these were my ways of saying goodbye
(or: the allegory of the cave)
He is a picture of mature intelligence and youthful anger: curly brown hair damp with sweat, brown eyes dark with dismay, shaking slightly. She is the opposite – violet eyes bright but cold, standing as tall and proud as her twelve years would allow.
(And she is a half-elf, so she appears to be about eight, as humans measure time. It doesn’t help her cause.)
“You can’t leave,” he says. He is fifteen, and about to be married.
“Than what do you think I’m doing right now?” She moves towards the town gate, but he moves into her way. “You can’t stop me, Norr. Nobody can stop me.”
He steps forward, to her, and brushes the hair away from her face. There are tears in her eyes. “Ruthea.” He uses her full name, not the single syllable the two had always used in one another’s company, and she slaps the hand away. “I can stop you. There’s no reason to throw your life away. Stay, Ru, stay home and be happy.” He tries to sound authoritative, but she knows him better than anyone, and she knows that he is pleading with her.
She pleads with him, in return. “Do you remember when you said we would elope?”
He steps back, says nothing, but his eyes darken.
“Elope with me, Norr. I don’t want to read books or to have kids. I want to have an adventure, and be free, where nobody can ever lock me away again–” She’s crying, hard now, and hates herself for being so weak in front of him. “–Let’s go, Norr. Let’s run away together.”
“Your whole life is in front of you, Ruthea. You’re throwing it away, being childish.”
“You’re being childish!”
And they stare at each other for a long time, each knowing that the other is being childish, each knowing that they are still children. “So that’s it, then,” Norr says, finally. “You’re not going to change your mind.”
“Will you write?”
“Where are you going to go?”
“I don’t know.”
“We’ll find you.” He holds up a small object. It is her father’s bonded object – a pink crystal on a chain. “Your father is the best diviner in town, Ru. I won’t let you run away and die.”
“…I hate you.”
“I loved you.”
“And I love you.” She shakes her head. “But if you’re not going to come with me –”
He shakes his head.
“Then I don’t love you anymore.”
“Go, then.” Anger has replaced desperation. “Go and fight kobolds and sleep in the mud, and miss my wedding. Then, the day after tomorrow, we’ll send out a guard to collect you, at a great cost to your family and mine, and we’ll bring you back home, and nothing will have changed.”
She pouts. “Then, this is my way of saying goodbye.” She opens her arms, and he accepts the hug. But there are no more kisses on the forehead; this is more like a father hugging a petulant child. “Goodbye, Norr.”
“Goodbye, Ruthea.” He smiles, grimly. “You know, in Elvish, there are forty-two ways of saying ‘goodbye’, and only one way of saying ‘hello’ – though it’s more like ‘welcome back.’”
“I know.” And she is gone.
The next morning dawns grey and cool, and preparations for the Lyonus-Kiernan wedding are in full swing. Swept up by the excitement of his bride-to-be, Norr barely has time to think about his missing childhood friend and soon-to-be sister-in-law. Neither does he realize, until well into the evening, that the crystal is gone. His anger is magnificent, moreso even than his father-in-law to whom the item belonged, but eventually he figures that she’ll be back when she’s tired of adventure, and he’ll just have to wait for her to come home.
He waits for a long time.
Roswell is the knight, she thinks. Jura is the druid. Rinzler is the mopey alchemist.
Roswell lets her ride his steed, which she considers to be a small victory for her good looks, or her breasts, or both. She rides with her legs slung over one side on the back half of the saddle, and his back is rigid. He seems uncomfortable.
Kat has the…horse.
They’d fought kobolds under the afternoon sun, and were continuing on westward through gold-coloured fields, the five of them. Four strange companions she’d joined up with for a chance to venture out beyond the Wall, where apparently there were worse things than just kobolds. A couple of skeletons, perhaps. She sniggered to herself. But the town wizard had mentioned other wizard towers – a witch’s tower to the north, and a necromancer’s tower beyond the River Dawn, and a sorceress’ tower far to the west.
