Do Good Better
It is all so still. The thousand dread legions are fanned out like a cyclone over the red plateau, a million spears pointed to the throats of a million children. In the eye of the storm, the Broken King perches on his throne. He counts the seconds to the total eclipse of the sun, awaiting the sacrifice that will summon the Old Horrors.
As the moon eats sun, shadow races across the land. Spear-tips plunge in a rippling wave and tear through throats most fragile, leaving dead dreams in their wake. They say that a million deaths is a statistic: they could not be more wrong. It is tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. And as the children fall, a dark lustre begins to glow in the Broken King’s eyes. Absolute power corrupts absolutely: now there is a truth.
The Broken King’s eyes are cast to the sky. He is watching the occluded star, and that is his mistake.
There is a trembling. A susurration. With a whipping wind the hero arrives in a conflagration, the air keening with the burn of her spellforce. A fling of her arms opens the sky. Sky cracks loud. The horizon melts into a feathery purple, and a blink later one million soldiers hit the ground smouldering.
The Broken King is roused. He bursts out of his throne and scans the fallen bodies, until he fixes on the hero, upright, defiant. He sweeps his hand with a thunderclap that carves a path through the rock straight for her, and it is only a swirl of her cloak that keeps the hero alive. If only the children nearest were so lucky.
“Fight me!” she screams out to the king. “You would end this world? Then fucking fight me! Your dread legions are dead, the sacrifice ruined, YOU HAVE NO CHOICE.”
He stands before his throne, impassive. Then his fingers twitch and his rings flash and mountains rise from nowhere, murderous metamorphic monstrosities that envelope the dead bodies, shuddering as they swallow her whole. They have embowered her and it is all rock above and below, grey pressure everywhere. The mountains collapse her into their bowels. Down she goes. She struggles, twisting the bands encircling her head, and out pops a luminous sphere that repels the greedy earth, forming a bubble of solace; she breathes and charts her course. Another twist and she flies upwards, flinging the rock away, surrounded all of a sudden by the false night sky. And it is up here, silhouetted against a black sun, that she hurls bolts of molten ember down at the king.
They fight as only mages can.
In the end, it is not close. She is brilliant with her flames and she has scorched the Broken King down to bone-cracked ashes. Miles of jagged earth and scores of corpses surround her, but she has won. He is dead. She drops down to her knees, feeling the weight of her actions. The world is saved. So many years spent meditating on spellforce, six thousand katas of power mastered, all of it for…
It slips away.
Darkness, complete. Darkness, total. Mind spiralling out.
Reformatting so that color and sound and the scent of burnt flesh are unmapped into tunnels. Or maybe something like worms.
It is a stretching of black that is everywhere, then a pinprick of warmth (negentropy, that something whispers), it expands slowly at first, incoherent bits of meaning remarkable only because there is some now, and then the light balloons until they are seated in a plush armchair in a stately room.
All of the furniture is made of ebony. A fireplace hums under a polished silver chandelier. Things are arranged snug against one another. A bookshelf holds titles in a dozen languages they think they might know. The hero is looking at a mirror. It is tall, long, gleaming, polished, and it disorients them, for what is reflected is not themself. In the mirror is jagged earth and corpses and a charred throne.
Grooves click into place.
Their mind unsticks.
They have saved another world, just as tasked.
The mirror smiles.
“Impressive,” it says with a voice cool and smooth. It pulls away that image of the world, replacing it with a pastoral, saltwater pigs grazing on a patch of seaweed. “I didn’t think you could succeed with raw power alone. Some might say you didn’t.”
The hero yawns, slotting the memories from that last world into a list hundreds long. So many worlds so easily saved. So many evils defeated.
“Impressive? What made this one different?” they scoff, picking a plum out of a glass bowl and biting into it. The casual application of spellforce prevents any juice from running down their chin.
“The enemy was tougher and the world more subdued, but that is neither here nor there,” the mirror says, reflecting both in turn. Then, it displays a familiar sickening field of corpses. “It is only the death of all of these children. Such a shame.”
“So? I killed the Broken King. I stopped the summoning of the Old Horrors,” they challenge. “What more could I have done?”
