The Earth roared.
I watched the redwoods go first as the planet's earthen jaws opened to devour the trees. One-by-one the deep-rooted giants fell, creaking and moaning with voices like that of thunder.
The ground split apart like the hatching of some celestial egg. Hellfire beamed through its crevasses painting spires of golden light against the crimson sky of smoke and ash. I glanced up at the moon. Harrowing as ever, its scarlet rays bled through the deathsmog. I felt as if it watched me, this heinous, crimson eye, piercing my own, leering through the window into the darkest parts of my being.
"Come, Blaine!" I gestured for my brother to hurry. "You're dragging."
We pressed for the Glade, carelessly maneuvering through the dying woodland's maze of tangled briars and brambles. The sounds of the damned returned my focus forward. The poor souls. I could still hear them - voices of unimaginable agony, those screams, watching flesh and bone grotesquely reconstructed into such vile, savage creations. Rapture held no prisoners. Maddening how it all came to this, and the guilt I feel, immeasurable. Many times over I've given my life, and for what? I am requited with cursing all of humanity.
In all my trades and dealings, this was surely my poorest.
Abhorrent screeches and snarls echoed from behind, but it was not the damned I feared. My mind flooded with the Umbra's croon.
Through the drone of the damned, even through the calamity of the collapsing planet, nothing drowned the Umbra's hum. But its song - it beckoned me, such a sweet , subtle melody reverberating through my mind. It called for me - It yearned, and I yearned for...
"Stop!" Blaine belted, "I need a moment."
I heard his words, but my mind was held in the Umbra's tune.
I left my thoughts and came to a halt, pulling back the sweaty clump of hair from my eyes. The heat was grueling - sweltering and sticky. We had no time to stop: Nil a time for falter, my mother would say. Every moment lost teetered the scale toward assured defeat and here I found my brother kneeled over on all fours, panting like the royal mutt.
Blaine - the brawn with little brain.
I suppose I'd never much seen him this way; though the load of his burden weighed no less than mine. And it, heavy. Our strength and resolve had been tested beyond measure, but: "Father Time spares his mercy upon none." We could not rest.
Blaine wiped a trickle of blood snailing down his cheek. "Damn these briars, and damn Father Time." He hung his head, plucking thorns from the shoulder of his cape. "And damn this infernal fuckin' noise. It's driving me mad." His thumbs traced around his temples in small circles. He breathed in deeply, pressing his lips together before grunting forth a sigh, "Vaan, it's over."
Anger bolted through me. To see Blaine so defeated. . . it was foreign to me, bizarre and unnatural. Since childhood he had always admired the thrill of more risky and erratic ventures and somehow, he always found the right words to persuade my company. Blaine pledged himself to the irresponsible call of danger. The riskier the position to find oneself in, the better odds there you'd find my brother. As I looked down upon him now, I wondered if this is how he felt in those days, our younger days when he would chide me perched among the branches of the redwoods, shaming my lack of courage as I stood scared and hesitant at its base.
"So that's it then?" I barked, "We sit here until what - we're ingested into the bowels of L'leh? Sorry, brother, but that invitation, I decline." He stood as my eyes ran him over. "This is not like you. How could you give in, especially now?" This is not finished. We are almost there. We-"
Another quake hit, loud and violent. The cracking and grinding of stones ripped across the forest ahead of us. I watched as two ends of the path home parted their ways; our way split in two.
Blaine erupted into laughter. "And when we get there - if we get there? Then what, Vaan? Earth is finished, and Eden will follow shortly in its footsteps. We have failed. We were fools. We were fools, Vaan."
I listened as tones of sorrow replaced his laugh.
"Damned fools," he sighed again, wiping the trail of sweat from his brow, "For all we know, The Glade probably rests in the pits. Look around you, brother."
