The arrow whistled through the air, steady and sure—just like Techno taught him.
Techno rolled into the snow at the last moment, shaking himself out of his frozen shock before the arrow could punch through his heart. It thudded into the ground somewhere behind him, but Wilbur was already nocking another, aiming before Techno could get to his feet.
“Wilbur!” Techno called out, reaching for him, but there was nothing behind Wilbur’s brown eyes, no clarity or kindness.
Wilbur shot again, and this time it found its mark in Techno’s shoulder. And it hurt. It hurt.
Biting back a scream, Techno pulled the arrow free and flipped onto his feet, his shoulder a bloody mess. He stared across the way at his student, his king, his brother, who was climbing over the window, his expression remaining blank and painless even as the broken glass cut his palms open.
Techno could hear the Green God laughing somewhere behind him, but he kept his eyes on Wilbur as he slung his bow over his shoulder and unsheathed his rapier instead—a mindless marionette. All the strings lead back to me, Dream had said. That was how he’d led the cityfolk outside to their deaths with everything else untouched. With a bitter taste in his mouth, Techno wondered how many of the Green Army, too, had been under the Green God’s influence, acting on his orders without any choice? His mind raced as he scoured his memories for any blank faces on the battlefield that day at the Blue Valley, any movements that were too unnatural, too controlled. How many innocents had been thrown in his path, and how many had he killed without even knowing it?
And now Wilbur was stalking towards him, graceful in his hunt. Another casualty. Another brother whose blood will be on Technoblade’s hands. He’d killed his family once before, the Green God had said. And now he was fated to kill another.
Fate. Such a small word for such a big thing.
There was only one way for this to end.
With trembling hands, Techno raised his trident, and was ready.
Philza turned at the sound of the Green God’s laughter. He still had the bastard trapped under the tip of his sword, but they both knew who had truly won.
Dream grinned triumphantly up at him, flashing bloody palms in some sort of placating gesture. As if anything can save him from Philza’s wrath now.
“What the fuck did you do to him?” Philza demanded, digging the heel of his boot into the Green God’s ribs. “What have you done to my son?”
“He’s sleepwalking,” the Green God said. “Or dreaming. Or acting. Choose whichever explanation hurts least for you. Or whichever will excuse him from the mistakes he is about to commit.”
“You’ve done this before.” Philza pressed harder. He would crush him like a twig beneath his foot. He would kick him open like the godsdamned insect he was. “You’ve—You’ve controlled him before.”
“A few times, here and there.” Dream shrugged nonchalantly. “But I avoid it as much as I can. It’s not very fun inside your son’s head, you know. There’s a lot of heaviness here.” He considered Philza with a small smile. “Most of it concerns you, though I suppose you already know that.”
“I could kill you,” Philza drawled, a strange calm settling into him. All his anger and grief had fled to a universe far from where he was, leaving nothing in their wake. Philza was the void between stars and the pitch black of the earth’s final night. He was the silence after curtain call and the stillness of a home abandoned. The day I lost my sons would be the day I destroyed the world, he’d promised Techno.
And he would start with the god that had taken them from him.
“I could push this sword straight through you and be done with you,” he continued, gripping its ancient pommel.
“And with my final breath, I’ll take what’s left of your son’s heart and tear it to shreds,” the Green God replied calmly. “Would you risk that? Would you risk his sanity for your own? You’ve done it before. Do it again.” He leaned forward until the tip of Philza’s blade tore a hole through his tunic. One swift push and it would tear through skin and bone, too. “Go ahead. Let him be the sacrificial lamb for your own peace of mind. Kill me, and kill him.”
Philza stared down the blade at the smiling god. The sword had served him for eons, and it had only failed him once, when it had left the war god enough life in him to carry out one last vengeance. It would not make the same mistake again.
In the distance, he heard Techno call Wilbur’s name. But there was no reply.
“You’re hesitating, Philza,” said the Green God.
“No,” said Philza, raising his sword above his head. “I am not.”
Wilbur’s rapier glinted in the scarlet sunlight as it cut through the air between them, aiming straight for Techno’s heart. Techno spun backwards, the rapier grazing his sleeve and missing skin entirely. But the assault continued, fierce and relentless, the calculated movements a product of a decade under Techno’s tutelage. There should be pride, Techno knew. He should have been proud to see how far Wilbur had grown, from a spoiled little prince with shaky legs and soft hands to a hardened fighter. But, even from the beginning, he had always taught Wilbur to defend. To protect. Because that was Wilbur’s nature, that was who he was.
Not this. Even in Techno’s worst nightmares, never this.
Techno parried another sharp blow, stumbling backwards over the snowy ground. There was only the sound of steel striking steel and his boots in retreat. Wilbur pushed against Techno’s trident, battling for the upper hand, and in that moment, they were close enough for Techno to meet Wilbur’s dim eyes. A flicker of recognition, or a spark of surprise—Techno would take anything.
“Wilbur.” Please. “Wilbur, you have to shake him off. I know you can do it, alright? I taught you how to ignore the voices, and this isn’t any different. Ignore his directions and follow mine.”
For a moment, Techno thought he might have seen something shift behind Wilbur’s expression, like lightning behind a dark curtain. But then it was gone, or maybe it had never been there at all. As quick as a goodbye, Wilbur jumped back and then struck out, kicking at Techno. Techno skidded backwards, almost falling over into the frozen ground. He righted himself just in time to block another savage blow that reverberated down into his bones. But even as he was recovering from the shock of it, Wilbur’s hand flashed as he reached into his quiver and produced an arrow, clutching it in his fist and bringing it down into Techno’s uninjured shoulder. Techno bit back a scream as it shredded through cloth and skin.
He spun away from Wilbur, breathing heavily. He scarcely had time to pull the arrow out before Wilbur was on him again, raining blow after blow that Techno could only half-heartedly parry. Wilbur was backing him up against the church. Soon, there would be nowhere left to run.
In a desperate attempt to put space between them, Techno swung his trident in an arc. He knew Wilbur would duck harmlessly under it, hopefully giving Techno time to think of better strategies than praying for a miracle, but Wilbur was fast. Too fast. He ducked, then sprung up in the same breath. He swung with a careless lethality, this time aiming for Techno’s face. It slashed the air a mere inch from his cheek before it drew back once more and then shot point-first towards his eye.
Techno’s breath caught in his throat.
Everything was moving too fast, and too slow. He could see the snow melting against Wilbur’s cheeks, glistening like tears. He could see the blade heading towards him. He could see himself standing in a pavilion of white marble, ivy and wisteria parting as a young boy with a stubborn jaw and more stubborn heart stepped in. He could see this very maneuver acted out by a wooden sword, guided by his own hand. When in doubt, Your Highness, he heard himself saying, go for the eyes.
All at once, Technoblade wasn’t facing his brother. It was just another opponent. Another threat he had to survive.
And so by instinct, his trident rose, catching the rapier’s blade in its prongs and twisting it out of Wilbur’s grip. It flew into the air, spinning like a broken compass before it fell harmlessly into the snow a few paces away. Wilbur turned to look at it, his hands empty but already calculating what it would take to be armed once more. He tried reaching for his bow. Techno wouldn’t give him the chance.
With the butt of his trident—a gift, once, but just a weapon now—Techno struck at Wilbur’s chest, sending him crashing to the ground. And then his trident was at Wilbur’s throat, tipping his chin up towards his reckoning.
“Are you coming back to me yet?” Techno demanded, the words scratching his throat as he said them.
And for the first time, Wilbur replied. “Techno,” he breathed. His eyes softened with understanding, and then panic as the world slowly righted itself. “Techno, gods, why am I on the ground?”
Relief burned through Techno as he met Wilbur’s clear eyes. Relief, and shame. Shame that it had taken just a few moments of fear to return him to that bloody battlefield that he thought he had abandoned long ago. Shame that he had, even for a second, forgotten Wilbur’s face. Shame that after all his talk of change and redemption, there were still some days where violence was the only place he could run to. He was tired of it, and yet it was all he had. If a father’s arms never forgot the shape of a child, then Techno’s hands might always remember the shape of his curled fists. The thought terrified him almost as much as the look on Wilbur’s face did.
“Did you hit me?” Wilbur asked quietly, looking up at Techno through wet lashes. “I don’t remember… Techno, why did you hit me?”
It wasn’t you, Techno wanted to shout. And it wasn’t me.
But his trident was still a breath away from cutting into Wilbur’s skin.
“I’m sorry,” Techno rasped, feeling as if he’d just ran the entire circumference of this gods-damned world. “Is it you? Is it you now?”
Wilbur blinked drowsily as if coming out from a long sleep. “Of course it’s me, Techno. Who else could it be?”
Techno felt the fight drain from him in an instant. He drew his trident back and offered his free hand to Wilbur, the silver scars running through his palms like the invisible the webs that kept him forever bound to this brotherhood. “Come on,” Techno said softly. “We have a god to kill.”
Wilbur’s eyes hardened with resolve even as he smiled at Techno. “For Tommy.”
“For Tommy,” Techno repeated as Wilbur took his hand, everything that came before already forgotten. It was an interlude, nothing more, and they were on the same side again. This was right. This was their fate, no matter what else was dictated.
Wilbur was on his feet, swaying slightly. He eyed Techno oddly, snowflakes caught in the tangles of his dark hair. He could have been one of his mother’s paintings, standing like that in the middle of this frozen city, immortalized in a way Techno could never be. And then, with furrowed brows, he pulled Techno into a warm embrace. Techno stiffened in surprise, but soon sunk into the comforting circle of Wilbur’s arms, his wounded shoulders screaming with the effort of returning his gentle hold.
“Techno,” Wilbur whispered into Techno’s sunset hair, breathing in the lingering scent of flowers long rotted.
“Wil?” Techno whispered back.
“Once penned,” Wilbur said shakily, “an ending cannot be restored,” and he plunged a dagger straight into Techno’s back.
Not a dagger.
The dagger that had stopped a young prince’s heart. The dagger that had once lived in a blood god’s bandolier. The dagger that had been part of a collection gifted by an angel of death. It had passed between them all, their fingers all leaving invisible marks in its carved handle. And now it was in Wilbur’s hand. He heard a soft, distant exhale of surprise as it carved through the man he once called brother—the dagger’s final scabbard.
The cycle was complete.
The curtains were drawing closed.
All Wilbur could do was scream at an empty stage.
Techno’s life had not been the easiest thing in the world. He had been in more battles than he could count, and more wars than anyone deserved. His body bore the evidence of a tiresome existence; he could still feel Wilbur’s worried eyes tracing the cross-stitch pattern of scars on his back, though even more ran under the cover of his clothes. He’d been burned, beaten and shot, and had felt every type of blade under the sun pierce his godly skin. And all those hurts combined still could not compare to the pain that went through him as he felt Wilbur’s embrace slacken, and Techno fell to the ground, ruby blood staining the soft white snow beneath him. His blood. Blood that Wilbur had drawn.
His breath quickened as the agony tore through him. Gods were not built to suffer this anguish. But, even as he laid there, feeling both cold and on fire at once, he could hear the Green God’s voice in his head—not the chorus of the voices, but a memory that felt more ancient than their eternal cycle.
Mortal hearts can only take so much hurt.
Techno groaned, shutting his eyes to a sudden piercing pain.
Immortal hearts aren’t much different, especially if they’ve been foolishly given to the wrong people.
Was this it, then? Was this heartbreak?
A shadow eclipsed all sunlight. Techno forced himself to open his eyes, and found Wilbur standing over him with a knife in his hands—still dripping with Techno’s blood and still rusted with Tommy’s.
Wilbur had kept it. The symbol of Techno’s greatest mistake, the thing that had killed one brother and had nearly shattered the other, Wilbur had kept it.
And all at once, Techno knew. Wilbur had not forgiven him. And if Wilbur could not forgive him, who could? Who would? He could search the entire universe and the answer would still be the same. No one. A sob of pain, violent and sudden and unfamiliar, escaped Techno’s trembling mouth. No one at all.
Wilbur tilted his head to the side as he considered Techno lying in the snow. He went to Techno’s side and kneeled there, as if he might provide comfort, though the light had once again fled from behind his eyes. But whether it was him or the Green God calling the tune now, it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore beyond the pain.
Techno felt his shoulders shake, and a beat later realized he must be laughing—a bitter, angry sound. The last wail of a bird struck from the sky.
He still somehow had his trident in his hand, but he let it go now. He let everything go once he saw Wilbur raise his arm high, a guillotine about to drop on the wickedest criminal the world had ever seen.
“It’s alright,” Techno whispered to the brother he knew was still somehow listening, somewhere. “I won’t hurt you again. It’s over.” His heart stuttered out its final pulses. “I’m never going to hurt anyone again.”
Techno thought Wilbur’s hands must have trembled a bit, but it could have been his own vision failing, or a trick of the dying light.
“It’s alright,” Techno repeated softly, believing it with everything he had left in him. “It is not your fault.”
The voices—Dream’s voice—were strangely silent, and Techno felt its absence with bitter relief. Here, at last, was the eternal quiet.
“Look me in the eyes. Let him look me in the eyes,” Techno demanded. “At least give me that.”
The soft brown shade of Wilbur’s eyes, so bright in the fading sunlight, was the last thing the god of blood saw before the dagger dropped.
Philza’s blade dug into and through the Green God’s shoulder. Emerald eyes widened with surprise as Philza kept going until the sword pierced through the rubble and then the earth beneath, pinning the god into the ground. It was not the unbreakable fetters the bastard deserved, but it would have to do as a restraint. Red blood—Even he bleeds red, Philza thought—bloomed through the dirty-white cloth of Dream’s tunic and ran down in rivulets into the stones below.
Philza loosened his grip on the hilt of his sword, and then let go completely.
“That should keep you still for a while,” said Philza, stepping back from his makeshift prisoner.
The Green God eyed the blade with annoyance, trying to rise and then flinching with pain, before turning his glare on the man that had bound him, however temporarily, to the earth.