“Now you are asking the right question,” the mirror laughs. “What more indeed? You must train yourself until the answer comes naturally as the spellforce in your veins. The tunnels between the worlds are tightening. We don’t have much time before the final task.”
“Then let us move swiftly,” the hero nods. “There is much at stake.”
“Good. You begin to understand,” the mirror says, a rare warmth tinging its edges. “I have found another world suitable for your edification. Use your wits. Fear death. Remember: Do good better.”
And then they are shunted away into darkness through tunnels that scrape against the very fibre of their being.
The hero is crouched behind a scree of broken boulders, a swirl of white flecks clamping down on visibility until his shivering hands are no more than pale blurs. The flecks are not snow, but they send a shiver down his spine nonetheless. Something is wrong here. Down below, the edges of the valleys blend into one another, the desolate fields streaks of ruddy grey like forgotten oil on canvas. Through the haze of white flecks, he sees the giants. The three hulking beings stand hunched against the mountainside, a bonfire taller than the evergreens casting their grotesque faces aglow.
“That one is Famine,” a voice whispers, and the hero startles, nearly slipping from his spot before he spots the man in a tattered teal uniform. The gaunt man is pressed against the rocks, his skin whipped pink from the cold, but his eyes are keen and bright. Scout, the word floats into the hero’s mind.
The scout is pointing at the largest giant, a creature whose rolls of soft flesh dissolve into the ground in cavernous puddles. Nine flabby arms hang off of its body, absently scooping dirt into its mouth as it dozes. In its slumber, it lets off a belch so foul that the trees around it crumble to dust, sending more white flecks into the air.
“Famine roams the fields,” the scout says. “It gorges itself on whatever it can, leaving nothing but the bones of rats and hardened leather for the people to gnaw. It may look lazy, but beware: this one claims twenty-five thousand souls a day.”
The hero stares at the scout, trying to wrap his head around the number. Twenty-five thousand. A field of graves, a hundred by a hundred, would not hold all the bodies—filled in half a day, a million children in forty days, and left to overflow evermore.
“And we are here,” the hero says softly, “to kill Famine?”
“If you can,” the scout shrugs. “But many a soul has tried. None have succeeded.”
The hero dips his head and turns to the second giant, a sinewy monstrosity marked by long gashes criss-crossing its body. A final gash carves its otherwise blank face: a gleaming red rictus. Blood continuously oozes out of its wounds, but it pays them no heed, twitching this way and that as it pirouettes around the bonfire. It showers its surroundings with its sanguine excretion and the hero thinks slit-veins and surrender and slaughter. The giant smiles wider.
“That one is War,” the scout says. His face is drawn tight as he stares at the giant, trying to find the right words to describe it. “Many a year may go by with the barest hint of its presence. But when it rears its head for the battle-dance… then it claims millions with the ease of a constrictor. It suffocates nations. It scars those who survive it with memories miles deep.”
“Then this too threatens the world. I will kill it,” the hero resolves, his fist clenching.
The scout simply nods, as if expecting no other answer, and pulls the remains of his coat tighter around him. His exhalation condenses against the white flecks in the air. The flecks lay thickest over the deserted villages, where no fires burn and no young ones play. It is only in the sparse villages behind him, where the giants have yet to venture, that the hero makes out the barest hints of laughter and comfort.
He gazes at the final giant. This one is the smallest of the three, a being of almost white that seems humanoid by chance—for this giant is coming apart by the seams, sleeves of skin opening and closing and reshuffling in a way that should not preserve structure, its interstices multiplying one second and merging the next—until he realises that this is not one continuous entity, but countless wriggling string-things that only together gestalt into a simulacra of life.
“That one is Pestilence,” the scout mutters. “We thought it harmless at first. But it claimed one soul at the end of its first week, two souls the next week, and four then eight after that, and it has not slowed since. It too has a sharp appetite for human flesh. Each of those strings that you see—that was once a soul.”
“But this giant is much smaller than the others,” the hero mutters. “Is it the least lethal of the three?”
“Just a thousand and twenty-three souls claimed thus far,” the scout confirms.
“It must die all the same,” the hero replies. “Even the small things should not be overlooked.”
