With Gray’s first step out of Higglemas' office, a timer has begun. They have six months, six months until the single biggest day of their lives, the day that will change the fate of Nua forever. Six months until the day that will define their world, send it reeling down in a spiral of evil, or secure it as a beacon of light for the rest of their universe. Somewhere, somehow, they will have to prove to the world that Last Hope will stand for them, will fight the demons and win. They have six months, and that has to be enough.
It will be enough, and as Fitzroy stands shaking behind the big oak desk, he tries and fails to rid himself of all negative thoughts. Six months is so long, too long to comprehend at this point, all he can do is the next right thing. Right now, his next move is transforming the dog, saving a brother, reuniting old companions.
Right now, the vial is the most important thing in the world. It is the only thing he can let himself think about, as he hands it carefully to Higglemas, he pushes the stray worries from his mind. Six months is a long time, right? He steadies his breath and watches the potion transform Hieronymus.
It’s bittersweet. When Fitzroy sees the brothers have their first embrace in fifty years, he’s stunned by the finality of it all. This had been their entire quest. This was the goal of their mission. People died, Fitzroy was cursed, branded, they all gained scars, not to mention that the centaurs changed their entire livelihood for this moment. So much suffering and pain had gone into creating the warmth between the brothers now, the younger holding the older’s heavy form as the purest expression of love. What was the point? All that they had accomplished this far, was it worth it?
They did this much damage in under a week, how much will happen over the coming months?
It struck them all, the tension of the room, the knowledge that what they had done did not exist in a vacuum, they would have to pay for their actions, and the bill was going to be settled soon. Firbolg’s shoulders sink a little, his body clenched, already preparing for war. Argo leans against the desk, slumping down to sit on the floor. He holds his head in his hands, heels of his palms pushed into his eyes, and mouth open in a kind of sighing scream. The world is pressurized now, they all feel the weight.
That night was awful, the school was colder than it ever had been, and Fitzroy swore he could hear the stone walls creeping in closer to surround him. The air hung wet and heavy over his bed, and the school felt less like home, more like a battleground. He sleeps deeply, though, eventually, they all do. Their tired bodies need sleep more than repentance, more than answers, more than an apology. The frigid darkness casts them into healing slumber, one last act of mercy before the raging sun makes them soldiers again.
Maybe, looking back, if they could relive that night, they would have stayed awake, would have roused themselves to finally talk to each other, to be together, to express the affection they held so close to their chests. Maybe Argo could have led them in a fierce shanty, laughing and singing in the face of death. Maybe Argo would have pulled Fitzroy into a long embrace, kissing him slowly and deeply. Maybe they could have explored his new body together, the two of them in bliss, alone, unaware of the time passing or the moonlight overhead. Maybe they could have made the night theirs, touching, grabbing, kissing in between long stretches of conversation. Maybe this night didn’t have to be the worst, and they didn’t have to be alone.
Maybe they should have partied, taken Festo’s advice and lived like they were dying. But in this moment, they don’t realize that they are dying. They have six months, a long time, long enough, at least, to take that first night to sleep.
They awake to the worst day of their lives. Every one of those first few days are the worst. Telling everyone the true story, calling a solemn assembly of the weary students to expose them to their new headmaster, showing the tired, wrinkled face of a broken man, and begging the young pupils to leave for their own sakes. The entire world was shaken, for everyone, and they all had to confront their scarred planet. No one had the knowledge they needed, no one knew all the answers, the facts are not facts, and the history they had been taught was wrong. The school has to close, or at least to change drastically, and they will have to figure it out together, everybody is on a level playing field, that is to say, without a plan of attack.
The Thundermen are at the front lines, obviously, and they spend their days comforting their peers in the infirmary, packing up classrooms and dorms, and running tea and coffee to the exhausted faculty. Everything has an unspoken weight now, everything is important, and they work hard to earn the right to breathe as the fear of the future stifles each and every movement. The firbolg’s steps are smaller, more careful. Argo’s hair is tied back simply, not bubbling out over his shoulders as it would normally. Fitzroy has taken to dressing for comfort, and forgoes his cloaks and jewelry. When in the presence of the damned, nothing really feels necessary, nothing feels good or right or joyous or anything but daunting. Rainier is the one who makes sure they eat, sending squirrels, foxes, and racoons with berries, small bites of bread, and little scraps from the dining hall. Anything more and it would send them into fits of guilt. They work to ward the school, to keep everyone who stays behind as safe as they can, and to prepare the lingering students to fight for their lives. They have six months, and they better use them well.
