A black-haired man with an unnerving smirk wiped the sweat off his forehead as he put down the giant box in his hands. He grunted, lifted another one, and put it gently on top of the other.
“You done yet, Runir?”
“Almost,” replied the black-haired man as he picked up the last box. His laces were untied and got caught on a hook, bending his legs behind him and falling face first to the ground. Luckily, he’d managed to keep the box in the air. Runir picked himself up, spit out some dirt, and placed the last box gently on top of the pile.
“You alright?” asked a scruffy woman in a white dress.
“Yeah Lily, I’m fine,” said Runir, grinning.
Lily dusted off his shoulders and fixed his collar. “Did you have to do this right before we left?”
“Of course I did, couldn’t have these damn boxes blocking the driveway.”
“But you parked the car outside.”
Lily lifted her eyebrows and gave him an annoyed look. Runir smirked and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Come on, stop being so grumpy. You’ve been looking forward to today all month.”
Lily leaned against him. “I wouldn’t be grumpy if someone would take better care of themselves.”
“Fine, fine, no more chores. Happy?”
“No more chores for now. Don’t think you can pull that one on me again.”
“Hey, if it worked once…”
“Are we going or not?” said a new voice.
“Yeah Zoe, Runir was just taking the boxes off the driveway.”
“But the car’s outside…”
“That’s what I said.”
“Alright, alright, I’ll stop doing the chores,” said Runir, clapping his hands together. “Shall we get going?”
“Oh, almost forgot,” said Lily as she rushed inside. She came back with large jackets. “Heard it snows up there this time of year.”
“Snow on volcanoes?” said Zoe, fixing her hair, and fiddling with her nails.
“It looks magnificent,” said Runir. “Just you wait.”
The wind was chilly, the kind that kept the grass fresh. Lily put the jackets in the trunk. Zoe sat in the back and slung her backpack off her shoulder. She took out a couple of wires, put a bud in one of her ears and crossed her legs. Runir took the passenger’s seat and opened a large map.
“These things are so hard to follow. Why is traveling so complicated?” he asked.
“What did you expect?” said Lily, opening the door, and sitting behind the wheel. She fiddled with the keys. “It’s not like you’ll get where you need to go without knowing where it is.”
“Yeah, yeah,” grumbled Runir. Lily turned the key and the car rumbled to life. She backed onto the road, and drove to the highway. A sign proclaimed that they were leaving Fohil’s city limits.
“Take the third exit on your right,” said Runir, turning the map upside down.
Zoe bobbed her head a little and mouthed the words to the song she was listening to. Outside the window, trees and hills whizzed by. Mountains appeared in the distance, some of them giving off thin wisps of smoke.
“Who else is coming?” asked Runir.
“Most of her sisters, I think. Lunaris’ got an appointment with someone so she sent a gift in the mail instead.”
“An appointment? Lame excuse.”
“Yeah, nobody knows what she’s up to these days.” Lily pressed the horn. “Out of the way!” She swerved past the offending truck, grumbling at the LeAgua company sticker. “Adriana should take up Breize’s offer already.”
“For the flying transports?” asked Runir.
“Yeah, she was going to call them Breizeplanes but it wasn’t catchy enough.”
“So what did Lunaris send her anyway?” asked Runir. “Have to make sure ours matches up.”
“It was a… you know what, I think I’ve forgotten. Zoe,” Lily raised her voice and Zoe looked up, taking a pod out of her ears. “You remember what Lunaris sent Amy?”
“Candle,” said Zoe, popping the pod back in.
“Oh right,” said Lily. “Some sort of decorative candle.”
“Makes sense,” said Runir, leaning out the window. “Fits the tea-set she gave her last year.”
Lily nodded. The car hummed up the gradually sloped roads, heading into the Vandrake mountains. They stopped for a break at a gas station by the road. It wasn’t an impressive establishment, little more than a shack in the woods, to be honest, but they made sure to stop for a while.
