The Sword Saint

(To read the previous part, click here)


“Uh, guys,” Nino said, “not to interrupt this tender moment, but… Karel’s probably almost here by now!” “I am here,” Karel said. He stood ominously at the entrance of the cave, a silhouette against the blinding white snow of the mountain. He drew his blade and pointed it at Canas. “You. Are you the one they call The Hermit on the Mountain?” “Huh? Me?” Canas asked, confused. “Uh, yeah. I mean, Yes!” He puffed out his chest and spoke confidently. “I am indeed The Hermit on th-“ Niime pushed him aside. “Did you really think I’d stand by and let you throw your life away?” Niime asked Canas. “I don’t leave this mountain enough to know what I am called by the world, but I guess that’d make me the hermit on the mountain. On this mountain, I am called Niime. But there was once a time when the world called me Vivienne.” “I care not for what you are called,” Karel said. “Then you know not to whom you speak,” Niime said, “Though the fault is not yours. I imagine the powers that be have been quite thorough in their efforts to strike my name from the history books.” “I care little for your history, or any other ramblings of a senile old woman. You are quite different from the fabled dark mage I’d heard legends of.” Niime cackled. “You think I’m senile, do you? Ah, perhaps you’re right. All that was a lifetime ago. Perhaps I’m no longer a worthy opponent.” “No,” Karel said, forcefully, “Your façade of weakness will not fool me. I understand little of magic, but even I can sense that you possess a fearsome power. The strength of your dark magic is almost enough to rival even Nergal’s.” “Almost?” Niime asked indignantly, “How dare you barge into my own home and suggest that my mastery of elder magic is second to anyone else’s? I should strike you down where you stand!” “I encourage you to try,” Karel said, “But before we fight, I’d like to be perfectly clear that if any of your friends or family intervene, they will pay for their meddling with their life. That goes for you too, Jaffar.” He pointed his sword to a shadowy corner, from which Jaffar emerged. “Tch.” “I agree,” Niime said, “I have much to teach this whelp, and I won’t have you interrupting my lesson.” “I will teach you not to underestimate me,” Karel said, “En Garde!” “Actually, hold up a second,” Niime said, “Before we fight, could I warm up a bit? It’s been so long since I’ve ever actually fought, I need to make sure I still remember how. I trust it wouldn’t be a problem if you let me cast a single Flux tome before we begin in earnest?” “Hmph. Very well,” Karel said, “My blade’s hunger will not be sated if I cannot fight you at your full strength.” “Thank you very much, young man!” Niime said, “Now, where did I put that book…” She searched around the pockets of her robes. “Ah! Here it is! Ahem…”

With an otherworldly chant, Niime summoned a sphere of darkness, which quickly melted and seeped into the ground. In then rose up from below Karel’s feet, coalescing into an orb around him and exploding with dark energy. He leaned backwards, avoiding the attack by the narrowest possible margin. His eyes widened in shock as he jumped to the side just in time to dodge a second explosion behind him. He looked down and saw that darkness continued to rise from his shadow. He just barely managed to dodge a third explosion. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. When it seemed the explosive assault had abated, he smiled. “So you can smile,” Niime remarked. “Only when fighting a worthy opponent,” Karel said, quickly scowling. “I see,” Niime said, “Why is that?” “The time for your questions has passed!” “It is a poor student who won’t answer his teacher’s questions,” Niime said. “I’m not your student. I’m your opponent!” “Incorrect,” Niime said, “I may be your opponent, but you are not mine. If you want me to fight you, you must answer my questions in return.” “I am not here to bargain with you,” Karel said, “I am here to kill you!” “Then do it.” Niime said, holding her arms out to her sides as if preparing to embrace death. “What madness is this?” Karel asked. “I’m calling your bluff,” Niime said, “You don’t want to kill me, you want to fight me. And I won’t fight you unless you answer my questions.” “You’d really risk your life for some answers?” Niime cackled. “I am pretty crazy,” she admitted, “Just ask my son.” “Huh? Uh, er, w-well…” Canas stuttered, causing Niime to cackle again. “Enough of these games,” Karel said, “I believe that you are willing to risk your own life, but would you risk hers?” He pointed his sword at Nino, who shuddered in fear. He began walking towards her. “Would you fight for her?” “NO!” Niime’s voice exploded with elder magic, inhumanly loud and impossibly deep. It was enough to stop even Karel in his tracks. “You will not harm Nino. But I will not fight you. Because if you take one more step towards her, Nino, Canas, Jafar, and I will execute you. There will be no fight,” Niime calmly explained, “We will put you down like a dog. And I don’t know if you are a spiritual man, but if there is any afterlife, I will see to it that the tattered remains of your soul are in no shape to reach it.” “Pfeh,” Karel said, “Very well. I’ll answer your questions.”

“So why do you only smile when fighting a worthy opponent?” Niime asked. “I am the sword demon,” Karel said, “I live only that my blade may spill blood. It is only in combat that I feel alive.” “What must happen to a man to convince him he is a demon?” Niime asked. “I am no more a man than the sword I hold,” Karel said. “Then what are you?” Niime asked, “Because you are no demon. A demon feels only hate, if anything at all. Demons do not smile, even when they kill.” “You speak as if you know of demons,” Karel said. “I know precious little of them,” Niime said, “But certainly more than you.” “Whatever,” Karel said, “Are you satisfied with my answer?” “With that one, I suppose,” Niime said, “But why did you only smile after I attacked? Did you not think me a worthy opponent before?” “I was not yet sure,” Karel said. “And a mere Flux was enough to convince you? I hope you realize that was only the faintest taste of my power.” “It is not your magical power that makes you a worthy opponent,” Karel said. “Oh? Well, I was about to fight, but I must say that I am now intrigued. Explain yourself.” Niime said. “Any above-average mage is more powerful than the most powerful swordsman,” Karel said, “For what is a man with a sword next to the raw destructive power of the elements themselves?” “Not to mention elder magic, which is far more destructive and powerful than anima magic,” Niime chimed in. “Yet I find so few mages to be worthy opponents, for the same reason that a sword will always best an axe; combat is about more than just power. One must be quick and cunning enough to gain the upper hand over their opponent. And you have displayed a cunning that I have seen in very few mages, despite all their supposed wisdom. Which is why my blade hungers for your blood more ravenously than it has in years. Any further questions before I am allowed to sate it?” “No, I’m finished. I thank you for your compliment, and hope that you have learned from me as I have learned from you.” “Pfah.”

Karel dashed towards Niime and swung his blade with blistering speed. He was surprised that she didn’t seem to make any effort to avoid his attack, and even more surprised that his sword passed through her body with no resistance. He heard a chant behind him, and turned around to see that Niime with her hands surrounded by a dark aura, preparing to hit him with a magical blast. He ducked to avoid her attack, but it never came; instead, the energy around her hands coalesced into a manacle that bound his left foot to the ground. He slashed at her again, but once more struck only the air; the illusion he attacked dissipated into a shadowy mist. Niime had teleported to a safe distance, and summoned a small ball of dark energy energy, about the size of a fist. With a horizontal wave of her hand, it split into a row of 8 orbs, each the same size of the original. With a vertical wave, they multiplied into a square of 64 orbs. She pushed her hands forward, causing the orbs the top row of orbs to fly towards Karel, then the second row, and so on, the time between attacks decreasing with each one. Even with his foot held firmly in place, Karel managed to dodge or deflect all of the orbs sent his way, causing them to bounce around the walls of the cave, eventually fusing into a large sphere above his head that grew with each dodged attack. When the second last row was depleted, Niime pushed her hands out to her sides, sending the entire final row at once, and dropping the large sphere. Karel ducked under the smaller spheres, but didn’t see the second attack until it was too late; it exploded, shattering his restraint and knocking him to the ground.

