Gurgling a pool of blood from his mouth, Maximilian’s body collapsed on Amaerun’s arms. The maiden’s frail, trembling hands coiled themselves against the heavy body of the man she had once loved. Writhing and wriggling and jostling in her grip, such a man was Maximilian. To have called him a mere warrior would have been an understatement–he was a hero. One that fought through until even his own end. A memory that would forever be held in awe besides countless other heroes of the past. But what would that matter?
He was dying.
When he had smitten the Dark Lord Saurok, the fiend had plummeted beyond the steep crags of Hell’s Ravine into his untimely demise, but this came at a price. The valiant Maximilian was gifted with a deathly stroke of the Dark Lord’s blade, cleaving a path through his throat. A mangled mess smeared with crimson all over, Amaerun could not bring herself to gaze upon Maximillian. Or at least what had been Maximilian.
Hoarse croaks and wheezes came from that fallen giant. Croaks and wheezes that Amaerun could only see as his last efforts to gasp for life. His last efforts to see her again.
“Oh, Maximilian, my dearest…” There had been tales of yore similar to hers. Of damsels that call upon the aid of the gods while their retainer dies in their midst, but she was smart enough to know that bards were too fond of embellishment “Maximillian…” with that last utterance of his name she had resigned those thin traces of hope that lingered in her mind.
Shutting her eyes to a truth that brought her more pain than death, her body stumbled as her lover ceased moving. The iron weight of an anvil projected itself unto her in the form of Maximilian’s lifeless corpse. Two streams of tears slid down her cheeks when she forced her eyes open. Tears that died when she buried her face into the broad shoulders of what had been her lover. And she was sure that it was not him. It had none of the vitality of Maximilian, it was only a hollow memory she wished she could forget The sobs came in short bursts, but she managed to ease herself on the rocky paths of Hell’s Ravine, lowering Maximilian’s body until she could sprawl it over her knees. For a time she could only bear to feel just a faint bump from his body. That sensation of his chest heaving up and down with breaths. But the hollow husk had frozen, along with Amaerun’s heart.
Waterfalls of tears cascaded from her eyes and she bore her desperate hands to the heavens, shouting thus “Cruel Masters of this World! Have you grown deaf to my pleas!? You call yourselves gods, but what have you done for Maximilian! Through life and death he has straddled countless times for your sake, and you repay him with death! Where are you!?”
Her heart’s beats reverberated across her mind. Where were those gods? Those that had forsaken her! She demanded–no–she deserved and audience with them! What arbitrary justice had been imposed on the realm of men? What sick lords had been tasked with watching over their welfare from high above?
Amaerun, still blinded by tears, spat on the ground near her. Her angered fists had tightened on the rock, hard body of Maximilian, for if the gods could not be her foundation, he would. When her arms grasped to the husk of her lover, and she realized that no response came, she chuckled. A defeated chuckle, the laugh of the murderer that has just been apprehended. None of it mattered. There were no gods at–
“Hello….um…did anyone call me?” with surprise that made her bite her lip, Amaerun perked up her ears to a shrill voice that came from the heavens “Hello? Damn it all, do I loathe these pranksters. Screaming out to the heavens like they’re in a cursed play or something.”
“Wait!” Amaerun could not bring herself to believe it, but there truly was a voice listening from high above in the sky. Perhaps he…perhaps he…no. I shouldn’t be too eager.
The voice from the heaven’s cleared whatever it had for a throat “Ah, yes. I presume that you were the one shouting at me during my rest period? I must say that I was having a rather engaging dream. You see, my brothers had called upon a stampede of unicorns–oh wait–were they Pegasi? I do recall them having wings…or did they? Or where they just–”
The voice from heaven sighed “Ugh, you humans and your constant needs for help. It would be nice if you called upon the gods just to have a conversation every now and then. Even with twelve of us it gets quite lonely up there. What is it you need?”
Amaerun jaw fell from its place. She would have expected a show of authority from the deity, but she was not even given a proper introduction. So far, all she could manage was to stare upon the sky with dumbstruck eyes.
