The End

Part of me is overwhelmed.

I’ve been on this project for over two years now. Tracking back, I started it based on a group of characters, a team of the first Eidolons from Utopian history. They were a springboard into the setting and then plot, all within the Omniverse. Aziacht is easily one of the oldest characters I have. He developed from a story wherein the protagonist descended off the edge of hell and into total quiet, meeting him there. Curse or Ouroboros, as a character, predates even that. They were summoned from that quiet and their character took form first.

This has all been an idea of mine for a long while. It’s finally taken shape and come to life. These ideas which troubled me, these old characters and questions, they’ve been beautiful, in my eyes.

I can finally take a breath. I can go back and read and take it all in.

As always, I’ve written to deal with things on my mind, but it’s been very important to me that you all have read. My biggest thanks to the Blue Eyed Watcher. Sound can’t bounce in a vacuum, so thank you for allowing me to hear myself and better judge. The story wouldn’t be the same without.

The progress we’ve made and will continue to make is what’s most valuable. Dirge has personified that, and it’s not done. I’ll continue this thought at the bottom.

Final stats here: http://freetexthost.com/h64czbeja3

Themes.

Absurdism is the belief that humans exist in purposelessness, meaninglessness, and that there are three responses to this. Those responses were embodied in the three conflicting Primordials in the story, Aziacht, Elicht, and the Ouroboros, as Suicide, Acceptance, and Philosophical Suicide, respectively. I wanted to pit these ideas against each other, and, of course, suicide was rejected. It couldn’t work as a universal option, it was judged by nature, and its only product was collateral damage. This is universally recognized, but it’s a thought many people, including myself, still face and have to individually reject. The spirit of life is struggle.

The Ouroboros, a symbol which is in fact classically representative of chaos, stood in for God and faith. In the end, they were killed by the existence of tragedy. Theodicy is consistently, in my experience, the weakest point of apologetics. And so it was. Though they lived on in Porter, but only by sheer force of will. As faith limps on today, intellectually scorned.

Christopher too lived on in Aku, still up in the sky.

A joke is never quite as funny when you explain it, so I’ll leave that there.

In the end, Doran died and counted it a good thing. He, being suicide, realized he was justified in giving up. He could never change, so that was what he wanted. The world became smaller, but Porter, Anna, and a few others will go on. The Omniverse, which really represents so much potential in life, can only be restored when this is all finally resolved. Just like I feel that society’s existential problems can overshadow our hope, which is a will to actualize potential, so do I think that meaning has to be rediscovered or created in the end for us to move on.

Which is why, ultimately, the story isn’t done yet.

Not by a long shot.

I will be writing a not (it is) sequel named ‘Chosen Shackles‘, part two of the originally planned trilogy. Phase Two. All leading up to the final questions, greater than anything we’ve yet seen. Doran was the one who rejected the options, but he’s out of the picture now. There’s only the dread of a false order and infinite chaos remaining, and we have to make a choice. We all know the terror of being boxed in, ordered to choose. No right choice to make, only drug by our feet through the mire.

As it stands, I’m going to take a break, plot the story, and get back in a few or more months. There’s already a first chapter and site if you’d like to get an email when the journey begins, promptly sign up there on the main page.

If you have any questions, if you’d like to discuss the themes and story direction especially, please leave a comment. It’s been an experience I would always recommend, writing a novel. It’s a way to explore and find answers. And I was never one to settle for the little questions. In comparison to what’s coming, this has only set the stage. Dirge has been a first act, excited and confused, ending in anticipation of the long conflict ahead.

It’s a way for me to face the world and its conflict. It’s the same one we’re dealing with in society, and it always comes back to what is true and right. Trump, Europe, Left and Rightwing, it all comes down to what is next.

If it can be settled at all, and I’m not sure it can, we’re going to see. That’s been my heartfelt desire from the start.

Finally, this has all gone by in a flash. I’ll print up this bastard, bind it, and read it. Until then, I can’t say in every way it was imperfect, though I know it was. But I’ll never regret having written it, and in that way, it’s perfect to me.

Onward to the summit.

Thanks for coming.

– Shaeor

 

 

Armageddon – 4.15

The mouth of the river met with the ocean, a rocky shore rising around it. Waves broke against those darkened stones. They were slick, climbing them. Having staggered to the farthest outcropping’s edge, I could see the roiling water straight to the black horizon, standing doused in salted spray.

Half of me was so disappointed to be here.

I looked out on the waters churning. I’d come back just to die again. But it wasn’t that which made me angry. It was the sickle in my side. The shallow breaths that rumbled deeply in my chest as blood bubbled up inside my lungs.

And now I was here, at the end of my line.

I, Aziacht.

A gentle rain began to fall. I almost laughed at it.

This is who I was. This is what caring too much got you.

I was so angry and it didn’t make sense anymore. Porter had cheated me out of victory, Christopher had won, in a way. It’d been satisfying to kill that fucker, regardless. And he was dead.

But this hadn’t been what I’d wanted.

The other half of me was utterly unsurprised.

I’d known it once before when I’d lost my arm. I’d realized what Aziacht never could. What had kept me together for eternities past was my drive. My singular will to end it. Doran had, in the end, realized what I could only know now in defeat.

There wasn’t a point to that drive. I was wrong about the ending.

“Oh, Christ,” I swore, looking at the blood on my hand.

All this suffering for nothing. They couldn’t see two seconds into the future. No sane person could believe this fucking pyre existed in positive utility.

I tried for a second to pull out the sickle, looking up and clenching my teeth. The searing pain began and I couldn’t feel it move. I couldn’t do it.

You can stop. Just stop. Please.

Releasing my held breath, I gasped in pain. Lightning shot through my body, every muscle screaming, a groan barely escaping my lips as I tried not to gasp again. The hurt woke me up like a blazing light when I inhaled again.

I was a dream, then I awoke to the sound of tumultuous noise.

Disorientation wracked my head, sending me to my knees. Tremors lanced through me, running to the tips of my hands as they caught the stone to stop my fall. Matted hair clung to my face. I may have been having a seizure, but I didn’t care.

I was awake for the first time.

The sound of blood rushing in my ears thumped like drums. My eyes affixed on the ground, staring at trembling hands, widened.

I’m dying.

I was finally dying.

My head shot up as I tried to stand, barely able to sit up before I lurched forward again, catching myself on the rock’s edge. I coughed up blood into the crashing waves.

I don’t want to die.

The irony of that was painful.

Through hell, with friends, demons, tyrants, soldiers, and people I loved. Through all that, I’d wanted to prove myself right so I could die. So that I could be complete. In the end, when I’d been distracted, moments before I’d realized my failure, I’d been thinking of her. That was what had stopped my hand.

I had cared that she was still alive somewhere. I’d heard her voice.

Porter was right. I’d glimpsed the collateral in that sound. I was selfish.

Fuck it all. My hate was a resentful thing.

I had brought forward the conditions of life and I called it a Curse.

With the forest to my back, dead trees swaying, a breeze took me from the front. It came in across the seas, washing over me with the rain that soaked down to my bones. A stream of my blood ran over the rocks into the water.