“I could still ruin him from here,” Dream mused darkly. “It would only take one flick of my wrist.”
“Wilbur isn’t that weak,” Philza replied coldly before turning his back on his enemy. “He isn’t weak at all.”
His wings spread wide. He could see, in the distance, two figures in the snow. One lying, one kneeling. Philza would not be too late again.
“Choosing to run away then, are we?” the Green God shouted after him.
“I’m choosing my son,” Philza answered, and was gone.
It took exactly four seconds for the Angel of Death to close the gap.
One. The blood god murmured his last assurances to a king with vengeance poised over his heart.
Two. As infinitesimal as the breath of the smallest creature ever born from stardust, the dagger began to shake in the ruined king’s hand. A frown began to tug at the corner of the Green God’s lips, an unfamiliar shape. For once, he realized, he might actually have to put in some effort.
Three. Despite it all, despite everything, despite the Angel of Death’s distant shout, despite the cracks in the wall, the dagger still plunged.
Four. But Philza was there.
His hand closed around his son’s wrist, ending his weapon’s violent arc a hair’s breadth away Techno’s still chest. The father and his heir kneeled on opposite sides of the blood god, the dagger trembling between them as they fought for dominance: Wilbur to push and wound, Philza to seize and protect.
Wilbur raised his severe glare at the disruption. “You were not meant to be here,” he growled, the words not his own.
“But I am,” Philza said quietly, tightening his hold on Wilbur. “Drop the dagger, Wil.”
Wilbur’s eyebrows furrowed as he pushed harder against Philza. “You should hate him,” Wilbur drawled. “He brought Tommy to that battlefield. The man that killed Tommy meant to kill him. You should hate him,” he repeated more strongly, a hint of emotion final creeping into his voice. Was it anger? Was it grief? Was there a difference?
Between them, Techno took a rattling breath, but did not speak.
“Do you?” Philza asked gently. “Do you hate him, Wilbur?”
“Yes,” Wilbur said. And then, quieter, “No.” He closed his eyes suddenly, as if in pain. “What I mean—no. He killed my brother. But I killed my brother, too. We all killed him, the three of us. All of us are at fault.” When he opened his eyes again, they shone with tears. “But if I kill you, too, then who will be left to forgive me?”
“Yourself,” Philza replied, slowly inching the dagger up and away from Techno. And Wilbur let him. “You can forgive yourself, Wilbur, because I already forgive you. No matter what you do to me.”
“You don’t mean that,” Wilbur said gravely. “You can’t mean that.”
In response, Philza tenderly raised Wilbur’s hand towards his chest, until the dagger’s point rested over where his heart hid beating. “Let me prove it, then.”
For a moment, Wilbur only looked at him, his hand trembling in Philza’s hold. And then he said, “He’s in my head.” His grip tightened around the hilt as warm tears spilled over his pale cheeks. “He’s everywhere.” He began pushing the blade forwards. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
Philza smiled sadly as the dagger’s sharp point found skin and drew blood. “This isn’t your fault. It will never be your fault.” Blood bloomed and spilled over, like the roots of a plant breaking past its inadequate vase, but the pain of it was secondary. With his son pushing a dagger into his heart, Philza said, “I will love you forever.”
Wilbur’s expression crumpled. “Father,” he gasped, and dropped the dagger.
Before it could fall into the snow, Techno was rising to his knees, his arms going around Wilbur. He pulled the mortal king into a tight embrace, and Philza for the first time saw the wound in his back. Techno had gotten worse injuries, Philza knew, but this was different. It must hurt like hell to even breathe with it, but Techno held on to Wilbur regardless, as if letting go was a fate worse than death. Wilbur, in turn, buried his face into Techno’s bloody shoulder, his own arms slack at his sides as he fell apart. He gave a strangled gasp, and then was crying in earnest, trembling with the force of his misery.
Philza’s heart cracked just a little bit more at the sound.
“I’m sorry for hurting you,” Wilbur whispered, his words muffled against Techno’s hair and interrupted every syllable by sobs that came from deep within him. “I’m sorry for everything.”
“Hey.” Techno’s voice was uncharacteristically soft. “Consider it payback for me breaking your nose.”
“I don’t want payback.” Wilbur sighed as he leaned into Techno’s embrace. He looked so small and breakable. A glass figurine of a boy. “I just want to go home. I want to bury my little brother.”
Philza couldn’t see Techno’s face but knew it must look as shattered as Philza felt.
“I want that, too,” Techno said. “We’ll do it together, alright?”
“Okay,” Wilbur breathed. “You and me.”
“Me and you,” Techno repeated.
“Aw,” a distant voice cooed. “That’s sweet. But are you done now?”
Techno and Wilbur broke apart, bloodstained and still ready to fight on as they turned towards the disrupting sound. Philza felt his pulse jump as he followed their cold glares towards the far building, where a green-eyed god stood on top of rubble, bleeding for his shoulder but otherwise unscathed. He held Philza’s sword in one hand and gave it a casual spin, splattering blood across the snow before him before stepping forwards, his gait unhurried.
There was a shuffle as Techno and Philza placed themselves in front of Wilbur.
The Green God rolled his eyes as he continued stalking forwards. “Come on, there’s no need for that. You’ve already flung me from his head. That little thread is severed completely.” He rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Would have been fun if you’d killed each other, though. What a tragic ending you would have written.” He considered them with a thoughtful tilt of his head. “I could still use Techno, though—”
“No, you can’t,” Techno snapped. “I’m done with you and your little voices. Have been for years.”
“You fancy yourself immune to me, then?” Dream smirked. “There are more ways than one to control someone, you know.”
The realization was slow, but steady, coming gradually to Philza like the tides crawling towards the shore. And then, all at once, it struck him.
“Control me, then,” he said suddenly, rising to his feet and meeting the Green God’s stare. “Go on.”
Dream narrowed his eyes at him, with something blazing to life behind that carefully lax expression. Layers and layers, and Philza was going to tear them all down. The truth was there. It was so close, he could feel the weight of it in his hands. There were stories before, of the Green God being afraid of you, Techno had said. Phil had known of those stories. And he’d spent decades since asking why. Why him? What did he have?
He was going to find out very soon.
“Phil, what are you doing?” Techno hissed from behind him.
“Just asking a question,” Philza replied. “You’ve threatened to pull Techno’s strings. You’ve used Wilbur against us. You’ve been the voice in their heads for years, mocking us all from afar. But you’ve never been in mine. Why is that, Dream?” He said the name deliberately, lacing each letter with poisonous intention. “Why is that?”
The arrogance slipped off the Green God’s face, replaced with a tempered viciousness. Philza had the distinct impression that he was facing a wild beast kept on a frayed leash. He was treading on dangerous territory. Every instinct screamed to be careful and to draw back.
Instead, Philza approached without caution.
“You are afraid of me,” he said. “You are afraid of what I am and what I have. And that pisses you off, doesn’t it? It angers you to know what I am, you can never be. What you take, I give. What you ruin, I restore.” With a deft maneuvering of his boot, Philza flicked the bloody dagger by his feet up towards him. Philza snatched it out of the air without missing a beat. “I am your antithesis.”
The Green God began to laugh, but it was a delicate sound. “You are nothing,” he said scornfully. He stopped walking and pointed Philza’s own sword right at him. “Allow me to prove it.”
“Techno.” Philza settled into a fighting stance. “Take Wilbur and run.”
“You know, Philza,” Techno said, stumbling to Philza’s side with his trident back in his hands, “after all these years, I thought you’d finally get it through your thick skull that I don’t take any orders from you.”
Before Philza could protest, Wilbur had walked up to his other side, an arrow already nocked into his bow, a fierce clarity in his dark eyes. He gave his father a grim nod.
“We started this together,” said Wilbur, “we end together, too.”
“But your injuries—”
“Eh.” Techno shrugged his bleeding shoulders. “Flesh wounds, at best.”
“I almost killed you,” Wilbur said dryly.
“That doesn’t sound right. Must have been a different, much weaker blood god.” It would have been a more believable deflection if pain had not flickered across his face as he said it. “Now, look sharp, Your Majesties. The enemy approaches.”
“Enemy is such a strong word,” the Green God mused. “We are old friends, after all. Old, old friends.”
“Oh,” said Wilbur, “shut the fuck up,” and let his arrow fly.
It missed. Obviously. The Green God was a wickedly fast bastard, and Wilbur had barely been aiming—he had fired for the sake of firing, just to have his hands do damage to something that he hated instead of something that he loved. Dream danced easily out of harm’s way, only to find the Angel of Death flying towards him, slashing out with a bloody dagger. Dream parried with Father’s own sword and jumped back, and was met by Techno striking out with his trident. The Green God ducked and dodged under the Techno’s barrage, each movement fluid like a candle dancing in the gentle air.
In the lull between Techno’s attacks, Dream spun on his heel with his sword cleaving the space between the three of them. Father leapt backwards, but Techno dropped to the ground instead, sweeping his leg out in an attempt to trip their opponent. The Green God jumped over him, just as Wilbur let another arrow fly, this time with every intention of embedding it straight through the pale column of Dream’s neck.
But Dream simply grabbed the arrow out of the air, snapping it in half with this thumb and tossing it over his shoulder before he even landed back down on the snow. Techno scrambled to his feet to meet Dream’s renewed offensive, but Wilbur could tell even from afar that his movements were sloppy and sluggish. Despite his posturing, the wounds Wilbur had inflicted on him had cut deep, and not a second went by without Wilbur remembering the way the blade had slipped so easily into Techno’s back. Whatever he’d said of a god’s invincibility, they still bled the same way mortals do.
Even now, Wilbur could feel the voices—the Green God’s little spiders—lurking in the edges of his consciousness, just waiting for him to let his guard down again.
They only seemed to strike when Wilbur least expected it: when he was falling asleep or when he was caught in the tides of his own emotions. It explained how he’d been to places he didn’t remember walking to, or witnessed things he shouldn’t have, or done things he never would do when he was fully himself. He could still see Tommy’s face in his mind’s eye, trembling in his cot as Wilbur stood over him with a shard of glass.
Wilby, please, don’t hurt me, he’d said then, the same way Techno had whispered, It’s alright. It is not your fault. Too many times had Wilbur been used against the people he loved the most. Tommy. Techno. His kingdom. His father. All to serve the Green God’s ends. Puppets on a string, all of them were. But if Dream wanted him to dance, then Wilbur was going to give him one hell of a closing act.
He was running low on arrows, and the gods were moving too fast for his mortal eyes to catch, so he threw both bow and quiver away. He rushed towards where his rapier sat in the snow, its intricate pommel glinting in invitation. The weapon slipped easily into his hand. It was an extension of his fury, and they joined the fray together.
Techno had almost forgotten how well he and Philza fought together. They slipped into old, familiar rhythms—like the ebb and flow of the ancient ocean. The years fell away, and Techno was back in one of the myriad battlefields they’d decimated when they were younger and more foolish. Philza struck when Techno withdrew, and Techno stepped between Philza and the enemy when he struck back, taking the brunt of the attack with the silver shaft of his trident. It rattled him down to his bones, but the jolt was a welcome rush, making Techno grin despite the screaming pain of his fresh wounds.
Why was it that Techno felt most alive when he was fighting off death?
The Green God must have seen the gleam in his eyes, because he stepped away from Techno with a knowing smirk.
Enjoying yourself, blood god? the voices taunted.
Techno thought of Tommy and Wilbur and his lost, nameless siblings.
“I will,” Techno replied, throwing his trident in a fierce arc across the frozen grounds.
To avoid it, the Green God stepped to the side—straight into Philza’s path. Philza had his dagger brandished, ready to make the killing blow, ready to claim another life. And then Dream leapt upwards. The dagger passed harmlessly under his feet, which kept soaring higher and higher.
“Aw, gods damn it all,” Technoblade groaned. “The bastard can fly?”
He hovered in the sky suspended by no strings Techno could see. No raven wings like Philza, either. He simply floated in the air, almost casually, as if it was a simple stroll through the woods. He caught Techno’s eye, and smiled. Techno cursed himself for his naivety; the man could restructure the very fabric of the universe, of course he could fly.
Philza’s shoulders tensed as he gazed up at the Green God in his lackadaisical flight.
“The sky is my domain, Dream,” Philza drawled. A shiver went down Techno’s spine; the Angel of Death’s words were as cold as the tundra around them. “You dare trespass?”
The Green God crossed his arms behind his head and adopted a thoughtful expression. “Nothing in this realm is yours to keep, Philza. Not the sky, not the earth you stand on, and not your family.” He scoffed derisively. “I thought I already made that abundantly clear.”
Philza’s wings spread, about to take flight.
Techno turned towards the voice. He would always turn towards that voice.
Wilbur was running up towards him, a sword gripped tightly his hand. He made a single motion with the other, and Techno understood at once. He crouched and cupped his hands over his knee. He gritted his teeth and braced for impact as Wilbur neared, his brows drawn together in focus.
And then Wilbur was stepping into the cradle of Techno’s hands, a heavy, yet steady weight. In the space of a heartbeat, Techno straightened, pouring all of his remaining strength into his arms, and he threw.
Before Philza could even lift a foot off the ground, Wilbur was soaring over him, as fast and as lethal as one of his own arrows. He raised his rapier high over his head, its sharp point cleaving through the air. Techno saw the Green God’s eyes widen in surprise, right before Wilbur collided with him and sent both of them crashing to the ground in a blur of blades and a tangle of flailing limbs.
Techno rushed towards where they fell, wrenching his trident out of the ground as he passed it.
By the time he skidded to a halt before the Green God, Wilbur already had him pinned to the ground with the tip of his rapier at Dream’s throat. Wilbur pried the hilt of Philza’s sword out of the god’s grip and offered it back to its owner without taking his dark eyes off of the enemy. Just like Techno taught him.
“You dropped this,” Wilbur said, chest heaving but voice steady. A long scratch running down the length of his cheek was the only evidence of his fall.
Philza took his sword back with a confused glance at Techno. “When did Wil become an acrobat?” he asked incredulously.