“Did I…did I do something wrong? I was sure that I was perfect. Ah-h-h-h-h, you must forgive me. I’ve a habit of just coming out of nowhere and doing my job. It’s grown to be a nuisance really, but that’s beside the point.” Amaerun had yet to lift her jaw back up to her lips “Be in awe, mortal!” he had changed his voice to a gruff, authoritative tone. Or what he thought sounded like that. Perhaps eternal beings had a different method of perceiving noise, but to Amaerun he sounded like a toddler imitating his father “Render worship! Unto the most auspicious sovereign over the fabric of reality that there has ever been! Clasp thy hands in fear and submission to my divine presence! I am Plot! Patron of Contrived Storytelling!”
There was silence between the two for the span of three seconds. Not being able to understand even the most meagre detail of the situation, she spoke again “So uh…Plot, right?”
“There is none other, mortal. I tug at the cords of causality and weave the very thresholds of time and infinity! To this day I–”
“Right. May I get help?”
Plot groaned from his station in the high heavens “No, no, mortal. That is not how one refers to forces that are beyond one’s ken. The proper phrase is ‘May I ever-so humbly request thine divine providence?’. If we ever hope to establish a mutual bond, it is imperative that we apply the rules of etiquette.”
Amaerun, her heart frantic with the hope of saving Maximilian, ignored the pettiness of the deity’s remarks. There was a part of her that said nothing would go as smoothly as she planned, but she had silenced this aspect of herself “May I ever-so humbly request thine divine providence?”
“Speak your plea, child.”
Taking a deep breath, Amaerun raised her voice “It is the hero Maximilian, whom has fallen in righteous combat with the Fiend Saurok. You whom tugs at the cords of causality, you whom mends the fabric of time, I ask that you breath life back into Maximillian.”
“Oh,” the deity grumbled to himself while Amaerun wrung her sweaty hands into one another. She could not afford to be disappointed again, she could only have faith that this would succeed “Sure.”
How could that cruel master deny her the love of her own life? How could he hope to call himself benevolent when he denies a hero the chance at life? How could he be given authority over men, when he unjustly–wait, what?
“Are you alright? You seem distraught. I recall accepting your request clearly. Do you not love this man?”
None of this made sense. There had to be a price paid for bringing the dead back to life. It couldn’t just be a matter of waving one’s arm. Perhaps Plot was a trickster god! If the olden tales had spoken truth when they mentioned deities responding to the pleas of men, then surely the tales of fiendish gods were true as well. Perhaps Plot meant to bring back Maximilian as a ghoul or poltergeist that would possess his loved ones, perhaps he would revive both Saurok and he in order to have Maximillian slain again. What cruel beings that watch over this world!
“I know your tricks! You wish to tempt me! But I am wiser than thee! You know naught of the potential of men, yet you patronize us from up above.” She raised a shaking fist to heaven “But we are better than that! I know that there is no true way to save Maximilian and you only lie!”
“But, there is a way. I just told you there was.”
“Trickster! There’s always a catch!”
“Fine, fine, you got me…I guess. In truth, there was a catch! And it is a very perilous and dangerous catch that would have endangered you! Yes…immensely dangerous…yes…” She had caught the deity in his game! Now she would only have to learn of the catch and she could find a way to invert it and make it work in her favor!
Amaerun brought her smuggest grin and glared up at wherever Plot resided in the heavens “Then tell me! What is this snare you wish to trap me in? What is truly at the end of the maze you wish me to traverse? What is the relic you wish for me to find?”
Plot gave a cackle from the heavens, resounded around Hell’s Ravine “Yes, there is much danger in store for you. More danger than any of those things you have described, child, dangers that could pose a threat to your soul.”
“Then state it and I will claim it!” Now that she had convinced the god that she knew of his plans to double-cross her, there was no doubt he would just resort to sending her on a quest. Only then would she be able to save Maximilian.
“Child, you must…you must…” he gave a pause that seemed more for thinking than dramatic effect “I have conferred with my heavenly council, and I have reached a decision! We grant you an Ultimatum, mortal! Bearing witness to me, Plot, Guardian of Contrivance, you must say…please?”
