Iruviaa startled awake in the somber darkness, the diaphanous vestiges of a nightmare slipping from her mind. A cool breeze fluttered through the loose shutters, kissing her skin with shivers and prickles. She struggled to recall details of the hellish nightmare, but they always seemed to fade at the edge of thought. Unsure what had yanked her from her sleep, she took a deep breath to calm her trembling her heart.
It didn’t work. She tried to push the irrational fear from her mind, but its icy talons had already wrapped her in a tight grip. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck rose with another shiver.
Gentle beams of moonlight leaked through the shutters, casting a subtle glow across her room. Shelves lined the walls, filled with all manner of books grouped according to subject. The desk in the corner was still strewn with notes and an empty inkwell. The melted remains of a candle stretched across the nightstand, overflowing to a frozen cascade of wax that almost reached the floor.
Iruviaa focused on the subtle weight of the book on her chest, and could faintly remember her pathetic attempt to read before sleep claimed her. A flash of annoyance crossed her face when she lifted the book and saw that a page had creased. The same page she’d started on. A little steam and press would make it all but invisible. But she would still know it was there. She released her frustration with a heavy sigh. In the morning she would—
A sudden crash evaporated whatever vapid thoughts had been wafting through her muddled brain, along with any remnants of sleep. Maybe Nisik and Oadi were rummaging for a late-night snack? The lie was as pathetic as it was hollow. She knew her children were sound asleep in their beds. She could feel their heartbeats through their bond, and point right at them no matter their distance.
A deep, low rumble reverberated through the house, burying Iruviaa’s thoughts of her children in a grave of despair.
“No,” she pleaded with a whisper. “Not now.”
Death had found her at last. She’d eluded her fate for almost two decades, moving from one secluded village to the next, never able to settle for more than a few months. It had driven her to near mad, and her decision to come to the city had been an act of desperation. Maybe hiding in the middle of thousands was easier than hiding alone. After the eighth year had come and gone, Iruviaa had entertained the thought that her fate had abandoned its hunt.
She was wrong.
Her first instinct was to grab her children and escape out the window. Like all thriving metropolises, Most Affar never slept and its streets were never empty. They could easily evade whatever monstrosity was ruining her kitchen. A moment of grief poisoned her mind. After so many years, she’d succumbed to the succulent dream of a normal life with her children. She’d dared to call this place home, and now she would have to flee. Once again, she would have to disappear and start a new life. Assassins, cutthroats, wizards, and demons, they’d all come for her at one point or another, enticed by the sweet promise of fame and fortune.
But this time was different. She felt it in the dark well, burrowing in her gullet. Whatever had come for her, this time there was no escape.
Power ignited within her, flooding her with sweet seduction, filling her being with the promise of vengeance. Running from life to life and keeping her babies hidden throughout the years had drained much of her pool, her saa, though she still possessed more than most ja’Tar her age. But then, not many ja’Tar lived passed forty, much less forty-five.
Crashes and clatters from the kitchen increased in rhythm, as though challenging her power. She had an arsenal of spells at her disposal, ready for her to give them life. Iruviaa hadn’t survived this long because she was inept. Her mysterious intruder would regret this night.
“Where is it?” The voice was like crumbling rocks, falling on a sheet of ice.
Recognition froze Iruviaa stiff, and her breath caught in her throat. She knew of only one manner of being with a voice like that. A Xa’Trinilan. Demon lords bound to the lowest planes of Hell, where even Death feared to go. Iruviaa had been wrong. So very wrong. She wouldn’t die tonight, or any night from here to eternity, no matter how much the demon made her long for release.
But what of her children? Surely the gods weren’t so cruel as to punish them for her crimes. After all, the gods were the reason she was being hunted. Iruviaa scoffed in her mind. She’d long since given up on them. Rodal, Adim, Skelur, none of them had ever answered her supplications. None of them had ever sent an angel to whisk her away from trouble. The heavens had never opened to smite her stalkers with bolts of lightning. She knew they existed. She’d spoken to them, face to face. They’d sent her on the task that had gotten her in the mess she was in now, threatened with an eternity of pain and suffering. As far as Iruviaa was concerned, the gods were better off dead.