Wilbur wiped the blood from his cheek with the back of his free hand and replied, “My father’s avian god genetics passed over me, so I had to compensate. When you can’t fly, you learn how to jump as high as you can.”
“Poetic,” Techno drawled, “but a lie. I taught him that maneuver to run from diplomats.”
“I never used it until now, though,” Wilbur grumbled defensively. And then, quieter, “Snitch.”
Techno gave him a quiet smile only a handful of people had ever witnessed. Like a miracle, Tommy had once said of it. Like a godsdamned fucking miracle, that smile!
“How many times,” the Green God asked wryly, cutting the fragile levity into shreds, “must you pin me down before you realize it’s all futile?”
Wilbur glared. “As many times as it takes.”
“Go on, then.” Dream sighed, tilting his head back to bare his throat to them all. “Kill me. Or have a crisis of morals about killing me—your choice, really. We’ve been here before. You’ve come this close before, though not one step further.”
“Why?” Philza asked. “What stopped us?”
The god’s emerald eyes glinted like chunks of broken ice. Something stirred in Techno’s gut—a sudden reaction to an ancient, nameless fear. Techno’s hand settled on Wilbur’s shoulder. Something was wrong. Or something was going to be wrong, very soon, and he needed to get Wilbur out of here, like Philza had intended. He could see Philza in his periphery, holding tightly to his sword. He could tell he felt it, too.
The war was over.
The winner was decided. Had been decided, long ago.
“Like I said.” The Green God smiled at Phil, and only at Phil. “It would only take one flick of my wrist.”
He raised a hand—a single, pale hand dusted with melting snow and half-dried blood. And, in the end, that really was all it took.
They froze as it finally settled over them. A change in the air. A new page turning. A hushed shuffle as a new audience settled into their seats for another show.
Another loop. Another story. Another life.
Wilbur turned to Techno with wide, wide eyes. The rapier fell from his grip as he opened his mouth in a silent shout.
Philza, Techno thought. Philza, help—
But Philza was made of stone.
And the world ended in silence.
And they lived happily ever after.
Wilbur glanced up from his instrument with furrowed brows. “What do you mean?” he asked as he lowered the violin from his chin and gazed at the woman sitting across from him, her heavy skirts spilling around her in a cerulean tide.
She did not meet his confused stare. Her attention was fixed entirely on the easel in front of her, turned slightly away from him so all he could see were random splotches of color. Paint stained her hands and hair and skin: deep indigos and soft blues and the dark browns of the eyes that were his inheritance from her.
Mother considered her canvas in silence for a few seconds before making a gentle stroke with her brush. “You stopped playing all of a sudden,” she murmured absently. “I thought the song was finished.”
“It’s not,” Wilbur said. “Just like your painting isn’t, either.”
She shot him a rueful smile. “When did you get so cheeky?”
“When you weren’t looking, I suppose.” He pointed his violin’s bow accusingly at her. “And I only stopped because you interrupted me.”
“I did not interrupt you! I would never.” She tucked a stray hair behind her ear—leaving a golden streak of paint across her cheek in the process—before turning back to her painting. “You remember the rules for the Art Tower, don’t you, my boy?”
Wilbur rolled his eyes affectionately at her. The ‘Art Tower’ had been his mother’s idea, and her first mistake had been allowing a ten-year-old Wilbur to name it. It was the east tower of the castle, and it was meant to be a place just for the two of them. A place where Wilbur could play as loud and as badly as he wanted, and where Mother could accidentally spill jars of paint without ruining some random priceless artifact. A place where stringed instruments hung on the walls instead of morning stars and swords, and worn easels stood in place of suits of armor. It was a tower. And it was full of art. Thus, following young Wilbur’s stream of consciousness—the Art Tower.
Older Wilbur would have chosen something a bit more tasteful. He would name it after the massive arched windows that let in the soft morning light, or the daffodils that grew at the sills, or the white lace curtains dancing in the breeze like the veil of a bride made of air. But, it would be Art Tower, now and forever.
Tommy would never let him live it down.
“I’m not hearing any music,” Mother hummed.
Wilbur sighed lovingly as he put the violin back under his chin. “The things I do for you, Mother.”
Her eyes crinkled at the corners as she gave him a dazzling smile. “If you finish your song,” she said, “I’ll let you peek at the canvas.”
“That’s bribery. You are bribing your son. Your own sweet boy!”
She tossed her head back in a laugh, brown and gray ringlets falling over her shoulders. “Dance for me, my puppet!” she chortled. She waggled the fingers that weren’t holding the paintbrush in some vague approximation of puppetry. “Dance!”
Wilbur shook his head and raised his eyes to the heavens. “Alright,” he said. “From the top, then.”
He put bow to string and began to play again.
A shadow fell over Techno as a giggle interrupted the sounds of the forest, chasing the birds back to their nests. Without opening his eyes, Techno said, “I know it’s you.”
Another giggle, quieter this time, as if she were trying to swallow back her childish glee.
“Papa wants you home,” she said cheerfully. “You’re in big trouble.”
“Sure,” Techno drawled sarcastically, “and you aren’t a little brat.”
“Hey. That’s rude! Papa said you weren’t allowed to be rude to me anymore!”
Techno felt something against his ribs that might have been a kick or a gentle breeze. He smiled to himself as he finally cracked one eye open to look at his little sister. She was pouting, arms crossed and brows furrowed as if she could ever be terrifying to him. She intimidated him as much as the bumblebee drifting drowsily overhead, so close Techno could reach out and trap it between his cupped hands. But instead he stayed where he was, arms folded under his head, the grass beneath him as soft as a bed of hay.
“Papa really does want you home, though,” she reiterated, even as she dropped onto the ground beside him and laid her little head against his chest, her twin braids like pink snakes coiling across his torso. Techno leveled his breathing so she could stay lying there peacefully, as if she were a wild animal that could be spooked away with one wrong move. But though she did have some of the wilderness in her, there was no doubt in his mind that she was fearless. Six years old, and Techno already knew that she would someday rule the world—and he would be the proudest older brother on the face of the earth.
“Techno?” she asked pensively after a moment of comfortable silence (there was seldom a different kind of silence between the two of them; in a family of loud, loving parents and louder, more annoying siblings, he and his youngest sister had managed to carve out a space for themselves where they did not need to shout to be heard). She was gazing up at the foliage above them, her face dotted with the sunlight that punctured stubbornly through the leaves, unwilling to let their route to the earth be interrupted by anything less than a fellow star child. “Do you ever feel like,” she began haltingly, “like your spirit is too big for your own body?”
“Nah,” Techno replied after a serious consideration. “My spirit likes where it is just fine.”
She rolled over to fix him with her piercing blue eyes, looking annoyed. As if Techno had failed some sort of test he did not even know he was taking. “Well, I feel like that sometimes,” she declared imperiously.
“How could you not? You’re so small, of course your spirit would want to break out of there. You’re suffocating it.”
“I feel like a frog sometimes, too,” she continued, in that nonsensical way that young children often bounced from the heaviest subjects to the lightest without warning or prolonged thought. Techno missed having that kind of power—the power to simply not give a damn. “Mama and I went to the village yesterday, and it rained, so we had to stop under a tree so we wouldn’t get wet, and I found three frogs running by in the rain! Three frogs, Techno! Have you ever seen three frogs all at once?”
“Never,” Techno lied easily. “That’s the rarest occurrence in the world, I think. As rare as a quadruple rainbow. I think the gods might be sending you a sign.”
“And the frogs,” she barreled on, seeming to give no heed to Techno’s reply, “they were just jumping from one puddle to another. Splish, splash, splish, splash. But I don’t think they liked any of the puddles because they didn’t stay in one for too long. Splish, splash, on to the next adventure!”
“Adventure, huh?” Techno mused. “Is that what your spirit wants then? To break out for a great big adventure?”
“I don’t know what my spirit wants to do when it gets out.”
When, Techno noted. Not if. What she wanted, she would get, and Techno was almost always the instrument for it.
“But,” she added, getting to her feet, “right now, I think I’d rather not get scolded by papa. So, let’s go home.”
And she smiled, that smile that ran in Techno’s family and seemed to find him the only exception. It was a smile, Techno thought, that wars would be fought for. It was a smile that could burn this whole damn forest down. The gods took all the good things they had ever created and stitched it into the corners of that smile.
Techno couldn’t help but smile back, rougher on the edges and made of meaner stuff.
He got to his feet and held out a hand to his sister. She placed her tiny palm in his. It was the most precious thing Techno would ever hold.
“Let’s go home,” he echoed.
Philza rolled the apple between his palms, feeling its weight in his hands for a moment before he tossed it into the basket by his feet. Already, it was piled high with the ruby-red fruit, spilling over into the grass below. He stepped back and inhaled deeply, the scent of apple blossoms and spring and life crawling into his lungs and settling there like an animal in hibernation. He could taste the sweetness on his tongue. He could feel the breeze against his skin.
The apple orchard was ready for harvest, and everything was all right with the world.
Philza turned to watch his son weaving between the trees. He couldn’t help the laugh that exploded out of him at the sight of his youngest son’s arms piled high with apples, toppling to the ground with every excited step he took. By the time he reached Phil, he only had a handful left with him, the rest leaving a trail of red through the orchard.
But he was grinning as if he had accomplished something great.
“Best delivery boy in the whole kingdom,” Tommy said proudly. “I’m still waiting for that promotion to Head Apple-Picker.”
Philza ruffled his hair affectionately. He’s gotten so tall, Phil thought as the golden strands slipped between his fingers like running water. “You have to beat out other competition to get that title, Tommy. Can’t have the people thinking I’m giving you special treatment.”
“It’s only right to give special treatment to your special boy!” Tommy declared, rolling the apples into the grass by his feet.
“That is nepotism.”
“No, it’s being a good father.”
Phil’s smile faltered, almost infinitesimally. But Tommy caught it anyway.
“Hey,” he said with a gentler voice than Philza deserved. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Phil said, feeling fissures form in his chest where his heart used to beat. He took a deep breath, letting the taste of pollen linger on his tongue before he swallowed the bitterness down. “Nothing’s wrong. And that’s the problem, isn’t it?”
Tommy stared back at him with soft blue eyes. Someone once told Philza that children were merely reflections of their parents, but he knew that couldn’t be true. Because every time he looked in a mirror, he only ever saw the worst of himself—all the places he’d abandoned, all the people he’d killed, all the sons he’d left orphaned. But when he looked at Tommy, all he ever saw was proof that the universe still had the capacity for goodness.
Tommy really did get a lot taller. In time, he would grow to be even taller than Philza was.
If only he hadn’t died before he could.
There were many things, Philza knew, that Tommy could never do now. To even have him standing before Philza under the shifting shadows of their kingdom’s apple trees was an impossibility. Tommy’s brows drew together in confusion as the silence between them stretched on; Philza knew he was only prolonging the inevitable.
Just let me stay in this lie, he begged, for one second more.
A minute passed. Two. Tommy shifted on his feet.
“Dad…?” he whispered.
Philza sighed, and, in a quiet, broken voice, he said, “This isn’t real, is it?”
Tommy stared at him blankly.
And then he began to smile.
“Follow the breadcrumbs,” his little sister said. “That’s what papa always says.”
The path was well-worn and cut through the thickest part of the forest. The trees were so close together that the sunlight could no longer pierce through, leaving the two of them walking through the dim with no guide but their hands in each other’s and the memory of their father’s murmured words. Follow the breadcrumbs. The little things would be the ones that kept them on the right track: a crooked tree, a low-hanging branch with all its leaves plucked off by passing hands, a pile of rocks by the side of the road that a younger Techno had spent three bored minutes stacking together—now moss-covered and leaning dangerously to the side, but still standing.
Following breadcrumbs through a cold, dark forest with his little sister’s hand curled around his fingers. This was a route they knew by heart, and a story they’ve lived hundreds of times before.
“Follow the breadcrumbs,” his sister repeated, tightening her grip on Techno, “and you’ll never get lost.”
And then, slowly, she began pulling him to the side, heading straight towards the brambles.
Techno pulled her back onto the road, small feet skidding reluctantly across the dirt. “Papa also says to not stray from the path,” he reminded her sternly, eyeing the dark trees standing like silent sentinels on either side of them. The path was safe. The path would take them home. Anything else was a dangerous gamble. Though he knew this forest well, it did not know him at all, and gods knew what monsters lurked behind the bushes, waiting for wandering strangers. “Keep away from the dark—”
“Or the Spider will get you,” she finished, and her voice was dead and dull.
Techno’s heart skipped a beat. He was used to her jumping from one emotion to another, but this was something different. Something that was not her at all.
“Are you alright?” he asked worriedly.
“Yes,” she whispered back, as if there was an invisible threat she was careful not to startle. “Just tired.”
“Do you want me to carry you on my back?”
“No.” She took a deep breath. “We always have to walking side by side. This is how it happened.”
Confusion and panic warring inside him, Techno said, “How what happened?”
She suddenly paused, pulling Techno to a stop with her. She had her eyes fixed straight, looking off towards a horizon Techno couldn’t see. There was only the dark, and the weight of her small hand slowly growing colder in his.
“Techno,” she said slowly, quietly, too unlike the brilliant girl that spoke of souls and adventures and frogs in the rain just a few hours—days—years—eons ago. “Techno,” she repeated firmly, turning towards him with wide, fearful eyes. “Techno, what’s my name?”
Techno opened his mouth to answer, but silence was his only reply.
“You’ve stopped again.”
Wilbur slowly lowered his bow, looking around the tower with a growing sense of unease. He did not remember learning the song he’d been playing for his mother. Did he write it himself? Was it a ballad from some long-dead composer? Still thinking about the unfamiliar tune, Wilbur walked silently towards the table in the corner, where the silk-lined case for his violin stood open and waiting. He placed the instrument gently inside and snapped the case shut. For a moment, his fingers lingered on the gold clasps.
I don’t even play the violin.
He turned towards his mother, who continued painting as if nothing had happened, lost in her colors.