“Hey old man, how are you?” asked Runir, stepping out of the car.
A short old man sat on a moth-eaten sofa behind the magic gas pumps. He popped a cheery smile without teeth and put away his newspaper.
“Ya kids ‘er late!” he said.
“Sorry,” said Lily before giving Runir a pointed look. “Somebody had to stack some boxes.”
“Alright, alright, it was my fault,” said Runir. “You coming to the party, old man?”
“Nah, don’t have it in me bones,” said the old elf. “Tell her I said hi, will ya?”
“You got it,” said Runir. Lily finished filling up the car, gave the old elf some Tel and a few cans of his favorite cider, and the three were on the road again.
“Will Vandrake be there?” asked Runir.
“I think he’s in charge of the decorations.”
“Are we there yet?” asked Zoe.
Crumbling ash and sharp stones filled the landscape. The wind blew shards onto the road, and the car jostled as it ran over them. The wheels would be fine but they had to pull down the windows. Zoe bobbed her head and snapped her fingers from time to time. Runir had long since thrown aside the map, and began looking outside the window, eyes sometimes flickering to Lily with a grin. Lily kept her eyes on the road, like a good driver.
“There it is,” said Runir, pointing. The largest mountain in the area lay beyond his finger. Lava cascaded off the top of the mountain but you could just barely make out the shrine built on top of the sea of boiling rock-soup.
“Thanks,” said Lily dryly.
They pulled into the driveway that ran into the sea of lava.
“Zoe, call Amy, please,” said Lily.
Zoe moved her shoulders and mouthed more words to her song.
“Zoe,” said Runir waving his hand.
Zoe snapped her fingers, sleeves falling down, letting the sun shine on her skin.
“Zoe!” shouted Lily.
Zoe blinked her eyes open and gave Lily a quizzical look while popping a pod out of her ear. “What is it?”
“Call Amy please, we don’t want to drive through lava,” said Lily.
“Would totally ruin the paint,” added Runir.
“On it,” said Zoe. She flitted with the device connected to the pods in her ears. It was a cuboid made of prisms, encased in metal. She put some magic into it and it began to shine. A moment later, the shining subsided, replaced with a gentle red glow.
“Hey Amy,” said Zoe. “How are you? I’m great, yeah, yeah, school’s fine. No, they’ve been less annoying than usual. They’re giving me death glares right now though so mind letting us in? Great.” The glow died down. “Happy?” she asked Runir and Lily, before going back to her music.
A giant slab of earth cut through the lava, laying a road with glaring red arrows painted on it.
“She should really try to make this place more inviting,” said Lily, as she revved up the engine.
“Must be the arrows. I told her she should’ve gone with smiley faces,” said Runir.
“That would be weird.”
“Not as weird as a drawbridge over a lava pond.”
They drove up to the gates of the Fire shrine and parked outside with the other vehicles.
“Woah, did Breize drive her entire shrine here?” asked Runir.
“Apparently,” said Lily.
“Who’s that?” asked Zoe, pointing to rickety old bicycle.
“No idea,” said Runir.
Lily pointed. “Is that a…”
“Ferris wheel?” said Runir. “Yes, yes it is.”
“Just wanted to make sure,” said Lily.
“Come on,” said Zoe. “I think it’s already started.” The pods in her ears vanished and she ran through the gates.
Lily and Runir ran behind her. Music drifted out of the gate but it was only once they were inside that the booming bass hit them.
“Whoever introduced Amy to that stuff needs to jump off a cliff,” said Runir.
“Come on, it’s party music,” said Lily. “Love what Vandrake did to the place.”
“Yeah, he really went all out.”
The shrine’s tower was painted hues of red, growing lighter as it reached the sky. Banners streamed down the sides, proclaiming Amy’s birthdate with a cute cartoon caricature of her face. Red balloons blew in the cold wind, reflecting the dimming sunlight. A crowd of people bustled about tables lined with snacks and drinks.
