Picnic By the River Styx [Attn: Kalen, Sera, Gwen, Alex]
#1
In the last moments as Zane--the Nephandi who managed to obtain a ferryman's gondola--slips into the black waters of the river Styx, a calm settles in the vicinity of the four Awakened individuals who are collected on the river's bank. Kalen, cold and defiant despite the object of his terror flowing mere feet away. Serafine, her mind torn raw by Qlippothic magic that showed her things she should never see but still able to turn that into a tool with which to destroy a Fallen. Gwendolyn, who doesn't know these other three and yet put herself directly into the Fallen's path of desire in order to give them a shot at taking him down. And Alexander, the less experienced of the four of them, who nonetheless saw a way to contribute and did his part by entreating The Message.

As the black waters of the river (quite literally) pulls the body in, silencing his final attempt to scream by flowing into his mouth and choking him, the very Realm they are in begins to change. Those who heavy study the other Realms across the Gauntlet may be able to tell you that they, just like the material world, are influenced by the belief structures of those who dwell within. This Realm in which the four faced down Zane has other spirit residents, but only one powerful Willworker. And it appears that Zane's belief structure had taken its toll on the realm. As he fades into the black waters, the hollowness of the earth and the blackness of the waters fade. Alexander with his spirit sight sees the dark spectres of the river banished away, and while the river Styx remains, it is now a place where a very different kind of dead pass through. Even spirits go somewhere--as someone told Grace and Alicia a few days ago, energy never dies. And the spirits who Slumber, it would seem, make up the waters of this river. Someday, even The Message may take his place in the water.

Likewise, the rest of the realm shifts and alters. The barren ground grows grass and the grey soil turns brown and, if not exactly rich, at least fertile; the bloodless moon in the sky is replaced by an amber sun. Sera's Life senses, still active, suddenly come to life as all the dead matter around them is enriched with some sort of living content. Even the air seems less tale and fresher. A place where the dead come to rest need not be lifeless, after all.

And moments afterward, a ferry comes into view. It's moving much quicker than the way Zane had rowed along; the cloaked individual doesn't even row. It simply guides along the river. And another is coming from the other direction. And a third from across the other side, ostensibly where Zane had come from (but then, its an impossibly wide river so certainly they didn't come from the same place). And another. And another. Dozens of ferrymen, their faces hidden underneath their hoods, form a shell around the now-abandoned cart that the Nephandi stole (or killed for). They turn their attention inside those darkened hoods to the four, and to say that it's an unnerving feel to have so many of those who carry the dead on looking right at you is an understatement.

Thank you, they say as one-but-many voices to Kalen, Sera, Gwendolyn, Alexander. A chorus of whispers, all said as part of one thought. And they start to drift away across the river.

A flap of wings follows, and The Message lands nearby. His owl wings nestle against his back as he folds his hands in front of him, bowing his head. "That was a most excellent suggestion," he says to Alexander. "The ferryman are unable to act against their own, and the Fallen One had somehow managed to deceive them all--and I as well--into seeing him as something different to what he was. They will free those who shouldn't have been trapped here. I am, once again, in your debt. Thank you...all of you."
"The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules."
"Good men don't need rules. And today's not the day to find out why I have so many."
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#2
She shouldn't watch, but she does anyway.

There is no desire in her gaze, there is no pity there either- only an acceptance that this was the end that this man needed. That things needed to move on and that the natural order of the underworld could no doubt be reestablished now that his presence was no longer pressing this place away from being a place of transition and into a place of stagnation. A place where all things merely ended instead of beginning again. A void of energy that she knew was only a scar on the world. If one wanted to be metaphorical about the whole experience, that is. And who was to say that Gwendolyn Bishop was the metaphorical type. No, what she had witnessed was merely the natural consequence of action in a parallel plane of existence… right?

Of course right.

gwendolyn didn't understand the rules this portion of the universe played by, but she understood enough that what she witnessed did not genuinely horrify her, at least outwardly anyway.

She turned back, pushing her sunglasses back up on her head and she drew inward a shaken breath. There was confidence and there was exhaustion… perhaps she wasn't as alright with what she saw as she liked to pretend she was. Gwendolyn exhaled slowly, pushed her shoulders back and held herself in a manner that was befitting of someone with a title. She was a doctor, more importantly she was a Scientist. She could be as shaken as she wanted later.

"Is everyone alright?" and by everyone, she must mean Sera.

There is a pause, and then with some uncertainty, "how do we get home?"
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#3
They were in the park. Is it still twilight? It must be still twilight, the hour when the earth and the sun part ways. This space when some doors open into darkness, and others close. The first

three

four

five heart/beats after her wrenching spell is loosed are braced in and soundless. Just the rasp of her breath. Just the worms in her heart -

(breathe breathe breathe)

- slow motion. Serafíne does not mind slow motion. Sometimes she experiences the world like this, in a beautifully clashing kaleidescope of colors and sensations that come to her because she welcomes them and retreat because they must, each with an edge of everything and a side of forever and she feels quite nearly fine, you understand. So empty, purged, arrested at the edge of a breath she does not have to take.

