Through hazy eyes all he saw was blue. Sitting up, he could see he was in some kind of white, open field, the blue being the sky above.
Rocca rose and stood on shaky legs as he shouted for his friend over and over, but no reply came. His adrenaline burned away the dream-like haze, and Rocca remembered. He was alone, truly alone. He sank to he knees.
“Why did you give up?” he whispered, no longer able to keep the emptiness and fear at bay. “We were so close. I would have gotten you home.”
He’d lost everyone. He couldn’t breath. He hadn’t saved anyone. His vision blurred. He’d only made them suffer more. His heart thundered. Rocca collapsed, feeling paralyzed as he curled into himself.
The pain was too much to bare. Rocca tried to call out to Her to take him, but couldn’t seem to catch his breath. As he was just about to try again, the feeling that something was off pushed through his anguish. Through tear-burry and rapidly blinking eyes he searched the sky, trying to figure out what it was that was bothering him. When he finally figured out what it was, the shock of it slowed the crushing waves of panic that had pinned him down — there was no sun.
The sky was completely clear, bright and blue like a summer’s day, yet the sun was missing. For the first time he inspected the ground he lay on. It was puffy and white, slightly cool and damp to the touch, and swirled lightly as he disturbed it. It looked like…a cloud. He got to his feet and found he could stand firmly. The ground swirled and dispersed slightly with each step he took, but it was no more difficult than walking across a damp field.
This wasn’t another Final Moment. Where was he? Rocca reached out with his senses and gasped sharply. Instead of a greater awareness of the world around him he had always felt in the Final Moments, here he had been struck by purifying wind of such force that it toppled him as it blew away all the panic, fears, and pain that had barely been held at bay like so many leaves in a storm. In the void that had long been growing inside him, a candle’s flame now flared brightly, and the darkness disappeared as though it had never been there. Rocca finally found his breath again and gasped, filling his lungs with a shuddering breath as tears roll down his cheeks. Everything was so beautiful and peaceful.
In time the winds passed and the candle’s flame reached a steady burn. Rocca’s old pains returned, but he felt them far less sharply than before. As he regained his feet, he found his supernatural senses had done more than make him host to whatever incredible force had healed him. This place, whatever and wherever it was, was deeply familiar to him, and unlike the knowledge he gained while in Final Moments which always felt foreign, this felt like it was somehow his. He didn’t know what to make of it. He also now could feel an ethereal yet firm force pulling at him from behind. He turned to face it, and though the terrain in all directions was identical, he knew where he needed to go.
Rocca wasn’t sure how long he had been walking when he passed the threshold. His thoughts — joyful for having finally escaped the Final Moments, yet still swimming with questions about his new situation and what he might find at the end of the strange compass — had been his only point of reference as neither the clouds beneath him nor the sky above gave any indication of time or distance, and he felt no fatigue. There wasn’t any change either ahead or behind him, but he had felt the distinct impression of passing through something, and the vague feelings of familiarity had left him.
With caution, he continued on in this new yet similar place, and soon saw in the distance a break in the clouds he walked on. In time he reached it, and found himself on the edge of a great abyss. Peering down onto the scene far below, he was witness to the bizarre primordial chaos.
Waves of Lava crashed against a wall of colossal and ancient trees, transforming into rocks and filtering between them like surf on a beach. As the rock surf dissipated with distance, the wave changed again, becoming a rushing sprouting field of grass and wildflowers wherever the wave touched. Further away the fields filled with dense underbrush rippled and flowed, eventually streaming into water. The water gathered in volume and force, flowing into a river and then over a cliff. Far below where the water crashed against jagged blue crystals of ice it burst into clouds of birds.
The wind caught strange fruits from the trees that interspersed the underbrush, loosing them from their branches and blowing them far in a different direction until they found purchase on a rocky plateau which glimmered with veins of crystal and gold. Each fruit moldered and seeded, blossoming into brilliant flowers with unfurling foxes at their center. The vulpine pack yawned and stretched before trotting to gather at a near by pool, forming a ring around it. Once each had found its place, they howled with the song wolves, dancing around the pool until an enormous whale erupted from the surface, leaping high into the air. The whale and trail of sea spray solidified, forming a twisted sapling of the tree that fruited them. The foxes stood on their hind legs, opened their muzzles to the sky, then burst into flame. The vulpine ashes filled the air with a thick black swarm of bats which swirled over bison pulling themselves from the earth amongst a brushfire that’s smoke filled the surrounding sky with billowing clouds.