Karel laughed. “What’s so funny?” Niime asked. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s managed to hurt me,” Karel said, “You have my sincerest thanks for this excellent battle.” “Well, as the winner, the pleasure was all mine.” Niime said. “This battle is far from over!” Karel stood up and closed the distance between them in the blink of an eye, hoping to strike her down before she could react. His blade sunk into her flesh, causing everyone to gasp in horror. But something felt wrong. He turned around to see Niime far behind him, preparing to cast a spell. “I guess that trick won’t work on you anymore,” Niime said. Karel dashed towards her and struck her down before she could finish her spell. But he knew she was too clever to just lose like that. He turned around to see where she’d teleported. He turned around to see her gathering a massive amount of energy, enough to easily kill him if she landed an attack with it. But he didn’t intend to give her the chance. Before she could finish her spell, he closed the distance and sunk his blade into her flesh, immediately turning around to see where she’d teleported next. He turned around just in time to see her shoot a huge orb of dark energy at him. As he prepared his stance to dodge the attack and strike yet again, he noticed the blood on his sword, far too late. He turned around, but before he could finish off the real Niime, a lance of dark energy pierced his stomach, stabbing clear through his torso and out his back. The huge attack that Niime had been charging passed through him harmlessly, a mere illusion. He fell to his knees, defeated.

Niime began cackling, but the pain in her side cut her off. “Right. This,” she said, wincing in pain at the wound from Karel’s sword, “Canas, if you’d be so kind…” “Right, of course,” Canas said, grabbing a Mend staff and healing his mother with it. “What are you waiting for?” Karel asked,  his breath coming in pained gasps, “If you intend to kill me, be done with it.” “I don’t want to kill you,” Niime said. “Then what will you do with me?” Karel asked. “Well, I want to teach you a lesson,” Niime said, “But I can’t teach you unless you’re willing to learn.” “And what would you have me learn?” Karel asked. “That you are no demon,” Niime said. “Again with this nonsense?” Karel asked. “I have no problem letting you live,” Niime said, “I just need you to say that you want to.” “Pfeh. I don’t care either way. I want nothing but the blood of the strong.” “You can’t fight if you’re dead,” Niime said, “Is it not worth staying alive, even if it’s just for that?” “To live by the sword is to die by the sword,” Karel said, “I made my peace with that long ago.” “Why?” Niime asked, “Why are you so committed to denying your own humanity that you would die before admitting to it? I don’t understand.” “Ha,” Karel laughed, weakly, “I guess some mysteries are beyond even the grasp of the legendary Hermit on the Mountain.” “Oh, please,” Niime scoffed in annoyance, “I’m just trying to provoke you into doing some self-reflection. You’re not some mysterious enigma. You’re just afraid.” “I do not fear death,” Karel said. “I think you do,” Niime said, “But what you fear even more is your own humanity.” “If you’re going to kill me anyway, I’d prefer you do it soon and spare me your speaking in riddles,” Karel said. “No, you will listen to me,” Niime said, “You want so desperately to believe that you’re a demon, because a demon cannot be blamed for the people it kills, any more than a fox can be blamed for eating chickens. It is simply in their nature. A human who acts as a demon does is broken, but what is broken can be fixed. And that terrifies you. Because if you could be fixed, then you had a choice. You are truly guilty for the sins you have committed. So it’s easier for you to lie to yourself.” “That… that’s not true,” Karel said, shaken. “Seriously?” Niime asked, incredulously, “Since you’re being so stubborn, I won’t let you live unless you also admit that you’re scared.” “I’m not,” Karel said, “I feel nothing.” “Really?” Niime asked, “Never? You mean to tell me that you’ve never once in your life felt anything that wasn’t the thrill of combat? You’ve never enjoyed food, or drink, or the company of a friend, or family? Or a lover?” “Never.” Karel said, defiantly. “Well, I tried my best,” Niime said, “Have fun bleeding out.”

“Karla!” Nino interrupted just before Niime finished him off. “What about Karla?” “N-never,” Karel said, much less confident, “She was nothing more than another strong opponent to me.” “That’s not true!” Nino said, “I remember now. I wasn’t like eavesdropping or anything, but I happened to be nearby when I heard her talking about how you used to play together when you were kids!” “You misremember,” Karel said, coldly, “And even if there were ever any humanity inside me, it died long ago.” “It’s not too late to change!” Nino cried, “It’s never too late. I was told my whole life that I was stupid and useless. That nothing I ever did was good enough, and that I was just a burden who got in everyone’s way. And I believed it. I thought I’d be stupid and useless forever. But then I had friends who believed in me. Friends who gave me a chance to change. And thanks to them, I know that I’m not stupid or useless! So I believe in you. I want to give you a chance to change!” “Your words won’t change me,” Karel said, “They can’t wipe away the sins I’ve committed.” “Nothing can,” Jaffar said, “They will haunt you to the grave and beyond. You can either die a coward, or live to repent and atone.” “Do you really think it’s that easy to repent?” Karel hissed. “I know it isn’t,” Jaffar said, “I’ve been where you are. I know how hard it is. But all it takes is one person believing that you aren’t a monster. You know who that person is. Go to her and tell her the truth.” “I… you’re right.” Karel said. “I trained for so long to inherit this sword, that I forgot everything that wasn’t the blade. I… I just…” “Well, you seem to have learned your lesson, so I’ll just go ahead and-” the lance vanished, causing Karel to cry out in pain. Niime quickly healed him with the Mend staff.

“I… thank you,” Karel said, “It seems that you really did have much to teach me. I thought the path I traveled was the path of the sword, but I now see that I am mistaken. I will find a new path, even if I must cut it with my own blade. I hope that our paths cross again someday.” “That’s lovely,” Niime said, “Good luck with that.” With a small bow of his head, Karel departed. Several minutes later, they all heard clanking armor echoing from deeper in the cave. Niime sighed. “Is that-” “I thought I heard arguing! Is everyone OK?” Wallace asked, loudly, “I may have gotten a little lost on the way here, but I came as fast as I could!” Nino laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”

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The Sword Demon

“Hey there!” Nino shouted to the stranger from atop her Pegasus, “This mountain’s pretty- wait! Stop! I didn’t tell you to-” her voice trailed off as her Pegasus flew off, despite her commands. The man she was addressing continued climbing the mountain as if nothing happened.  A few seconds later, the Pegasus flew back around. “OK, now stop! I SAID STOP!! Sorry, my peg-” was all she managed to say before her Pegasus took her out of earshot once more. “-not usually like this it’s just-” This repeated several more times. “-the thing about this mountain-” “-a super scary drag-” “-sten to someone who’s trying to  save your-”

After managing to slow her Pegasus down to a brisk trot, she decided to jump off its back rather than wait for it to follow her commands. She sprained her ankle, although if it weren’t for the thick mountain snow and a well-timed wind spell, she would have suffered much worse. “I’m OK,” she shouted, “I mean, mostly. Any chance you have a healing staff?” He answered her with silence. “It’s OK, I have a vulnerary, just give me a sec!” She drank a sip of vulnerary and chased after the man on her newly healed feet.

