"Oh happy state!
What beauteous pictures now
Rose in harmonious imagery – they rose
As from some distant region of my soul
And came along like dreams.”
High above the still, sad music of humanity, cradled in the folds of a mountain valley a girl lay dying. Far out to sea the sunrise sprawled across the horizon like a bruise, bright and livid against a slate-grey sky. Silently, the birthing russet glow became wet sunlight on a wave as an angry sea fractured and distilled the rising sun, flecking the heaving waves with delicate golden crests. At the line of the horizon the morning sun hauled the last of its circumference out of the water like a weary bather dripping with light, and as the remains of the cloud-cover evaporated into vapour the streaming sunlight began to push back the darkness that had shrouded the mountains, revealing a tiny, broken body bleeding onto the snow.
Sepherina blinked up at the sky as the settling snowflakes melted at the corners of her eyes. This was not how she expected to feel. She closed her eyes and smiled.
They moved through a limited world; a heavy, driving snow obscuring everything but a small circle of visibility, perhaps ten meters in diameter; beyond that, only darkness. A long line of soldiers ghosted through the negative landscape, the small fires of their torches sputtered and flared in the night as the snow tumbled onto the flames, sending small seething tendrils of steam writhing up into the air. Occasionally progress would halt as a torch winked off, blown out by the howling wind or smothered by the thick blanket of snow that rained down from the heavens, and, after a muttered curse, it would be re-lit, and the column would move forwards once again.
The attack came without warning - hundreds of indistinct shapes flowing silently from the darkness to fall upon the column, the disembodied screams of the dying and the ringing of steel muffled by the soft pattering of the falling snow. Sepherina smiled ruefully as a branch of lightning arced downwards from the heavens illuminating waves of demons stacked back towards the horizon. She had fallen far from the light. She belonged here now, in the darkness, with the demons. She had time to wonder what the old man might think of her now, fumbling through the darkness so very far from home as the night-air around her solidified into a host of nightmarish shapes, and the first demon threw itself at her, howling, its axe descending in a glittering arc until there was no more time for thought. She was alive in the moment, moving through a limitless world and nothing could touch her there.
Sepherina looked down in disbelief at the sword embedded in her ribcage, feeling the warm throbbing pain spread lazily down her side like spilt liquid. Trembling, she staggered and fell to her knees, her hands sliding through the snow as her body pumped blood uselessly out onto the ashen field, staining the monochromatic landscape with a stark splash of crimson. Naea held a dagger to Sepherina’s throat, the jagged blade filling her vision as it glimmered wetly in the darkness. Sepherina blinked, and in that endless moment between heartbeats she knew she was going to die.
There, caught in the benediction of a sudden shaft of late September light that lanced through the darkness, Sepherina turned. Away from Naea, away from her end; back towards her memories, towards her life, towards her home. As men and demons swarmed over one another, living and dying for every inch of ground, the early-morning sunlight illuminated Sepherina like a vision, her armour ruined by scores of blows but still glowing like spun gold in the sun. One arm hung limp and useless at her side as the escaping blood forged a red river down her broken body; her cloak, tattered and blood-stained trembled in the breeze as she raised a weary head to the heavens, teeth bared in rueful defiance. There, in the balance of fragile autumn twilights the litany of battle unfolded across the landscape like a song, and mournfully Sepherina thought one last time of the price of mortality and her own quiet need for repentance. Her failure yawned up beneath her like a chasm, a swirling black pit that would finally claim her, here, at the very edge of the world. Once more she looked into the void and for the first time it spoke. The voice seemed to echo inside her head, the ringing syllables completing a hauntingly familiar refrain.
“All the souls that were, were forfeit once, and shall be so again.”
Something inside her broke. A single tear came unbidden to her eyes as her trembling body surrendered to the darkness, and as her broken soul collapsed inward upon itself, fracturing into a thousand pieces that recoiled in terror from the simple truth that formed the cornerstone of her existence, she fell. Into darkness. Into death. Into herself.
As if in response the sky began to weep; great pregnant drops that tumbled down to earth to patter mournfully off her armour, ricocheting down towards the muddy grassland like a flood of tears. High above her head, jagged forks of lightning flared across an ink-black sky, the flashes of blue-white light illuminating tangled masses of dark, billowing clouds stacked up towards the heavens and beyond, into the darkness.
Naea cradled the broken body in her arms as Sepherina bled onto the snow. Stirring weakly in the cold, Sepherina looked up at the older woman and blinked.
“Naea? Is it really you? Did... did I save you?”
Naea frowned, an ambiguous little half-smile floating on her face as she shook her head sadly.
“No Sepherina, you failed.”
“I see….” Sepherina paused, a mournful frown flickering across her face. “Is this… the end?”
“It would seem so…” Naea said her expression unreadable. “Do you want me to lie to you now, my love?”
Sepherina fell silent as the snowflakes tumbled down around them, the soft pattering of the snowfall a mournful counterpoint to the beat of her failing heart. Finally she inclined her head, trembling in agreement as a single tear traced its way down her cheek.
