Branches heavy with tiny black, shriveled berries crunch under the soles of my boots. This was a cobblestone road once, but nature’s reclaimed it. Invasive red vines clamber up tree trunks and over the charred foundations of homes, coating them in a spider-like webbing. Wyrms ravaged this town decades ago, but it still smells like it’s burning.
Ash, that should have blown away, coats everything in a thin layer of black. I brush by a tree branch and ash rains down on me. I brush it off as best I can, watching it flutter away.
I hear Fortitude whinny from the fence post I tied him to. He doesn’t like it here. Neither do I.
The cathedral is the only structure still standing. Its stones are blackened, like everything else here, but have withstood the blaze. Twin steeples reach toward the heavens, looming over the wreckage of the town. In the dimming blue sky, tucked between the steeple points, are the pale outlines of Master and Sonia. Master, is a massive planet, but from here it looks no bigger than a coin. Sonia is smaller, with vertical rings around her center. They are closer than they’ve ever been and soon they will align. The End is near.
As I walk I take in the eerie quite. Skeletons should lay in the streets, but Wrym fire disintegrates bone. Nothing left to bury. Just ash.
I duck beneath the door of the cathedral that has partially fallen from its hinge. Inside, the floor is covered in ash. Rows of broken or overturned pews face an alter long abandoned. It’s a cavernous space which once housed many bodies. Many bodies who most likely fled this building, not realizing that its thick stone was the only thing that could protect them.
Stained glass windows, dark on the outside, still filter in coloured light that plays over the mosaic on the floor before the altar. I can imagine how it looked when it was new and clean and worthy of worship. Now it stands in ruins. The only purpose left to it is housing the Void.
The black shimmering pool floats off to the side of the altar, the air around it stretched and warped as if space itself were being pulled into the slowly churning whirlpool. Now and then a white sphere drifts by, like a glowing star the size of a pearl.
I remove my helmet and tuck it under my arm. My blond hair falls over my shoulder, tangled and knotted, reminding me how long it’s been since I’ve bathed.
Soon, I tell myself. Soon I’ll either be able to have a good, hot bath — or I’ll be dead.
I step across the cracked tiles of the mosaic, my armor clinking, sending a metallic echo throughout the vaulted transept. Then I reach into the Void.
My arm disappears up to my elbow. I can’t express the sensation of losing sight of one’s own limb when you know it should be right in front of you, let alone the physical sensations my non-existent limb is feeling inside the Void. I feel something brush my knuckles. It makes a noise like two marbles colliding and I get the impression my hand has lost all its flesh, allowing naked bone to tap against the little white orbs. I flounder, grasping blindly for one of those pearls that move faster than they appear. A few slip through my fingers before one strikes the center of my palm and I close my hand around it. I pull my fist out, relieved to see it unchanged by the Void.
As I open my hand the pearl opens too, uncurling like a flower petal until it’s stretched into a thin strip of stark white paper. On it is a name.
I flip the paper over and read: Goddess of Presentation.
I crumple the paper in my fist.
“Mind your language,” a disembodied voice says through the void. “Don’t you know it’s unladylike to curse?”
A tall, thin woman materializes between me and the void. She’s wearing a large black ball-gown with a string of vibrant purple pearls around her neck. Orange, green, and yellow bangles decorate her wrists and a sparkling tiara sits atop her inky hair.
No, no, no! I need a God of War, or Courage, or Wit — not a God of fashion.
“You need a new wardrobe, I assume.” She gestures at my armor with her long, well-groomed fingers.
Once, it had shone gold, and silver, and red — but now it is dirty and dented. It’s three times too large for me and made to fit a man’s body. I look like a doll in the plate mail and I have to wear four pairs of wool socks just to keep the boots on my feet.
“This is my brother’s armor. I’m wearing it to honor him.” And I can’t afford any of my own.
“I hope wherever he is, he isn’t wearing your dress.”
She grimaces, almost managing to look sympathetic. Almost. “I can’t do resurrections. You’ll need some other God for that.”
“My brother died fighting one of the beasts that protect the road to this place. Some awful giant with no face and four arms. I wouldn’t have made it here without his sacrifice.” I take a step toward her, my armor clinking again. “But I’m not here to bring him back. I’m here because the End has come. The warlocks have returned and they’ve enslaved the Wyrms. The world is at war. The battle for Earth will take place two days from now. I need something that will help us claim victory.”
Heniuta steps aside, her image momentarily blurring as she walks past the Void. Time sometimes gets altered near the Void, much like space does. My heart begins to race as I realize that the battle may have already begun, and I’m not there to lead my men — well, my brother’s men. Not that it would help much. I remember their grieved looks at me after Abelard was killed. They’d tolerated me before. I was Abe’s cute kid sister who wanted to play knight. Abe taught me to fight and hold my self like a warrior. He was going to make me a real one after the war, or so he’d promised.
With his dying breath, he’d made good on this promise. Not only making me knight but general too. I suddenly wasn’t so cute anymore. Abe was practically a god to his men. With him gone, they already considered us doomed. The only thing keeping them from putting someone else in charge was despair. They’d given up.
I turn to find the goddess looking at her own reflection in a broken piece of stained glass. I clear my throat.
She sighs. “Well, you obviously don’t think I can help you, so why not summon some other deity?”
I sit down on a broken pew, setting my helmet down beside me. “You must defeat the guardians of the Way, you must enter the cathedral alone, and you only get to choose one name. Don’t you know how this works?”