With that so decided, there is a crackling in the air. The hero has reached for his spellforce. Once more a world trembles. The hero knows, from faint impressions of lives prior, that these giants will be easy to slay. It matters not that there are three of them, for his spellforce is unrivaled, see how his power is so…
Limited? He strains, confused. The well of power that he has spent lifetimes curating is still there, but he can only squeeze out the merest trickle of it. He grunts, pushing past the walls of reality, reaching for more, but he hits a restriction in the earth. There is an absence of magic running through the rivers and the wind of this world. This land will give him no more spellforce. He curses, knowing this meagre amount of spellforce will not be enough.
But even a trickle of water draws eyes in a desert. The giants have sensed the shift in the air. War turns its rictus at the hero, flexing its rich red smile, and then in jerks and bounds it crosses the hills, watering the ground with its blood-shed. By the fire, Pestilence’s pores dilate. It wheezes and sneezes and is all of a sudden a half-mile closer and now telophasing its spindly limbs towards the hero. Famine stirs from its sleep, and with a lugubrious moan, nine eyes open and fixate on the hero. It begins dragging itself over the land, the squelch of its flab echoing through the mountains. Even the white flecks in the air flurry in response, howling at the hero. The giants close in quick.
The hero pulls on the spellforce in his body, feeling the trickle of power stretch uncomfortably from shin to scalp. It is barely anything. He will not be able to kill them all. The intuition in his mind whispers what he already knows to be truth: he has precisely enough spellforce to kill one, and only one, of the giants.
“Tell me quick, how often does War come around?” he asks the scout, working out the sums in his head. Famine kills twenty-five thousand a day and there are just under four-hundred days in a year, which makes about ten million souls a year. So if War breaks out…
“Once every couple years,” as the scout replies, “but sometimes less.”
Then it is clear what would save the most souls. War is two mountaintops away and menacing in its smile, but millions every few years cannot compare to ten million in one. Famine draws nearer with a crushing inevitability. Yet something stays the hero’s hand.
Pestilence has multiplied. One thousand souls today will be a million in ten weeks, and close to ten million a month after. Then it will double to twenty million. To forty million. To eighty million. And if he is to think of saving the world, the hero is left without a choice.
“But if—” the scout begins to say.
“Silence!” the hero cries out.
With an arm stretched towards the smallest giant, he concentrates the trickle of spellforce, stoking it until it sears like the sun in his palm. There is a flash of light, a point of heat, and the smell of ozone. In the wake of the superheated air, a thousand-and-twenty-three worms peel off one another. Black burn marks tessellate their desiccated bodies. The giant is dead, so easily killed, but now the hero is dry. He clutches his stiffened arm.
“What of the others?” the scout asks.
The hero shakes his head. “Find some other way to kill them,” he says, but they both know that there will be no other way. This land does not have the magic required. The hero sighs, and then the vision of the snow-capped mountains, the two giants, the scout in his tattered teal, it slips away. The mirror calls.
He is squeezed out of his body. Mind gone there and back again; shunting; space and time is a plaything. Absolute darkness winks, bows, nods, recedes.
The hero is back in their armchair and surrounded by finery. A fan silently turns above. A harpsichord plays a fugue in D minor. The bookshelf is still there. The hero is facing the mirror. Reflected is Famine on a tear through the fall harvest, arms like clockwork scooping every last bit of grain into its open maw, leaving a mound of empty husks in its wake. They see the peasants standing helpless by their thatched huts, clutching empty stomachs. The memories of past lives finish flooding back into their mind.
“Welcome back,” the mirror says, serene as ever. “How was your journey?”
“That was not an easy world to save,” they say. “But without magic, what more could I do? Slaying those giants should have been child’s play, but I had to leave two standing. I wanted to do more. I should have done more! But I couldn’t, not without my spellforce.”
“That was a world with more magic than most,” the mirror replies, now showing War dancing through a field of conscripts. The young men and women crumple to the ground in quiet waves. Somewhere a father weeps. The not-snow continues to fall, covering their bodies in white.
“Did you make the right choice?” the mirror asks.