Firbolg leaves first. He has a plan to come back with the aid of his clan. It’s a bad idea, a stupid dangerous idea, but it might just work. They don’t try to fight him, because they know the protests will fall on deaf ears. The way his jaw sets and his words cut themselves short makes them know he is resolute. This is his mission now, and he will complete it no matter the cost. He packs quickly, and shares a stoic goodbye with each of his friends. He kisses Rainer’s forehead, fist bumps Gary, shakes Higglemas’ hand, and claps a mighty paw onto each of his roommates' shoulders. It's a wordless farewell, but they all know what it means. He nods, and taking nothing but three days’ provisions, stalks back into the forest.
Not long after, Argo disappears. It’s more surprising than the Firbolg’s departure, more sudden. Fitzroy sends letter after letter in the notebook of far speech, and tries a few different spells to ascertain his exact location, but nothing sticks. He gets one response, a gentle buzz in his pocket a week after the morning he woke up alone.
“Be back soon, bringing help, I promise. XX Argonaut.”
Rainer takes over the infirmary, it is only logical with her necromancy experience. She’s okay with staying at the school, as she doesn’t have a lot of familial options to reach out to. The last time she blinked to see her dad, he had seemed strange and standoffish. Christmas had been hard for both of them, so she chose to believe that his weird behavior was only sentiment. Now, as she looks back, she wonders if he had known something, or how much he would have been involved with the demons. She’s okay with not considering it too much, with trying to do the good she can here. She makes herself integral to the movement, her and her animals are forces for good, helping wherever they can in the dark corners of the school.
Higglemas leads the faculty in outreach. Their ragged party of retired adventurers and tenured professionals travels from town to town, trying to enlist the help of various citizens, trying to convince the yet unknowing world that it is ending. The students that stay behind find themselves learning more than ever about the history of the school, about their family’s magic and styles of attack. Every day, a new pupil finds Fitzroy, who’s been unofficially in charge ever since the teachers left, to show him a new piece of lore that they discovered. They run to him with all manner of questions, information about illusory, ideas for new sigils or spells, and old ancestral magics that they’ve learned from their research. They slowly improve, build new weapons, learning about the tapestry of heroes and villains that has spread across the world till now, trying to unlock new secrets, to prepare.
Fitzroy spends his free time training. It’s not much, but with every precious spare second he has, he finds the strength to pull himself outside. He stands alone on many days, in the middle of the open training field, and casts thunderwave, again and again. He casts until he falls to the floor, dropping to his knees on the soft grass, and his hands burn and ache. He casts again and again, day after day.
He sends countless blasts of blue-hot magic in all directions, trying to control it, to harness it, to make himself on with his energy. Every time he casts, something bad happens, some different, taxing effect takes a hold of him, bending his body to the whims of the magic instead of the other way around. No one notices after a while, they stop commenting when he grows and shrinks, stop asking about the deep red scars that crisscross his chest from failed attempts. Once, he couldn’t speak for a day, but even that seems normal now. He is trying, he is working, at least, and with every new cursed spell, he is earning his way into that final fight.
He attempts everything he can think of to speak to Chaos, too. He researches curses, hexes himself into stupors, he drinks strong spirits until he cannot stand, he even had Rainer make a potion, one of the same she uses to blink in between planes, but Chaos never shows themself. It seemed to him that Chaos was enjoying his pain, that they were hiding, waiting to see which one of their pets came out on top.
Maybe it was the separation, or the visceral fear that gripped them all, but the Thundermen experienced the first weeks agonizingly slowly. The novelty of their situation, the gravity of their mission weighed on them anew every second, and they felt each in turn, every day. How were they going to survive six months of this?
Eventually, the tiredness sinks deep into Fitzroy’s bones. At the start of the third month, he disguises himself and goes home. He tells himself that he is trying to get his family’s help, to evacuate them, but it's really more simple than that. He’s looking for home, for comfort, for something familiar in the cold dark world. He knows that he cannot leave for long, as Gray or Chaos will come for him soon, but honestly the possibility of getting caught seems familiar now, and almost comforting.
