The Chosen One bent down and picked up the tiny hourglass that had recently been Svetlana. As he did, they returned to the main mausoleum.
Sexy Screamy Spider Lady slowly rose from her kneeling position. She continued to look at where Svetlana had been but a moment before.
“I had forgotten…” she said softly to that empty space. “How young I was.”
Qube didn’t quite know what to make of that statement.
“How young you were when training for the Thorny Trials started?” she asked, seeking clarification. “It did seem awfully intense for one so little. If we hadn’t been there to help, you might have gotten seriously hurt.”
Sure, Ruler Wefton had said he would be watching over the small wood elf, but given the memory of him hadn’t intervened when a party of strangers showed up, she doubted his version of supportive oversight and hers aligned.
Everyone knew the best support was loudly given from directly behind the person in trouble.
“In a way,” the arachnid said quietly. “My parents started preparing me for rule when I was very young. But what I’d forgotten was how heavy the hand of the Golden Prophecy had been back then.”
“While I well understand its noble purpose, its execution was ruthless,” Sencha Bard said meaningfully.
The Hunter didn’t acknowledge that, instead continuing to frown at the ground. She licked her fangs, then gave a heavy sigh. She straightened herself, pushing back her shoulder joints as she looked the Chosen One directly in the eyes.
“I think we should break up,” she said to the Hero.
The Chosen One gaped at her.
“What?” he asked, eloquently. The Hunter inhaled, calming herself.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, my love. It’s not that I don’t care for you; a part of me will always love you, but I just can’t be with you right now.”
“I … okay,” the Chosen One said. The Hunter raised a claw.
“Please, don’t speak. Don’t make this any harder than it needs to be— Wait, what do you mean okay?”
The Chosen One contorted around himself slightly, cringing away from the person dumping him.
“I mean, um, obviously, I don’t want you to feel bad, so it’s okay,” he said hurriedly. “Actually, I would be interested to know your reasoning, but that’s not me fighting you on this, I’m just curious.”
“Do you truly have no inkling as to my reasoning?” the Hunter asked. She narrowed her eyes at the Hero, her tone dangerous.
Qube was surprised; she would have thought the Hunter would be pleased to have him so easily agree to being broken up with. After all, the Chosen One was among the most important people in the world, and the Hunter was his one true love, so it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for him to have been incredulous or upset at being unceremoniously dumped in front of all his friends.
The Hero, however, seemed to pick up that the Hunter wasn’t entirely pleased with his casual attitude towards being broken up with, and launched into a small speech:
“I mean, I kinda got the impression you weren’t super happy, so really, if this’ll make you happy, who am I to stop you?” The Hero warmed up to his theme. “I care about you, maybe not entirely the same way you care about me, but what kind of jerk would I have to be to demand you stay in a relationship you weren’t happy with? Also, clearly the Golden Prophecy was messing with your head so…” he made a helpless gesture. “That’s bad,” he finished.
The Hunter looked at him. She swallowed once or twice, her eyes swimming with unshed tears.
“You knew, then,” she said huskily. “How much it influenced me. Is that why you fought so hard against our powerful attraction?”
The Hero scratched his cheek, embarrassed.
“Sure, let’s say that,” he said.
“Well, then, my love, I need say no more. You understand why I can’t be with you, and I now understand why you were so shy in the beginning, and kept urging me to hold back. I can only be grateful that you are too much a true gentleman to have never taken advantage of our raw, sensual chemistry.”
The rest of the party were silent as the Hunter and the Hero had their moment together. Qube was quiet because she really didn’t understand romance, and was just sad to see her friends upset, and the Bard and Mage were presumably mute for the same reasons. Certainly the two men looked serious enough for that to be the case.
“As part of my exploration of myself, and to mark my journey on this new path, free from any interference or control, no matter how well-intentioned, I have chosen a name for myself,” Sexy Screamy Spider Lady said, drawing herself up to her full height. “One that honours my past, while paving the way for a new future. You may address me as… Sexy Screamy Spider Briar!”
The Chosen One facepalmed.
“Or Lady Briar, if you’d prefer,” the Hunter added.
Qube lit up.
“That’s such a pretty name!” she exclaimed, reaching out towards the Hunter. The freshly-named Sexy Screamy Spider Briar turned away from the Chosen One and grasped her outstretched hands.
“Isn’t it?” she said with a purr. “I feel as if it will help me break free, and remind me that I am not beholden to anyone’s attempts to tame me.”
“Lady Briar, my wild rose, you are aptly named,” Sencha Bard said, sweeping his hat off his head as he bowed to her. “While your old name was perfect, it only touched the surface of who you are. The depths to this name suit you well.”
“Thank you,” Sexy Screamy Spider Briar said graciously.
Squiggles wrapped herself around the Hunter’s legs, gently nibbling on a loose tuft of fur, in what was no doubt a show of support.
“Well my darlings,” Lady Briar said, wiping the unshed tears from her eyes and sniffing slightly, “as exciting as getting in touch with myself is, shouldn’t we be moving on? The middle of a Temple is not the safest place to linger, after all.”
“There are no traps here that I have seen, but your point is well made, my untamed flower,” Sencha Bard said. The Hunter’s suddenly single status seemed to have caused him to revert to his more flattering language.
“But, Sexy—um, Briar,” Qube hurriedly corrected herself, “how old were you when you when the forest was cursed?”
“Oh, it was about eight or so years ago,” Sexy Screamy Spider Briar said breezily.