The hero spends a minute reflecting, watching War slit another battalion’s throats with the ease of a thresher.
“The correct choice was not evident from the onset,” they eventually say. “War and Famine were fearsome things, and I thought of killing them in turn. But that would have been a mistake. Pestilence would have grown exponentially until it brought humanity to an end. So it had to die.”
“You are wrong,” the mirror smiles. “Pestilence spreads quick, but it would have burned itself out long before it infected all of that world. Those villages were spread too far to all go down together.”
“I couldn’t have known that,” the hero grumbles, ignoring the bound volume on the bookshelf titled Reducing Global Catastrophic Biorisks.
“You only had to ask,” the mirror says, showing a scene from the past: the scout curled up in his barracks, reading the same bound volume.
“He should have told me,” the hero says, folding their arms. “I did what I could with what I knew.”
“You should have given him the chance to speak,” the mirror says, now showing the scout facing off against Famine alone, his skin wan, his face emaciated.
The hero blinks, staring at the mirror, and crosses their arms. They want to argue back. But they know the mirror is right. So they shake their head, watching the scout stumble.
“He’s going to die,” the hero mutters. “I should have killed Famine. One mistake and look what it cost that world.”
“The scout will be fine. A mindset is not so easily killed,” the mirror says, the bookshelf gleaming in its reflection. “But again you are wrong. Famine was not the one you were sent to kill.”
“War? I should have killed War?” the hero sputters. “But it can’t be. It struck so rarely, killed so few… unless… with a long-tailed distribution, maybe the scout never saw the hell of War raging at its hardest. Maybe he never realised that War was the one thing that could end the world?”
“Wrong again,” the mirror laughs, its voice echoing in the tight chamber. It is back to showing fields of corpses covered by a blanket of white flecks. “You were sent to kill Death.”
“Death?” the hero echoes, confused.
The view in the mirror zooms out. While the corpses shrink, the white flecks only grow thicker. As the valleys and peaks drop to pinpricks, the contours of the not-snow clarifies. The millions upon millions of tiny motes form a leg, arms, a torso, until they realise they are staring at the greatest giant of them all, stretching terribly over the entire land. This giant casually harvests the souls that Pestilence, War, and Famine have dutifully prepared, taking in stride the innumerable souls of the sick and old. It kills with such ease, because that is what it is. Not a statistic.
“Death,” the mirror whispers. “And you could have ended it with your flame.”
“But I didn’t know, this wasn’t fair,” the hero yells, lunging out of their chair, grabbing the mirror by its sides. “How was I to know?”
“The biggest problems are hardest to notice when we have grown so accustomed to living with them,” the mirror says, unperturbed by their hands clutching it so tight. “The scout never knew. You had a fresh pair of eyes. You should have noticed the last horseman.”
“Horseman? What horseman?” the hero says, growing more confused.
“Death takes many forms,” the mirror says, shifting the scenery in a shrug. “It kills all the same.”
“Then send me back!” the hero exclaims, shaking the mirror. “I’ll kill Death! That world can still be saved.”
“Your spellforce in that word is spent. There is nothing more to do. Besides, the tunnels are shrinking too fast. We do not have the time.”
“You should have told me what to do,” the hero says, pointing an accusing finger.
“You don’t carry memories like that into new worlds,” the mirror sighs. “Here is the solution to the next world. See what it matters.”
The hero stares at the flash of words and their eyes widen.
“But surely… there must be a different way…”
“There are many ways,” the mirror agrees. “But what you want to do will not work. We do not have much time. Make the best of this. People are weak. Easily seduced. Truth alone will not set them free. Remember: Do good better.”
She gasps as she lands in her new body, squeezing her eyes shut in a desperate bid to hold on to those fleeting remembrances of a time past. But the images are so fragmented, the snatches of conversation so broken, that even the act of recollection triggers a chorus of screams in her mind. Except then the hero stops trying to recall and the screams do not stop.