I refused to make up my own answers. There was only the boulder and mountain, no summit or cheat to make things better.

I refused responsibility, I refused freedom. I wouldn’t worship my suffering or fight it. That was who I was. Now I faced it.

“Here I am,” I whispered, barely a sound. “A light in the darkness.”

Tears started to stream down my face.

You can’t show truth without a lie to kill.

I couldn’t think my way out of this. I’d tried so hard.

“I understand,” I said.

I coughed and choked on my own blood. My skin was growing cold. As I lowered down onto my back, my eyes fell on the depthless sky.

The world was silent and calm from the ground. My head rested against the hard rock. My legs were going deaf.

My hands shook with the pain. The release of rain drifted down on my face. The oceanside air was crisp to breathe, as much as I could bare.

My arms suddenly fell limp at my sides.

I snuck a peek at the blood welling out from the sickle in my chest.

“Hell…” My head lulled over. I was too tired. It cast my gaze on the horizon as my cheek met the stone. “I kept going for so long. I kept on this damn path just to die here.” I started hyperventilating, each breath bringing more pain. “I’m sorry I… couldn’t do this sooner. Heh.” I managed to find a small grin. I’d lived too long to see anymore. It was all just fog on a window to me.

But I finally understood.

Bleeding out under the starless sky, my fists clenched and my heart thudded.

None of it was wrong. Only me. The rest will go on. Only I end.

I was dying on the shore, alone, awestruck by the tossing ocean. I couldn’t speak anymore. I didn’t mind.

My gaze finally relaxed on the air. My mouth hung open and dry, arms burning with pins and needles before going silent. My chest heaved twice more.

I wished that I could tell someone about what I saw. As the smallest consolation prize. Unfocused as they were, my eyes saw beauty. The chaos told me something. All the pain and death, even my own failures. They meant something. I was made a light in the darkness.

It comes to good.

As I began to slip from the wet stone, my hand grasped to hold on, trying to stay me from the edge. My last thoughts washing away with the rain, I knew what I wanted to do.

Fingers digging into the jagged rock, I saved myself from the plunge. With my other hand I reached over, grabbing the Sickle’s handle. I held my breath and pulled. It slid from my flesh and I cast it back across the rocks. It had let me go.

Fingers strained. My empty lungs begged me to breathe again. I didn’t want to.

It’s time to make things right.

I screwed my eyes shut. I held on for a moment more.

Finally, I let go.

Slipping from the rock, I broke against the ocean below. The water was soft and dark, taking me deep into its quiet. Sinking into the sand’s embrace at the bottom, I settled in limply. Everything had come to this. I could only accept it, as much as I hated to. I wouldn’t resent anymore.

I watched the last hint of light beyond the waves. As it faded, my eyes closing, I knew it would rise again, but for someone else. Not for me. It was okay, now. It would always be.

In the stillness, I knew it.

 

The End

Armageddon – 4.14

An icy grip rested on Porter’s neck, fingers digging in. His arms hung as he was held by the throat and pushed down into the waters. As his face slipped under, he reached to grab Aziacht’s wrists, not to fight back, but to be steadied.

As the river rushed into his ears, Porter’s eyes widened. The sun was beneath the horizon, now, and the mouth of this river let out on the ocean facing it. Aziacht’s placid face was lit by the last light.

With his back hitting the riverbed, inches of water above him, Porter felt the weight of Aziacht’s knee driving him down. The current was swallowing him as it began to race. His feet slipped under.

The sea recalling the waters.

Porter strained. Vessels burst in his eyes as he held tightly onto the hands which drowned him. The rush in his ears took him far away, but he had to watch. Suddenly, the tempo rose violently, his heart leaping.  His legs began to thrash, his arms attempting to pry apart Aziacht’s vice grip. His lungs screamed for air, sending convulsions through his chest.

He understood.

Porter wasn’t sure if it was his sight or the waters which ran red. But when the light began to die, he knew it was his vision going.

He’d watched the Ouroboros fall, pierced in the heart, blood running out into the ocean. The vision was seared into his mind. The meaning? It didn’t matter. That was true of the meaning itself. His thoughts were running away from him.

Porter’s grip released, his hands falling away. Finally, he was submerged. The current washed over him and everything grew silent. Everything slowed. His lungs burned.

His eyes shut.

In the blackness, the pain was distant. It was a subsuming darkness which moved onto him, bringing numbness.

There’s nothing I could have done differently, he lamented. Everything has a time.

The floor melted away beneath him, a sinking feeling flooding through him. A growing expanse stretched out over the landscape of his mind, an abyss like the depth of the ocean. Suddenly, there was light.

Out of the cloudy dark, a random neuron firing. In the dark behind his eyes came a coalescing form from the static. Like a dream, meaning from chaos. He saw the mellow illumination become the pulsating, technicolor light of a deep-sea jellyfish.

It moved into sight, drifting like the ruins of warships scattered across the void. Weightless.

Porter began to fall into the abyss. The lights on that jellyfish, flashing so brightly, rapidly spread apart around him as everything zoomed back. Explosively expanding into the ocean’s dark, those lights filled it with burning fire. Every point was massive beyond understanding. They gathered together into a symphony and began to play. He could see the sound before him.

The tempo was rising. Stars poured out into his blood.

Every inch of him caught fire as time began again like his racing heart.

It’s what you are, the chorus hailed. Fire in your bones.

Aziacht held him down in the water, watching the life go out of him beneath the murk.

Porter’s hands broke the surface.

They shot out to grab Aziacht’s wrists and wrench them apart. With his hold broken, Aziacht was thrown off. Porter was risen from the river, gasping for breath as a titanic melody rose in his ears. His eyes shot open, the starless sky before them. As his chest heaved, his blue eyes relaxed on the vast and the music exploded in his ears. It rose feverishly to climax, shaking him.

Suddenly, he was struck by pure silence.

He was alive, he realized. The loop is never broken.

Aziacht recovered and looked at him, star struck. He didn’t understand. He scrambled up and punched Porter in the face, toppling him back into the stream as he himself fell exhausted beside him. When Porter pulled himself up again, Aziacht held out his hands, as if for mercy. “Stop,” he told him.

Porter made it unsteadily to his feet. “I can’t…”

Aziacht shot up and tackled him, driving him down and wrapping his hands again around his throat. Porter fought him off and rolled to the side. As he recovered, Aziacht pleaded with him. “Please, Quinn! Why won’t you just lie down!?”

“I can’t.” Porter fought him now, shoving Aziacht stumbling back.

Aziacht’s back hit the bank, but he wouldn’t stay down. In return, Porter was knocked back as a shoulder drove into his stomach, bringing him under the icy waters. As he tried to sit up, Aziacht kneed him in the chin. Blood fell from his mouth as he leaned up to keep his head above water. He felt the chips of teeth in his mouth.

Angrier, Aziacht yelled, “Stop!” He kicked at Porter.

Porter caught his leg and wrenched it, putting Aziacht into the water. They both made it to their feet at the same time. Porter’s response came, then. “I can’t,” he repeated for the last time. He almost couldn’t stand, but a weak smile came to him. “I know that I never will, now.” He spread his arms. “You couldn’t kill me.”

