The world was white. No sky, no ground, no horizon. No features to settle one’s eyes upon, no markings to act as reference. Just pure, blemishless, uncorrupted white.
Somewhere in the midst of it all sat a man. It didn’t help that he dressed in cloak and robes of ivory cotton wrapped tightly around his slender form, or that his gaunt features faded to ghostly translucent pallour beneath his hood. Insignificant, irrelevant, only the thick black frames of his glasses stood out as a clear indicator of his existence.
Somewhere opposite him sat a woman. She too dressed in robes of white, but unlike her counterpart her very presence gave off a glow so golden as to illuminate the entirety of the blank slate that surrounded her. Majestic wings of soft feathery white folded against her back, pinions the length of a grown man’s forearm drooping past her knees.
“We have given you a glimpse into the future, a view of the skeins of fate.” The voice seemed to echo from everywhere at once: gentle and comforting, strident and stentorian. The woman had not even opened her mouth. “We would know your thoughts.”
“Four of infinity?” he argued. “No doubt what you wished to show me, of course.”
“A weighted distribution, we agree.”
“Desperate times, desperate measures.” One bushy eyebrow rose tiredly, certain that the woman could read his mind anyways, and that anything he said would only be used to judge him against his thoughts. The small smile playing about her lips confirmed his suspicions. “Why me?”
“We ask, why not?”
The man shrugged in weary resignation, indicating his battered and powerless frame. He hid his scars and bruises beneath the clothes he wore, but the lenses balanced precariously upon his nose did little to hide the haunted shadows beneath his eyes, or the darkness that dwelt within.
“Somebody has to do something, and I suppose that everybody has their part to play. I just can’t help but think that there are heroes out there far better qualified for the job than myself. Someone who isn’t as likely to botch it.”
“We note your lack of confidence as your defining quality,” the dar’el ‘spoke’ again, folding her hands in her lap. “Second only to your determination to do what is right, and to protect the one you hold dear.”
“So I’m least likely to abuse any power that I might acquire along the way?”
“We do realise that you have little aspiration for yourself beyond protecting others.”
The young man actually laughed, rueful and sorrowful as it sounded. “I’m expendable… no, not only that. I’m willing to be expended.”
The demi-Thayne’s silence told him all he needed to know.
“I suppose that’s fair enough…” he sighed in the end. Little had marked the passage of time save for the barely existent rise and fall of his chest; even the air settled still and lifeless against his bare cheeks. The four visions played through his mind again and again, one after another, until the details of their deaths branded like scars upon his brain.
“We never did save her, then, did we…”
He paused, a soft cough escaping his lungs.
“Or at least, we were unable to save her in those futures.”
“We ask, would you do so differently given a second chance?”
“Who knows?” he replied without hesitation, his shy sheepish smile creeping slowly across his features. “I would trust myself to at least try to make the best possible decisions at the appropriate times, even if I were not able to follow them through. It is difficult to say that I would do anything differently.”
He transferred his brown-eyed gaze to his hands, noting the frostbite starting to nibble on his digits. It seemed that the depths of the Berevaran winter had begun to take their toll on his body. He had come this far in spite of inadequate protection against the subzero wind, hunger and thirst, festering wounds, lack of sleep, and solitude, but now at long last his spiritual reserves ran low. Once he exhausted their final dregs, and the subconscious wards that maintained his body temperature above death-inducing gave way…
“But one man’s actions might have a ripple effect on those of others. Changing the past in such a way may be difficult, especially if everybody else’s response is set in stone. But the future… the future is a blank slate, fluid and slippery. I doubt that even you could safely say that what you’ve shown me will come to pass.”
“Indeed we cannot.”
“In which case, I can only do what we humans do best.”
“We see that you will not give up.”
“I will never give up,” he promised, through the wracking throes of another set of coughs. “That, too, held true in the visions that you showed me.”
“Indeed it did.” The Celestial smiled from otherwise unmoving lips. “We wish you fortune.”
Well done, the man told himself as he watched the robed lady and her ethereal beauty fade away into the white. In moments he sat alone once more. You just signed up for solitary suicide on the basis of your stupidity and stubbornness.
Interestingly, no matter how he interrogated his soul, he found that he had absolutely no regrets. In the end, it was the best way… the only way… to try to save what he fought for.