“The Primordium Core,” Rocca whispered in awe. Again, this knowledge wasn’t entirely his, yet still somehow it too felt a part of him, as did the roiling ocean of pure creation below. He wondered what this place was, yet no answer came to him from either within or without.
Rocca lifted his gaze across the great expanse of open air to a far shore he couldn’t see but could feel was there. That was where the pull needed him to go, but he had no way across. No sooner had he thought this than the clouds beneath him took shape. Long slats of cloud pressed together to form the deck of a ship, retaining it’s misty white color despite its firmness under foot. Turning, he watched the stern take shape, each long slat flowing into place before solidifying. A small whirlwind manifested at the back of the ship, forming into a curved tower of carved animal forms, thick at the base and narrowing as it rose and arched up and towards the center of the ship, topped by a foggy sphere that would have just barely fit in his palm. Several gossamer strands shot from the sphere into the air above which exploded into an undulating cloud of birds. The strands didn’t quite connect with either the sphere or the birds, yet the tether bound the two together.
“Onward,” he said, and the birds, wing fluttering wildly, surged forward. Whatever slack there had been in the tether was pulled taught and Rocca’s ship was ripped from the cloud dock and out into the open air, pitching enough to topple its captain before settling into a gentle rocking to and fro. For the first time in longer than he could remember Rocca laughed in earnest. Crawling on his hands and knees to the edge, he pulled himself up to peer over the edge and watch the mesmerizing scene below.
Rocca couldn’t have said how long he sat watching the endless stretches of ever-morphing landscape, but the feeling of another threshold approaching came long before he tired of the view. He stood and made his way to the bow. On the horizon was a massive vortex of clouds set into the middle of the opposite shore of clouds. The left shore flowed into the top side of the spinning tunnel of open air as the right shore flowed into its underside. Though the vortex had little external depth, through it Rocca could see it stretch on and on, and the pull was drawing him into it.
As Rocca neared the entrance to the vortex he could feel more than just the pull, he could feel Her on the other side, waiting. This could well all be a trap laid just just for him. The realization should have terrified him, but instead he felt resolute. He was done running. He was still afraid, but he was done running. The cloud of birds, sensing his initial apprehension, had slowed, but now they pressed on, heralding his charge with a din of screeches.
The vortex was the size of a small skyscraper on a side. Rocca admired the slowly spinning grandeur of the thing as it first loomed over him then surrounded him on all sides. Rather than a solid wall of cloud, the interior of the vortex was missing long twisting strips through which Rocca could see bright sky in all directions. The end of the tunnel was still too far away to see beyond a small circle of blackness, but it wouldn’t be long now.
The sun, though unseen, was setting in the sky as he traversed the vortex, and the closer he got to the other side the more distinctly separate the pull and his sense of Her became. The way home was guarded by Death. Rocca thought of home, and held the picture of spending a lazy summer Saturday with his sister Lacy at his parent’s place clearly in his mind. He would face Her to see them again, he would face Her for them.
She had pursued him relentlessly across hundreds of Final Moments. He didn’t believe she could be reasoned or bargained with, but he had to at least try. Despite his powers, he was certain he didn’t stand a chance against Her. Rocca had been about to say that he didn’t know how to fight anyway, but that wasn’t true — Final Moments had taught him so many things — still, he had no idea of what weapon he could conjure that could hurt Death.
As the end of the vortex neared, Rocca moved to the bow of the airship. Dusk was now upon him, and he could see stars in the growing darkness in the breaks in the clouds. As the light waned, the sphere, at the pinnacle of what he supposed qualified as a mast, had illuminated with a soft white glow that lit the airship. He was thankful for the soft light which didn’t interfere with his night-vision since from what he could see the other side of the vortex was just stars and black, empty space. Holding his breath, the airship passed through the threshold and exited the vortex, which silently collapsed behind him.
It was dark and quiet. The only light besides his ship came from the stars above, and they didn’t reveal anything of his location, but they did show him how low the horizon was, which meant he must be very high up. Facing the pull, Rocca stared into the darkness. There he saw the vague, dark outline of a massive amorphous shape floating ominously in the distance. Rocca could feel Her in there somewhere.
