Farewell, Home Sweet Home...
“Vayra’s light has left us, hasn’t it?” The soldier said, parroting what many survivors have asked since the collapse. Survivors? Months ago, they were soldiers, not survivors, ready to go on an epic crusade for the sake of Lord Vayra's holy sustenance, to bring warmth to the cold and cruel lands of the east. Now, they are candles in a blizzard. Does anyone even know they're here? Does anyone even care?
Father Solim was as motionless as the ark below their perch. His eyes, however, looked left and right, up and down, drawn to something the soldier couldn't see, and that worried him.
“What are you looking at, Father?” A tinge of panic was heard in his sore throat. The soldier squinted, moving around the cramped crow's nest to survey the landscape, but couldn’t make out a discernible object beyond the ice wall.
“T-Those damned things aren’t back again, are they?” He said in between coughs.
Though ice barren, energy peels throughout the layers of the environment like festive ribbons, driven by unseen currents in the ticker tape parade that celebrates life. Here, even in this dull wasteland, energy exists, moving before Solim’s eyes like bright floating rivers. This was one of the Omestrian’s gifts: Sight beyond sight, as if he were looking through a special lens, one that reveals ether still tethered to this world.
“Vayra’s light, Lt. Bixley,” Solim began, giving the soldier his full attention, “Might feel dim, and even absent in such trying times, but it’s always here. That will never change, and when we die? Our bodies will freeze, but our ether will bathe in the eternal light, like all things do.”
“As for the Icekin? Well,” Father Solim shrugged, “They’re probably sleeping. Something you ought to be doing right about now.”
The soldier was visibly relieved to know another Icekin attack wasn’t happening. He rubbed the feverish sweat off his brow.
“I’m fine, Father. A cold is all I have, unless my company displeases you?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Lieutenant! I very much enjoy your stories about home, your nagging wife, your six demon children, and all of the things that need fixing around your dilapidated two-story flat, but your temperature is rising, and all of that talking isn’t helping the sickness in your throat.”
Lt. Bixley was surprised the Inquistor even remembered any of that.
“Go, my friend.”
“Are you sure?”
“Very much so."
“Thank you, Father Solim."
"Drink some warm tea and rest near the aegis engine. I'll wake you when the hunting party arrives.”
"You know, you're too kind for this world.”
“Oh, I’d say I’m the right amount, but if your snoring gets any louder, I’m blaming you if the Icekin attack.” Father Solim grinned.
The soldier rolled his eyes, gave a firm salute, then made his sluggish decent from the crow’s nest ladder. Solim watched as the man’s ether tailed behind, the lethargic swath of velvet, now waning and translucent. Such was the case for many survivors of the collapse. Immobilized by chunks of displaced ice from Vayra’s war machine, the brave few that are left, are held at an impasse between surviving the cold, and the ice beasts that yearn for their warm flesh.
“Lieutenant?” Father Solim called out, sensing a rift. He peered over the rails to find Bixley on his knees. The soldier tried to prop himself up with his arms, but his strength had left him. Father Solim gasped as the lieutenant collapsed face down, his ether, dimming upon impact.
“Hang on, Bixley!”
Lt. Bixley was as pale white as the sheets he was wrapped in. Despite the many layers pooled from those willing to give away their blankets, Solim included, the soldier was still quivering, his lips now bruised to a bluish-purple.
“It's probably pneumonia, septicemia, or both.” The medic told Father Solim.
Bixley groaned. At first, he called out the names of his wife and children, but now, he wasn't making any sense.
“He shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.”
“Stubborn as he was, the heating barrier's radius must be dwindling. I should have sensed this, but I was...distracted.”
“Hell, Father, we’re all distracted in this fu-” The medic stopped herself, took a deep breath, then apologized. “Sorry. This infirmary, if you even want to call it that, has had its fair share of distractions."
“Don’t apologize for my sake, Staff Sergeant,” Solim said, glancing at the bunks crammed with the sick and wounded. “I’m actually surprised you lasted this long without cursing, and even then, you showed restraint! That’s far more pious than some clergymen I know.”
“Don’t you go fixing me up as some kind of saint, Father; I scream all the profanities in the world into my pillow --- when everyone’s asleep, of course.” A smile was all he needed, and she gave him that much. Lt. Bixley’s moans grew louder, forcing them back to the reality of the situation.
