Touched: The Rocca Cycle – Chapter 1

The Nothing nears its zenith. Should the scales tip against The Summerland, all is lost, and it shall be the end of all things. But do not despair. The Divine One, She Who Shelters All, gave unto your world all of herself, and a scion was born who may yet ignite the eternal divine light. The Way of the Word has opened, and The Divine Trinity now may speak. They will be heard, but only we can decide which path to travel salvation or sacrifice.

The Lacuna Codex


Rocca blinked. 

He wondered where he was this time. His senses probed the world around him. Still trapped, still shifting from one Final Moment to another, that much he was certain of. 

The room was dark and cold, illuminated by the dim, orange-red light of twilight below skies threatening rain. He stood before ceiling-high windows, maybe five stories up, and stared out at an unfamiliar city. He stepped up to the windows and peered down at the street below. Memories of heavy bolt-cutters snapping links in the fence that encircled the building came back to him, memories that weren’t his, but now were. 

Abandoned, inoperable cars lined the side of the street opposite him. A weathered and bearded man wrapped in blankets slept in one, it’s broken back-window covered with duct tape and plastic that rippled in the wind. The derelict high-rise the car rusted in front of was full of unlit, broken windows above a small array of shops at street-level that were still operating. The few people who walked the streets wore tattered clothing over hunched shoulders lit by flickering neon, wordlessly plodding toward their next disappointment. Battered vehicles shimmied violently and noisily along pitted streets, emitting half-hearted bleats from their horns at every imagined delay. The city felt tired and beaten.  

Flashes of red and blue light flickered dimly against the glass, reflection from a set of windows along the opposite wall. Rocca blearily made his way over to them and peered down several stories to the front of the building he was in where lines of officers kept an agitated crowd of protestors at bay from behind hastily erected barricades. Apparently there were still some who hadn’t given up on this city after all. Makeshift protest signs danced in angry hands, and though he couldn’t read the language they were written in, he knew what they said. Here, in a Final Moment, Rocca knew things that he could not know. Such was his power. 

The usual haziness that came from entering someone’s Final Moments was lingering. Rather than try to clear his head, Rocca let his mind drift. He longed to be down there on the street amongst the protests, rallying against whatever injustice loomed, lost in one passionate moment after another without any worry for tomorrow. He had always wanted to be like them. Watching any of the myriad of protests that seemed to occur on an almost daily basis around his campus had always been enough to leave him feeling invigorated. There was just something about the way they brought passionate people together to resist and strive for change as one that he found intoxicating. 

As the haziness began to clear, the leaden weight of anxiety from his predicament settled onto him. The only thought that ever occupied his mind returned: escape. He could keep running as he had been since the beginning, but he felt no closer to home now than he had then. He could stand and fight Her, but despite all the power he wielded here he doubted a direct confrontation would end any differently than it had the first time, with him dead. Whatever he did, he couldn’t hide here. Final Moments were a story with only one ending, and his unseen pursuer was gaining on them with each passing shift. But how much longer could they last? Of the five he had managed to save from Her, only he and Kwame remained. She had taken the rest.

“Did you find it? Did you find a way back?”

Jolted from his musings, Rocca turned sharply to face Kwame who withdrew the hand he had rested on Rocca’s shoulder. 

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” 

Rocca waived it off. “No, but perhaps this time will be different.”

Kwame’s expression grew tired as he nodded. He moved to stand beside Rocca, and the two of them watched the protesters below.

“You still think home is out there, somewhere you can reach?” 

“Somewhere we can reach, and yes, unquestionably. I just need more time.”

“We have less and less each shift. Have you noticed?”

Rocca nodded. “I’m not sure what’s She’s doing, but it’s Her. Maybe she’s found a way to push us into Final Moments that have already begun. Either way, doesn’t matter, we’ll find a way.”

“You know,” said Kwame, “for awhile I thought we were immortals. How many times have we died only to live again? No scars, no broken bones. I really thought we had beaten death, but we haven’t.”

“No, we haven’t.”

“Can you tell me that we are closer than when you first brought me here?”

Rocca turned back to the window. “We’re closer.”