Aziacht was frozen for a moment. He refused to believe.

He lashed out. Porter raised his arms to catch the first few punches at head level. As he battered Porter’s ribs instead, Aziacht drowned everything out in an incoherent raging scream. He could still make this right.

Porter broke through with an elbow to the head. Aziacht staggered but grappled. He got a hold and they were locked together, ragged screams filling Porter’s ears.

Working his arms between them, Porter pushed, slipping under and out. As Aziacht was forced back, his eyes were cast briefly into the forest. His voice died in his throat. He’d seen something. As he was lost in confusion, Porter jumped in, beating him down at full force.

Aziacht fought to put distance between them, regaining his focus. “Enough!” The words were like an explosion, turning the river momentarily into a violent storm, forcing Porter to cover his eyes. When he looked again, Aziacht’s hand was outstretched. “You can’t deny me!” he said, the Ender Blade flying into his hold. “I killed your name, serpent.

Porter was still for a moment. He clenched and unclenched his fists, spitting blood from his mouth. “What can death do to me,” he asked, “when its wages are death? You can’t win.” A laugh broke out. “The jokes on you. Because I don’t quit.”

Aziacht charge, sword readied. “There’s no one to carry on for you! This wretched fucking game is done!”

Sickle and cleaver clashed.

Aziacht looked at the blade in Porter’s hands, called up from the water. The weapon of the Ouroboros in his hands. Nature’s truth. He could wield it.

Porter strained against him as their weapons locked, but Aziacht was suddenly somewhere else, blood boiling in his veins.

He isn’t one of the three, Aziacht thought. It was he, the Curse, and Elicht, that was how it was supposed to be. Immoral, Moral, and Amoral, the three answers to existence. What had happened?

Aziacht kicked Porter in the chest, almost putting him on his back. He bashed the sickle down as Porter awkwardly tried to wield it for the first time. Striking again and again. “No!” he bellowed. “You can’t cheat me! I killed you!

Each hit was a brutal hammerfall. Porter fought the volley, but he was quickly put on his knees.  He was going to lose his grip. Each strike brought it closer. Aziacht wouldn’t have his ending stolen. Not now. Everything he’d done was for this. He knew he was right. He wouldn’t be denied.

The sickle was knocked away. He could bring down the final swing.

This was his moment.

His hand froze. Their eyes locked.

The cleaver wavering inches from Porter’s neck.

…I failed.

In an instant, Porter took up the sickle and threaded it between his ribs. The cleaver was thrown away into the waters. Aziacht struck the side of Porter’s head, his gaze hollow, his teeth clenched in pain. He began to stumble forward.

Aziacht put a hand to his side where the sickle curved inside, trying to press down on the pain. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t think past the horrible emotions welling up.

Porter crawled exhaustedly onto the riverbank, watching as Aziacht walked towards the ocean. His breath was strained, he couldn’t go any further. But it was done. He was alive.

He collapsed in the mud, watching as the cracks in reality began to regress. When he finally sat up on the bank, looking back the way Aziacht had gone, he felt his heart racing still. Like liquid fire pumping in his veins.

They had disappeared out of sight.

The power thrumming in his chest was matched by the deadness that settled in his body. A weight too heavy to move laid over every inch of him. Some light raindrops were falling in the forest, dotting the surface of the river. It was all dissonant to him.

Porter let out a scream.

The Ouroboros was dead. That was the burden. That corpse had occupied his soul to survive. It was glorious and awful. He had swallowed that death and it poisoned him. Where was the victory?

He was lost.

Porter struggled to sit forward and look down at his hands. He’d held the sickle, he’d had the power, but he’d traded it away to survive. He felt that it was beyond his reach, now.

He rubbed at his face, trying to clear his mind. The dark forest was shaken with the wind, and again he could feel how small he was.

Every justification was lost. He’d proven it didn’t matter.

He looked along the river, but couldn’t spot the Ouroboros’ body. Taken away by the current, maybe. Fallen through the floor of reality like all the others.

Aziacht had stepped off the map. He’d never see him again, Porter knew. Never again. The universe lacked the constitution to submit to that sickness again. He bore it.

It was just him in existence. The last man alive…

The Deus Ex loomed, barely visible above the world. He could only catch it by the light on its black edge, shining from beneath the horizon. Aku was alive in there. The machination.

Then there were two.

Porter clenched his fist. He still had power, something new in him. It was a part of him he’d never been able to reach. A truth. He’d not made the choice to fight back as he’d drowned. It hadn’t been the will of reason. No emotion, even. He’d wanted to live. That made him a liar and it made him right.

That wouldn’t be enough.

Porter sighed. He hung his head.

His legs were almost immovable, but he stood. He cast his eyes deeper into the woods, up the river where it only got darker. He couldn’t see the way ahead.

He wanted to swear, to damn this forest and Aziacht. Screw them all. But he couldn’t. He still had to fix the universe. To order it. He could do that.

“You drank death,” Porter said, somber. “I’ll have to see you on the other side. But you…” he stopped to let what hit him pass. Keep composure. “Just be there, you bastard… Please.”

Glancing back once more the way Aziacht had gone, he nodded.

He was done.

Armageddon – 4.13

Aziacht swiped his blade, knocking away the fierce first strike of the Ouroboros. The force put him on the defensive, stepping back into a tree, only to quickly move around to put more space between them. The sickle passed through the trunk where he’d stood.

Aziacht looked at the determination and anger on their face. The ferocity he’d expected.

The tree crashed down between them. The Ouroboros stepped up, jumping to bring down his sickle. The curved point glanced from the cleaver, pushing Aziacht back again.

“No!” Aziacht shouted.

He spun, putting his foot into the Ouroboros’ face, sending them to their back over the fallen log. He was immediately on the attack, charging to stab down as they fell prone. The Ouroboros drew his legs to the chest and kicked him off, throwing Aziacht to the side.

The Ouroboros was already up. He swung and Aziacht deflected, then returned the attack. The sickle required indirect attack, quick slices. Aziacht jabbed and found his blade redirected, caught in the curve. It was wrenched from his hand, sent spinning into the woods.

The Ouroboros moved for the kill.

Aziacht knocked the blade aside with one arm, bashing his head into their face. The skin was stripped from the arm, but the Ouroboros was put into the ground.

Pain couldn’t stop him.

“Where’s Porter?” Aziacht asked. The Ouroboros, still recovering, made no answer. He held out his hand to receive the Ender Blade from the air. “He needs to witness!”

Bullets tore through the woods, narrowly missing Aziacht. He looked to the source.

Catherine, the lidless one, and Cobb were coming up the riverbank. Lidless had fired off a rifle but threw it aside when he missed. It was pointless.

Aziacht could sense the fear in them. But they resisted still.

The Ouroboros jumped to attack him as he looked away, but Aziacht reached through the attack, grabbing him by the neck. He threw him at them. Breaking through a tree on his way, the Ouroboros sent them scattering.

“But where’s the man himself?!” Aziacht demanded. He looked over the trees. Catherine and the Lidless one had risen into sight. “Time,” he said, his words hitting them, “ravages.”

