End Note

Return to the Epilogue

I’m writing this just as I’m about to publish the Epilogue, and it doesn’t feel like it’s over. This story has been in the works since late 2016. I began writing in May of that year, but ran into writer’s block. This story was a large part in getting me past it.

That said, my original draft of this story only goes through part 2. I was still new to writing at the time, and there were some aspects of the story (which was unnamed at the time) that I felt I needed to reconsider. Instead of finishing it, I went back and finished the first novel I had started earlier that year.

However, after reading web serials such as Worm and Heretical Edge, I wanted to give writing one a try. I happened to have the perfect opportunity come up in May of 2017, though I wouldn’t be able to write it until February of this year. With that in mind, I wrote fanfiction as a way of practicing writing serialized stories. I ended up loving it, and I plan on continuing to write them.

They were great practice, but I still had to come up with an original story. If you read the last author’s note of Shock and Awe, you’ll know I was originally planning a story titled Cut of The Same Cloth. It wasn’t my first outline for a web serial, since I had been trying to think of a story that would work for awhile. At the time, I didn’t feel confident enough in any of those stories to actually write them.

That’s where Carnage came in. I had a new vision for the original story, and realized it would be perfect for the type of story I was trying to tell.

The final product ended up much different than the original outline I made in 2016. The Aspects and Lor weren’t even a thing originally, with aos and aostone just being a world element. The war was going to last longer, with Lexa switching sides and helping to lead a campaign against Goma. In the end, I had my doubts with the idea, and made the war have less focus in the second half of the story.

In some ways, I regret this. In others, I don’t. The war may seem weaker because of it, but in the end, this wasn’t a war story. It was a story of people desperate to survive, and the lengths they go to to do so.

There are other issues I personally have with the story. I won’t bring them up, because maybe you didn’t notice them, and I wouldn’t want to affect anyone’s opinion on my story that way.

Overall, I’m proud of how Carnage came out. There’s much I can improve on, but it was a great learning experience, and a ton of fun to write.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for giving my story a chance. I write because I’m fascinated with stories. They inspire me, and I hope I can inspire others in the same way.

I’m rambling at this point, so I’m going to cut this off here. If you want to see more of my work, I’ll add a link at the bottom of this page that leads to my first published novel, Bleedless. I hope my future stories will one day include a sequel to Carnage, but I have so many other stories to write, that I can’t promise anything.

Thanks again for reading. I’ll see you in the next story.

Link to Bleedless

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Epilogue

Previous Chapter

10 Years Later

The sun is so bright in the evening.

Perhaps it was an odd thought to have, but it lingered in her mind nevertheless. The setting sun cast an orange curtain over the sky, only to be stopped by the Alijanian trees, their own purple glow illuminating the land.

Orange and purple. Two contrasting colors, that when together, sparked beauty.

She shook her head to dispel the thoughts from her mind. There was someone waiting for her, after all, and it wouldn’t be polite to show up distracted.

The treeline ended, letting her come upon a field with a fence around it. She could walk around, go into the field the proper way. Except . . .

Her focus returned to the blazing sky. If she wanted to return to Paradeisos by night, she would have to hurry.

She climbed over the fence, hopping down and taking off with a sprint. Along the way, she passed heroes.

Those who had fallen in the Mokushiran War hadn’t been given a proper burial. There had been no time, with all the destruction and movement taking place. It had taken protesting from families on both sides to make one, massive cemetery by Alijan’s greatest city.

She wished she could stop to pay respects to every gravestone she passed. If she did, she would be here all night. Still, she took a deep breath, wishing farewell to the long departed.

There was one who deserved a much larger commiseration. When she reached the largest gravestone in the field, surrounded by a bed of lavender flowers, she kneeled before it. The position made her frown, and when she realized why, she shifted her legs, fully sitting on the grass with them crossed in front of her.

For a minute, she just stared. It was a gravestone like any other. Well, maybe a little bigger. The one buried wouldn’t have wanted to draw attention away from the other departed, but when Alijan’s diplomat and religious researcher had a request, Queen Praix couldn’t refuse.

The young woman couldn’t help but smile at the thought. The grave sparkled with light, only further brightening her mood. It was that which let her finally speak.

“It’s been awhile,” she said, before chucking. “Alright, it’s only been a month, but I promised you I would make weekly visits. You know how it is. The lawyer life is busy as ever.”

The grave offered no response, of course. That didn’t stop her from hearing a woman’s soothing voice, whispering words of encouragement.

Kara Iustitia smiled. “Thanks, Mom. You said I could make it in Mokushiran Relations, and you were right. The world still isn’t perfect. I guess discrimination was inevitable, but I didn’t let that stop me!”

Not that it would have mattered. It felt like Namari wrote a new law to prevent discrimination every day. And anyone who tried to circumvent them usually met with him personally. Those people would leave hoping they never had to meet with him again.

“A lawyer at 19.” Kara couldn’t keep the dopey grin off her face. “Grandma and Grandpa said they knew I would make it all along, but I guess they forget children have ears.”

She shook her head at her bad joke. “They’re proud, though. Something about them always raising talented, spectacular girls. How embarrassing. At least they listened whenever I complained about all the hard work. I’m sure you’d get tired of hearing me talk your ear off.”

Her Mom wouldn’t have ever gotten tired of hearing Kara speak. Lexa Iustitia had loved her family more than anything, and had only put them aside when her people needed her.

Should Kara have felt bitter about that? Her Mom’s words were what she turned to when she needed advice. While her Mom was no longer around to provide them, Kara could speak to her grave. She never felt closer to her mother than in those moments, which made it easy to know what Lexa would say to her.

She knew what her Mom would say now, and she lifted her head to face the engraving on the stone.

Lexa Iustitia.

The Light of Hope

“I won’t leave without telling you about the others,” Kara promised. Who to start with, though?

“Namari got married,” Kara said. She giggled. “Sorry. I’m just remembering his face at the wedding. Sky and her friends prepared a dance party afterward, and she pulled Namari onto the dance floor. He looked so out of place. Still, he and Sky are the world to each other. He’s . . . happy. Happier than I’ve ever seen him.”

An owl hooted in the distance, another reminder of the approaching night. Kara would have to make this quick.

“Pragmus is doing well, too. I don’t know if you thought of him at the end, but he’s thought of you every day since. At this point, he may not ever get over his guilt. But he’s regained all the weight he lost, and he’s training future soldiers. It doesn’t even take a week before new recruits have cooperation and respect drilled into them. And, most importantly, honesty. I just wish Pragmus would stop saying he does it all so there won’t be anyone like him.”

She sighed, shaking her head. Her hair, dyed to look its original ginger, flapped at her ears. Better than having long hair that got in her face, though.

“Man, if you could see Nyron. You wouldn’t recognize him. New hair, a weird hat, and working in a diner of all places. He gets the most tips, too! The craziest part is that I’m . . . let’s say 90 percent sure he isn’t faking anything. Well, if serving is his calling, I won’t complain. I’ll be ordering a steak from him tonight.”

Not that Nyron would be the one cooking. Kara had tried his cooking before, and her taste buds had never recovered.

Now if Kara could just muster up the courage to talk to him outside of work . . .

Put your hormones away, Kara. You can bring them out later. But not when Nyron is right in front of you.

“You’re waiting for me to tell you about one person in particular, aren’t you?” A gust of wind made her shiver, but smile at the same time. “Alright, alright. Uncle Goma’s doing great as well.”

Kara still didn’t know why Namari had spared Goma that day, only knocking him unconscious and arresting him. Kara hadn’t seen him for two years, but when he came out, he was the most changed out of anyone.

Namari had put him in charge of a small village, and he had taken the task to heart. He talked with the people of the village every day, always working on some project or another. He never left them, content to stay inside his own bubble. As long as they were happy, he didn’t need to know how the rest of the world was doing. That didn’t stop Kara, Grandma, Grandpa, or Nyron from visiting and updating him.