Rocca was trying to decide wether or not he was risking announcing his arrival by reaching out with his senses to get some sense of what was out there when a burst of lighting revealed it all. The massive shape was the anvil of a thunderhead set atop the center of an even larger flat, ringed expanse of clouds. From the underside of that plateau of clouds torrents of rain fell onto an endless ocean of violent churning black water.
Rocca directed his airship toward the thunderhead which, as it was only made visible by the sporadic lightning flashes, seemed to grow in sudden spurts. Rocca found the effect unnerving, expecting at any moment to find Her there waiting for him in the next revealing flash. He did his best to quell his fears and devise a plan, but nothing plausible came to mind, and the repeated failure only exacerbated his growing anxiety.
Sooner than he wanted, Rocca’s airship crossed the outer edge of thunderhead’s airspace as lightning again lit the awe-inspiring scene. Despite his proximity, the thunder sounded as it might from miles away, and odder still, this time the light hadn’t faded. The lightning, which had arced out from the anvil towards the plateau of clouds appeared to be moving in slow motions as clouds spun around it. The clouds formed a basin beneath it, then wove threads up and around a unseen oval container around it that stretched up into the overhang of the anvil where it was capped by an identical, inverted basin. All along the inner surface of the lantern the lightning slowly forked and bounced back and forth between ends. A second lantern formed opposite the first, framing a path leading into the anvil.
Rocca directed his airship towards the space between those lanterns. From the perimeter of the thunderhead those lanterns had seemed small, but as he came upon them he realized they were the height of large buildings. Between the lanterns an arched doorway of equally grand proportions formed with double doors. Set into the center of those doors was a massive black angular outline of an hourglass with a red triangle of spent sand in its bottom half. The pair of doors parted, and light flooded out just as a bolt of lightning from high above lanced through the rear of the airship.
Rocca was falling. The untethered cloud of birds scattered in all directions as shattered fragments of his airship slipped away beneath him. Rocca saw clouds rushing to meet him. With a thought, Rocca slowed his own descent to a crawl. He watched the charred and fragmented remains of his ship crash into the clouds, bursting into mist upon impact. Rocca touched down amongst the evaporated debris and stared up at the gates.
Rocca took a deep breath. No more running. He walked through the gates which had opened just wide enough to admit him unhindered. Once he was inside they close behind him. Turning to look, Rocca saw the doors become a seamless part of the walls of the chamber he now found himself in. The circular chamber, though tiny in comparison to the thunderhead it resided in, was nevertheless massive in size. The chamber was filled with lush trees and plants of all shapes and sizes swaying in a warm breeze and lit by large, multi-colored glowing crystals. The domed transparent ceiling above looked out onto a starry night, and at its apex was a slow-swirly pinwheel of white light. In front of him was a path of sand leading to a stone dais at the center of the room and directly beneath the spinning white light.
The sand was warm under Rocca’s bare feet. Wondering where his shoes had gone, he noticed his clothes had become loose, flowing, white-linen robes. Above his head floated a coronet halo of light, and from just beyond behind his shoulder-blades translucent feathered wings of light sprouted and fanned out behind him in a flourish. Rocca had worn enough masks and skins to not be affected what he assumed was Her doing.
Rocca knew She was here, but couldn’t sense her. He made his way up onto the smooth stone dais. The pull he had followed all this way rooted him to the spot. Rocca peered up at the pinwheel of light, and as he did it shimmered and coalesced into a portal which, very disorienty, looked out onto a beautiful sunny field of swaying wheat, in the middle of which stood Kwame.
“Kwame!” Rocca shouted up at his friend who didn’t register the words or his distress, and began waiving goodbye. Damn her.
“What are you waiting for?” Rocca shouted at the room around him. “Show yourself already!”
“Welcome, Rocca, to The Temple of the New Dawn beyond The Final Night.”
Opposite him on the dais, Rocca now saw Her. He felt, heard, tasted, smelled, and sensed Her in ways beyond what he could understand, and it was more overwhelming here than he had ever experienced.
“Bring him back!” shouted Rocca, trying in vain to shield himself from the force of Her presence.
“It is not your place nor power to chose Kwame’s path, Rocca, that is for him alone. He has found peace, and it is time you did too.”
“My time’s not done yet. I’m going home!”
Her power was so great here he found himself feeling completely torn between his desire to make it home and the sudden desire to follow Kwame into those sunny fields.