“Mother?” Wilbur called. “Mama?”
She paused, then gestured him over. “Come look at this, Wil.”
Wilbur made his way over to her, stopping just behind her and placing his hands on her shoulders as he leaned in to look at her work.
There was a painting hanging in the hallway downstairs that Wilbur walked under at least a dozen times a day: it was the official family portrait, done by their court painter, when Tommy was just a toddler and slept soundly through everything. Wilbur had always hated it. They’d all looked so stiff and serious in it, and Wilbur could still remember the horrid pins and needles he acquired from sitting on the floor for hours on end.
And his mother, in response, had made it beautiful.
She’d used brighter colors, softer colors, turning the dark, somber shades into something that felt more alive. Everything was the same, and yet everything was different. Still seated on a simple throne was Mother herself, but with more gray in her pinned-up hair. Behind her, a hand on her shoulder, was Father. He stood with his blue eyes lit up with pride, the only signs of his age in the laugh lines forming at his temples as he smiled back at Wilbur from the canvas. And then, drawing all attention inevitably to him, there was Tommy, leaning against the arm of Mother’s chair.
He was older, too, with longer hair, curling over his ears and shoulders. But the traces of his childhood remained in the wolfish grin and the cocky quirk of his eyebrow. Before Wilbur could think better of himself, he reached out to run his fingers along the painted lines of his brother’s face. Fortunately, the paint had already dried, and Wilbur was free to trace the gentle curls of Tommy’s hair.
Then, slowly, Wilbur’s hand drifted towards the floor, where he had been sitting in the original painting. He wondered how Mother made him beautiful, if that was at all possible in the first place. He wondered how the years had made their mark on him.
But instead of paint, there were only pencil marks where Wilbur was supposed to be. Vaguely in the shape of a person. A sketch.
He looked down at his Mother, and she turned in her seat to look at him with a sad smile. “You’re not done yet,” she whispered, raising her hand to cup his cheek and gently wipe away the single tear that had escaped without his notice.
“I ruined it,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry—”
“No, darling, that’s not what I meant at all.” She got up from her seat and wrapped her arms around Wilbur. Wilbur had to duck his head to bury his face into her shoulder, trembling with a grief he could not name. His mother held him like he was a child again, seeking comfort from nightmares. “You have ruined nothing. You are the greatest gift of my life, Wilbur. But I do not want you here.”
He pulled back with tear-stained cheeks, unable to fit enough air into his heavy lungs. “Here?” he asked. “Where is here?”
“The Art Tower,” she replied simply. “And everywhere. And nowhere.”
And Wilbur remembered.
“I’ve been here before,” Philza said. “We’ve been here—all of us. Everyone caught in his web.”
Tommy made a noncommittal sound as he waved a hand through the air. “More or less.” He wiggled his fingers absently as he thought. “It’s like… well, we’re all in his play, aren’t we? That’s what he said. If that’s right, then this place is the wings, where everyone waits before the curtains rise, or after their part is done.” He looked up at Philza. “Or when they’re waiting for their turn.”
“We’re all dreaming,” Philza murmured, repeating the Green God’s own words. “He’s put us to sleep while he’s writing the next story and giving us good things to keep us pacified. Like children.”
He looked down at Tommy, watching his son’s expression as it shifted. Philza was sitting against the trunk of an apple tree, with Tommy’s head resting across his lap and apple blossoms falling idly through the hazy air. Under any other circumstances, it would have been a perfect day. As it was, all Phil could see was phantom blood on his hands from the last time he’d held Tommy this close, and a growing sense of trepidation as each second ticked by. Another second where the Green God was tearing the real world apart. Another second towards another story of rebirth and tragedy and unknowing. Another second without knowing where Techno and Wilbur were, whether they were safe, whether they were alive, whether they could still remember who they were and who he was and what they still had to do.
“You aren’t really you, either,” Philza said, less of a question and more of a lament that he was right. Hesitantly, he ran his fingers over Tommy’s hair, and felt his heart snap when Tommy did not pull away. “You’re someone I want you to be.”
“I’m someone you need me to be,” Tommy corrected. “Does that make any of this less real? Does that mean I’m not really here, trying to make you wake up and go save my dumb brothers? Does that mean I’m really gone—not even a ghost or a memory?” He shrugged. “Who knows? You’re supposed to be the adult here. You tell me.”
“Adults don’t have all the answers, Tommy,” Phil said. “No matter how much I wish we did.”
“Answer me this, then,” said Tommy, reaching out to run a hand over the obsidian feathers of the wing Philza had been using to block the sunlight from his eyes, “how the hell did you hide these? Hard to imagine I just didn’t notice you walking around with two massive fucking wings jutting out of your back.”
“I’m a god, Tommy,” Phil said slowly. “I can hide anything.”
Tommy’s blue eyes slid to Phil’s. “Not everything.”
Without waiting for a reply, Tommy sat up and put both of his hands on Phil’s shoulders, his expression deadly serious. I never knew this side of him, Phil thought. And I never will.
“Listen,” Tommy said, as if Philza was not already hanging on to his every word, memorizing every syllable and intonation. “I know you’ve already figured it out. You know why Dream is so afraid of you. And it’s the same reason why you’re the only person that can break out of here.”
“If I can,” Philza said, “why have I never done so before? We’ve been in this cycle for eons.”
“You’ve come close,” Tommy replied. “So close, a few times. But either Dream always finished rewriting before you could, or…” Tommy paused for just one second before continuing, more resolutely, “Or you didn’t want to leave.”
Philza opened his mouth to say he would never do that. He would never jeopardize an entire universe just to revel in some lie, no matter how beautiful it was.
But then he realized he already had.
Swallowing the bitter taste on his tongue, Phil asked, “I want to stay, Tommy.”
Tommy blinked, his expression crumbling with anger and disappointment. And then, clarity, as the first of Philza’s tears began to drop, a warm and silent rainfall. He never could hide anything from Tommy. “But you won’t,” Tommy finished, something like pride flickering in his eyes.
“But I won’t,” Philza confirmed, wrapping his hands around Tommy’s wrists and holding on for dear life. “I have to end it, Tommy. I can’t put everyone through this again. I can’t put Wilbur and Techno through this again.”
Tommy grinned, triumphant. “That’s my Dad.”
“My Tommy.” And with that, Phil gently pulled Tommy’s hands away from his shoulders and stood, brushing apple blossoms from his clothes. They fell to the grass, limp and already rotting despite their loveliness.
Tommy got up, and for a moment, they stood there together, just son and father, looking out over their orchard and remembering slow days when once they were four, with Tommy on Wilbur’s shoulders and their mother painting and Philza tossing flowers into the air just to hear his family laughing.
“They call you the Angel of Death,” Tommy began, and Philza knew the end was near. “But that’s not all you are. What are you the god of, Philza?”
The words were Tommy, but the voice was not. It was the whisper of a thousand different Tommys from a thousand different universes. It was the shout of those who had been Philza’s sons and those who never were. It was the battle cry of soldiers and thieves, the exiled and the dead, the lost and returning.
It was the demand of all the boys Philza had failed.
“Are your wings not a reminder of what you are? You are passerine and bird of prey, both.”
Philza turned to look at Tommy, but he was not looking at Tommy—or, more accurately, he was looking at all of Tommy, brief images of all the Tommys that had come before. Here, a tall man with a golden crown of laurels. Here, a young boy with a broken compass strung around his neck. Here, a feathered creature with wide blue eyes. Here, a weathered warrior with alliums tucked into the pockets of his ruined coat.
“God of death, they call you,” every Tommy said at once, “and they are closer to the truth than they think. After all, is death not just a final act of liberation? Tell me you look out every open window and wish only to fly away. Tell me what the Spider and his infinite authority fears above all. Tell me what you are.”
“I’m the god of freedom,” Philza said. “And I’m flying the fuck out of here.”
“Damn right you are.” Tommy grinned, still flickering. Still all of him. “So, go.”
Philza spread his wings, aiming for the sky.
He was the god of freedom, and he was flying the fuck out of here.
But also, more than that, he was a father.
So, despite the world waiting for him beyond the sapphire sky, he turned to look at his son one last time. His golden boy with the golden smile. And he hugged him. It was a simple thing, a quiet thing, that parents have been doing for their children since the very concept of parenthood was created. But still, to Phil, it felt like a revelation.
Every version of Tommy hugged him back.
“I wish we could have had more time,” Philza whispered, his tears coming on more quickly, so warm they might burn right to the bone. “I wish I could have watched you grow up. I wish I had loved you like you deserved. I wish I could have made it all up to you. I wish a universe’s worth of wishes for you, my boy.”
“I know.” And this was just Tommy’s voice. Tommy, singular. This Philza’s Tommy. “I better not see you, Wil or Techno again for a long, long time,” he added, which Philza knew meant, I will love you. Without requisite or deadline, I will love you.
Philza replied, “We aren’t in any hurry,” which meant, We love you, too.
When Philza let go, Tommy was gone. He was alone.
And the sky was awaiting far above him.
Mother tilted her head towards a distant sound that Wilbur couldn’t hear.
“We don’t have much time,” she said firmly, her hands fluttering like paint-stained moths set aflame. “He’s almost done. And then we’ll have to do this all over again.”
But Wilbur was still reeling, his mind going through a thousand thoughts per second and managing to understand none of them. “I was—We were fighting…”
“Always fighting, you lot,” Mother said with a small smile, but her eyes were sad. “Deep breaths now, Wil. Tell me what you know.”
“I was in a city in the north,” Wilbur said, his mouth tasting of ash and melting snow. “Outside a—a church. With broken windows.”
“Yes, you were.”
“I don’t play the violin.”
“No, you don’t.”
Wilbur glanced at his mother’s painting, the one with soft colors and old lines. “And Tommy will never live past fifteen.”
“No,” Mother replied, regret and sorrow—two of Wilbur’s own restless shadows—gleaming in her eyes, “he won’t.”
“And you’re dead, too,” Wilbur continued, freefalling into the abyss, “aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
He ran his shaking hands through his hair, clutching a handful of the brown strands and almost tearing them away in his terror. It was a fear he knew well. It had never truly left him since the night he found her gone. He’d been too sick to attend her funeral afterwards, spending feverish days in and out of consciousness. When he’d finally been steady enough to pull himself out of bed, they’d already buried her, and he only saw her again in painted portraits that didn’t quite capture the brightness of her smile, and in the middle of the night when every hallway of the castle was haunted by her.
But now she was here, standing before him, older than she had been when he lost her, and still younger than she deserved to be. She deserved decades. She deserved infinity.
And Tommy did, too.
“I want to stay here with you,” Wilbur said, still a child. Always a lost child, with her. “Because I miss you. Because you were the one person that I had nothing to prove to. Because you can make things alright. You can fix the things that I broke. Can’t you?”
She looked at him. He knew her answer.
“You could stay,” she said kindly. “I won’t fault you for it.”
He knew she meant it, so why did the pain in his chest only get worse?
A soft breeze swirled into the tower. Wilbur inhaled the scent of fresh apples.
It was so real. So real.
But then he looked at the painting again, staring at the incomplete version of him. At his father, who had aged when he could not. At Tommy, older than he ever would be in truth. At his mother, who had given him her artist’s hands.
“Will you forgive me,” Wilbur asked, his voice rough and small, “if I still want to live without you?”
In reply, she pulled him down gently and placed a soft kiss on his forehead. “I loved you before I even met you,” she whispered against his skin. “And I loved you even more after I did. I am sorry for leaving too soon and leaving too much.” She pulled back, her eyes shimmering and hands warm on both of Wilbur’s cheeks. “But look at you. Look how much you’ve grown. Look how far you still have to go.”
“Come with me?” he asked, pressing his face closer against her paint-streaked palm. “You can lie. Lie and say you’ll be coming with me.”
“I’m always with you, Wil,” she said, smiling a wavering smile. “I am in every note you play and every song you sing. I fight your every battle and feel your every pain. And I feel your joy, and your compassion, and your regret, and your bravery. Whatever you do, Wil, I am with you.”
“And…” He swallowed roughly. “And Tommy…?”
“You and your brother,” she said, “are bound by something stronger than fate, and stronger than death.” She dropped her hands and stepped back. The distance between them was a chasm. “One is gone, but not forever. One is gone, but not the other.”
Wilbur took a rattling breath and squared his shoulders.
He wasn’t ready. But he had no other choice.
He gave his mother one last lingering look. All the things he still wanted to say, he said it with it. All the I love you’s addressed to hallway ghosts and all the I wish you were here’s screamed into the silence of his own head. He would never see her again. He would never see Tommy again. Those were the truths he would have to learn to live with.
All that grief and love and hope and fear in one word. “Goodbye,” Wilbur said.
He shut his eyes as he turned away, unwilling to look at what he would be leaving behind. His perfect mother and her perfect painting of what could have been.
She might have said goodbye back. But the wind was whistling past Wilbur’s ears as he took off running, drowning out everything else. When he opened his eyes again, the arched window was waiting before him, opening into the endless sky.
And his father caught him.
Wilbur grinned up at the winged figure above him as they soared past the eddying clouds. “Always have to make a last-minute entrance, don’t you?”
Father looked down at him as he tightened his hold on Wilbur’s hand, obsidian wings cutting through the air in persistent booming beats. “Are you alright?” was the first thing he said. He sounded like he was choking on his own heartache. For once, Wilbur found he was just like his father.
Wilbur closed his eyes against the rushing wind, letting it dry his lingering tears. “No,” he admitted, “but I will be.” Wilbur looked around at the open sky, seeing nothing but blue and white until the distant horizon. “So, Father. How are we getting out of here?”
Even in their separate sadnesses, Wilbur still noticed the small smile on his father’s face. “Do you trust me, Wil?”
“I just jumped out a tower for you.”
Father’s laughter was a strained sound, but it was almost like music. “What if I asked you to let go of my hand?”
Wilbur didn’t think. He just let go.