Home is strange. The days and weeks stretch out before him endlessly, he drinks in the long stretches of nothingness. He tries to capture the exact idyllic moment he feels peaceful one afternoon, as the sun shines softly overhead, and he lays on his back in the gently waving grass. He is not allowed to forget this moment, to pass this instance of peace.
He talks to his family every night, as Chaos thunders in the back of his mind and the hair on his neck and arms begin to stand up more often with static. He has to leave soon, he has to return before they find him, and he cannot risk his parents being in danger too. He begs them to evacuate, to leave for the old Maplecourt estate, but they refuse to listen. Dendra is convinced her son is cursed, and Jerry, however well meaning, is inclined to agree. With tears in his eyes over the dinner table on many separate nights, he pleads with them to listen, he even offers to take truth serum. The world is ending, the demons are coming, how can you guys not understand? How can they still be this stubborn? They only have three months.
Higglemas’ letters are more hopeless than ever. Once the party got out of Last Hope, the percentage of civilians they were able to save drastically decreased. It seems like their minds are resistant to the idea of demons, of chaos, of magic in general. They will not consider the ideas critically, or for more than a short second.
Rainer stops writing to him as often. She’s been getting headaches, and while she can sometimes manage the pain, other days find her completely bed-bound. All Fitzroy knows is that time is running out, that Argo and Firbolg are still gone, and that he has to leave soon.
The last morning at the farm is the worst. In the morning light, it looks peaceful, and Fitzroy tries to take a mental picture, to preserve it.
“Pop, this is the world. This battle could quite literally end everything. Why can’t you see past whatever petty drama you have with me or the family and just choose good?”
His father sighs, and shows a different kind of sadness in his eyes. He looks more than tired, more than scared, so past anything resembling normal that he’s calm again. His eyes are glassy and his tone is stilted as he speaks.
“Fitzroy, I am already on the side of good. It is you who will have to fight. It is you who is changing the world, you who is evil.”
They turn from each other, and Fitzroy does not give him the satisfaction of tears. He sets off to the school alone, the last emotional lightning trailing slowly from his fingertips.
The fourth month is the worst. Althea returns from the HOG headquarters powerless. Her unorthodox approach to curses on the field and her attempts to work against the demon prince have made the council convict her of treason. Her magic is gone, and everything about her seems less lively than before. Her face is pale and her hair has lost its color. The world is greyer.
Rainer receives her with open arms, guiding her back to the dorms-turned-barracks, and no one says a word when they see her sobbing in the halls. She will learn some basic sword fighting techniques, enough to keep up in battle, but without her wings, her power, without Barb at her side, everything seems useless.
The firbolg returns, after weeks of deliberation, bringing more stoic men and women behind him. They are honest folk, and work hard to prepare the school how they can. They build barricades, they take the places of the elementals and elves that had previously cleaned and cooked. Their biggest project, the one most of them are devoted to, is digging mass graves. Far behind the training fields and bordering the forest, the large pits appear suddenly. Deep, deep furrows into the earth. Everyone knows what they are, no one says a word.
Hieronymous recovers somewhat, and begins to take walks around campus. When he can, he tells Fitzroy everything he knows about the demons. Across several long evenings in his office, they realize that he knows nothing that the students haven’t already found. The understanding of this, as it takes over them all simultaneously, feels like less than nothing. It is worse than anything, because it means they are doomed, that they always have been. They are going to lose.
Fitzroy trains harder, he has no choice now. He spends all night on the field, and his screaming pain is worse with every passing minute. He casts again, again, again. After one particularly grueling session, when all his muscles feel like jelly, he sees Chaos. It’s a fleeting moment, and he would have chalked it up to tiredness or stress, a hallucination, if he hadn’t been able to identify the sharp static pull at the nape of his neck. He sees the large glowing white eyes in his head, and tries to move towards them, but Chaos refuses. He is stuck where they want him, they are apart, and he is alone. As the vision quickly fades, he uses his last bout of strength to spit in their direction.
“You might have me, but I’ll be damned before I let you take my friends.”
