Sable does not return to Aphiel’s temple, after. They don’t think they could bear it—the cold, the emptiness of it. In all their memories but one, it stands beautiful and warm and full of life, light permeating its every corner. That image is cracked now, shards of it ground beneath their aching feet, but parts of it are still whole in their memory, and if they were to go there again, when the reality of all that has happened has sunk into their bones—
Well, they don’t return.
They pass it, sometimes, when they do not take care to avoid it, and watch from a careful distance as it grows steadily emptier. Even the most faithful begin to avoid it—and could Sable blame them? There was no one more faithful to Aphiel than them. Than the person they were, then. But Aphiel is—Aphiel is not with them, now. That word has long since spread, passed from soldier to acolyte to gossip to child, even as the world burns around them. From those who had seen to those who had hardly even heard their name. People loved Aphiel, and love them still, but they are gone. People forget, and move on, and as the city falls the temple begins to fall with it. Sable watches in glimpses as it is abandoned for safer buildings, as its purpose is forgotten—and they do their best to forget it, too.
Amidst it all, they find Lustrum again. She’s shaken, but everyone is, these days, and she’s handling it better than most. When Sable runs into her, she’s helping a family settle into one of the shelters that people far more organised than either of them set up when houses began to collapse.
“Oh!” she gasps, and later, when they both have a few moments free, she finds them again.
They sit together for a while and exchange stories—it has already been some time since they saw each other last, though Sable can’t be sure how much. Weeks, they think. The time immediately after—well, after—blurs a little when they focus too hard on it, so they don’t. Instead, they listen to Lustrum’s stories and plans and reply where they need to and feel a dull spark of warmth deep in their chest. At one point, they even laugh, almost, the unexpected burst of joy drawn from them by a twist of humour in the tale she’s telling. Lustrum smiles at their shocked snort, sincere and lopsided, and continues.
After a while, Lustrum quiets, and the two of them sit in silence. Then: “I heard about what happened. With—with Aphiel.” Her voice catches on the name, and Sable’s lungs freeze over for a single, terrible moment. They’ve heard their name spoken aloud since, of course—how could they avoid it, here in this town that they loved so much, that loved them in return? People have even attempted to speak to Sable about them, though most have learned now that they’ll leave a conversation the moment someone brings them up.
They don’t reply but take a moment to draw a breath in and then out of icy lungs. For a few moments they wait, still—but Lustrum doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t apologise for their loss or offer any platitudes. Instead, she leans closer and brushes their shoulders together, and Sable remembers the pieces of her past that she had murmured to them once, an age ago now in feeling if not in time. Their chest unthaws, drip by drip, and they swallow. This is understanding, maybe—two people mourning those they love being taken long before their time.
“Thank you,” they mutter, and their voice is rough and strained but sincere.
Around them the war rages on and tips over into calamity and they are too busy, anyway, to remember gods and their temples and the way their lips would brush against the back of their neck when they laid together, tender and careful and gentle as the dawn. Except when they aren’t. Violence turns their stomach and unsettles their heart, suited as they are for it, and even as they find ways to keep busy, keep helping, their mind returns to that soft and treasured place in their memory where Aphiel is with them. It is the place their mind wanders to when they see reunited lovers in the street or the heartfelt embrace of a family or a moment of kindness between strangers. It is the comfort between their dark dreams of death.
They dream of death often. They are surrounded by violence, after all, and there are days where they feel her presence so strongly, they could almost turn and find themself face to face with her. It’s as though she’s waiting in the wings to claim them the moment they, too, fall. But they do not—a sword just misses its mark, or a spell flies just off-target, or a wound that ought to have been fatal is treated just in time. They are lucky, perhaps. That is what they are told, when beside them people fall and die, and they do not—when they do not ever . But a part of them remembers the way that the lady death had smiled as Aphiel— as they lay silent and still and they had known that she was looking at them even without eyes. If she wanted to take them and had even the slightest chance of doing it, she would.
Sable doesn’t know which it is—is she prevented from taking them, or would she prefer them to live on, alone forever?—but they hate her for it as they hate her for everything now.
They mention this to Lustrum, once, and the skin around her eyes tightens, her tentacles squirming with a little more vigour than usual. She nods at them, understanding, but says nothing.