Beg your pardon? She resisted the urge to scratch her head, she wouldn’t let the deity know that she was dubious of his statement. Sweat forming on her skin, she puffed up her chest and brought her arms to her sides. She could not have appeared more valiant even if she had tried.
“Surely you jest?”
“Say please, mortal! Do not question me!” Plot’s voice came off like a scared puppy’s bark.
Amaerun cleared her throat. There was no way that Plot meant for her to say please. There was more to it. There had to be. She braced her muscles to have the very bowels of earth split under her, to have eldritch abominations pour out from hell, and to have gargantuan, alien faces dot the skies while they shed tears of blood “Please.”
“Then let my will be done on this earth! Cords of Causality, snap under my weight! Fate shall be mended! Opportunum Factu!”
Before she could run away, a flash of white flooded her eyes, making her tear up. She tried to spot whatever she could, she tried to gain a sense of where she was. But there was nothing. She had waited to hear the giggles of Plot, the fiendish god, no doubt he delighted in her misery. But all that there was…was nothing.
Her eyes struggled to open themselves, haze clearing up while she rubbed them. rocks stabbed at her back, but she shrugged off the pain as she propped herself up on an elbow. With a groan, she stumbled upwards, with her senses still being a complete mess. Her head swiveled about, until she was able to catch the outline of a body walking towards her.
When her vision cleared up, the golden hair that streamed like a silken drape, and a lean body that had been chiseled by master architects came in her direction. Still at a loss, she chalked this off as just being a hallucination. She didn’t know what Plot had done, but she doubted she could have lived through it. Much less have another person live through it as well. She clambered forward, knowing that she wouldn’t come into contact with that figure that approached her. After all, it was just an illusion.
But then she bumped her head.
Her fingers traced circles around a brawny man’s body and she could feel the long strands of his hair tickling the nape of his neck “Amearun, I am back.”
She had expected to be ceased by a surge of emotion, but the opposite was true. She jerked her body backwards, still shuddering at his touch. This could not be Maximilian! There was just no way! Plot must have been playing a trick on her…there was no way he could do something like that “Stay back!”
“What, what happened?”
“Fiend! Loathsome, dastardly, crafty fiend! That is what you are! You are not Maximilian, you’re a–a ghoul! A poltergeist! A demon in the flesh!”
Spreading out his hands and with a confused expression, the thing approached her “Just, relax, alright…it’s me…”
“I can’t…I can’t believe you…” with every second that passed, her words proved to be the opposite. But there was no way that there couldn’t be a catch, there just had to be “So, you’re actually Maximilian?”
“In the flesh.”
Her heart slowed down. No longer could she feel the blood rushing through her veins, and no longer were her muscles tense. But she didn’t receive the relief that she thought she’d experience either. In truth, she felt rather indifferent to the return of her lover “This, this can’t be right.”
Stroking his square chin, Maximilian frowned “Not right? This is a miracle! This is the greatest thing that could have happened to us!”
“So, you’re not a zombie, a demon, or even a wandering soul?”
His face looking as though he meant to slap her for acting in such a silly manner, Maximilian shook his head “Amaerun! What do I look like to you? Isn’t this making you happy?”
“Yeah. I was just, you know, expecting more. This was actually rather convenient.”
Maximilian shrugged his arms “Well, nothing we can do about that. Let’s get going, it’s rather chilly out here, wouldn’t you agree?”
She nodded, still at a loss with all that had happened. While they walked down the rocky trails that led to their town, she glanced back over to the horizon. The clouds streamed into one another, the white masses merging into a whiter veil for the sky. They parted into a circular shape as though someone had thrown a spear past them. Maximilian made dull comments on the way to the home, but she never allowed herself to lose concentration on the sky. Maybe at one point…maybe that hole in the clouds was a sign! Maybe there was a catch after all, maybe Plot was still trying to reach her! Maybe, maybe, maybe. She squinted as far as she could, hoping that perhaps a streak of lightning would direct her on the path to destiny.