remnants] have a purpose,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “It’s what prevents them from being truly nothing at all.”
“They exist to kill [Disjoined] worlds?” Battler X asked.
“Or to start those worlds over,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “If my afterlife had been destroyed, I don’t know where I would have gone when I died. Maybe nowhere, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think there’s something beyond that.”
“You don’t know where we go when we die for real?” Grace asked, ignoring the irony that she petting a [Hound of Fate] who was laying down beside her.
“I’m the soul of this world, not the next one, not yet anyways,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “We’ll see when it comes time for me to go for good.”
“Why can’t you just be here forever though?” Battler X asked.
“Because someday it will be time for me to become something else, and maybe something more,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said.
“Like us?” Grace asked. “Has that time come for us?” She gestured with a hand that had gone translucent and looked nothing like a human appendage anymore.
“I don’t know, do you want this to be when you leave? Is this how you’d like to go out?” the [Risen Kingdoms] asked.
“Not really,” Buzz Fightyear said.
“Me neither,” Grail Force said.
“I agree,” Battler X said. “But I’m having a hard time imagining going back at this point. I mean, sure, maybe we could jump into a [Heart Fire] and rebuild our normal bodies in the material world. Maybe we could even separate into our Earthly halves and the part that’s meant to be here, but…I don’t know, does that seem right? Or like what we want to do? Maybe it’s just me though?”
“It’s not just you,” Grace said. “I feel like this, me as I am now? I worked for this. We all literally died for it, and it mattered. It feels like walking away from it now would mean going back to pretend that what I was doing was important, when I’d given up on the most important thing I’d ever done.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Buzz said. “This feels weird, but also new and exciting. And I don’t want to leave Snuffy behind.” He scritched his [Hound of Fate] behind the ears.
“Snuffy?” Battler X asked incredulously.
“It was his idea,” Buzz said.
“He’s right,” Grail Force said and shook her head, “Not about the name, that’s…whatever. But about leaving this behind. I feel like there’s more for us to do here.”
“There is,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “With how much you’ve already given, I didn’t want to ask anything else of you, but if you want to stay as you are for now, I have a special position you could fill.”
“What would we have to do?” Grace asked.
“I’m going to be returning to a dreaming sleep soon,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “It’s how I can stay connected to all of you at once, but it means I’m not aware of acute problems that arise. Or people who may seek to exploit my existence for their own ends. Also, the [Hounds] don’t make exceptions, but sometimes exceptions may be called for.”
“So we’re be your protectors?” Grace asked.
“And the keepers of the Hounds?” Buzz asked.
“That and more,” the [Risen Kingdoms] said. “You would be my [Undying Knights] and to you I would entrust my world and all who walk upon it and within it.”
The [Vampire Queen] felt the fresh blood coursing through her veins and the inferno of power that raged in her soul. It was an intoxicating blend but a persistent question nagged at the corners of her mind.
“You’re sure we lost none of them?” she asked for the twelfth time, hoping that perhaps with enough repetition she might earn a different answer.
“Quite certain,” Qiki said. “All the members of your Couterie are accounted for, and that’s not the best new either!”
Her cheerful tone was purpose built to drive Vixali to murder and they both knew it. They also both knew that after decades spent living in a murderous rage, Vixali’s restraint would not fail her over so small a provocation.
“What news, exactly, could be ‘better’ than that?” Vixali asked, too fiendishly annoyed that an entire army of monsters hadn’t been sufficient to diminish her flock by at least a few members.
She would have said ‘a few of the more annoying members’ but these were [Vampires], they were all annoying.
“You recall some of the [Adventurers] who were petitioning for admittance to your court?” Qiki asked.
“They died!?” Vixali asked, brightening at the thought. For as bad as the actual [Vampires] she had to deal with where, the wanna-be [Vampires] were a thousand times worse.
“What? Oh, no, of course not. They’re [Adventurers],” Qiki said, which, unfortunately, was explanation enough. “Or rather they were!”
Were? How could an [Adventurer] become an ex-[Adventurer] without becoming permanently corpsified?
The answer stared her in the face, but she resolutely refused to look at it.
There was simply no possibility…
That could not be allowed to be true!
“They’ve become townsfolk.” Vixali didn’t suggest it, or ask it as a question. She was a queen. It was a [Royal Edict].
Unfortunately, she was not the Queen of the [Adventurers] and hence her edicts, royal or otherwise, could not compel them.
“In a manner of speaking,” Qiki said.
“So they can be killed now?” Vixali asked. “We can drain them dry and no one will complain?”
“Not…exactly,” Qiki said. “You wouldn’t find their blood very nourishing.”
“Nonsense,” Vixali said. “I’ve drunk all varieties of vitae. The only blood we draw no nourishment from is…is…”
She absolutely did not want to complete that sentence.
“Is the blood of our own [Fledgling Vampires]!” Qiki cheered. “That’s the good news. Your domain is even larger now with all the new subjects, all [Fledgling Vampires] of our bloodline (and yes, I did check, they taste disgusting) who are ready to swear fealty to you!” Qiki bounced out of reach as Vixali lashed out with a flurry of claws.
“How!” Vixali seethed, her eyes a brilliant crimson.
“Apparently the massive [Heart Fire] that everyone assembled so that the [World Spirits] could be reborn gave the [Adventurers] some ideas. They spent a while playing with the regular [Heart Fires] and worked out how to come back as something other than the usual selves.”
“Why? Why would they do this?” Vixali wailed, the image of even more eternally backstabbing, and endlessly whining [Vampires] expecting her to solve all of their problem rising before her like the gates of her own private layer of Hell.
“Did you not watch yourself in the fighting? Did you not watch me?” Qiki asked. “We were incredibly bad ass. And damn hot! There you were all covered in blood, riping heads off and smiting people left and right. I promise you that is showing up in everyone’s dreams who got a good look at what you were doing.” In a quieter voice she added, “I know it showed up in mine.”
“They’re going to be a nightmare. An unmitigated, unbearable nightmare,” Vixali said, dropping her head into her hands. “It was bad enough with the court we already had. How am I not going to go insane with more of them!”
“Come on now, it won’t be that bad,” Qiki said. “Maybe they’ll form factions and fight against each other vying for your support.”
“You know that won’t happen. They would need someone to unite them and there’s not a pair of gray cells still active among the whole lot of them. The most they’ll do is preen at each other and then call me in to choose sides in a fashion show.”
“But what if they did have a leader,” Qiki asked. “Say a treacherous subordinate who was planing to usurp your throne for herself? Someone who could give them the direction they resolutely refuse to listen to from the person they believe is in charge? Someone who could be sure that they would forever and after be too busy tearing each other down to notice that you don’t actually favor any of them?”
Vixali’s non-existent breath caught in her throat.
“You…” a lump formed in her throat. “You would do that for me? Not just a game, but proper treachery? Believable. Compelling. You…”
“Me,” Qiki said, moving in close to draw Vixali into her arms. “It will always be me for you. Just as it will always be you for me.”