 

“Hey there!” she repeated when she caught up to him, “This mountain’s really dangerous! You might want to think about turning back!” He continued ignoring her. “Hey, can you hear me? There’s nothing on top of this mountain but trouble! There’s also, like, dangerous avalanches! Why won’t you listen me?” She stood directly in his way to bar his passage. He walked around her, the closest he’d come to acknowledging her existence. “Hey, wait a second, I know you!” she said, taking a good look at his face, “You’re Karel!”

 

“How do you know that name?” He snarled, reaching for the hilt of his sword and looking at her for the first time. “We fought together!” she said, lowering her hood to reveal her face. “It’s me, Nino! We fought with Hector and Eliwood! Remember? We fought a dragon together!” He took his hand off his sword and continued walking. “I remember Hector and Eliwood. A Sacaean woman. Lyn? My sister…” His pace faltered, for just a step. “But I remember no others.” “That’s OK! I don’t think we talked much, so I don’t remember you too well. I remember thinking you were kind of scary, but that’s probably just cuz I was a kid!” “You remember well, then,” he said. “Hah! That’s a funny joke!” Nino said, “Anyways, what brings you around here? It’s pretty dangerous, so you should probably turn back. I can call Peggy back and give you a ride, if you want. Peggy is my Pegasus. Get it? Pretty neat, huh?” “I can take care of myself.” Karel said. “Why are you climbing this mountain anyway? There’s nothing up there! So why don’t you just go back to town and enjoy some hot chocolate?” Nino asked. “It is none of your business,” Karel said. “You don’t gotta be so mean, y’know,” Nino said, “I’m just concerned for your safety, is all.” “You should be more concerned for the safety of whoever you’re trying to protect by lying to me,” Karel said. “Huh? Why? Do you want to hurt granny Niime?” Nino asked, “er, wait-” “So someone does live on this mountain,” Karel said. “OK, fine, yes! Niime lives up there! But I won’t let you hurt her! If you want to kill her, you’ll have to get through me!” She stood in his way with her arms spread wide.

 

“Tsk.” He stopped and pulled his sword just slightly from its scabbard, “It seems you don’t remember me so well after all. If you did, you wouldn’t be foolish enough to stand in my way.” “Y-you’d really kill me?” Nino asked. “I don’t want to, but I won’t hesitate to strike you down if you stand in my way.” “I… fine!” she said, stepping aside, “But I’m not getting out of the way because I’m scared of you! I just know Niime’s strong enough for a loser like you!” “We’ll see.” He said. “Uh, excuse me,” she said, “I just remembered that I have some, uh, important business at the top of the mountain. PEGGY!!” “I take it the avalanches were just a bluff, then?” Karel asked. “Huh? No, those are very real! In fact, one almost wiped out a whole village but me and Canas and his wife managed to-” “Enough.” Karel interrupted, “If there are avalanches, then I’ll not have you endanger me with your shouting. Raise your voice again and I will not hesitate to cut you down.” “Jeez, OK, I’m sorry,” Nino whispered, “Here, let me just…” She pulled out a tome and cast a fireball into the air. Her Pegasus saw the signal and soon landed gracefully beside her. “Quick, Peggy!” Nino whispered to her Pegasus as she mounted it, “We have to get home!” The Pegasus took off, kicking up a gust of cold air and snow that Karel endured without so much as a shiver.

 

“What the devil was that noise?” Canas asked, investigating the muffled thump he had heard outside the cave. “Nino? I do wish you’d stop dismounting your Pegasus before it lands. One of these days-” “No time for that!” Nino interjected, picking herself up from the snow bank she had crashed into, “We kind of have a situation on our hands!” “A good situation?” he asked, hopefully, though he knew his hope was in vain. “Uuuhhhhhhhh would you consider a scary swordmaster coming to kill your mom a good situation?” “Uh, not at all,” Canas said, “Is that what’s happening?” “Yeah,” Nino said, “Remember Karel?” “Karel?!” A shiver went down Canas’s spine. “From what I recall, he was on a quest to find strong people to kill. Does he think my mom is that strong?” ” Do you think I’m not?” Niime asked. “I-I didn’t say that,” Canas said, “It’s just…” “Don’t worry, I won’t kill your little friend. Probably,” Niime said. “That’s not what I was worried about!” Nino said. “All I’m worried about is you two catching a cold from standing out in the snow like a couple of fools!” Niime scolded. “But I was just-” Canas protested. “I didn’t ask for your excuses, I asked you to come back inside. Don’t make me come out there and drag you back in myself!” “You actually didn’t ask anything of us, but whatever,” Canas muttered under his breath, obediently doing as he was told despite his defiant words. “What was that?” Niime demanded, “Speak up so I can hear you!” “It was noth-” “He said you didn’t actually ask anything of us, but whatever!” Nino said loudly as she rushed back inside. Canas winced in fear. He began, “Nino, you weren’t supposed to repeat-“ “And you weren’t supposed to say it!” Niime said, “You should be thanking Nino! The only reason I’m not giving you the punishment you deserve is because I don’t want to scare her!” “Uh-oh, sounds like someone’s in trou-ble~” Nino said in a taunting, sing-song voice. “And he’s not the only one!” Niime yelled, turning to Nino, “Did you jump in the snow again?” “Huh? M-me?” Nino asked, suddenly panicking, “I-I-I… yeah…” “Why? Did you forget all the times I’ve scolded you?” Niime asked. “N-no,” Nino said. “Did you think I’d be too stupid to notice that you’re covered in snow?” Niime asked. “N-no,” Nino said, starting to cry. “Then why?” “I-I was in a hurry!” Nino sobbed. “In a hurry to do what?” Niime asked, “Break your neck? Freeze to death?” “I was in a hurry to save you!” Nino sobbed. “I was just trying to help, because I’m too stupid to remember that I’m a useless idiot who only ever gets in the way!”

Niime hugged Nino. “You’re not stupid, and you’re not useless,” Niime said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, and I’m sorry I made you feel that way. You are a very bright and helpful young woman. I know you’re worried for my safety, but I’m just as worried for yours. And you are too young to risk your life for someone as old as me.” “I’m sorry,” Nino said, desperately, “I promise, I won’t do it again. I’ll be a good girl, I’ll do whatever you want, so please, please don’t hate me.” “I just want you to be safe and happy,” Niime said, “But even if you aren’t, I’ll still love you. So if you’re ever hurt, or sad, just let Granny Niime take care of you.” “Thanks,” Nino said, “I love you, too.”

“I’m reticent to interrupt this touching moment,” Canas chimed in after several seconds of silence, “But I’m afraid the threat that Karel poses can be ignored no longer.” “Really? I’m ignoring it just fine,” Niime said. “This is no time for japes, mother!” Canas insisted, “A mad swordmaster is out for your blood! I never saw much of his swordplay firsthand, but I saw enough to know that he is no joke.” “And you think I am?” Niime asked. “I think he’s dangerous enough to warrant being taken seriously!” Canas said, “Swordsmen across the continent know him as the fabled “Sword Demon”, and from what I’ve seen, the moniker is well-deserved! If even half the legends about him are true-” “All the legends about me are true,” Niime said, “Even the ones that the world has forgotten.” “Look, mom, I know that you used to be the Mage General of Etruria, but-” “I was the Great General!” Niime reprimanded, “The first and only mage to ever hold the position! But more importantly, I am your mother, and if you continue to defy me I will blow that stupid monocle of yours clear off the mountainside!” “My monocle’s not stupid,” Canas muttered. “Yeah, I think his monocle’s cool!” Nino shouted. Niime glared at her. “S-sorry, you’re right, it’s stupid and I’m-” “It’s OK,” Niime assured, ruffling her hair affectionately, “I still love you, even if you think my son’s stupid monocle is cool.” Nino laughed.