Catherine dropped dead at the first word, her flesh instantly drying to a husk. The words fell on Lidless and his lips curled. His skin dried and he fell forward on the bank, still looking up at Aziacht. He coughed dust before gaining the strength to stand again, determined.

The Ouroboros was up as well as Cobb. Aziacht turned to see another face, now.

Porter was there. Further down the river, he stepped up the bank with Hasami’s katana in his hand. He was circling around, Aziacht saw, as the others approached from the front.

Suddenly, Lidless was sprinting towards him.

Confident? He quickly reasoned.

They drew a knife.

So much determination.

Aziacht stabbed out, but they were fast. As Lidless ducked under his blade and plunged the knife into his chest, he could only push them away. They were thrown off, but the knife was left. He looked down at the thing protruding from his ribcage.

“That’s… not right,” he said.

Aziacht lurched forward and took off the man’s head, pulling out the knife in the same motion. He looked at the simple steel blade.

He laughed. It was just a knife.

The body tried to crawl away for a moment but went slack.

Aziacht scrutinized the knife, trying to understand.

Porter was rushing to hit him from the side. Testing a suspicion, he threw the knife. It landed in the chest of Cobb as he could be seen standing just behind the Ouroboros. As it did, Porter dropped to one knee, clutching his chest.

“Good effort.” Aziacht looked at the blood on his fingertips. “Intention, though, is enough to cause feedback in the circuit. You’re outmatched, Porter. We both know what this is building towards.” He moved to kill Porter where he knelt.

I approach, they throw themselves in protection.

The Ouroboros launched through the forest at Aziacht. He braced for the impact.

They locked weapons as their flight ended. The momentum pushed Aziacht back, but he was prepared. He bashed his head again into the Ouroboros, sending them back.

Aziacht laughed as they recovered, arduously working back to their feet. Pale white figure muddied by the dirt he’d put them in. Porter and the Ouroboros stood ready, now staring down Aziacht, blood running off his chest and arm.

He was ready. He’d been ready a long time.

They attacked at once.

Aziacht deflected first the Ouroboros, following with a kick to the stomach. His timing barely caught the first of Porter’s swings. He’s no expert, Aziacht knew. He broke through his random attacks, punching him the in the jaw.

The Ouroboros was back, cutting through a tree.

Aziacht stepped out of the way. “Tragedy!” he spat. He was ready to win.

He went on the offensive, maneuvering through the Ouroboros’ defenses, his blade raking their forearm. Porter sliced down powerfully, forcing him to dodge and lose balance. Aziacht stumbled back, moving for the river as he did.

He rapidly retreated, scooping up the gun that Lidless had dropped as he did. He heaved it at them, yelling, “shatter!

The firearm exploded. Porter threw himself away from the flames, but the Ouroboros let smoke and fire roll off them. He knew what Aziacht knew, now, only the Ender blade could end this.

They were hurt too. Bright crimson on their arm. But that determination was still in the Ouroboros’ eyes. They all had it. It pushed Aziacht to anger.

Porter pulled himself from the dirt, quickly lunging from higher ground at Aziacht. His katana was deflected as he landed on the bank, forcing Aziacht into the shallow waters.

Porter took the moment of surprise to stab again, slicing the side of his chest. But the sword was knocked away before he could slice upward through the shoulder.

Aziacht followed through while Porter’s weapon was moved aside. He brought his down towards Porter’s head.

The Ouroboros body-slammed him, though, their weapon left behind on the bank. Aziacht was knocked off his feet, forced down into the waters.

Porter stood stunned for a moment.

Aziacht quickly broke free, throwing off the Ouroboros.

Catching his bearings after nearly catching a cleaver to the head, Porter advanced on Aziacht prone in the river. As he moved in, Aziacht threw himself to his feet faster than expected. The Ender blade flew to his hand from out of the waters.

Christopher was supposed to be here. The thought flashed into his mind as the next attack came. He jumped back to avoid Aziacht’s jab.

Aziacht turned as the Ouroboros rose and recalled their own weapon. He defended attacks then from front and back, moving to the side to line his attackers up. They were a flurry of clashing metal, the Ouroboros and Porter in tandem, keeping Aziacht at the edge of his ability.

Blades glanced flesh, one attack taking a finger off Porter’s right hand as the Ender Blade accidentally bounced over his guard.

Can’t lose focus.

Porter gritted his teeth, only missing a single beat.

That instant was enough for Aziacht to work in another kick to the gut, putting the Ouroboros a half dozen yards down the river with incredible force.

This wasn’t an equal fight, Porter realized, wide-eyed. That physical reaction showed a massive metaphysical imbalance.

He scrambled to defend as Aziacht set his sights now on him.

Each successive attack forced Porter to roll the impact into another defense. He risked his weapon being knocked away, being vulnerable. He couldn’t sustain this. He tried letting the attacks miss, but as he continued to back up, it required he move faster. He nearly tripped.

I have to kill him!

Porter furiously tried to stab through the onslaught. Aziacht threw his sword to the side, suddenly with two free hands simultaneously grabbing Porter’s sword from him and shoving him.

Porter fell into the water and watched wide eyed as he expected the katana to be brought down on him.

“Choice,” Aziacht said, looking thoughtfully at the weapon. “It changes nothing.” He grabbed the blade with his free hand and held it up. He brought the katana down on his knee, the metal shattering into a thousand pieces. The shards rained down on Porter as he watched it happen.

Again, Porter was frozen. The Ender blade jumped to Aziacht’s grip, he readied to bring it down. And again, the Ouroboros leaped to crash them into the water. Only this time, Aziacht kept hold of his weapon. As they fell away from each other, rolling, the Ouroboros rose with a hand to his bleeding thigh. Stabbed.

Porter stood and started to run forward. He stopped short as the Ouroboros put out a hand. “No!” they pleaded. “You can’t!”

Aziacht demanded their attention. “Ouroboros!” he called.

They had to let their leg bleed, standing shakily, brandishing the sickle. “Doran…”

“No!” Aziacht shook his head, he swung his sword. “I AM NIHIL. I’m the first and the only truth. Look at me!” he beat his chest. “Every lie comes due!”

The Ouroboros’ hand trembled, his sickle quivering. He’d never felt pain before.

“You can’t,” he said, eyes unfocused.

Aziacht swung and the sickle defended but didn’t recover. On the second swing, it was knocked from the Ouroboros’ grip, sent into the waters below. He peeled his gaze from his empty hand to the frenzied eyes of Aziacht. He felt fear. “You can’t!”

Aziacht screamed as he plunged his blade into their chest.

Porter hit his knees.

The Ouroboros’ mouth fell open.

He knew now that he was terrified, and that knowledge alone made him understand. He grabbed hold of Aziacht’s clothes, clutching on for life. He was so afraid in that moment.

Aziacht, screaming raggedly, shoved him off into the waters and backed away. His sword buried in their heart, he clamped hands down on his mouth. His screams strained to escape.

“WAIT!” Porter cried. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing.

Aziacht was speechless. Everything he’d ever wanted, he’d just gotten. Murderer of all murderers, the thought broke through. His hands fell away and he stopped backing up. His breath caught in his throat and he had to force it steady.

There was no number for the years he’d waited.