Kwame sighed. “If you say so then maybe we are, only you can tell. Or maybe our lost friends already found the only way out.”

Rocca met Kwame’s weary eyes.“We. Are. Closer.” 

Looking down, Rocca noticed for the first time that they both carried assault rifles hung from straps around their necks. By the looks of them, they could have been relics of several wars. Rocca turned from Kwame and the windows, taking in the room behind them for the first time. As the last glow of dusk faded, glow-sticks were cracked and shaken, illuminating a large luxurious and modern corner office in bright green light. A dozen men and women stood around the cold room in tattered paramilitary outfits like the ones he and Kwame wore. No, not men and women, frightened boys and girls, many of who looked like they might not be out of high school, if they had ever gone, yet each held a gun of one kind or another at the ready. Through their fear he sensed a single, unifying thought: not without a fight.

The only other adults — a pair of young men with the air of seasoned soldiers carrying modern assault rifles — stood over three crying hostages who had been bound with zip-ties and duct tape. Rocca knew the hostages were parliament members, just as he knew the list of their crimes was long. 

Kwame flopped heavily into a nearby desk-chair, his expression a mix of frustration and fatigue. Rocca moved to him and clasped his shoulders with both hands. 

“Look at me.”  

Kwame reluctantly complied. 

“We cannot give up. We escaped death, and She hasn’t caught us yet. That’s reason enough to keep fighting, but if we persevere just a little while longer we will make it back.”

Kwame hung his head and sighed. “You know I have great faith in you, but I am so tired. I am grateful for the time you’ve given me, I truly am, but what will more time here gain us but more suffering? We’re the only two left, and have you learned anything that points the way out? No. And I ask you, could we even tell the difference between home and this place?“

“Final Moments and the real world may look the same, but you can tell the difference as easily as I can because only one of them doesn’t end. We just have to find the way there. And I have learned things. Final Moments and the real world overlap, so much so that some of what we do here happens there. Once everyone who was meant to dies, the Final Moment collapses and takes them away. We die too because we must, but instead of going with them we go back out into The In Between.

“We figured out how leave without it taking us with it, that’s half the solution. The other half is figuring out how to anchor ourselves to the real world so we can cross over. She brought me from our world into this one. She crossed over, so there must be a way back.” 

“Even if you can figure out how to do that,” said Kwame, “even if it’s not something only She can do, why would She ever stop hunting us? It’s like you said, She did it before, why not again and again?“

“She will catch us, Kwame, death catches everyone eventually, but that’s no reason not to keep living. If She wants me She’ll have to find me, and if She tries to take me She’ll have to fight me. I’ve come this far, I won’t go quietly.”

“I do want to live,” said Kwame, “ if only to see my family one more time, you know I do, but, Rocca…what if we end up at the farmhouse again?”

Rocca’s heart stopped, panic having struck him with the sudden impact of a car crash. He steadied himself enough not to fall as his heart now thundered in his chest. 

“That can’t happen again,” bleated Rocca, knowing it wasn’t an assurance but a plea. He did his best to shut out the memories and focus on whoever was now shouting.

“What do you mean it’s too hot‽”

Rocca and Kwame both turned and saw a man wearing several dog-tags shouting into his phone. Rocca knew he was their leader, and wondered again what language he was speaking. 

“You swore to me if we needed help you would be there no matter what. You swore it, so how can it be too hot‽”

Whatever the reply, it failed to pacify. Dog-tags hurled his cellphone with a primal shout at the hostages. Hard plastic cracked against the bound man’s skull with a sickening sound that caused several of the young freedom fighters to wince. He cried out and writhed against his bonds, but that only seemed to fan the flames that the phone conversation had ignited. 

“I didn’t hear you crying when your countryman were dying in the streets!”

Dog-tags marched toward the three hostages. They tried to retreat, but with a wall at their backs and armed guards on either side there was nowhere to go. Dog-tags’ boot crashed heavily into the man’s fat stomach. His face contorted with pain, then connected with the tile floor as vomit erupted from the edges of his duct tape gag.  

“Is there no end to the suffering you’re able to cause!” shouted Dog-tags as his fist connected with another hostage’s face. She crumpled as Dog-tags was turning his fury on the last hostage when Rocca spoke. 

“You shouldn’t hit them.” The moment he opened his mouth he regretted it, but he kept it off his face. Be detached. That was his rule, and hard learned at that. Caring led to interfering. Interfering always ended with him using his powers. Using his powers is what She was waiting for, because then She could find them, and when She found them someone ended up dead for good. 

Dog-tags turned on him, but seemed to struggle for a moment to figure out who he was. Rocca and Kwame were a part of these Final Moments, but they didn’t quite seem to exist. They only phased into people’s perceptions when given a reason, and then the real world seemed to have to readjust itself to fold them in as thought they were supposed to be there. Rocca worried even that change might be enough to get Her attention, or the attention of something far worse. 

Dog-tags settle into some semblance of recognition along with the rest of the room who had turned, silent and tense, to see who had spoken. He marched up to Rocca, fury in his eyes, fists clenched and loaded, and glared down at Rocca.

“Are your loyalties with them, is that it? There’s no turning back. Are you with us or will you be joining them on the floor?”

Rocca’s eyes widened. It wasn’t the threat, he was beyond any power Dog-tags held sway over, nor was it the spent hourglass floating above Dog-tags’ forehead that told Rocca these were his Final Moments — he was never surprised by whose time was up anymore — it was the intense fear he could so clearly sense underneath the anger. How bad had the news from the phone call been?

Rocca looked past Dog-tags and scanned the young faces around the room, their breaths held whether they realized it or not. Dog-tags wasn’t taking well to being ignored, but just before he exploded, he turned and saw what Rocca had seen, a room full of frightened eyes, all on them.

“Fighting each other is exactly what they want. It’s what they’ve always wanted. They divide us, turn us on each other, and take everything from us while we tear each other apart. But we’re not going to let that happen anymore, are we?” 

A few of the kids gave sheepish shakes of their head.

“Now is the time for solidarity, to be as immovable as mountains and as fearless as angels. They’ve shut the heat off to test our resolve, and the lights to scare us, but they can’t make us forget why we’re here. 

“Our countrymen were driven from equitable prosperity with fear into arms which promised comfort, but instead sapped strength. Held there until they weren’t strong enough to resist. By the time they realized what had happened they were too weak to resist, snapping like dead trees against the violent winds of fascism, but we saw these devils for what they were. We bent like reeds and weathered the storm, and now we’ll show them not every hand is weak and not every sword was left to rust.”

It was easy to see why Dog-tags had been able to rally these kids, and why…no, he had to remain detached. The only lives he could save were Kwame’s and his own. 

Dog-tags walked back over to the hostages, all of who shrunk back at his approach. He glowered at each of them in turn. 

“We are stronger than their lies.” 

Dog-tags turned from the hostages to the rest of the room. “We have to sit tight for now, but stay vigilant.” 

More memories that weren’t his flooded Rocca’s mind. The botched entry. A lower-level official sympathetic to their cause had agreed to arrange a meeting with the parliament members under the guise that he would be providing each of them with a substantial bribe to free a number of local projects from bureaucratic red tape. This location appealed to the parliament members for the same reason it did to The Resistance: few people still worked here, and it wasn’t important enough to warrant any official government surveillance. A convenient blind spot in the system. A number of buildings around town were kept in similar perpetual states of disrepair for just this reason.

There had been only two sentries stationed at the building’s entrance, and both were surely nearing retirement. The plan had been to subdue them, capture the parliament members, then get out before the building’s skeleton crew knew what had happened. 

It did not go as planned. 

One of the sentries must have been ex-special-forces. It only took a single inattentive moment for him to effortlessly disarm his teen guard and turn the gun on him. He got off several shots, each one killing its target, before a girl who had never fired a gun shot him in a fearful rage when he turned the gun on her. The other sentry had slipped away in the chaos and trigger the alarm just before Dog-tags had shot him dead.

After that they had had to sift through the ensuing pandaemonium of routed government workers for their targets, and caught them only by luck on a side staircase where they were pushing others out of the way in their haste. By then the police had arrived, and they had no option but to drag the parliament members upstairs and regroup. Rocca could tell that the few seasoned soldiers in the group blamed the kids, but what did they expect from a ragtag team of passionate teens with no training who were handed guns and told to change the world?

“Was it wise to interfere?” Kwame asked Rocca.

“No, it was dangerous.”

“Then why do it?”

Rocca shook his head. “I just can’t stand by while people suffer.”

“You’re worried about the hostages?”

Rocca shrugged. “These kids have suffered enough, they don’t need to see that. No one should have to endure…” his gesture encompassed the room “any of this.”

Rocca felt very tired. Sighing heavily, he slumped as though there was a chair beneath him. Just before he fell, an overturned chair from across the room shifted out of reality then reappeared beneath him.As soon as he realized what he’d done he shot out of the chair 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Sometimes it just happens.”

He saw Kwame shiver, still averting his gaze.

Rocca chastised himself. He needed to maintain control or he would lead Her right to them!

“No, I’m sorry. I wasn’t meant to see such things,” said Kwame, “I should be used to it by now, but instead I can feel it grinding away my sanity.” Kwame shivered again and looked up at the ceiling. “Could you do something about the heat or lights?”

“Too noticeable.” 

“Too noticeable? What about that chair?”

“That was a mistake, and no one but you could see it. Anyone could have moved the chair, it doesn’t conflict with reality, but the lights and heat are different. The police cut the power to the building. I don’t mean they just shut it off, they got in there and cut the wires clean through. Anything I do might be enough for Her to sense us, but the more unnatural it is the brighter the beacon.”

“I saw Her,” said Kwame.

“What! When?”

“Just after Xu died for the last time. I never expected death to be so beautiful.”

Rocca grabbed Kwame by the shoulders.

“This is important, did she speak to you?”

Kwame nodded. “She asked me to take her hand. She told me there was peace for me on the other side and that she could take me there.”

Rocca searched Kwame eyes for more answers to how she might have affected him, but found only placid sorrow. 

“You can’t listen to her! She’s an empty well of hope filled with enough empty promises to drown in.”

“Do you not think there’s peace waiting for me in the next life?”

Rocca let go of him, his expression softening. “Of course I do.”

“Peace, she said it’s waiting for me if I go with her. Can you tell me that you wouldn’t go if you knew that was waiting for you?”

Rocca sighed. “I can, because that’s what she’s promised me from the beginning.”

“Why, Rocca? Why turn your back on peace? Why keep living and risk falling from grace?”

“Why live at all? Why don’t we kill our children when they’re born to shield them from any chance of sin? Because there is more to life than what waits for us after death. Because what we do in this life matters. Because our purpose hasn’t been fulfilled.”

As soon as he had said his peace he felt an ever-familiar disturbance in the substance of the Final Moment. He turned and stared out the windows, searching. It was like a beloved memory recalled and then left behind, followed by an ominous and expectant silence which waited to be filled. It heralded the end of the Final Moment. It was the shortest one yet.

“The end is coming,” said Rocca.  

Rocca was surprised to find that several of the nearby kids had heard him and were rushing over to peer down beyond the protesters and police, straining to identify what he had seen.

“I don’t see it,” said one of them. Rocca continued to stare undisturbed out the window. As time passed and still nothing revealed itself, all of the kids except a single boy of maybe fifteen returned to their posts.

“I didn’t want him to hurt them as much as he did either.” the kid said to Rocca in hushed tones. “But we’re doing the right thing, right?”

Rocca wished he had ignored the kid — people would usually stop noticing him if he didn’t keep giving them a reason to interact with him — because now he could clearly see the spent hourglass floating above his forehead.

Rocca sighed. “I don’t know, kid. Let’s hope so.”

The kid watched him for a moment, then stared out the window as well. 

“Both my parents were executed for treason,” blurted the kid, the words coming easier as he went. “They organized some of the first resistance efforts when I was ten. Me and my sister have been on the move since they were taken away. She was the one who shot the sentry. We took work anywhere we could find it, and stole when we couldn’t. It’s been hard. 

“I remember asking my mom why they were fighting, and she told me it was so me and my sister could have a better life. When I think about how the government killed them for that, I want to shoot every last one of them in the head, and then myself, because I just think maybe if I had whined less they wouldn’t have fought so hard, and they might still be here. We didn’t have very much, but it’s more than we have now.

“We eventually stopped running and joined the resistance. What else were we going to do? Our parents were terrorists, which made us fugitives. We would have been executed without even having done anything. We volunteered for this mission because we thought it would be easy. But also because we wanted justice, and to let the rest of the government know that this could happen to them too. But you know what? When my sister killed the sentry I wanted to cry, and everything that’s happened since makes me want to cry, and that makes me so goddamned mad. They killed my parents and I’m crying for them? What’s wrong with me?”

The kid’s head slumped against the window.

 “I just want all the hurting to stop.”

Rocca squeezed the kid’s shoulder,  wondering how they could bear the weight as he blinked away tears.

“You’re doing good, kid.” Pathetic. Was that really all he could muster in the face of so much courage? Was that really all he could do?

“I don’t know why I told you all that, but I feel better.” Courage pointed out the window “Hey is that what you were talking about? Those trucks coming around the corner?” 

Rocca nodded, and the expectant silence began to fill with inevitability.

The front tire of the lead truck burst, startling the crowd of protesters and causing it to swerve wildly. The sudden change in direction almost toppled the vehicle, but somehow when it got rear-ended by the truck following it, it shimmied back onto a balanced footing, and came to screeching, sparking stop. Rocca regretted it as soon as he had done it. More could have been killed or injured, and he could only at best delay the end. He shouldn’t risk bringing Her down on them, even for all these poor kids.

“Those are military trucks,” shouted Courage, and the crowd around the window quickly reformed. Even Dog-tags found a place to watch the soldiers piled out and mulled around the truck. 

It wasn’t long before the soldiers collected themselves and left the trucks behind, becoming a flowing stream of body armor and assault weapons. Two-by-two, they made their way through a narrow gap in the crowd of protesters the police had managed to make. One protestor stepped out into the passage, shaking a sign and shouting at the oncoming soldiers. The butt of a rifle lashed out and caught him in the face, and he went down hard. The soldiers never slowed a step. 

 A cellphone rang, and one of the two men guarding the parliament members pulled it from his pocket and answered it. After listening for a moment, he tossed the phone to Dog-tags who caught it and pressed it to his ear. His expression went grim as he listened, and without saying a word he clicked off the call and tossed the phone back without looking. 

“No one’s coming.”

The lingering silence that followed was finally lifted by the girl who shot the sentry. “There weren’t supposed to be any soldiers. Just in and out, that was how it was supposed to be. We don’t stand a chance against them!”

Her brother, Courage, rushed to hold and comfort her, but her loud sobs began to unravel the rest of them. Everyone started talking at once as the hostages squirmed and pleaded. The three seasoned soldiers tried to regain order, but it remained elusive, and the din of the rabble grew. One of the boys stepped up to the window and took aim at the soldiers.

“Put that down!”

Dog-tags’ should brought the room to a halt. All eyes turned on him.

“I said, put that gun down!”

The boy at the window lowered his rifle so fast he nearly dropped it.

“Your cowardice embarrasses all of us!” Dog-tags shouted at the room. “Pull yourselves together!”

A wave a shame swept through the room, blending sickly with fear on the faces of all the kids, but, to Rocca’s surprise, it gave way to an angry resolve, and moments later the assembled rabble stood ready, if unsteady. 

“Get the hostages to their feet! The rest of you, get ready to move! You two, check the hallway and make sure it’s clear or clear it!” 

Rocca was shocked that that last command had been directed at him and Kwame, but they obeyed, moving with instincts that weren’t their own. Kwame opened the door as Rocca raised his weapon to the ready, scanning the hallway in one direction while pressed against the wall. He stepped in an arc across the doorframe, exposing as little of himself while maximizing his view. The hallway was clear. He moved into position on one side of the door, took a knee, and held his rifle at the ready. Kwame mirrored him, then Rocca gave the all clear.

“Something’s different,” said Kwame. “They never interact with us this much.” 