The light of her presence dissipated and died, and gradually he grew aware of the seeping cold hidden in the dark shadows that now cocooned him on all sides. Then the comfortable silence shattered like an illusion, replaced by an incessant background howl that almost immediately threatened to drive him insane. The whiteness of his world turned into reality: a tomb of thickly packed snow, blown onto and around his seated form by a wind so powerful he could not even stand against it. His thoughts came to him slowly, as if wading through a quicksand quagmire, not particularly complimentary even when they finally did arrive.
You were hallucinating again. You have to stop…
Deep inside, on the basis of primal instincts he hadn’t realised he possessed, he also knew that he had to keep moving. The cocooning snow kept him relatively warm and safe for now, but by nightfall – if such a concept existed in this winter wasteland – it would bury him so deep that he would not emerge again until summer. By then, it would be too late.
Despite the excruciating pain and fatigue carved upon his features, he rose to his knees. Miniature mountains of snow cascaded like avalanches from his shoulders as he squared up once more to the journey ahead. One agonising step at a time he began to crawl, nearly buried up to his shoulders in the frost, fighting to keep the feeling in his extremities. Almost immediately his lungs tried to escape from his body once more, and only because he ran out of the strength to continue did they finally calm down.
He was so cold. What parts of his body he could still feel slowly succumbed to the infectious numbness, the insidious chill dulling the flow of life within his veins. The thick flurries rendered him blind and the ceaseless wind robbed him of his hearing, and his hands almost visibly blackened with the frost. The flames of his soul flickered, nearly dead, and only sheer force of will kept them in place for now.
He was so hungry. His stomach gnawed away at his insides like a ravenous beast, slowly but surely eating away at the rest of his vital organs. Urges that had settled into the background hubbub now returned to the fore in frenzied need, and he found it more and more difficult to ignore the frequent dizzy spells and the overall weakness of his body. And the cough… the incessant hacking cough that accompanied any form of physical effort… the bloody phlegm that clogged the pits of his lungs…
He was in so much pain. The world spun crazily with every move he made, agony the only sensation that penetrated the numbness. The corrupted scar on his chest pulsated with each haggard breath, to the point where he almost found it preferable not to breathe at all. The stench of rotten decay only worsened the burning throbbing barely contained within the confines of his head.
He was so tired. For how long had he wandered the frozen far reaches, pressing on towards his distant goal? For how long had he wandered the eternal darkness, fighting the winds and enduring the storms? For how long had he forgone food and drink, heat and sleep, all those basic necessities that he took for granted even in a war zone?
He was so alone. Here more than ever his existence meant absolutely nothing, his presence fading to absolute insignificance. Here more than ever his powers paled in comparison to those brought to bear against him, and the knowledge that he had accumulated over years of painstaking effort perished to naught. Here more than ever, the home he’d given up seemed so far away.
He had consciously chosen the perilous land route north and east, since it decreased the chances of collateral damage and of involving any more innocent lives in battles aimed to ensnare him. He had thought himself somewhat accustomed to the dangers that such a solitary journey entailed, thought it an acceptable risk given the consequences. And now, in the end, he supposed that the gamble had failed; what little luck he could count on had deserted him.
But still he found his fate to be an acceptable one in comparison with the alternative. Better he die alone and without causing trouble to others, than in the midst of devastation and death that would not have occurred had he not been present.
And always like a stowaway in the back of his mind lingered the question: what price would he be asked to pay this time? Benign, or malignant? Deadly, or harmless? Critical, or dispensable? The only saving grace, perhaps, was that it would undoubtedly manifest as something he could bear alone…
I suppose that I am unworthy of fortune, then.
He doubled up in sudden agony, curling foetal upon the frigid snow plains. The excretions of his latest bout of coughing blossomed like crimson flowers upon the blemishless white, visible even in the infinite darkness. His eyes strained to focus, and said flowers wavered in and out of his sight until they dominated his blurry field of vision. Slowly they then melted away beneath his fevered panting, as once again he tried to muster the strength to soldier on.
Still, I will never give up…
Even if his next step took him an hour, or a day, or…
Even if his next breath came in minutes, or in years, or…
The last of the fires within him died, and in their wake came only darkness.