Kara blinked, only now realizing that the purple light had overtaken much of the orange. She gave her mother’s grave a forlong look. Their conversation had barely begun! She couldn’t end it now.

Stick to your priorities, Kara. Her mother’s warning voice echoed in her mind. You’ll never get anything done if you always push away tasks.

Kara sighed, standing and brushing the grass off her pants. “You’re right, as always.” Again, she sighed. “What would I do without you?”

Kara couldn’t imagine a life without her mother’s guiding hand. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but she could feel her mother’s spirit watching over her. It was right there, embedded in the gravestone.

Kara reached out, brushing a single finger over the red stone below the words. So much had been sacrificed for it. Kara couldn’t help but wonder what its purpose would be in the future.

“Oh!” Her eyes widened. “I almost forgot! Little Reathma’s doing great as well. She turned ten yesterday.”

Kara still didn’t know what had drawn her to the girl that had happened to be born the same day Lexa had died. Maybe it was that, even as a kid, she seemed years wiser than Kara.

“I know you want to hear more about her. You want to know about how her family’s doing, how she and I have been getting along, and all that. I won’t have time to tell you now, but there’s always next time, right?”

Next time. She would find more time then. It was because of Lexa that she had a future where she could visit. Even if things weren’t perfect, the joint Alijan nation would thrive for years, perhaps centuries, to come.

It will. I know it.

“Next time,” Kara promised again. “I love you, Mom.”

Kara lifted her head from the grave, and for a moment, she saw a flooded land, trees uprooted, and bodies strewn about.

She blinked, and the memory ended. It was just the forest in front of her.

Not even Lexa knew of her first few years of life, but being an orphan in Mokushiro had taken its toll. As a child, she had seen more hell than she should have in her entire life.

The forest was different. It twinkled playfully, beckoning Kara to accept the embrace its light offered. It was one of many beacons, all providing their own light of hope.

A flock of white birds flew over, letting the breeze carry them. Kara waved to them, smiling at the thought that their chirps were greetings. She watched them until they flew toward the nearly set sun.

Mokushiro had been hell. This . . . this wasn’t. It was something else.

No, staring at the forest, and the future ahead of her, Kara wasn’t looking at hell.

She was looking at paradise.

End

Chapter 30

Previous Chapter

A/N: Thank you for making it this far. We’re at the end, with only the Epilogue to go after this chapter. If you have the time, I would greatly appreciate feedback once you reach the end.

It was a warm, sunny day. The wind was soft, and rodents scurried about while birds chirped. Due to the soft mist of Alijan, the sky glowed, promising a restful day.

For those within Vol, the tone set by the land felt almost mocking. While it was peaceful, they scrambled about. While animals rested, they prepared to fight. While the weather would remain beautiful, they would be scarred from battle.

Lenart was the only one among them who could close his eyes and take in the sunlight. He wasn’t in control of Mokushiro’s last defense. That was up to Goma.

The strike had been sudden. A barrage of troops struck the village Mokushiro had claimed after burning down much of it. The skeleton force they had left surrendered immediately in the face of such large numbers, some containing familiar faces.

What little had remained of their army were turncoats. They were working with Alijan. How it had happened, Lenart didn’t know. What he did know was that those whom had escaped with him stood no chance against the upcoming force.

That would be fine. This was Lenart’s day. He would right his past wrongs by fighting to the death, showing his loyalty to his country. He would push others forward with his grim determination. His name would forever remain coated in blood, but that blood would no longer be tainted.

“Are you ready?” he asked his companion. “This is where we stand. Where we fall.”

Nyron frowned at him, remaining silent.

What is with you? Lenart wondered. Ever since Lenart had woken up in the village his army had ransacked after their escape, Nyron hadn’t said a word to him. Lenart had stolen an ao to communicate with Goma, telling them of their arrival and Lexa’s death. Lenart’s words had kept Goma from falling to Praix’s silver tongue.

They had fled the village before Alijan could catch up to them. Then, they made their way to Vol, where for months they trained sunrise to sunset. Even those who had never wanted to fight knew how to swing a sword. Whether they wanted it or not, a fight would be coming to them.

I’ll be ready, Lenart promised. The army had been placed above Vol, meant to intercept Alijan’s forces before they entered the settlement. In the clearing around him, soldiers continued to bark orders, to hasten from place to place. They were preparing every fortification, every trap, imaginable. As if any of that would make a difference.

Lenart took place in none of that. He would fight, but he would not lead. No one would die due to his decisions ever again.

Soon. Soon it would be time.

So focused was he on the upcoming fight, that he didn’t notice Nyron slipping a dagger into his sleeve, glare centered on Lenart.

****

A ball and chain. That was the most adept description for Namari’s feelings. They held him down, left him unable to function even a full week after his return to Alijan.

It wasn’t fair. Why did Namari have to be the one left behind to end this conflict? Why was he the one who had to establish a future for Alijan and Mokushiro? Lexa was the one with the ambition. She was the one born to rule. So why did she have to leave Namari to do this alone?

This didn’t have to happen, Namari thought, balling his hands into fists to stop them from shaking. If we had just communicated, none of this would have happened.

It didn’t matter. Namari couldn’t go back and change the past. All he could hope was that after today, leaders from both nations would finally, finally learn from past mistakes.

When a scout rushed up to Namari, Namari waved him away. He could see for himself. The Mokushirans had set up barricades on the outer ridge of Vol, using wood from trees they had cut down. They were currently hiding behind those barriers, waiting for Alijan to strike. No doubt they would have ambushes and other traps planned as well.

Namari would have none of that. Not after all he had been through. He was done risking lives. He was done letting others suffer. He was done with this war!

He held Lexa’s final gift before him. A stone, gleaming red.

He had seen it, in his transport to Alijan. The vision Lexa had experienced. The other soldiers had no recollection of the dream, but to him, it was crystal clear. Pneuma was dead, but she would return one day to save them. All he had to do was end the war. She had used the last of her power to give him the tool needed.

The stone flashed, and Namari took ahold of the power leaking from it. Without a God’s power, or a machine designed to direct the Aspect’s energy, there was little he could use it for other than a raw release of power.

However, the stone wasn’t as different from aos as he had originally thought. He could bond to it. When he did, he had control of how that energy escaped.

Pneuma had brought natural disasters to Mokushiro for a reason.

Dark clouds loomed over the sky in an instant. The downpour began immediately after.

Even from a distance, Namari could hear the shouts from the Mokushiran settlement. They had experiences sudden disasters too often. Namari now understood what that was like. It crushed any hope one might have. It tainted the past, brought ruin to the present, and extinguished any chance of a future.

What would they think, seeing the disasters had chased them to Alijan?

Namari released more power in the form of lightning. It struck the wooden fortifications, lighting them ablaze. When the Mokushirans tried to flee, they stumbled from an earthquake. The wind picked up, making escape even more challenging.

When it seemed the rain would put away the flames, lightning struck again. Even then, hurricanes continued to ravage the land. Soldiers were swept into the canyon, down to where the citizens were. The destruction followed them.

Through it all, Namari’s army stood safe. The sun shone above them, they were dry, and the ground below them was even. While the Mokushirans begged for mercy, Namari and his people watched the scene like a sport.

Some of the Mokushirans in Namari’s force would surely have objected if Namari hadn’t made a promise ahead of time. The disasters struck hard, but they didn’t kill. Mokushirans who fell into the canyon found their footing as they slid. The fires didn’t reach the civilians themselves. The flooding did, but not enough to cause any real damage.

Just enough to cause fear.

Namari closed his eyes and shuddered. Here I am, Goma. Using the same tactics as you. May this be the last of it.

The rain pattered out as the clouds blew away. The ground stilled, and the winds died down. A red stone dropped on the ground, dimmer than a dying torch.

Two minutes. That was all it had taken to bring a nation to its knees.

****

His eyes were wide. His entire body shook. His head darted from side to side.

“W-what in God’s name was that?” Lenart choked.

Nyron offered no response. He couldn’t risk speaking. Not when doing so might give away his intentions.