The old abbot of the Church of Saint Christopher had loved gold, apparently. Maybe once she’d raided the Church and the wizards’ towers, and given Jacob Plainsview a nice long hug, she’d skip town and find a new collection of pockets to pick.
She smells a good adventure. But mostly she smells loot, and that was a good thing. The sun is high, Roswell had paid for her to cross beyond the Wall, and the future is all hers.
The Firewalkers hold a grand ceremony that night, and she throws herself entirely into the festivities, sparing little thought for poor Roswell, who is likely still off vomiting in the bushes.
Someone with an ounce of sense, and perhaps a healthy sense of irony, has given her a charmed love potion, which she keeps next to the lucky crystal in her pack. Some day, she figures, as she dances over the coals, that old owlbear – pining over lost love! – will rear its head again, and she’ll be ready for it. Apparently it guards the doors to an elf city. Perhaps her father is there.
(Not that she cares about her father, of course, but it would be interesting to meet him. It would be nice to have something to do, other than follow the others around, grabbing at the loot while they weren’t looking.)
The Misericorde catches her eye among the Djinn’s wares, and she trades a trifle for it. They are heading for the Dead Canyons, where she’d heard that tombs full of traps and treasures were waiting for a pair of deft fingers. Her fingers itch with excitement.
As they march southward, her mind drifts back to the poster someone had hung in the Boar and Thistle that morning. A fugitive, fleeing west – and five thousand platinum for bringing him in alive! She’d never met a changeling before. He seemed attractive.
“Avalanche – the lawful evil card of dexterity,” Doctor Haiduc says, examining the card she’d drawn to represent an ill omen in her present. “It represents disaster: an unthinking panic and destruction that overruns all.”
“Huh,” Ru says.
“Wait, hold up for a second. What’s a Deck of Many Things?”
Their search for Sosostriss in her tower still fruitless, Ru has nonetheless learned an important piece of information: the Lucky Crystal, which Valconey surmised was some sort of key, is in fact a portal key. She and the gentleman barbarian Gorgoroth, apparently both motivated by a deep desire for suicide, jumped through the active portal, and are now on the run in some sort of ruined city. A serpant-man screams in Aklo that they will make fine sacrifices to the dragon, or the volcano, or both. Ru’s comprehension of Aklo is still fairly rudimentary.
Sosostriss must be the necromancer Valconey was talking about, if she’s from a place like this, Ru thinks, as they jump back through the portal. She must have killed Rathbone the Red. I bet she was responsible for the Cedar Forest going all wonky. She probably killed Baron Frith.
If we find her, we’re going to have to fight her.
The prismatic eyes from the nightmare follow her into the waking world, all the way to the bottom of the Doors to the North, which turned out to not be an elf city but a vault full of treasure. Ru finds herself surprisingly disappointed.
She has found herself short-tempered and easily frustrated of late. Five years away from home, four months of adventuring out of Willowdale, and she’s only now realized that she has no clue what to do with her life. Gold and gems are boring, and she’s constantly dealing with a nagging feeling that the others she travels with are stronger, and more useful, and more competent than her, and she hates it.
I wanted to be a shadowdancer, she thinks, distracted, as they delve into the lowest and most blasphemed levels of the Church of St. Christopher, trying to figure out what in all the hells went wrong, and mostly to learn how to get into the secret room. I thought it would be cool. But I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what I’m doing, anymore.
(The Doors to the North, surprisingly, gave her the answer she was looking for: the world was full of traps too dangerous to touch, and yet only solvable with a little hands-on manipulation. Maybe those years of studying arcane magic weren’t for nothing…)
Sosostriss is a necromancer, but not evil.
She has an empty nursery. (Ru feels slightly bad, and thinks of home.) She has a library. (Kat has taken out a book for Ru.) She sleeps during the day. (Ru has met stranger people.) She invites them into the tower of her chess partner.
