Astrin looked up from his meal as the wind whistled through the cracks of a building. It wasn’t a pretty sound, it was strained, hurt, and distorted by metal. Everything in this world was so harsh, so angled, so confined.
It was an ugly world. Cities here were such ugly things. At night, the sky was filled with so much unnatural light that it blocked out the stars themselves. He’d seen pictures – he knew that the entire world wasn’t like this.
Part of him hoped that if she fell to this world, that she would enter it in a prettier place. A park. A beach. Somewhere that wasn’t angles, boxes and dirt.
He wept as he ate, he was hungry, he was always hungry. His transformation had changed his metabolism for the worse – at least at the manor house, they had kept him fed. Out here, alone, he had no such help. The angels had found the mansion, so he wasn’t able to go back there, all he could do no was wait, and hide.
The followers of the sun, or whatever that group called themselves, would be after him. They were going to kill him, use him or destroy him utterly – it didn’t really matter, all that mattered was staying away long enough to see Mela again.
He gulped down the last of the meat and huddled back in the corner, hoping that the ugly building could at least help to keep him warm. He stared at the dog’s carcass for a moment, seeing if there was any viable meat left on it, then forced himself to try and sleep.
He would survive the night – at least, he hoped that he would.
His stomach stirred.
His baby kicked.
Dajulveed – a year ago
The sun looked purple as it went down. The moons were the same pale green as his skin. Stardust fell through the air. It was a beautiful night, but the only thing Astrin could look at was Mela. It was a schoolchild crush, something to discuss with his friends after much prompting, it was nothing more, it could be nothing more. She turned and smiled, and it was a perfect moment.
He followed Mela further down the path around the lake – the distant lights of the main house were dimmer than that of the stars above. The still water was still like glass, still enough for a spirit to dance upon it. Mela cried out in delight – something she rarely did in the confines of the main house, twirled in a circle, then ran back to him.
To his surprise, and his pleasure, she grabbed his hands and danced with him. She led the impromptu dance, as was wont for women to do. He allowed himself to be pulled in lazy circles, following whatever imagined music she was listening to, following her lead. She smiled at him, and laughed again.
He gathered his courage and kissed her.
She returned the chaste kiss, then pushed him to arm’s length. ‘How long have you been waiting to do that?’
He’d kissed her.
Slowly, he raised a hand to his mouth, unsure of what had been real, and what had been his dream intruding upon reality.
‘Astrin?’ Mela said after a moment. ‘You poor boy, shall I do it again to wake you up?’
She kissed him on the cheek, sat down, and patted the sand beside her.
It had to be a dream, this moment only ever happened in his dreams. Things like this did not happen in real life. Ladies of standing did not fall in love with their help, they didn’t come into the noise of the city and go on an adventure like in a children’s book. They didn’t stand up to their mothers and cut themselves off from their money.
She tugged on the leg of his pants and he nearly toppled on top of her. ‘Well?’ she asked him, ‘how long?’
‘Longer than I wish to admit,’ he said, ‘is how long I’ve been wishing to kiss you, my lady.’
‘Unless you want to compare me to the sad lady or the cold lady, call me Mela, as you’ve always done.’
Dajulveed – Six Months Ago
Astrin looked down at Mela as they walked through the market, she was a creature of pure beauty – even in comparison to the jewels and fine silks all around them, there was nothing that could make him tear his eyes away.
The few coins and bank bills in his pocket felt heavy, weighted by guilt, rather than by mass. An entire month’s pay, but still not enough to buy her more than a trifle. He’d seen suitors come by and gift her presents a hundred times more than what he could afford.
She slipped her arm through his and pulled him toward a hole-in-the wall food stall, the smell of curried meats and herbed eggs tantalised his senses – the mind may be able to live on love alone, but the stomach would always crave food.
He bought their meals and they found a spot under a tree in the small park at the intersection of the four market sections.
‘Not feeling well, Astrin?’ Mela asked as she sipped from a red bottle.
He stared at his curry. ‘I haven’t found you a gift yet.’
‘My birthday isn’t until next week.’