“We have to go back!” Lenart shouted, jumping to his feet. Nyron hesitated, then pushed himself up as well.

Behind them were the tattered remains of their army. All alive, but hardly fit to fight after such a display. They groaned and cried on the ground while Lenart wildly waved his arms at them.

“Up, men!” Lenart demanded. “Our enemies were foolish enough to believe we would cower at such forces of nature. They do not know the hell we’ve been through! They are the cowards, and we will show them as such here and now! Let us fight! For Mo—”

Nyron flicked his wrist forward, releasing the knife he had hidden in his sleeve. In the same motion, he drove that knife forward, through the back of Lenart’s neck.

Lenart gasped in pain. He turned his head through a series of jerks, eyes glistening with tears of pain. When he saw who had attacked him, those eyes burned with betrayal.

He opened his mouth to speak, but Nyron didn’t give him the chance. He drew his sword, swiping it at Lenart’s neck.

In one smooth motion, Lenart’s head flung from his body. The pained noises from the soldiers evaporated, their slack-jawed gazes focused on the headless body of their hero.

And yet, none of them came after Nyron. Maybe it was because they were tired of fighting. Maybe they didn’t cared for Lenart as much as they had thought. Or maybe, they understood Nyron’s choice, why Lenart couldn’t live.

“I’ve done it,” Nyron whispered. A drop of rain, which had clung to the cliffside, fell. It landed on Nyron’s back, sending a shiver down his spine. He wiped the drop onto his hand, then flicked it onto the sparkling grass.

“I’ve avenged you.” Nyron wasn’t sure who he was talking to.

****

How had it come to this? His army had worked themselves to near death every day, all in preparation for one last fight. Yet they had failed so spectacularly. How?

Goma knew. All the events leading up to Lexa’s death has been a factor. His need to make a glorious nation for his people, his decision to let a mercenary, a traitor, and his sister take charge, the ravage of a worthless backwater Alijanian settlement, and a battle gone horribly wrong.

From there, the outcome had been inevitable.

He could almost laugh, looking at the flimsy fortification to his office. Chairs and a bookshelf were cluttered against the door. After the hell those Alijanians had unleashed, such a simple barrier would be no issue to them. They would break through. And when they did, Goma would die.

“If I can be with Lexa again, I’ll let it happen,” he whispered. “Just let the next leader succeed where I failed. Mokushiro will never fall to Alijan. We’ll rise again. I know it.”

“An interesting sentiment,” a voice spoke from behind him. “But ultimately meaningless.”

Goma whirled around. How had they snuck in, without him hearing, no less? Except . . . there wasn’t anyone else in the room. Just him, and the ao that had been connected to Lexa’s.

Lexa.

“Who are you?” Goma spat, before he jolted in recognition. The voice . . .  “Namari. You stole Lexa’s ao after you murdered her. Do you have no shame?”

“Shame?” the ao pulsed in questioning. “Shame is why I am doing this. Why this feud must end today.”

Goma wished he could throttle the rat through the ao. “This is pointless!” He slammed a fist on his desk. “If you’re going to kill me, just do it already.”

Namari had no response, and Goma wondered if he was about to do just that. After a minute of silence, he squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation, only for the ao to pulse once more.

“We don’t have to end it this way,” Namari said. “You can surrender. We can come to a compromise. If not for us, then for Lexa.”

“Don’t you dare utter her name!” Goma snapped. He stood, swinging at the ao. For all the good it did. “You took her away from me!”

Sharp breaths came through the ao. When Namari spoke, it sounded as though he was choking back tears.

“Lexa did not die that day on the field,” Namari said. “She talked to me, tried to make peace. She did her best to bring our two nations together. She died saving me, and many other Alijanians. Even her own people. We have a camp sheltering refugees from Mokushiro, who didn’t travel on the initial voyage. She’s a hero, and I will speak her name to let everyone know.”

Was he trying to earn Goma’s pity? Did he think putting on an act and lying about his misdeeds would paint him as the good guy in all this?

“Shut up!” Goma snapped. “I’m done talking to you. You have no right to trap my people in this canyon. I will fight for them until the day I die!”

Namari sighed. “Very well, then.”

The door burst open, the barricade smashing into pieces. At least a dozen soldiers poured into the room, weapons raised and pointed at Goma. They surrounded his desk, leaving him no escape.

Namari stepped through, a blank expression on his face.

This is how it ends, Goma thought. He closed his eyes. I’m sorry, Lexa.

An order came in Alijanian.

His consciousness vanished.

****

Namari turned away from the scene. It was over. The war would end, with Mokushiran’s leader dethroned. Queen Praix would make her demands, then integrate the Mokushiran refugees into Alijanian society. Laws would be made to support them, until eventually, they were all content with their lives.

With Namari’s help, and thanks to the knowledge Lexa gave him, Mokushiran history would not be forgotten. The two cultures would blend, creating a new society. One that, with help from a certain someone, would be able to stand against Lor.

Was it worth it?

He stepped outside, squinting his eyes at the sunshine. His gaze swept over a broken settlement. The land was empty, beyond puddles of water. Houses drooped, and blinds covered the windows while those inside hid, expecting retribution that would never come.

There was one person outside. A boy, standing over a corpse. Based on the blood on the boy’s weapon, he had been the murderer.

Everyone had their own tale, Namari supposed. Wars, no matter how pointless, pushed those stories forward. War changed a person, for better or worse. Would this war change them all for the better, push them to cooperate?

Cooperate.

The mere idea seemed strange. The gods had chosen to separate them. Only one was meant to persevere. Could they change that destiny set for them?

Only time would tell.

Next Chapter

Chapter 29

Previous Chapter

Lexa gasped, her return to conscious happening just as suddenly as she had lost it, if she had lost it at all.

She was in the cave, clothes damp, a red stone on the ground beside her. Lexa rolled over and picked it up.

The stone looked no more remarkable than before. Like aostone, it glowed, though this stone was red rather than blue. Although, Lexa noted, the glow actually seemed stronger than before. It might have been the water that kept Lexa from noticing before, but if not . . .

Finding a groove in the stone, Lexa pushed against it. The groove responded to the action, moving farther into the stone. With an audible click, it locked into place, and the stone started shaking.

Is this how those structures I saw worked? This somehow . . . gave them energy? It doesn’t seem like much.

The stone flashed, shaking even more intensely. It was pulsing, a light from the inside radiating from the center, then slamming against the exterior. As the shakes picked up, so did the light.

There was an aura to the stone. No heat came from it, but power did. It leaked out, yearning to all burst free at once. The storm within raged on, unrelenting in its assault.

Lexa’s eyes widened at the first cracks in the stone. Her arm whipped forward, hurling the stone to the other end of the cave.

To the entrance.

She had been just in time. The instant the stone touched the ground, it exploded, the following rumbles more intense than any earthquake Lexa had ever experienced. She closed her eyes, both in her attempts to stay upright, and due to the flash of light the explosion caused.

The rumbles didn’t stop. Lexa could move again, but the ground still shook below her. When a chunk of the ceiling crashed next to her, spraying chips of the ground into her face, she realized why. The cave was collapsing.

Lexa leaped to her feet, sprinting toward the entrance. It had collapsed in the explosion, but escaping through it hadn’t been Lexa’s plan.

She leaned sideways, just enough to grab the Aspect. The cracks had been sealed, and the glow was so faint, Lexa might have imagined it.

Pneuma needed the stone. Lexa knew, because the goddess had told her not to worry about Lor, yet to take the Aspect. They would use it to end the war, but they didn’t need it to do so. The Aspect would be worthless after Lexa’s death. But what about after Pneuma’s resurrection?

This better be worth it, Lexa thought. She dived out of the way just in time to avoid a rock falling on her head. Another one collapsed onto the ground by the pond.

The cave was collapsing, and the entrance had been sealed with rocks. Realizing that, Lexa almost laughed. Of course it couldn’t be easy. Life had to throw one last hurdle at her before this could all end.