“I…” Canas began. “What’s that?” Niime asked, “Do you have something to say?” “No,” Canas said, “Nevermind.” “No, say it,” Niime said, “I want to hear whatever stupid thought you had on your mind.” “Very well then, mother,” Canas said, “I held my tongue so we could formulate a plan for stopping Karel, but since you refuse to be reasonable, I guess I might as well tell you what’s on my mind while you’re still alive to hear it.” “And just what is on your mind?” Niime asked, “Out with it, then.” Canas paused, deep in thought. “I… am truly grateful for how kind you have been with Nino. I worried that she would be afraid of you, but my worries were entirely unfounded, and I thank you for proving me wrong,” Canas said. “I see…” Niime said, “That’s what you wanted to say to me?” “Not at all,” Canas said, “I wanted to ask you why you’ve never shown any of that kindness to your own son!” “You would really begrudge this girl my affection? After all she’s suffered, she deserves all the kindness I can give her. Unless you think she is truly unworthy of being loved?” Niime said. “Don’t you dare put those words in my mouth!” Canas spat, “I love Nino because she’s kind, and cheerful, and brave, and wonderful in more ways than I can enumerate. You insult her by letting her pain define her. But if that’s what it takes to earn your affection, I’m curious to know how much further I have to go. How much more must I suffer for you to love me, mother?”

“I’m sorry!” Nino cried, “I didn’t mean to steal your mom! I’m so sorry!” “Now look what you’ve done,” Niime said, angrily, “You’ve upset the poor girl!” “I’m not angry with you, Nino,” Canas said, “None of this is your fault. This is between me and my mother.” “What are you trying to say, Canas?” Niime asked, “Do you really think I’m as bad of a mother as Sonia was?” Nino cringed at the name. “No, but comparing yourself to her is hardly a high bar to clear!” Canas said. Niime shouted, “Is this really so important? How little do you think of me?” “As a mage and a scholar, I think the world of you,” Canas said, “But as a mother, you are surpassingly deficient! I’m sure that Hugh-” “Enough!” Niime spat. “You needn’t bring their names into this.” “Needn’t I?” Canas asked, nearly hysterically, “They’re all but dead, mother! By your hand! And I am join them! You are as much my murderer as you are my mother!” Nino began cowering in fear. Jaffar grabbed her hand to escort her out of earshot, but she held fast. She wanted to hear the rest of it.

“My hands may be stained with a sea of blood, but not a drop of it is yours!” Niime said. “Maybe not yet, but it is inevitable! You said it yourself!” Canas said, “If I keep studying deep magic, I’ll end up like them! Just a thing that used to be a person.” “Is that what you think I am?” Niime asked, “Just a thing?” “W-well, no,” Canas said. “Not everyone who studies deep magic is Taken! I didn’t raise my son to be too stupid to realize that if I could learn dark magic and keep my soul intact, then perhaps he could too!” “I… I mean… I guess that makes sense,” Canas said, “But I might just as easily end up like them!” “You won’t.” Niime said, firmly. “What makes you so sure?” Canas asked. “What makes you think you have any place questioning me when it comes to deep magic, hm?” Niime demanded. “But if I won’t, why did you say I would?” Canas asked. “Because I thought you would,” Niime said, “But you changed. The boy I sent off to the Dread Isle is different from the man who returned. That boy never could have stopped that avalanche. But you did.” “What are you trying to say?” Canas asked. “I’m proud of you, Canas. You’ve always been a brilliant scholar, but on your journey,  you gained the strength of will to become a true shaman. Your mastery of deep magic surpasses that of any other druid I have ever met, and I truly believe that you have the potential to surpass me some day. That is why I am unafraid to die at the hands of this Karel. Because I know that my secrets are safe in the hands of a worthy successor. I love you, Canas.” “I…” Canas removed his monocle to wipe the tears from his eyes. “That… that means a lot to me, mother,” Canas said, “But it’s not enough. I shouldn’t have to earn my mother’s love. I am more than just a shaman, and I am more than just your successor! I am your own flesh and blood, and if you cannot love me for that alone, then you are no mother of mine.” “Then you may call me Niime from now on.” Niime said. “Are you serious?” Canas asked, “Is your heart so cold that you would spurn me if I weren’t a shaman?” “If you weren’t a shaman, you’d be nothing.” Niime said, “Just like your brothers before you. I loved them so much, but that didn’t save them. It only damned me further for my failure. So I tried to close my heart to you. To train you so that you wouldn’t die as they had. And so that if you did, maybe I wouldn’t have to suffer that pain again. I have brought my own family such pain, all for the hubris of thinking my secrets worth preserving at any cost. I do not deserve to be called your mother.”

“I… I don’t forgive you.” Canas said. Nino gasped in shock. “You don’t deserve it. Your sins are too great. Someone as smart as you should have known better than to underestimate the darkness.” He sighed. “But I still love you. Because, as harsh as you were, you truly wanted me to live. And although I’ve suffered much because of you, you’ve suffered even more. You deserve that kindness.” Niime burst into tears she’d been holding back for too long. She ran up to Canas and hugged him. They just cried into each other’s arms without saying a word.


(To read the next part, click here)

The White Fang

“Hey there!” Nino shouted to the stranger from atop her Pegasus, “This mountain’s pretty- wait! Stop! I didn’t tell you to-” her voice trailed off as her Pegasus flew off against her wishes. The man she was addressing continued climbing the mountain as if nothing happened.  A few seconds later, the Pegasus flew back around. “OK, now stop! I SAID STOP!! Sorry, my peg-” was all she managed to say before her Pegasus took her out of earshot once more. “-not usually like this it’s just-” This repeated several more times. “-the thing about this mountain-” “-sten to someone who’s trying to  save your-” After managing to slow her Pegasus down to a brisk trot, she decided  jump off its back rather than wait for it to follow her commands. She sprained her ankle, although if it weren’t for the thick mountain snow and a well-timed wind spell, she would have suffered much worse. “I’m OK,” she shouted, “I mean, mostly. Any chance you have a healing staff?” He answered her with silence. “It’s OK, I have a vulnerary, just give me a sec!” She drank a sip of vulnerary and chased after the man on her newly healed feet.

 

“Hey there!” she repeated when she caught up to him, “This mountain’s really dangerous! You might want to think about turning back!” He continued as if he couldn’t hear him. “Hey, can you hear me? There’s nothing on top of this mountain but trouble! There’s also, like dangerous avalanches! Why won’t you listen me?” She stood directly in his way to bar his passage. He walked around her, the closest he’d come to acknowledging her existence. “Hey, wait a second, I know you!” she said, taking a good look at his face, “You’re Karel!”