She slid from her bed, catching the book before it fell to the floor. She held no delusion that she would escape her fate. But maybe if she surprised the demon, she could at least save the lives of her children. Dressed only in a shift, she glided to her door with no more noise than a butterfly’s whisper. The doorknob clicked and protested no matter how slow she turned it. The knob turned, and turned, and turned, crying and screeching as though trying to summon the demon.
“Where did you hide it, little girl?” the demonic voice crooned.
Iruviaa cringed, waiting for the sound of her death to charge down the hall and burst through the door. But the clamor never moved from the kitchen. With tender care, Iruviaa pulled the door open. Each creak shocked her nerves. An eternity passed before a sliver of light leaked through the jarred door. Iruviaa released the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
The hallway was deceptively serene, and seemed to stretch beyond reason. At the far end, a tiny little head with curly hair poked from behind a door, her eyes wide with desperation.
“Oadi,” Iruviaa mouthed, her heart wrenching at her daughter’s terror. She felt herself take a step into the hall and froze. Silence clogged the air.
A sound like cracking ice broke the stillness as the demon chuckled.
Oadi shivered uncontrollably, a puddle of urine swelling at her feet.
“Is that…” The demon sniffed, then moaned with satisfaction. “Mmmmm…your daughter?”
Distant memories, locked in the depths of her mind begged for release; skills she had hoped to lose with time tingled with deadly familiarity, an old acquaintance come to collect a toll. Ancient power caressed her mind and seduced her mettle, coaxing her with the promise of power. She could destroy the demon, and save her children. She could destroy all evil, all over the world and end needless suffering. She could rule the world.
Or destroy it.
End it all.
All the suffering.
Just release the power. If she but unlock the door in her mind, set free the memory, remember…
“Mom?” Nisik opened the door and stood behind his sister, rubbing his eyes. “I had a bad dream—“ He squeaked and hopped back. “Mom, Oadi peed on the floor.”
Iruviaa startled from her daze and pushed the memory to the far reaches of her mind. Her own power still raged, a candle compared to the sun that blazed behind its prison. Formidable nonetheless.
“Did you hear me?” Nisik asked. His mouth puckered in frustration. “I said… What’s wrong, Mommy?”
Iruviaa felt weak with fear, her strength consumed by invasive thoughts of her children’s deaths. She recognized the effects of the Xa’Trinilan’s presence, the cloud of despair and hopelessness that emanated from the kitchen. Iruviaa released a whisper of her power, just enough to suppress the effects. Her mind cleared, yet the fear remained, clutching her heart.
A bestial roar shook the walls, and a beam of energy tore through the house, leaving a long hole above Nisik’s head. The little boy was frozen, wide-eyed and rigid. A second puddle of urine joined the first.
“Where’s the Eye?” the demon demanded. “I’ll not ask again.”
Iruviaa swallowed the lump rising in her throat. Her children stared at her with desperate hope, their tiny limbs too overcome by shock to work properly. Another drop of power pushed them back and sealed them in their room.
The doorway to the kitchen was only three steps away now, but it could have been a mile for all that her legs would obey. They felt heavy and unresponsive, as if they belonged to someone else. Iruviaa sacrificed another drop of power to strengthen her resolve, forcing a step forward.
Her mind scrambled for an escape. Not for herself—her lot had been cast the moment the Xa’Trinilan arrive. For her, death would be her only egress. It didn’t have to be her children’s as well. But where would they go without her? Life on the run hadn’t accommodated them with such luxuries as loyalty and friendship. Iruviaa had enough guilt on her conscience without adding more innocent lives to the stack. The city would swallow Nisik and Oadi, leaving them with lives that weren’t worth living.
Waves of heat pulsed through the kitchen doorway, ebbing more saa to keep Iruviaa alive. Inside, the walls were bowed and warped, the paint peeled and bubbled. Remains of cabinets lay splintered on the floor, alongside melted pots and pans. Marble countertops drooped and glowed with intense heat. Flames ignited with spontaneous abandon, and steam billowed from broken water pipes.
