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So, You Married Your Arch Nemesis . . . Again

Interview with Sol Undertaker, hosted by Eli McCarthy on Episode 319 of Capes For Justice

MCCARTHY: Welcome back, listeners! It’s me, Eli McCarthy, your go-to podcast host for allllll the juiciest super drama. I’m thrilled to be coming to you live from the maximum-security containment wing of Site 92, where I have the pleasure of interviewing Sixten Graves, known by most of you as Sol Undertaker. For those of you living under a rock [chuckles], Sol Undertaker placed themself voluntarily in prison here after the Second Tunguska Event, as fans are calling the showdown.

GRAVES: It was nowhere near that destructive.

MCCARTHY: Well, you did both come in like wrecking balls, or should I say asteroids? [laughs]

[five seconds silence]

MCCARTHY: [clears throat] For our loyal listeners, you might be wondering where my co-host is, and I assure you, Teodora’s on site! The prison only lets in one “visitor” at a time, which is a shame, but you get the dulcet sound of my solo voice as compromise. So, let’s get started. First off, congratulations are in order! You defeated Voidshadow.

GRAVES: Yes.

MCCARTHY: You don’t sound too happy about it.

GRAVES: Should I be?

MCCARTHY: Considering you leveled seven-hundred acres of a national forest in the process, I would hope the victory would bring you some joy.

GRAVES: I’m sorry about the trees.

MCCARTHY: I think most people are sorry your battle fried all the camera drones there to record! Big outfits like Virtual Entropy can afford the equipment loss, but oof, some of us took quite a financial hit and nothing to show for it.

GRAVES: You’re responsible for your own damages.

MCCARTHY: You don’t pull punches, do you? Ha! Get it? Anyway. Sans footage, tell us the juicy details. How did you finally overpower Voidshadow and kill them?

GRAVES: It’s not much of a victory when your nemesis won’t fight back.

MCCARTHY: I think the forestry department would disagree about the fight! [laughs]

[seven seconds of silence]

MCCARTHY: C’mon. Elaborate, won’t you? You’re the famous Sol Undertaker, a modern legend among even the biggest superhero names, outclassing even some of the old Excaliburs! And we all know that Voidshadow, under the mundane name Mattias Graham Blackburn, was your most hated foe. You both practically invented the, what’s the term, “lovers to enemies”?

GRAVES: That term is from fanfiction.

MCCARTHY: Whatever, fucking to fighting, right? [chuckles]

GRAVES: No.

MCCARTHY: No? No, what?

GRAVES: We were never lovers.

MCCARTHY: Oh reeeeeally. Well, according to your official biography—

GRAVES: Not official.

MCCARTHY: —you and Voidshadow were married before the, and I quote, “most cataclysmic break up of all time.”

GRAVES: We were married, yes. We’re both ace and sex-ambivalent.

MCCARTHY: Suuuuuure. Must’ve been pretty infuriating, given how hot you both are! Is that where the conflict arose? Sexual frustration?

GRAVES: No.

MCCARTHY: Well, wrecking ten miles of the arctic ice shelf and causing a tsunami is quite the way to declare a divorce!

GRAVES: Don’t go there.

MCCARTHY: The death toll was staggering, you must admit, though I’m sure not everyone blames you—

GRAVES: I want you to stop talking.

MCCARTHY: —since Voidshadow was always the violent one, right? Sexy, evil, the works. From their powers to how they constantly— [choking sounds]

GRAVES: Stop. Talking. About. Matty.

MCCARTHY: [unintelligible wheezing]

GRAVES: This interview is over. Sorry about your vocal cords. I hope your insurance covers surgery.

• • • •

A Burden of Tomorrows (The Forever Peace, Book 3) — Prologue

The ruins of both fleets drift like starry ash across the void. Ruptured hulls spill corpses and ruined ship-guts. Space gulps down the million dying screams.

Admiral Xentsiu Keardennt stands on the bridge, electric sparks dancing in the smoke that wreathes their dead crew.

On the viewscreen, leaning on a broken war sword, stands their nemesis: Admiral Thracius Mabb Gham-Karlant, the Butcher of the Void.