 

“How do you know that name?” He snarled, reaching for the hilt of his sword and looking at her for the first time. “We fought together!” she said, lowering her hood to reveal her face. “It’s me, Nino! We fought with Hector and Eliwood! Remember? We fought a dragon together!” He took his hand off his sword and continued walking. “I remember Hector and Eliwood. A Sacaean woman. Lyn? My sister…” His pace faltered, for just a step. “But I remember no others.” “That’s OK! I don’t think we talked much, so I don’t remember you too well. I remember thinking you were kind of scary, but that’s probably just cuz I was a kid!” “You remember well, then,” he said. “Hah! That’s a funny joke!” Nino said, “Anyways, what brings you around here? It’s pretty dangerous, so you should probably turn back. I can call Peggy back and give you a ride, if you want. Peggy is my Pegasus. Get it? Pretty neat, huh?” “I can take care of myself.” Karel says. “Why are you climbing this mountain anyway? There’s nothing up there! So why don’t you just go back to town and enjoy some hot chocolate?” “I’ve come to kill The Hermit on the Mountain rumored to live up here.” “You want to kill Granny Niime!? Er, I mean-” “So she does live up there?” “No! I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve never heard of any mountain hermit!” “You said her name,” Karel said, flatly. “OK, fine! But I won’t let you hurt her! If you want to kill her, you’ll have to get through me!” She stood in his way with her arms spread wide.

 

“Tsk.” He stopped and pulled his sword just slightly from its scabbard, “It seems you don’t remember me so well after all. If you did, you wouldn’t be foolish enough to stand in my way.” “Y-you’d really kill me?” Nino asked. “I don’t want to, but I won’t hesitate to strike you down if you stand in my way.” “I… fine!” she said, stepping aside, “But I’m not getting out of the way because I’m scared of you! I just know Niime’s strong enough for a loser like you!” “We’ll see.” He said. “Uh, excuse me,” she said, “I just remembered that I have some, uh, important business at the top of the mountain. PEGGY!!” “I take it the avalanches were just a bluff, then?” Karel asked. “Huh? No, those are very real! In fact, one almost wiped out a whole village but me and Canas and his wife managed to-” “Enough.” Karel interrupted, “If there are avalanches, then I’ll not have you endanger me with your shouting. Raise your voice again and I will not hesitate to cut you down.” “Jeez, OK, I’m sorry,” Nino whispered, “Here, let me just…” She pulled out a tome and cast a fireball into the air. Her Pegasus quickly heeded her summons and landed gracefully beside her. “Quick, Peggy!” Nino whispered to her Pegasus as she mounted it, “We have to get home!” The Pegasus took off, kicking up a cloud of snow that Karel stoically walked through.


“So. Canas.” Nino said landing in a snow bank after jumping off her Pegasus before it landed, “There’s kind of a situation.” “A good situation?” he asked, hopefully. “Uuuhhhhhhhh would you consider a scary swordmaster coming to kill your mom a good thing?” “Uh, not at all,” Canas said, “Is that what’s happening?” “Yeah,” Nino said, “Remember Karel?” “Karel?!” A shiver went down Canas’s spine. “From what I recall, he was on a quest to find strong people to kill. Does he think my mom is that strong?” ” Do you think I’m not?” Niime asked. “I-I didn’t say that,” Canas said, “It’s just…” “Don’t worry, I won’t kill your little friend. Probably.” “That’s not what I was worried about!” Nino said “What if he kills you? I don’t want to fight him, he’s too strong!” “I don’t want to fight him, either,” Niime said, “But I won’t let anyone fight my battles for me. If this man is really foolish up enough to climb up a whole mountain to see me, I might as well play along.” “Mom, this man is no joke,” Canas said, uneasily. “And neither am I,” Niime said, “You would do well to remember just who it is you speak to, boy.” “Look, mom, I know that you used to be the Mage General of Etruria, but-” “I was the Great General!” Niime reprimanded, “The first and only mage to ever hold the position! But more importantly, I am your mother, and if you continue to defy me I will blow that stupid monocle of yours clear off the mountainside!” “I… Yes, mother,” Canas said, saidly. “My monocle’s not stupid,” he muttered. “Yeah, I think his monocle’s cool!” Nino said. Niime shot her a dirty look. “Ah, I’m sorry, you’re right, it is stupid! And I’m stupid for saying it’s cool I’m so sorry!” Nino rambled in a panic. Niime’s expression softened. “It’s OK, sweetie, I’m not angry with you.” She ruffled Nino’s hair affectionately. “I will never hurt you. I love you.” “Y-yeah, I know,” Nino said, “Sorry.” “It’s OK.” Niime said. “I…” Canas began. “What’s that?” Niime asked, “Do you have something to say?” “Yeah. Yeah, I do, mom,” Canas said, “You know I’m really grateful for how you’ve helped me look after Nino. You’ve been unfailingly kind to her, and that means more than I can put into words. But… is it really too much to ask that you show your own son the same kindness every once in a while?” Niime scowled. “After the suffering this girl has been through, she deserves every possible kindness,” she said, “Would you really accuse me of being such a terrible mother that you would compare your suffering to hers?” “You do Nino a disservice by letter her suffering define her,” Canas said, “She deserves kindness because she is a kind, sweet, and cheerful girl. And I would never say anything to diminish the hardship she’s endured, but comparing yourself to Sonia is hardly a high bar to clear.” Nino cringed at the name. “Now look what you’ve done, you’ve upset the poor girl!” Niime shouted, “Is this really so important? How little do you think of me?” “As a mage and a scholar, I think the world of you,” Canas said, “But as a mother, you are surpassingly deficient! I’m sure that Hugh-” “Enough!” Niime spat. “You needn’t bring their names into this.” “Needn’t I?” Canas asked, nearly hysterically, “They’re all but dead, mother! By your hand! And I am join them! You are as much my murderer as you are my mother!” Nino began cowering in fear, and Jaffar grabbed her hand to escort her out of earshot, but she held fast. She wanted to hear the rest of it.

“My hands may be stained with a sea of blood, but not a drop of it is yours!” Niime said. “Maybe not yet, but it is inevitable! You said it yourself!” Canas said, “If I keep studying deep magic, I’ll end up like them! Just a thing that used to be a person.” “Is that what you think I am?” Niime asked, “Just a thing?” “W-well, no,” Canas said. “Not everyone who studies deep magic is Taken! I didn’t raise my son to be too stupid to realize that if I could learn dark magic and keep my soul intact, then perhaps he could too!” “I… I mean… I guess that makes sense,” Canas said, “But I might just as easily end up like them!” “You won’t.” Niime said, firmly. “What makes you so sure?” Canas asked. “What makes you think you have any place questioning me when it comes to deep magic, hm?” Niime demanded. “But if I won’t, why did you say I would?” Canas asked. “Because I thought you would,” Niime said, “But you changed. The boy I sent off to the Dread Isle is different from the man who returned. That boy never could have stopped that avalanche. But you did.” “What are you trying to say?” Canas asked. “I’m proud of you, Canas. You’ve always been a brilliant scholar, but on your journey,  you gained the strength of will to become a true shaman. Your mastery of deep magic surpasses that of any other druid I have ever met, and I truly believe that you have the potential to surpass me some day. That is why I am unafraid to die at the hands of this Karel. Because I know that my secrets are safe in the hands of a worthy successor. I love you, Canas.” “I…” Canas removed his monocle to wipe the tears from his eyes. “That… that means a lot to me, mother,” Canas said, “But it’s not enough. I shouldn’t have to earn my mother’s love. I am more than just a shaman, and I am more than just your successor! I am your own flesh and blood, and if you cannot love me for that alone, then you are no mother of mine.” “Then you may call me Niime from now on.” Niime said. “Are you serious?” Canas asked, “Is your heart so cold that you would spurn me if I weren’t a shaman?” “If you weren’t a shaman, you’d be nothing.” Niime said, “Just like your brothers before you. I loved them so much, but that didn’t save them. It only damned me further for my failure. So I tried to close my heart to you. To train you so that you wouldn’t die as they had. And so that if you did, maybe I wouldn’t have to suffer that pain again. I have brought my own family such pain, all for the hubris of thinking my secrets worth preserving at any cost. I do not deserve to be called your mother.”