“The power which you wield is that of The Divine, and it is far too great and dangerous for any of your kind to possess. While you still live every life is in danger. Rocca, you threaten existence itself.”
Her calm infuriated him. “Whatever this is, I never asked for this!”
“No, you didn’t. It was chosen for you by The First Mother. But whether you chose the power you wield or not, you are responsible for it. Will you cling to selfishly to a life left long behind you, endangering the souls of all who who were, are, and will be; or will you embrace the peace of The New Dawn? Your soul is not heavy with sin, Rocca. Your journey from here will be an easy one.”
Every word had been a sundering blow against Rocca’s resolve. He felt bowed and broken before Her.
“Lies…” he could barely muster the strength to utter the words.
“You fought valiantly, Rocca, and now it’s time to rest.”
A shimmering emerald light filled the space between the dais and the portal. Rocca was lifted by the light, and slowly pulled toward the portal and The New Dawn beyond. It felt good to let the light take him. No more worries, no more running. Rocca had almost reached the portal when something penetrated the deep submissive reverie which held him. It was the pull. It was coming from beneath him. He turned his head lazily and peered down at it. He reached out with his senses, and felt it.
Rocca stopped in front of the portal, watching Kwame walk away and along a well-traveled path toward a mirrored sphere off in the distance.
“We’ll meet again,” he whispered “but I’m going home.”
Rocca began to fall. His coronet halo and wings of light melted up and away as he fell. The impact with the dais should have killed him, but instead the stone shattered and gave way, tearing away his clothes as he passed through the shards. He now fell through rain and darkness interspersed with flashes of lightning, and as the circle of light above grew smaller, Rocca laughed in the face of death, which looked down upon him with reproach, and fear.
There was a deafening clap of thunder, then Rocca could hear voices.
“They were using child soldiers! And you’re trying to tell us that we should support them? They’re terrorists!”
“You’re twisting the facts. I won’t dispute the fact that the majority of the soldiers were kids, but all the evidence strongly suggested they were fighting against what they saw as an oppressive regime that had left them no other option than to take up arms. This is very much in contrast to the kidnapped, brainwashed, and abused African children lead by power-hungry demagogues that the term “child soldiers” refers to.”
“It’s sickening that you’ve become an apologist for these terrorists. The blood of these children is as much on your hands as theirs!”
“What’s sickening here is the crippling poverty and oppression that drove children to a life so hard that they feared their own futures more than death.”
Rain. More Thunder.
Rocca opened his eyes. Across the room and above him two men were arguing on a television screen. A flash of light drew his attention to a window at the far side of the strange room just before the clap of thunder shook the room. As he drew in a deep breath he became aware of the steady beeping of heart monitor. What hat been rain pelting against the window a moment before turned into hail as a droning siren somewhere outside picked up speed and began to howl.
“Third tornado this month!” came the voice of a woman from the hallway. “You take that side and I’ll take this one.”
She strode quickly into the room without looking his way. She wore scrubs and a stethoscope around her neck. A nurse.
“No more TV for you tonight, Mr. Rocca.” She reached up and clicked off the set.
“That’s alright,” said Rocca. “I wasn’t really watching it anyway.”
The nurse yelped and whipped around, her features locked in shock as she stared unblinking at him.
Rocca looked down at himself. He looked as he always had to himself, though he was dressed in a hospital gown and attached via more wires than he could easily count to machines all around him. He tried to reach out with his senses, but nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. Was it possible? Could he have made it home? There was one way he thought he could be sure.
Rocca turned back to the nurse. “Where am I?”
She was breathing hard, her gaze shooting between him and the machines, so he waived at her.
“In case you’re afraid I’m going to hurt you, I don’t think I can get up with all these wires attached, so you’re probably safe. Can you please tell me where I am?”
That seemed to shake the nurse enough to get an answer.
“You’re at the Center for Advanced Neurological Studies in Kansas City.”
“And who am I?”
“Do you not know?” Her eyes darted around the room as she moved to leave. “I…I need to get someone.”
“Please, just answer me!”
Her eyes went wide again and she stared at him. He soothed his tone.
“You’re Mordecai Rocca.”
In all the Final Moments he’d lived and died through, no one had ever known him as himself. He was home. As the nurse ran shouting from the room, he broke down in tears.
He was finally home.