The elegant young man smiles at them with narrowed eyes, and out of the corner of her eye Ru notices that the marble hallway is fuzzy at the edges, and she chokes on the word illusion, and then the hallway is bone and they are waist-deep in blood and a giant suit of armor is rising up to greet hem, and fear so thick she tastes it rises up in her throat, and –
– she wakes from the nightmare, back in the Boar and Thistle.
She writes a letter to her sister.
On one side, a wall and all of civilization; on the other, an army of hobgoblins and three liches riding wyverns. Ru stands on top of the wall, listens to the sound of her heart beating in her ears. She thinks back to the steps she’d learned back, way back, way back, long before Willowdale – dance steps that could fascinate a man, stop him from, say, leading his army on a siege against a wall. The air is still with anticipation. Kat rides out, alone, with an outstretched fist.
Hours later, they stand huddled together in a field reeking of blood, over the body of the Praetor, as the first snowflakes heralding winter fall upon them. Days after that, her and Enrique sit under a table in the Boar and Thistle, drunkenly arguing about the virtues of playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with liches.
Ru isn’t sure why, but she feels as though one phase of her life is over, and something new is about to begin.
She stinks of sweat, and all the muscles in her right arm is burning from the weight, but Korred’s switch hitting at her knees urges her on as she begins the series of steps and slashes and parries and blocks once more. Across the field, Jura is still stubbornly tossing wooden boomerangs. Rinzler is off copying out an entire library. Kat got bored and went for a flight, at some point.
Korred is angry at her, because she told him she doesn’t have a quest.
(These are not easy things, Ru thinks.)
Why the heck not?, she thinks, and that is only and exactly why she drinks from the Fountain of Couth.
They finish their business at the Tomb of Amenenhat early in the day, and so the party reconvenes in the Boar and Thistle itching for a bit more of an adventure. They argue about the virtues of visiting the Witch Woods, or exploring around the ocean, or looking for the Blackened Sun cult that had sent the changelings after them just before the Battle of Willowdale.
In the midst of the argument, Doctor Haiduc mentions that there was still that fugitive on the loose worth quite a pretty penny, and that he’d be able to teleport the entire party right to the man to bring the full force of the law upon him. Kat is troubled at the idea of a fight; Enrique and Alejandra are thirsty to deliver justice; Murdoch is all for roughing someone up. Gorgoroth warns the group that if they do decide to go after Arcade, according to a Commune, someone will die. The thought of a man so strong that he could pose a threat to a group of seven makes Ru’s heart beat a little faster.
“Just look at him,” Ru says, pulling the poster off the wall, holding it to Doctor Haiduc. “Isn’t he gorgeous?”
He is gorgeous.
He is many other things, of course: malicious, and vain, and dangerous, and overwhelmingly evil; but he is also strangely easygoing, and in a weird sort of way freed by his own power.
He is the spitting image of the Arch-Psion, but beyond the lanky musculature and the flawless white skin and the tattoos and the sharp jaw and the wide mouth and the evenly spaced, fire-red eyes, there is an ease about how he carries himself that immediately catches Ru’s attention. She feels snared by the very idea of a man who could just shrug, stand up, and before she could draw her next breath, rush forward and almost decapitate someone.
And even as their swords clash, the conversation flows: how did he become so strong? Who had he worked for, where had he come from, what was his connection to the Arch-Psion? What kind of woman did he find attractive? Would he remember her? She would remember him.
When Ru wakes on the next day of the year she is not surprised to find herself still shaken, quite badly. Her hands tremble as she goes about her morning routine, and when she looks in the mirror, there is the crusty outline of tears on her cheeks.
I could have said no, she thinks, as she cleans her face. I could have refused to go. But that would have been stupid; she never would have seen him, if she had said no, and her friends may have died fighting him with one man down. I could have refused to chase him. But that would have been equally stupid; she wouldn’t have been able to stop them. And then she never would have found the city, all sparkling gold and full of strange-talking elves…
So she changes her thoughts. He’s evil, she tells her reflection. He tried to kill us. We gave him the chance to come peacefully, and he tried to kill us. Can you send letters to prisoners? She shakes her head, violently. He said he would kill you. He said he would save you for last, but he still was ready to kill you.
