Anna was coming up over the hill when she felt as if she was shoved into the dirt. Her face buried in the mossy ground, she quickly recovered to look behind her. Her father was on his hands and knees, floored by the shockwave, now looking back as well.
The white flash of light came from the cities. The flat earth surrounding them let the shockwave rip outward. She couldn’t believe her eyes as the mushroom cloud formed.
“OH,” she stuttered. “Oh, my God.”
Her dad covered his eyes. She just looked on. She could feel her corneas singeing, but she knew she could heal. The pain couldn’t pull her away. The twin white cities gone in a flash, dashing white light against the sky and earth and moon. That was everything. Every person, every place she’d ever known. Her mother.
The trees at the forest’s edge had fallen. They’d been ascending the hill, able to see most of the flats and encircling mountains. The grass and trees swayed violently for a while longer until dead air came. Everything was silent as the plume continued to rise and the shockwave had passed.
“Anna,” her dad called. “We need to keep going!”
Not everything, she remembered. She nodded mutely, peeling away her eyes.
The skin on her cheeks was bubbling, she felt. He was right. Parts of the forest were burning and they needed to get to the cabin and the snow. Must keep going.
The forest shook with an earthquake. Snow roared in an avalanche out of sight somewhere far ahead. The temperature was already dropping again, now that the heat wave had passed.
They both trudged through the heavily inclined forest for a long time. Snowflakes fell. The lush green trees reminded Anna this wasn’t hell. Looking back at the desolation, she wasn’t sure. It was a nightmare. This was what Doran had predicted. He’d never fully disclosed, he always held back. She could never have imagined such an end to her whole world. Apocalypse.
She looked up to her father, the greying back of his head as he hiked. He looked back briefly, breath fogging, and made a concerned face. “You okay?”
“I am,” she replied.
Both wore the dark grey Utopian clothes, hers fitting very loosely. She had hooked a finger in her belt loop to hold them up as she walked. They’d not packed for this walk. Her father had used a spell of concealment to get them into the desert and they’d walked for hours in the heat. He was more exhausted than her, she could tell.
Back in Hell when Doran had led her, Odessa, and Ash, she’d learned her body’s limits. When the burning started, her mind would dull but her body would keep going. Sometimes she would lose memories, but she couldn’t die. Not even if she wanted to, which sometimes she had. Like now.
The path twisted up a steeper rock and Anna watched her father look for a way up. He reached down for some of the snow now on the ground, packing it against the burns on his neck. “I can go around,” he told her. “It’s going be a moment. The cabin is up there in a clearing. You could start the fire. I’d appreciate it sooner than later, please” he smiled weakly. “Don’t worry about me.”
She wanted to make sure he made it safely, but she knew he’d made this walk before. “Okay.” She crouched and jumped in a flurry of snow.
Anna came up and drifted down on the ledge some fifteen feet above. In a clearing, an open view to the forest and flats behind her, the cabin rested ahead. The pines swayed, she saw, the cratered earth still smoking beneath the ash cloud now hiding the sun. She turned away.
Her bare feet crunched on the thicker layer of snow, here.
The small cabin’s windows were black. Anna approached and raised the door’s latch. Dirt floors inside and mud packed log walls surrounded. A single room, a handmade cabin. The metal stove nestled into one corner had a stack of cut wood beside it. She found them and with numb hands filled the stove. No need for kindling, she stuck her hand in the stove and breathed deeply.
She thought about the flash. The sight of all that death.
The fire started quickly burning hot.
She closed the stove’s door and grabbed up a blanket folded on the back of one of the two chairs in the room. A small cot occupied one corner, the kitchen, and counters on the adjacent wall, beneath the window. A rifle was propped aside the bed, up against a locked chest.
She looked back at the door for a moment, then checked the fire again. She needed to go back out and see about her father.
Suddenly, the door opened behind her.
Her dad came in. She turned to hand him the blanket as he took one seat beside the fire. He set it down on the ground and gestured to the other chair as she stood staring.
“You may not be able to tell, but it’s Christopher,” he said. The faceless man’s suit was covered in crusted blood down his chest, his voice flowed through clenched, lipless teeth. “Sorry to intrude.”