“I… I don’t forgive you.” Canas said. Nino gasped In shock. “You don’t deserve it. Your sins are too great. Someone as smart as you should have known better than to underestimate the darkness.” He sighed. “But I still love you. Because, as harsh as you were, you truly wanted me to live. And although I’ve suffered much because of you, you’ve suffered even more. You deserve that kindness.” Niime burst into tears she’d been holding back for too long. She ran up to Canas and hugged him. They just cried into each other’s arms without saying a word.

“Uh, guys,” Nino said, “not to interrupt this tender moment, but… Karel’s almost here!” “Karel!” Canas exclaimed, “I completely forgot!”

The Dualists: Chapter 5

(Chapter 4 of The Dualists can be found here)

 

 

“I should just say something,” Ivy thought, as she ate lunch with Coco in silence. “It’s not like she’ll think I’m a weirdo or anything. She’ll probably be thrilled to hear about something so spooky. I just need to say something.” But she didn’t. While the two were usually quite talkative, something was different today. Each wanted to say something, but couldn’t quite force themselves to, and was too wrapped up in their own thoughts to notice how unusual the other was acting. “I just need to say something,” Ivy thought once more. She took a deep breath. “Hey… remember when you said to tell you if something strange happened last night?” Coco asked, right as Ivy opened her mouth to speak. “Huh? Oh, yeah,” Ivy said, “I was actually going to say something about that too.” “Really?” Coco said, “Do you think they might be related?” “Oh, mine’s probably just nothing,” Ivy said, knowing full well that it wasn’t just nothing, “You go first.” “You sure?” Coco asked, “You look like something’s bothering you.” “Please, I insist,” Ivy said. “Very well,” Coco said, “Last night, I-”

 
“Do you mind if we sit here?” Regina asked, gesturing to two seats at the table, one of which Clover was already setting her tray at. “Well, well,” Coco said, “If it isn’t the drama queens of Noether High. To what do we owe the honor?” “What the Hell’s that supposed to mean?” Clover asked, indignantly. “I’m just saying, I was told that assembly was for an election,” Coco said, “Not focus testing a Lifetime original movie.” “It sounds like you’re the one who’s starting drama, here.” Clover growled. “Ah, c’mon, I’m just messing with you,” Coco said, “But, for real, election season’s over. Why are you so interested in hanging out with a couple of bozos like us?” “I just wanted to make sure our new student is feeling welcomed here,” Regina said, “It really is fine if you’d rather we didn’t sit here, though. I won’t be offended.” “But what about the thing we came here to talk about?” Clover asked. “What thing?” Coco asked, suspiciously. “Oh, I was just, uh, wondering if you two knew each other before Ivy moved here,” Regina said. Clover rolled her eyes. “Yes,” Ivy said, “We were best friends in elementary school.” “And now!” Coco said, “But why’d you think we knew each other before? Do you really think it’s so unbelievable that I could make a friend so quickly?” “I apologize,” Regina said, still standing, “I didn’t mean to offend.” “Because it is!” Coco said, “I mean, I’ve been here for years without making any friends. And the student council president sure as hell never made sure I was feeling welcomed!” “I apologize for not making your acquaintance sooner,” Regina said, “I hope we can be fast friends.” “I doubt it,” Coco said, “I don’t get along with normies. Except Ivy.” “What did you just call her?” Clover demanded with her mouth full. Regina stifled a laugh with a cough. “Then I think we should get along just fine,” Regina said, “A normie’s just someone you don’t know well enough. Everyone’s a weirdo, deep down.” “If you say so,” Coco said, “Speaking of weirdness, what’s with your face? Are you a ghost? If I ask, you have to tell me, that’s the law.” “Gee, I wonder why you haven’t made any friends,” Clover said, sarcastically. “I’m albino, actually,” Regina said, “I mean, I’m also a ghost, obviously, but I was this pale when I was alive, too.” Clover laughed. “Nice.” The mood lightened up a bit. But then Coco asked “So what’s with her face?” while pointing at Clover. “Nothing’s wrong with my face!” Clover said, “What, you’ve never seen a girl with freckles before?” “She’s a lich, actually,” Regina said, nonchalantly, “That’s just part of the undying process.” “Badass,” Coco said, “But where’s her phylactery?” “I’ve got a phylactery for you right here!” Clover said, flipping her off.

 

Ivy and Coco gasped in shock. “Clover, please,” Regina said, “They won’t cooperate if you keep being so rude.” “What?” Clover asked, “I’m just showing them the ring.” She wasn’t lying. On her middle finger was a ring with a red jewel shaped like a three leaf clover. “Does this mean that we all got rings?” Coco asked. She showed a similar ring, with a red, heart-shaped jewel on her ring finger. Ivy and Regina nodded. “But if mine is a heart, and hers is a clover,” Coco said, “What’s yours? Ivy?” “It’s not a clover,” Clover said, “It’s a club. Regina’s is a spade, so Ivy’s would be a diamond, right?” “Yeah,” Ivy said, showing the ring on her pinky to everyone at the table. “Also, why would you think the rings are based on our names if yours is a heart?” Clover asked. “Coco Roe is a pun on ‘kokoro’, the Japanese word for heart, because my dad is a fucking weeb,” Coco said, “Although, if yours is a club, why’s it red? Shouldn’t it be black?” “Don’t ask me,” Clover said, “But Regina’s is black, like you’d expect.” Regina, still standing, set her tray down to show her ring. “Oh, uh, you can sit with us, by the way,” Ivy said, “Sorry for making you stand for so long.” “Thank you,” Regina said, taking a seat. “Awww, you’re no fun,” Coco said, “I wanted to see if she’d stand there for the entire lunch period.” Clover sighed. “Since we all have similar rings,” Regina said, “I take it we all had similar dreams?” “Mmhm,” Ivy said, “I don’t remember too much, but Clover and two other girls I didn’t really recognize were there. I’m guessing that was you?” “Probably,” Coco said, “I’m pretty sure they were in my dream. I suspected something spooky was afoot, and figured that may have been the real reason they wanted to talk.” “So you’ve just been messing with us this whole time?” Clover asked, angrily. “Mostly just you, to be honest,” Coco said, “Did it really take you that long to notice?” “You know what I mean,” Clover snapped.

 

“Anyway,” Coco said, “I think that, in the dream, the rings gave us some kind of powers that we used to kick ass. Does that sound about right to everyone else?” Everyone else nodded. “I know it was my idea to meet here,” Regina said, “But perhaps we should continue this conversation elsewhere. If someone overheard us here, they might think we’re lunatics.” “People thinking you’re a lunatic’s not so bad,” Coco said, “It’s really quite freeing, not having to care what other people think.” “Not all of us can afford to be as unpopular as you,” Clover said. “It’s a damn shame you let everyone else control your life,” Coco said, “I think you could be pretty cool, if you just lived on your own terms.” “I don’t let everyone else control my life,” Clover said, defensively, “For instance, I don’t give a damn about what you think.” Coco laughed. “Well played.” “I… don’t think we should be arguing,” Ivy said, “We’ll have to work together to figure out what’s going on, and that’ll be easier if we all get along.” “What are you talking about?” Coco asked, “This is the best I’ve gotten along with anyone in years. We’re just joking around, right?” “Right…” Clover said, unconvincingly. “I agree with Ivy,” Regina said, “We can’t discount the possibility that these rings are dangerous. And if that’s the case, we’d be safest if we all worked together.” “I’m down,” Coco said, “It’s not like I like you, or anything, I’ve just watched enough anime to know that the power of friendship always wins.” “I guess I could try to get along with her,” Clover said. “Then it’s settled,” Regina said, “Let’s meet up in Riemann Park after class.” “Where’s that?” Ivy asked. “Don’t worry, I’ll lead you there,” Coco said, “And I promise, I won’t take you to The Pits of Sacrifice this time,” she added, with an exaggerated wink. “Thank you,” Ivy said, completely sincerely, “Although that was a lovely dagger you gave me last time.” Regina laughed, while Clover just looked confused. They spent the rest of their lunch period eating and making small talk.