Qube rubbed her forehead, trying to organise her thoughts.
“That memory we saw,” she said, “of you in the Forest Temple. You were attacked by what looked like cursed creatures. We fought them when we defeated the Forbidden Forest Temple.”
Sexy Screamy Spider Briar looked at Qube, surprised.
“Oh, no, those were just creatures from deeper inside the Forbidden Forest,” she said. “The people of the forest rarely go so deep because of their fierce nature. We went there as part of some of the quests we were given, remember?”
“Well, was there always a giant Boss spider at the top of the Temple?” Qube couldn’t seem to get the idea out of her head that there was something wrong with the memory. More than just Ruler Wefton not coming to help his daughter, those twisted creatures hadn’t appeared in any of their quests in the deep woods, no matter what the wood elf said.
“Oh, yes,” the Hunter said, very casual about the giant murderous employer that had been sitting just above her entire village. “But it was driven mad by the curse, and started attacking everyone on sight.”
Qube fairly felt her brain heat, she was thinking so hard.
“Whatcha thinking about?” the Chosen One asked her. Qube jerked back to reality. The Hero was giving her a cautious look, as if he wasn’t sure if she was going to suddenly react badly.
“The Temples,” she said obscurely. “I’ve known about them my entire life, but they can’t be ancient. I understand that time moves differently in the Devs’ realm, and so gravestones that look ancient to us could easily have been placed by the Devs you know, especially given I don’t know how long Devs live for, but everything about the Temples implies they’re recent.”
She started ticking items off on her fingers as she spoke.
“The Dryad Queen curse, which turned the first Bestowal creature hostile, was less than a decade old. The lava slime and salamanders of the Fire Temple blamed each other for a creature coming and stopping them from accessing their True Fire/First Breath. Sure, that weird dragon outline had said it’d waited a hundred years to be rescued, but that could have just meant it being taken out of that strange dimension. There’s no way both species would have survived with no access to their food or evolution source for a hundred years.”
She started pacing as she ticked off more Temples.
“The fishing village people said that the Deep Ones had turned, and the whirlpool had recently appeared and they couldn’t go fishing. Which, they’re fish folk so I don’t know how they would be happy about eating something that looked so much like them, but anyway, the point is, that giant eel that was causing the disruption can’t have existed for terribly long, or else they too would have starved to death.”
She was moving faster now, excited.
“At the Air Temple the lion had only recently become a problem, and the Shadow Temple…” she trailed off, before waving the Shadow Temple away. “Well, that was a weird place, anyway. And the giant scorpion from the Light Temple couldn’t have been burrowing around for terribly long, and the damage to the BrightSand people’s homes looked recent.”
Qube swung around and stared at the Chosen One, her eyes burning.
“Don’t you see?” she exclaimed. “All this time I’ve felt this terrible urge, that we had to hurry to save the world, and I didn’t know why. Oh, I know Alderman would say things about the Evil Emperor being in charge was poisoning the land, and yes, I knew the land and people were just a reflection of their rulers, but I didn’t understand.”
She took a deep breath, shaking with the weight of her revelation.
“As his power grows, he’s corrupting paragons of Good, selected to hold powerful Bestowals and the places designed to hold the gems to defeat him. That’s why the Golden Prophecy has awoken you now. It couldn’t hold off any longer. The kingdom is literally being destroyed by the Evil Emperor’s reign!”
There was a moment of silence as the rest of the group processed her declaration.
“You’re not actually that wrong,” the Chosen One said thoughtfully. “I’d never thought of it like that before, but yeah, it did kinda become a tipping point before I was brought here.”
He alone didn’t seem impressed by her big discovery. The others were gobsmacked.
“So everything that came before, the Golden Prophecy viewed as acceptable?” Sencha Bard asked, his voice shaking slightly.
Qube shook her head. “More like it couldn’t activate until certain conditions were met. You’ve read it, things like stealing the forest’s heart couldn’t happen until the Dryad Queen’s heart had been stolen, and the Air Temple didn’t even have any real problems until recently.”
“So it needed those conditions to manifest?” Sencha Bard asked, his tone still harsh. “Then there is a chance it encouraged events along to allow it to activate. We know it isn’t afraid to interfere.”
The old Qube would have instantly dismissed the idea, she’d been so certain in the infallibility of the Golden Prophecy.
Now, though, she hesitated.
If these terrible events had been “encouraged” by the Golden Prophecy so that it could activate, and bring forth the one destined to save the world, what would that mean?
“I don’t think it matters,” Sexy Screamy Spider Briar said, shrugging her shoulders. “It has driven us here, yes, but we are all still free to make our own decisions now. Each of us was brought here by the Golden Prophecy, but we are all capable of choosing how we move forward.”
“Would that I had your optimism,” Sencha Bard said to her. “But my heart is troubled with the fear that we only think ourselves free of its influence. What if, even now, it drives us still?”
The Hunter looked at him, a history of pain in her eyes.
“The Golden Prophecy is not subtle,” she said simply. “Trust me. Having experienced its loving embrace, the current churning uncertainty within me is an entirely new thing, and all my own.”
Sencha Bard was looking at her, equal parts hopeful and afraid. The Hunter smiled at him, fangs dripping green.
“I don’t know how events were massaged to bring us to this point. And certain things prior to this may be explainable by outside influence. But I do know this: any actions we take after this moment are our responsibility and ours alone, my darling.”