The Princess was the core of this illusion. Without her, the world around us fell apart.
The pillars that held up the misty ceiling fell, crumbling into splinters and rocks. The floor fell away, revealing glimpses of a reality closing in on itself; a wall of gentle white light erased the shadows going about their day, the houses and buildings they built, the small civilization that was, a merciful wave that returned this place to what it really was.
The Princess didn’t leave a corpse. She merely dissolved into faint light, her energy dispersing back into the environment.
Now that she was gone, escaping would be easy — as soon as Knight and Lyra could move again.
I put all of my concentration into fixing up my allies. I had gotten faster at healing; in two minutes I managed to heal up both their vitals and restored their hearing.
“It’s over,” Knight said. He took a knee and panted, catching his breath from overexertion. “Haven’t been hurt that badly in a long time.”
The facility was reverting to a steel and glass carcass. Soon, we’d be able to navigate this place like a proper derelict building and follow the old signs to the exit. There was even a backup generator going, keeping some of the systems online.
It was over.
You did really well, I said to Lyra. Great work.
We had triumphed over an impossible enemy, a good reason as any for celebration. The first of many future victories, I hoped.
Lyra stood tall, sword buried in the ground where the Princess was. Her eyes were staring aimlessly at the ground, unfocused and bleary when she said, “Yeah. It’s over.”
Her knees wobbled and she collapsed against her huge emerald blade. I didn’t understand her sudden weakness; she was fine as far as I could tell, healing up remarkably quickly through the assistance of my Ether trickle and supernatural first-aid.
“It’s over,” Lyra said, closing her eyes. “It really is over now.”
I didn’t understand the meaning of those words at first.
Knight looked at us and shook his head. “I didn’t think you’d go through with it.”
“What choice did I have?”
Only when I looked down did I realize what was happening.
I suppose I saw the signs. The warnings. Chose to ignore them all, hoping that I was merely making false equivalencies. But now there was irrefutable evidence staring back at us, a reminder of the reality that was.
Everything below Lyra’s right knee was already gone, having faded into a soft green light. Cracks set in across her entire body, emerald bands that leaked motes of pure white.
A result like this came up in my predictions, so I tried to make some countermeasures in advance. None of them were working. Despite all the Ether I was pouring into Lyra, the container itself was breaking apart — I was only pouring water into a bucket with no bottom. No matter how fast I worked, I couldn’t couldn’t repair faster than the pace she was eroding at.
“So you knew,” Knight said. “When did you figure it out?”
“I had a feeling ever since I woke up. When I came face-to-face with her, I knew.” Against her ailing body, Lyra forced herself to stand up straight. “Tell me the truth. I want to know everything.”
Knight stood up, meeting her eye-to-eye. “I’m not sure you’ll like it.”
“Nobody’s going to like every development in their lives,” Lyra said, “Lay it on me, Knight.”
“It’s 1429. Isn’t much left of the Apostles’ land anymore; everything was destroyed nearly three hundred years ago by a series of cataclysms. You died during Starfall, and that thing — the Princess — that was the real you. A creature that lost all its humanity during the initial incident.” Knight looked to where the Husk’s corpse used to be. “Something allowed a discarded fragment of you to take form and finish whatever business you had in life. I can’t say I know what, but it happens sometimes. Rare, but possible.”
The truth stung, as obvious as it was. I slowed Lyra’s decay with my remaining Ether reserves, desperately to give her as much time as I could give.
When I shut down the reactor underneath this place, a massive amount of energy surged outwards and upwards. I’m sure most of it went to the Husk, yet enough escaped for The Princess’s lingering regrets to take physical form.
Without the Husk, there was nothing left to keep Lyra together. As desperately as I tried, I couldn’t do anything about it.
“Is there still a world out there?” Lyra asked, straining to speak.
“There is. All the other nations formed into federations to fight the Husks at and within their borders. If you want my opinion, you won’t recognize the world out there anymore.”
The last elements of that fantastical world were the black lianas, the veins that carried blue light throughout the facility. They were starting to burst and rupture, scattering luminescent dust through dead steel halls.
“I see,” Lyra said. “Thank you.”
The blue light blew past us, seeking the embrace of the surface. Lyra reached out and watched wisps blow through her, taking pieces of her with them.
“Can I hang onto your drone for a little longer?” she asked, bearing a sad smile.
With a nod, Knight picked up his shotgun and walked away. “Be seeing you, then,” he said, waving over his shoulder. He turned the nearest corner and kept walking, giving us some privacy.
Lyra collapsed to her knees, unable to support herself any longer. Unable to hold back any longer, I called out to her.
“I’m fine.” Gritting her teeth, she crawled and propped herself against her still-shining emerald blade. “It doesn’t hurt and I’m not alone. It’s the least that I could ask for.”