Rainier’s headaches are getting worse, and she withdraws from her position in the infirmary all together. She spends her days in the dark, trying anything to relieve the pain. Firbolg will sit with her some days, a kind of vigil, replacing the flowers and herbs on her bedside, and cleaning what he can. It’s a strange mood in her room, without her smile, so the train of visitors eventually slows, they have to make up her work, they have to reserve their mourning.
The fifth month is the worst, it is so final, so futile, so tiring. The firbolgs finish barricading the school, and they are all inside for better or worse now. Now they wait, studying a few last minute spells and arming themselves to the teeth. Higglemas and the party have returned, so the forge is constantly hot, bringing life to new weapons that will undoubtedly be strewn all over the hills. These are simple, unmagical, made to be lost.
Those last few days, Fitzroy stays inside. He’s not sure that thunderwave will behave, not sure if it won’t kill him, but even that is comforting now. What if he died? What if he was the epicenter, and he took all of Chaos’ power in the heat of battle?
Rainier asks to talk, and he goes. Her room is dark, and they sit for a while as she struggles to even move to face him.
“I’ve made a decision, Fitzroy, and I’m telling you now out of courtesy, not asking permission or anything, so please hear me until i’m done.”
“Okay.” He wants to ask, to push for an answer, to make sure she is safe. Instead he swallows, sits back. “Tell me.”
She starts and stops a couple times, and there are many long stretches when she has to regain composure, but eventually, she tells him her plan.
She’s decided to become a lich. Her body is failing, and now that everything is coming to an end around her, the logical path, it seems, is to die with it. She knows the risks, the weight of her decision, and she’s seen the adverse effects on her dad, but she will not be swayed.
“I’m going to be transformed, Fitzroy. I’m going to be so powerful.”
With a shaky breath and strained eyes, he makes her promise to wait until after the battle. After the battle, he can study up, he can help her, he can ground her, they all can. He can get Althea, he can get the thundermen back together, and they can give her the tether and the send off she deserves. After the battle, after the hurt, after they are done being soldiers.
That night, Fitzroy has a nightmare, he hopes to whatever he has left to hope in that it is not a vision, not Chaos teasing him with what is to come. He sees Argo bleeding from his chest, an overturned wheelchair, two gravestones, and feels a chill as the wind in his room picks up, wrapping itself around his meditating form. He awakes to a set of white eyes staring into his own. He screams, hoping to cast them away. They fade slowly, in their own time.
The last three days are the worst. Fitzroy had never seen so many people so completely demoralized. They all know they are going to lose, and in a strange way, the thought is comforting. At least, in the loss, they don’t have to fight as hard.
Argo returns with just two days to spare, droves of nasty pirates behind him, and a horrible scar marring his face. He is missing the tip of his right ear, and his arm is bandaged, but he still strides high, powerfully, on the balls of his feet in his worn boots. The second Fitzroy sees him, he understands. Argo is now a captain, or at least something close to it. He’s promised his crew a great debt in exchange for their help, and he’ll die if he does not fulfill it. His eyes look misty and blank, the sea is no longer inside them. Now he is filled with rage, stoic waters that threaten sharks below.
Fitzroy tries to corner him, to usher them into their room or a secret hallway, to get him alone enough to drop the facade, but he is stone-faced. The most he gets is a blank stare and the sentiment:
“Let’s talk after the battle, Fitzroy.”
He would have done anything to be called boyo, lad, or even sir fancypants. His name sounds mechanical on Argo’s tongue. It’s wrong.
The last day, Festo throws a sort of living wake. It’s a tired assembly, full of stony bleak faces about to head to war. Rainier makes an appearance, she intends to fight as best she can, she wants to help, to be a force for good. Althea, Argo, Rainier, Higglemas, and the Firbolg stand in a quiet line in the front of the room as Fitzroy reads his last speech. He tries to be encouraging, to summon the gravitas the situation deserves, to inspire them, but the words seem to hang above their heads, not piercing anyone, not making their way into their minds.
The last night, no one sleeps. The sounds from the woods grow louder, and everyone is aware that dawn will find them surrounded by demons. As the last light of the fire flickers out, Fitzroy looks across the common area to Argo’s room.
He’s sitting on his bed, contemplating, fooling with the gold coin around his neck, and practicing quick draws of his saber with his undamaged hand. He doesn’t look up when Fitzroy enters the room, only lays down and moves over towards the wall with purpose, patting the bed next to him. They used to do this all the time, when their love was fun and secret. It can’t be that different now.
