The sky roared pain and darkness.
Even deep within the dark stone walls of this castle, the final bastion of sanity in this crumbling reality, the roaring was inescapable. From atop one of its high parapets, Ralsei could only watch with mounting dread as lashing, murky rains cut through his skin and chilled him to the bone. Lightning the color of deep waters flashed out from the darkness, momentarily illuminating three of the great titans looming at the horizon. In their wake followed destruction.
It was the end of the world, and it was all his fault.
No one had warned him that what he and his friends had been doing would doom the Dark World to oblivion. There had been no warning signs, no prophecies, and now? Now there was no hope. The tormented whispers carried past on screaming winds told him as much. There was nothing he could do but watch as the final moments of a world ticked away.
"Ye should come in out of this storm," said a deep, lilting voice behind him. Ralsei turned to see the hulking form of Shawm beckoning from the entryway. "Won't do ye no good, gettin' struck by lightnin'."
Ralsei snorted. "Why bother?" His shoulders drooped. "Nothing I do matters anymore." His fingers tightened around the handle of his sword, but his resolve was feeble at best. "It's like throwing a match at a bonfire, hoping to put it out.
"It's all over."
A soft, strong hand gripped his shoulder. Ralsei gazed out at the lightning, at the great sheets of earth heaving heavenward before cracking and plummeting back down like a stormy ocean. His sword shook.
Gritting his teeth, he wrenched at the long strip of red fabric tied around the sword's hilt. It came loose, fluttering in the icy stormwinds. With a mighty heave, he drove the sword's tip into the dark stone, once, twice, before finally it stuck fast. He looped the cloth twice around his neck, then turned and let Shawm drag him back to the door.
"The jester has some ideas," his friend said, clearly hoping words would help heal the tumorous void sucking at Ralsei's heart. "One last-ditch effort to make sure this wasn't a complete waste."
"Whatever." He was just glad the river of cold rains down his face masked whatever tears had come from his eyes.
Before they closed the hatch, Ralsei glanced back. He was just in time to see the sword be struck by the blue lightning, reducing to ash that blew away on the wind.
The trip to the laboratory took them deep through the castle's lowest levels, yet still the roaring was everpresent. Ralsei tried to concentrate on anything else, but what was there to occupy his mind with while the world ended?
He had been so cocksure during their adventures. He and his three friends, tasked with bringing life to a dying world. They'd been so certain that opening the Dark Fountains and collecting the Dark Seeds would save the Dark World. They had all lost something along the way, but it had seemed worth it at the time, when they still thought they were doing the right thing. But once anyone had an inkling something might be wrong, the events they had set into motion were already spiralling out of control.
He still couldn't come to grips with his name being Ralsei. It felt so wrong; he knew it was wrong. Yet, whatever it had been was lost to him. Like the armageddon slouching past outside, he could do nothing to change it.
The door to the laboratory scraped open against the stone floor. Its hinges squealed in protest as another tremor shook the castle.
"About time you showed yourselves, haha!"
Despite the world literally falling down around his ears, Géveille was in merry spirits. He cavorted about his work space, ignoring the menacing clinking of beaker against test tube every time the castle shook. He wore a lab coat that had once been white but was now stained by the fruits of his messier experiments and a layer of fresh dust over top of that. Beneath still shone the dark harlequin armor that had seemed like such a ridiculous investment at the time, but had protected him well through their toughest battles.
"I knew you couldn't sulk on the roof forever," he said, his waxing-crescent face mask gleaming in the low yellow lights. "And you've come just in time, too!"
Shawm had to duck to enter, and Ralsei followed, eyes flicking about the room.
"Where's Wedge?" The harsh croak in his own voice surprised him.
Géveille's smile faded by a fraction, something that would have been imperceptible to anyone who hadn't known him as long as Ralsei.
"One may as well ask where your sword is." He let out a chuckle, but it was mirthless. "Where is anything, for that matter? In truth? In lies? In the truth which lies between?"
Ralsei stared at Géveille till the latter's eyes dropped to the side.