I was afraid to speak. I couldn’t keep her together for much longer; any distraction would merely shorten the time she did have. I didn’t know what to say, either.
Lyra had enough strength left to shrug off the harness and transfer me to her front, where she hugged me with ailing arms. Even then, I couldn’t feel anything. Not her arms, nor her warmth.
In my inner world of wind and clouds, I was on my knees, reaching towards a scene I couldn’t truly touch.
“Hey. You’re not actually a drone, are you?”
She laughed, a brush of bubbling mirth. “Knew it. Place as many attachments as you want, but you can’t change how something is fundamentally a rock. Guess there’s a joke about polished turds in there, somewhere.”
She found the strength to smile, despite her unavoidable fate. As much as I wished to weep, no tears — no release came. I couldn’t deceive myself anymore, now that my mind was cursed with clarity.
“This isn’t your fault. If it weren’t for you two, I would’ve probably died anyway — without being able to put an end to all of this. This is a version of me… a version of Lyra Krause that never was. That never could’ve been.”
A flower that only blooms once.
“I think subconsciously, I always wanted somebody to come and force me to change my ways, instead of waking up myself.”
A potential never reached.
“I died a loser. Never even had a kiss.”
She was the first person I ever had an ordinary conversation with. Even if it was a one-sided farce, I knew her fears and desires; how she had a distaste for centipedes and liked barbeque short-ribs. How she one day wished to leave a mark on history with her research into medical nanotechnology, hoping to extract a scientific cure for aging so that everybody could have as much time as they wished.
Though it pained me to admit it, I wanted a single friend. Somebody who could tell me that this wasn’t all just a strange nightmare and that there was purpose in this damned life.
This is my fault. I almost saved you, damn it… I missed something. I had to have missed something back there.
“Right now, right here, I made something of myself. Even if it took my own death, I overcame the me of yesterday… I’m here now.” Lyra rested her chin on my surface. “I think I’m alright with that.
Are you really? How can you be so calm? There won’t be anything left of you — when you die, your story ends. That’s it. There’s so many lingering regrets, so many dreams unfulfilled… How could you bear that?
At that, Lyra grinned. “They say the fool learns from their own mistakes, and the wise learn from the mistakes of others. The way I see it, somebody has to be brave enough to make the mistakes in the first place.”
Her left arm cracked and faded. The fleeing light danced as it dispersed, a waltz reflected in broken glass and tarnished metal panels.
There… has to be something we can do.
“There is.” The grip of her remaining hand tightened. “Truth is, back there, when this… Manifest thing came, I had the chance to look into you. From the fragments I saw, it seems like you’ve been cursed.”
“You’ve lived at least once before. A life of peril and sacrifice, where your smile was crushed underneath the weight of the world. No matter where you go or where you are, your path is destined to be thorny and painful. A curse of karma, I suppose.”
Two wounded girls navigated a dark forest, holding out until dawn. From a lonely night where the glass moon hung in the air, a curse that sprawls eternity began.
“You have the power to carry the wishes of those around you. I don’t envy you.”
To inherit that karma that is left behind.
“And me, I went my whole life without making waves, too scared to leave a mark. Selfish as it is, this is my only chance to leave something behind. For somebody to remember me, to remember that I was alive, that I struggled, that I failed. I want to pass on this insignificant crumb of knowledge that I proudly call my own.”
The strength to stand up to yourself and overcome. To face reality, whatever it may be, and smile in spite of it all.
To take action before it’s too late.
For her sake, I carved those sentiments into my heart.
I won’t forget you, Lyra. I never will.
Her back was gone now, and so was half her face. She rested her head against her decaying emerald blade and closed her only eye.
“You’ll always be fighting your past self. And I know you’ve already established the ground you can stand on. I can’t see much of anything anymore, but tell me about it.”
It’s a land where the fields are green and the days and night pass by in peace. Where anybody can rest their weary minds until they feel like they’re ready to continue.
Where there isn’t anybody to bother you.
“Sounds... kinda lonely.”
She reached upwards, towards an unseen horizon. “I see it now. Everything that was. This has happened before, hasn’t it?”
Has it? What… What do you mean?
A final smile. “This time, I pray you can create your own future. I’ll be...”
The last threads keeping Lyra together collapsed. Fractures tore through her body, as though it were wrought from broken stained glass.
Her hand formed a resolute fist, then faded into brilliant light. Her blade was the last thing to go; reflected in its surface was a clear blue sky, burning bright as it shattered and broke away.
In my inner world, the only sign that Lyra Krause ever existed was a stone statue hugging a still-shimmering emerald blade. Clutching the incomplete scroll she left behind, I sat beside her and desperately tried to stem the flow of the tears that I already knew were fake.
But as much as I tried, they continued to flow between my fingertips, a reminder of another hand that slipped through mine.