“Oh, I forgot the jackets.”
“It’ll be fine,” said Runir. “We can handle a little breeze.”
“You sure about that?” said a grey haired young woman.
“Breize!” said Lily. “Nice to see you. How’ve you been?”
“You know, inventing tea brewers, fixing up makeup applicators, building weapons of mass destruction, the usual. How about you two?”
“Not much, good profits last month.”
“Oh, where did you work again?”
“Right, right, I remember now. Oh, excuse me,” she pulled out a prism-phone. “Oh, hey Carla. The what? Okay, calm down…” She walked away.
“Always busy, that one,” remarked Runir.
“Her company’s been booming lately. People like the prism-phones more than anyone thought they would,” said Lily.
“Oh look, it’s Applecake.”
“Ha, ha, Candela, laugh it up. You know I bought out your publisher last week, don’t you?”
“So what? You aren’t going to drop me. Your greedy little heart wouldn’t let you.”
Adriana mumbled. “Whatever. Hey Lily!”
“Hi Adriana!” They hugged. “How’s Granny?”
“Too sore to make it all the way here, I’m afraid.”
“She’s always too sore to leave that swamp.”
“She swears it’s the bugs that keep her young.”
“I don’t think I’d wanna stay young if I had to get eaten out by bugs.”
“Adriana! Lily! Nice to see you!” came another voice.
“Tera!” said Lily, giving the woman in brown a hug. “Nice to see you too.”
“Haven’t aged a day sis,” said Adriana.
“You too, squirt,” said Tera, giving Adriana a bump on the shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah, go ahead, pretend like I’m not here,” grumbled Runir.
“Fine, grumpy, gimme a hug,” said Terra.
“It’s fine, please keep ignoring me.”
“Everyone’s together, I see,” said a clear voice that cut through all the noise.
“Solaron,” said Lily, smiling at the white-haired woman. “I love the dress.”
“Thanks, I’ve been keeping it for a special occasion.”
“Doesn’t get more special than this,” said Adriana.
“You know, I’ve always wondered,” said Runir. “Why is Amy the only one who holds a birthday party? You’re all sisters aren’t you, try doing as much for your family as she does.”
“We do hold birthday parties,” said Solaron. “It’s just that we’ve never invited you.”
“Oh,” remarked Runir. Lily chuckled, making his frown deepen.
“Amy!” said Lily, running over to hug her. Zoe was on Amy’s heels chatting with another young woman.
“Lily! I was worried living with Runir would mess you up but I’m glad that isn’t the case,” said the red-haired woman.
“What is it, roast Runir day?” complained Runir.
“It’s always roast Runir day,” quipped Lily. Runir mumbled something under his breath.
“I’m glad you guys made it,” said Amy. “It means a lot to me.”
“Of course, how could we pass this up?” said Lily.
“Although I am beginning to regret coming…” said Runir.
“Oh hush,” said Lily.
“It’s almost time,” said Terra, checking her watch. The sun had dipped a while ago, and the moon wasn’t going to come out tonight. The music stopped. Amy looked around, signaled the lumbering mountain that was Vandrake the dragon, and made her way to the stage directly beneath the tower. A group of balloons got loose and floated away. Amy reached the stage and accepted the hand of the young man onstage who helped pull her up. She grabbed a blue voice enhancer prism and the crowd quieted.
“Welcome everyone to one of the most important days of my life; my birthday!”
The crowd cheered.
“Now, most of you already know that I have no clue who my parents were.” The crowd didn’t respond. Amy’s sisters nodded. Runir and Amy looked at each other, and put a hand on Zoe’s shoulders. Zoe snickered and shrugged their hands off. She grabbed them by the shoulders and brought them in for a big hug – her head above theirs.
“But that’s alright, because I have always had a family in all of you!”
The crowd cheered again. Amy waved her hands to get them to calm down.