Anna’s eyes bored into him. She realized her dad wasn’t coming.
Christopher ignited where he sat. A torrent of fire swallowed him, blackening the wall by the woodfire stove. Tears welled in her eyes as she kept them open, staring into the blasting flames scorching the cabin. She blinked and they cut off.
In a charred chair, himself nearly burnt to the bone, Christopher sat unmovingly.
“He’s dead,” Christopher said flatly.
Anna sat down on the ground, legs under her. She looked up to Christopher in the chair. Doran had said he would destroy everything, that he was almost as old as time. He looked down on her.
“Why?” she pleaded.
“I need you to do a thing. I couldn’t have you leaving the game, Anna.” He shrugged his shoulders, skin cracking and welling up blood. It streamed down his arms for a moment before he added, “Sorry. It’s your part still to play. Destiny is the architecture of greater men.”
“Fuck you,” she said, quietly. She was terrified, but she would say it.
“Doran is dead, the Ouroboros is working with Porter, Aku is homicidal, and Kendall and Ash are out of the game. You’re all caught up.”
“Doran is dead?”
“Yes. He resurrected Aziacht, who’s trying to kill the Ouroboros, which will effectively kill reality. We’re going to kill him before he can do that. Understand?”
Anna didn’t speak.
“This is really very awkward.” Christopher pointed over Anna’s shoulder. “You’ll know what to do,” he said.
She didn’t look, only staring him down. She wanted to burn him again.
He shot up from the chair. She jumped to the side as he went to the kitchen counter and grabbed up a heavy tome there. He threw it in the unburnt chair. “Your father’s book of spells. No one was better at hiding than him. The council sent a lot of magi to retrieve him for an inquiry over you. It never happened… You know what to do,” he repeated. “We’re the good guys now, Anna.” He spread his blackened and bleeding red arms. “You didn’t know it, but I’m the good guy.” His face cracked into what Anna thought was a smile.
“Fuck you,” she spat.
Christopher nodded. He walked over to the stove and opened the door.
Anna crawled quickly over to the gun beside the cot. A shotgun. She hoped it was loaded.
She turned around, pumped the gun, and fired. The slug tore into Christopher’s back, opening a hole which quickly let out a flow of red. He didn’t react, instead finishing putting wood in the fire and closing the door. She fired again and again until it wouldn’t fire anymore, sending tremors and putting holes in his body. He finally looked down at her, pressed into the corner between the cot and chest.
“You’re owed that,” he said. “I hope it’s some consolation. Just know it was always necessity which drove me. For Love.”
Anna stood up and clubbed him with the gun. It hit him like he was a steel pillar, the impact jolting down her arms. She threw it aside. “What did you do to him?”
“I broke his neck.” No remorse.
He suddenly looked off into space, listening.
He barged out the door and into the snow. Anna followed, pushing through the rebounding cabin door. She shouted at his back, “fuck you!”
“Places to be,” he said, not looking back.
Christopher walked off the edge of the cliff, dropping out of sight.
Anna ran after and looked over, but he was gone.
The black cloud had spread out overhead and snow was falling heavier. The cold had intensified. Behind her, the cabin had warmth and little food. Somewhere down below her father’s body would be accumulating a layer of white. She couldn’t bring herself to cry. She didn’t make any noise.
Anna had her father’s texts. With them, she could easily recall what she knew about magic. She could figure it out. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t human.
Here she was with all the freedom she’d always wanted. She could go anywhere, she could try to outrun all this. The Omniverse was too big to destroy.
If reality is native… if I could integrate into another system. I…
She knew she couldn’t escape.
Doran couldn’t have wanted this.
She could run. She could go. But now she had nothing to run from she could escape. This was how it had to be. The last crumb stolen right from her fucking hands. Everything gone. She’d always just wanted to go and be away. But now? She had to know. Everything was wrong just as it’d always been. It wasn’t okay.
She needed to know. All of this? It’d been done to her.
I don’t deserve this.
“I don’t deserve this!” she bellowed. “Christopher!”
He was gone.
Anna breathed in the cold. There was only one way, now. Forward to the end.