"He, ah, he... left. Slipped--" he snapped his fingers-- "right out of my hand, as it were. M-made it clear he wouldn't return."
A pang pierced Ralsei's heart. Wedge had been the newest member of their little party. But the willowy warrior, with his strange face mask and even stranger way of speaking, had always seemed as true and loyal a friend as any of them had been. To desert the rest of them at a time like this, though...
"But nevermind that," said Géveille, his spark returning. "I've yet to introduce you to my solution!"
"Solution?" Ralsei shuffled numb feet into the room.
"To the problem, of course! Well, not the problem. Not any problem, really." Géveille's giggle was high-pitched, almost mad. "Could possibly make more, we'll have to see. But it should do the trick!"
He led them to a column set near the back of the lab, a pillar of sheer black stone that almost blended in with its surroundings. It took Ralsei a moment to realize he'd seen it before.
"That's the Harvester," he said, pointing at it as though he were the only one to have figured it out.
"Right you are!" said Géveille, and his eyes twinkled. "The very same device that let us gather Dark Seeds from the Fountains! And yet, I wondered, what might happen if we put something else inside? What might happen if we... reversed its flow, so to speak?"
Ralsei looked up to Shawm, who only hummed, face hinting at neither understanding nor enlightenment.
"Simply put," Géveille continued, cavorting about in front of the machine, "it should theoretically be able to preserve the same way it used to harvest. All we need is something worth preserving, and, well, now here you both are!"
"Preserving?" The word slipped off Ralsei's tongue without his meaning it. "What are you talking about?"
Géveille ceased his cavorting and placed a hand gently, almost lovingly, against the smooth stone surface. "The three of us. This world may fall to shambles in the next hour, but we three shall be preserved for a new life in the next one!"
As he spoke, his words came quicker, his tone grew louder and more intense, and his hands clenched until he drew blood from his own palms.
"Why should we, who sought only to help, have to suffer oblivion, simply because we were too milk-eyed to see what should have been readily apparent, standing right before us? I've fought too hard and too long to persist in this wretched, nonsensical reality, and I am not about to lose my existence simply for being blind!" He panted like a mad dog and wiped moisture from his gleaming white cheeks.
"Forgive me, friends. We've very little time. The determinative nature of systems does not make them predictable--"
"Chaos theory," mumbled Shawm, and Ralsei nodded.
"--but we can put our faith in the patterns that underlie every system, no matter how complex." Géveille turned to them, his madness abated, now only pleading.
"Please, my friends. I cannot bear the thought of any of us losing ourselves to this calamity. Come, join me. The titans will destroy everything, and we can do nothing to stop them, but I at least can do this one thing."
Ralsei gave Shawm a look but got no response. To live on past the end of the world? What could exist after an end? Honestly, Ralsei had been planning to simply let the titanic creatures outside have their way with him. Then, the burden of guilt he had shouldered might lessen some. Perhaps he would find forgiveness in whatever afterlife existed in this place.
But... He had to admit, he didn't want to leave his friends, even in death. If this device could actually save them, well...
"I'll do it," he whispered. Raising his head, he said more forcefully, "I'll do it, for both of you. I don't want to see you suffer for my mistakes."
Shawm placed a meaty hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Never forget, they're our mistakes, friend, if mistakes they can even be called."
Taking the unspoken invitation, Géveille pressed a button and the machine's front hinged upward. He bowed and ushered them toward it, where four compartments awaited, each sized to fit one of their party, even the one who had left.
Ralsei couldn't help but shiver as he pressed himself into the space reserved for himself. Not only was the metal cold, he was struck by how experimental this was. Mad science-y, even. Which was Géveille's shtick, absolutely, but rarely did he ever practice it on...
Well. Too late to be worrying about that, now. The aforementioned mad scientist helped Shawm unsling the massive war lyre that wouldn't fit inside the machine, before taking a spot in the largest compartment. The roof shook, and a large crack appeared in the wall opposite them.