An unassuming creature stood in the middle of the maelstrom. On its surface, the Xa’Trinilan looked like any other beggar on Mud Row, in ragged, grimy clothes that drooped over a gaunt frame. Only the eyes betrayed the demon’s true nature, flickering between this world and the demon’s own.
A frown cracked its lips. “You look…different.” Its voice was sharp and jagged, as if stretching and tearing across countless dimensions.
Iruviaa felt a pit of doubt swell in her stomach as her saa continued to ebb.
The demon’s flickering eyes measured her. “You are not you. Not entirely. Where did you put her?”
Iruviaa felt a force slam against her will, ripping at the locked part of her mind.
“Give her to me,” the Xa’Trinilan demanded. A column of heat jetted from its outstretched hand, but Iruviaa froze the air around her. The demon sneered. “Remember me, damn you!”
Waves of pain and depression buffeted against Iruviaa’s barrier, demanding even more of her deadly saa. She drank upon her power, infusing it with her will. The molten marble hardened, cracking in protest as it chilled beyond freezing, and exploded into thousands of shards. They tore through the kitchen, drawing the heat in an instant.
Iruviaa’s breath hung in the air.
The Xa’Trinilan sneered, its eyes flickering chaotically.
Tentacles as dark as the void whipped from the demon, snaking around the barrier, probing it for a weakness. The screams of the souls captured by the tentacles filled Iruviaa’s ears. She could feel their madness spreading, taking hold of her mind.
She sacrificed more saa and the voices quieted.
A slender blade of ash appeared in the Xa’Trinilan’s hand. The demon became a blur of movement. Iruviaa sipped her saa, summoning her staff in time to block the blow aimed at her head. The weapons clashed with violent thunder, shaking the walls, showering the room with sparks. Blue runes along the staff flashed bright every time the weapons met.
The Xa’Trinilan leaped back from a low swipe, then darted back in with blinding speed.
The staff was an effortless blur in Iruviaa’s hands, moving with the grace of a Rotendrian cloud dancer. The demon pressed its attack with blasts of fire and lighting, but the staff absorbed each attack in its lighted runes. Black tentacles turned to clouds of ash where the staff hit, tugging sharp gasps of pain from the demon. Sudden waves of despair and confusion smashed against Iruviaa’s resolve, forcing a misstep.
The demon pounced.
Molten claws dug into Iruviaa’s side, burning and blistering her skin. The staff vanished as she leaped back, clutching her wound. The demon’s necrotic toxins were already coursing through her body. She drank heavily of her saa, filtering her blood and healing her dying flesh. Waves of emotions and raging fire overwhelmed her from the demon’s relentless attacks.
A fleeting moment of clarity shone through the maelstrom, and Iruviaa’s staff was summoned back into her hands.
The demon howled in frustration, narrowly avoiding a strike to the head.
Iruviaa sipped her diminishing saa, quieting her ravenous lungs and pounding heart. The image formed in an instant—beams of light, trapping the demon, closing in until they sliced through it—and she willed it to be.
A loud crack rattled room, and Iruviaa found herself on the floor. The demon wasn’t far from where it had stood, smoke rising from its hunched form. It rose on shaking limbs, clutching its head, then crashed through the wall, into…
Iruviaa dashed from the kitchen, and felt her heart drop when she saw the hole into their bedroom wall. Her legs carried her down the hallway. Her ward on the children’s door seemed a cruel joke. She heard a faint whimper, followed by a loud snap and thick splash.
Nasik’s blood dripped from every part of the Xa’Trinilan as it stood in a widening pool of her son’s blood and viscera; the demon’s once baggy clothes now clinging to its gaunt frame.
Iruviaa saw vomit splattered on the floor, and realized she had fallen to her hands and knees. She felt her stomach heave again, watching as if from outside her own body as more bile splattered on the floor.
Sobs drew the demon’s attention to the hole in the wall, and a wicked smile crossed its face. The demon turned toward Oadi.