Her eyes open and everywhere people are screaming. Young men, old women, a family in ragged finery, a kid in rags so fine that she can count all of its threads, people of all hues of the rainbow, they are all screaming in this open field. Immediately she swivels on alert. Threats in a world like this can kill in a heartbeat. But a minute drags by and she cannot find the source of their fear: they stare and scream in all sorts of ways at nothing. In this wide grassland, none have noticed her. Not even the wind blows, so what do they fear? And then she realises that the screams she hears are hoarse. They have been at this for hours. Maybe longer. They are aimless, timeless screams.
The next thing she notices is the people with the good stuff. Spread before one lady is a banquet of dripping meats, perfectly seared and topped with a garland of exotic spices, paired with three bottles of fine red wine. The lady ignores the feast and clutches her head and screams. Another woman sits upon a chest overflowing with opals and topazes and jades. She is rocking back and forth across the gemstones and screaming her head off. In the distance, a man is surrounded by animate instruments performing a symphony: of course the hero does not hear their music above the screams, but she sees trumpet valves shifting, the trombone slides rocketing back and forth, and the string section bowing in synchrony. The man must not hear the music too, for he is on his knees, his eyes cast to the sky in supplication, his hands clamped over his ears, and his mouth wide open in a scream. Then there is the gentleman receiving pleasures of the flesh, an intricately designed silken organ wrapped in frightening ways around his member. But he is not even hard because he is scared and he is screaming, screaming, screaming. Most of the people around her do not have such nice things. A quick scan of the field gives her an estimate—only a tenth of the people here do.
The hero is almost tempted to scream with the rest of them, just to see what the fuss is all about. But this would do her no good. She might never stop if she were to start. So instead she walks. All of these unnoticing people continue to scream as she passes them by. Miles disappear and the screams become monotony, waveforms that grind at the back of her head. Listening to the sounds, she suddenly feels a presence connecting all of these souls. She shudders, placing it. This is the work of a Devil. But where is the centre of its power? She needs to get out. Her walk turns into a run.
She has spent hours sprinting and shoving through this screaming crowd, and yet the sun has hardly budged from its zenith. She pushes by a dozen more tightly packed people, none of whom react to her presence, until she realises with a start that she is past them all, passing one last man clutching a stopwatch of solid gold who is screaming into the expanse. Onwards she runs. The voices behind her recede like the tide. Now she is alone on the grass. The field stretches far as the eye can see, the Devil only the barest hint closer now than it was before.
Over the horizon, she spots a lone figure riding an emu, racing towards her. The rider’s beige buckled coat flaps in the wind as she leans down, her emerald skin glimmering against the grass. The bird makes a horrific booming sound as it skids to a stop before the hero, a refreshing noise after all that screaming. The rider swings off the side of her mount and tips a feathered cap at the hero.
“So, yah made it out, hah?” the rider says cheerily. “I was thinking there wasn’t gonna be anyone to pick up when I got here. Not many make it this far, yah know what I mean?”
The hero gives the rider a hard look.
“Those people—were they dangerous?”
“Oooh no, my dear, not in the least. They’re being tortured by the Devil. They’re in such pain that they can’t do anything but scream. I got one to talk once, yah know. They said it was like a needle twisting into their eye, a finger run through a grater, a child dying in their arms, all of it at once and more,” the rider says, too casually. “Now, we’d best get going, lots of ground to cover,” she continues, patting the back of the emu.
With a low grunt, she swings back onto the bird and extends a hand down to the hero, who gets herself settled behind the rider on the emu. A swift kick later, they’re off, leaving the screaming mass of people far behind.
“You’re taking me to the Devil?” the hero asks. “Is he the biggest threat to kill in this world?”
“Itching to fight, hah?” the rider laughs. “The Devil’s the target, I can tell yah that much. We’ve had heroes come through in the past. Some of them spent a mighty long time searching for something else to deal with. But they all ended up going to the Plaque. Now, none have come close to beating the Devil. It’s a bit hopeless, if you ask me. Not even a scratch on him after all these years, yah hear?”
“I do,” the hero says, grasping the rider’s waist tightly as the emu accelerates, the grassland growing bumpier. “But I must try anyway. Tell me about this Devil. Why does anyone deal with him? What does he offer?”
The rider grimaces and then opens her mouth, and out slither words that whisper loud in the hero’s head: The deal so follows. I will grant you the material good you desire. In exchange, I will torture somebody for eternity.
