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After the End

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In the beginning there was ash and flood to the south, and darkness and ice to the north, and a void in between. From this void came the gods and goddesses, and from them came the Earth and its vegetation, as well as all known creatures, including humans. This came about because the Twins, Kara and Kal-El, the First of the gods, formed the sun and placed it in the sky so that it might melt the ice. The sun dried up some of the flood, and from it rose mountains and canyons, and from the wet ash grew grass, wheat, corn, and trees. And then Diana, also among the First, dipped her hand into stardust and formed the moon, which she hung in the night sky to balance the sun. Diana thus gave Earth tides so that humans may travel the oceans, and a light at night to guide them.

The Firsts breathed life into the earth, and so they were considered the most prominent and powerful by many nations. They had the grandest temples, the highest number of cultists, and were of greater influence to politicians in the governments. Taln’s home were the Midlands, a conglomeration of rural towns and nomadic tribes, but she remembers visiting the sprawling cities of the East with her father before the Invaders came and destroyed them. During those few visits in her youth she remembers seeing throngs of people crowding the temples of the Twins and Diana, loaded with platters of food and glittering jewelry and small heaps of gold and silver.

As a Midlander, Taln grew up worshipping the Lovers. The Lovers were Arrow, the hunter, and also the god of hearth and home. And Thunder, the bringer of storms and rain, and the god of the harvest. That they were Lovers was a notion more accepted in the Midlands than in the Eastern or Western cities. Often times the Lovers were invoked at Midlander marriage ceremonies rather than the goddess of love, because the tales of profound passion and devotion between the two gods were so cherished by the people.

These past several years since her conscription, however, Taln had become more accustomed to worshipping Kendra the Hawk, the goddess of war. She, like other soldiers, kept a candle and an icon of the hawk goddess in her quarters, beside her bed, to which she might offer a broken blade won from her enemy, or small pieces of jewelry or, more often, pretty but worthless gems she found or bought in her travels. If they were out in the open, Taln sometimes burned whatever small sticks of incense she managed to find and hang on to while she prayed to the goddess for swiftness in battle and the ability to protect her brothers and sisters in arms.

Taln didn’t offer the goddess wines or other alcoholic drinks, though. None of the warriors did. It was a too precious a luxury and was piss-poor homebrewed swill besides. Best not to offer to a goddess, lest they invoke her disfavor.

But the problem was that the gods and goddesses weren’t around to invoke either their wrath or their blessings. They weren’t around to listen to the prayers of the soldiers, the pleas of their worshippers, the cries of the families torn asunder and burned down by the Invaders. They burned the incense and sang the songs and gave them offerings and built their temples higher and higher, but the gods had walked away from this world, and were in a place where they could not hear and could not see.

They had to be. Because there had to be gods. Without them, what did the humans have? Especially against the Invaders? And if there were gods, then something must be keeping them from answering prayers. Because why have gods if they were full of apathy and cruelty? If they took joy in watching their creation suffer?

The gods were silent, and the Invaders were winning.

And that’s why when Taln’s troops swept through the Midland forests of her childhood, where they took rest and cover before their hard march West and then North through the Plains and toward the Northern Killingfields, Taln deserted. Not because she was afraid, though she was. Not because she was angry and miserable, though she was those things, too. But because the time had come to find help against the Invaders or die trying.

She was the closest she’s been in years to her homeland and to the homeland of the Lovers. Unlike the other gods, who had not been seen in generations, there were people in her village who had witnessed the Lovers in the very recent past. Well. Taln’s grandfather had seen the one of them. Once. When he had been young. And probably drunk on the wine he had stolen and smuggled out in the woods to consume with the other village boys.

But it wasn’t just her grandfather. There had been sightings by others in her village, and in the surrounding tribes, of both Arrow and Thunder. In all of her travels to fight against the Invaders, Taln had never heard of sightings of other gods with such frequency and consistency. So there had to be something there.

There had to be. The faith of her grandfather, of her mother and father, had to mean something.