They don't sleep. Argo lies staring at Fitzroy's chest, and Fitzroy imagines patterns in the paint on the walls. He is ready no matter what tomorrow brings, he is ready to kill Chaos or die trying.
That morning, they rouse themselves hours before sunrise. Their time is up, now is the time to fight.
The firbolgs will stay inside, manning the canons and the infirmary. Althea and the faculty will lead the charge, with whoever is able to cast magic sending protection wards around the rest of them. Rainier, Fitzroy, and Argo are on the front line of students, and they set up waves and waves of the younger students, as well as a few infirmary stations. They dress quickly and in silence, armed to the teeth.
As a final act before they leave those front doors, some of them for the last time, Althea hands a small cloth to Fitzroy. Unfolding it, he reveals three black berries. With a solemn nod, he understands. This is mercy, however gruesome it may appear.
A shaky breath, and they rush in.
The battle is a blur. He knows it’s grueling, that he’s swinging with everything he has at devildog after devildog, that he is out of breath in an instant, but he keeps going. He sees bones and magic water blasts swirl around him as he persists, pushing to where he knows Gray is hiding. This is about them, they will live to meet each other.
Some combination of magic, training, and rage makes the battle light. He soars through the enemies, and hope sparks in his chest as blood and gore spatters around him. Maybe he can win, maybe he is the epicenter, maybe he has done enough.
He’s at the door to Gray’s lair, it feels like a dream. He floats towards the throne and throws his maul to the ground.
“So. I’m here.” his voice rings loud in the stone hall.
“So you are.” Gray’s eyes are white, and his hair stands straight from his head with static.
“I’ve fought through all this, I got to you, so can we agree that this is about us now?”
“We both know Chaos wants you alive, I’m not sure how I can still have my war and focus on you.”
“Chaos can have whatever they want from me, I’m the warrior they deserve. I will not let them take my friends, I am the one who got here, by myself, to face you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Fitzroy, how can you be sure of what you see?” Gray holds up his magic mirror, and the hall flashes and fades around him. He’s still in the field. Blood is spilling from his chest and mouth, he coughs, pitiful, worthless. Looking around him, he sees that overturned wheelchair, the gravestones over the hill, he can hear screaming in the distance, and the growling of demons is intolerable now.
“No,” he gasps, “I thought I could save them, I thought I did it.”
“How dare you trust yourself, I thought I trained you better.”
A last sob, as Chaos’ hand thrusts down towards his head.
“I guess I’ll just have to show you.”
He thinks of the berries in his vest. What if he died? What if he was the epicenter, and he took all of Chaos’ power in the heat of battle?
No, he’s trained for this, he is not ready to give up.
It hurts, but with everything he has, he casts thunderwave.
The world is hot around him, he can smell smoke and burning flesh, the screams grow louder, the gravestones closer, everything is hot, burning, painful, white, then dark.
It wasn’t enough. Whatever Chaos and Gray did, it was final, absolute. The Firbolg heard disjointed accounts of what happened on the battlefield, but however Fitzroy tried to hold on, it wasn’t enough.
It ended suddenly, Gray busting into the school and killing anyone he saw. The infirmary patients are never healed, pixies and elementals are evaporated in an instant. Many firbolgs fall stoically, one last strong stance for what they believe in.
After the battle, Rainier and Fitzroy are thrown unceremoniously into the mass graves. As the school is overrun, everyone flees. Argo has his crew to go back to, he takes to the sea, a cutthroat captain against his will, leading so as not to die. The Firbolg goes back to the forest with his clan, there is nothing else left for him now.
They lost the battle, demons are prowling over Nua, and they will get them all eventually.
The Firbolg mourns in his own quiet way, and makes memorials for himself in one of the clearings in the woods. Piles of stones with flowers and leaves adorning them, one for Rainier, one for Fitzroy.
As he sits one afternoon, feeling the sun on him as he weeps for his friends, a fox emerges from the dark and sits next to him. It’s her, it’s a sign, he will be a force for good. He will continue, and so will Argo, so will Althea and whatever faculty are left. They will continue, however they can. Their time is not up yet, they can still save the world, they can still be good.