Géveille returned to the control panel, and his fingers flew over the keyboard. Ralsei thought he could just make out his friend repeating, "...patterns, interconnectedness, feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, self-organization..." over and over under his breath as he worked.
Another shake of the castle, and the crack became a rent, splitting the wall up into the murky half-light of destruction.
"That'll have to do, I suppose!" cried Géveille before hopping into the third compartment and pressing the button to close the door behind himself. Metal braces descended from above, trapping and holding each of them in place. If Ralsei had thought the metal was cold before, now it was like ice being poured on to his already chilled skin.
Géveille looked over at Ralsei and gave him a toothy grin. "Gentlemen, on the very minor yet still non-zero chance we do not make it out of here with our souls intact, let me just say it has been an honor and privilege."
"Likewise," said Shawm. "Even should my mind be torn into a thousand pieces, I'll never forget either of ye."
Ralsei felt hot tears spring anew at the corners of his cheeks. "This isn't goodbye," he choked. "It's saying hello to a new beginning." I hope.
"I wonder if," said Géveille, almost too quiet to hear, "the caterpillar, upon entering his cocoon, knows that he'll become a butterfly after his metamorphosis."
The castle split in twain, the gray non-light filtering down through it in cracks and jags. The ceiling came down as the Harvester roared to life, manifesting whatever arcane energies they had put their hopes and dreams in the hands of.
I will remember my friends. I will not forget my name. I will remember my friends. I will not forget--
Darkness swallowed them.
When the world ends, everything changes.
There is nothing that can prevent change.
"Lightners, can you stop it?" cackled Jevil, his sides heaving and sweat pouring down his porcelain face as he giggled madly. "Either way, a-mischief-mischief, a-chaos-chaos, Lightners! From inside your little cell, take this and do your strongest..."
And then he was gone, form dissipating into dust. A strange object fell to the floor with a clatter, and Ralsei let out a long breath. He felt Susie's strong hand grip his shoulder.
"You okay there," she asked, looking down at him. When he returned her gaze, she blushed and looked away from him. "Uh, ya little weenie."
He smiled, relaxing at her poor show of aloofness. It was transparent, but by now, it had also become familiar. "I'm fine, Susie. Thanks."
Kris walked over to the two of them and held out their hand. In it was the fallen object, a skinny black brooch, shaped like a capital letter J, that came to a spade point at one end.
"F-for me?" he asked, and heat rose in his cheeks. Kris had been very generous to him ever since they'd met, and he still wasn't sure why. "It's a little, um, evil looking, isn't it?"
Kris just shrugged, then pinned it to his hat. His blush intensified. He never could help blushing when Kris showed him kindness.
"I'm a good devil, okay?" he asked earnestly. Kris gave him a thumbs-up.
"Ugh, stop bein' cute." Susie groaned and began hauling herself to the door of the strange rotating cell, the head of her axe making loud scraping noises as she dragged it behind herself.
"Play dress-up all you want," she grunted, "I'm heading back up that bigass staircase. Hey Kris, next time you find a mysterious key? How about leaving it the hell alone!" Her complaints faded as she left the chamber.
Ralsei started to follow her, but Kris held him back. The look in their eyes was concerned, questioning and sympathetic.
"I really am okay," he said. "Thanks for worrying, though. That was a tough fight, after all! Are... are you okay?"
Kris nodded, but didn't let him go. They reached out and wiped at his cheek. Their glove came away wet.
He scrubbed at his cheek, his paw likewise growing damp. Had... had he been crying? How had he not even noticed?
Using the end of his scarf, he wiped his eyes dry.
"I'm really not sure what that was about. Honest! I guess I'm just relieved we survived." He gave Kris the biggest smile he could muster. "Come on, let's catch up with Susie before she gets too far away!"
He about-faced so Kris wouldn't see his expression. He wasn't sure he could hold that smile much longer.
As he mounted the stairs heading back up into the castle, Ralsei found his fingers rubbing over the Jevilstail absentmindedly. All he could do was wonder just what it was he had forgotten that could made him feel so sad.