After the meteors fell and the game started, there had been twelve survivors. Now, in the wake of all that had happened, there were three. Faumea was the worst off, both physically and mentally. She had always seemed aloof to Alruna, before, but in the weeks they’d played together, Alruna had learned the truth: Faumea was painfully, achingly shy.
She hadn’t said a single word since the death of her best friend. Her long, once-luxurious hair was matted and grimy, thick ropes falling into her face and obscuring her wild, pleading eyes. Her smooth, gracefully curving horns were cracked, and Kundal’s gentle care was the only thing preventing her from getting a nasty infection. She spent her time sunk to the bottom of the river they were following on the Battlefield, only coming up to eat.
Not that Kundal was much better off, Alruna had to admit. He’d always been the most kindhearted out of all of them. He was the glue of the group, the unofficial leader, the one who’d kept them going when the sky fell and everything changed. He was, it seemed, the best of them all, mutant or not – and he blamed himself for the nine deaths that had resulted. Where before he would have smiled, now he just looked across the campfire at Alruna with a dead look in his eyes. No – not dead. Despairing. He was hopeless.
Somehow that was even worse.
Still, why should he not despair? They were doomed. They were doomed, and there was nothing anybody could do to save them. There was simply no way three half-dead children could go up against the Black King and prevail, especially when not one of them had managed to reach God Tier. It was no longer a question of if they would die, but how many weeks they could stave off the inevitable. They knew about the Scratch, of course. Kundal refused to even consider it. “It’s no use,” he had responded when she asked him, “trusting people we don’t know anything about with something as important as our entire species. There's nothing we can do anymore. Just…let it die, Alruna. Let Alternia die.”
How was she supposed to do that? She loved Alternia! She thought of where she grew up: trunks of pine trees breaking through the dispersing early-evening mist, wrapping her in a comforting smell. She used to climb as high as she could, just to see the stars bright and clear above her. Some nights, it was so beautiful she wanted to cry, wanted to lock it away in her heart forever.
When the sky fell, her beautiful forest had burned. It had been a cloudless night, but the smoke choked out the stars, and for a moment she’d had a terrifying premonition. The stars were going out!
No, Alruna could not let Alternia die. Whether or not Kundal agreed, she would complete the Scratch. She had to.
It didn’t take long for Alruna to get from the Battlefield to the Land of Clocks and Quicksilver. Her planet was one of vast metallic oceans and toxic silvery mists, great clockface islands breaking the waves and providing columns of fresh air for a traveller to breathe. She’d spent weeks, she thought wistfully, trying to decipher the code engraved on the gigantic clock hands. When the others started to die, she threw herself more and more desperately at the riddle, certain the answer would save them all.
She’d been right. She knew where to find the Dial Mesa now.
The route was a strangely obvious one, in the end, following the hands of the few mysterious stopped clocks. She’d been too afraid to follow it to the end before then, too afraid of what she’d see at the finish line, but she had no choice now. She was going to save her people.
Her lungs burned and her head swam, mercury fumes taking their toll. Her fingertips were going numb, but she kept a firm grip on her wands. She couldn’t afford to die now. She couldn’t let everything be in vain. A silver light shone before her, and it was all she could do to pray aloud that it was the Dial Mesa, and not a hallucination.
Her prayers were answered as she touched solid ground, and the mists were replaced by cool, clean air. She let herself rest for a few moments, cheek pressed against the clockface, but no matter how much fresh air she sucked in, her vision wavered and the ground pulsed like a beating heart.
As Alruna lifted her face from the glossy surface and looked around, she realized that the pulse was very real. She got to her feet just in time to leap over a razor-sharp hand sweeping her way, and stumbled over to the center, reeling as if she was drunk. Sensation still hadn't returned to her fingers, and when she collapsed to her knees on the middle platform, she realized her legs were going numb as well. No matter. There were two grooves there, and she could see how her wands would slot inside, as if they were made for it. Perhaps, she thought suddenly, they were.
With a chill, she noticed the clockface read one minute to midnight. She was tempted to slam her wands in the grooves right then and release the power she’d been building, but something told her to wait.
Was she doing the right thing? She was doing the right thing, wasn’t she?
Kundal hadn’t wanted her to Scratch them. Would he forgive her?
It’s not like she’d have a chance to find out, if things went as planned.
Above her, the incipisphere shone suddenly with what looked like stars. Was she dying?
There was no going back now.
As the Dial Mesa struck midnight, she slammed her wands down, channeling her lifeforce through them. With a strident screech, the hands stopped, a crack running down the middle of the clock. Energy gone, Alruna collapsed, rolling onto her back. She was dying, but that was fine, because…
The stars were going out.