She looks back at the Void. “The Void is a treatise of some sort between gods and men. I’m sure I got a copy of the blood-oath, but I don’t really concern myself with politics.”
I put my face in my hands. I’ve failed. I’ve traveled halfway around the world, fought giant beasts, solved ancient riddles, lost the only family I’ve ever known — and still failed. This really is the End.
Heniuta picks up my helmet. I think she’s looking at her reflection again, but, no, she’s examining the metal. Her face takes on a forlorn expression as if she sees something in the helmet she hadn’t expected to see.
“Clunky, isn’t it?” she asks.
“It’s not for looks.” I try to keep the despair and anger from my voice. “It’s to keep my brains from getting bashed.”
“Doesn’t it echo? Surely something smaller would be better.” She sticks the helmet under her arm. “And that sword has exactly the opposite problem. You can’t cleave warlock heads from their shoulders with that little thing.”
“I can’t lift anything larger.” I stand, reaching out for my helmet, but she pulls away.
I sigh. “I’ve got to get back to the army. I don’t have time to sit and chat about my appearance.”
“What did you come here for?” she asks.
“I don’t know.” I shrug. I think about it a moment. “Ancient power. Divine Strength. Luck.”
The goddess smiles. “Well, why didn’t you just say so? I can give you that.”
“You can?” I raise a brow at her, skeptically.
“Certainly.” She holds my helmet up. It shines in the pale beam of light filtering down from the ceiling. It’s easy to spot the scratches and the significant dent on the left side. The visor is stuck down, but luckily my head is small enough that I can slip into it anyway.
The helmet melts between her hands, liquid silver coating her fingers. It doesn’t drip to the tiles though. Instead, it slithers back up like a serpent and reforms into a new helmet. This one is taller and sleeker. It has a long narrow strip that will run down from my forehead, protecting the bridge of my nose. Intricate designs are etched into the metal. They resemble the runes of my ancestors. Heniuta runs her palm over the helmet and as she moves a line of plumes spring up, the brilliant red fibers a stark contrast to the newly glistening silver.
She hands the helmet to me and I take it with a new sense of awe, finally registering that I’m standing in front of an actual deity.
“Now your sword.”
I quickly hand her the weapon. Heniuta runs her palm along its edge and I cringe, waiting for the blood to flow. But she’s unharmed and the blade is growing. It stretches until it’s wider than my head and the golden hilt spirals like a piece of blown glass, creating a pocket for my fist. The sword grows until it’s over half my height. I think it will be impossible to lift, but she returns it to me and it feels no different.
I test the sword’s weight in my hand, turning it over and admiring the way it sparkles.
“I thought you were on a tight schedule?” Heniuta scolds. I turn and she reached out to me.
Laying my helmet and sword down on the pew, I put my hands in hers.
I feel my armor shrinking. The pauldrons that once protected my brother’s strong shoulders come to rest tightly against my meager frame, giving me just enough room. The sensation of someone pulling off my socks comes to mind and I’m glad I didn’t have to do that job myself. Four pairs of socks and limited bathing makes for frighteningly bad foot hygiene. The boots that once weighed me down feel light on my feet and fit snug around my calves and shins. My breastplate turns a silver so pure the light from the stained glass is mirrored on its surface, making it appear I’m wearing armor made of light itself. A red line swirls and paints a rune on my chest — the divine symbol for luck.
Heniuta drops my hands and I take a step back, trying to look down to see myself and invisible fingers pry the knots from my hair and weave it into two tight braids.
The goddess picks up a large piece of broken glass so I can see my reflection. My heart leaps. I look like a knight.
“I appreciate this.” I look up at her dark brown eyes. “But what will it change?”
She puts the glass down. “Everything.”
“I don’t understand. I might look a little more formidable now, but I’m still just one girl. I don’t think it’s going to leave much of an impression on the enemy army.”
“Your enemies will always underestimate you, no matter how you look. It’s your own army you have to impress.”
I think of Abe’s men, the way they looked at me like I had stolen their last hope at victory.
Heniuta takes my chin in her hand and forces me to look at her again.
“If you don’t want to be treated like a little girl playing dress-up, then stop looking like one.” She spins away from me, back toward the Void, black tulle brushing ash from the tiles.
“Armies are made up of hundreds of men. Their leaders can’t possibly know them all. They don’t fight for a person — they fight for a symbol. All you’ve got to do is be the symbol they need. Leave the rest to fate, darling.”
I take up my helmet and my sword again and nod to the goddess. “Thank you,” I say, but she’s already disappearing into the Void.
I return to find that Heniuta has given Fortitude a pair of enormous, black feathered wings. He appears pleased with himself, pawing at the ash covered Earth with one of his front hooves. I feel that way too.
I climb onto his back and position myself between his wings. As I look to the sky again I’m relieved to find that Master and Sonia are not yet in alignment. I kick my heels into Fortitude’s flanks and he takes a running start, kicking off toward the heavens. Powerful wings gulp air on either side of me as we climb. I steer right between the steeples, higher and higher, until the cathedral and the eternally smouldering town are far below.
We’re flying right toward Master, which will guide our course for home.
I don’t know what I expected to encounter at the Void, but it wasn’t Heniuta. I already have a brave army and a strong plan of attack, even if we are outnumbered. A giant golem or an immortal elfin regiment would have helped — a lot — but maybe this is exactly what I needed. A little confidence. A leader who looks like she belongs.
The planets inch closer together and their bellies are nearly touching when I see the armies on the horizon.
I’m afraid of dying, I’m afraid of letting my men down.
But if this is the End, we will go down in style.