Thracius’ black hair hangs in bloodied tangles around their face, their make-up smeared in ragged lines across cheek and brow. “You have one cannon left,” Thracius rasps.

“So do you.”

Thracius’ mouth twists in a bitter smile. Their ship’s shields are in tatters: The Carrion Dragon cannot sustain another hit. Neither can Xentsiu’s flagship, The Grave of Sol.

Admiral Xentsiu grips the command console, only its mooring keeping them upright.

“How did we come to this?” Thracius’ voice softens, digging up painful memories from childhood of when they spun tales of far-off galaxies, when both Xentsiu and Thracius were innocents of war.

Xentsiu grits their teeth, their palm on the weapons trigger. “You had to be stopped.”

“Look what it cost us,” Thracius says, scarcely above a whisper. “So much death . . .”

Xentsiu swallows against the knot of grief.

Long ago, Thracius and Xentsiu were like siblings, young warriors divided only by a line on a map. They were the closest of friends. They attended academy together. Rose through the ranks side by side. Inseparable. Xentsiu and Thracius, forever comrades.

Before the rift grew, before each was forced to choose a side, before friendship wilted into the bitterest of rivalry. It’s like a dream, all mist and shadow, Admiral Xentsiu thinks, trying to remember the precise point something broke inside and they began to hate Thracius. When they swore to defeat the Butcher of the Void, no matter the cost. They wish with all their soul this wasn’t real, that there was another way, another ending for themself and for Thracius both.

There isn’t, and there never has been.

Thracius Mabb Gham-Karlant sighs, sinking to the floor and letting their sword clatter at their side. “I loved you, once, Xentsiu.”

“I know.”

There can be no surrender, no peace. Admiral Xentsiu will not let it. They fire the last cannon, plasma igniting like a supernova and engulfing The Carrion Dragon.

It is over. The war is won.

Interview with Sol Undertaker, hosted by Teodora Webb on Episode 319 of Capes For Justice

WEBB: Hi everyone. Teo Webb here, partner in drama to Eli McCarthy who is, uh, indisposed. Welcome back to Capes For Justice, live from Site 92, where we’re—welp, I guess it’s just me now. Anyway, I’m continuing the exclusive interview with legendary super Sol Undertaker, known mundanely as Sixten Graves.

GRAVES: Why don’t you just host this show by yourself? You’re always the better speaker.

WEBB: Oh my god, you listen to our show?

GRAVES: Sometimes.

WEBB: Thank you! Hear that, folks? Hit the subscribe button and leave us a review if you too like the show!

GRAVES: [sighs]

WEBB: Right, sorry, old marketing habits are hard to shake. So, just to catch our audience up, on the break you laid out some guidelines about what we can and can’t talk about, the conditions for which we can continue the interview after Eli’s, uh . . . emergency exit. Mind if I share?

GRAVES: Go ahead.

WEBB: Great! So the showdown battle is a bit of a touchy subject for you. I know our listeners are dying to—

GRAVES: Careful.

WEBB: Shit, sorry, my bad. [clears throat] So folks are definitely eager to hear the details about the climactic defeat of Voidshadow. We’ll come back to that. You said that it’s fine to ask you about your life prior to the battle, which gives us a lot of ground. I know there are holes in your biography—

GRAVES: Unauthorized.

WEBB: —yeah, of course. Actually, I’ve always been curious about how that works. Couldn’t you have told the imprint not to publish it?

GRAVES: Voidshadow insisted we let it be. We’re public figures.

WEBB: Makes sense. Do you plan to ever write a memoir of your own? So the world can see things from your point of view?

GRAVES: The world makes up its own mind.

WEBB: Well, to Annalise Lee’s credit, she did cite a lot of documents of public record. You guys make the news a lot!

GRAVES: Did. We did.

WEBB: Erm, yeah. So, the timeline is something like this: ten years ago, you and Voidshadow showed up, almost from nowhere. Costumes, powers, relationship, the works. Walked into a red-carpet awards gala and stole the spotlight together! Annalise Lee tells us your origin story is the one thing you won’t talk about—

GRAVES: That was Voidshadow.