At sunset, when she’s a day’s journey away from her troop, she passes through her old village. It was abandoned seven years ago when her people fled West, and burned out by the Invaders soon after. The husk of the homes and temples she grew up with haunt the night like vague, eldritch monsters, but she’s not afraid. This is her home, though it be made up of ash and ghosts now, and she is not afraid of home.

It is another story when she enters the forest a few miles south of her village. As soon as the trees creep up tall and peerless over her, blotting out the moon and the stars with their whispering canopies, a childish fear crawls up her spine, raises the hair on her skin, and otherworldly dread pools coldly in the pit of her stomach. She pauses, reaching up to clasp at the pendant hidden beneath her shirts. She starts when she hears thunder, but the canopy is so thick she cannot see the sky or an oncoming storm.

She takes a fortifying breath and draws her weapon as she plunges forward, but keeps it respectfully pointed downward, even when every muscle in her strains to have it at the ready. This is the domain of Arrow, the god of the hunt and the god of shadows, of patience and skill. She has a feeling that if she presents herself as a threat, the night around her will regard her as one.

Gradually, Taln becomes aware that she’s being hunted. She feels eyes on her, hundreds upon hundreds of eyes in the dark peering out, watching and weighing her when she herself can only see by a small radius of the wan light from her lantern. More than once she sees the shape of a predator pace beside her. Sometimes it’s a hulking mass, like a bear or something else far more ancient and grotesque. Sometimes it’s a small, slinking thing of sinew and wily movements. Each time she turns her head to look, the shape is gone. She becomes absolutely certain that if her eyes do land on the creature or creatures stalking her, if she sees the truth of them, then they will consume her or far, far worse.

Taln keeps her eyes forward, clenches her teeth as the chorus of footsteps grow louder and closer, and she prays.

She reaches her destination, a cluster of ruins, when it is dark and late beyond all reason. Taln has stayed awake through the night before, she’s trekked with her troop to and from battlefields in the darkest of nights when one sound could reveal them to the Invaders and spell certain death. And even then she has not experienced a night quite as endless, quite as eerie and alive, as this one.

At least the canopy of the forest in much thinner over the ruins. Sickly pale moonlight ekes through the leaves and branches, casting chilling shadows on the old ruins. The city is ancient and what isn’t worn down smooth and shapeless by the elements is mostly buried beneath the earth. Taln explored it often with some other girls and boys from the village, mostly to run away from their schooling or other obligations. It wasn’t clear how big it was, but it was a city, once, though one not made entirely out of stone and wood, but crude shapes of rusted metals. Taln ducks into one such structure now, a low-hanging skeleton of metal beams. The forest was slowly working on burying even this evidence of the city that was, its vines and roots creeping around and through the structure.

Here is where Taln’s grandfather had been when he spotted the two gods. Here is where Taln opens her packs and by the poor light of the moon and her lantern builds a fire and then an altar. For Arrow she lays out bread and thyme, pieces of weapons she’s retrieved from the Invaders, and the wine she’d stolen from the last city her troop passed through.

For Thunder, she puts out apples and honey, lavender and sandalwood. She doesn’t have fruit juice or fresh fruit, but she unwraps sweet cakes with fruit baked into them. Then she skins and dresses her kills from earlier--two rabbits--and roasts them over her fire. She doesn’t have all the seasonings and vegetables she remembers her mother using, but she found a lot of them, and she prepares the best and most succulent meal she knows how to prepare. As she turns it over the fire, the smoke curls into the night and surrounds her like incense.

And she prays.

She wakes suddenly. She keeps her eyes closed and her breathing regulated while she tries to place the sounds that woke her up. A breath, a low hum, a shift of someone on the grass near her. Chewing. Taln sits up with a startled gasp, hand reaching for her weapons and brandishing them at the intruder with a snarl on her lips.