For a moment, he was weightless, suspended mid-air, as clean and pure as the clouds that were the sole witnesses of his slow descent. There was no life and no death and no Wilbur and no enemy waiting for him on the other side. No dead brothers, no lost brothers. No mothers in towers, no fathers newly regained. There was only the falling.
“Wil!” Father called out over the rushing wind. “Open your eyes!”
Wilbur had not even realized he’d closed them. When he opened them again, all he could see was the welcoming blue, and his father falling right beside him, wings tucked in close.
“I saw Mother,” Wilbur said to the open air, his hands in his pockets as if it were a normal afternoon conversation.
“I saw Tommy,” Father replied. “He said to tell you to not die yet.”
Wilbur smiled faintly. “Sounds like him.” He balled his hands into fists where his father couldn’t see them shaking. “But was it really him? Really them?”
“I don’t know.” Father sighed as they hurtled into nothingness. “And does it really matter, Wil?”
“I suppose not,” Wilbur said. “We had them back for a moment. That’s all it was, in the end.” He spun in the air to face his father. In the short time since they’d faced off with Dream, his father’s eyes had aged a million years. More somberly, Wilbur said, “We have to get Techno back, too. Where is he?”
“Tucked away somewhere else, like I was. Like you were.”
“How did you get to me, then?”
Philza grinned. “Like this.” He unsheathed the sword at his hip, and tore a hole right across the sky below them.
“What the fuck—” Wilbur shouted as the tear in the very fabric of the universe spread before him. It was a pitch-black scar running across the blue, a jagged line of nothingness. Wilbur reached out to clutch his father’s arm, his heart rioting inside his chest as it rejected what his eyes were definitely seeing. “What the hell is that?”
“Our way out,” Philza said, moving closer to Wilbur, his wings folding over the both of them like a comforting childhood blanket. “Falling is the easy part, Wil. Now it’s time for the crash.”
They fell into the dark and were gone.
“I should know you.” The words fell in a pathetic rush from Techno’s mouth. “I should, but I don’t.”
The little girl who was his sister, had been his sister just a few seconds before, stared at him with wide eyes that were like twin pools of ancient water, reflecting his own strained face back at him. Her question echoed in his head, a chant and an accusation and a lament. What’s my name? What’s my name? What’s my name? Techno wrenched his hand away from her and scrambled backwards, his breaths coming fast and harsh. She frowned after him, but did not move to follow.
“You’re my sister,” he sobbed, clutching the hand that had held hers so gently, so familiarly. “But I don’t even remember your name.”
Hers, and their siblings’, and their father’s and mother’s. Once knowledge as common as air, now slipping from his fingers. He stared at her, begging the universe to give him one syllable. One letter. He would take anything. He would take breadcrumbs.
“I killed you,” he whispered, falling into the dirt, a puppet with no master. He put his head in his shaking hands. “I killed all of you.”
“No.” The sternness in her voice made him look up. She still stood where she had been, a pillar of stone, her face pink with fury. “That wasn’t you. The Spider got you. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Techno shouted. The forest was a pressing in on them, he knew it. The darkness would take him again, just as it took him all those years ago the last time he’d been down this road.
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes, that is all. It was all him, never you. We understood that then, we understand that now. Nobody blamed you or will ever blame you for something you could not control. We’re not that horrible, or that stupid.”
“But I hurt you,” Techno whispered. “I know I did. You must have been so scared.”
“I wasn’t,” she said, but Techno knew it was a lie by the wobbling of her lower lip. “You would never hurt me, I knew that.” She stepped closer, slowly, as if she were approaching a wounded wolf. “And it’s important to me that you know that, too.”
Something flickered in Techno’s periphery, and they both turned to see the forest open just up ahead. Beyond the darkness, there was a small clearing, blazing with sunlight. Surrounded by flowers patches and shrubbery was a house, small and cozy with a brick chimney letting out pale smoke. A window was open, and through it, Techno could see a table set for dinner, and children fighting over an apple pie. A tall, wiry man with his pink hair pulled back from his face was swatting at them with no real force, telling them to share, you greedy little monsters. A woman with braided hair stood to the side and threw her head back in a deep laugh. One of the kids leaned too far in the scuffle, fell face first into a bowl of mashed potatoes, and began wailing. An older child, almost as old as Techno, rolled her eyes warmly and promised to do anything he wanted if he would just stop crying.
Techno saw all of them.
None of them saw Techno.
“They’re calling me back,” the little girl said.
But Techno couldn’t take his eyes off the house and the family that lived in it. His house, once. His family. Warm and lovely and easy.
“I can’t go home yet,” Techno said, hating himself more and more with every word. “I still—I still have to save Wilbur and Philza. I still have to bury Tommy. And I still have to put that green bastard into the godsdamned ground.”
“Well, duh.” When he turned to her again, she had her hands on her hips and a sad smile on her face. “I said they were calling me back. No one said anything about you. Not everything’s about you, you know.”
Despite everything, Techno managed a weak laugh. “Of all the people to be my guide through this shit afterlife, why’d it have to be you?”
“Because my spirit is too big for my own body,” she replied haughtily. “And I’m tired of some random man deciding my lives for me. He didn’t even ask if I wanted to be a human being. What if I wanted to be a frog in the rain, did he ever consider that? No. Instead, he made me small and stinky and boring.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “I want to be more than someone else’s backstory. I want to be the hero. I’m going to be the hero next time, just you watch.”
“I already am,” Techno said softly. In the distance, he could still hear the laughter of people he used to know by heart. But closer, somewhere just behind him, he heard a voice. Calling his name.
Techno turned towards the voice. He would always turn towards that voice.
There was only the forest off the path, broken branches and nothingness. And still, somehow, he knew he would be safe in it.
He shakily rose to his feet, each small movement sending electricity through his veins. His old bones knew he should be going with her, going home, and starting the cycle anew. The wheel had to move forward. This was not how the real story ended.
But screw the wheel. Screw what the storyline dictated.
He was Technoblade, and he was going to write his own damned story.
He stood his ground, felt the wheel push at his back, shoving him roughly forward. But if he was even half as stubborn as the little girl before him, then he had nothing to fear.
The ground held beneath him.
He passed a hand over his misty eyes. “I have to go,” he said tiredly. “Wilbur’s looking for me.”
She grinned. “So, get going, you slow old man.”
“I’m not that old—”
“Whatever you say, grandpa,” she replied, taking one step towards the light. And then another. “Oh, before I forget, everyone wanted to tell you something.”
He leaned towards her. “What is it?”
She leaned towards him. “You look dumb with that hairstyle,” she whispered gravely. “Please keep your hair out of your face because it’s starting to function like curtains.”
“You little brat.” Techno moved to grab her, but she danced out of the way, laughing so hard she almost tripped over her own feet.
She moved to go again, but stopped at the very end of the road, silhouetted against the sunlight.
“You know, for what it’s worth,” she said, turning just enough for Techno to see a faint smile on her face, “I think the Green God made the right call this time around, making you my older brother. You were pretty great at it.”
“Before I murdered all of you,” Techno said, his throat burning from a stoppered sob.
“You can’t ever just accept a compliment, can you?”
“It wasn’t that great of a compliment to begin with.”
“Fine, I take it back.”
“Don’t you dare—” Techno began, but she was already gone. Always have to have the last word, he thought fondly, glad to even have that small scrap of her to take with him into the dark. He folded the memory of her running home, twin braids bouncing against her shoulder blades with each excited step, and tucked it behind his heart, where it would always be safe. She would stay there, right next to the little house with the laughing strangers. Right next to Tommy.
He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the smell of pine trees and flowers and apple pies, and stepped off the path.
He walked first, then ran, ducking under branches and shaking his feet out of the tangled undergrowth, tearing through the dim with only Wilbur’s voice to guide him.
Closer now. Stray branches tugged at his clothes and his hair. With his sister’s advice and from pure annoyance, Techno ripped a strip of cloth from his shirt’s sleeve and tied his hair back into a simple knot at the nape of his neck. It wasn’t an elegant braid, but it would have to do.
He continued running.
“Wilbur!” he called again.
“Techno!” Just to the right of him. “Techno, over here—Techno.”
Techno fell against a tree, taking in what was before him. A strange, dark line stood out in the dim—blacker than black, cut straight from the darkness of the lowest caves of the earth. It felt… lonely. Standing beside it, wings tucked in close, was Philza. And Wilbur.
“Come on,” Wilbur said, a half-smile on his face. “You’re late.”
Techno rushed to him, and gave him a swift punch to the shoulder. Wilbur stumbled, almost falling back into whatever the black cut was before Techno caught him by the wrist and pulled him upright again.
“How many times do I have to lose you in a single day?” Techno demanded, squeezing Wilbur’s wrist just to make sure he was real, he was here, he wasn’t part of this strange dreamscape.
Wilbur rubbed sheepishly at his shoulder and said, “I didn’t really have a say in it.”
“Keep close to me from now on,” Techno ordered, releasing Wilbur after he was sure the pulse at his wrist was there. “And you—” He turned to Philza, ready to unleash his pent-up emotions on the nearest god available. But the fraught words died on his lips when he took in his old friend. “You look… different.”
Philza shrugged one shoulder. “It’s been a long few hours.”
“He saw Tommy,” Wilbur added by way of explanation.
“Is he okay?” Techno asked, stepping towards Philza.
Philza shook his head. “We can talk about it later,” he said, sounding strangled. Techno understood. It would take him years to speak about what happened on that road. For now, it was his own burden to carry alone. Someday, he’d share it, but not when the wound was too fresh, too hurting.
“Alright,” Techno said. “That’s okay. So how the hell are we getting out of here?”
He still had a score to settle and a prince to bury, after all.
Wilbur nodded wordlessly towards the pulsing black scar in the air.
“Oh,” said Techno, “you have got to be kidding me.”
“It’s safe,” Wilbur said.
“Say that again without looking so green and I might believe you.”
“It’s a cut through reality,” Philza said exasperatedly. “Of course it would not be a very comfortable experience.”
Wilbur scoffed. “It felt like having my innards rearranged by a very excitable toddler.” He heaved a resigned sigh as he faced the cut. “I guess I’ll go first.” He threw a look at the other two behind him. “See you on the other side, then?”
“I’ll follow soon,” said Techno. “Don’t get lost again.”
Wilbur gave him a mocking salute before falling into the void. It swallowed him whole.
Techno watched him disappear with a sinking feeling in his gut. Before a heartbeat had even passed, he was already moving forwards, intending to follow behind Wilbur as he’d promised. He would not let him out of his sight again.
But before Techno could step through, a hand closed around his arm and pulled him back. He turned towards Philza, a complaint already on his lips, before he noticed the somber look on the other god’s face. He really did look different. He was… quieter, somehow, and yet brighter, at the same time. Like a young star silently basking in its new-found brilliance.
“Techno,” Philza said, “we need to talk.”
Wilbur was being unmade.
That was what it was. As he fell through the black, spiraling between what was real and what was imagined, drifting in the space between lie and truth, he felt himself being pulled apart, and then pulled back together. Born and then unborn and then reborn and unmade. Father had called it the crash, but that wasn’t quite true. It was crashing and flying and crashing again—the euphoria of flight equaled by the pain of the collapse. It was agony. It was dawn.
It was over.
He hit the ground.
Breathed in, breathed out. The air tasted bitter. Like ash. Like the dust on a guitar case sitting unopened for years.
His ears were ringing, his vision blurring. There was nothing beyond the feel of cold snow under him, coarse and biting. His muddled mind could grasp no thought other than, I need a blanket.
He spat snow and blood out of his mouth and struggled upright, managing to get on his knees before he fell back again, what fight there was left in his body fleeing as his vision finally cleared, and he realized he was watching the end of the world.
The sky was red. The city was burning. Fissures arched across the ground like lightning, chasms leading straight to the underworld. As Wilbur looked on, the earth shook again, and more cracks spread, one breaking open just feet away from him.
Shit, Wilbur thought, scrambling back, his heart in his throat. Shit, shit, shit!
The only structure that remained relatively intact was the church.
And standing at its belltower, at the eye of the storm, was none other than Dream.
He didn’t seem to notice Wilbur’s reappearance. How could he? In the same way that giants paid no heed to ants, the god had bigger affairs to tend to than a single mortal standing in the wreckage of the only universe he had ever known. Dream paced around the circumference of the bell, trailing a hand on its bronze surface, only pausing whenever another earthquake hit. It took Wilbur a few dizzy beats to realize he was causing it. With a tilt of his head and a flick of his fingers, the Green God was slowly breaking the world apart, remaking it into another version, another stage.
Wilbur barely registered the thud of another person falling beside him.
Wilbur turned to watch Techno blink groggily at the scene before them, waking from a dream and straight into a nightmare. He already looked so exhausted, pink hair tied loosely back from a face that had seen better days: he was so pale, the only color on his face the dark lines under his eyes. How long had they been fighting? It felt like years. It was only hours.
“What’s going on?” Techno croaked.
“The apocalypse,” Wilbur returned.
Techno groaned as he fell back against the ground, burying his face in his arms. “Five minutes,” he said. “Let me have five godsdamned minutes without having to deal with this.”
“We don’t have that much time,” Father said.
Wilbur raised his head to see his father touching down on the ground beside him, soundless as the night. His eyes scanned the broken city around him before settling on Techno and Wilbur’s discarded weapons—and, because Wilbur could never catch a fucking break, they were sitting leagues away on a slice of earth separated by a dozen criss-crossing lines of fissures.
“When do we ever have enough time?” Techno’s voice was muffled by the snow. “Five minutes. That’s all I’m asking.”
Wilbur groaned in sympathy, even as he accepted Father’s offered hand and got to his feet. He reached down and grabbed the back of Techno’s tunic, hauling him up so that Techno leaned on him while he leaned on his father. The three of them, exhausted in all sense of the word, watched as Dream continued breaking and shattering everything that no longer fit whatever story he wanted to tell next.
“I’ll get your weapons,” Father said, and Wilbur expected him to fly away to retrieve them, but instead he simply snapped his fingers, and Wilbur’s sword and bow, and Techno’s trident and chain whip clattered at their feet.