WEBB: —oh! Sorry, I misremembered. You know, the general consensus is that it was cosmic radiation that gave you powers . . . wait, does this mean you would talk about your origin story?

GRAVES: No.

WEBB: Fair enough. Anyway, you and Voidshadow dominated the gossip cycles almost non-stop. You fought other super villains together, most notably Professor Nanite and Cryptshow. As a power couple, you defeated the Witch-Who-Watches, and she had a notoriously high, uh, kill count. Over a dozen heroes died trying to take her down.

GRAVES: She just wanted to be left alone. I’m not proud of that victory.

WEBB: You did impressive work, regardless! Imagine how many more supers might have died if not for you and your partner’s exploits.

GRAVES: Change the subject.

WEBB: Okay, sure. We know Voidshadow funded the construction of this facility. It was meant to hold Cryptshow, except he was killed in the infamous Houston Showdown. Is it true they meant this facility originally as a rehabilitation center?

GRAVES: That’s what they wanted.

WEBB: But it turned into a supermax prison for supers instead.

GRAVES: Healing is harder to publicize.

WEBB: Is their involvement why you voluntarily committed yourself here?

GRAVES: It’s safest if I’m not . . . outside, right now. In the world.

WEBB: I absolutely respect that. And you. I’m a huge fan. Sorry, fangirl moment! Still can’t believe I got this interview.

GRAVES: It’s okay.

WEBB: [papers shuffling] So back to . . . the falling out between you and Voidshadow. Did it really come out of nowhere, like people claim? I mean, there was the costume design change last year that gave us hints—Voidshadow’s cloak turned dark red instead of lavender, and your ensemble shifted to monotone grays and blacks instead of the purple and silver—and paparazzi sometimes spotted beer bottles in hotel rooms when Voidshadow didn’t return to your shared home. There were rumors that Cryptshow seduced them and wanted them to be his partner in evil. But no one had any idea you were enemies, let alone arch nemeses! What was the breaking point? What changed so dramatically for you? What did they do to become a villain?

GRAVES: It wasn’t their doing.

WEBB: Was it something you did?

GRAVES: I don’t . . . I don’t remember.

[scraping of metal chair on concrete]

WEBB: Uh, are you okay?

GRAVES: Do your commercial break thing. Now.

WEBB: Sure, sure. We’ll be right back, folks. Alec has a word from our sponsors.

• • • •

Cage the Devil In Red (a Detective Grave novel)

They weren’t a dame nor a gent, but they smelled like trouble—whiskey, cigar smoke, a hint of floral cologne—and dressed like a butcher’s calling card. Long red jacket rich as a blood bank, crisp fedora of the same felt, and heels sharp enough to cut down God.

“You must be the infamous Detective Solomon Grave.” Their voice was deep and silky, a cello bow purring over the D string. They leaned a hip against the doorframe, angling themself in shadow between the hallway light and the dimness of my flat.

I tossed back the last of my drink, and the liquor dug nails down my gullet. “What’s it to you, bo?”

They flicked a gloved hand and a roll of twenty large met my desk with all the finality of a judge’s hammer. “For your services. I need a bodyguard for tonight.”

I grunted. That much cash would clear my debts in spades. I braced for the catch. “Twenty thousand bucks means you got heat.”

“That’s how Hell pays.” They flashed me a smile that hit like a knife in the ribs. “You trick the Devil, expect to get burned.”

They tipped back their hat and stepped inside. The neon street glow slatted through the blinds lit their face. Those molten-dark eyes, that wide jaw, brows thin as a razor edge, the puckered scar pulling up the corner of their mouth.

My heart dropped faster than the crystal tumbler in my hand. Glass shattered across the desk.

“Marius?” I choked out their name. Shock punched me low and dirty, sucking out my breath. “Marius Graham?”

I’d thought them dead, long-since damned trying to save my wretched hide. Ten years. Ten goddamn loneliest years of my life, nursing the bottle, every night cradling my service revolver and wondering if I had the balls to eat lead and be done.

“Told you I’d come back, Sol,” they said.