But there’s no Invader there to kill her, nor is there a rogue bandit there to rob her. Instead, there’s a boy, eating the rabbits meant for her gods. As she takes in his abrupt and strange presence in her campsite she realizes that he’s actually a man, clean-shaven with pale skin and youthful freckles dotting his nose and cheeks. He’s dressed in the clean, colorful clothes of a villager.

And he’s already eaten one of Taln’s roasted rabbits and is beginning to pick at the second.

“Hey,” she says, scowling, jabbing her knife at him for emphasis. “You can’t eat that.”

The young man raises his eyebrows, but otherwise doesn’t stop eating. He licks his fingers. The sweet cakes with the fruit baked in it are gone, just a smattering of crumbs left behind. The weapons she’d laid out are all still there, but have clearly been picked up and tampered with. Some of the wine has been sampled, but most of it is still in the bottle.

“But it’s good,” he says, his tone reasonable. He pinches at the tender meat, presses it between his lips, and licks his fingers again. “Bit cold, though. Man, I miss microwaves.”

“Microwaves?” Taln repeats despite herself, testing the word.

“Yeah, it’s a box that heats food--well,” he says, taking a small sip of the wine and grimacing, “technically, it channels heat energy directly toward the food molecules. Super handy, got me through college because I can’t cook worth a--hey, do you have any fruit juice, maybe?”

Taln blinks, dumbfounded. “Who are you? Where did you come from?”

The young man shrugs, waving a hand around vaguely. “I’m from here.”

“From the village?” She asks, squinting against the light of her campfire. It’s burning strong, and it’s still dark outside. She must not have been asleep for too long. “I don’t… recall you. And it’s been abandoned for years.”

The young man’s face falls. “Oh no,” he says, sort of quietly like he’s talking to himself. “Have we lost time again?” He then tilts his head to the side, as if listening, and a wide smile spreads across his sombered expression. “Oliver,” he says, turning slightly away from the firelight.

The man wasn’t there, and then he was. It was as if he stepped out of shadow without even moving, like the night itself formed him in the space between two moments. This man was older, more rugged than the bright-faced youth, with the beginnings of a beard, and a deep-set scowl half-shrouded by a green hood. He wears dark hunting gear, mostly green, and as he steps closer to the firelight he pulls down his hood to reveal close-shorn hair and a handsome face.

In fact, both of them were beautiful. Their very presence seemed to sing with such a breathtaking, otherworldly allure that Taln could hardly breathe.

“Do you remember microwaves?” The young man asks the new arrival--Oliver, who dips his head and smiles softly, privately. It’s with this movement that Taln finally sees the quiver of arrows on the man’s back and the bow--more beautiful and sleeker than any she’s seen man make--in his left hand.

“No, Barry,” he rumbles gently, and a bit sadly.

The answering smile the young man--Barry--gives is patient and also tinged with a little bit of dejection. “I’ll tell you about them, later.”

“You left our hunt,” Oliver accuses, a bit petulantly.

“I always outrun you anyway.”

“Not always,” Oliver says. “I should have known you’d leave me for food one day. Did you spare me anything?”

“There were sweet cakes,” Barry confesses. “I ate them all, though. I wish there were more.”

“Sorry,” Oliver says, lightly, with the tone of someone making a joke. “I never did learn that refilling charm.”

Barry tilts his head, questioning, and Oliver’s soft, fond smile dies. “You don’t remember Harry Potter stories?” Oliver asks and Barry shakes his head. Oliver dips down, places a gentle kiss on Barry’s upturned forehead. “I’ll re-tell them to you again.”

Taln doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but she can’t look away from the bow in Oliver’s hand. “Arrow,” she whispers. And then her eyes stray to the young man who looks at her with delight. “Are you… Thunder?”

“I suppose,” Thunder says. “That’s as good a name as any.”

“Is there another one?”

“I was called Flash, once,” he says a touch wistfully before running a hand through his hair. The gesture is so jarringly human that Taln almost second guesses her conclusions. “I forget about it sometimes, because no one calls me that any more. Thunder has a nice sound to it, though.”