‘A present for today, I mean, not, um…’ he blushed as she scooted over to him. She lifted his arm and draped it over her shoulder. ‘I want to…’
‘Kiss me?’ He did so, then sighed. ‘Astrin…I don’t want you to be a source of gifts. You aren’t a boy of standing trying to impress my mother, you’re the one who wants to give me something you can’t – or shouldn’t – put a price on.’
‘Is that always going to be good enough?’
‘I’m going to give something, then you tell me.’ She sat up. ‘Now close your eyes.’
He obeyed, and wondered what it was – he’d been eyeing-
‘Here,’ she said, and placed something cold in his hands.
When he opened his eyes, he felt the world shift under him. In his hand was a large, egg-shaped piece of orange quartz. He was pretty sure his mouth was hanging open as he looked up at her. Mela’s expression was pinched into one of fear and worry. ‘I didn’t want to do it like this, I…’
His gaze swung back to the egg. ‘Me? Are you sure?’
She stroked the egg, as was tradition, it was her birthstone. ‘You are a good man, Astrin. That’s all I need from you.’
The quartz was slowly warming in his hand. The invitation to father a child – a proposal much more serious than simple marriage.
He calmed his heart and stared straight into the eyes of the woman he loved. ‘I would be honoured, Mela.’
Dajulveed – three months ago
Naked under the stars and the moons, Astrin felt more at peace than ever before. Mela lay curled up on his chest, her soft hair tickling his chest whenever she moved.
Their child was growing inside him, with no problems – at three months into a six month gestation cycle, this was a good sign. His belly had swollen, though it was no match for his over-inflated sense of pride.
Mela’s father had been unhappy – in his opinion, marrying a servant, someone below her station, was not the kind of thing a young lady should rush into. However, his future father-in-law had relented when Mela’s mother had reminded him that their branch of the family tree existed solely because a young lord had taken an interest in a scullery maid.
Since then, there hadn’t been any hiccups, and for that he was glad. A lot of times, the egg failed to take the first time – in the past, old women had used this simple biological reaction as a reason to break up relationships.
He twirled Mela’s hair in his fingers, and listened to a dryad sing – he wasn’t sure where she was, in the lake, in a tree, one with the air, but the melody was enough to make him sleepy.
As he closed his eyes to sleep, the dryad stopped singing, and everything went quiet. He couldn’t hear any of the evening birds, any of the insects, or indeed, the lake’s waves lapping at the shore.
It was as though the world had stopped for a second. He gently removed Mela from his chest and stood…nothing was moving. Above him, a bird was frozen in the air, the ripples on the lake were frozen, and leaves on the wind didn’t move.
Then it started…low and deep at first, like an earthquake, then higher and higher, like the screaming of a steam train.
It seemed to permeate the very air around him. The warm evening air vibrated with the insane giggle. He felt cold, and the memory of being buried in a snow drift came back to him. His fingers began to burn with the cold, and he watched as they turned a deeper shade, and ice crystals grow on the hair on the back of his hand. He screamed, and the warmth returned to him.
The laughter remained.
Mela stirred and pulled the blanket around her as she sat up. ‘Astrin, what is…?’
He didn’t know, and that frightened him. He dropped down beside her, and she pulled him into a tight embrace – he clutched her, hoping that her touch could drive the terror away.
The laughter continued.
There was a hiss from the sand beside them, the image of a woman’s face and her curly hair formed in the grains. ‘Go to your families, this is the last song of the world.’
‘What?’ Mela screeched at the apparition of the dryad.
‘Pushawn, Dajulveed’s god, he’s dying. Escape if you can, only if you can handle the consequences, else hold each other while the world ends.’
‘How long?’ he managed to choke, his brain fighting the information.
The dryad’s sandy eyes flickered to his belly. ‘Long enough for you to name your child, short enough for it to become a Starbright.’
The laughter continued.
Dajulveed – two months ago
Astrin stared down at his love – she’d been quiet for a while now, still trying to come to grips with the dying world outside the windows.
The laughter had subsided somewhat, drowned in the cries of the anguished citizens, their screams of protestation and the ever-present roar of the void. The world was going to end, and there was nothing anyone could do. No hero could save them, no bargains could be made, no legend would help them.