She screamed and cried for her mother.
Iruviaa reached into the depths of her mind, beyond memories long forgotten, returning to that locked part of her mind, sealed behind the sacrifice of a dozen souls. Its key was pure desperation, untainted by hope. It opened now with the ease of thought.
And she remembered.
Power as sweet and deadly as time filled her, releasing her true self, making her whole once again. Memories flooded back into her mind. Skills and knowledge that had been closed for Life’s sake rushed back to her with dark familiarity.
And the guilt.
If fell on her with a mountain’s weight, threatening to buckle her legs. So much pain. So much torment. And the deaths… So many innocents. So many children. Her body sagged under the insoluble burden.
And then it was no more. Obliterated by the two lumps of ravaged flesh, bone, and viscera that had been her son. Rising to her feet, she summoned her staff again. It glowed bright with the demon’s trapped power, and she used it now to will a barrier around her daughter.
“Stay where you are, baby. Mommy’s here.”
Oadi sat and clutched her knees to her chest, sobbing and rocking herself.
“Xa’Drax’x,” Iruviaa said, finally recognizing the demon. She frowned. “I thought I killed you.”
“You killed my family,” Xa’Drax’x corrected, picking the bit of meat from his teeth and then eating it. “My children.”
Iruviaa swallowed her rising hate, and let it fester in her misery. Xa’Drax’x’s invasive touch wormed through her mind, prodding and tugging her emotions, filling her with images of Nisik’s death. It would have torn at her soul a minute ago, leaving her to weep and gnash like a lunatic. But she knew the demon’s tricks, and let them pass through her.
Her staff became a whip of light with a flash of thought. It lashed at the demon, wrapping around its arm, crackling like ice in warm water.
Xa’Drax’x cried in pain, summoning its ash blade to hack off its tangled arm. The demon lunged at Iruviaa, but she had anticipated the attack, reforming the staff and thrusting it into the demon’s chest. The apparition vanished with a puff of choking ash.
A simple will of thought cleared the air.
The real demon stood near Oadi, its hand against the ward, causing it to shiver and ripple. The little child shivered, her eyes glazed, unseeing.
“Unlock the Eye,” Xa’Drax’x demanded. The ward shattered without a sound and pressed his claw against Oadi’s tender neck.
Time seemed to crawl. Her thoughts crumbled against a surmounting fear. She could slay Xa’Drax’x, bind it to its plane for another thousand years. Long after Iruviaa’s line would have vanished. But she could not slay it fast enough to save her daughter.
In another time, and in another life, Iruviaa wouldn’t have hesitated. The demon would have already been banished to Xa’Nychz, the children’s lives an acceptable sacrifice. But that part of her had died the moment she’d cradled her newborn son.
And now he was gone. Not even saa could bring back the dead. No pool was large enough; no force of will that powerful. Nisik was forever lost to her, and he had taken half of her heart with him.
Her other half shook with quiet shock and a demon’s threat.
Iruviaa’s staff formed into a short, thin dagger, blue runes pulsing along its blade. She scored three lined into her forearm. Her blood oozed onto a sheet of air, forming an intricate pattern. Once the symbol was finished, the blood shimmered and darkened, and a small portal opened above it.
The demon’s dark eyes drank in the sight. “Take it!”
Nestled in a plain wool blanket was a curved dagger, overly wide and tipped with a wicked barb. At the base of the blade, a jewel swirled in random patterns and colors Iruviaa had never seen before, and never would again. She was always overcome by awe, no matter how many times she saw the Eye of Kaelstron. A surge of power coursed through her every time she touched it, begging for release.
She reached into the portal and gripped the hilt of the dagger. It robbed her of her pain, and promised pleasure beyond belief. Wisps of energy floated from her skin. She held the power of the gods. She was a god. At least while she held the Eye.
She could save her daughter. Slay the demon with barely a thought. End Oadi’s suffering.
She could end her own suffering.
She could end all suffering.
She could end everything.
“Interesting,” the demon grumbled, shattering her trance. It peered at Iruviaa as though measuring her in a new light. “You have not used it.”