I vaulted the desk, planting one hand in the broken glass, but I didn’t feel the cuts. Their gloves soaked up the trickles of blood from my palm. They tugged me close and I hugged them. I breathed deeper than I had in a decade. A first real breath. When I dreamed, they vanished soon as we touched. This was real. Marius Graham was real.

I’d burn down Heaven and uproot Hell before I’d let them die again.

“Do we have a deal?” they asked.

“I don’t need your lousy money,” I said, crushing them against my chest. They shivered under the coat and scarf. “I have your back, Mar.”

“And I have your heart.” They rested their forehead against mine. “Thank you.”

The room lit up red and blue, and not from the streetlights.

“Shit, we got company,” I said. The brittle windows rattled and I heard the rumble of the bull’s iron engines. Sulfur crept through the vents.

“‘Til dawn, Detective,” Marius Graham said in my ear. “If I survive until the sun rises, the deal is done and I’m free.”

“Then dawn you’ll see,” I promised them, and pulled my piece from the shoulder holster.

We raced through the night, the shadow-drenched street and rain-slicked alleys never cover enough for long. We were so close, in the end. It was a stray bullet that brought on the big sleep. I didn’t see it coming.

I held their body as the sun came up over the wharfs, the sky redder than the Devil’s tears.

Unaired clips from the Interview with Sol Undertaker, hosted by Teodora Webb

WEBB: Hey, I’m really sorry, I didn’t . . . shit, I don’t even have any tissues on me. Want me to ask the guards for—

GRAVES: I’m fine.

WEBB: You’re crying.

GRAVES: I hate this.

WEBB: Look, I know this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me but I’m gonna feel like shit forever if you’re upset doing it. Hell, I turned down a job at Virtual Entropy precisely because of this kind of crap. Sorry. We can end the interview if you want.

GRAVES: No. [long inhalation] I’ll finish this.

WEBB: Alec is a genius, they can totally spin out more airtime if you need a minute.

GRAVES: No. We’ll resume.

WEBB: You’re sure?

GRAVES: I am. Even if . . . It still hurts. It always hurts.

WEBB: You miss them? Voidshadow?

GRAVES: It doesn’t seem to fucking matter what we do. I kill them, or they kill me, or we kill each other, or we die together, and the next time it’s all the same. There’s this crack that just . . . I don’t know why.

WEBB: You, um, you lost me. You’re saying this has happened before? Like reincarnation?

GRAVES: [sniffs] Doesn’t matter what the world is like. Where we are. I’m the same, and so are they, and . . . it always ends in death. We shouldn’t be enemies and we shouldn’t have to die. I hate this.

WEBB: Uh . . . I’m afraid this is a bit above my pay grade. I don’t really understand—

GRAVES: Neither do I!

[sound of a metal crunching against a wall]

WEBB: Shit!

GRAVES: Sorry, the chair didn’t deserve that. [footsteps pacing] I’m not going to hurt you.

WEBB: [shaky breath] Thanks? D-do you want me to ask for another folding chair?

GRAVES: No. I’m fine.

• • • •

JUDGE RUIN 2: Cataclysm [from White Ibis Games]—Third from final level, last cutscene

“On your six!”

You whirl around. Butcher’s shotgun barks and a demon’s head explodes in a gore shower.

Green viscous blood splatters your helmet screen before you swipe it away. “Thanks, bud.”

You hear the grin in Butcher’s voice. They holster their shotgun and swing their plasma ax in a vicious arc, cleaving another hellion through the middle. Their power armor is drenched in demon guts and the reddish mud of Mars. “Admit it, Judge, you’d be human caviar on toast for these motherfuckers without me.”

“In your dreams.” You wind up the chain gun and let it rip, spewing bullets in a hail of death that demolishes a dozen imps in one arc. The kill-count ticks higher in your HUD. “Keep up, loser.”

Butcher toggles the map and you pinpoint your destination again: the overrun supply base in an excavated crater, now occupied only by demons from the cracked dimensions.

The stretch of open ground is clear. A hundred meters over arid, hostile terrain and you’ll be at your target. Once you’ve cleared out the infernals, you can radio orbital command for backup and the mop up crew will meet you and Butcher, then secure the depot.