The madness and the lie were broken. He was alone. Sole remaining.

He looked to Porter and touched his chest. “It’s me,” he spoke. “I was right. It’s all brought to dust. Everything. There was never a point to this.”

“Then why!?” Porter raged. “Why!?”

Aziacht looked down at the dead body. “It’s just pain,” he whispered, not even for Porter to hear. He said it to himself. No one would ever believe. No one could face him. “You- you witnessed,” he told Porter. “Mankind is witness.”

Porter pushed himself. He fought to stand against a weight he felt, a horrible gravity setting in. He pulled himself from the mud and clenched his fists. No words came as he looked around himself, his eyes searching for anything. Dead trees in the dark, the sun now bellow the horizon. The world was darkening around him, cracks deepening.

There was nothing.

There never had been anything.

It can’t be… He struggled. But he could see it with his own eyes. It’s true.

Aziacht was right. Everything had led to this. Here, now, he couldn’t lie anymore.

Porter’s legs gave out. He sunk down to his knees again as Aziacht approached. All the strength in his body ran away. He knew it was time to die. This was the only moment he’d ever lived, he decided. He faced it. There was only the illusion of uncertainty and pain before this. But this, this was real.

All the gods he’d killed, the people he watched die. None of it had been as real as this understanding. No hell, no heaven, just a punchline.

Aziacht’s hands wrapped around his throat. He closed his eyes.

The end.

Armageddon – 4.12

Quiet was broken by the sound of frantic footsteps. The splash of water as Christopher jumped down into the river, then, trying to climb out, scrabbled against the rock.

Everything according to plan.

He was spewing a stream of manic laughter as he went, casting glances over his shoulder. He was just playing, at this point. Terrified as he was.

Christopher sprinted breathlessly, clambering over dead horrors. This path had been trodden before, he knew. If he could make it to Porter, the man, there’d be…

He heard his pursuer take to the air. He fell backwards, off the rock and again into the riverbed. He barely dodged them.

Aziacht had landed in his path, stepping down onto the bank. In his grip, he had the Ender Blade. Its weight pressed down on him in the waters.

Christopher lost it. His laugh pitched low and ragged, spewing blood down his neck. He held out a hand as he scurried back. “How long’s it been?” he asked Aziacht. “That you’ve waited?”

“I don’t remember when we first met, honestly.”

Christopher stared into those eyes. Doran’s dark irises surrounded by stark whites, wide and alert. His face was calm, if tinged by determination and pain.

I do,” Christopher told him, his back hitting the bank, the gnarled roots of a tree growing there. He pushed back into it as Aziacht leveled his weapon.

“Really?”

“Yes… yes. But first…” Christopher rolled to the side, dodging Aziacht’s reactive stab. He was up, pushing off the rock to kick him in the jaw, then landing.

Aziacht backed up with a hand out. He nodded, amused. “Tell me about it.” Christopher leapt onto the forest’s edge. Aziacht followed him as he started walking. “There’s nowhere to go,” he said.

“I know.” Christopher ducked around the tree, reaching a hand out for Aziacht’s throat. That hand was severed instantly in a flash of rusted metal. He jumped back into the trunk of a tree, clutching the stump and laughing. “I know,” he repeated. “I know it’s you sparing me. The contradictions. I love them.”

“When was it, Elicht, that we first met?”

He walked again. “Despite what you think, Aziacht, I came around first. I was alive for a long time before you, driving things. And the Ouroboros, seemingly the last of us to manifest, he was first. He was the first order, I was the chaos that came, you were the response to both. Yet you came around before us all, you think? Perhaps it’s because we were deaf. Insulated. Nobody sane considers you.”

“Try again,” Aziacht countered, forcing him to duck as his sword bit through the trunk.

Christopher narrowly missed the falling tree as he shot back up. “A drop in the bucket easily evaporates,” he admitted. “But I’ll tell you, the first time we met, it was in the desert. I remember it clearly. Me, pushing my little humans out there in expansion. Marching an army, you know? And, there I find you. That was before you played human. In those days, you were violently opposed to disturbance. We met on the dunes and we just talked. It was so nice, you know? Back then.”

Aziacht looked off into space as if he was remembering.

Christopher continued. “That was the first time either of us had met another Eternal. We had so much to discuss! I told you about my plans, right? To raise them up, to take it all away and show them what we both knew. There’s nowhere to go. Teach mortals what it took us an eternity to realize. There’s no escaping this torrent. We quickly realized, though, didn’t we…”

“This was never going to work,” Aziacht finished the thought, his eyes deeply unfocused. “It was the knowledge of each other’s existence which led to this.”

“Killing you wasn’t going to be easy,” Christopher agreed with a grin. “But I had to try.”

Aziacht slid forward, pushing his blade between the gap of their left arm and slicing upward. The arm fell limp on the ground and Christopher went to his knees, laughing hysterically. “Think about it!” he screamed, trying to regain composure. “The ultimate joke, right? That your plan is just a function of mine? Your will, just a thing happening over time like everything else. Ultimately, I was just born to be right.” Aziacht kneed his face, sending him into the dirt. “If I was… you know… born at all,” he panted.

Aziacht sat down beside him, letting out a sigh. “I went to all this trouble just to shut you up, you know that?” Christopher lost it again, laughing wretchedly. He spoke over the noise, scowling. “It was your willful ignorance. I remember now. In that desert, I’d been there so many times, watching my footsteps stretch out in front of me. I stayed away from the humans because they were a tragedy to me. Even if I made them immortal, they were never eternal. Anything they did… a story is defined by its ending, Christopher. And the order they struck out to build would always crumble. It was futility. But then I met you, and I tried to explain to you. If you kept doing what you were doing, eventually you’d see everything. Literally everything. Every conversation you had with them, every game you played, it would have been done so many times.  But I spoke to you, and you just stared at me. You asked me how I could stand to be so alone, like it mattered so much. I saw in your eyes, self-obsessed eyes, that you would never tire of them. You’d bring them up and break them, again and again. I realized that it wasn’t enough to just reject the temporary, because of you. It’s immoral in its bones, I saw. Being.

Christopher’s smile faded. He started to crawl. Aziacht drove his sword through their leg, pinning them to the rocky ground. He groaned. “We all wanted different things… Only the Curse wanted to survive unchanged. He wanted process.” Christopher turned his head back to look at him, a dead serious gaze. “I wanted godhood,” he told him.

Aziacht shook his head. He gestured broadly.  “I never wanted… any of it.”

“I know, friend.” Christopher pulled hard enough that his leg tore off. He restarted crawling. He finally made it again to the edge of another river and rolled down the bank.

Aziacht, close behind him still, put a foot on his back. “You’ll do anything not to take responsibility for the part you play. It’s not about happiness. It’s about indulgence. Animal.”

“You know what I think, if we’re throwing insults? You’re a joke, Doran,” Christopher challenged. “You’re the last recourse of failures.”

Aziacht pressed down on the back of his head, willing him to drown. “You wretch.

When he came up gasping, he rolled over onto his back. He began to float down the shallow river, merrily. “I’m the ultimate hero,” he sputtered.