Arrow huffs a put-upon breath through his nose as he squats near Thunder. Thunder offers him a piece of the rabbit, feeds him right there, easily and unthinkingly, stretching his long, pale neck to place a kiss to the corner of Arrow’s mouth. Arrow smiles and mirrors the gesture before reaching across Thunder and grasping at the wine bottle. He takes a tentative sip before standing again, taking the bottle with him. “Not too bad.”

Thunder--Barry, what an odd and unassuming name, Taln hadn’t thought that the gods might have more than one name--makes a face that is more a childish pout than godlike dignity. “It’s not fruit juice.”

Arrow reaches down a hand. Like the gloves Taln wears, they are fingerless, and Arrow--Oliver--twines his fingers among the wild locks. Barry hums and presses subtly into the touch. “I will get you some,” Oliver says and Barry grins.

“We should probably see what our friend wants of us first.” And then, as one, they look at Taln. She’s commanded troops, fought down the Invaders, faced down her generals for more rations and rest for those under her command. But here, now, her tongue ties in on itself and she is suddenly aware of the filth on her clothes and skin, the way she smells, how stupid and small she must look with her tiny sacrifice and her enormous plea.

“I…” she stutters stupidly, licking her chapped lips. “My name is Taln. I grew up in the village near here.”

Barry flips one of the daggers between his long, pale fingers. She hadn’t even seen him pick it up. Oliver doesn’t move, doesn’t even seem to blink as he waits on her. But she doesn’t even know what to say.

“I--the village has been burned down.” She blinks, confused by how stricken Barry seems to become at this news. Surely he had known? “It burned down years ago by the Invaders.”

“The Invaders?” Oliver repeats, his low voice reminding Taln of the quiet grumble of a mountain lion.

“Yes. We--we don’t know much about them. They came from the sky--we thought they were gods at first but if they are then they are not our gods.” She watches the two share a knowing, grim look. Had they fought the Invaders before? “They rained down fire on us--bright beams of light that ruptured the earth and destroyed whole towns and cities. Their weapons… I’ve never seen anything like it. We’ve been trying to replicate them but it’s hard work and our resources are dwindling.”

She averts her eyes, her fingers slipping into the folds of her tunic and latching around her pendant. “And it’s not just our resources. We’re disappearing. Everyone. All the tribes and nations from the North and the South and the East and the West banded together, have fought bravely against the Invaders for years now. But we…”

She clutches the pendant until it the metal bites into her skin. And even then she doesn’t let go.

“I don’t think we’re going to win,” she finishes. “We keep losing our warriors, our cities and strongholds keep falling… there’s no end to their numbers and their weapons. But there’s an end to us.”

There’s a whisper of wind and she gasps when Barry is suddenly sitting right before her. She knows he’d been sitting on the other side of the small campfire just a moment ago. She’d been staring right at him. He hadn’t even seemed to move.

He reaches out for her hand. Taln blinks at him before revealing her pendant, her most treasured possession. It was nothing, really. Cheap metal shaped into a ten-point star, the symbol of Giyana’s people, the Star Nation from the West. Still, Taln only shows it to Barry, but she doesn't let go of it. Not even for a god.

Barry doesn’t try to take it, just runs his fingers along the points. This close, his scent is vibrant, like the smell of the earth after rain. He emanates heat like her campfire. She feels it through his clothes and hers, even though he’s not touching her.

“You remind me of someone," he hums, thoughtful. "A flower I knew once, long ago." He looks down again to her star pendant. "This is important to you. You lost someone.”

“Giyana. She--we met when the Midland armies merged with the Western ones. She was--is…” Taln trails off, because how can she even begin to describe Giyana, beautiful and calculated and strong? How can Taln talk about her everything, now that she was gone? “I lost her in the last battle. I looked for days and days--for her, for a b-body.” The firelight turns Barry’s eyes liquid and sympathetic. Human. “The Invaders sometimes take prisoners. One of their strongholds is to the north, where they sometimes hold their prisoners of war. We’re marching there now to support the armies up there but…”

“You want to look for her,” Oliver says, still staring at them, unmoving.