Wilbur glanced with shock at his father. “When did you learn that nifty little trick?”
“Must have picked it up somewhere,” Father muttered as Techno wordlessly re-armed himself.
Wilbur bent to retrieve his bow and rapier, surprised to find that his quiver was filled once more with new arrows, with gleaming obsidian feathers as fletching. These gods, Wilbur thought. I’ll never understand their silly games.
“This is it, then,” Techno said as he spun his trident idly between his fingers. “This ends here. Everything ends here.”
“How do we do this?” Wilbur asked. “The last time we think we got him cornered, he just shoved us into some other realm and went on his merry way.”
“I won’t give him the chance this time,” Father said sternly.
Sweat was beading on Techno’s forehead despite the cold, but his words were steady when he said, “We’ll be your support, Phil. Now, go.”
“Not yet,” Father said, turning to Wilbur. He lifted his cloak and reached into its inner pocket, pulling out a silver necklace. He pressed it into Wilbur’s palm and leaned in to whisper into Wilbur’s ear. “Find what is sacred to you, and never let go. If you would take any advice from your old man, let it be that.”
“Why does it feel like you’re saying goodbye?” Wilbur whispered back, curling his fingers around the necklace.
Father stepped back with a small, sad smile. “I’m not,” he said. “It’s—just in case.”
“Just in case?” Wilbur demanded. “In case of what?”
Another one-shouldered shrug. “Worst-case scenario.”
Wilbur placed the necklace into his pocket. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s lie to ourselves. It should be easy; we’ve been doing it for years, haven’t we?”
Father blinked, and looked as if he were about to say something else. But then the earth trembled again, a harsh laugh cut through the cold air.
The three of them turned to see that the Green God had finally caught sight of them. He stood at the edge of the belltower, balanced on the balls of his feet as if the dizzying height was of no consequence to him. Even from so far below, Wilbur could see the jagged line of his smile carved into his face.
“Hello!” he called out. “Didn’t expect you back so soon, I admit.” He spread his arms to take in the chaos all around them. “But I guess destruction is more fun when there are witnesses.”
Wilbur closed his hand around the hilt of his rapier.
Despite the ache in his soul, he was ready. With Techno on one side and his father on the other, there was little else he needed. The northern winds whistled past them, and if Wilbur listened carefully, he could almost hear the song they were trying to sing.
There were no words left to be said.
They had done this a thousand times before.
They took off, Phil to the skies and Techno and Wilbur rushing across the ruined ground.
Phil would get to the tower first, but the other two would not be far behind.
They leapt over chasm after chasm, skidding on snow and falling to their knees but still moving forwards, heading towards the church. Every jump rattled Techno’s bones and made him want to cry out, but he pushed it all down. The world was being torn apart by an all-powerful, bored little shit; Techno had no right to complain about something as inconsequential as a potentially sprained ankle.
And then, suddenly, it wasn’t inconsequential.
It was an easy jump. He could have made it, should have made it.
But instead, he came up short. An inch shy of safety.
Technoblade fell quietly.
There was a sharp tug, and his shoulder almost popped out of its socket as his plunge was abruptly halted. He looked up, legs dangling in open air, and found Wilbur leaning over the edge with his hands around Techno’s wrist. His only lifeline.
“Gods,” Wilbur cursed, struggling with Techno’s weight. “Pull yourself up, Techno!”
Techno’s boots scrambled for purchase against the chasm’s face. He could feel Wilbur’s hands slipping, but Techno knew Wilbur would more readily let both of them fall than let go.
That was how Techno knew he’d already found family again.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, his left foot found a steady spot to carry most of his weight. With some awkward maneuvering, Techno managed to haul himself over the edge, breathing heavily with his hands on his knees, but on solid ground once more.
“What the hell?” Wilbur demanded. “You and your grand speeches about never losing me again, but did you ever stop and ask if I could afford to lose you? Get a fucking grip!”
Techno pushed hair out his eyes and blinked slowly at the furious king. “Okay,” Techno said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you alright, then?” Wilbur asked, anger quickly evaporating into concern. “We have to go help father.”
I don’t think he needs our help, Techno thought, squinting up at the belltower. From this angle, he couldn’t see much, but he could hear it all: the clash of steel on steel and the distant thuds of two godly beings absolutely trying their best to kill the other.
“I’m alright,” assured Techno.
And even if Wilbur didn’t seem to believe him, they had no other choice but to soldier on. They were off again, leaping from one broken chunk of earth to another, albeit a bit more cautiously, constantly looking over their shoulders to make sure the other had made it safely. When they finally made it to the foot of the belltower, the pain in Techno’s ankle had reached a boiling point, and only intensified when Wilbur pushed the tower door open, and they were met with a staircase spiraling into the sky.
“I hate this,” Techno declared. “I hate every aspect of this, and I would like to quit and be a humble farmer far from here.”
Wilbur stared at him, giving him two seconds to follow through on his words. “Are you done?” Wilbur said. “Because in case you haven’t noticed, the end of all things is currently being orchestrated right above our heads.”
“I regret ever meeting you.”
Wilbur snorted as he started up the stairs. “You say that as if it isn’t your dry humor that rubbed off on me.”
They took the steps two at a time, round and round until Techno couldn’t remember life before the climb.
It wasn’t until they were halfway there when Techno’s knees finally gave up and he slumped against the brick wall, panting and biting back a scream of frustration. He was holding them back. It was the most important battle of his damned life, and he was holding them back.
Wilbur, standing a few steps up from Techno, looked back with furrowed brows. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “You look—You look pale. This isn’t like you.” He took in the sweat dripping down Techno’s face, the exhaustion evident in his trembling shoulders and liquid limbs. “Techno?”
“You’re right,” Techno murmured, too tired to care about what he was saying. “I’m not myself. I’m not even a fraction what I used to be. I hate this fragile body and all its whining and all its petty demands.” He looked up, met Wilbur’s eyes, willing him to understand, because there was no way in hell he could ever speak the words himself. He didn’t have the vocabulary for it. “I hate being this weak, Wilbur.”
Wilbur’s mouth fell open in a silent oh as realization finally hit him.
Before, all this would have been effortless: the leaping, the running, the climbing. Something as small as a sprained ankle or a healing stab wound would have been no hindrance at all, just little details to shake off like bothersome bugs.
But that was before. This was now.
“Techno,” Wilbur whispered, “you’re mortal?”
It had been written in an ancient script, in a book that looked exactly like all the others in the forgotten library: heavy-bound and dust-covered. Philza had flipped gingerly through it, afraid that one wrong move could turn the fragile paper into ash, and had found the words on the last pages.
You seek power, reader, it had said, but all things come with a price. Power for power. Divinity for divinity.
If you wish to be a god among gods, one must be the vessel, the other the sacrifice.
Philza had promised it would be their last resort. Only until push came to shove, Techno had said.
And the Green God had definitely shoved.
And so Philza had pulled Techno back, and the two of them had talked: one god to another, for the last time. They had both known it was time, just as they had known, that first day on that battlefield of ice and snow, arrows flying overhead and both of them lit from within by divine fire, that their roads had crossed, and there was no going back.
Technoblade, blood god and emperor, had offered his scarred hand to Philza, Angel of Death and god of freedom, and they had clasped each other’s fingers like old friends did after a long separation. For a moment, there was only the two of them in that forest of dreams, and when Philza whispered the ancient words, it almost sounded like a solemn prayer. A prayer to the god Techno used to be, and to the god Philza was becoming.
Towards the end, Techno’s hand had betrayed his pain. It shook, just a bit, as his veins burned gold, turning him into gilded patchwork—half-mortal, half-god—his very soul caught in the crossfire between mortality and divinity. His breaths came quick and labored, and still Philza murmured, slipping silent apologies between the primordial spell. When the final word was said, Techno had fallen to his knees before Philza, a wicked reversal of fortunes, but he did not let go.
Technoblade forsook his godhood without protest. There was barely a struggle, barely a scream of agony. It had been his sacrifice to make, and he would be damned if he’d let himself regret it. He had wrestled with martyrdom, and won.
When Techno stood again, he was human—simple and breakable, with numbered years and numb hands. Inside him, there was a hollow pit where his godhood used to rest. He was going to make a landfill out of it.
And Philza was awake.
Now, he stood in a belltower overlooking a ruined city. Fires raged until the horizon, burning away homes and streets that once teemed with easy life. Families and friends gathered in bunches like sweet-smelling bouquets. But like flowers unaware of the gardener’s plucking hands, they had existed in the shadow of a being too large to comprehend, their lives already decided for them—all their tragedies and loves, their hopes and their secrets, laid into predetermined places on the Green God’s mosaic.
But that would end today.
Because Philza was his antithesis, and he was going to set everybody free.
The bell tolled as he and Dream continued their deadly danced around the tower, swords meeting and then unmeeting.
Dream must have sensed the change. He must have seen it in the way Philza moved, taking each step with utmost confidence that the ground would meet him and not the other way around. He must have felt it in the renewed strength behind Philza’s blows. He must have known Philza was still holding back.
For the first time since their encounter, the Green God had the wits to finally be unnerved.
One mistake was all it took. A misstep in their eons-old waltz. The Green God swung to early, his sword cutting through air as Philza simply ducked out of the way. The bell shuddered as Dream’s blade bit into the bronze and stuck there. As Dream tried to pull it free, Philza kicked at his knees and sent him spinning against one of the pillars holding up the tower’s roof, unarmed.
Dream stumbled against the pillar, nearly toppling over the edge of the tower, and before he could regain his balance, Philza swung at him. Dream managed to duck just in time, but Philza’s sword cut through the pillar behind him as easily as a hot knife through butter. The pillar buckled and fell apart, and the roof of the tower began leaning, almost halfway to caving in on itself.
The Green God whistled as he jumped back from Philza’s advance. “Listen, Philza—”
“I’m done listening to you.” Philza swung again, this time managing to nick Dream’s forearm. Brilliant red blood ran from the cut. It did not heal.
Dream looked down at his wounded arm, his brows furrowed with confusion. “Why did that hurt?” he asked no one in particular. He raised his eyes to Phil, and his confusion turned to fury. “What have you done?”
“The very thing you tried to keep me from doing,” said Philza, raising his sword above his head. “Now, hold still, Dream. Let me take everything away from you as you took everything from me.”
The Green God made to raise his hand, perhaps to conjure himself a new sword or attempt to throw Philza into another dream. Philza’s hand shot out, gripping Dream’s wrist and twisting. He leaned in to watch the other god’s discomfort turn to pain, turn to panic, as he struggled to free himself from Philza’s crushing hold.
“Little spider,” Philza whispered, “caught in your own web.”
“You think this fazes me?” Dream demanded, still trying to pull his wrist away. “Do you think I’m afraid of you?”
The Angel of Death looked at the Green God with the eyes of a son taken too soon. “Yes,” he said. “I think you are.”
Dream snarled. An animal cornered. “You forget you’ve tried this before. You’ve always failed. Always.”
“Ah, but that was before I came to realize what you were.” Philza made sure Dream could see every inch of his expression, every depleted line, every mark the long years had etched into his skin. “You would have us think that you’re doing all this—the rewrites, this infinite loop—just for the fun of it, but you don’t really have the luxury of indulging yourself, do you? Because you’re afraid. Every second of every day of every life, you are afraid. You have known me since you were made. You have known since your first breath that I was the only creature capable of breaking you. And before I could even try, before you gave me any reason to, you ran. You pretended it was all some silly little game to keep your heart from exploding out of your chest with fear, and you ran. You sculpted worlds, rewrote histories, just to keep me from seeing you squirm. Because you’re a coward. That’s what you are, Dream. You’re a godsdamned coward.”
“Take that back,” the Green God whispered. “Take that back right now.”
“Make me,” challenged Philza. “Oh, wait, you can’t.”
They were equal forces, once upon a time. The Spider and the Songbird, Control and Freedom, the two oldest powers in the universe, the first of the gods—maintaining a delicate balance until one tipped the scale.
Philza was merely tipping it back.
“You bought yourself some time,” said Philza. “Eons of it. But the clock is ticking, and there’s nowhere else to run. The game is over.”
Dream was breathing heavily, his emerald eyes wide. “You can hurt me,” he said, “but you can’t kill me. You can’t. That’s not—That’s not how we do this. We’ll always be hunting each other. You have the upper hand now, but not forever.”
“You’re right.” Philza loosened his hold on Dream, allowing him to step away. The Green God gave him a look of mistrustful confusion as he rubbed his wrist where Philza’s hand had left scorch marks. “I can’t kill you. If I did, you’ll simply be reborn, and the chase will continue. I know that now. And I also know what I have to do.”
He glanced over Dream’s shoulder, and the other god turned on his heel to follow Philza’s line of sight. When he finally saw what Philza meant, he whirled around with an incredulous, almost fearful expression. “You can’t be serious,” Dream said, voice trembling. “You’re can’t be.” Then, regaining a bit of confidence, he said, “No, you really can’t be, because I’d just break out. I can carve my way out, little by little.”
“Not if you have someone watching you,” Philza said simply.
What little hope the Green God still had died in his eyes. “You’re an idiot,” he declared, with equal parts disbelief and alarm. He moved towards Philza, grabbing fistfuls of his tunic and shaking him. It would be the closest to begging he would stoop to. “Do you have any idea what I would lose? What you would lose?”
“All things come with a price,” Philza said, surprised by the sudden burn of tears in his eyes. “And I pay it, so they don’t have to. I’m done running away from my problems. I’m done begging the stars for answers. I’ve brought the stars low, Dream, and they will do my bidding for me.”
Why does it feel like you’re saying goodbye? Wilbur had asked. Because he was. He’d said his farewells, even if he was the only one who would truly know it. He’d pressed one last gift into his son’s hands, but his eyes had been on Techno as he’d spoken of never letting go—so Techno might understand, in hindsight, ten days or ten years from now, that Philza was leaving Wilbur to him, and him to Wilbur.