Following him, limply carried on the current, Aziacht looked up at the dark sky. “You’re not the hero here. Neither of us are. You’re not the villain, either. That’s me.”

Christopher’s body stopped as the water became shallower. He was caught on the riverbed. He raised his stump towards the silhouette of the Deus Ex in the sky. “Godhood,” he said.

Aziacht grimaced. He understood what he was trying to do, but he knew it wouldn’t work. When he killed the Ouroboros, the continuation would end. Nothing new would be made. There’d be no recovery.

He cast his eyes down on the dismembered body in the water. Pathetic. He reached down and grabbed Christopher by the neck, hurling him out of the water and into the forest.

Christopher stopped dead against a shattered rock, at the end of a long rut in the earth. He watched as Aziacht approached, tightly holding his weapon. Ready to end it. “I’m the truth of the test!” Christopher taunted. “You make your testament! Prove wrong justice! But I’m not done, it’s you, you’re finished. You were only ever meant to prove my point. He’s false.

Aziacht picked him up again, holding him against the rock as he brought back his cleaver. “There’s no place for you.”

“Not while he’s alive,” Christopher spat. “But you’re both already dead. You were never viable. Stillborn, both of you” His eyes lit up as the blade slide between his ribs and into stone.

The world rumbled. The sun flared bright. The crack in the rock split deeper, fractures forming in the earth, lancing through everything. Cracks in the trees, cracks in the sky and air. Christopher’s jaw fell open, his eyes looking up, a smile trying to form one last time.

Aziacht withdrew the blade and let him fall to the ground. He let out a last breath. The sun was setting now, no longer eclipsed. The Deus Ex loomed high, but faint above.

He knew exactly where the Ouroboros was, and Porter. They were last, they were ready. He weighed the sword in his hand and tried to shake the miserable feeling he felt in his gut, looking down on the twisted, charred face. Christopher was dead. The abomination could never manifest again.

“Damn you,” he said. Aziacht knocked the boulder aside where Christopher had fallen. He left the body behind, walking forward into the forest. In the distance, he could barely hear the ocean roaring. Calling. He wiped away the blood from the sword on his arm. He shook his head violently. “There’s nothing keeping you from the pit. Understand that!”

Someone was behind him. “You’ve darkened the sky,” the Ouroboros told him. Aziacht had known he was there. “Look at what power you have. You are what we all know but can never believe. There’s no one behind you, now. No one can stand with you because they know it’s wrong. So, I ask you, can you really do this?”

Wrong,” he scoffed. “I have very little to say to you,” Aziacht growled. “You, who made this happen. A liar and sadist… I hate you.”

There was silence between them. The Ouroboros had no reply.

Not until, finally, they had waited long enough. His ethereal call echoed out. “Come, Porter!” Then, he spoke to Aziacht. “You brought me out of the void because you wanted the truth. Aziacht and Elicht were not complete.” He tried to get Aziacht to acknowledge him, but he wouldn’t meet his eyes. “No hope was given. You know I gave it to you!” Ouroboros pleaded.

“Glorified irrationality.” Aziacht started walking. “Opium dulling the pain. That was your hope. You-!” He had to stop himself, hanging his head. “You brought this on yourself. Now, bring on your dog. This will be over quickly.”

Sickle and cleaver clashed.

Armageddon – 4.11

The students broke apart explosively as the water kicked up under the impact of a creature with too many limbs to count. Some immediately ran off into the forest. Everyone on their feet assailed the creature at once.

It was a light show as they attacked. Flashes filled the edges of the forest, showing so many inhuman silhouettes setting upon strays. The water doused Porter and others as all hell broke loose.

The horror was immediately encapsulated by an invisible orb which contained the fire, lighting, and green cloud of needles which latched onto it. A spear was thrown in which caused its limbs to implode. Through all this, the horror shrieked and flailed, but in every moment of obscurity, it continued to reappear unhurt.

It was Cobb, who leaped and brought down his fist on the sphere, which caused the entire thing to flatten, compacting it to nothing. Folded out of sight.

O’Reilly screamed. “Incoming!”

The Elephant Man came into the middle of them, bursting through the trees. Those trees split the group of students along the narrow river as they fell. With the professors near one end, the students on the horror’s side were all alone, singled out.

Porter launched forward. He sailed over the tree and fighting people to bury his katana into its back. The Elephant Man lurched forward, dropping on its hands.

“Solidarity,” he groaned, pushing down on it.

His mind raced. A manifestation of aloneness. Choice and human will, I can take it. A declaration… If he doubted now, he could feel it grow stronger under him with the thought. Just making contact, it was in his head. His arms shook as the battle raged around him, two twin horrors rushing students. Every ounce of his being strained. He’d felt this before, fighting gods. A battle of belief.

His sight sunk back like he was watching a shrinking screen in the darkness.

Porter threw himself off into the water, away from the Elephant Man. The thing gave out, slumping into the mud as he splashed down. He tried to keep his head up to gasp air. He wasn’t sure where or when he was anymore.

“Professor,” a rasping voice came close over him. His eyes stared uncomprehendingly back up at another man without eyelids. They continued, “just ignore it. It works.” The gaunt man pulled on him, trying to raise him up.

When Porter was on his feet, they went sprinting up the riverbank and into the trees.

He caught his bearing and retrieved his katana with one swipe.

The Ouroboros was lashing out with his sickle, taking most of the horrors breaking through. Porter looked over the corpses in the water, past fires and fallen trees. He thought he saw Babba face down.

A shout cut through the noise. “Doran!”

Porter recognized that voice. He looked, but it had come from someplace distant.

A black cloud, he saw, was seeping over his feet. They were numb.

That’s not good.

“Move!” he roared. “Into the forest.” Porter’s hand shot out. Those that didn’t listen, their legs buckled and they disappeared into the water.

When everyone remaining was on the left bank, he tried to count heads. There were too few people, many of them had gone out of sight, stretched out along the river.

Flares shot up into the sky, painting the forest from above in shadows cast through bare branches. He didn’t see Christopher, Cobb was the only Master in sight. The Ouroboros was gone.

Flashes of blue light came with a heatwave. Crackling energy passed between trees.

A headless naked woman came sprinting through the forest with her arms out. Porter cut her down as she veered towards him.

This was chaos. He had to find the Ouroboros. They couldn’t be divided.

“Help!” A student came running past him, screaming for help. They were passing through the trees like they weren’t there, unable to see anyone.

“Master Porter,” a girl said. In sight, there were a half dozen students and Eidolons, congregating near him, now. “We’re all getting split up. I can’t find my friend.”

One twitchy Eidolon in the back opened fire with his gun, stopping Porter from answering.

“We need to stay together. I have to find the Ouroboros.” That was more important. “Now!”

He urged them to move deeper into the forest. The flares overhead were gone, the light dropping down again to that of the eclipse. He could only follow the sounds of screams.

They weaved between the trees until they quickly came to another stream. One of them slipped on the bank, the sound causing a sudden quiet.

Porter jumped down to follow. When he hit the water, there was suddenly nothing beneath it.

“Hey!”

He was instantly submerged. The world was an echo again, everything distant. Looking around, it was like the earth and all the trees were floating on the water, a deep abyss beneath them. The dark moved beneath him until, out of the black, he could see a single light drifting up.