Sepherina opened her eyes onto a strangely familiar room, the scent of jasmine wafting through the air. Somewhere out of sight the embers of a dying fire hissed and crackled as they burned down to their last. Before her eyes a small shuttered window opened out onto gently rolling farmland, a host of dust motes dancing in the sunbeams that streamed in through the glass to illuminate the room with a gentle pastel glow. Dark wooden beams crisscrossed the ceiling, throwing the simple whitewashed walls into stark relief. Above her a sea of loving faces floated half way between memory and reality – her parents, her husband, her friends. Somewhere in the back of her mind a voice screamed out a warning, crying that this wasn’t right, it couldn’t be. Uncaring, she silenced it with a thought and surrendered to the growing sense of peace that threatened to overwhelm her. Everything was just how she imagined it as a girl: the splash of wild flowers in a vase by the window, the tabby cats scampering along the corridors, the loving family smiling down at her. She just wanted to float there, loved, needed, until the end of time. Freeze this moment, she thought, freeze it right here. How unspeakably beautiful it is.
With a kind of wheezing inward rush everything shuddered into focus as one of the figures leaned down towards her, tears carving rivers into his cheeks. As he took her hand in his she finally noticed the bloodied sheets strewn carelessly across the floor, the scalpels and medical tools glimmering wetly in the light, the basin of crimson water trembling on the bedside cabinet. She frowned and shifted slightly. Why did she feel so weak?
“I’m so sorry Sepherina” the man said weakly as his hand engulfed hers. “Our daughter… died during childbirth. There was nothing we could do.”
She closed her eyes and howled, unable to move as the dream came crashing down around her, and as the tears began to flow a honeyed voice whispered softly in her ear.
“All the souls that were, were forfeit once, and shall be so again.” The world went black. Flicker.
The house still shook as the ground rumbled in memory. Beams of sunlight crept in through gaping holes in the masonry illuminating scorched and blackened walls that blistered and crackled as the once-bright paint cooled slowly in the humid Autumn air. Charred wooden beams and melted pottery rose out of the floor at impossible angles, twisted and deformed as if the room itself had attempted to move before the madness ended. The dead lay everywhere. Men, women, children; their brittle bodies blackened and burnt beyond recognition by the flames that had swept down the narrow corridors.
Sepherina held her skirts up and picked her way carefully through the wreckage, unseeing. “Naea, where are you my love?” She frowned. This wasn’t like Naea; their guests would be here any minute. Catching sight of herself in a mirror, the frame hanging askew from bubbled marble, Sepherina paused. For a moment she fingered the ring dangling from her neck, her hands playing over the crest carved into the stone. It meant something to her once, that symbol. Memory began to stir in the depths of her consciousness. Where was Naea?
Sepherina moved on, stepping daintily over the body of a child, its face contorted in fright, the small wooden crib blackened and distorted by the heat, its tiny arms wrapped around a doll miraculously untouched by the conflagration. And as the radiance of the sun filtered in through an unbroken window, fracturing into a thousand tiny pieces of light, Sepherina’s eyes caught the outline of a familiar shape and with a strangled sob, opened for the first time on the desolation around her.
Naea. Slumped in a corner, one hand reaching out towards the crib, a look of anguish forever burned on her face. Her clothes fused to her ruined body, she sagged, lifeless, unmoving. It all seemed so distant, so removed, but as the remains of the day slowly sifted back into memory Sepherina knew it for truth. She had done this. She had finally fallen into madness. For one brief moment she simply stood, unmoving as her mind shied away from the magnitude of her crime. Then, while one hand started to tremble uncontrollably as the madness welled up inside her once more, she broke, and as her screams beat against the ruined walls, reverberating and recombining into a twisted harmony of pain and unimaginable grief, somewhere in the back of her mind a honeyed voice whispered softly in her ear.
“All the souls that were, were forfeit once, and shall be so again”. Flicker.
Sepherina shook as the visions flooded before her eyes. She was a warrior. She was a farmer. She was a scholar. She was a thief. She was a pilgrim. She was a servant, slave, outcast. She was a cripple. She lived and died a hero. She died mad. She died screaming. She died of sickness, accident, age. She was lost in battle and kingdoms cheered her passing. She proclaimed herself a warlord and flung her banner across the skies. She waged war against the Orcs, against the Forsaken, against her friends. She hid from herself in dark unholy places. She was seduced by death, by greed, by power. She lost her fight against corruption and fell to the encroaching darkness. She sinned and howling begged her Gods for forgiveness. She clung to life, she clung to hope, she clung to madness. She warred in distant, long-forgotten places, scarce imagined until she lived those lives. A hundred lives. More. So many she couldn’t count them. And at the end of every life, as she lay dying, as she faced the darkness and drew her final shuddering breath a honeyed voice whispered in her ear. “All the souls that were, were forfeit once, and shall be so again.” Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker.
Sepherina awoke alone on the mountainside. Behind her the sun was rising quietly above the snowfields sending questing fingers of light reaching out towards the horizon. Glistening in the sunshine, a ribbon of blue meltwater wandered absently towards the sea, its mazy motion slow and steady despite the stiff westerly breeze that raced along the valley floor, driving the wispy autumn rain clouds into the sea. There, at the very summit of the world, as the litany of her trembling heartstrings finally faded into grief, she fell to her knees and for the first time since she was a child Sepherina closed her eyes and began to pray.