A week to the hour after the god had begun to laugh, the void had opened up. It was giant black gaping maw in the middle of the world. It a pit into nothing or into everything – which, when seen from an objective point of view are the same thing.
‘I still don’t understand,’ Mela said as she stirred in his arms. He kissed her on the head and sighed.
‘No one does, it’s unfair.’
‘The dead do not come back. Not after they pass through the cold lady’s realm.’
‘Gods are different Mela, they’re a different kind of life to us.’
‘The dead aren’t meant to destroy.’
He shook his head. ‘The dead always destroy Mela, always. The dead destroy friendships, families, communities, marriages, lives. The dead can have more impact on the living than the living can.’
She buried herself deeper into his chest. ‘That’s not making this any better.’
The baby stirred within him. ‘What do you want to call him?’
‘Him?’ Mela asked. ‘I thought you asked the doctor not to tell you?’
‘Mysteries can only stay that way for so long. The underside of my belly turned dark this morning.’
Mela mulled it over for a moment, idly stroking his belly. ‘Natenal,’ she said.
She gave a nod. ‘Is it all right?’
The baby stirred again. ‘I believe he likes it.’
‘I just hope that when he-‘ He heard her clap her hand over her mouth. ‘He’s not going to grow up is he?’
‘The dryad said the Starbright god will take care of him. It is better than nothing.’
She stood and walked to the window, her naked form beautiful in the moons’ glow. He stood and followed her over, and hesitated for a moment before speaking. ‘We could go to the void.’
Her expression turned to horror. ‘I want to see my baby, at least once, I don’t want to…’
‘It’s not death,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ve was told that it isn’t death.’
She turned to him and shook her head. ‘It is death Astrin. It’s cold. It’s dark. What else could it be?’
‘That’s a story!’ she shouted. ‘You can’t-‘
This stopped her anger, and her frown turning into confusion. ‘Who?’
‘She runs one of the markets. The old lady who wears a hood because of her burns? She’s not burnt,
she’s not from this world.’
‘I am telling you this, because I want to give you the option. It is one chance in a million, but if you would rather take it than sit here and wait to die, then…’
‘What would happen to us?’
‘I don’t know, she said no one can know. You fall and fall and fall, sometimes you land, sometimes you simply pass into the death you believe it is.’
‘If we fell to another world, we’d be aliens.’
‘I’ll go first. Maybe I could-‘
She shook her head. ‘No, I won’t let you.’
‘I don’t want-‘
‘I won’t let you take my child!’ She shrugged his hand from her shoulder and walked away, found her discarded robe and wrapped it around her body. ‘If he didn’t have me to protect him, what would he have? You’re just his father, what use would you be on your own?’
‘Then we stay. We will watch our world dissolve around us, our child will come into the world long enough for him to smile, then we all die.’
She looked at him as though he had grown an extra appendage. ‘How can you be this cold?’
‘No you aren’t.’ She stared out the window, then deflated a little. ‘I know when you are sorry.’
‘Mela, isn’t one chance for him to live, to grow up, worth chancing a fear? As a Starbright, he’ll have a year of experiences, on another world, he could have-‘
‘It’s not worth the risk.’
‘I do not wish to sit here and wait for the end. I can’t just give up.’
Her shoulders dropped. ‘We’ll go together,’ she said quietly.
She looked up at him, her expression a mixture of fear and determination. ‘Are you sure that this is what you want to do?’
He stood silent for a long moment, then nodded.
‘Then it’s what we’ll do. Together.’
‘Tomorrow then. You need to tell your parents.’
‘My mother will approve. My father…he worries too much, he’ll try and stop us.’
‘Nonetheless,’ he said as put on his pants then lit the oil lamps. ‘I could not live with myself if I stole their chance to say goodbye to their daughter. And their grandchild.’
‘I’m sorry-‘ she began.
‘Don’t be,’ he said with a dismissive wave – a momentary image of his own parents flashing into his mind. ‘If they hadn’t died, I never would have been apprenticed, and our paths would not have crossed.’