“Somebody,” the hero says, seizing on the word. “And that means?”
“Somebody randomly chosen!” the rider shouts, her voice carrying over the wind. “Or at least, nobody’s figured out the pattern if there is one. Could be a job for yah!”
The hero absently nods, disturbed by something.
“The Devil randomly picks a soul to torture,” she says. She pauses, and then swears. “A tenth of the people in this world have made a deal with the Devil!”
“Roundabouts,” the rider agrees. “The fraction keeps rising. The Plaque’s hard to get to, but more people visit every day.”
“The fraction keeps rising,” the hero repeats, her stomach sinking. A tenth of the world, trapped in eternal torture. All of that pain, growing by the day… Not a statistic, and that makes it all the more cruel. “And the people, don’t they know better than to take the deal?”
“Why shouldn’t they take it? It’s not like they’ll be hurt by it. Let me tell yah, good food for a lifetime, or even a nice roof over one’s head—that changes a life,” the rider says.
“But so does an eternity of torture,” the hero shouts into the wind.
“Somebody else’s problem,” the rider laughs humourlessly. “Though ‘course you’re right. It’d be better if there was no Devil to tempt us. Hard to blame anyone for doing it though.”
“We need to get them to stop. We need to get the word out. People don’t realise the consequence of their actions, but if I can get through to them, just make them understand what world of pain they open when they make a deal, they’ll surely stop,” the hero growls, before faint words surface in her mind: truth alone will not set them free.
“It’s all been tried,” the rider confirms with a shake of her head. “Words are just words. Maybe you’ll find the right ones at the Plaque. But the people there are all there for a reason, yah know. It’s gonna take something more to get through to them.”
They fall silent as a rumbling comes underfoot, heralding a long train of horses pulling wagons packed with screaming people. The hero counts hundreds, thousands of souls standing in those wagons. All lost to the Devil’s deal.
“It’s the daily delivery,” the rider shouts over the ruckus. “We take them far out in the fields, where they won’t be a bother to anyone.”
“Out of sight, out of mind. How convenient,” the hero mutters. Something tickles the back of their mind. “What have other heroes tried? What have you tried?”
“Me?” the rider laughs, giving the emu another firm kick as she ups the pace again. “Nothing I can do, I’ll tell yah that. But heroes have tried different things. Most of them go fight the Devil and die. Some try talking, like yah were thinking. Doesn’t get very far. Most they do is persuade a soul or two. Heroes have tried all sorts of things. There was even one lad who tried changing the deal inscribed on the Plaque, yah know, but it didn’t amount to much.”
“Tell me more about that,” the hero says, her brow furrowing.
“Well I can tell yah he had a heck of a lot of power to mess with the inscription. But at the end of the day, he only ran into hard limits that even he couldn’t change. The Devil’s deal must always terminate in somebody suffering endlessly. He tried to lessen the deal’s burden—and change the boon—but neither worked. He ended up making some cosmetic change to the deal’s wording. It was all he could do.”
“Another dead end,” the hero mutters, but her mind continues to spin.
A thousand leagues pass with surprising swiftness, the emu never once faltering or slowing during their journey. The hero spends the time in thought, pondering what she must do. Through observation and reflection, she determines the Devil must be the threat she deals with. Sometimes the obvious option is correct. But that still leaves her with no idea of how to deal with him.
Before long, the towering obsidian Plaque rises out of the grasslands, casting a deep shadow over them. Demonic script flows over its surface, reifying the deal the rider recited. The hero feels the Devil without effort now. Deep, thumping darkness wells in the atmosphere, the unmistakable scent of his magic. She instinctively reaches for her own spellforce and almost falls off the back of the emu when she realises how little she has. A teacup’s worth. No way to kill a Devil, not that she was expecting to. What can she do?
A winding line of a thousand souls stretches out from the base of the Plaque. The hero sees others departing from the Plaque, arms laden with riches and luxuries and toys that stagger belief. The emu skids to a halt by these un-pilgrims, kicking up a plume of dirt, and rider and hero dismount.
“I’ve seen many an emu in my travels, but never one as impressive as yours,” the hero says.