Next time, I’ll experiment with the incredibly dangerous object made by a divine being in the open.

Lexa sprinted back to the pond, leaping in while simultaneously avoiding another falling rock. She squeezed down on the Aspect, and to her surprise, the glow brightened, letting her see underwater.

Lexa peered further down. At the bottom of the pond, there was a crack in the wall, barely large enough for her to squeeze through. A splash from above made her wince and hug the wall, until the falling rock passed. With that, her strokes became more desperate, each one sending her farther than the last.

I never did like water, she thought. Someone more sensible might have argued she had willingly taken two long voyages across the sea, but in that moment, she would have hit them before responding.

Her heart lifted upon seeing the crack led somewhere. She didn’t bother being gentle at squeezing into it, and both her arms suffered scrapes for it. Lexa didn’t even feel the pain, her need for breath far more pressing. She half shuffled, half swam through the crack, which led out to a much longer, much faster body of water.

A running stream.

Lexa nearly dropped the Aspect in her rush to surface. When she finally reached air, she took a single, large gasp before the stream sucked her under again.

Rather than fight the stream, she let the current carry her away. It was better than staying near the collapsing cave. Speaking of which, the tunnel she was in now had also suffered from the release of the Aspect’s power. A natural earthquake struck, which proved to be the final push the ceiling needed to fall.

Lexa’s eyes widened. She ducked underwater just in time to avoid a rock from slamming against her head. Even then, she had to weave herself forward so it wouldn’t strike her body in the water. If one of those rocks pinned her . . .

Lexa couldn’t let that happen. She was blind to what took place in the cave, beyond rocks falling from every direction. She thrust back, kicked off the stream wall, swam down, spun right, whatever she had to do in order to dodge.

When she surfaced, her breath came out in sharp gasps, both the intense movement and so much time underwater making her lungs ache. That ache traveled through Lexa’s whole chest, begging her to stop.

She kept moving, barely paying attention to her movements. A storm of rocks swirled around her, and all she could do was ride it, dodging every rock that came near. She didn’t stop. If she did, she would die.

Finally, the tunnel opened up into a larger cave, and when she squinted, Lexa could make out a light coming from the end of it. She practically leaped out of the water, landing in a sprint. How the cave hadn’t collapsed altogether yet, she didn’t know. What she did know was that her luck wouldn’t hold out much longer.

There it was. Light. Freedom! It was . . .

A dead end, with a small hole in the cave wall revealing the outside.

Another earthquake struck, causing a loud crash to come from behind Lexa. She whirled around, only to see the cave was smaller. Or rather, the half the stream had led to was now blocked off. If Lexa had been a few feet farther back . . .

So close. The exit was right there. Victory was in Lexa’s grasp. Yet she couldn’t make that final step. She couldn’t make it past that last obstacle.

The feeling that rose in Lexa was hers, but she wasn’t alone in it. Something else, deep in inside her, screamed with rage.

Lexa joined it. A primal, gurgled sound escaped her. She would not die here! She would not fail her people again!

Two earthquakes. Two disasters, made to be fuel for the Aspect. Lexa uncurled her hands to reveal the stone, radiating brighter than it ever had.

Another explosion would get her nowhere. She had to channel its energy properly.

Please, help me out, Lexa thought, closing her eyes. She focused on the power coming out of the stone. It felt as untamed as before. With a shaking finger, Lexa pushed down on the indent again.

The flashes and shakes returned, but Lexa ignored them. She focused on the power. She had compared it to a storm before, but it was more than that. It was a wild creature. It strained against its bonds like any other creature did when trapped. And like trapped animals, it was feral upon breaking free.

But animals could be tamed.

“This power is mine!” Lexa roared, pulling the energy into her. Her body locked up, shaking uncontrollably. Even then, she felt an energy unlike any she had experienced before.

No. I have felt this before! It was the same energy that flowed into me, that came out through my blood before.

This energy . . . it’s Pneuma’s!

No human could handle such raw power on their own. The world Lexa saw, the world where Mokushiro ruled, used machines to harness the raw power, channeling it into their technology. What Lexa was doing now, she had Pneuma to thank for.

What bond did they have? Pneuma said she would be human through Lexa, but what did that mean? Did Pneuma share her thoughts? Was she a prisoner in Lexa’s mind, until the goddess reincarnated as a mortal?

Lexa would never know.

She channeled the power inside her, directing it to her fist. Then, after rearing back, she slammed that fist into the cracked wall.

At first, there was nothing. Her fist remained against the wall, neither yielding. Then, the cracks in the wall spread. It was only a few veins at first, but those veins grew in size. As they did, more veins sprouted from them. They danced among each other, crawling farther along the wall, until they finally stopped.

When they did, the first rumble came. The rocks grinded against one another, some slipping out and falling to the ground. With that, the entire wall lost support, and Lexa had to cover her eyes as it collapsed with a deafening crash.

When the smoke cleared, the wall had opened, revealing the dead field Lexa had come from. Lexa took a step forward with a smile on her face.

The next moment, she was on the ground, her head feeling as though a hammer was pounding against it. She groaned, moving a hand to the spot. She grimaced when it came back bloody.

The rock that had knocked her out rested on the ground beside her. She leaned over to pick up the Aspect that had fallen next to it. Except she couldn’t make it all the way. Her legs buckled as some force kept them pinned.

Vision still blurry, Lexa barely managed to make out the rock crushing her legs. Were they broken? She didn’t feel in pain.

I’m going into shock, she realized. She clasped her clammy hands together, attempting to keep them from trembling. Her efforts did nothing but bring the trembles to her shoulders.

Her heart raced, but she longed to pass out. This wasn’t a situation she would get out of. Even if she got out from under the rock, her body wouldn’t cooperate with her.

With that realization, Lexa stopped struggling. She rested her head on her arm, sighing and closing her eyes.

I’m sorry, Pneuma. Please, take care of my people when you’re reborn.

Goma, I’m sorry I didn’t fight you harder. I should have never sat by and let you start a war. I think I knew of your plan from the start, but I was afraid to take responsibility. In the end, I suppose I’m the most responsible for all that’s happened.

Namari, I’m sorry for giving you such a poor impression of our people. I should have been a better example for you to see, and for them to follow. Even on the boat, I should have told you . . .

Mom, Dad, I love you.

Kara . . . thank you for being with me one more time. I’m sorry I didn’t put you first. If I could, I would go back and never leave your side.

“Lexa!” the voice snapped Lexa’s eyes open, and she nearly gasped at the sight before her. A person made of stone, just like from the painting she had seen on Alijan, ran toward her. A band of turquoise troops scrambled to keep up.

Lexa’s smile was as weak as she felt. “Namari . . .”

Namari, powered by the stone Aspect, rushed to Lexa’s side. He didn’t even speak, instead hooking his arms under the rock keeping Lexa pinned.

He grunted in his effort, even his stone arms shaking from the exertion. The burden must have been heavier than Lexa had realized.

That didn’t stop Namari. Lexa heard a muffled, “Come on,” while the rock creaked as he readjusted it.

With a gasp, Namari lowered it. Even with the stone muting them, Lexa heard how heavy his breaths were from moving the rock just a fraction of an inch.

He barked orders, and the soldiers rushed down to help him. Every one of them heaved with all their might to make the rock move. Not even the blast of thunder distracted them. Wait, had it been raining? How had Lexa not noticed?

Another storm was coming. So soon, too. Mokushiro really was dying.

“Mokushiro’s Aspect will last until your death. Then, the island will sink, and the power will be drained. Take the stone, and use it wisely.”

Pneuma’s words echoed in Lexa’s head. Seeing the soldiers flounder in their attempts to free her, they were all she could think about.

They would die. The storm would hit, and if the roof didn’t collapse, they would still drown. Lexa had opened too much of the cave for it to be a shelter.

It wasn’t just them. Everyone on Mokushiro was destined to die. Everyone Lexa had abandoned, left to be hit by an apocalypse in the form of their homes sinking.