I dismissed his new-found pessimism and stood silent. I surveyed the ruin trying to ignore the fact he could be right. I watched the redwoods continue to fall like tumbling blocks. Enkindled leaves rode fissure updrafts, sailing embers across what I could see of an ill-fated horizon. The air reeked of sulfur, ash, and death.
I turned to note the size of the gorge separating us from home before finally returning to Blaine. "I'm going to jump."
I related right then to those crimson eyes of his.
The same eyes I held when he would equally suggest something as perilous or perpetually stupid. Deep down - away from the throes of Rapture - I found humor in that.
He turned his head and gawked at the gorge before his laugh returned. He began to speak, but I left him with his words.
I sprinted forward, my heart hammering against my chest. Adrenaline and a shallow hope fueled my exhausted body as I neared the edge and leaped. My feet left the ground, and a glimpse of the fiery bowels of L'leh awaited me below.
In that moment, everything fell silent. A fleeting thought of Blaine's dejection and memories of our past together rushed forward. I had lived to somehow outclass his mettle and iron will - that terrified me more than the pits below.
My fears turned into relief as my feet reintroduced themselves to the ground. I rolled over my shoulder, wearing something of a half-smile - quickly shed.
I spit a curse as I watched the redwood fall.
The tree descended fast like the timbered foot of an angered giant. Below -- my brother, running, wailing. He made the jump mere moments before the tree blistered the earth, tearing through the ground like wet parchment.
I sank as I watched his leap fall short. He slammed against the wall of the fissure, head meeting the stones of the crags. I stood completely petrified watching despair etch its way across Blaine's face. He clawed frantically dragging his nails through the coarse soil and ragged earth.
"Father Time spares his mercy upon none," the words hardly passed his lips before they were no longer there.
Time as I knew it - reality itself, ceased in existence.
A gut-wrenching sickness ripped through my chest as if my heart were nothing more than thin fabric. My eyes welled with tears. I wept, screaming my brother's name, my voice bathed in anguish and horror. I fell to my palms, trembling, my vision swirling with disorienting hazes of crimson and flame.
I hammered my fists against dirt and ash, cursing the gods one-by-one as my grief diverged to blind rage. As far as Blaine and I had come, for it all to end this way, I was left with many questions, but all ushered too simply, "Why?"
A shrill growl followed one of the damned as it lurched over the fallen redwood opposite the gorge, perching precariously among its branches. The creature smiled, revealing monstrous fangs, rolling its crooked fingers to emphasize the crudely fashioned claws growing grotesquely from each tip. It began speaking in a tongue I did not recognize but could understand.
"Such a pity. Quite a pity. Only one? Tumble did he take?" The beast's twitchy head cocked sideways. It eyed me warily, snarling like a rabid animal. Beams of light poured from the crevasse reflecting off its glassy, jet-black eyes like a pair of obsidian mirrors.
I gained my composure, saying nothing as I gnashed my teeth with the force to crush stone. I wrapped my hand around the hilt of my sword and drew it from its sheathe.
The creature roared.
It lunged forward, diving hawk-like over the crevasse, I, its prey. Within a blink, its lethal claws collided with cold steel. It staggered, I countered with a solid kick to its chest, sending it flying to its back.
A screech howled from behind. Another damned passed through the thick veil of deathsmog, snarling and every bit as hideous as the last.
The first scrambled to its feet and charged me. I stepped to the side and returned with a swift, diagonal heave of my sword. It collapsed to the ground severed in two; black, vile liquid spewed from each of its unfortunate halves. I bellowed my brother's name as I drove the blade tunneling through the beast's skull.
The world again stopped.
I whipped around to see only the burning forest and the gorge dividing it. "Blaine?"
I winced as five gnarled claws tore through my cloak and flesh, leaving long, ragged gashes on my back. I spun around and struck the creature's jaw with the pommel of my sword, then thrust the blade between its ribs. There was a certain satisfaction in the way my sword slid through the damned's body, like piercing a rotten melon. I shoved the blade upwards, splitting the creature in half and spilling its organs.
