I was the only one of my kind in the most hostile territory, a small injured girl among thousands of mages. My presence in this theatre of arcane battle made me a traitor to my own people, and my survival relied on the mercy of the magic users we had long despised. I needed to be accepted here, which required me to avoid conflict, remaining neutral and impartial. I was supposed to sit in my chair, pretend it wasn't made of some fascinatingly arcane substance, and avoid getting involved in fights which were none of my business.
It had not taken me long to break the latter rule.
"There's still time to make a choice," said the taunting voice of my primary adversary.
Every mage in my vicinity was preparing mentally and physically for the coming conflict. I could see the pressure rising, as if I was facing a boiler ready to burst. Arcane chants echoed back and forth like the roars of a herd of wild beasts about to stampede. Would I be trampled first, or scalded?
"I know none of these people. How can I choose?" I said, having to yell to be sure I was heard.
"You put yourself in this mess. It's up to you to get yourself out of it, if you can. There are six sides to this conflict. One is mine. You may choose whichever of the remaining five appeals to you. Surely you have a preference. You believe you know better than me, hmm?"
"This was not what I meant," I said, stalling. "I thought I would have time. Hours. I can't just pick a side on the spot." I almost unconsciously reached across my body to touch my handbag, which was hanging from my left shoulder. I had pen and paper inside, which would have been useful for making proper notes to compare my options, if only I had more time.
"Well you've barely got minutes. You'll think of something. You always do," my foe teased.
I looked down to the waiting fighters, who were arranged to begin their combat at a moment's notice. They were easy to see, each one well lit from above by magical lighting, avoiding any concealing shadows contrary to my discarded expectations. Some were hulking armoured brutes, others were small and nimble. Most were roughly human in shape and proportions. A small subset were far from human, and those each differed wildly in size and construction. These were demons, or approximations of demons, each bound in service to a different group of mages. The capabilities of these creatures were beyond my understanding. In time I might understand the rules which governed even these unholy fusions of flesh and magic, but not today.
I knew my response was pitiful before I uttered it. "Please don't make me choose."
"I'm not forcing you, but you're the one who said you could pick a better path than mine. Back up your words with action!"
I glanced back to the battlefield. Everything about this was chaotic, implying that a path of chaos might be favoured. From helmets to shoes, the magical combatants were outfitted with a mismatched collection of patchwork: some flexible, some boxy, some gleaming, some rough. Dark or dazzling, spiked or sleek. Where skin was visible, they also sported intricate tattoos, though the distance hid the details from my considering gaze.
Struggling to discern the magical specialties of the clashing mages gave me nothing but dust in my eye. They were evidently more interested in displaying their allegiance than giving away useful information about their capabilities. I realised that I'd been wasting my time, and began evaluating the equipment instead of those holding it.
The hands of a few remained empty, while most carried weapons or tools. Shields, nets, mallets, and a range of projectile weapons were the most common among those I was able to identify. Several I had no idea about, but even the somewhat familiar items had hidden magical capabilities. Some of the combatants stalked the field, sizing up their prey. Others stood insolently, feigning weakness. Still others engaged with the crowds, seeming to feed off their rising furore. I could not tell whether they were encouraging the esoteric, repetitive battle-cries, or railing against them.
Looking closer and more carefully, I spotted patterns. The chaos was not as complete as I had thought from my initial glances. Some clusters bore subtle similarities: not in shape or colour or even tattoos, but on a deeper thematic or structural level. Perhaps chaos would unravel and fall before a deeper, more pervasive order. "Not chaos," I declared.
"That's a start, but you still have four options to consider. Hmm, perhaps embracing the Magical Mystery will be enough to save you?"
Could I? Should I? It was tempting, oh so tempting, but I could not make such a leap so easily. Not again. Not with all that had happened. Though it had never truly been easy, not really. Not even the first time. "I don't know if I can."
"You can, if you think that's what will save you. So choose, and choose fast. But it doesn't matter to me. There's no escape for you, not from the inevitability of the Rolling Darkness."
If I had known my actions — all my actions over the past few days — would lead to this, what would I have done differently? What could I have done differently? A few words unsaid, and all this might have been averted. I would be living my regular farm life, unaware that such people and things as those which surrounded me even existed. So much death and destruction could have been avoided. And if I had learned that lesson properly, I might be sitting here in relative peace, watching the magical conflict take place without being forced to pick a side. I could have avoided being drawn into a generations-long struggle that was none of my business. But I had not, and now I was being forced to make a choice, again.
The last time I'd been forced to make a terrible choice... well, that was a long, painful and glorious story.