She hates him for who he is; hates him for making her weak and childish, for making blather on uncontrollably, trying to squeeze a story or two out of him before he was locked away for a handful of change. Well, what else could I have done? She is not strong; she does not have awesome spells or weapons, just her wits and her guile, and he had rendered even that useless with an overwhelming and yet oddly demure display of raw, evil power. I should hate him for that.
She writes a letter to Norr.
(Much later, she would learn that her father was in Alsea; she’d probably bumped into him, at some point. But her mind had moved on, to the thought that strength and freedom were goals in and of themselves, and she had found a new purpose in life: to make herself worthy of him.)
Erevis and Kat drool on her cloak as she drags them out of the labyrinth.
Turtlerose does not help.
Ru curses Rathbone for the eight hundred millionth time.
- Talk to the orc king about the kobold king
- Get the potion (Arch-Psion)'
- Get the dagger (Axehand)
- Slay the necromancer
- Marry Arcade
Kat concentrates hard, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. Ru’s hopes aren’t very high, but she figures it’s worth a try. Another try. She’s been trying for months.
Finally, Kat opens her eyes. “He says hi,” she says.
Ru’s heart leaps into her throat.
(Jacob Plainsview is imprisoned, on the back of charges that she doesn’t really care to learn about.)
At some point, Ru isn’t sure when, things went from very simple (walk out from the Wall, fight something, come home) to very, very complicated. Suddenly there are at least five disciples of the Necromancer, running around giving boxes of candy to naïve halflings; what were once simple dangers to run away from are now things to be fixed, or left alone, depending on who you asked; Vargas is marching east; the Church of the Blackened Sun is a real place that trains assassins. Arguments among the Pathfinders are common, and tempers flare daily. Ru doesn’t feel smart enough or that she cares enough to keep up with them, and falls into a silent supporting role.
She is thankful, at least, that she has Rinzler and Kat’s trust. Some days she worries that they’ll travel out alone and return with grey skin and allegiances to some Necromancer beyond the River Dawn. The only thing that keeps Ru sane is the knowledge that Arcade is out of prison; surely the rest of her life will fall into place once she finds him again.
Surely, she thinks, as the company marches towards Castle Callistan. On the eve of winter Noale left town and never returned, and sometimes Ru thinks of her, and is slightly jealous.
The Hotchi copy of her regards her, coolly, with empty eyes. She is desperately wracking her brain for an answer to the puzzle, a way out, but she can think of none.
Watching Gorgoroth stride so confidently into the Black Mirror, she had thought for a moment that it wasn’t going to kill them. But she was made hoarse by the might of her agony, the burning of two legs frostbitten past the knees – and then Gorgoroth passed out from his pain, died smiling as the mirror tore him into the bits that had made him alive, once.
She is of two minds, then. The first is screaming, over and over, I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die! The second is weeping: there is no other way. There is no other way.
(These are not easy things.)
And when she makes up her mind, it comes with a cold, calm serenity. In that moment she had only the space to think about how stupidly it was all ending, on her knees, bloody and naked; and how, rather strangely, she had nothing to regret, other than not having the chance to say hello and goodbye again to Arcade, and a feeling that Rinzler would be angry.
(These are never easy things.)
Dysmorphia: she sees billions of machine men, making machine things. And then, in a moment of dazzling clarity, she sees herself motionless on a table, for what she truly is: a toy soldier, in a toy war.
Chained to a wall, wearing nothing but a cotton robe and carrying nothing but her mother’s bones and an overwhelming sense of dread, Ru meets the impassive glare of the Fifth Disciple of the Necromancer.
Everything that has ever happened, they have figured a way out – even if that way was death, at least she had chosen to die. Always, they had their things with them, the products of their hands and minds. She knows that it is over. They have lost. The thought drives her wild. When the Fifth leans over Rinzler’s prone body with a knife, she starts to scream and wail, her voice the only thing not bound. He strides back over to shut her up.
She figures that she might as well get it over with quickly, and spits in his face.
