This short story is one that I’ve had in mind for a long, long time. It’s about the end of the Ancient Dreams universe, an incredible amount of time in the future after the rest of the series. I hope you enjoy it!
The End Comes
A sound like rolling thunder echoed endlessly across the blasted landscape, lights flashing as beams of energy split the air. The landscape was horrifying, as not a living thing grew there. The very dirt and stone had been fused into a sheet of solid glass several feet thick, broken only where craters had been blasted into it.
Across the landscape crawled countless vehicles, some of them with treads, others with dozens of legs, and still others walking on two or more massive legs like lumbering giants. Their surfaces were as varied as their appearances, some of them with silvery skin, others with metal black as midnight, and still others seemingly made of stone. Yet all of them were covered in countless magical runes strengthening the armor, and they bore weapons that spat ravening beams of energy toward their targets.
Their target was far more impressive than anything in the broken wasteland. Three walls stood back to back in vast, hundred-mile diameter circles. Each wall was gleaming silver metal, standing tall and proud, yet seamless on the outside, with no gates to grant entrance, and every half-mile a proud spire extended upward. The interior of each wall was covered in runes, far more elegant and refined than those which the attackers bore, and every time the wall took damage, the runes shimmered and the wall repaired itself. A vast, shimmering dome of red energy extended from one edge of the outermost wall to the opposite, stopping any attacks which missed the walls themselves.
Atop the walls were golems, creatures of metal and runes that stood fearless guard, each of them wielding a cannon which would take four human men to merely transport, yet the golems could use easily. Each of them took aim at their attackers, firing at a steady rate. They were tireless, relentless, and completely immune to fear, despite the approach of more attackers than one could count. Their shots shattered the vehicles, often only after a dozen shots or more, causing them to explode violently, all their occupants killed. Yet bit by bit, the attackers drew steadily closer, the ground behind them littered with the shattered, burning wreckage of innumerable destroyed vehicles.
The sky above was different. In the vault of the heavens, many stars had died, perhaps as many as half their number gone without a trace. The sun was no longer visible as night fell, but one could practically see its enormous red silhouette at this point, as it loomed ominously above a dying world. Yet those who fought in the skies were beacons of hope.
A legion of angels, clad in armor crafted of white wood inscribed with silver wood, fought alongside demons, dragons, elementals… and deities. Male and female deities alike thundered through the heavens, wielding cannons like those the golems wielded, great axes and swords that shone with all the light of the sun when it was young and powerful, yet even more potent somehow. Against them were flying vessels that mirrored the ones on the ground, attacking with all the fury they could muster, and still more demons and devils, backed up by shadowy gods and demon lords who fought with all the power they had… only to be thrown back by the defenders with contemptuous ease.
Which wasn’t to say that the defenders were invincible. A handful fell here and there, only to be caught by their compatriots and taken behind the shield to be healed or resurrected as needed. And, just as a trio of demon lords were about to tear into a vulnerable goddess, there was a flash of silver light from near the very center of the shield, and a bolt of metal tore through the skies, piercing the chest of a demon lord and vanishing into the horizon before anyone could react. The demon lord fell, and her companions fled in fear, but they didn’t make it far as two more bolts slew them.
Yet within the walls the land was as different from the outside as could be. Rail lines created concentric paths around the circumference of the land, with several lines extending to and from the middle, where a mountain could faintly be seen, the limbs of an immense weeping willow extending outward from its sides, each with silver-white bark, while tiny ruby jewels adorned its branches, and green-gold leaves fluttered in the breeze.
Not a single piece of the land below was unused, though. Barracks and workshops were just within the walls, followed by small towns, fields of crops, and towering buildings that veritably pulsed with mana, mana reactors. As one drew inward, the number of fields would change to still more workshops and the buildings generating mana, until one reached the city. Beacon. A mountain-fortress with walls bearing magic which put the defenses of the outer walls to shame, and with towering homes and mana reactors.