“Maybe I have,” Iruviaa said.
The demon’s crumbling guffaw scratched in Iruviaa’s ears. “If you had,” the beast said, “I wouldn’t be here, and neither would this world.”
Demons lied like fire burned. But this Xa’Drax’x’s words rang true. She knew the power of the Eye was vast. Some said infinite. Every apocalyptic prophecy worth its weight in time began with the relic, and they always ended with the same choice—the destruction of the Eye, or the universe.
The thought came to her even as she acted upon it, as though she danced at the ends of a puppeteer’s strings; she sliced the air with the Eye, cutting through space and time.
A wide gash opened down the demon’s belly, spilling dark ash. Its cry sounded like hail. Xa’Drax’x punched its finger into Oadi’s temple, through her brain, stealing her thoughts, and her memories… Its eyes went wide.
The demon skirted back from the little girl.
Again the Eye pulled the strings of her soul, using her to heal Oadi. Dark toxins dribbled down the side of her head, then the wound healed without a trace.
Every apocalyptic prophecy started and ended with the Eye. They also had a hero, who would destroy the Eye and save the universe.
Iruviaa’s eyes fell upon her daughter.
And they always had a villain.
“What have you done?” Xa’Drax’x asked, its time-stretched voice echoing with disbelief.
Iruviaa rushed to her daughter’s side, cradling her. Oadi meant miracle in her mother’s native tongue. “You were wrong,” she told the demon. “I have used the Eye. And now I carry the guilt of the universe upon my shoulders.”
Saa couldn’t bring the dead back to life. But the Eye could.
Inky tentacles, blades of ash, streams of liquid fire, waves of emotion, all assaulted Iruviaa as the demon pressed a desperate attack. But it was too late. She had already put the Eye into play. She sliced a sheet of reality and pulled the attacked into another dimension.
Xa’Drax’x growled, cowering back a step. “You would doom us all? Everyone? Everything?”
I doomed them all the day I brought her back, Iruviaa thought. Oadi had calmed in the presence of the Eye and pulled away from her mother.
Iruviaa dismissed the voice in her head that told her the demon was right. She knew what her daughter would do with the Eye. She had seen the void. The end of the gods. The end of the universe.
She knew her daughter had to die. But she loved her.
Xa’Drax’x leaped for Oadi, inky tentacles stretching for the child’s soul.
“No!” Iruviaa cried, letting the Eye guide her.
Xa’Drax’x’s flickering eyes widened before it crumpled to the floor, its head hitting with the heavy thump of solid metal.
Oadi hesitated then scrambled to the corpse. The Eye protruded from its chest.
Iruviaa blinked at her now empty hand. “Oadi, no…”
Oadi looked back, her finger almost touching the Eye.
The finality of Iruviaa’s actions cleared a fog from her mind, placed there by the Eye. In a sudden moment of lucidity, Iruviaa understood the dark truth about her daughter’s stillborn birth.
It had caused Oadi to be stillborn so that Iruviaa would use its power to save her. With the patience and subtly of a god, the Eye had waited for this pivotal moment—the fulfillment of prophecy. Which would make her the hero, destined to save the universe from the darkness.
Except the darkness was her daughter.
A single thought pervaded her mind as she watched her darling little angel touch the artifact—What have I done?
Oadi’s head tilted the way it did when she was gleefully curious. “Why’d you hide it from me, Mommy?”
A sob blubbered from Iruviaa’s lips. “Because I love you, Dee.”
Oadi giggled. “That’s silly,” she said, skipping over to her mother. She regarded Iruviaa with one hand on her hip, the other holding the dagger with casual familiarity. “You shouldn’t have hid it.”
Iruviaa’s vision swam with tears.
“Don’t cry,” Oadi said, cooing as she caressed her mother’s hair. She kissed Iruviaa on the forehead, then squeezed her with a hug.
Iruviaa felt the tip of the Eye slide into her back.
“I love you, Mommy,” Oadi chimed, her voice as sweet as life.
She knew the blade had pierced her heart.
How could it not?