Atonement

CONTENT WARNING: Rape

It is an unfortunate fact that sexual assault is all too common in classical mythology. Such incidents are referenced, but not described, in the following excerpt.


I am drowning. I am gasping for air, violently struggling to breathe against a sea of scalding water. I do not remember why or how. I do not have time to care.

 
I am standing. The water must be shallower than I thought. But why did I almost drown in it? I remember a similar experience I had when I was a girl. My mom chastised me for nodding off in the bath, saying I’d drown that way. I guess I’m still disappointing her, even now. And yet… when was the last time I took a bath?

 
I suddenly remember. I slowly bring my hand towards the top of my head. I feel nothing. No playful nips, no affectionate tongues, no smooth scales. Then… was it all a dream? Had all of my suffering been nothing more than a nightmare?

 
When I look down to check my reflection, I find no water. This is no bath. I am standing in a cauldron. It appears to be empty, yet I can feel that my legs are submerged. Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Is my mind? I now remember the bite of his blade in my neck, knowing for just a single moment that I was already dead. Yet here I am. Alive.

 

“Rejoice, child of ill fortune,” a lilting voice says, “for you have been spared the pitiable fate which befell you. See to it that you make the most of this rare opportunity.” “So then… it wasn’t all a dream?” I mutter, more to myself than to the unknown presence. “The destiny you averted was no dream, at least, no dream of your own imagination. Your life as a monster was as real as your life as a human.” “What of my death?” I ask, “Was that not real as well?” “It was,” another voice says, “But I am glad to see that you live once more.” I recognize this voice, but not its kindness. The voice which once spat curses at me now offers me words of sympathy, marred not by tears of rage, but tears of relief. “Athena.” I say her name. “ATHENA! Show yourself, you coward! I’ll destroy you!” “Be warned, daughter of calamity,” the mysterious voice intones, “that you are no phoenix. I have stolen you from Hades’ domain this once, but I shall do so no more. To fight against the Goddess of War as a mere mortal is to issue one’s own death sentence, one which I will not pardon. Am I understood?” “I believe it is you who does not understand,” I say, “for I am no ‘mere’ mortal. I may have the eyes of a mortal, and the hair of a mortal, but the heart of a monster still beats within my breast. It pumps blood through my veins, not so that I may live, but so that others may die. And it will continue beating until these mortal eyes see the lifeless corpse of the one who gave birth to it, and this mortal hair is slick with her blood. And I may not understand who you are or what’s going on, but there’s one thing that I understand perfectly: You can’t stop me.”

 
The voice laughs at my threat. “Is something funny?” I growl. “It has been too long since someone has spoken to me with such outright defiance. Even The King of Olympus wouldn’t dare threaten me in such a manner.” The King of Olympus… did she mean Zeus? Who could he possibly have to fear? “Who… who are you?” “Ah, where are my manners?” The voice asks, “I am Clotho, youngest of The Moirai, she who spins the thread of life. And, while I wish not to commit the sin of hubris, I am quite an adept combatant. Furthermore, my eldest sister, the deadliest being who has ever existed, is rather protective of me. So, while I admire your fighting spirit, I must again caution you against picking fights with The Fates.”

 
I could fight against a foe like Athena. I was never foolish enough to think I could win, but I could struggle, I could rage against her, see the pain on her face, however briefly, as I sunk my nails and teeth into her flesh. But I cannot fight against Fate. They are the authors of this universe, who dictate the lives and deaths of all Gods, men, and creatures within it. They could end my existence by merely willing it. There is no struggling against them. But my reason is telling me all this. I am listening to my anger.

 
“I… I don’t care.” I say. “I’ll destroy you too, if I have to. And I realize now that I do. Because, at the end of the day, this is all your fault, isn’t it? If The Fates truly guide the paths of all gods and men, then you are the epicenter of all the universe’s evil. All blood that is spilled comes to stain your hands! It was you who murdered me! It was you who cursed me! IT WAS YOU WHO-” “Enough,” Athena said, “Your anger is justified, but directing it towards The Moirai is not. I am responsible for your suffering. If you must lash out, lash out at me.” “I must,” I spit, “Yet I cannot, as you continue to hide!” Suddenly, a section of wall disappears, revealing a woman in red, presumably Clotho, and Athena. “It seems the two of you wish to be left alone,” Clotho says, “Athena, see to it that Atropos is untroubled by my report on this matter.” With that, she vanishes, leaving only me and Athena. I glare at her, as if my gaze would still turn her to stone. She doesn’t flinch.

 
“Coward!” I shout, as I step out of the cauldron and make my way over to her. “Even now, you hide behind your Aegis and your spear while I stand before you naked and unarmed. Yet I cannot blame you; you are right to fear me.” “Will harming me bring you solace?” Athena asks. “Only one way to find out,” I say, clenching my fist. “Fair enough,” she says, “I can’t make a fight between a mortal and a goddess fair, but I’ll try to level the playing field as much as possible.” She snaps her fingers, and in a flash of light, I am wearing her armor, and holding her spear. She stands before me unarmed, wearing nothing but a robe. “Well then,” Athena says, “come at me when you are ready.” I throw her spear to the ground. “No,” I say, “You must be killed by the very monster you created.” “You wish for me to curse you once more?” Athena asks, “Your humanity is not something to be given up so lightly. Please-” “You dare say that after taking it from me in the first place?” I ask. “I suppose it is not my place to object,” Athena says, “Very well.”

 

With a snap of her fingers, I am in a different body. One with more teeth, more scales, and fewer legs. I feel a familiar weight on top of my head, an undulating tangle of coils and scales. For a moment, I forget my desire for vengeance, and hesitantly bring my hand towards my scalp. The snakes sniff at it curiously, some flicking their tongues out to lick it. “These aren’t my snakes,” I growl. “Excuse me?” Athena says. “Archimedes would always bite at my right hand. But he didn’t. He isn’t here. These aren’t the same snakes as before.” “I’m sorry, I didn’t think you’d notice. I should have expected no less of my priestess.” “Former priestess,” I retort. I lunge at her and sink my fangs into her neck. At least, I try to, but her flesh does not give. It’s like trying to bite into a rock. I have an epiphany. I let go of her and look directly into her eyes. She meets my gaze. “Why isn’t it working?” I demand, “Why won’t you turn to stone?” “Would merely petrifying me satisfy you?” she asks. “No,” I say, “You’re right. You need to suffer!” I scratch at her with my claws, wildly swinging my arms. She just stands there, looking at me with sad eyes. I claw at her until my nails are chipped and bleeding, but her skin remains unblemished. I punch her, bite her, spit poison in her eyes, use every part of my monstrous body to try to hurt her. But I can’t. I can do nothing. In a last-ditch effort, I wrap my serpentine body around her and constrict as hard as I can, while biting into her neck. My snakes lash out at her as I squeeze and bite, harder and harder. I can feel my teeth start to crack. I keep biting harder. I start to taste blood, and know that it is my own. I keep biting harder. I hear my teeth shatter. I keep biting harder. I feel tears running down my cheek. I stop.
“Why?” I sob as I look into Athena’s eyes, spitting blood and tooth fragments on her robe, “Why am I still so powerless? Why can’t I fight back against a god? If I had been able to back then, none of this would have happened…”