Atop the mountain, framed by the branches of the tree, was an ancient palace, not showing the advancements wrought by artificing, none of the metal and glittering runes here. No, it was ancient, yet within its walls was magic more advanced than anything around it. Atop the palace was a tower, at the peak of which was a vast ruby the size of one of the reactors themselves, shimmering with unimaginable power, and standing below it, circling slowly, was a nymph of incredible beauty, her lips curved in a smile as magic played across her lips, watching the bodies of the demon lords she’d killed fall from the sky.
Within the palace, things were different. Mage-light lit many halls, yet they were hushed, as few people spoke, and little laughter could be heard. Until one reached a room which was built around a model of the city, extending all the way out to the land far beyond the walls, where tiny illusions of the various defenders and attackers could be seen. Around the table were five people.
Two were men, elves with tanned skin and weary blue eyes, one with silver hair, the other white. The first was wearing a circlet of simple silver, and had comfortable-looking blue clothing as he leaned on the edge of the table. Two more of those present were women, one an elven woman with hair like spun gold and violet eyes, one light and one dark, that looked far more ancient than one might be able to imagine, who wore archaic-looking white robes with gold runework on them, while the other woman was a brunette human woman with short white wings that betrayed her angelic heritage, as well as eyes such a light blue they looked almost silver. She wore comfortable, modern clothing that almost matched the two men, though it wasn’t quite as nice.
The last woman in the room looked like she was completely displaced in time, and somehow more ancient than the elven woman while still appearing young. Her skin looked like white, polished wood, her lips gold, and her eyes a brilliant emerald. Golden hair spilled down her back in waves almost to her ankles, and a shimmering white dress hung carelessly from one shoulder, doing little to hide her beautiful figure. None of those present seemed to care about that, though. Not with the immense power that rippled off her.
“Quadrant four looks like it’s taking more damage.” Caldra Constella, the man with the circlet said, letting out a heavy sigh. “How long, do you think? Until you clear the field?”
Sistina considered the illusion for a moment, reaching up to tap her lips as she ran through calculations. After a few seconds she nodded, and spoke softly, gravely. “Hours. Two.”
The man frowned, then asked hesitantly. “Isn’t that less time than last time around?”
“It is.” Diane said, frowning unhappily. “I’m not sure exactly how much faster they’re coming, but the amount of time between activations has been decreasing every time.”
Sistina sighed, tapping her finger against the table as she formulated a sentence in her head, then spoke properly. “I estimate two and a half years, before they come so quickly I cannot continue to stop them.”
The other man paled, swallowing, then asked hesitantly. “It’s… truly that bad? I had thought…”
“Ralan!” the angelic woman interrupted, looking at him impatiently. “Beacon has held off all comers for over a century at this point, even as the dark lords crushed all the other embers of resistance, we’ve withstood them. Yet as powerful as Sistina is, no matter how powerful of a fortress as Beacon is, we’re up against the resources of all the rest of the multiverse! No matter what, we will fall, absent some miracle.”
For a moment everyone was silent, then Ralan sighed, bowing his head as he whispered. “I know, Amanda. I know that. I just… I hoped for a few more years.”
“We all did.” Caldra said, pushing away from the table with a sigh. “There’s nothing we can do? We could clear more land for a few more mana reactors… maybe more golems for the walls…?”
Sistina shook her head decisively, her voice coming out shortly. “Not enough. Would buy hours. Not days. Not weeks. Hours. Total.”
“Damn.” Amanda said, looking crestfallen, then took a deep breath, giving a shaky smile as she said. “What a time to live in, eh? To see everything… ready to fall.”
“In that case, it sounds to me like you need an escape plan. Tsk, really, Marin… ignoring your own advice?” another voice said, and Sistina spun, her eyes widening as a figure emerged from nothingness behind her. “I thought you taught me better than that.”
Each of those in the room saw something different when they turned. Amanda saw a woman who was dark-skinned and with the wings of a fallen angel. Caldra saw an elven woman with pale skin, the same circlet and clothing, and with hair a brilliant gold. Ralan saw something similar, just more subdued and a reflection of himself as a woman. Diane saw herself, but with light red eyes, silvery skin, and hair black as pitch. And Sistina… she saw an elven woman with auburn hair, warm brown eyes, and who was wearing an archaic green dress. The woman took two steps forward and picked Sistina up by the waist, swirling her in a circle as if she was weightless before setting her down again with a grin.