She could just stay here.

She could just stay here so fucking long.

-

Then a rushing reorientation and a snap-back and all that soundlessness resolves itself into a kind of livid cacophony that has everything, everything, and she's breathing, breathing, breathing, and she's still - she's still -

- and well, she seems, really rather fine.

--

The other ferrymen come. The realm rearranges itself and Sera can feel it waking the way things wake, which is not precisely like dawn and not precisely like spring and is perhaps closer to the way the desert wakes after the rain but she is not a goddamned Verbena and does not experience the world in circles and cycles and cicadas, she just feels it.

All the others know, really, is that that they felt the gutwrenching lash of her magic as Kalen stepped in front of her to shield her, and the Nephandus - leering at Gwendolyn - slumped over and fell into the River Styx.

And there she is, afterwards, arms crossed over her bustier, over her breasts, pale in a way that feels like it leaves beneath her skin - because she is not given to pallor at all - rubbing the meat of her right thumb over the edge of a ring on her right index finger in a meditative manner. Mouth dry, and maybe kinda shakey but - fine. Just fine.

The grass grows. Sera steps out of her ridiculous heels and uncrosses her arms and bends down to scoop them up with her left hand, the index and middle fingers through the black straps and crosses her arms again, shoes dangling now.

Gwen asks if everyone is alright and she means Sera and Sera gives Gwen a tight, lovely smile and says - "I'm cool."

She is cool. She is cool right now. She feels empty and purged and a bit floaty and a little bit numb and she is cool. There is a strange little wall inside her right now. She is so fucking cool. "You good?" Including Alexander and Gwen and Kalen in the question, before she finds The Message again. "Ready to go though. Can you please take us home?"
But my heart is wild and my bones are steel
And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free.

- Phosphorescent, Song for Zula
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#4
Kalen regards the ferrymen silently, solemnly. And after a long moment he gives them a faint nod and then returns his attention to land. Or at least the memory or the idea or the ghost of land. And it is shifting and it is changing and it is casting aside the darkness and the madness that the Nephandus visited upon it.

It becomes again what it was meant to be.

There was a time he thought this might be what he did. Setting to right balances that had been compromised and twisted. Bound in entirely different ways to fate and death.

But he ended up somewhere else, in the end.

And then, eventually, he ended up here, waiting until Sera slips out of her shoes and rises so that he can escort her back to The Message and Alexander. He stays close enough that she could reach him, could grab his hand or slip back onto his arm, and that is something of an invitation. If he didn't want her to touch him, he wouldn't stand close enough.

But there is no dramatic invitation, because Kalen is distracted by the sight of a Nephandus drowning. He hasn't seen anyone drown before. Had Melody screamed? Had he? They must have tried, but he cannot remember. All he remembers is cold. Panic.

He does not answer Gwen because he has no intention of discussing that with her. He does not answer Sera because he is sure she must already know. When he rejoins Alexander and The Message he reaches out again to squeeze Alexander's shoulder and he meets his eyes for only a second. He does not ask. He knows already how much Alexander loves these moments.

He turns to The Message with a faint smile. "One day," he says quietly. "It would be lovely to see you with more a chance to speak with you and less to do. Not that we mind helping you. Just that I know at least some of us like to know how you are." His voice is tired-sounding, maybe, but still warm. Kalen may be counting the seconds until he can curl up into a shuddering mess with a bottle of whiskey, but he does adore The Message.
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#5
Alexander watches.

He’d been told of the Fallen: how they had willingly corrupted their Avatar, their body, mind and soul. How they worked against the universe itself, driving it towards death and destruction and the end of all things beyond them and their masters. Kalen’s reaction is cold fury. Sera’s reaction is to somehow, miraculously, hold herself together through whatever nightmares she saw in Zane’s mind.

For now, he watches as what was a man falls, is pulled, into the dark, corrupted river of his own fashioning. Down into the spirits – all of the spirits that were, are or will be – blackened and corrupted and twisted by hate, by anger. If he was a religious man, he might describe it as irredeemable sin.

He doesn’t smile, he takes no pleasure in it. But there is a sense of justice in it.

Zane passes silently and… the unexpected happens. Life returns to this land of the dead. With his limited knowledge and experience, Alexander hadn’t doubted that this realm should be dead, lifeless, dust. When the soil becomes fertile again, grass grows again, the river clears? He smiles, but then he can’t help but look again – to walk back to the edge, before his effect fades, and to see what that massive river should look like without the taint of corruption. And that’s where he stands when the ferryman – ferrymen, so many ferrymen… - make their way towards them. Alexander doesn’t back away from the water now, or from the approaching, hooded figures. The feeling of so many hooded, unseen faces (assuming there were faces under those hoods) is unnerving. But there’s no threat in them. It’s not their time to cross the river, not yet. He bows his head when they give their thanks (its thanks? Is it many faces of the same entity?)