A week in captivity has left her gaunt and exhausted. But it has also strengthened her resolve, and her person: she knows, now, not to rely on anything but herself.
They race up to freedom, and her eyes catch the light as something glints in the dark.
She’d heard talk that love makes one beautiful, and she figured that was more or less true, in a fashion – someone who didn’t care about the way they looked would surely, upon falling in love, paint their face a little better in the presence of their object of affection. She’d seen it happen more than once; when she’d installed herself in Willowdale, in those early, early days, and courted men for pocket-money, she’d watched some of the poorer of them change in the hopes of capturing a spry little wife.
But she herself had been beautiful even then – hadn’t she? All dirty and baby-faced, innocent in her depravity? Well, she’d been weaker then, and younger, and a little less worldly. Possibly beautiful. Definitely not ready to be his.
(And isn’t strength its own kind of beauty? Beyond the things that had drawn her to him before they had met – the poster of his face, smirking at the world, waiting for someone to waste their life coming after him – there was something so achingly gorgeous about his display of raw, chaotic evil, the way he’d sauntered up to Alejandra and nearly taken her head off…)
Well, to each their own, she thinks, as the group scales a sand dune to the tune of waves lapping at the Rheic Shores.
And there, some hundred feet away, is his camp. There is a lone figure lounging in the sand. She feels her heart speed up to triple-time. Oddly, it brings to mind her mother’s warning, on one of the few occasions that she had caught her mother after a few drinks. Exercise caution in all things, Ruthea, she’d said with a sigh, a faraway look in her eyes. Especially in love.
Because there is Arcade, the man she had missed dearly for six months, during which she had contented herself by making herself beautiful for him: praying to his gods, learning the secrets of the world, teaching herself to trust in the worth of her own two hands – and isn’t that just swell, the way her love had made her beautiful? Isn’t it great? Wasn’t it enough?
(It is not an easy thing, love, her mother says, in a memory.
I think he showed me what I could become, Ruthea thinks, almost in response.)
On the beach near the elf-town they smoked cigarettes and made love, and it had been six years since she had left home.
(Years later, in a moment of unusually deep contemplation, she would recall feeling slightly disappointed, upon finally meeting him; where once she had been unworthy of him, now, stripped of all his possessions and all of his drive, she felt as though he was unworthy of her.
But in the moment she was caught in the rush and the intensity of being, and he was all that mattered.)
Something has changed in the way the First carries himself, and Ru chalks it up to the fact that besides Rinzler and Kat there is only her, and she feels outnumbered. His anger is very hot, and very real. The stupidest part of it all is that she understands exactly what he is getting at.
Because it is, indeed, a stupid, messed-up world, and it is certainly a world full of dumb people with big weapons. But it is also a world that, over the past year, Ru has fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with, moreso even than Arcade, and the sad grey stitched-up man-wizard-thing before her will never, ever understand that.
Kat whispers, very sadly, that she will go. Stunned silence, and then an order from the First to keep this mockery of betrayal a secret.
Ru looks to Rinzler and she knows that she cannot, because if she is nothing she is a blabber-mouth, when it comes to things that should be kept secret.
“I can’t,” Ru says. The cogs of destiny stumble in their revolution.
Upon their return to town, Ru suddenly realizes that Kat is not wearing the Elf-stone.
In one second she connects that strange disappearance to the purchase of a lead box.
In two seconds she is pale-faced and rage-blind.
In three she is screaming, in four she is crying; Rinzler regards her dully, and Kat looks heartbroken but steadfast. Ru begs and pleads, cajoles, tries diplomacy and brute intimidation, tries reason and tries volume. She is angry and frightened and she feels nauseous, but at her heart of hearts, she feels betrayed, and tricked.
The Queen of Thieves, as it is, has been tricked and stolen from; she feels it like a mortal wound.
“You can learn a lot about people by being them,” Arcade says, and then takes another drag on his cigarette. He passes it to her, and she tastes him, deeply.