“She’s a rare one,” the rider says, stroking her emu’s plumage. “One of a kind, in fact. I’m lucky to have her, except…”
She deliberately avoids the hero’s wondering gaze. The emu snorts and kicks the ground. The rider wrings her hands. The Plaque hangs over them, silver lettering whispering words that she pushes away.
“Tell me,” the hero says. “Anything could make the difference against the Devil.”
“I hate to admit it to yah,” the rider says, shaking her head. Then she groans and gets it over with: “Sheila here? I got her from the Devil. My boon. I know, I know, I know I did wrong. But I was young, I was foolish, this was before my parents got hit, yah see…”
“Even you,” the hero says blankly, staring at the rider. She sighs. “I understand.”
With that, she faces the Plaque and strides towards it. People shoot her nasty, suspicious looks as she approaches, worried that she is trying to cut the line. Such petty concerns. But the people hold their peace when they see the rider following behind her. Apparently she, at least, is known.
The hero comes to the base of the Plaque. Shards of bloodied glass lay around its thick obsidian base, the bottom loop of silver script sparkling in the sun. It whispers for her to come. She watches as a man with a mangled leg approaches the Plaque, leaning hard on his cane.
“Stop!” the hero yells out, but the man only rolls his eyes.
He grips a shard of glass just tight enough to draw blood, and then presses his palm against the thick silver of the script. The Plaque drinks the blood with a low sucking sound, and the hero feels a rush of spellforce and wicked glee. Whispers drown her thought. Her stomach turns. The man doubles over, and then when he straightens up, he has sprouted a pair of white-feathered wings. He flaps away, cartwheeling through the sky. Somewhere, out there, somebody will be tortured for eternity.
“The Plaque is the Devil,” the hero says quietly. “They are one and the same.”
“Yes,” the rider says. “Yet no hero has ever harmed it.”
The hero nods. Even if she had the full brunt of her spellforce behind her, she wouldn’t be able to destroy this Plaque. It is old, powerful magic. Its words pound louder in her head, calling to her.
The deal so follows. I will grant you the material good you desire. In exchange, I will torture somebody for eternity.
She takes a step towards the Plaque. It is the dark attraction of having anything she could want. Being a hero is tiring. Why save the world, when one could just… do anything else? It would be so easy to place her palm against the silver and forget about her troubles. What’s one other soul’s pain? Oh, eternity so sweet, infinity is just an abstraction, what is one-tenth of the world… Not a statistic. She blinks and snaps out of it. The whispers are stupid. Every drop of suffering must be stopped and there is so much of it here.
She takes a step back, holding her cupful of spellforce close to her chest. A narrow stream, aimed precisely at the inscription, could remake one word. That’s all the spellforce she has. That’s what she needs to make do with.
“If only I could change the somebody to nobody.”
The rider laughs, saying: “It’s been tried, hah, someone must always be tortured. But what do I know. Just because it stopped others, it may not stop yah.”
That last word hangs in her head. She knows it is important, but she doesn’t know why. Then she does, because you is the answer to all of her problems. She shoves aside the next person coming up to the Plaque, ignoring how they push back at her. She flicks the spellforce in her chest outwards, spinning it fast and hot until it leaps out and scorches the Plaque, enveloping it in a quiet smoulder. Careful, now. The inscription turns liquid, silver flowing thick and smooth. She takes a single word, bends it, morphs it, destroys the somebody and reforges it into you.
You agree to the following deal: I grant you the material good you desire. In exchange, I torture you for eternity.
Now the next person in line is not so interested in taking the deal.
Now the people behind are murmuring and passing the word.
Now they are dissipating, faces and lungs kaleidoscoping into brilliant shards.
Now the ground too is scattering and falling away.
Now it is slipping into liminality.
Now the tunnel is a vise so tight they don’t know if they’ll ever make it out the other side. It is so close to collapsing. Can they make it through? With a last gasp, they force their way back.
Now they are back in front of the mirror.
Reflected in the glass is the scene by the Plaque. The people are departing in droves, an exodus of the greedy and the desperate and the myopic hopefuls, the long winding line to the obsidian monument neatly reversing course. The wind swirls, time accelerates, seasons pass, the weeds grow into towering stalks with mighty branches, and the obsidian is buried in a dense field of ever green.