“We’re low on meds,” The medic whispered, “Whatever infection the Lieutenant’s fighting, it’s not pulling any punches, that’s for sure.”
She chose her next words carefully.
“He won’t make it through the night, and without a healer, I can’t ration out anymore antibiotics, or painkillers. As much as I’d want to send him off in peace, Father, I’ve got people in far worse condition-”
“Don’t worry.” Father Solim put a hand on her shoulder. He felt the stress weighing heavily on the medic's conscious, so he offered to carry some of that burden.
"No, Father. You should help the Aegisbearer." She insisted, but Father Solim wouldn't budge.
“I’ll make sure he gets home.”
Solim stared in awe at the dapper man, who tap danced to his heart's content. He wore a dark brown, three-piece suit, his hair was combed and parted with slick oils, and the ends of his waxed mustache were twirled to perfection.
“I’ll say this, Kyle Bixley, you sure do clean up nice.”
“And I’ll say this, Father Solim. I'm loving those bright threads over your usual gloom and doom.” Kyle said, finger-gun pointing at Solim’s attire. The Inquisitor was still wearing his traditional turbankaut garb, but this one was hued in vibrant whites, blues, and reds. It even had trinkets attached to the headpiece, chiming in the slight breeze as they strolled down the sidewalk.
“Is this it?” Solim asked, stopping at the Queen Anne-style, two-story building. Its overhanging roofs were propped up by decorative support brackets, blending into the grey brick walls stacked around stain glass windows, framed throughout its asymmetrical architecture.
“You betcha.” Kyle said, affectionately. “My great grandfather built it with his own two hands, all from the ground up. This was before Tale’s End added a Slum at the end of it, back when Magnagrad provided for anyone who was willing to work for it.”
“You want to come in?” Kyle asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t just yet, lieutenant.”
Before he could ask Solim why, the pearly white front door of the house flew open. Out came six dark-haired children, all racing down the steps to try and reach Kyle first. The father hugged each kid, kissing their cheeks and foreheads, as they screamed for his attention.
“You’re back! You’re back!”
“Play marbles with us, pop!”
“You bring back anymore doodads, dad-dad?”
“Dad, fix my ark toy, will you? Dudley broke it trying to be an Ice monster.”
“No I didn’t!”
“Hold your horses, you little demons!" They laughed at their given nickname. "I just got home, for crying out loud! Can I kiss my wife before you tear me apart? In fact, where is sh-“
Kyle’s jaw nearly dropped to his suede shoes. A thin and cheery lady waltzed out the door, her curly brown hair, bouncing along her exposed shoulders. She wore an extravagant dress that looked as though it were made out of sun-kissed clouds. His obnoxious children were drowned out by a saxophone, playing Kyle’s favorite song. It was coming from inside the house, most likely from his old record player in the living room. Kyle ran up to his wife, spun her around, then drew her in close for a kiss.
“Welcome home, darling.” She said.
He glanced back at the Inquisitor. Father Solim was in black and red again, damp from the melted snow. In this surreal moment, he suddenly realized why the Omestrian declined his invitation. Kyle was dying. The lieutenant started to cry, but his family was there to wipe away his tears.
“Go, my friend.”
“Are you sure?”
“Very much so.”
Father Solim Vimat slowly exited the fortress of his mind, severing his ethereal link with Lt. Bixley. As he did, the Inquisitor caught a glimpse of his final moments.
Lieutenant Kyle Bixley was submerged in love; His love for his six children, which was as strong as when he held them in his arms for the first time, and the love for his wife, the same kind of love he had like when he first laid eyes on her. His family disappeared into the house, igniting a bright, but soothing light. He bathed in its warmth, looked back one last time at Father Solim, then closed the door behind him. The saxophone’s tune was faint now, but it echoed within Father Solim's mind, until everything went silent.
The Inquistor was jolted back into the physical realm. What felt like hours was actually minutes in the real world. He opened his amber eyes to a smile chiseled on Bixley’s face and couldn't help but smile back. He let go of the soldier's frozen hands, noting the absence of his ether, then rose to face the medic and her bedridden patients.
"Now, who else needs to find their way home?”