“Who in all the hells—” Ralan began, reaching for a rod holstered at his side, but before he could draw it, Diane grabbed his wrist firmly.
“No. Not if you want to live.” Diane said, her gaze fixed on the intruder, her eyes wide. “This… it’s impossible.”
The intruder just gave her a wicked smile, her eyes glittering with mirth.
“Emonael. How?” Sistina managed after a few seconds, staring at her in disbelief.
“Emonael, the goddess of magic?” Caldra demanded, straightening abruptly as he stared at her. “B-but… her plane was destroyed! It was one of the first targets of the dark lords when they started their war!”
“Yes, it was their target, and they thought they pushed me to the point that I detonated the plane to destroy them. They were wrong.” Emonael replied, grinning even more widely. “Yes, I lost the outermost layer of my plane, but that’s what it was built for. They never knew that I’d hidden in the aftermath.”
“Yet you didn’t tell anyone. Not even Wenris?” Diane asked softly, then she curtseyed, blushing. “Ah, my apologies… greetings, Queen in Mirrors. I was just… she wept for you.”
“I know.” Emonael replied, and her mirth seemed to fade as her expression turned to sadness “I even cut off some of my followers, and collected their souls carefully when they died. The situation was… dangerous. Only by deceiving everyone could I evade their attention, until the time was right. And now, I’m afraid that we are out of time.”
“What are you talking about?” Amanda asked, frowning deeply. “We have a few years, don’t we?”
“Yes, you could hold out that long. Even the full forces of the enemy would be hard pressed to break your defenses, and I am fortunate that Sistina gave me a way inside long, long ago.” Emonael conceded, inclining her head slightly. “However, just because you could hold out for a few years does not mean that the end is not nigh. In truth, it’s most assuredly nigh, and I’m not leaving Sistina to that fate. Observe, the Loom of Fate.”
With a snap of her fingers, a loom appeared in the room, filled with a breathtaking tapestry of glittering threads, each a subtly different color, and held by a framework of unidentifiable silver metal. The tapestry seemed to fill all the cosmos, yet somehow fit into the room, and everyone except Sistina gasped at the sight of it. Instinctively, they could identify the moment that they were present on the tapestry, where the weave had narrowed down to almost nothing… and they saw the point where all the threads ended, just barely beyond that point in time.
“H-how?” Ralan asked, his voice trembling.
“I took the loom when Fate died. He was very irate about the whole thing, I can tell you that much.” Emonael replied absently. “Or was that not what you were asking about?”
“Emonael, behave.” Sistina said sternly, giving her a disapproving look.
The goddess pouted, then let out a sigh, shrugging. “I don’t know what’s going to end everything, even if I know that your enemies cannot break your defenses yet. I just know that the end is nigh, and that means that it’s time to leave.”
“Ah… that’s all well and good to say, but where can we go?” Caldra asked hesitantly, looking between Sistina and Emonael slowly. “From what the gods have said, there isn’t a single place in the heavens, hells, or mortal plane that’s safe at this point. Some of them fled here when the last other points of resistance fell.”
Emonael paused, looking at them, and a smile bloomed on her face once more, as her appearance warped, then changed so that all of them saw what Sistina did. They seemed startled at the change, but she ignored their reactions.
“Long, long ago, I was Marin’s apprentice. Before her death, ascension as an angel, descent to become a demon, or reincarnation as the World Tree.” Emonael said, a note of fondness in her voice as she looked at Sistina in both grief and triumph. “She gave me a book at the end of her life, the volume of her Codex which even now overshadows all knowledge of magic that has come since it. The source of my title as the keeper of forbidden knowledge. She also gave me advice to always have an escape route. So, I’ve been working on that for a long, long time.”
Emonael paused, reaching up to stroke Sistina’s cheek gently, pausing before she asked. “Have I done well, Teacher? Have I made you proud?”
Sistina reached up, holding the hand against her cheek, then slowly inclined her head, replying with a single, heartfelt word. “Yes.”
Joy blossomed on Emonael’s face, as she smiled in a way that was breathtaking to those present. After decades of knowing that they were slowly losing, that their generation would be the last that would survive free of the darkness that surrounded them, any happiness and joy had grown fleeting and weighed down by the knowledge of what was to come. This happiness wasn’t like that, it was something pure, powerful beyond measure. It was something precious, which would stick in their minds for as long as they lived.
“Good.” Emonael said, her eyes glittering as she added. “I never gave up on you, you know.”
Sistina rolled her eyes, letting go of her hand as she spoke gently. “Shameless flirt.”
“I am! I’m a brilliant shameless flirt!” Emonael replied, laughing again as she spun in place. “What do you do when the world is about to end? You leave. Not the planet, not the plane… you leave the multiverse. Not that it’s easy, but I figured it out, and I’ve been preparing for almost as long as you’ve been the World Tree. So, now it is time to go.”
“Err… what about the rest of us?” Ralan asked, and everyone looked at him, causing him to blush and ask. “What did I say?”
“Do you think that Marin would ever allow me to spirit her away and leave everyone else to their deaths? She who refused an offer of immortality by my side as a mortal, and sacrificed her own life for others?” Emonael asked, rolling her eyes. “Please, that’s what made this such a difficult project. Making room in the center of my plane for the entire city was difficult, as was the spell to collect it. All that remains is for you to call your defenders back and clear the pests. I could do it, but I do need all the mana I can muster.”
Sistina looked at her curiously for a moment, and while she was inclined to agree, she’d long-since made the decision that she wouldn’t make choices for others, and that she wasn’t in charge. So she turned to Caldra and arched an eyebrow. “Your Majesty?”
“This again? You know that you—” Caldra began, then cut himself short as he straightened, considering for half a second, then looked at the others. “You amount to my council. Opinions? I don’t see any reason in all the hells we shouldn’t do it, but…”
“You kidding? Let’s do it. Anything is better than just sitting here, waiting to die!” Amanda said, snorting softly. “If we’re going to go out, better to do it on our own terms.”
“I trust her, as much as I’m willing to trust anyone who doesn’t reveal their true form.” Diane said dryly, examining Emonael skeptically. The goddess stuck out her tongue in response.”
“Exactly one person gets to see me as I truly am, thank you.” Emonael said, giving Sistina a meaningful look.
Ralan sighed and nodded. “If Sistina trusts her, then I’ll agree. I don’t know enough about what leaving the multiverse would entail, but… well, let’s leave it at that.”
“Very well. In that case, Sistina, I ask that you do as she says.” Caldra said, and looked at Ralan, adding. “Send out a warning to everyone that something is going to happen.”
“Yes, Your Majesty!” Ralan said, snapping to attention, then raced out of the room.
As he left, Sistina nodded, and with a pulse of will she activated one of the spells carved into the table and spoke. “Aerial forces, withdraw for cleansing of the field and remain within. Assistance has arrived.”
She let the spell fade, and watched as almost immediately the tiny illusions of the various defenders retreated, including the tiny image of Medaea, which brought a smile to her face. The instant they retreated, the enemy began fleeing, but they couldn’t run fast enough.
Sistina reached into the depths of her domain, into the bedrock where she’d buried the enormous adamantine and platinum ritual circle, and channeled mana into it. Mana surged into it in a flood, as rune after rune activated, and light almost like the sun had dawned slowly shimmered along the outer wall of Beacon. Even the golems ceased firing, and Sistina watched pitilessly as the magic built into a flood… and the ultimate defense of Beacon activated.
Light erupted not just from the walls, but also from the dome above, and the ravening wave of energy rushed from the walls outward for a hundred miles in mere moments. Only then did the light fade, and what it left in its wake was… nothing. Nothing but a smooth field of molten glass, with no sign of any of the attackers who had only moments before been fleeing across it. Nor was their any sign of the flying assailants, as the sky churned angrily from the superheated air, booms echoing across the landscape.