“But still, although I don’t remember exactly how I was born.” She shrugged it off and made a weird face. “It would be pretty weird if I did.” A few giggles escaped the crowd. “Which is why I trust my birth certificate. Anyway, thank you all for coming, I’m always glad the lava fields don’t actually keep people away. Hope you’ll have a fantastic night, there are enough rooms for everybody but make sure to clean up after yourselves tomorrow. Now let’s count it down!”
Symbols appeared on the tower, swiveling, and melting into one another to form a giant clock on the stone bricks. The second hand began ticking towards the twelve, echoing loudly across the shrine.
“10!” shouted Amy.
“9,” echoed the crowd.
“8,” said a young man and his sister.
“7,” bellowed Vandrake the dragon.
“6,” roared Terra, her hand around the fidgety Breize.
“5,” spoke Adriana, cutting the call she was getting from her marketing division.
“4,” muttered Solaron, her mind on the sister who was watching from the shadows.
“3,” whispered the sister from the shadows and the henchman by her side.
“2,” shouted Zoe, hands around the couple she’d come to call her parents.
“1,” cheered Lily and Runir, hands clasped together.
“0,” said the girl with a purple cat on her lap, watching the starry skies.
Fireworks shot into the air as the clock struck twelve, signaling the arrival of a new millennium. They lit up the sky, snaking up and bursting with exuberance and energy, energy that pushed the partygoers below into a frenzy. But although they were loud and could outshine the roar of the crowd, and although they were bright and could drown out the light of the stars, they came and went quickly.
They came in bursts, one after the other, ruling the skies for a brief moment before fizzling away. For that one split second, you could see the fury and you could hear the love, all the way from the flying islands of the Air kingdom to the floating marshes of the Water kingdom. So it was no surprise that you could see them from the foothills of the mountains, on a specific foothill, in fact, just outside a village in the North-Western edge of the Light kingdom.
That’s where the girl with a purple cat on her lap lay, watching the festivities occur on a screen outlined by the stars themselves. Where for others the lights of the fireworks were the only sign of the momentous occasion on top of the lava fields in the kingdom next door, for her it was static that obscured an otherwise seamless broadcast.
The cat raised its head and its ears flickered. Clare sat up and looked around. The screen above vanished as the stars dispersed. Not that anyone would’ve noticed, since they couldn’t see what she saw in the night skies.
“You’re here,” she said, addressing a tree a few feet from where I stood.
I walked up to the hill and sat down beside her. She kept facing the tree.
“I can’t see you in the sky anymore. You’re hiding from the stars. They won’t even show me where you were before, places I remember seeing you at. They won’t even show me what you look like.”
Waon jumped off her lap and stepped over to me. It reached my leg and tried to rub its head against it but went straight through the empty air.
“It’s almost like you aren’t even really here.”
I reached over and put a hand on the purple hellkitty. It purred although its fur never changed and my hands didn’t press its ears.
“This is your answer?” asked Clare, facing a few inches above my head. “You spend all these years, all those crazy repeating loops, those nonsensical journeys, and irrational patterns, just to make a world where you don’t exist? If this is all you wanted to do, you didn’t need to play games with us for so long. You didn’t need to play games with me for so long. Just fess up and say it, you’re too much of a wimp to admit you have no solution and can’t come up with a world that works for everyone, so you ran away from the question altogether.”
I waved a hand and the stars began to coalesce.
“How long do you think this world will last, huh?” asked Clare, unaware of what was happening above. “I admit its lasted longer than any other loop so far, but it’s nearing its end, isn’t it? You gave them longer lifespans, but they still have to die eventually. You gave them something to do, dreams to chase, problems to conquer, but they won’t last forever either. This world is just like the others. It will collapse and then you’ll make us all start over again, forever ad infinitum.”
The stars stopped moving.