 

She does something I don’t expect. She hugs me. “It wasn’t your fault,” she says softly, “You can hate me all you want, just please… please don’t hate yourself.” “If it wasn’t my fault, why did you punish me?” I shout in anger, impotently clawing at her back with bloody fingertips, “I punished you because I was a fool,” she says, “I saw a violation of my temple as being no different from a violation of my own body. I was angry, and disgusted, and hurt. I thought myself more a victim than you, so I lashed out at you. But I now understand how mistaken I was.” “No, you don’t understand,” I say, pushing myself out of her arms, “Because you can’t. For all your wisdom, you will never understand, because you are strong. You will never feel as powerless as I did, so you will never understand the enormity of your betrayal. And that is why I will never forgive you.”
“But I do,” she says. For the first time, it seems that I have managed to hurt her. There are tears in her eyes. Yet they bring me no joy. “I… I was raped,” she says. I pity her. I hate myself for pitying her. “So? Who cares?” I say. I do, but I can’t admit it. I feel tears forming in my eyes, but I don’t know why. I refuse to wipe them away. I refuse to acknowledge them. “You think I’ll feel sorry for you?” I ask, “Don’t make me laugh. I’m glad. You… you deserved it!”

 
She didn’t. No one does. I am shocked that I said such an awful thing. I guess I truly am a monster. Athena looks at her feet in shame, unable to meet my gaze for the first time. “Perhaps you are right,” she says, “Extraordinary sin can be atoned for only by extraordinary suffering. But you needn’t trouble yourself with my punishment. My own guilt stings far more than any pain you can inflict upon me.” “So you think I should forgive you just because I’m incapable of avenging myself?” I ask. “I know that I don’t deserve forgiveness,” Athena said, “so I won’t ask for it. I merely ask that you no longer trouble yourself with me. Seeking that which you cannot achieve will bring you only pain, and you do not deserve that.” “And what makes you think that’s even possible?” I ask, “I can’t just decide to stop hating you. I’m a monster. Hatred is all I have.” “You’re not a monster, Medusa!” she says, looking directly into my eyes. Her face is so close to mine. “You never were. You’re a kind, sweet girl, tainted by loneliness. Not hatred.” “But you’re the reason I’m lonely!” I shout, pushing her away. “Am I?” she asks, “You were cursed by Aphrodite long before you were cursed by me. Women envied your beauty, and men resented you for wasting it with my vow of virginity. Your beauty attracted shallow mortals, but prevented them from ever truly understanding you.” “And that is the life you wish me to return to?” I ask, “That is the life you think I deserve?” “No… I… I just want you to be happy!” Athena says. “How?” I ask, “How can I find happiness?” “I don’t know!” She sobs, “I am the Goddess of Wisdom, yet I have no answers. Perhaps none exist. I… I… it’s not fair!”

 
She is overcome by anger. In a flash of light, she is fully armed. Her spear glows with white hot rage, brighter and brighter with each furious word. “I am the Champion of the Divine War!” she shouts to the heavens, “Entire pantheons have fallen before my spear and stratagem! I am the savior of all the petty Gods who squabble on their mountain! So why… why can’t I save one mortal? Why am I too weak?” She throws her spear with enough force to kill a god. Instead, it shatters against the wall. She falls to the floor, crying. “I… I think that you are strong,” I offer, meekly. “Then why couldn’t I fight him off?” she demands, “Compared to Set, and Kali, and so many others I have bested, a crippled god like him is nothing. I should have been able to kill him as easily as you could kill an infant. So why didn’t I?” “It’s not your fault,” I say, echoing her comforting words to me, “You can hate him all you want. Just… please don’t hate yourself.” She smiles sadly, “Don’t you see? You are too kind to be a monster.” “I refuse to hurt someone who is already suffering,” I say, “That doesn’t mean I’m not a monster. Just less of a monster than you.” “You’re right. And I’m sorry, Medusa. I’m sorry that I cursed you when you needed my help. I’m sorry that I abandoned you, and had you killed when I was too afraid to face you. And I’m sorry that I brought you back, only to find that I cannot give you the happiness you deserve. I’m sorry that the only salvation I can offer you is death.”

 
“Can I keep this form and resume living as a monster?” I ask. “I… I do not understand,” she says, “I thought you hated me for cursing you with that form.” “I hated you because you turned your back to me when I needed you most,” I say, “But being a monster wasn’t so bad. I didn’t have any friends, but at least I didn’t have to worry that people only liked me for my looks. And I had my snakes to keep me company. I wasn’t a fan of all the attempts on my life, and I didn’t enjoy having to petrify my would-be assassins, but the resulting statues weren’t so bad to look at.” I laugh in spite of myself. “I guess what I’m saying is… I forgive you.” “You truly are too kind,” Athena says, “I do not deserve to call you my priestess.” “I am not kind,” I say, “I just realize that we’re all capable of becoming monsters when we’re hurt. Even Goddesses.” “Then you are wise,” she says, “Still, I had wished to give you a life where you didn’t have to be alone.” “I’ll have my snakes, won’t I?” I say. Athena laughs. “Perhaps it is your Fate to be a crazy snake lady.”

 
“Did someone say Fate?” a mysterious voice asks. “Lachesis? Is that you?” Athena asks. A woman appears in the room. She looks like Clotho, but her outfit is green, and she holds a rod. I assume she’s a Fate. “It is! I mean, I am Lachesis!” She says in a peppy voice, “And also, it is your fate to be a crazy snake lady. But it doesn’t have to be.” “Wait, have you been listening this whole time?” Athena asks indignantly. “What, you thought I’d miss out on all this juicy drama? And besides, without me, Clotho never would’ve let you use that magic pot of hers, so letting me drop hella eaves is the least you could do.” Athena sighs. “I… don’t understand,” I say. “I can change your destiny!” Lachesis says, “Give you friends, fortunes, whatever your heart desires! So, how about it, kid?” “I… I think I’m fine,” I say. “Then you are wrong,” she says, with a chilling smile, “Because you are far from fine. Here, let me show you. Technically I’m not supposed to, but it’ll be fine as long as you don’t snitch.” She traces a path in the air with her rod, and a thin, glowing thread materializes along it. It is tangled and full of knots. “You see this?” she asks, “This is your life. The thread of your fate, as it were. What you may notice about this particular thread is that it is, if you’ll forgive me for using jargon, a clusterfuck. It’s all gnarly, it’s thin, and it’s not very long. That represents your ill-fortune. It’s basically the reason your life sucks so much.” “And you would fix it for me, a lowly mortal?” I ask, “You are too kind.” “Kind?” she says, “As if. Do you think Athena is ‘kind’ for bringing you back to life after killing you in the first place?” “I… do not understand.” I say. “Well,” she says, her smile as unnerving as ever, “How do you think your thread got so tangled in the first place?”