Eventually, there is little left of the town that Sable once called home, and they leave. The fighting is long since done by that point—for all that people are beginning to call it the Cataclysm, the actual conflict had been over relatively quickly. Small groups continued to war, of course, but the greater threat was the wild magic and all that grew out of it, unfamiliar and terrifying. Deeper than that, too, were all the fears of small communities: food, water, health, and the lack thereof. This town, ravaged by war, will not support life, however little of it there is. So—Sable leaves, and they are not alone except for all the ways that they are. They do not look for the temple as they go, the knowledge of what they would find there tucked thorny under one rib. Instead, they walk. After a time, they reach the furthest point they had ever travelled from home, and then keep walking. They can’t imagine many of their companions had ventured further, but no one makes a note of it—what would be the point? It’s not as though anyone can return.
Still, the ache of it tears at Sable. Back there are the streets they stumbled down as child, scraping knees and palms on the pavement and struggling to their feet again. There is their childhood home, so distant now; there is the temple that had been just as much a home to them for years. There is the tree behind which they had their first kiss. There is the room where they danced with Aphiel for the first time—there is the room where they kissed them, and touched them, and slept curled within their arms. There is the field, desolate and strewn with violence, a cold and aching memory of the last time they saw their god.
It’s best, they think, that they are leaving that place.
The group that they are travelling with is small and mostly familiar to them even before they start the trek—another acolyte of Aphiel, who looks sometimes as though they wish to speak with Sable about their temple and god before they think better of it; the shopkeeper’s apprentice they had occasionally bought food from; a couple of people they had fought alongside; some faces that they recognise but don’t know the names of, people they’d passed in the streets in the years before. They are not the only survivors; some decided to stay in the town and see what home they could make of it, and Lustrum led another few people in the other direction, toward the sea. Sable had been tempted to accompany them, but Lustrum had shaken her head, placing one gentle hand on their cheek.
“You protect people,” she had told them, and absently they had wondered when they had last been touched without violence. “I can’t travel with both the ones going inland and the ones going to the sea, but you can keep an eye on the ones I’m not with.”
There is something about her that reminds them of Aphiel, something that is almost but not quite divine, and they know that she’s speaking the truth even as their stomach twists to be parted from her. The group they travel with is familiar, sure, but she’s one of the few people they can call a friend.
Something in her face had softened, their expression no doubt giving them away, and she had rubbed gently at their cheek with her thumb. “We’ll see each other again,” she had said, then smiled her lovely lopsided smile, “but you have people to guide, and I don’t think your path lies in this direction just yet.”
So Lustrum leaves in one direction and they go in the other, and they wonder as they travel further than they ever have from a home that no longer exists whether she’s right. Whether they’re a protector of any kind. Whether they’ll meet again.
Sable has lost so many people; they don’t know if they could bear to lose her, too.
There are communities inland, but they are small and in no better shape than the town they left behind, and Sable continues to travel. They find new companions, while some leave and others die, and all the while continue to move. There is ground to cover, and they have the time to cover it. What would be the point of staying in one place, anyway? What community could they be a part of now? The refuges that have formed are small and new and all-too vulnerable to the world turned against them—and these days, Sable works better alone, anyway.
They are always alone these days, whether they travel with others or on their own. The ice that reached out cracking, spindled fingers through their chest is permanent now, a painful cool that keeps their heart still and untouchable inside their ribcage. People try, at first, but they learn, and word spreads, and Sable thinks of the person they were at ten, at twenty, at thirty—warm and shy and devoted and aching for affection—and mourns them. They are not that person anymore; they haven’t been in years, now. Ronan is dead just as surely as—as everyone else who has died. They are buried in the ash of their hometown, and Sable is breathing and walking and fighting in a world that holds none of their old life.
They don’t even think about Aphiel anymore, except for when they do.
Mostly, they remember at night—a stray thought, the words of a prayer they remember all to well sitting under their tongue like a stone. Aphiel , they think one night, gazing alone, always alone, into the sparks of their campfire, and their chest wrenches, creaking, at the way that the name, even now, means so much. They think, why did you leave me? and of course there’s no answer, no hint of warmth or whisper of touch—why would there be? Aphiel is—
Aphiel is gone.
All Sable has is the soft light of a campfire, which warms their bones but leaves them cold at the core, the murmur of companions whom they don’t know beyond their names and faces, and a holy symbol of a god whose presence on the world has not been felt in years.
Other nights, they curl up alone and dream of warmth along their side, of soft words murmured into their ear like precious stones. These are not their only dreams, but they are the worst ones—worse than dreams of death and destruction and devastation. When visions like this haunt their sleep, they don’t wake with starts or screams. They come back to themself slowly, and the warmth slowly fades, and there is a moment just before they wake when they forget. Then the warmth is gone, and they are cold and alone, and the rings on their finger and the chain around their neck aren’t even warmed by contact with their skin. In the aftermath of these dreams, there is a cold and aching emptiness within them, everything inside them carved out to make room for the fading memory of Aphiel’s touch.