When the hand hooked into his collar and hauled him up, Porter was again in only a foot of water.

“Why the fuck is he so heavy!?” he heard.

Porter threw what had been the source of the light onto the riverbank.

A mounted gun from the back of a Utopian vehicle. It had black growths across it but still had power. It had come out of whatever hole he’d fallen into. A gap in the water the students couldn’t find anymore. “Where’d it go?” the Eidolon asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Porter coughed. He’d inhaled salt water. He sputtered, “that’s a… bad fucking sign.” When he’d caught his breath, he looked at their confused faces. “It’s-”

A shriek interrupted them as a horror fell from out of the open sky, from above the trees, into their midst.

“Shit!” A Magi with a hammer crushed them down into the mud and rock. He stood over the twisted form that had been a woman in a red dress, her limbs sticking up. “That scared the hell out of me.” Her hand lulled to the side, finger caressing his leg.

Porter watched as the Magi compacted where he stood, the damage of the hammer conferred onto him. His limbs twisted, his organs exploded through his exposed ribcage.

Porter jabbed his Katana through the magi and into the horror. With the barrier of flesh between them, her healed arms couldn’t reach around to touch him. He lifted them and ran them back before driving the two of them into the ground.

The others watched.

“Bring me the hammer!” he groaned. The horror had too much strength.

Another Magi, clearly unfit to wield the massive thing, drug it to his side.

“Fuck,” Porter swore. “I have to do it fast.”

Porter stepped back and withdrew the sword. He traded it for the hammer and brought it up over his head. He slammed the horror with all his strength. Its hand shot out through the dead Magi’s chest, bones extending to reach. He pulverized the two of them, but not before a gentle brush of her nails.

He left the hammer where it was, lodged into the earth with them.

“Master Porter?” the other Magi asked.

He took back Hasami’s sword from their hand, not meeting their eyes.

“That’s… ironic.” He took a few more steps and stopped in his tracks.

“You’re bleeding,” they said.

“I noticed.” He considered the forest. He checked the path of the river. Though he couldn’t see where it ran, he felt a cold breeze coming down its length from one direction. He felt out, but he couldn’t sense past the shadow over the entire world. Beyond that, there was only silence. He stared past the young Magi. “How many of us are left?”

“What do you-” they looked over their shoulder to where he’d been looking. Where the others should have been. “…I’m not supposed to be here.”

“I realized that.” Porter finally looked at them. The girl was in a robe, water soaking her up to the waist. “Listen to me,” you’re already dead. “You have to get away from here,” I don’t want to watch. “Follow the river to the ocean. Follow the coast until you’re out. Do you understand?”

“Out?”

“Reality’s falling apart. I don’t know what you’ll find.”

Reality was conserving energy. She wasn’t important. If she left his side now, she’d simply cease existing. She’d go back to the start or go nowhere. He didn’t know.

“It’s your only chance,” he said. “Get out.”

The Magi said nothing, she only went where he pointed, quickly turning her face. She soon disappeared out of sight. She was gone.

Not knowing is better. It really wasn’t.

It was just him, now. Like it was supposed to be.

Porter took his sword into both hands in preparation. He heard footsteps breaking the water, echoing from down the river, opposite direction the Magi had gone.

Cobb’s white suit was marred by blood, his grey beard had been ripped from his face. Catherine was right behind him. Wherever the fuck she had come from.

The two of them noticed Porter and picked up speed.

When Cobb reached him, he only had one thing to say. “We have a plan.”

O

O’Reilly drove his spear into the body of a giant skittering creature. The tip of the spear filled its insides with fire. The fire crept through its many slicing legs, turning it into a husk in seconds.

It was just him, among a field of mangled trees and bodies.

As the skittering thing was going limp, one of its still moving arms beat itself against a tree, snapping off.

“FUCK!” he cried.

The limb regrew an entire body before he could dislodge his spear. Its front arms sprang out, knocking him off his feet.

O’Reilly impacted the tree trunk and had to quickly dig himself out of its bark. His shoulder slid back into the socket, he felt. There was such a quantity of bodies beneath him, that he simply reached down to pick up a discarded claymore.

He took it underhanded and pierced the earth, taking a knee.

The skittering thing was breaking off pieces of itself on the trees as it charged, there quickly being exponentially more of the horrors. In an instant, every one of them was swathed in a pillar of fire. The fire clung to every surface, every tree and rock. It spread around him as he watched. In the tornado of light and heat, he could make out their black keratin forms writhing until the intensity blotted them out.

He withdrew the blade and the fire sunk into the ground, leaving only… nothing.

O’Reilly’s eyes adjusted, but he could no longer make out the forest. He was surrounded by a patch of charred earth, but beyond, there was only darkness.

He threw the claymore up, holding it out towards the sky. A beam of light shot out which illuminated the landscape. The trees could be seen in the distance, beyond the charred earth, but were getting further away. He’d scorched more of the earth than he’d intended.

That wasn’t right. He shouldn’t have been getting more for the power he spent.

That was a grave a sign.

Ash began to fall on him. He looked down to keep it from getting in his eyes.

A pain grew in his hand.

He sat down at the base of the tree he’d been thrown into before. Enough of it remained that he could lean back. He looked at his hand, removed the glove.

Between his index finger and thumb, there was a small, growing splinter. He felt them all along his chest, where the skittering thing had hit him.

He lifted the claymore as much as he could beside him and pushed the tip between two roots. He held his breath and lit the fire.

On the tree line, Aziacht watched the flames reach for the sky.

Everything in its place, he thought. Time for an end.

Armageddon – 4.10

The Solidarity’s bay doors groaned, metal screaming as the platform came down. A salty ocean breeze hit Porter as the sun did. He raised his hand to cover the sight.

The ship had set down automatically, here, its descent stirring up a wild spray of water, crunching down on trees.

Armageddon, he thought.

“Don’t look at the sun,” he said.

The sky was a brilliant red and black, over the treetops. It was the Deus Ex, standing between them and the light, hiding the sun. The vault of the sky, stretching back around the horizons, was a deep, starless black. Aziacht had taken them. Porter couldn’t even spot the moon, now.

Cobb approached the open, brisk air, looking up at the eclipse. He scowled and jumped first into the water below. O’Reilly was close behind him.

“It’s us he’s coming for,” the rootless voice of the Ouroboros came to Porter’s side.

“I know,” he replied. “I met him up there…” His eyes scanned the trees. Barren grey, dead woods that stretched on for a long way ahead until a sudden and complete stop. “Screw this. It’s his game, now.”

“It always was.”

Porter turned to look at him. The Ouroboros eyed the eclipse, feint frown lines on his face.

“That’s not what I wanted to hear.”

“Porter,” the Ouroboros said, looking down at his own bare feet. “It’s not death that must justify itself. Understand that.” He jumped from the platform down to the water looking up.

The students were behind Porter. Those that remained were well under a hundred, he saw. He didn’t recognize a face among them. Not until Babba came forward.

“Come on, children,” she called.

The mechanism had come all the way out now and a safe path forward was laid out. The procession of students descended the ramp that had come out.