An apocalypse . . . heh. We’ve been living an apocalypse our whole lives. One that should have ended months ago.

Lexa wasn’t a good person. How could she be, after she had blatantly ignored the obvious signs of her mistakes? She could try to excuse it, try to explain what had gone through her mind. But in the end, there was no excusing what she had done. What she had allowed.

She had tried to make up for it, to bring Mokushiro and Alijan together. Looking at the soldiers working side by side to help her, she supposed she had succeeded. Was that enough, or would many still condemn her as evil?

Evil. Such a strange concept. To the Alijanian’s, the Mokushirans had surely seemed evil. Mokushirans, meanwhile, thought they deserved more space than they truly needed, because after so long suffering, they couldn’t be content. They’d had to thrive.

That didn’t change the fact they had suffered, though. Goma didn’t want to rule Alijan. He only wanted to ensure his people would get the best Alijan had to offer. He wanted them to be happy despite their pasts. Did his methods make him evil?

Such a pointless war. It could have ended at any time, but for stubbornness and stupidity. In the end, it was all for nothing. The future would remain the same, with those on the island one day working together, the war nothing but a history lesson for school kids.

Now, it was time for it all to end. Lexa lifted a hand, placing it on Namari’s arm. “Stop,” she whispered.

“Shut up!” came Namari’s hoarse response. “If you want to make a heroic sacrifice, you can save it. I’m not settling for that, got it? I love you, damn it!”

Lexa could only smile. In a different world, Namari could have acted on those feelings, and Lexa on hers. It wasn’t meant to be, because despite Namari’s wishes, Lexa was going to pull the cliche he wanted to avoid.

The downpour had gotten strong enough to flood the landscape before them. Water splashed onto Lexa’s chin. Floating in that water was a red stone.

It flowed closer, letting Lexa snatch it. A storm like this, would it give the Aspect enough power?

“Here. Let me help.”

Men and women cried out when the Aspect shone with the intensity of the sun. Namari was the first to understand, and his shout was that of a dying animal.

“Lexa, no!” he screeched.

Lexa’s response was too quiet for anyone to hear. But with the stone bringing light to the cave, he had no trouble reading her mouth to make out the three words for him.

Energy poured out of Lexa, none of it hers. Pneuma . . . she was reincarnating now, wasn’t she? And with that, she could give up the last of her divine energy to make the Aspect do something it would never do on its own.

Lexa helped. Just like with the blood, light escaped from every part of Lexa, all centered on the stone. With every passing second, the stone grew brighter.

Mokushiro would sink, but its people would not fall. The light fled from the cave, spreading out in all directions until it encompassed Mokushiro. Somehow, through the bond she shared with Pneuma, Lexa could feel it. In that moment, she knew Mokushiro would be a beacon of white light, seen from every corner of the Forbidden Sea thanks to Pneuma. She, like all the gods, controlled the sea. She let the fog carry the light, so all knew what was taking place.

The glow stopped, and with it, the shouting soldiers were gone. Not just them. Every living being on Mokushiro had been transported to safety. To Alijan.

The energy hadn’t been Lexa’s, but it had still come from her body. The exhaustion struck her like a wave, making the stone slip out of her grasp. The moment it touched the ground, it vanished. Pneuma’s doing?

Lexa’s eyes closed for the final time as she felt her soul slip away. As she died, there was a smile on her face.

She sighed a final breath, before fading into nothingness.

Next Chapter

Chapter 28

Previous Chapter

Darkness. Lexa’s eyes were open, yet it was all she saw. She couldn’t even see her own hands, despite being able to feel them.

She was floating, maybe even spinning. It was hard to tell when she had no sense of direction. Lexa tried jerking her body forward, but if that had an effect on her movement, she couldn’t tell.

Am I dead? she wondered. Was seeing Kara, and following her into the cave, just a dream? Did I pass out on the field and drown?

Even after learning the existence of gods, Lexa still hadn’t believed in an afterlife. How could one even process the life they were supposedly living after death, when they wouldn’t have a functional brain to do so? Yet here she was, in a vast plain of nothingness, and still able to think.

She should have been freaking out. She should have been wanting to scream. Yet the peace that came with floating, along with the evenness and ease of her breathing, left her unable to feel anything but calm.

Maybe this is their way of repaying us. They give us this calmness after death so our minds don’t snap.

Or maybe not, because just as Lexa began to accept this existence, the calmness vanished, and was replaced with the sense of . . . a job well done.

What?

Eagerness struck next, along with relief. Lexa’s knees, even in what felt like air, buckled at the rush.

Before Lexa could even begin to dwell on the emotions hitting her, there was a bright flash. It would have been blinding under normal circumstances, but in the darkness, the sudden light lit Lexa’s eyes aflame. She cried out, covering her eyes with her arm far too late.

Her head thumped from the pain, and it was with that sensation that Lexa knew she was still alive.

If she was alive, she might not be alone.

“Hello?” she called, eyes still closed. “Is anyone there?”

Her eyes snapped open on their own, and Lexa almost passed out at the sight before her. Knowledge flooded her mind, letting her know what she was witnessing.

The nothingness remained, but Lexa wasn’t alone in it. There were seven other . . . things. Lexa wasn’t sure how to describe them. She saw them yet she didn’t see them. It was more like she felt their presences, and with that, she could see, in a way that had nothing to do with eyesight.

The presences weren’t physical. They were jumbles of ideas, with no structure to them. They swirled through eternity, unable to form into anything tangible, since there was nothing for them to interact with. However, whether they knew it or not, they were on a path that couldn’t be stopped.

The Path to Creation.

These ideas all eventually converged at one space. Separate, they couldn’t create. But together, their ideas could feed off of each other. Through that, they gained awareness. They knew how to use their separate ideas, how to bring them into the nothingness. To create something physical.

So they did. They created a world, filled with life in the land and the sea. Ideas were pulled from each being, making each part of the world vastly different from any other.

Lexa saw it. The nothingness was gone. Instead, she floated in a beautiful, rainbow sky. People of all different shapes and sizes talked among each other below her, trading wares that Lexa could only see as blurs.

It was then that the world before her exploded.

The sky twisted, converging onto itself. The land crumbled into pieces, and those pieces slammed against one another. Lexa could do nothing but watch as the world buzzed with energy, until finally, it popped like a balloon, leaving behind the return of nothingness.

It took Lexa a minute to find her voice. “You’re a god, aren’t you?”

An image of the Capital flashed through her mind.

“You’re Mokushiro’s god,” Lexa whispered.

A feminine giggle echoed around Lexa, making her head snap in every direction.

“A goddess?” Lexa asked.

Contentment filled her, along with a sense of sadness.

“You destroyed the world you built,” Lexa said. “You threw everything you had to create it, that you didn’t think to stabilize it. You were all so different, and nothing you created worked well with another’s creation.”

The vision before her changed. The beings came together again, after the world fell into ruin. They wanted to try again. In their haste, they made the same mistakes as before.

It didn’t stop there. Civilization after civilization collapsed as the world fell apart countless times.

“Why were you so eager?” Lexa asked. “Surely you could have cooperated, and created a stable environment. If you just took the right aspects of your being, then they wouldn’t backfire.”

Anger, dread. Lexa nearly forgot who so was, with how strong the emotions were. With them, came energy. An energy that flooded Lexa, threatening to make her burst. She couldn’t fall on her knees, so she tucked them into her chest.

“Why?” she whispered through gritted teeth.

She gasped when the energy flowed out of her in the form of her own blood. It splattered below her, despite there being no solid ground. When Lexa reached to touch it, her hand spurted more blood, adding to the pile.

It was far more blood than any human should have. It shot out of every part of Lexa. Her eyes, her mouth, her hand, her chest, everything was an opening for her own life force to break free. And all Lexa could do was stare in horror, not even given the mercy of passing out.

It’s not real, she told herself. I would already be dead if it was. This isn’t mine.

The thought wasn’t as comforting as she had hoped.