Behind the Green God, far below in the middle of the broken earth, was a cut in the universe, a jagged gate to a place of unmaking. It stood waiting, waiting for a green-eyed god and his keeper. A prison of infinite void for the two loneliest gods on earth.
Philza grabbed Dream’s wrists once more, manacles of flesh and blood.
“It’s been you and me since the beginning, Dream,” Philza said solemnly. “And it’ll be me and you in the end.”
“What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” Wilbur repeated.
Philza turned slowly towards the tower’s threshold, where Wilbur stood with one hand on the jamb and the other around Techno’s shoulders. Wilbur was the only force keeping Techno upright at the moment; by the look on Philza’s face, he must have expected Techno to weigh Wilbur down more with the novelty of his mortality, ignorant to the fact that Techno’s sheer stubbornness was more than enough fuel to get him up that torturous flight of stairs. Sure, Techno felt as if each step had been hewn into this damned tower with every intent to antagonize him and him specifically, but he was here now, witnessing Philza about to make another undoubtedly big mistake, and that was all that mattered.
“Yes,” Dream said, all former smugness wiped clean from his face. “Tell him exactly what you’re doing, Philza, where you’re about to go—”
“Shut up,” Wilbur snapped, his eyes never wavering from his father. “This doesn’t concern you, you nosy piece of shit. Father.” Philza, a god among gods among men, flinched at the harshness in Wilbur’s tone. “What did he mean? Where are you going?”
When Philza didn’t respond, a look of horrified fury dawned on Wilbur’s face.
“You’re leaving,” Wilbur said, as if the act of saying it might make it false. “You’re actually leaving me again.”
“Wil—” Philza began, loosening his grip on Dream for just one second.
Techno knew a thing or two about stupid mistakes. That was one of them.
The moment Philza’s hands slackened, Dream pulled free and was gone, taking to the skies on his invisible wings. It was almost comical, really, to think that the god that had stood over them so arrogantly just hours before would now scramble to escape the second everyone’s backs were turned. If it was Philza’s ascension had been the cause of the shift, then Techno would gladly sacrifice his immortality ten times over just to see the green bastard scared shitless.
“Fuck,” Philza cursed under his breath as he spread his own wings, about to give chase, but before he could even lift one foot off the tower floor, Wilbur and Techno had already taken their positions.
It took four seconds.
One. Wilbur nocked an obsidian-fletched arrow into his bow, drawing his arm back as he aimed towards the lone figure in the burning sky.
Two. The linked iron chains of Techno’s whip rattled as it unfurled from his hand like a metal ribbon. He took one end of it and spun it in a vicious circle, the wind whirling around him, lifting his hair from his face. He was almost delirious with pain, and he did not have a fraction of the strength he used to have, but if Wilbur was still standing, then Techno would be right beside him.
Three. Wilbur breathed in, out. His hands were steady and sure.
He was a king, and he would surrender to no god.
Four. Wilbur let the arrow fly.
It sang through the air, sang past the Green God’s head, not close enough to make him bleed, but close enough to make him pause. It was all they needed. In that moment of his foolish hesitation, Technoblade swung his whip out like a fisherman casting a hook into the deep dark. It blazed like a comet in reverse, arching up into the shattered sky instead of towards the burning ground, justice made metal. It caught around the heel of a god and made him mortal in his fear.
And Techno had any godliness left in himself, he used it all in one last act of retribution.
He had known, of course, that even the weakest human was able to do impossible things, godly things, in moments of panic. He had heard stories of fathers lifting whole trees off their children, of people standing between their lovers and wild wolves. He had witnessed soldiers fighting to their bitter ends, all for a king that did not love them and a kingdom that would forget their names the moment a new battle begun.
A young boy had stood before him in a wisteria-covered pavilion and asked to be taught the art of war to keep his brother safe.
Humans, Techno thought, we’re a stubborn bunch, aren’t we? And he drew the Spider down from the stars.
Dream hurtled back towards them, an angel fallen and falling still, and Techno swung him straight towards the bell. There was a cacophony as the bell’s bindings snapped and it crashed into the floor, still ringing, still singing. In its dented surface laid a god in repose, blood staining his golden hair.
Unconscious. Defeated, at last.
Techno let out a shaky breath.
“Well,” he said, “that was easy,” and promptly passed out.
Wilbur let his bow clatter to the ground and caught Techno before he could follow it.
Laughter exploded out of Wilbur as he pulled Techno’s limp body against him. “We did it,” he exhaled against Techno’s hair, looking down at the god lying broken in dented bronze. “We actually fucking did it—Techno?” He shook Techno. “Techno, hey, we did it!”
There was no response. Wilbur looked up in panic and found his father’s weary eyes on him.
No. The frenzied euphoria of an unexpected victory died swiftly on Wilbur’s lips as he pulled Techno closer to him, tucking his warm, fragile, mortal body into the cradle of his arms, Techno’s chin digging painfully into Wilbur’s shoulder. Wilbur was suddenly very aware of the extent of the damage on him. Wounded shoulders and a knife to the back, courtesy of Wilbur himself.
A killing blow for you would be a scratch for me, Techno had said, but he’d said it when he was immortal and untouchable.
“Techno?” Wilbur asked again, shaking him lightly, unable to think of a world without his best friend. His newfound mortality should have given them years, at least, together. Not minutes. Not seconds. “Techno, this isn’t funny anymore.” He looked up at his father. “Tell him it isn’t funny anymore!”
The silence was thunderous.
And then, in its wake, there was a muffled groan.
“Ugh. Five minutes. Just five godsdamned minutes.”
Wilbur pulled back to see that Techno’s eyes were wide open.
“If I weren’t so sure you were halfway to hell already,” Wilbur said slowly, “I would expedite the process right now.”
“Does hell offer a hot meal and a warm bed?” asked Techno. “If so, please, send me there. I deserve it.”
Wilbur shoved Techno off him, unsure whether to laugh or cry or scream. When he turned to his father, he looked just as lost.
“That was,” Father said as Techno righted himself, “a very shit thing to do, you little bastard.”
“Oh.” The wry mirth fled instantly from Techno’s face, chased by unbridled anger as he whirled on Father. “You want to speak to me of doing very shit things?”
Father flinched, but looked as if he had already expected the outburst. His blue eyes slid to Wilbur, and they looked so much like Tommy’s in his final moments that Wilbur did not know whether to look away or memorize them.
Father’s hands around Dream’s wrists. Dream’s panicked flight.
The dark doorway into a realm between realms still standing open far below in the shadow of the belltower.
You’re actually leaving me again, Wilbur had accused him before they were swept up in the dramatics of Dream’s escape and their presumed triumph. What triumph was there to celebrate when Father had not proven him wrong?
The cold settled back into Wilbur’s bones.
“Where are you going?” Wilbur demanded.
“Wil,” Father began, running a shaking hand through his hair. “You were not supposed to be here for this.” He met Techno’s glare. “Neither of you were.”
Techno crossed his arms. The mortal who had chained a god. If he had given anyone else the look he was giving Father, they would have withered away into dust.
“And what exactly is this, Phil?” Techno asked, his voice hoarse.
The Angel of Death did not frown or make excuses. He simply told them what Wilbur had always wanted from him.
“I’m going away.”
“Far, far away,” Philza continued, unable to stop now that he had started. Maybe it was the way that Wilbur was looking at him—open and undefended, as if he no longer feared but instead expected this betrayal. Maybe it was the way Techno stood protectively in front of him, as if Philza was someone Wilbur needed protection from. Maybe it was that despite their earlier tearless farewell, deep down, Philza knew it would come down to this. No subterfuge. No vague remarks. Just honesty this time, no matter how harsh and painful. “I’ll take Dream to a place where he can’t hurt you, can’t hurt anyone, ever again. And I’m going to lock the door behind me and throw away the key. It’s the only way to make sure he can’t come back.”
“The only way?” Wilbur asked. “The only way to end the reign of an all-powerful deity just so happens to involve you leaving me in the dust for… how many times is it now, Philza? How many times are you going to leave me before you even say a proper fucking goodbye?”
“Don’t give me that shit!” Wilbur snapped, his brown eyes furious. He’d gotten his eyes from his mother, the fury from his father. “A few words of wisdom and a piece of fucking jewelry does not count as a goodbye in any godsdamned universe. I asked you. I fucking asked you if it was goodbye.”
“Goodbye, then,” said Philza. “Is that what you wanted? Did you want me to say the words? Did you want me to tell you that I would give up air and life and open skies if it meant I got to stay with you? But if you want honesty, Wilbur, here it is: you know the face of sacrifice well. You have already made the calculations in your head, and you already know this is the right call. The only call. You already know this will hurt like hell, but it will be a necessary hurt. This is my Blue Valley, Wilbur.”
He saw the words land, felt it as if he’d taken a dagger to his own heart.
Wilbur had the look of a man standing at the gallows, but it was not his execution. And that tortured sorrow in his eyes—torn between grieving and refusing to believe there was anything to grieve at all—that was from Philza, too.
Through it all, Techno had stood in his stoic silence, content on making Philza feel the weight of his anger without having to say a word. But now he opened his mouth to speak, but it wasn’t a demand or a dry remark or a sharp reproach that fell out in quiet, hesitant syllables.
It was a question.
“Wilbur, can I see that necklace?”
His anguish momentarily clouded by confusion, Wilbur reached into his pocket and pulled out Philza’s last gift, the only remnant that would remain of him.
Sitting on Wilbur’s palm, dangling from an iron chain, was a single bright-green emerald.
“I’m sorry,” Philza began. “I’m sorry that leaving you is the only way I can save you. I’m sorry that you both fought so hard, so long, just to say goodbye again. I’m sorry that I can’t be here for the aftermath. I’m sorry that there’s too much left unsaid between us. I’m sorry I was too much of a coward to say all this before, but I hope I can make it up to you now.” He tried for a smile, even as tears blurred his vision, turning everything into hazy smudges. “Wil, Techno, I—”
And then arms were going around him, pulling him into a warm embrace. For a moment, there was only a tangle of limbs and three beating, broken hearts, indiscriminate from one another. Clarity came in bittersweet waves. It was Wilbur’s face buried in his left shoulder, Techno’s arms around them both. It was Techno’s foot on his toes and the pommel of Wilbur’s rapier digging into his gut. It was tragic and it was clumsy.
It was goodbye.
“It won’t be for forever,” Philza promised through his sobs. “I swear on you both, I will find a way back to you. Someday, there will be nothing to fear anymore, and I’ll find you again, even if it takes me eons.”
None of them said what they were all thinking. Wilbur didn’t have eons, and neither did Techno now. But they knew what he meant anyway, and they believed him. Someday. They would hang onto that promise. They would take it to their graves.
“If there’s one thing,” Wilbur said, pulling back to look Philza in the eyes, “that I want you to know… I forgive you.” His face fractured into a million different emotions. “I forgive you, Dad.”
“Thank you,” Phil whispered. “Thank you, my boy.”
And Techno only had his silence, but it said more than Philza could in a thousand years.
He stepped back from them, his oldest son and his oldest friend.
When Techno began swaying on his feet, Wilbur wordlessly wrapped his arm around the former god’s, and they stood there together, leaning on each other.
Philza’s heart was free.
He gave them a nod. Techno looked away to wipe furiously at his eyes. Philza had to stifle a laugh. Stubborn, until the very end, aren’t you, my friend?
It was time.
The god of freedom turned towards the boy sleeping on the broken bell. Sleeping, or waiting, or dreaming—whichever explanation would hurt least for him. Philza gathered the Green God into his arms, as he had once borne the body of his youngest son at his deathbed, as he had once carried Wilbur to bed when he was smaller and the world was only the hallway from the library to his childhood bedroom.
He walked to the very edge of the tower with only a young king and a new mortal to mourn him.
He spread his wings, obsidian feathers gleaming in the dying fires of the last city he would ever fail to protect. And then he flew.
He did not look back.
The wind was at his face, cold and cutting, but he had never tasted anything sweeter. When he began his descent, straight towards the gate to his final fate, he felt the Green God stir slightly in his arms, a child disturbed from a beautiful dream. He might have whispered a name, but it was lost to the air.
God. Such a big word for such a small thing.
They were the beginning, and they would be the end. Prologue and epilogue.
The void rushed towards them. Philza closed his eyes. It was better this way. He would get to control the darkness. It was his call. His terms. His sacrifice.
I’m sorry, Tommy, he thought, one last tear slipping down his ancient face, but I’ll be seeing you soon.
They entered the void together. The gate closed behind them.
And the universe shifted.
The shift was felt by every soul.
It was felt by every rock and every blade of grass, every flowing river and every tree looking over a lonely house at the end of a long road, its chimney overgrown with ivy. It was felt by every beast in the forest and every fish in the sea and every bird now grieving a fellow wanderer of the skies. It was felt by those awake and those hunting and those deep in hibernation and those spinning their webs from branch to branch, creating connections where once there was only open air. It was felt by the deer caught between the wolf’s jaw, its final moments extended into eternity as the entire world—the entire universe—held its breath.
It was felt by every warrior in combat, every monarch on their gilded thrones, every smith with their cheeks warm from the fire of their forges, every child stumbling through their mother’s gardens, every painter seated at their easel, every sailor at sea, every traveler on their way home.
It was felt by an old neighbor looking after the shop of the kind girl who always had been so kind to him. A sign stood at the door. Closed indefinitely, it said, but the neighbor knew it would be closed forever. And still he’d come, day after day. His wife was gone and so was the kind girl. But the flowers, oh, they still needed watering.
It was felt by a god in a valley. Beside him was a freshly-dug grave with only a sword of pure obsidian to mark its place among the dead. The god had always known that he would one day stand alone; once there were three, and now there was one. He’d lost one of them to love and the other to fear, and some days, he wondered if there was any difference. When pain always came in the wake of love, when every devotion led to a burial ground, when every dream was a nightmare sleeping, would it be worth loving at all? Yes, said the dirt underneath his fingernails, testimony to his lonely gravedigging. Yes, said the wind coming in from the north. Yes, said first drop of rain striking his cheek, like a cold reminder to seek shelter, like a gentle kiss from two lost friends. Yes, it would.