“Beautiful.” Emonael said in admiration, looking at the illusion for a moment, then up at Sistina. “You crafted a defense which even I would hesitate to face, Teacher.”
Sistina inclined her head, smiling slightly in satisfaction, then looked at her expectantly.
“Yes, yes, it’s my turn. I swear, you’ve grown even less vocal over the last thousand years…” Emonael said, and she gestured lazily at the sky, making a beckoning gesture.
The twisting clouds above parted suddenly, and for the first time in over five hundred years, Emonael’s plane could be seen. Once composed of thirteen spherical frames, each in the shapes of different magical runes. On the interior of the frames, each incredibly vast, were cities, gardens, forests, and lakes, in which the goddess’s followers lived out their lives and afterlives. Yet in the center, where had once floated a tower, was nothing at all.
Caldra gasped, looking out the window at it, and his voice was tiny. “Gods of—”
“Magic.” Emonael interjected, grinning broadly. “Goddess, technically. I’m no Spellweaver, but I’m powerful enough. And now it is time to go. Brace yourselves, this will be fun!”
With another gesture, the innermost ring of the plane lit up, and Sistina staggered slightly, as the entire, fifty-mile radius of her domain was bodily ripped from the earth, shedding the molten glass, stone below them, and water from several underground reservoirs. It was incredibly disconcerting, as Sistina couldn’t remember having moved like that in the entire time since she’d become a tree.
The spheres above them rotated, opening the way to their center as they ascended, and Sistina watched in as much wonder as the rest of them as they passed through each layer, of the plane, all of them much, much larger than they appeared to be from the outside… until at last they were in the center of the plane, floating within like it’s capital. When they looked outside, though, Sistina’s eyes widened marginally, for unimaginable hordes of enemies were flooding toward them.
“Mm, I knew this was coming. They really do hate me, you know.” Emonael said, and smiled. “Now, then. Time to leave.”
“H-how… are you planning to do that?” Amanda asked, her voice shaking. Sistina could see the flash of white wings, as Medaea winged her way back toward them, but she doubted the goddess would get there before Emonael acted.
“Simple enough. There’s no way to hide enough mana to propel an entire plane outside of the multiverse. They’d have found me centuries ago if I were stockpiling mana like you. No, I chose to take another example from Marin, though unlike her, I have every intention of surviving the experience.” Emonael said, and laughed, extending her hands on either side of her. “Oh, how I’ve been looking forward to this!”
Stars erupted from the plane around them, surrounding them with the full, twinkling light of the night sky before the end had come. No, not stars, Sistina corrected herself. Souls. Souls that were all… incomplete, after a fashion. Lesser copies of Emonael’s soul, tied to her, and countless in number.
“Emonael…” Sistina warned, giving her a look, and the goddess gave an apologetic shrug.
“I know, this will hurt. But I’ve been creating them for generations, and they all agree with me. This is the only way. Hold on tight, Teacher.” Emonael said, grinning broadly.
Before anyone could do anything, every one of those motes of light blazed with light, turning themselves into pure mana, and the spheres of the plane lit up with power, as the spells they formed activated at long last. A portal to a place of incomprehensible gray opened before the portal, and the plane rushed through it… and as it did, Sistina saw the time on the loom run out at the very moment they fully entered the portal.
Behind them, the horde of dark creatures was rushing for the portal as well, but Sistina caught a glimpse of a figure of light in front of it, a blazing sword in hand, then the portal snapped shut.
Emonael fell to her knees, gasping, but her expression was one of triumph. “I… I did it! Hah, I did it!”
“You did.” Sistina agreed, smiling wryly, then shook her head and did the only thing that seemed appropriate. She knelt next to Emonael and leaned in to give her a long, gentle kiss.
Emonael pressed into the kiss like a man dying of thirst who’d been offered water, wrapping her arms around Sistina’s back as she held the kiss for as long as she could. When she finally broke it off, her smile was brilliant. “Okay… now everything was worth it.”
Sistina shook her head in bemusement, and murmured. “Shameless.”
But she couldn’t say that Emonael was wrong. Not at all.