She didn’t mean for it to slip out, but it did, as the monster turned on Jura – the great culmination of all the anger, and arguments, and heartache, of the past few months. There had been a time, once, when she had trusted Rinzler and Kat above all others; they had laughed and joked and did silly things together, and plumbed deep secrets, and outsmarted traps and monsters, and looked for the true nature of things. She had lent Rinzler the Lucky Crystal, the symbol of her freedom, and he had given it back.
Now, blinded by her anger, it felt to her as though the two of them were working to save themselves, had decided who got to live and who got to die, and had cut her out of the discussion. And who, at the end of it all, was most likely to stand by her side, faithfully, unquestionably, not knowing or caring about her past or her demeanour?
(Because Ru, as much as the rest of them, wants to get out of all of this alive – in the end.)
Ru hates Kat, blames her for Gorgoroth’s near-death, for Rinzler’s curse, for all of their eventual and inevitable demise. But below her righteous indignation is shame, a deep and severe shame, and the knowledge that Rinzler and the First are right, the knowledge that Kat is indeed better than all of them, and she hates Kat for that most of all.
The half-elf woman before them is achingly beautiful if grey-skinned, and cruel-looking, and proud of her gem collection and the fact that she has wormed her way into the heart of the Necromancer for a chance to live freely in her beautiful new world.
Disturbed beyond belief, Ru sees exactly the thing she would have wanted to be, a year and a half ago, in the Sixth Disciple of the Necromancer.
Ru and Arcade pool their pipeweed in the antechamber of the Shrine to the Twin Gods, and upon entering the main room decide that the world is going to end, anyways, so they burn it all; what feels like moments but is surely hours later, they come to their senses in the arms of one another, and the clothes as well, and Ru is happy and foolish and in love.
The next day Ru calls on him to join her in their final and greatest battle, and Arcade says no. She tells him that the world is ending. She can feel him shrug his shoulders when he responds that it’s a crying shame, and they had a good thing going there for a bit, didn’t they?
Ru sees herself, in that moment, laughing as she seduces Roswell and Rain and Plainsview and Hanz and Calmex and the Diamondback, and she realizes that she told Arcade she wanted a lover but she had meant that she wanted a love. She sees herself burning Norr’s letters, under a cover of snow, thinking of Rinzler and Leão and the Arch-Psion and the dust, and she knows, then, that she had never loved Arcade at all, just loved the idea of him.
For six months she had waited for him! For six months she had turned herself inside out, moulded herself into something else, and made herself beautiful for him! And at the end of it all, she had thought, waiting for her was a long and open road, and a hand to hold, and a deeply physical love to enjoy until the end of her days…
…And Willowdale smells of burning wood and flesh when they return from the raid on the Church of the Blackened Sun, the blood of the Chanticleer on her hands. They argue about what to do with a very obvious ploy to get them to rush headlong into the belly of the Necromancer. Ru is in tears by the end, feeling lost and frightened and alone and hopeless, because after it all, she was fighting for a world for her and Arcade, and now she knows neither if she’ll have Arcade, or if they can stop the coming of the blackened sun at all.
(Surely, she thinks, in a moment of severe lucidity – surely, there was a reason the sword Korred gave Arcade was blue in the hilt. Finally, after a year and a half, she has an answer for Rinzler: she hates the colour blue, for it will forever remind her of love, lost.)
They sit on the roof of the Boar & Thistle and she smokes cigarette after cigarette, and they talk about all they’ve been through, together, and she knows that he will never be hers.
And suddenly, and savagely, she realizes that this whole time she has loved Rinzler, madly, but without the telltale sign of physical attraction; and that the love of Rinzler and Arcade has made her strong, through competition and through a desire to make herself worthy of affection; has made her learn to love herself, even more than the two of them; and through it all, she has learned to love the world, even more than her love of men and her life combined.
Well, we’re dead men walking, she thinks, and lifts Prince By-tor’s visor.
He’s an understandably bad kisser.
