I wrote this for the BZPower: The Legend Continues contest. If you like it, consider dropping a vote.
The first thing he gave her was a poorly carved bird.
It wasn’t until much later that they would laugh about how sorrily made the bird was, but at the time, she took it with twinkling eyes and outstretched hands. He had never whittled anything before, but when they first met she had mentioned how she had always admired the talent. He tried his hand at it the moment he got home, because he couldn’t get her out of his mind otherwise.
“This is beautiful,” she said as she took it from him, and she really meant it, because she was that kind of person. She could look at something in earnest and judge it not for what it appeared to be, but what it meant. And she knew what the carving meant, and she loved him then on for it.
The second thing he gave her was his devotion.
“Devotion is the true mark of belief,” the Great Brother had said, “For if one truly believes in something - actually, earnestly believes - one cannot help but be devoted to it.”
And so he gave her his devotion, for he truly believed in her.
The third thing he gave to her was belief. She was initially skeptical of the Great Brother, for she had heard the stories and the secrets told in the darkness, the rumors that were whispered at rowdy night taverns. She, like all of the others, had seen them at one point or another, the Ancient Ones, the Master Crafters. The Mask Makers.
There were those who swore upon their lives that the other brother, the Wise Master, was the true master craftsman. That the Great Brother was nothing but a Mask Hoarder, a Derelict Forger of broken things. But the moment she saw him, she knew. She knew who he was and what he meant to do. “You are a great man, seeking great things,” she said. “If Kulta believes in you, then I shall too.”
He was happy at her remarks.
“We will rule,” he said later, when they were alone. “Together, under him. I shall be a King and you shall be a Queen.”
She laughed. “I am no one’s Queen,” she said, with the smiling firmness he had come to admire. “I am my own ruler.”
He bowed, with the graciousness she had come to cherish. “Of course. Shall we be two Kings instead?”
“I would settle for lordship,” she said. “Two lords can live in partnership, can they not?”
“We can manage,” he said, smiling.
The fourth thing he gave was himself, for he had nothing else to give and yet wanted to give more still. This gift, as with his first, she took in open arms.
For the first time in his life, he knew happiness and knew it in abundance.
They came for the Great Brother’s followers without a warning, their numbers filling the city, house to house, block to block. The other brother, the Wise Master, had received a vision, they said. The Great Brother was to ravage the world unless he was stopped. All followers were now heretics, to be shamed and stripped of their personhood.
He first saw them when they came to the market, seizing a follower by the scruff of the neck and wrenching the mask from his face. The mask was a symbol, they said, that the Wise Master had made in his image. Those who would stand against the Wise Master could no longer bear his face.
And so they ripped the masks from their bodies, and laid their skulls bare to the world. He could hear the screams as the armies of the Wise Master turned followers into heretics. Those without masks would wither soon, for they were not long for this world. He escaped, narrowly, and as quick as he could returned to his home.
He was too late.
She wept, the tears streaming down her skull. “They took my face from me,” was all she could say.
He wiped the tears from her eyes, and stared into them as long as he could. They stared back, the piercing gaze that always saw him for what he was worth. The brilliance in them died as she withered away, a cold hollow skull where his everything used to be.
Then the city ruptured around him, the earth rumbling and quaking into a cascade of power. The ground was ripped from under him, and he sank into the underworld below. Some say that the Great Brother forced the Wise Master’s hand. Others that the Wise Master tried to rid the world of the Great Brother before his vision could come true. The stories always ended the same, with the island torn asunder and the city and its inhabitants all but forgotten.
But he lived, against the odds, a cruel irony for someone who had nothing left to live for.
He prayed, in that moment, for he knew not what else to do. “Great Brother, he said, “I have believed, and I have been devoted. Guide me now.”
He prayed, and out of the silence came hope.
I offer a bargain to you, said the voice. I ask for your devotion yet again, to help free me from my chains. In return, I will bring you back what matters to you the most.
“What must I do?” He said back to the darkness.
I have given you a gift, one that can cheat death, the voice said. It will give you back what you love, but it may not be in the form that you desire.
“If there is any chance,” he said. “I will do all that you command.”
For millennia, he searched, combing the underworld, searching every crevice and crook in the dark. He knew not what he was searching for, but he needed not to know. He was devoted, and that was what all that mattered. She was his reason, and he believed in her. They would be together again.
Ages passed until he found it. His fingers barely brushed along the side of it, but already he knew it was what he had been searching for. The magic ebbed out of the golden mask, a radiant glow that he could not describe.
He prayed, and out of the silence came instruction.
Are you still devoted, child? Do you still believe?
“Yes,” he said. “I will hold my end of the bargain.”
Your love has made her strong. Be with her again.
He felt the power surge through him, rippling through his body and out into his limbs. It was as if his own life force was halved, cut out of him in the blink of an eye. Before him, a writhing monstrosity screamed into existence. Six limbs bent themselves onto the ground, and he heard a voice he feared he’d never hear.
“…Who am I?” she said, as if stirred from a long slumber.
He looked at her, at the eldritch abomination that stood before him, and saw her as she did, to the meaning underneath the skin. To him, her form did not matter, for if she had looked at his first gift to her with judging eyes instead of her own, he would have been all the lesser.
Give her your purpose.
“You are…a Lord. A Lord of the Undead, of the Skulls of the Slain.”
She paused in silence.
“I remember being more,” she said, sadly. “Do you not remember the same?”
He could not look her in the eye.
“We owe the Great Brother a great debt,” he said. “It must be paid. Only then can we cherish the past.”
He showed her the mask and it’s uses, and she in return gifted undead life and limbs back to the skulls of their fallen brethren. The mark of the heretics would now be the mark of the underworld.
The two Lords came together, their armies working as one. He rallied the underworld to his cause, and she swarmed the island with the voices of the dead. They ravaged the island, driving those who had harmed them from their homes. They were hopelessly outnumbered.
So they summoned the demons.
The demons fell from the stars and struck with power that none had seen before, driving their armies back, hunting them into the ground. They took her and they beat her, stripping her of her power and casting her back into the underworld, broken.
He faced the Wise Master for the first time, the man who had cost him everything. His rage turned into fury, but his fury was in vain. He was cast out too, out of what remained of his home, a memory so old but still fresh.
When he sought her, she was wounded, unable to move. Her armies had gone without her, and she was not long for this world. Even dark magic would to naught to save her.
“The Great Brother will save us,” he said. “He saved us before and he’ll save us again. You’ve looked into his heart, you know this to be true.”
She did not reply.
“The Great Brother is nothing,” she said at last. “I saw nothing in his heart but greed and sorrow. He is not but a maker of broken things.”
He was taken aback. “But you said…”
She smiled. “I looked into your heart and saw devotion, and I could not bear to see that devotion die. It made you purposeful. It gave you reason.”
“You gave me reason,” he meant to say, but he choked on his own words.
They sat in silence until he was the only one silent.
He rallied the underworld again, to fight the demons and the Wise Master of the world above. He faced the Wise Master for the last time. He was shown no mercy. He was soundly defeated.
He lay, buried alive, at the depths of the underworld. Rubble had broken every bone in his body. Every breath was a burning ache, deep into his lungs, as air and dust became mixed into one musty gasp for life.
He prayed, and out of the silence came doubt.
There were no words and there were no promises. The Great Brother had forsaken him.
He withered away, for there were no more reasons to live.