Porter stepped off first, staying ahead.

When he came down, he found a foot of seawater under him. He looked forward into the dark forest. It was a flooded flatland, islands of rock and dirt forming rivers in the landscape, shallow, dense trees clinging to stone atop them. All of them poisoned by saltwater. A dead place.

The Students were told not to stray far. They left the ship behind, moving as a large group into the forest along the still rivers. The noise of water breaking under footfalls was the only sound. No one spoke.

They stopped after the ship had been put far enough out of sight.

It was useless to stay with it. Solidarity couldn’t offer them safety.

People were sitting along the riverbank, now. Leaning on tree trunks on the forest’s edge. Porter took a breather, staring down the river’s path and seeing nothing beyond the bend. He looked back up to the sky. Still eclipsed.

“This place will do,” the Ouroboros declared.

“Good,” O’Reilly replied. “I don’t want to go any further from the ship.”

The Ouroboros said nothing in reply, but Porter knew what they were thinking in that moment. It doesn’t matter. This was where the end was going to happen.

“Yeah,” he said. “We’ll need to do a sweep for survivors after all this is over. Some smaller settlements will have survived. Probably.”

Not likely,” a distant voice said.

“Oh, God.” One student wretched. “What happened?”

Someone recognized the mangled, charred husk which stepped down into the water a few yards past the group. Christopher’s exposed face muscles contracted. “Hello, my friends.”

The Ouroboros produced his sickle and started forward.

Porter drew back his katana. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“Didn’t you get the memo?” Christopher spoke. “I’m not the bad guy!” he slurred, blood and spit running down his chin. “I was concerned for a while that I was, but then I remembered… I’m everyone’s friend. So, in short,” his humor suddenly ran away, “we’re going to work together. That’s the way it’s going to be. The easy way, that’s what people take. We’re going to work together.

Porter thought back to the first day they’d met. Christopher descending the court steps, a small smile on his face. For a moment, he was in two places at once, seeing so clearly how this was all laid out. By him, by Aziacht. He didn’t know anymore.

“Why shouldn’t we kill you?” He genuinely couldn’t come up with a reason.

“Because,” the corpse replied, looking bemusedly at the Ouroboros’ furious expression, “that’s the way it’s going to be. As it’s always been. Isn’t that right?”

The Ouroboros drew out his sickle, charging until it was inches from the Primordial’s neck. “Count your seconds to live, lie.”

The easy way,” Christopher repeated, unfazed.

The sickle shook in his white knuckled grip. “Porter,” the Ouroboros called back.

“Yes?”

“Kill him.”

Christopher’s smile twisted bigger. “Yeah, Quinn, do it.”

Porter approached, ready to gore Christopher. He wanted to do it.

He stole Utopia. He pulled it right out from under us, he told himself. It would be so easy to kill him for that.

“Why…” He cursed himself, but he had to. “Why can’t he do it?”

Christopher raised up a finger to push the Sickle’s point away. The Ouroboros was frozen. “Neither of you can. You-”

Porter lunged forward. His own feet froze in place, the point of his katana just short of the bastard’s head. Every muscle in his body locked up.

“-As I was saying…” Christopher took a deep breath through his nose, looking around for a moment. “He’s not far off.” He reached past the katana, reaching in to wrap his fingers around Porter’s throat. “As I was saying!? Anyone!?”

“You can’t do it either,” a girl answered.

Christopher pointed to her with his free hand, not breaking his staring contest with a defiant Porter. “Exactly. Now’s not our time. He wants the three of us fighting, Aziacht, but it’s not my right to kill you. It’s Nihilism’s. Abhorrence to reject the notion of fair and just nature. I fill the vacuum, the promise of artificial equity. My job is done for me. Because what are we all, if not certain that death is unpleasant?” he smiled. “Maybe you’d have a chance were it just the two of us.”

“You fucker-” Porter swore.

Christopher threw him aside. He reached out for the Ouroboros.

Touch me,” they warned, their voice crawling over his skin, “and I’d have us both die, wretch.

Christopher backed off. “Typical of you.”

Porter pulled himself up from the streambed. He slicked back his short blond hair, water dripping off him. “Then that’s it.”

“Yes,” the pale man admitted.

“We’re working together,” the charred young man said gleefully.

“Wonderful,” Babba threw up her arms. “We’ll cavort with Lucifer.”

Cobb sneered. “Hardly.”

“Are we okay?” An armored student asked.

Porter looked back at them all, standing, watching, on edge as Christopher leered back. “Yes,” he said. “We’re okay, here.” They didn’t need to worry.

He counted the heads. So many students. Kids in a fight that would come down to just a few. He didn’t know what they could do, why they were even here.

He remembered Kendall, Doran, the girl with them. Ashmedai and Odessa. They’d held their own. Hasami had. He could only hope it wasn’t a slaughter.

“Why am I here?” He stood behind the Ouroboros, lowered his voice. “Why even involve all of us in this fight, Ouroboros? I know we were part of the set-up, but why are we here, at the end of everything? Are we witnesses? Tell me.”

“Have faith.”

He stared at his back. That was not what Porter wanted. He wouldn’t take it. Not now. “No.

“Then learn, man. Death and the shadow come to all. There is knowledge of them written inside you. Those who would will them would not need understanding of them. But one who would will good? Truth? I ask you who can know my ways. The ways of nature and time are to be in the world…” The Ouroboros turned, pushing Porter’s chest, “and in the will. Twofold.”

Some trees crashed over in the distance. Porter looked into the dark woods but saw nothing. He grimaced and turned back to the Ouroboros. “I understand.”

“Then there is nothing else to be said,” he told him.

Christopher chuckled. “Damn… Damn! Goddamn!!” he shouted, ecstatic. “I have been waiting all eternity for this.” He clapped once loudly, startling some of the students who looked ill. “Cry havoc! Stir the Valkyries! Sound the seventh trumpet and look alive! How loooong it’s been, my children! My time is come!!”

Porter felt it, a sinking in his chest. Aziacht was in the forest and every horror with him. The Elephant man and a thousand more. They were without count, a field of darkness beyond sight. The empty, black firmament brimming and spilling over onto the earth its every unknown crawling thing. Every monster. The abyss emptying out itself into the forest around them.

“He’s here,” he said. He flagged the three professors. “Get them all together. They’re going to break against us like waves.”

His eyes were wide. The darkness around them in the trees was coming alive.

The horrors were limitless. An ocean.

“We will stay strong!” the Ouroboros proclaimed.

Porter raised Hasami’s katana one more time. His heartbeat thudded in his chest. The wind picked up, suddenly ripping over the surface of the waters. The trees crackled.

His expression darkened. Seconds passed as he watched many of the students trembling. Time was running out before his eyes as death set in. So many of them would die. His doubts flared. He could see every one of them turning the rivers here red.

He hated it. The face of every person who’d died because of him flashed before his eyes. So many missions done recklessly. He hadn’t cared. He fucking hated it. He wanted every choice back that had led him here until… all at once he didn’t. No, his resolve hardened.

He wouldn’t change anything. He would see it all made right.

He had faith it could be done.

The tree line broke apart, a horror crashing into their ranks.