“And no matter what happens, no matter what kind of world you make next, there will always only ever be one constant. Only one thing that stays the same no matter what.” She found my eyes this time, even if she didn’t know it, and glared straight into them. “You’ll avoid me, run away whenever I get close, never pick up my calls. You’ll never say a word worth anything and get chased off by a dragon or a clone or a demon or a talking sunflower. But no, I’m not having it. I give up. You can do whatever you want to do, make the world a torture dungeon for all I care, I will not get off this hill, ever.”
She fell back onto the ground, grabbing Waon and putting it on her lap. She stared at the sky angrily and slowly realized there was something written in the stars.
“Hi,” she read.
The stars moved around again.
“Sorry, I couldn’t,” it read. They reformed.
“Bring myself to”
“I was scared”
“After you died”
“My powers were”
“I could do”
“I didn’t know”
“Only what I”
“And would do”
“I tried not”
“To observe you”
“Because if I did”
“I would know”
“Had to do”
“But I did”
“The best loop”
“The least worst”
“The one that”
“Escape a bit”
“Of the guilt”
“In my heart.”
Lily turned back to me. “So you are running away!”
“Yes,” I said through the stars.
She shook her head and looked at me derisively. “I can’t believe it. All those experiments, toying around with people’s lives, playing with them like toys or lab rats, and in the end, the best you can do is run away.”
“Yes,” said the stars.
“Exactly,” said the skies.
“I messed up”
“Problems in my”
“And wrapped you all”
“In a terrible”
“If I hadn’t run”
“Perhaps I could”
“Fine then,” said Clare. “Do whatever you want to. Run this least terrible loop forever, I don’t care. Nothing matters anyways.” She sat down, back to me, stroking Waon’s head.
“Actually,” said the stars again. She saw them change in the corner of her eyes and looked over.
She stopped stroking Waon and brought her gaze at mine again. “It’s me, isn’t it.”
“Do I get a say in it?” she asked.
“But you already know my decision”
She breathed quietly for a while. The night dragged on, the party at the shrine was over, and everyone was asleep, greeting the new millennium with snores and dreams.
“Alright, but on one condition.”
“Sure,” said the skies.
“Talk to me.”
“I already am”
“No,” she said, sitting up. “For real. Talk to me, for real.”
The stars dispersed, forming the amorous night sky and ill-defined constellations that the people of Erath had grown accustomed to.
“Fine,” I said, letting her hear my voice. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Tell me a story.”
“The one about the stars?”
“I’m sick of stars, tell me another one.”
“Okay,” I said, putting a hand under her head and letting her feel it. “The sun blazed, sending relentless waves of heat and light onto the thousands of people lined up below. The faint sound of crashing waves carried over the hot air, filling the ears of everyone present with a distant yet powerful roar…”
We sat under the sky as I told her a shortened version of the story she had lived through. It wasn’t as long and boring as she remembered, which was a good thing. Stories were meant to be enjoyable. I dropped in a few other perspectives too, to make the narration a little richer. She caught on to what was happening but didn’t interrupt, interested in how I’d tell the story. She’d pitch in some commentary from time to time; a quip about my hair or a jibe at my lackluster sense of humor, but for the most part, she sat back, petting Waon, watching the stars, listening to a washed-up video game developer tell a strange story that nobody in their right minds would ever appreciate, and when it was all said and done, and we came back full circle, she judged where my body would be based on the hand under her head and brought me in for a hug.
““0,” said the girl with a purple cat on her lap, watching the starry skies,” I finished, resting my head on hers.
“Kai…” she whispered.
“Goodbye Clare.” I closed my eyes and the sky became a sea of glowing stars and golden rain. But this time, she didn’t look impressed. This time, her eyes didn’t light up in excitement and wonder.
This time, her eyes swam with a little golden sea of their own. The world vanished in a stream of light and Clare was gone. I stood up, heart heavy, shoulders down, eyes on the skies. The skies were awash with color and light without a sun nor a moon to lord over them, only stars to shine, twinkle, flicker, and die.
Note: There will be a concluding post within the next 24 hours or so. Stay tuned!
them, only stars to shine, twinkle, flicker, and die.