It’s easier when they’re by themself. There are children named after Aphiel now, children who grow into adults and have their own children, who have their names shouted at them by family and friends and enemies. The first time Sable heard their name called in the street, in a short stop to find supplies before heading out again, they’d frozen on the spot—but it wasn’t their Aphiel. The name was shouted by a beleaguered parent as their child slipped out of their grasp and ran down the street—and there’s a part of Sable that wants to laugh at that, at Aphiel’s legacy already presenting itself in this child’s short dash for freedom, but that part is eclipsed by the raw and icy loss. Aphiel has been gone long enough that the children named in their memory are escaping their parents to run carefree through carefully-tended streets.
And then children grow and become adults, and the ache deepens even as the years stretch on. Sable will not travel with anyone named Aphiel, but they have always been picky as to who they’ll accompany between the various settlements and beyond, so it’s mostly unremarkable to those that know them.
Still they continue to wander—further inland, and then toward the sea, and then back. They don’t run into Lustrum, don’t know if they’re even still around. Lustrum had said they’d meet again, though, and despite everything they still believe her. She’ll find them at some point.
After all, they discover as the years wear on, they appear to have all the time in the world.
They age, at first—and that had been a relief. They would not die of illness or in battle, but one day they would grow old and pass on. One day, finally, they would rest, and in that rest finally find Aphiel. One day, one day.
And then the children born just after the Cataclysm begin to wrinkle around the eyes, and Sable is the only one who remembers it, who was alive while it happened. When they count back the years and add them to the age they had been, their vigour becomes a little less believable. Not un believable, exactly, but suspicious.
When people they know were the few young children to survive the Cataclysm begin to call them “dearest” and “young one”, their heart stutters into stillness. They have not lived a fortunate or lucky life. They, too, should be wandering around on creaking limbs, feeling the end drawing closer. They should not be fighting as well as they did at thirty or forty or fifty— even at sixty. They have been alive well over a century, and they feel the ache of exhaustion in their bones but it has never impeded them. There is no natural explanation for this— but they’ve known this, haven’t they? They had hoped, and tended that faint spark for years, but now—
They should know better than to hope, now.
They travel far out into the uninhabited wastes, further and further until they know they are the only one alive within a day’s trek, and scream into the emptiness.
“ Why? ” they shout, over and over until their throat burns and the word is no more than a hoarse croak. They scream it into the night sky, the stars and the air and the shrub growing up around them. They scream it to whichever gods might still be around, might be listening to the cries of a lost and lonely acolyte of a long-gone minor god in the desert.
They scream it to her, though they dare not even think her name, for taking Aphiel and refusing to take them even after all these years.
They scream it to Aphiel. Aphiel, who left them, who has been gone for nearly a hundred years, remembered outside of texts and stories only by them. Aphiel, who promised. Aphiel, their light, their torch, their beacon. Aphiel, their love.
Aphiel, who is dead, even as they persist.
They touch trembling fingers to Aphiel’s symbol, and for the first time in far too long they sob, long and loud and alone. It’s a cold cruelty that keeps them here, made colder still by the realisation of what could have been. They wonder—could they have had eternity with Aphiel? In another time, if a million things had happened differently, would they have continued on like this with their love by their side?
For a long moment, they ache for that life, for all it represents. Then they breathe in, and then out, wipe their face with the edge of their cloak.
That is not the life they have.
Sable pushes themself back to their feet, then begins to look for firewood. Their breath still stutters as they gather what they can, but by the time they assemble it and begin to light a campfire, it’s mostly settled. The moon is high above them, and they are totally alone in a wilderness; they need a fire to stave off the chill and warn away any creatures that may call this stretch of land their home. The fire, when they light it, is warm and bright, and just that tears at the rift in their chest, at the empty aching loss, but they take a deep, shivering breath and hold their cloak tighter around themself.
They do not know how long they’re going to live for—whether this is a curse to be lifted or something they must bear for eternity—but they know this is the life they must live. They take another breath, feel it settle in cool lungs. They are alive, and Aphiel is not, and this fact has sat cold as death around their ribcage for years, unacknowledged. It will sit there forever, they think, and they will have to live with its weight as they have for nearly a century.
And in this moment, they curl up in front of the fire and look up toward the stars, and let themself remember, in detail, the way that Aphiel smiled.