I scanned the area, seeing no other threats, and dashed towards the crevasse. Chills raced through my body as I slid to the edge and peered over it. My brother was alive, his cloak snagged on a rock jutting from the fissure's wall. I tried to call out his name, but it came out as a barely audible gasp.
"Vaan!" Blaine grinned through the pain, blood streaming down his face from his wounds. "Seems Father Time favors at least one of us."
My eyes brimmed again with tears, and I struggled to find the words to say—anything to say. "Fuck you," I choked out, voice trembling.
Blaine rolled his eyes, his expression a mix of amusement and annoyance. "Yeah, yeah," he muttered, slamming a fist into the crag. "Screw you too. Now get me off this damn rock—and not just this one. I can't die like this, Vaan. Not like this. Not here."
"You sure? Had your fill of rest?"
"I'm roasting like a fuckin' pig, Vaan, now would you shut up and give me a hand."
I started searching for anything of use around me, skimming over the remaining foliage and trees. I noted the twisted mess of branches and vines carouseling around the trunks of the mighty redwoods. I weighed the risk of their capacity, wondering if the vines could support him long enough to climb out. If it were to snap? I could not bear the thought of losing my brother twice in a sun.
The Umbra interrupted my thoughts, probing me unlike before. Its song was different, more melancholy -- sinister. even. It grew deafening, chiming inside with the timbre of a great bell. My knees buckled and I fell curled upon the ground, hands fastened tightly against my ears. They could not stop the ring, instead it continued to grow. A voice began speaking through the disorienting pitches, awfully deep, chant-like even, and like the damned, I listened as the words foreign, became known.
You have failed, boy. Eden and Earth are lost . . . let go.
It was a dark, nauseating cadence, low and depraved, drenched with impurity, sodden with hatred. I perceived that the voice had to be the Umbra's own. Its song held me crippled to the forest floor. Fear bed in as I tried to push it from my thoughts, trying to think of anything to reclaim some sort of consciousness, something to outplace the noise.
My thoughts brought me back to my brother: the pride in our journey, the victories we claimed together, the odds our swords had met. To have overcome such adversity only to find ourselves, well . . . here, it all just seemed unfair. I saw again the terrors of L'leh and the look of true despair as Blaine slipped into the cracks of the earth. I felt again that last slither of hope, the moment it faded from my grasp.
The anger returned.
I found strength here.
I counted the heads of six more of the damned as I brought myself to stand. They materialized from out of the smog, four on foot, two sinking their claws into the decayed bark of what remained of the trees.
Kill him. Taste his flesh. Feast on his carcass.
A single creature vaulting from the trees came first. I took my sword in both hands admiring what seemed an honest notion of fair play.
The beast quickly closed in.
"But the only thing they will taste-" I drew back my blade, locking my gaze within the damned's sinful eyes, "-is death."
The beast's outlandish face met with sharpened steel, completely severing its head from its thick, vein-ridden neck. A streak of blood cut across my face, a morbid smear of blackened ooze.
The drones of the Umbra continued to bell from within. I turned toward the others, trying my sleeve at the spatter. "Come now," I taunted, "they say hesitation is defeat," I drew my attention to the moon, "I'll slay them all. I will cut down every last one - and after that, I'll kill you too. Do you hear me? I will kill you too. I will spill your guts, slit your fucking throat!"
The Umbra's song again changed; it rang loud and off-key, scattered with dissonant and disagreeing tones.
On command, all five of the remaining damned stormed forwards. Snarls and anguished yelps followed as I cut through them. My blade danced like a cyclone of steel: blocking, parrying, slicing, stabbing, hacking, and slashing until every last one laid before me - my promise half fulfilled.
The earth again quaked. I heard my brother call as I slung the excess gore from my sword, plodding quickly through the gruesome pool of blood and steaming entrails. I returned to the edge of the gorge elated to see Blaine alive and well.