Before them stands the Necromancer, the incarnation of violent and chaotic evil, who rose from a dead nation and swore to bring about another, who cursed his disciples and brought them within the folds of his cloak; the vermin-spawn, the hell-vision, the nightmare with prismatic eyes. Dwarfed by his physical might, Ru knows there is nothing she can do to hurt him, and curses her own weakness in her final hours.
Something bumps against her head. She turns to her left, and sees Kat astride Sparkle Pony, biting her lip and near tears; she has telekinetically, and secretly, passed Ru the Elfstone. A sadness and warmth beyond anything else fills Ru, and she knows that this boon and trust must not go without response.
But more than that, more than any of them, more than anything else, she wants Kat to live.
So in return, she gives Kat the Lucky Crystal, the symbol of her freedom.
His assault leaves her broken and bloody, and more than once very nearly dead, and the Ascendant Green Warrior – the sword which she, in a moment of silliness, had secretly renamed Norr – cannot hope to pierce his black armor or the worms which make up his body. All she has is the Elfstone, the avatar of life, the bringer of stars and storms, the emblem of trust and kinship, and the only thing that has saved her life.
As the eight of them assault the Necromancer, she becomes very aware of all the things on herself: the armor forged from Raylos’ feathers; the belt from the hobgoblin camp; the dress from the body of the Sixth; the glove from Rathbone’s tower; the ring from the Fane of the Necromancer; the cloak from the Drow city; the bracelet, a Yule present from Valconey; the Ioun Stone, from the Doctor’s basement; the Thieves’ Tools, purchased on her first day in Willowdale; the Iron Rose, the orcish tattoo, the Circle of Shared Sound, still keyed to Arcade.
She thinks back to her first day as a Pathfinder, wearing dancing clothes and carrying nothing but a whip and her father’s crystal, and she is sad to see those easy days gone.
She turns the card that represents a good omen in her near future. “The Empty Throne,” Doctor Haiduc says, “The lawful good card of charisma. It represents those who are gone, or a ghost of the past that has taught important lessons.”
Ru sniggers at the thought.
They return as heroes, carrying their battered and broken bodies, two men down; Alejandra is still silenced by the depths of her heartbreak, and not for the first time Ru wonders if her own family has cried for her. She is barely conscious, and she knows that her body – her Hotchi-made body, cleansed of all marks – will have fresh scars, in the morning.
But that night is for bandaging and for celebrating; the world is saved, for now, saved from a force of order and evil, returned to anarchy and chaos and freedom, the way it was meant to be.
They reminisce and drink and rejoice and cry, not sadly, not for Halstein who chose death, nor for Kat who chose life, but for everything before them and everything behind them, and for a world that is now all theirs.
The First was handsome in his sadness, and she was not surprised to see him go.
Kat does not give the crystal back.
This, more than anything, leaves Ru with peace.
The next few months are busy with the art of rebuilding, but she finds her skills of little use in that respect; she is more used to breaking and charming than she is to crafting and creating. She spends most of her time as she did long before, dancing to bolster the moods of the townspeople, who still give her a wide berth, more now out of respect than for the sake of their wallets.
But the open road is calling her, and there is still a great wild world out there beyond the Wall, bristling with secrets. Two years after she first came to Willowdale, seven after she first left home, she bids her friends farewell, and promises to write letters whenever she can. She departs for wherever her feet, and her fickle mind, and the whims of the Ageless Traitor would take her.
She takes the Hag’s Brew, and the Stiletto of Set, and the Misericorde, and the Elfstone, her symbol of trust, and love, and freedom.
For the sake of history, and for the first men whom she had truly loved – one a librarian, still waiting for her; the other an archivist, with whom she would surely cross paths again – she writes a book.
She begins it by listing all forty-two ways of saying goodbye, and the one way of saying ‘welcome back’, in the language of her people.
If you ever encounter a violet-eyed, blonde-haired half-elf travelling at night, offer her some pipe-weed, and for the cost of your wallet (which you’ll discover is empty, come morning), she’ll tell you the story of how she fell in love with the world.
“But verily, it be the nature of dreams to end.”
The Wind Fish