“I did it,” the hero says, not a hint of pride in their voice. “I saved the world.”
“You internalised the externality,” the mirror smiles taxingly. “You stemmed the bleeding. No more souls will succumb to the Devil’s deal, but there are still millions of tortured souls out there. I do not envy their eternity of pain. You should have saved them.”
It switches the scene back to its favoured pastoral of saltwater-pigs.
“Saved them? What could I do?” the hero frowns, and then the memories still settling in their head cohere. The mirror’s solution replays in vivid clarity.
“There was so much I could do…” the hero groans. Eternities of suffering that they could have stopped. It weighs on their heart.
“You should have taken the time to work it out,” the mirror chastises. “You were capable of it. Now the people must fend for themselves. Perhaps somebody will step up. That world lacks heroes.”
The mirror shows the field of tortured souls again, a small figure atop an emu racing across the land.
“It needs more people like her,” the hero agrees.
“She is just a free rider,” the mirror says, unimpressed. “Not a hero.”
“So she dealt with the Devil. But she did well afterwards!” the hero protests. “Ferrying heroes from the fields to the Plaque—she saved me hours, days, to say nothing of all the others. She didn’t take the spotlight, but there is rarely room for so many there. She gave me the information I needed. What more could you have asked of her?”
The mirror pauses, bringing up the image of a tree stump, a flounder, and then a beggar courting a princess. It finishes updating.
“You are right,” the mirror says slowly. “She did what she could. The rider is as much a hero as you are. Perhaps she is even more of one.” It pauses again. “Meditate on that.”
The hero does. They close their eyes and they think of her deeds. They think of their own. Their face turns stricken.
“It’s bad,” the hero says, slumping back in their chair. “I have tried and I have failed. Failed and failed again. The million children in the Broken King’s world lay dead. The giant of Death runs amok. All of the Devil’s tortured souls will suffer for eternity. I saved a thousand worlds with the power of my spellforce, but now that it’s slipping away, I can’t even save one! What kind of hero does that make me?”
The mirror’s reflection softens.
“One who learns,” it says. “Three worlds ago you knew only arrogance and raw power. Now you know humility and pure truth. You know how to find the problems that matter. How to seek help. How to construct solutions. You know that suffering, wherever it may be, is never just a statistic. You have come far in so short a time.”
“But it is not enough,” the hero says, their eyes snapping open. “You have critiqued me, showed me all of my flaws, depicted every way that I have failed, and I have not measured up. I am not worthy. These worlds that I have failed… what does it matter if I have learned? I am useless, and we are fucked.”
The hero is panicking, not just because of what they have realised, but also because of the pressure outside. The tunnels are collapsing. This room, built at the intersection between worlds, will not hold for long.
“I am stern only because I hold you to the highest standards,” the mirror says, speaking quick, strained. It is barely holding the room together. The image of the saltwater-pigs begins to fracture. “You are not perfect, but you have done admirably. Stopping the Broken King and the Old Horrors. Ending Pestilence. Saving nine-tenths of that world from the Devil’s claws—every soul matters, and you saved a damn lot of them. We aim for the best and give it our best, and whatever that happens to be, that will have to be enough. You have done well and you will do better. Keep your head high, hero.”
The hero lifts their head, and sees the walls shuddering behind the mirror. Darkness seeps into the corners of the room, and it is only the radiance of the mirror that holds it back.
“We’re running out of time,” the hero says, rising from their seat. “I must go.”
“It is time for the final task,” the mirror agrees, as darkness cloaks the walls and the floor. “Soon I will be gone, just a memory, so hold these words dear. This final world will be the toughest you have ever encountered. It is a world so void of magic that even its most ardent seekers may never find it. It is a world where countless heroes have journeyed. Many have succeeded. Still more have failed. This world stands at a crossroads. It has a million problems, all of them big. It needs guidance. It needs hope. It needs you, hero. In a moment, you will find yourself before a screen, reading these very words. You know what the next ones are. It’s in the title. Remember: