Weary from months of treating a stubborn epidemic illness among the villagers of World’s Crossing, and worn from having caught the sickness herself, the healer Echo nevertheless walked the half-mile and a bit more to the portal from her home to Consequence, Hellifyno.
During her sickness, she had heard dire news from Hellifyno. Zombie attacks, Void temples, mass suicides, armed resistance from space – the news, piecemeal, sometimes garbled, and sometimes twisted by her own fever delirium, was bewildering. Now she had heard (as she thought) that in a truce the Void had been “pulled back” from Consequence. Reaching the portal, she leaned against a tree to catch her breath for a few minutes, then went through the portal, coming out three-quarters of a mile southwest of the Blue Moon Tavern.
She took only a few steps forward from the portal into the devastation of Consequence before her mouth dropped open and her eyes went wide before closing in denial. She had never imagined the situation was so dreadful. This was as bad as the devastation of the city in the Chaos war so long ago.
Echo was pale and thin from her illness. She was dressed not in her usual healer’s green gown but in jeans of forest green and a lighter matching sweatshirt. That was well, as a chilly breeze blew through the rubble that had been a busy city not long before.
“Penny for your thoughts?” The voice came from behind her, and she jumped, turning. Karen Darkshade, a friend she had not seen in years, had appeared behind her.
Karen wore a faint smile on her lips, but upon seeing the way Echo looked, the smile dropped. “You’ve seen better days.”
“Karen!” Echo exclaimed. “How are you? You look well.” Her smile was tired but warm,
“I could say I didn’t mean to scare you, but we both know that I’d be lying,” Karen winked, but then went on, “What’s wrong with you? You look more dead than the undead.”
“There is an epidemic on Worlds’ Crossing. I caught the sickness, but I am on the mend now.” Right away, as if to belie her words, she coughed into her sleeve for several seconds, then smiled wanly. “Believe it or not, that is an improvement. No blood in the cough.”
Karen looked Echo over, her expression hidden as a cloud swept over the moon. “When did it start? I mean … if that’s an improvement, I’m – uh – happy for you?”
“Honestly, I do not remember how long ago it started among the villagers. I came down with it just after the attacks began here. I know because I came to Consequence hoping to find assistance in finding the cause.” She paused for breath. “I could see that was useless, so I made the more difficult trip to Haven for help. They are still working on it, but apparently being half-god gives me more resistance.” She had to pause again, short of breath, and her next words came out sadly. “Already a quarter of the villagers have died.”
Karen nodded while Echo was talking. If she got help in Haven, then that was a good thing. “So what brings you here, of all places?”
“I heard that Consequence was no longer under attack. That the Void had been pulled back. I do not understand that, but it sounded encouraging. I did not know the Void could be manipulated so much. Anyway, I came to see if there were survivors who need medical help. But it looks as if there are … no survivors.” The utter silence in the ruins was testimony to that statement.
Karen shook her head. “The Void wasn’t pulled back here – just in a few areas around the inn in Persistence. And … no, no survivors. There were a few, but the Olde Watch General fouled that one up.”
Echo’s eyes widened fearfully. “You mean we are standing in Void?”
“Void won’t infect you or anyone unless you ask for it or you’re already dead,” Karen replied. “So you’re kind of safe.”
“ ‘Kind of safe’ for somebody who nearly died only recently does not sound particularly comforting,” Echo said dryly, with a small cough.
Karen responded, “Well, I’m dead already. But as long as I’m around, you will get Void’s gift, when and if you want it.”
Shocked eyes now. “You’re dead? Did I know that? My memory is faultier than my information.” Her memory had, in fact, suffered serious damage a few years ago when the realities were exploding one after another.
“I died years ago Echo,” Karen told her, “in the Super-Slayer times. When most of the continent was under the AM nuke aftermath, remember?” Her voice held no passion, no rancor – it seemed to Echo that Karen was simply reporting facts as if they had happened to someone else.
Echo shook her head. “I do not remember the Super-Slayers or anti-magic nuclear attacks at all.” She sighed and swayed. As she looked around, and found, a chunk of rubble the right size for sitting, she went on, sounding a bit ashamed, “I really did lose a lot of my memory.”
Karen nodded slowly. “Well – PuCk took my soul into the Void when I died, and I have been there ever since. Just recently I have been awakened … with all the events …”
Another sigh from Echo as she sat down on the uncomfortable remains of a wall. “I remember PuCk when he was a mischievous little kid, no more. Adorable. Smart-alecky and troublesome sometimes, but not a killer. At least – at least … that is how he presented himself, at first.” Sadly, “Maybe that was to fool us. If so, he fooled me.
“But now you have escaped the Void! Your soul is intact, a body could be found or even grown, there are ways.” She was so concerned about Karen being dead that the “Void’s gift” remark had gone right past her.
“PuCk didn’t kill me. A witch did. PuCk tried to save what was left of me. That’s why he carried my soul into Void.
“Void saved me Echo. It gave me peace … serenity. There’s no more pain, no more struggle. It’s just endless serenity.”
Echo thought that Karen’s voice did not sound serene, that it sounded detached. She stared at her, but Karen had turned to look out over the ruins of Consequence and her face was turned away.
Troubled, Echo looked down. “I don’t understand that, Karen. But then, I never have understood the Void. At the start, to me the Void was just – nothingness. Complete emptiness where nothing could live, where there was not even stardust.
“But then creatures began appearing from Outside, and I learned that another word for Outside was Void, too. That was where Elexin threw Daloki’s soul, and it was stolen from there by one of those creatures. That meant there were two levels.
“But now you speak of Void where things exist and are peaceful and serene. I do not understand. Is that yet another level? It does not sound like it could be part of the Void. It sounds more like Limbo.” Getting agitated, she coughed again, for longer, but there was still no blood in the elbow of her sweatshirt’s sleeve.
A bit of animation crept into Karen’s voice. “You remember how I was before I became High Priestess of the Void? I was all over the place. My soul and mind were filled with hatred, yet I considered myself a hero of this place. When I became a Wyrdling, a piece of Void came with that gift. It calmed me, it spoke to my very soul.” Echo remembered none of this, either, but didn’t say so.
“And that’s when I saw it: That there’s no need for all these … feelings. Hate, envy … they only lead to wars.
“Take the General, for example. She was so blinded by her hatred of the Void that she killed off the last Gaian. What good did that serve? What purpose?”
“Wait…” Echo was entirely confused. “What did killing the last Gaian have to do with hating the Void? Gaians and Void are on opposite sides.” Something in her subconscious stopped her, though, from saying there were plenty of Gaeans still around, including Echo herself.
Karen said, “Yet General Fran did … in her infatuation … her power craving.”
“That is what you said, but if the General hates the Void, why kill a Gaian? It would be good to have Gaians alive, wouldn’t it? I am,” Echo paused for breath, panting for several seconds, “so confused, Karen. The Void was behind THIS, what I see here, what I heard of while I was ill! Murder, destruction – annihilation. I do not see any serenity. I see a vicious desire to dominate the planet, to wipe life off its face. If you lived in this somehow serene Void, how can you stand that?” She had paled even more, and was sagging, trying to catch her breath, agitated and bewildered and angry.
“She killed Anthem to gain more power,” Karen answered. “But tell me – do you hear anything? Is anyone killing anyone now? Are there any Slayers, Olde Watch … anyone? No … because everything has been reduced to silence. A new peace has been reached. Destruction and fear was all that these people understood. Now that has all ended.” And yet Karen was as calm and peaceful as ever. Now moonlight shone on her face, and Echo could see that those black orbs of hers were emotionless pits.
Horror broke over Echo’s features.
Karen went on impassively, “Long ago, I told everybody: Void will silence this planet. And peace will be bestowed once again.”
The irises of Echo’s hazel eyes, far from emotionless, began to change shape. Her voice was biting. “This. Is. Not. Peace. This is ruin. This is lifelessness. Emptiness. Uselessness. Not a blade of grass, not a bird, not a singing insect. And you… oh gods and demons… you helped to cause this horror, didn’t you!” It was not a question.
Karen just blinked those black orbs and tilted her head. “Echo, I’m Void’s High Priestess. Nothing of here holds any importance to me. Just Void and its serenity.”
“This is not serenity,” Echo fairly spat at Karen. “This is waste.
“You were my friend. Now you are my enemy. I celebrate life. You worship death. I cannot stop being your friend like the breaking of a branch, but I will oppose you while there is breath in my body.”
“That’s your perspective,” Karen said coolly. “You are blinded by your feelings.” She nodded to Echo. “My friends stabbed me in the back, feared me. Now I know there is no purpose for anything in this world. Just for Void’s peace and serenity. And if enemies is what you want to call us, then we shall be enemies … but Echo, as much as you oppose Void, it will always be here. I will always be here.”
Echo’s voice was ragged. “You are my enemy, I said. I am your friend who will oppose you and grieve for what you have become. Grieve that you cannot see this desolation for what it is. Grieve for the Karen who is lost.” As if attacked by her own words, she coughed again and again, until this time there was blood on her sleeve when she managed to stop, and she had to wipe her mouth.
Karen’s voice was cold. “You should have cried when I was killed. Tears are useless now. Everything is useless.” She turned her body away from Echo and smirked. “You need to excuse me. I have a certain inn to wipe out of existence.”
“We will be meeting again. Until then … get well … old friend.” There was no emotion behind her statement, nothing. And she vanished into the nothingness of the Void.”
“Karen, I did not KNOW…” But had she? Her memory had been so damaged – perhaps she had known of and forgotten Karen’s death, and perhaps she had not cried.
Echo cried now, though, sobbing and coughing blood together. Bent almost in half, she staggered back through the portal and into the safety of Worlds’ Crossing, where she collapsed into the brown fallen leaves and lay weeping for Karen, and for Hellifyno.