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Cruel Hope and Gray Despair

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Hell is a land of the deep silences of the once-living, now frozen in time. Skeletons of trees forever grasp at a sun they knew in life, but the low red sky is illuminated only by the millennia-old death throes of stars. There is nothing so crass as the screams of the damned, no fire nor brimstone. Instead, you can wander Hell's vast expanse for an eternity unimpeded by pain, unaccompanied by any save yourself. You will be your own keeper, jailer, and judge, and you shall mete your own punishment.

Hell's queen is its ruler and its most enslaved soul.

She is robed in white for the dessicated bones her subjects wish to be, for the cooling ashes that will be the remnant of a world burnt away. Her raiment is protection and warning and punishment, but you know not for whom. Her feather-soft skin and solemn eyes are black as ink, and they are the only remainder of the Heaven she has cast aside.

The man who was once a soldier has braved the vast chasm of death only to confront the brittle cold of Hell, and his every step across it is laced with the glass shards of doubt. He puts knife to the soles of his feet, the hot pain a welcome distraction from his sharp-toothed thoughts. One foot down, and he tells himself she will still be the girl from lifetimes ago, haughty and stubborn and afraid; the next step, she becomes the ruler of iron and thorn who threw him to death without ever meeting his eyes again; every step, she is queen, she is fallen angel, she is forever beyond his reach and he is a fool to even try. He has always been a fool.

The queen sits on her diamond throne, every precisely-cut facet etching itself onto numb flesh. A crown of twisted and tarnished silver brambles, graced with the empty husk of a star, weighs down her head. She has known of the man's every step and stumble since the moment her land laid claim on him, and the gates of her palace open before him, though there is nothing of welcome in the gesture.

The palace no longer crawls with guards—no need of protection for a queen who has become her realm—and there is only one room. Within it, the throne is blinding in its splendor, and the man can barely make out the shape of the woman ensconed within. Frost limns the halls, icy crystals tracing the forms of flowers and branches, a mockery of the life this place lacks. All color has been leeched from the palace save the man's warm brown skin and eyes and the red, red path behind him. Memories of crimson brocade tapestries, rich rubies mounted in gold and threaded through night-dark hair, bright blood beading on silver blade pierce both man and queen.

He stops halfway, terror and awe and fear's grey cousin despair a tumult in his heart. The queen speaks at last, asks, "So far and no further?" and her soft voice is terrible as it breaks the silence of the hall.

"Your highness," the man says as he kneels, and the cavernous room amplifies every tremor in his voice. "I can walk no further." He crawls the last measure to kneel at her throne, his head bowed.

"Soldier," she greets him. "You should not be here." Her voice is still terrible, and he cannot suppress a shiver of fear, not for the power she wields now, but for an old hurt healed long ago. The slow-burning poison in his veins—heady, noxious, addictive—has infected his mind, for even as he trembles, he needs her to speak again, desires it with a passion that burns uncharacteristically bright for this land.

"Highness, I have earned my way here," he says, eyes still lowered.

"Have you now?" she says, quieter still, some of the power gone from her voice. "Show us," she commands, and once more she is every inch queen.

He silently raises both his arms to her, a supplication, and the unexpected touch on his wrists could be marble. But it is her ebony fingers, and she lightly traces the raised scars running from his vulnerable wrists to the soft skin at the crook of his arm. Even this brief touch chills his bones. She jerks his chin up, her fingernails digging into the pulse in his throat.

"You wished to live," she says.

"Is that why you had me killed?" He dares to meet her gaze, to see if he can discern truth from fiction in her mask of a face.

"We could claim so. The life of a fallen angel, even that of a foot soldier, is not easy, and perhaps a few cycles of human life are reward and not punishment." He is falling into her dark, dark eyes, so unlike the pale glitter that is Hell, and he will believe everything she tells him. Then her lashes sweep down, and she once more looks young and lost. It is only a moment, though, and one soon lost. "But we will not lie. We were afraid."

"And now?"

Her lips curve like the swing of the blade that stole his life. "What have we to fear now, soldier? We are Hell."

And then he is certain that all is lost, that the long journey to her was for naught, that he is condemned to an existence in this wasteland when he could have had sweat and tears and sweet spring rain. He rises and bows and begins the walk away, grateful for the renewed pain in his torn and bloodied feet, for anything to keep him from thinking of what his queen has become.

"Wait," she says, and he almost does not, so sure he is of imagining voices. But every voice in his mind, every voice that tormented him during the trek here, is that of a young girl who no longer exists, and this one is low and harsh, this one has commanded a thousand armies to victory and laid claim to Hell, this one has declared herself queen and wrested the crown from the Father for whose name she had once conquered all.

He turns.

"You do not seek to instruct me again? To have me kneel beside you?"

"Your highness, I do not think you will bow to anyone again," he says, and despair's cruel twin hope springs unbidden in his thoughts. "And I do not believe a mere whim could have ruled this land for so long."

"Then why have you come to us, soldier? Why give up what you had for this?" She has risen from her throne and taken one step down, and the white folds of her dress drape across the end of his blood trail.

"I am soldier no more, nor have I been for some time," he replies. "And though I do not wish to take up sword and shield again, I came to fight for you." And his feet are not the only things with skin flayed from flesh, and the scars down his arms and the phantom line that runs around his neck are not the only parts awash in pain.

"We—" she begins. Then she looks down, shifts her weight, frowns at the dirtied hem of her dress: habits of a young girl forever doubting her course. "I do not understand."

He makes his way to the throne once more, and this time there is no cold nor doubt. He kneels at her feet. "I fight for a girl I once knew, and for her well-guarded heart."

"A girl?" the queen scoffs. "She died long ago amidst her rebellion. If nothing else, you share a death, you and she, death and downfall alike." Despite her words, she lowers herself, the slow movement down an echo of the past, and they are so close now that he has but to exhale to warm her cheek. Instead, he leans forward and presses his lips to her forehead.

"But her heart remains. And I would fight for it—for you. Always, I would fight for you."

And the ice walls of the palace melt in a great rush, and the water coursing down is breath-warm and smells of growing green things, and the dead star mounted in her twisted crown shines with a sudden light. And slowly, so slowly, the queen smiles gently at him, and she finally lets him inside.