Lexa didn’t know how long it lasted, but when it was finally over, there was a crimson pond before her. She nearly threw up at the stench.

When a bubble the size of Lexa rose from the pond, she almost screamed. More bubbles rose, all converging onto each other. When they did, they took form.

A round table, with silhouettes standing around it. They gestured wildly, as though trying to hammer a point into the others. They drew diagrams on the table, they got in each other’s faces, and they looked ready to attack.

It had never happened, yet it had. The gods had no physical forms, but after so many failures, they finally tried to work together. But each one was so different in concept, that they couldn’t agree. It would be like trying to get a war hero to agree with everything told to him by an old woman he had crippled in battle.

In the end, there was only one solution. They couldn’t work together, so their creations wouldn’t either, with a sea of fog between them to make sure of it.

And that’s how Lexa’s home was born.

Using what little energy they had left, each god sculpted their own island, creating the Aspects so their people could thrive. Nations rose and fell, until the people finally started to use the gods’ gifts.

Except for one.

“We never found our Aspect,” Lexa said. “If we had, would we have been as successful as Alijan?”

A vision flashed in her mind. Steel structures rising thousands of feet into the air. Weapons powerful enough to blow a crater into the ground. Floating domes that rode the storms to their destinations while the passengers lounged inside.

Every feat was powered by a single, red stone.

These people would have been the first to discover another island, even before Alijan found Lor. They would have found every island, bringing their technology so each civilization could grow. As the other islands developed under Mokushiro, their own Aspects would be forgotten. Some would still use them, but they wouldn’t hold a candle to Mokushiran machines.

Should Lexa feel envious, or even enraged? This power had been at their fingertips for so long, yet they had never discovered it.

“You must have known that, though,” Lexa realized. “Why risk developing our Aspect this way? What did you have to gain from it?”

The goddess responded by prodding Lexa. It felt as though there was a fingertip tapping on her brain. Did the goddess want Lexa to let her in?

Lexa bit her lip. A deity rummaging through her mind sounded straight out of a nightmare.

Despite that, she let her body go limp, uncentered her gaze, and closed her eyes as though sleeping.

And for a minute, she became a goddess.

Anguish. Yearning. She reached to feel, to interact with the world she had created. For so long, she’d been nothing but a thought. Every eon that passed left her more broken than the last. She wasn’t real. She was a powerful being with creation in her hands, but she was equally helpless.

Every stone created took so much out of her. If she kept going, her mind would revert to the speck it had once been. She wouldn’t even have her thoughts, the one thing that made her human.

That was the goal. To be human. Her spirit lifted at the thought. A city stretching for miles, with a shining queen sitting on the nation’s throne. She talked to people, she slept in a soft bed, she ate delicious food. All these senses she longed for were hers.

If her nation could just thrive. If her Aspect could overtake the others. Their energy of the other gods would feed into hers. With enough of it, she could finally be human.

Their bet had taken place millennia ago. Each created their own island. Whichever one succeeded, that god would be the one to recreate the world a final time. Using the power of the others, they would create an empire. One that would last an eternity with a physical god at its helm.

One day . . .

Lexa gasped when the vision ended, slapping each hand against the side of her head. There had been so much emptiness. She thought she knew what it was like to be so close to seeing your dream fulfilled, but having it always be just out of reach. Now she knew she didn’t understand that feeling at all.

This goddess, and all the gods, had spent an eternity longing for things Lexa took for granted every day. They were willing to kill each other if it meant reaching that goal. And if any more than one had such an influence on the world . . . then the world would be destroyed once more.

Her eyes widened. “Lor’s Aspect,” she whispered. “That was why they gave it to us.”

Another image flashed through her mind. The soil deep beneath Alijan, with green cracks running through it. Lor’s god . . . he was spreading his Aspect so he would gain more energy.

Along with the image came a spike of terror that made Lexa’s heart race. She wanted to run, but couldn’t. All she could do was tuck her legs in and hyperventilate.

Another image, this time of a round machine underwater. Above it was a boat, sailing through the foggy sea. A hole in the machine opened, shooting out a missle. It collided with the bottom of the ship, and the resulting explosion engulfed the world around Lexa. When it ended, she was once again surrounded by nothingness.

“There was never a sea creature.” Lexa felt terror of her own at the realization. “Lor planned all this from the start!”

The goddess didn’t even need to confirm it.

“Namari and I want Alijan and Mokushiro to work together,” Lexa said. “You do too, don’t you? You gods . . . you create the storms that ruin ships. But you’re scared, so you gave up on keeping us here to develop our Aspect, because you’re that afraid of Lor.”

What Lexa saw next, she would immediately forget. A world where Lor won. A world so horrifying, the goddess didn’t even want Lexa to remember it.

The seed was planted, though. “We have to stop them!” Lexa blurted. “Please, help me get back to Alijan with the Aspect. I can stop the war. I can save you. I—”

Pneuma. The name struck Lexa’s mind. With it, came memories.

Lexa passed out at the sudden rush of them. There were so many memories, all of a being so far above her, that she couldn’t even begin to understand them.

With them, came power. A yellow glow surrounded Lexa, radiating off her to encompass the entirety of whatever dream world she had been brought into. Though her body had failed, her . . . spirit, hovered above, watching.

“W-what is this?” Lexa gasped in her mind.

“This is the only way I can talk to you,” said the most beautiful voice Lexa had ever heard. “I won’t burden you with my memories. Not like he did. You don’t need to sacrifice yourself, Lexa. Complete your task. Save your people. Live the rest of your life. Despite your beliefs, Lor will not attack soon.

“They will one day. When that day comes, I will be prepared. This . . . bond that we now share. It is the only way I can experience life as a human, through you. I can be reborn as a mortal, even if that takes away all the power I have.”

Lexa didn’t even have to ask the question on her mind. With the bond they shared, Pneuma knew.

“Mokushiro’s Aspect will last until your death. Then, the island will sink, and the power will be drained. Take the stone, and use it wisely.”

Pneuma let Lexa voice her thought. “What about you?” Lexa asked.

In response, Lexa’s body vanished below her, and she could feel her soul slipping as well.

Pneuma’s quiet joy seeped into her.

“I will be reborn with no knowledge of my past. But my destiny will play out regardless.

“One day, I will find Persephone. And together, we will save the world.”

Next Chapter

Chapter 27

Previous Chapter

Failure.

The word echoed in Lexa’s head, over and over, until it was all she could think of. She had failed. She had failed her people. She had failed Goma. She had failed Namari.

If only I had him here, she thought. Namari had been a leveled head to counter Lexa’s rashness. With him, no decision was poorly made. Even when there was no hope left, he had a plan. Even now, he had probably escaped, and was going to find the Aspect all on his own. Any minute now, he would show up and scold Lexa for her foolishness.

Lexa shook her head. Stop with these childish thoughts. Namari is just another person you failed. Another person you abandoned.

She and Goma had left people behind. Then, Lexa had left Kara to go to war. After that, she abandoned most of her people to go on this impossible quest. And after all that, she still abandoned the last of her allies when they needed her most.

All she could do now was run. She didn’t know where she was, other than what must have once been a lush plain of grass. Now, the ground beneath her feet was rough and black. The crunching below Lexa, and her constant pants, were the only signs of life. Even the wind was stilled.

Lexa’s legs burned with every step, and her lungs felt ready to explode. Her body should have collapsed ages ago, but she had willed it forward. She had pushed herself so far that running wasn’t even a conscious effort anymore. Her legs moved, and she was carried along for the ride.

She didn’t even notice when her body gave up. The crunching was so constant, that it continued in her head even when her legs collapsed. Lying on the ground, gasping for breath, her body drenched in sweat, she couldn’t focus on anything but the pain, both physical and mental.

It was when a faint breeze finally touched the land, making Lexa shiver, that her eyes snapped open, and realization hit. The breeze didn’t fade, and when Lexa rolled onto her back, she saw dark clouds covering the sky.