Taln grips the pendant and tucks it back behind her shirts. “I want this to end.” She moves abruptly to stand and isn’t as surprised this time when she feels a wisp of wind and Barry is on his feet, standing next to Oliver. She’s never seen a creature move as fast as him. It was almost as if he moved faster than light itself.

“The Invaders are like gods with their power and their weapons. But where are our gods? Gone. Asleep. Deaf to our prayers. Blind to our suffering. I deserted my brothers and sisters to come here, to ask--to tell you that we need your help. We need you to listen to us. This is your world, too!”

For one terrible moment, time seems to freeze as Taln realizes she just dressed down two gods. The very ones for which she’d risked so much in hopes of asking for their help.

“I’m sorry,” Barry says, and Taln blinks because she did not expect an apology. She didn’t even want one. She just wanted them to do something. Anything. However, Barry looks genuinely sorry and the vulnerable look stays her tongue. “I--we didn’t. Time works differently for us, now. We--we lose it, sometimes. Some of us are gone. At least… from this plain.”

“What does that mean?” She asks, bewildered.

“It means,” Oliver says, stepping up and wrapping an arm around Barry’s waist. “That we’ll help you. All of us will.”

“All of us?” Taln repeats, numbly. “Do you mean… the other gods?”

Oliver makes a face, she thinks it’s a reaction to the word “gods”, but she doesn’t know why.

“All that I can find,” Barry says firmly. “Some of us have drifted pretty far. Oliver and I were starting to as well.” He turns his head, pained, and she realizes he’s looking toward the ghost of her village, miles away.

“Really?” Taln asks. “I thought… I thought I’d have to bargain. Well, I didn’t think this would work,” she says, honestly. “And then I thought I’d never get you to help, much less any of the other gods. And it’s just like that?”

“Well,” Oliver says measuredly. “Finding one of us might have been the hardest part. But it’s as you said. This is our world. Our home. Even if we don’t recognize it sometimes.” He turns to Barry. “I’ll go with Taln, get a feel for the Invaders and our allies.”

Barry nods. “I’ll go find the others and bring them to you. I think I know where Kara is. I know where Hal is for sure, and he’ll know where Kendra and some of the others are.”

Oliver reaches up, framing Barry’s face with his roughened hands, bringing him in for a kiss. It’s intimate and familiar, and Taln immediately feels even more like an outsider, a voyeur, but she can’t bring herself to look away. As soon as their lips meet the night around them seems to brighten. She realizes that it’s finally dawn.

She presses a hand against Giyana’s pendant, hanging heavy beneath her shirt, and she yearns for her smile, for her touch. For the first time in weeks, Taln dares to hope.

The two gods separate, or try to. Barry dips his head in again, like he can’t quite bring himself to stop chasing after Oliver’s lips.

“You won’t be reckless?” Oliver asks.

Barry’s smile is wry. “I’m just tracking down some old friends of ours. You’re the one facing down the Invaders.”

“You’ll find some way to get in trouble.”

“I hope so,” Barry laughs. And kisses Oliver again, quick and happy. “You’ll be here when I get back, right? You promised me stories about Harry Potter.”

Oliver nods. “We have to finish our hunt.”

Barry turns to face Taln once more, who swallows a cry of surprise when lightning sparks over his skin. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t even seem to notice. The lightning picks up intensity, and she thinks she hears it sizzle and crackle. Oliver also seems unmoved by it. In fact, some of the lightning whips towards him, dances around him and about his shoulders as if in joyous greeting.

“You said this was the end, Taln,” Oliver says, and something in his voice resonates deeper. She thinks she hears it not with her ears but with her very bones. “But it’s not. Because we’ve seen the end. We were there.” He nods to the bare metal structure around them.

“This is after the end,” Barry says with lightning in his eyes. “A new beginning. We’ll make sure of it.”

And then the lightning arcs behind him like unfurling wings and Barry is gone, thunder crashing in his wake.