It was felt by a soldier knocking on the door of a home he could no longer recognize. When his sister opened the door, he swore she didn’t recognize him, either. But then she threw her arms around him, sobbing into his dirty shirt, and they fell onto the wooden floors that carried the weight of their shared childhoods in its scratches and dents. He held her and cried and was known.
It was felt by a young king standing on a belltower at the heart of a city of snow and ashes. A green stone gleamed at his throat, heavy with a history he would someday be told when its last storyteller was ready.
It was felt by the storyteller.
The wheel was broken at their feet.
They were free. They were free. They were free.
Wilbur leaned his weary head against Techno’s shoulder.
“Let’s go home,” he whispered.
Techno nodded. “Home,” he repeated, as if the word as a new discovery.
And as he watched, an aurora blazed to life above them, a symphony of reds and golds and greens twisting through the heavens, an impossibility of color, nothing short of divine magic.
The sky was singing.
Techno turned to the king, but his face was upturned and aglow. A child, truly, captivated by the pretty lights, the heaviness of his own heart momentarily forgotten as he looked up at the brilliance of their world. The world his father had saved.
The curtains fell on two brothers illuminated.
They buried him under the weeping willow, and they replanted the garden around him, one rosebush at a time.
Wilbur leaned against the simple gravestone as he tuned his guitar. It bore a name and the only titles that had ever mattered to him: Brother and Son.
“I’m not nervous,” said Wilbur as he continued tinkering with the instrument on his lap. He flinched as a rather discordant note played before continuing, “I mean, I shouldn’t be. Whatever happens today, I would deserve it. That’s how justice works, right?” Finally satisfied with his strings, Wilbur strummed a few notes before he settled back against the grass. “But I didn’t come here to talk about that. I wanted to play you a song.” He grinned at the sunlight streaming through the branches. “I finally finished it. It took a while—”
“A full year,” drawled an all-too-familiar voice, “of banging around the music room and threatening to suffocate me in my sleep if I interfered with his artistic process.”
Wilbur glared good-naturedly at the man coming towards him, a violin case in hand.
Techno had grown into mortality better than Wilbur had expected. There were still times that Techno forgot he had human needs and human limitations, but Wilbur was there—as he always had been and always would be—to remind him. Other than the times he forgot to eat on a regular schedule or thought to spar with royal guards that would no longer be easy targets for him, he had thrived. He’d begun filling in his tunics, and his wounds from that final confrontation were now just a part of his tapestry of scars.
Settling on the other side of the gravestone, anyone looking out from the windows of the castle would only see the head advisor and right-hand of the king, with his old-fashioned poofy sleeves and pink hair braided down his back, silently plucking at his violin.
“I was just saying,” Wilbur said, “that whatever the verdict…”
“We’d accept it,” Techno finished, brows scrunched in serious contemplation at his instrument. “That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be scared. That’s why we’re here, aren’t we?” He threw a grin at Wilbur across the strings. “We’re getting you a distraction.”
“I’m not scared,” Wilbur said, and it was the truth. “I know there’s a chance that the past two years of atoning might not be enough. And I know it will never be enough…”
“Then it’s a good thing you’re not the one voting,” Techno said simply. “It’s the people’s call, Wilbur. We don’t have any say in the matter, for better or for worse.” He tapped the end of his bow against the gravestone, almost absently, before raising it to his violin. “At the end of the day, you’re either king or you aren’t, and if they decide the latter, then we’ll go off into exile together and be twin fishermen in some little coast town somewhere.”
“Or traveling bards. We could see the world together, you and I.”
“I’ve already seen it,” said Techno, “but I suppose I wouldn’t mind getting a second look.”
Wilbur laughed lightly. “If that’s our worst-case scenario, then there’s really nothing to fear, is there?”
In response, Techno began playing the first notes of a familiar melody. Soon, the lilting sound of his violin filled the garden, joined by distant birdsong and the rustle of the wind through the creeping branches. It floated through the air, sharp and sweet, Techno’s scarred fingers dancing across the fingerboard with an expertise that cost him long nights and strings snapping against his skin. His bow wrung magic from the delicate instrument, so potent Wilbur almost missed his own cue.
Wilbur began playing his guitar, an accompaniment and an addition, the undercurrent to the keening sound of Techno’s violin. One note after another, an orchestra of two performing for an audience of ghosts, following a score they wrote themselves.
It was a sad song. It was a happy song. It was a song of a summer day from years ago, tucked between faded memories like a flower pressed between the pages of a heavy book, now dusted off and clean. It was a song of an artist mother and a warrior father, and sons that were both. It was a song about the grass beneath Wilbur’s feet and the sweet scent of flowers in his lungs. It was a song about war and ruin, and grief and loss, and the nightmares that still managed to take him by surprise even when he was awake, and living anyway. It was a song about love and all the ways to say it: sacrifice and a cup of hot tea waiting at his desk, chess during the lazy days and music during the hard ones, leaving and staying, remembering and forgetting. It was a song about family, born or made or found or rediscovered.
It was Tommy’s grave at his back. Mother’s unfinished painting. Father’s necklace around his neck.
And when the final note echoed off into silence, there was no standing ovation, no raucous applause.
Just like the voices for the past two years, six months and three days, there was only silence.
It was the most beautiful sound.
Wilbur quietly placed his guitar against Tommy’s gravestone and turned to see Techno wordlessly returning his violin into its case. Everything had already been said.
In the distance, the bells began to toll. It was time.
Techno offered Wilbur a hand and pulled him to his feet. Together, they walked towards their judgment.
Two years ago, Wilbur had stood on a balcony and faced an army ready to die for him. I promised you peace on my father’s crown, he’d said, and now I call you to war. This is nothing less than treason. Rest assured, I will be facing consequences for it. And the soldiers had called instead for their enemies’ heads. More than half of them were dead now, leaving family and friends behind—alive and safe, but mourning, and if there was anyone who understood the need to find some place to put down blame, it was Techno.
There were no enemies left to defeat, no smiling gods to imprison, no hostile armies crossing the valley, and that was why Techno and Wilbur were standing in the hazy sunlight pouring in from the high windows of the very room where Wilbur had once been crowned, the room where he might have that crown taken from him for good. In front of them, seated in pews and on the floor, or leaning against the marble columns, or watching from the balconies, were the people that would determine their fates. A hundred blinking eyes, all unreadable, settled on the king and the general that had won both battle and war, at the cost of the very people they’d sworn to protect. Never mind that they’d saved them from a worse fate. Never mind that they’d ensured the safety of the kingdom for generations to come, or that they’d spent the past two years working on pulling the threads of their nation back together. Those were excuses that neither Wilbur nor Techno would ever use against their people.
Before them were four jars, each towering over the, one for each quadrant—west and east, south and north. For the past few months, those jars had combed through every inch and corner of the kingdom, from the highest mountains to the smallest villages tucked into the deepest forests to the cold, snow-covered tundra towns. Messengers had knocked on the door of each house, presenting each person within—be they child or adult—a decision.
They would take a rock, any rock, be it from their own gardens or from the riverbed or chipped from the threshold of their houses, and place it in the jar if they believed the king and the general had not done enough in service to the kingdom.
A representative stood behind each jar, ready to tip it over, ready to count.
Enough votes, and Wilbur would step down from the throne, and Techno would go with him, and they’d live the rest of their mortal lives in exile, far from the kingdom they had bled and fought and lost their brother for.
Techno glanced at Wilbur. Despite his earlier posturing, Techno could tell Wilbur was one tug away from unravelling. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Techno, trying to look as calm and stoic for his people, spine straight and eyes ahead. Only Techno could see the apprehension behind them.
He loved this kingdom. He loved its people. It wasn’t just his father’s kingdom, or his mother’s, or Tommy’s. He’d given everything of himself into it. It was his own flesh and blood. It was no longer a chore, or something he had to succeed in to earn a distant father’s approval. It was the soldiers that had fought beside him in the valley. It was the half a hundred people that had been willing to bring down a mountain on their foes and on themselves. It was the scars on his skin and his sleepless nights and his pride and his home and his responsibility.
He was born for this, stones and all.
A judge draped in white robes called for attention, as if the room had not been mind-numbingly quiet for the past half hour.
“Citizens of our fair kingdom,” the judge said, “we gather today to bear witness to the conclusion of the trial of King Wilbur, Protector of the Realm, Ruler of the Kingdom, and Technoblade, former general of the Royal Army. The people have spoken, now all there is left to do is listen.” He turned to Wilbur, his gray eyebrows rising in question. “Would you like one last thing to say, Your Majesty, before we tip the jars?”
Wilbur opened his mouth, closed it, began shaking his head.
Techno stepped forward. “The king,” he begun, “as well as I, thank you all for coming here today. I see familiar faces in the crowd. I fought next to you, have seen your bravery firsthand, and I know what it cost all of you to come here today.” He took a deep breath, met every eye on the floor and mezzanine. It felt like standing before the dead. It felt like a reckoning long overdue. “Everybody here lost someone to the war. A friend. A parent. A neighbor. And you know what your king lost, too. Though we are united in our loss, that does not excuse the lapse in my and Wilbur’s judgments. We made mistakes. Deadly ones. We believed ourselves invincible and were too late to act against the encroaching enemy, and you all paid for a price that should have been ours alone. Whatever you have all decided today, we will call it justice. That is all.”
When Techno stepped back, Wilbur caught at his sleeve. He anticipated a dry remark about his unexpected diplomacy, and was surprised when Wilbur simply mouthed, Thank you. Techno nodded hesitantly at him, confused as to what there was to be thankful for. After all, he was only doing his job.
The judge read out more legal jargon that Techno had already heard a hundred times before, and then—with the very hands he’d used to put a crown on Wilbur’s head—he gestured for the jars to be overturned. They looked like vases. They gleamed like urns.
Wilbur’s hand slipped into Techno’s, his bitten-down nails digging into Techno’s knuckles.
Techno closed his eyes. He did not know which gods would still listen to him, so he prayed to them all. The war god. Dream. Philza.
Exile or exoneration. It was out of his hands. He would be ready for both.
Techno waited for the clatter of stones on marble.
It never came.
The boy who had come of age in blood and fire stood before a lake with his fist curled gently around a stone. The surface of the lake was calm and still, a mirror of the sky above it, and Tubbo wondered what it would feel like to float in it, to swim in sunlight.
By this time, in a city far from here, the king and the general Tubbo had followed into war would be counting the votes of those who wanted them gone. Tubbo ran his thumb along the smooth edge of the stone in his hand, turning it idly between his fingers as he looked out at the lake. It would freeze over soon, when winter came. Tubbo would be ready, then.
He pulled his hand back and threw, with all his might. The stone skipped once, twice, thrice, across the surface before sinking into the blue sky, leaving ripples that disappeared in a blink of an eye, and the lake was still once more.
Tubbo grabbed the axe that hung from his hip. It was starting to rust, and constant use had worn away the handle, but it would hold for just a bit more. It was a familiar, reliable weight in his hand, and he swung it beside him as he walked towards the forest.
He needed more firewood to keep his sister warm.
Time unfurled like a ribbon.
They filled their days with mundane problems: untuned instruments, tea turning cold and weeds needing plucking. The dutiful, benevolent king and his right-hand who struggled to stay awake during half of the political meetings and spent the other half actively antagonizing sycophants he deemed too irksome. Wilbur had publicly proclaimed that there was nothing amusing about Techno threatening to burn the pompous wig of a merchant trying to lobby trade routes away from local vendors, but his eyes had gleamed with the promise of later laughter.
In the spring, the two of them went down to the orchards and spent their days in friendly rivalry over who picked the most fruit. Most years, Techno won, if only because Wilbur was often distracted by a woman with long, curling hair as red as the apples in her basket.
It took him two years to ask her name, another two to ask her to marry him. Her name was Sally, and she said yes.
When their first child was born—a baby boy with hair the color of Tommy’s last sunset—Wilbur took him into his arms without hesitation. He pressed his tearstained cheek against his son’s warm skin and whispered, “I will love you forever,” over and over until he was sure his son knew it. And the son would grow up under no one’s shadow, calling Wilbur “Dad,” and Techno “Uncle,” in a kingdom of hard-won peace. In time, he would know the story of the Blue Valley and the story of his other uncle and the story of his grandparents, but until then, he would think all gods were kind and his father never cried. His uncle would carve his height into the marble column of the ivy-covered pavilion where he learned how to paint, and he would wonder why his father’s brother would turn away whenever he passed the almost-faded marks of the boy that had stood there before him.
The heir of the Angel of Death's kingdom—and all the heirs after him—would not have gilded hair or eyes like a frozen tundra. They would have gentle hands and would forgive easily. They would be raised on honey and apple pies and stories about frogs in the rain, and the wheel would never break them. And on the night before an ancient crown would be placed upon their brow, those that came before them would press a gift into their hand, and it would be their inheritance.
So when a winged man would appear from the north, days or years or eons from now, he would find a familiar stone around the neck of a child that he would recognize right away by the familiar shape of their smile, and he would know he was home.
He had a life before this. A mother, a father, a home. Sisters, and brothers. But what he had now was alright, too.
He stood alone in front of his bedroom mirror, combing his hair back from his face to braid it for the day, tucking it behind an ear where a sapphire earring hung, catching the sunlight. He paused when he saw it, leaned in close just to make sure it wasn’t a trick of the light, or the lingering traces of a dream. He blinked, once, twice, his mortal heart catching in his throat. There, nestled among the pink strands, delicate as a bird’s wing, was a single gray hair. If he listened carefully, he could hear his brother coming down the hallway, looking for him, but this moment was his alone.
Half-sobbing, half-laughing, he fell against his chair and closed his eyes against the sudden sting of tears. He could see, in his mind, a field of flowers under an open sky—a place made for waiting, where all the finished stories went, where he would go someday, too.
A knock came at his door.
Technoblade began to smile.