The first raindrops hit a moment later.

Lexa laughed. Maybe it was because she couldn’t do anything else. Her body wouldn’t be working anytime soon. She had no choice but to face the storm, with no cover for miles. She would be lucky if lightning struck her. Otherwise, she would drown.

As for survival, there was no chance.

It was for the best. Her people wouldn’t miss her. Goma and her parents might, but they would have each other. As for Kara . . .

Kara would take it hard. By now, Lexa had been gone for months. Kara would be so lonely, waiting for her mom to come home.

I’m sorry, Kara, Lexa thought. I would give anything to see you one more time.

Movement flashed in the corner of her vision, but she ignored it. It didn’t come as a surprise that her mind was playing tricks on her. She couldn’t have a nice, peaceful death. She didn’t deserve an easy end, she supposed. If her mind wanted to torture her with false hope, she would bear it.

It took three more times of spotting movement for Lexa to growl with frustration. The rain picked up, drenching her hair, which now clung to her body. She lifted a trembling arm to push her hair out of the way and look at what was causing the movement.

Nothing. There was only grass there. Of course. How would there be—

The wind picked up, causing grass to whip from side to side.

Grass?

Lexa narrowed her eyes. Was that a . . . hole? It was possible for a concave to have survived whatever fire had ruined this land.

No other options, Lexa dragged her arm forward, pulling her whole body with it. Each inch of movement took more of her breath. It was as though she was dragging an entire village on her back.

A blast of thunder was enough to push Lexa forward. Even soaked, she could feel the sweat on her brow. She pushed on regardless.

The sky lit up above her. The thunder roared. Busy rain accompanied the silence in between. Through it all, the single, tall stem of grass danced in the wind.

One last push brought Lexa to the edge of the hole just in time for lightning to flash again. The spark let her peer into the hole.

At the edge of the hole was a patch of soil, where the grass, plant, whatever that had caught Lexa’s eye sat. Behind it . . .

Behind it was a cave.

Relief should have washed over Lexa in that minute. A cave. Shelter. Survival. She was supposed to be dead, but luck was on her side. She didn’t have to give up.

Lexa felt none of that relief. Her blood boiled, and she yanked the grass from its resting place, chucking it into the wind.

“IS THIS A JOKE?” she shrieked. She rose to her feet. “DO YOU FIND THIS AMUSING? IS THIS ALL A FUCKING GAME TO YOU?”

It must have been quite the sight. A drenched, purple-haired woman glaring and shaking her fist at the sky. She didn’t care. Her vision was red.

“I’M TALKING TO YOU, GODS! YOU CREATED THESE ASPECTS! THEY’RE UNIQUE TO EACH ISLAND, AREN’T THEY? YOU MADE MOKUSHIRO THIS WAY! YOU LET US SUFFER! AND NOW, WHEN I’M FINALLY READY TO END IT ALL, YOU LET ME LIVE ON!”

She wanted to hit something. There was only ground. She scooped up the dead soil, then slammed it back against the ground.

“A RANDOM HOLE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE? I DON’T BUY THAT SHIT FOR A SECOND! SO WHY? WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO GAIN FROM ALL THIS!”

There was no response.

“FUCKING ANSWER ME!”

“Mom!” The voice snapped Lexa out of her daze, only for her to discover she was on the ground with her eyes closed.

How did I get here? I don’t remember falling.

She groaned, putting a hand to her head.

“Mom!” the voice repeated.

Lexa’s eyes crawled open. Not that her vision improved, since there was a red mane in her face.

“Kara,” Lexa said, the words coming automatically. “I can’t see.” Her own words registered a moment later, and her eyes widened.

“Eep!” The girl jumped back. “Sorry, Mom.”

Lexa followed her. All traces of exhaustion vanished, she wrapped her arms around her daughter. Lexa had to use Kara to support her body.

“Mom?” Kara asked. “Are you okay?”

“Am I okay?” Lexa laughed. “Of course I am! You’re here! How did you get here? Have you been doing alright on you own? How—wait.” Lexa’s stared at Kara’s hair. Her red hair.

“Why don’t you have Alijanian hair?” Lexa asked.

“Ali-what?” Kara asked. She held out a hand, and Lexa took it. When she stood, she patted the grass off her legs.

Grass. She was in a beautiful, lush field. How . . . ?

“In here, Mom!” Kara called. She skipped into the cave that Lexa had found before. Except now the entrance was covered in plants of all colors.

“Kara, wait!” Lexa called. She scrambled to her knees to climb into the hole in the ground. There were vines covering the entrance to the cave, so Lexa pushed them aside to crawl in.

The cave was the size of a small house, with a pond the size of a table. Kara was swimming in that pond, her laughter echoing through the cave.

“Come out, Kara,” Lexa scolded. “You don’t know what’s been in there.”

“But I have to get the stone down there!” Kara whined.

Lexa couldn’t help but smile at her daughter’s antics. “I’ll get it for you if you come out, but first you have to tell me how you got here. And where did all this life come from? The grass, the plants . . . was I hallucinating before?”

It was that word, hallucinating, that clued Lexa in. The realization struck harder than any physical blow could.

“None of this is real, is it?” Lexa asked.

“Nope!” Kara giggled. “But didn’t you want to see me again, Mom? Didn’t you miss me?”

The anguish on her daughter’s face wasn’t real, but Lexa felt her heart break at the sight of it regardless. Throwing caution to the wind, she leaped into the air, diving into the water.

Kara was laughing when Lexa popped out of the water. Lexa splashed her, only making her laugh more.

“Of course I missed you!” Lexa followed the words with another splash. “Forget the questions. I’m happy to spend this time with you.”

Even if it’s the last thing I’ll ever do.

Kara continued to laugh, even as she shook her head. “We can’t do that if you don’t get the stone!” she chirped.

Lexa frowned. “What do you mean we can’t?”

“Look!” Kara pointed to the opposite corner of the pond. Squinting her eyes, Lexa was able to make out the faintest trace of a red glow.

“What’s that?” Lexa asked.

Kara looked at Lexa as though she were the child, and Kara was entertaining her naivety. Lexa had to resist the urge to duck her head an embarrasment.

“It’s the Aspect,” Kara said. The voice was still hers, but the words and tone weren’t. “You’ve been looking for it. I didn’t want to die, so I didn’t help you. But when I saw you on that field, so broken, I knew I had to interfere. We promised not to at the start, but we’ve never been able to keep our promises.”

“W-what?” Lexa sputtered. A thousand questions tumbled through her mind, overtaking each other at such a fast pace that she couldn’t form a coherent thought.

“This form takes up so much energy,” Kara complained. “Grab the stone, then we can talk.”

Dazed as she was, Lexa couldn’t think to do anything but obey. The stone was easy to grab. She ducked her head down, grasped it from the pond floor, then re-surfaced.

Kara was waving at her from the cave entrance, so Lexa pulled herself out of the pond. She took a few steps that way.

It was an immediate change. One moment, Lexa was walking toward Kara. The next, her head was swimming, and she was on her knees. Lexa gasped as darkness filled her vision. Kara was saying something, but it was so far away that Lexa couldn’t make it out.

She fell onto her side, trying her hardest not to throw up. She coughed to relieve the pressure in her throat. In the process, she jerked her body.

It was too much. Her body was already so weak, and the nausea was only growing stronger with every passing second. Lexa felt her hold on consciousness slipping. Seeing that it was useless to struggle, Lexa let go, surrendering herself to the darkness.

****

Namari pretended not to notice the stares. He pretended he didn’t hear the whispers. There had been no one left to see the slaughter he had committed, but the fact remained that he had left the room, and when he returned, their captors had all vanished.

It didn’t matter. They could say whatever they wanted to. All that mattered was that they found Lexa. He would travel to the deepest regions of Mokushiro if he had to. He just . . . he just had to find her.

Damn it, he thought. I actually care for her, don’t I? How did she do this to me?