She opened the door to their wardrobe and began to pull out winter clothes. ‘Will it be cold? What will we need? Will our possessions survive the trip if we do? Wh-‘
He pressed a finger to her lips. ‘I don’t know, love.’
‘You should go ask your friend. Some of the markets are still running.’
He pressed a hand to his belly, feeling his baby kick. ‘As you wish. I’ll also try to bring back a curry.’ This seemed to satisfy her. He slipped on his shirt and reached for his bag. ‘I’ll ask her what I can, but I’m not going to push for information. I don’t think she had anyone to ask before she made her jump.’
‘So she should be all the more willing-‘
‘I won’t force her. Can you imagine how she feels right now? Escaping one world just to die in another?’
The Next Day
The void was a thing from a nightmare. The world around it was warped, there were bodies of those who had taken their own lives in the face of the horror it represented, and there was the terrible wind that was slowly sucking their whole world into it.
The reports had been right, it was like looking at everything and nothing all at once. Had it not represented the end of the world, Astrin was sure that philosophers would have looked for the meaning of life in it.
Mela took his hand and they pushed forward – it was too late to go back. Weren’t they past the point of no return?
‘Mela…’ he said as he slowed his pace. ‘We don’t have to do this.’
She refused to look at him. ‘It was your idea.’
‘We can bring Natenal into the world, then go.’
She let his hand go. ‘If I see my child, I will never make the jump. If he is here, alive, smiling at me, I would never take the chance.’
He stared at the void, his teeth chattering and his mouth dry. ‘What if it…what if I’m wrong, what if we’re wasting our only chance?’
She turned, stood on tiptoe, kissed him then smiled. ‘I believe in you.’
They ran for the void.
Mela leapt into the gaping maw of the void and felt it pull her away from the world, from her husband, from her unborn son. Away from everything she knew, and towards absolute uncertainty.
The entirety of existence lay open before her, planets and moons twirled, they whipped around aliens suns, spun then shot off into the distance.
She watched a sun explode, destroying the solar system it had sustained and protected, and in its way. Rainbow stardust filled the void and surrounded her, twisting her up in a storm.
The stardust formed into flowers and faces, impish grins and pixie kisses stole glances and touches. A baby’s laughter rang out like a bell as a new star formed.
She felt very small, and the death of her world seemed so insignificant in comparison to the wonder in front of her. At the same time, it gave her hope, her world was dying, but there was so much left in the universe that was alive.
She felt content, then she felt nothing.
She opened her eyes, and found herself wondering if she had. The darkness surrounding her wasn’t simply an absence of light, it was an absence of…oh.
She felt herself come to rest against something, as though she had been floating. She felt warm hands on her insubstantial shoulders and looked up. Who she saw did not surprise her.
‘Do you know where you are?’ the cold lady asked. She looked like she did in all of the stories, long black hair entwined with precious metals and stones, a long deep purple robe and a silver mask covering her face.
‘Yes, my lady, I do.’
Death looked to the endless blackness in front of them. ‘A lot of your kin went to my sister. You’re one of the last to come, your world is dying alone.’
‘Others…went into the void?’
The mask nodded. ‘Most do, most prefer to take the chance.’
She felt a pang of regret. ‘My lady, my husband, is he?’
‘I have no seen him yet, Mela, he made it to safety, such as it is.’
‘And my child?’
‘His future is uncertain.’
She should be afraid, she knew she should be trying to bargain, or begging to become a ghost, she knew she-
‘Are you ready?’
‘Is anyone ever truly ready?’
Death nodded. ‘Yes. Many.’
She looked to the blackness. ‘What…what is…?’
The lady shook her head. ‘I do not know, I am simply the gatekeeper. May my father’s blessing be with you.’
She turned to look at the void. ‘My lady, could I ask one thing of you.’
‘Mortals always ask for boons, I rarely grant them.’
She bit her lip. ‘My husband knows I love him, he knows my last thought will be of him. My son…could you tell him that his mother loved him?’
The mask considered this for a moment, then nodded. ‘I can do this.’
‘Thank you, my lady.’
‘Are you ready now?’
She reached out to the void, it didn’t radiate fear or despair, it felt…it felt like home.
She said her last silent goodbyes and stepped through into the infinite.