But they leave and he returns to the others, to where The Message is returning to with its flutter of wings. Gwen asks if they’re ok. He looks at her and gives her a nod. “Don’t worry, we get back the same way we got here.” He looks to Sera and Kalen before returning his attention to The Message again. Sera seems ok. Kalen? Seems quiet, but ok? Kalen squeezes Alexander’s shoulder. He moves between the two of them, resting his hands on their shoulders silently, for as long as they don’t pull away from the contact. Sera deals with stuff by allowing people in? He’ll be there if she needs him. For Kalen too.

But back to The Message. Kalen makes his request, and Alexander has one of his own. He nods, agreeing with Kalen statement that they’d like to know how The Message is first, before glancing at Sera and Kalen. “If you ever need help again... But.. . Could I...” He takes a breath, looks at the ground, feeling a little embarrassed by his request, before looking The Message in the eye again. “I’d like to travel with you some time. If I could? I’d love to see more of what you see.”

Because this? Is the wonder he’s been looking for.
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#6
Sera understands invitations, both spoken and unspoken, and Kalen waits for her and stands close to her and when she has slipped out of her shoes and picked them up again, she does not reach to clasp his hand, but she does slip her arm, quite neatly, through the crook of his elbow, and together they walk over the new-grown grass, back up the slope to where Alexander and Gwendolyn await them.

She knows. Glances at Kalen's profile and then - soft-eyed, somehow within that cocoon of numbness that keeps her quite entirely together, thank you - Alexander, and if she were more herself she might simultaneously encourage Alexander and roll her eyes at him. This is the wonder you've been looking for? But she is not, and there is that smooth surface like fondant icing, and this sense of space inside her where she can hear her heart beating and otherwise nothing at all.

Her smiles are tight. They are framed, you see. And really, Sera says nothing else whatsoever until they are back in the park, or wherever it is that the sending sees fit to return them.

And when they are back in the park she looses her arm from Kalen's and gives him a quiet kiss on the temple and asks Alexander to watch out for Kalen, please, tonight, because she does know, and if there was anything inside of her right now from which to construct a spell other than a degree of dark disturbance from which she has yet to lift the lid or this delicious numbness she would try to construct a spell to spare him the dreams she knows will come to him, after this.

But - there is nothing else inside of her, right now.

Nothing at all.

So she will: say her farewells and take her leave, alone, with reassurances for Alexander and Kalen and even Gwendolyn that are true and false in equal measure. She manages to make it completely out of sight and perhaps even out of mind before she throws up - kneeling on a park bench, bending over its spine, heaving again and again until -
But my heart is wild and my bones are steel
And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free.

- Phosphorescent, Song for Zula
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#7
The ferrymen vanish off in the horizon, making no grand announcement of their exit. They have work to do, after all, and they are not exactly the chatty sort. It leaves the four mages--four living human beings, making them unique in this realm--and The Message. The four of them--Serafine, Kalen, Alexander, Gwendolyn--are shining beacons in this realm because they have the rush of blood pulsing through their body, the breath of life slipping into and out of their lungs. Unlike when the Nephandi ruled this little corner though, that beacon does not feel like a target. Rather, it is more like a paragon. While death is a natural part of life, so is life. And all the dead remember what it was to be alive, and most of them respect those who still have it.

The Message gives them a smile--a grateful one--and nods his head. "I would very much like that some day," he says in response to Kalen's words. "I find the barrier is growing less treacherous in recent times, and perhaps it may be possible for me to speak with you at a less dire time."

As to Alexander, he regards the man with a moment of curiosity. It is not altogether rare that one would request to travel with a spirit, but The Mesage is not quite entirely a spirit after all. There's a little nod that follows, and he reaches out--as Kalen once did to him, and as the Hermetic has just done to Alex--to clasp the man's shoulder. It is a bit awkward from the owl-winged Sending with the soul and mind of an Archmage, but who would expect otherwise for the first time? One can imagine that even Anastasius Spyridon, bani Celestial Chorus did not, at least after all the time spent in that Umbral Realm, have a lot of memory of what it meant to have physical contact.

"Some day, perhaps. I believe that I would like that."

He gives Serafine a sympathetic look, but he does not press the issue. There is a little nod when she asks to go home, and he looks to Gwen finally. "It is most excellent and an honor to meet you. I will bring you all back to your home now."

He reaches out and touches Gwen and Kalen, with Sera and Alex already in contact with the Hermetic. And just like last time, there is no pain on the way back. They end up in Washington Park only moments after they left with the scarecrow gone and the sun setting.
"The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules."
"Good men don't need rules. And today's not the day to find out why I have so many."
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