"By the gods, Vaan, what is taking you so long?"
I ignored him and redrew my focus to the trees. I realized I had not much else of a choice as I made haste for the fallen redwood. I cleaved my blade into both ends of its trunk and tugged one of the knotted vines until it snapped free from the surrounding overgrowth. I returned to the crevasse burdened with thoughts of my brother perishing in the molten seas of L'leh - a worry rooting deeper as I tossed an end over the edge. "Can you use this?"
The vine draped against the steep crag as Blaine reached out, his life hanging by the thread of his cloak. I drove my sword into the ground and wrapped the vine around its hilt, bracing myself for his weight. With each agonizing tug, pain surged through the gashes in my back.
A scream echoed from behind me.I turned to see one of the damned, severed at the waist, crawling towards me with determination and vengeance in its obsidian eyes. "Blaine, we have company," I warned, continuing to pull on the vine.
"I'm almost there," he shouted.
With Blaine's fingers finally grasping the edge of the crevasse, I released the vine and sprang to my feet. The damned's razor-sharp claws grazed my calf as I lunged, bringing my foot down hard on its skull. Over and over, I crushed its head until it was a mangled mess of black, repulsive muck.A hand rested on my shoulder, and I turned to embrace my brother, tears streaming down my face. "I thought I lost you."
"Oh, gods-" Blaine shrugged me off, "-if you're gonna do this you should have just left me to die."
I smiled, looking up to see the gleam also masking his eyes. Always the rugged brawn, my brother, but down deep, I knew his heart was as big as my own. To see Blaine act himself was at the least, comforting. "You will not live this down."
"Live what down?"
I smiled. "You remember, that time I saved you? That time you asked me for help, dangling there helpless like some hooked fish."
Blaine expression hardened. "I should hook my fist through your jaw for taking so long."
I patted my cheek, "Well let me offer you the chance, brother. It may be you last."
He instead offered me his hand, "If we don't make it home, it will be."
I nodded and took his grasp. We moved.
For a short while we stumbled brashly through a dim-lit wood of deceptive shadows and ill footing. The uneven path was underlain with knotted roots, making each step one step closer to injury-and one injury one step closer to death. My wounds had soaked my garments with blood. Our breath fell heavy and the thick scent of sulfur and smoke provided no favor. We passed a shroud of tall bushes, and it was then I saw it.
"The Glade!" I rushed forward, shortly stumbling out of the throes of the forest and into a vast meadow at the heart of the wood.
Memories came rushing back to me. I remembered how my brother and I would lay on our backs here, mesmerized by the stars sprinkled so brilliantly above us. How we would find constellations, replicating the luminous specks with stick-drawn dots amongst the dirt. It depressed me as I looked up now. Rolling smoggy hazes veiled all but that damned, disgusting eye of a moon basking the meadow in its eerie, scarlet hues.
It pained me to see, the Glade was hardly recognizable. The clearing sprawled out as a mere shell of itself, void of how I remembered. The once verdant and waving tall grasses, the alluring flora; they all hung wilted, and sapped of life, inevitably dwindling to ash.
I noticed the logs of cedar framing a ruined, wood cottage. It sat dead-center of the meadow, long decayed. The door hung diagonally on one hinge, roof partially caved.
Agony exploded through my back.
My face acquainted the ground's unforgiving embrace. What little breath I still held fled from me. I managed to roll over, gasping for breath as Blaine's hands constricted firm around my throat. I looked deep within my twin brother's eyes; they sat like black marbles in their sockets. Hysteria consumed me as I clawed at his hands and pressed against his weight. I tried to speak but managed only a croak. The more I struggled, the more I began to lose. My lungs burned for air.
My vision faded as I felt my consciousness pale. Blaine leaned in close, his soulless, jet-black stare drilled into mine as voices of the abyss left me with the whisper of one final - "Farewell..."
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