In the distance, thunder echoed. It was accompanied by the ground shaking beneath Namari. The Mokushirans in his force muttered to themselves, while the Alijanians huddled together, wide-eyed.

So many disasters, Namari thought. Even more than Lexa described. What’s happening to this island? How much longer will any life be able to survive on it?

As if to answer his question, a rush of dread filled Namari. It washed over him in a wave, nearly making him fall to his knees.

Then, it was gone, vanishing as quickly as it had arrived. Namari could almost have convinced himself he had imagined it.

“Sir?” a soldier asked. “Are you alright?”

Namari straightened, giving the man a curt nod. “I’m fine. Let’s—”

Another blast of emotion hit him. He was struck with such great urgency, that it took every effort he had not to start running. He gasped at it, eyes widening. This emotion definitely wasn’t imagined, and more importantly, it wasn’t his.

With it, came a realization. Knowledge that didn’t belong to Namari, but had been granted to him. It was with this that the urgency changed. It was just as overwhelming as before.

Now, however, it was his own.

“Sir?” the same soldier repeated. “Are you sure? We can rest for a short time if needed.”

“No!” The soldiers cringed at Namari’s shout. “Everyone, with me, right now! We have to hurry!”

With that he took off, not even checking to see if they followed him. With what he knew, there was no time to waste.

Somehow, he knew where Lexa was. He knew what was happening to her.

And he knew she was about to die.

Next Chapter

Chapter 26

Previous Chapter

Li believed that there were two groups of people in the world. Those who accepted fate, and those who fought against it.

All who accepted fate were the same. The world dragged them down, giving them a painful existence that no one would remember.

All who fought fate, however, were different from each other. Fighting fate could mean becoming a leader who lives on through the memory of others. It could mean raising a family and refusing to let the world tear it apart.

In Li’s case, it meant any act, no matter how despicable, would be taken if necessary. That mindset had led him to lie, steal, and even nearly kill someone. That person had been wealthy enough, for Mokushiran standards, that Li couldn’t resist taking it all. He had failed to kill his victim, however, and was shortly arrested.

Following that, his only purpose was to clean the streets of Mokushiro. He was cannon fodder, and nothing more. That is, until Azrium.

After Goma’s disappearance, Azrium was the closest Mokushiro had to a leader. He gathered people, he assigned tasks, and he distributed resources. And now, Azrium had gotten his people a ship they could escape Mokushiro on.

Not that the knowledge was a mercy right now.

A child shouted something at Li, but he couldn’t hear it over the howling wind. He turned in the direction, only for the rain to drench his face. He raised his arm in a miniscule attempt to keep himself dry.

Vaguely, he made out the outline of the child, who couldn’t have been more than 8. With the moon covered by the raging storm, Li couldn’t even tell if the child was a boy or girl.

What?” Li shouted.

“—life—fall—right—need help!” the child shouted, pointing to the starboard side of the ship.

Rather than try to articulate the sentence, Li sprinted in that direction. Halfway there, he overextended his step, letting the slippery deck get ahold of his feet. He was thrown into the air, landing hard on his face.

He sat up, then coughed to get the water out of his mouth. He couldn’t help but let his gaze linger on the door next to him. It would lead inside, where he wouldn’t have to deal with keeping this ship afloat. It would be so easy to duck away and let the others handle it.

He took a step that way, reaching for the doorknob.

Then, he flew.

A force jerked him—no, jerked the door—into the air. Li yelped, then tightened his grip on the doorknob before he could be thrown off. That did nothing to protect him when the door starting charging forward, straight for the starbound deck. Was someone holding it?

A large group was gathered at the edge of the ship. Li finally saw what the child had been trying to tell him. The lifeboats were in danger of falling, and right now, the group was trying to pull them back up. They were so distracted that they didn’t notice the battering ram heading their way until it collided with them. Shouts rose as people tumbled off the ship.

One unfortunate soul, seeing Li’s secured grip to the deathtrap, grabbed ahold of his leg. The extra weight instantly made Li’s grip slacken, causing him to skid down the door knob. Li’s eyes widened, and he heaved himself up. The effort meant little with the man dangling off the edge of the ship, with Li as his only support.

Li growled, using his other foot to kick the man’s arm. The weight lifted as a scream came from behind Li.

Better you than me, Li thought. He swung his body right, then leaped off the door to land in one of the secured lifeboats.

It was just in time, too. Poking the top of his head out of the lifeboat, Li finally got a glimpse of the attacker. Just that glimpse made him duck back down, heaving.

The attacker was the largest man Li had ever seen. No, not a man. A stone demon. With piercing green eyes. Li had gotten a glimpse of him hurling the door at a bulky woman. It hit her in the head, knocking her out instantly.

Even with the storm, Li could hear the shrieks as the demon slaughtered them. Despite himself, he peeked out of the lifeboat, quivering.

The demon ripped a man’s arm off, then shoved him into the same child that had shouted at Li. Seeing that, a nearby woman swung a hook at the stone figure. Not only did the hook bounce off, the demon yanked it from her hands, then rammed it into her neck. With no one else in the way, he stomped on the man’s spine, crushing it.

Li looked away when the beast headed for the fallen child. Shit, shit, shit.

When Li looked up, it was to see the demon kicking a man’s leg hard enough for it to snap. He elbowed another man’s face, and even in the rain, Li could make out the splattered blood.

“Help us!” someone screeched. “God, someone help us!”

There was no God to save them from this monster. Or maybe this was God, finally ridding the world of Mokushirans after all he had put them through.

There had to be a way out. Li couldn’t die here! He would not bow down to fate!

His eyes fell on the door hole the demon had burst through. There were cabins that way. Li could hide!

He flew from the lifeboat, landing in a sprint. He immediately stumbled, but refused to fall. He was exposed, and that meant death could be only a blink away.

He couldn’t stay upright forever, especially when he tripped on an actual object. Not an object, he realized. A person, with her hand snapped so badly it barely looked attached.

Li swallowed the bile in his throat, then scrambled to get back up. His feet couldn’t find purchase, so he rushed to his destination on all fours. It would have been a hilarious sight in any other circumstance, but Li wasn’t laughing.

It worked, though, and with a final pounce, he threw himself through the doorway, landing on the hardwood. Harder than normal. What was—

Li’s eyes widened, and he looked up to see two orbs of death glaring down at him. Thunder boomed behind him, and a flash of lightning accompanied it, lighting the demon for a brief second. Then, it was once again just two, horrible spheres.

Then, nothing.

****

What . . . what was that?

Namari gripped his knees and panted the moment he severed his connection with the Aspect. The green stone fell to the ship’s deck. Namari considered chucking it into the ocean.

What was that? he thought again. It was a slaughter, but why? What had compelled Namari to kill every single one of them? Even the children were dead, and their deaths weren’t quick either.

It had started with killing the leader, if only out of necessity. But the sight of blood had been so fulfilling. He’d needed more, and he got it. He had persuaded himself they all had to die, or else they would keep him from Mokushiro. From Lexa.

From there, he had been an animal. It was as if he’d had no control of himself. No control over his own feelings. He shuddered when recalling the sheer pleasure he had felt when ripping people to pieces.

When his dirty work had ended, he’d tossed the bodies off the ship, letting the storm wash away the blood. It was only after the storm had passed, letting the rising sun peek through, that Namari had ended his connection with Lor’s Aspect. It was then that the gravity of what he’d done struck him like an arrow to the heart.

What was that? he thought for a third time. This time, he found an answer.

That was the future if Lor won. The Aspect had all but taken control of Namari. That brutality would be brought to Alijan, to Mokushiro, maybe even to the whole world if Lor got their way.

Is this why they sent Dad home with one of their stones? Had it been to strike more fear into us?

That didn’t matter. Not now, at least. He had to gather his troops, and find Lexa. He couldn’t do this alone, now more than ever. He needed her.

He had been truthful when saying Alijan and Mokushiro wanted the same thing. It was such a simple concept, one many took for granted, but that didn’t change the fact that the world would crumble without it.

They all wanted a future they could control.

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