“I noticed that too,” replied Rocca.

“What does it mean?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe we’re getting closer to the real world, or maybe we’ve in a lot of trouble. Either way, stay alert. We don’t want to miss an opportunity or get caught off guard.”

Once everyone emptied into the hallway, Dog-tags sorted them out into two groups. Courage and his sister were sent with Rocca and Kwame along with one of the hostages and a man with brass colored skin to lead them.

“Right now they don’t know how many of us there are,” said Dog-tags. “I shouldn’t have brought so many of you, but they won’t expect there to be so many of us either, so if we split up one of the groups should have a good chance of making it out. We’ll try for the East side, you take the South side. When you make it out, head for the regular rendezvous, we’ll be there as fast as we can. Do whatever it takes to keep the hostages alive; they have to face the resistance’s justice. May God keep you safe. Now go!”

The Brass Man used hand signals to relay his instructions, and they began their cautious advance toward the South side of the building as a heavy silence descended upon them. Rocca didn’t fear death, but his body didn’t seem to know it. His heart pounded in his ears as he wiped away sweat. He could hear every slight squeak of rubber boots on tile, every clattering of equipment, and the steady sobs of their hostages.

The Brass Man stopped them and turned to the bound and broken woman, giving her a disparaging look.

“It doesn’t matter what we think of each other anymore,” he began in hushed tones, “We’re in this together from here on. If we make it, you make it. If we die, you die. Get it? So keep that in mind before you lose your head and start shouting at the first soldier you see to save you.”

It occurred to Rocca that he couldn’t feel the soldiers. He couldn’t feel where they were, nor what they were doing. When he reached out for them they just slipped away. Rocca hoped this meant they really were coming closer to home, but that hope was quickly losing ground to a growing dread that something was very, very wrong. 

Rocca moved up alongside Kwame as they came upon south stairwell. He leaned over to give voice to his trepidation just as a bullet burst through the Brass Man’s chest, his zeal erupting against the wall as his unrealized scream tore from the lips of the girl behind him. 

Muzzle flashes flared from both sides as the soldiers came out from around the corner. Rocca pushed Courage to the floor without thinking and returned fire. His shots intentionally connected only with kevlar plates, sending two of the five soldiers reeling back as bullets curved around his will and struck the wall behind him. The hostage broke away and sprinted directly into the line of fire. Courage’s sister put a hole in his spine before taking one in the chest herself. In another heartbeat and burst of gunfire the exchange ended. 

The heavily muted world around him pulsed and burned as adrenaline tore through Rocca’s veins. Far away, Courage shook and shouted at the motionless form of his sister, no one else still stood on either side. When the adrenaline began to ebb, the world rocketed back into focus with a sudden, sickening impact.

Rocca didn’t bother to check the sea of spent hourglasses for pulses as he rushed over to Kwame. He found his friend on the floor gasping for breath, his clothing splattered with blood. Rocca went down to one knee beside him, skillfully shouldering his weapon without a thought. 

“Rocca… it’s beautiful,” Kwame rasped through his obvious pain, staring past Rocca. 

Rocca tore open Kwame’s shirt with practiced indifference and inspected the damage. The government soldiers had been good shots. Another hair’s-width over and the shot would have been instantly fatal. As it was, the wound was still mortal. 

“How does it look?” asked Kwame.

“Bad. Fatal as always,” sighed Rocca, a touch of relief in his words. 

Kwame nodded and spoke slowly. “Good, good. I’m very tired.” 

“Looks like this is where we part ways again.”

Rocca stood and took careful aim. One clean shot would bring Kwame relief until their next Final Moments. 

“It’s for good this time, brother.”

Rocca stopped and stared at Kwame over his weapon. “What?”

“What are you doing, are you crazy‽” Courage pulled Rocca’s weapon down with both hands. “You can’t just kill him! We have to try and help him and my sister!”

Courage’s words faded into the background as Rocca watched a spent hourglass manifest over Kwame’s forehead

“You can’t give up on me,” said Rocca, numbly. 

“I’m sorry, Rocca, but I have to,” said Kwame. 

Rocca tossed his gun aside and took a knee, scooping up Kwame’s hand in his, squeezing it tightly. “I can still get you home. You don’t have to leave me. You don’t understand what you’re doing.”

“You’re right,” replied Kwame, struggling to hold his other bloodied hand over Rocca’s. “I don’t understand anything here. I’m not like you, Rocca, I’m not…touched. I don’t belong here, and I’m already late for what comes next.”

“No…” Tears welled up in Rocca’s eyes. “We have to make it back together.” 

“No, Rocca, don’t you see?” Kwame smiled through the pain. “You were right, you are closer to making it home, because we were keeping you here. Each time one of us let go you got closer. It’s why everything has been so strange. Once I’m gone you’ll be able to return.” 

Before Rocca could form a reply he saw Her. And felt Her, and heard Her, and could smell and taste Her. The hallway opened out onto a gold and green windblown meadow lit by a sky filled with sun and stars together. It was a place where he had been with Her before. It was a way-gate to a place beyond here, beyond home, beyond anywhere else, and from that place she stepped out— the embodiment of the beautiful sunset of life and a peace that never ended. 

Lies, she was all lies. 

“Thank goodness I found you, Rocca, my love, I thought I had truly lost you.” Her entrancing words permeated through him and everything around them, reverberating out into places he couldn’t describe yet still perceived, making it difficult for Rocca to think or focus. He pushed through the mental haze and faced Her. 

“Drop the act, you never loved me! I recognize Death when it’s right in front of me, and I’ll fight you to the end!”

“Who are talking to?” asked Courage, panicked and pulling hard on Rocca’s sleeve. “You have to help my sister!”

Sorrow touched Her face. “All has been how it had to be, Rocca, I saw no other way, but please,” she held out her hand to him, “come away from this place with me, I can give you peace.”

Her presence pulled at all of him. It reached deep into him and offered solace for the pain, for the loneliness, for the death, for everything, but Rocca didn’t want it. She was the one blocking his senses, trying to corner him; he was sure of it.

“The only place we’re going is home.”

Rocca turned back to Courage. “Your sister is dead, but there’s still time to help my friend. Get on his other side and help me get him up.”

Courage nodded, tears streaking his shocked face. They moved to either side of Kwame, and a count to three brought him to his feet. One of the hostages still lived. Rocca held up Kwame as Courage got her standing. They began to move. Rocca never looked back.

“Leave me…” said Kwame. 

“Just hold on,” pleaded Rocca.

“Rocca…” rasped Kwame, “the farmhouse wasn’t your fault.”

“Just…” Rocca fought back tears, “just hold on.”

Together the four of them made their way over the fallen government soldiers and slowly down the stairs. After only one short half-flight, Rocca pulled them all back around a corner, having come face to face with another group of soldiers on the landing below. Rocca let loose a burst of suppressing fire without looking as the rest of group collapsed against a section of broken wall that held a large gas pipe inside of it. 

“Hey!” Courage shouted to Rocca, “hey, I don’t think he’s breathing!”

As the tears came Rocca opened himself fully to the power inside himself. He felt infinite. He became a supernova only She could see. Rocca poured all of it all into Kwame, willing his wounds to heal. Life rushed into Kwame’s body as his wounds vanished and breath filled his lungs in a rush.

“Kwame!” Rocca gripped his only friend by the shoulders and shook him. “Kwame!” But despite the life that filled his body, the life had left Kwame’s eyes.

Too late Rocca realized what the heavy metallic clinking his unconscious had picked up on was. Rocca turned and leaped at Courage, wrapping his body around him to shield him from the grenade.

Open air welcomed shattered glass and bone alike. Their bodies twisted slowly and unnaturally in the void as they plummeted toward the police, protesters, and news crews below. Rocca opened burned eyes and saw Her there, holding Kwame’s hand as his physical body fell away, offering her other to him. He turned away. He must have been too slow, Courage was already dead in his arms. As the ground rushed up to meet them and the people below screamed and scattered, Rocca poured every ounce of will he had left into a single point of focus.

No more running. 

Seared and broken bodies connected with concrete. 

Rocca blinked.