You sweep your sensors in a wide grid, but there’s no pings from hell-energy.

“I don’t like this,” Butcher mutters as you jog side-by-side.

You gotta agree, something’s wrong. Not just the demons—the distinct lack of them. You can’t have wiped out all the hellion spawn so fast. You’re Judge Ruin, terror to every enemy of humankind . . . but if there’s one facet that never changes, it’s that Hell has eternally more demons to throw at you.

Ahead is the garage entrance, half-propped open with wrecked ATVs and a tangle of rust-red I-beams that’ve seen better days.

Still no red dots on your HUD.

“We should call for backup now,” Butcher says.

You grunt. “No, we got this. Just stay on guard.”

“Always, Judge,” Butcher says. They cock their shotgun in one hand.

You slow as you reach the garage. That’s when you notice the ground is greenish brown, not from terraforming but demon blood. There’s a slaughterhouse’s worth of corpses sprawled on the cement slabs outside the structure.

“Did we get support early?” Butcher quips.

You flip your visor through the spectrum settings, trying to scan any radiation signature that’ll give you a clue.

The carrion-dragon comes out of a portal in the sky almost on top of you. Motherfucker laid a trap: an abattoir’s worth of demon corpses so you’d lower your guard. And damn if you nearly fell for it.

The thing is fucking huge: ten wings, twice that many spidery legs thick as a tank, mandibles dripping acid, its hundred insectoid eyes glowing with hellfire.

“Watch out!” you scream, emptying your grenade launcher into the dragon’s maw as it swoops at you.

Explosions ricochet across the mega-demon’s face. It roars and thrashes, but you’ve barely scratched its armored shell. You back into a crevice of ruined vehicles jammed into the garage’s entrance. The beast’s throat glows white-hot as its infernal breath builds.

Your railgun clicks empty. You’re out of bullets and your armor’s power cells are at sapped at 13%. You don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell of surviving the next five seconds.

Your body tenses. You clench your fist, dropping the useless gun. All your arsenal is spent. There’s no ammo caches in sight. So this is it—

Butcher launches themself from atop the garage’s low roof, bellowing a war-cry. They land between you and the carrion-dragon just as it spits death.

Butcher’s mini-nuke whines as they fire. The missile pierces the gout of plasma. The monster chokes for an instant before the nuke detonates inside its gullet.

The explosion hurtles Butcher into you, smashing you through the rusty blockade, and you both go flying across the garage. You hit the wall and your HUD goes haywire, white static and red feedback.

The ringing in your ears is like a damnation theme. You crawl from the ruined wall and roll Butcher over. Their armor is ruined, their life signs flat. Half their head is missing from the blast.

You sit there, cradling their body, and distantly, your comm buzzes: “Mission objective complete, lockdown crew inbound . . .”

Interview with Sol Undertaker, hosted by Teodora Webb on Episode 319 of Capes For Justice

WEBB: Where were we? Right. You don’t do many interviews—actually, I think the official total is like five? And all of those were done with Voidshadow, is that right?

GRAVES: Yes.

WEBB: You’re the first power couple to be out as non-binary, which is awesome. I know a lot of folks were so excited to have this kind of representation. Did it put undue pressure on you?

GRAVES: I don’t understand your question.

WEBB: You know, dealing with a lot of misgendering and harassment—well, I guess you don’t really have to worry about that last part, right? At least from normals. You’re a superhero and Voidshadow is . . . was . . . well, I mean, when you have superpowers it must be pretty easy to ignore trolls online and smite assholes, right?

GRAVES: I don’t smite. I obliterate.

WEBB: Uh . . .

GRAVES: That’s a joke.

WEBB: Oh! Ha ha, of course. Right. I mean, as a woman on the internet, co-host of a huge podcast like Capes For Justice, I get plenty of hate, and sometimes I wish I could have smiting powers.

GRAVES: Do you want me to destroy your harassers?

WEBB: What? Oh my god, no! That’d be, like, two thirds of the internet!

GRAVES: So?

WEBB: Are you . . . being serious right now?

GRAVES: Yes. I came here willingly. I can leave whenever I want.

WEBB: [clears throat] How about I get back to you about that smiting?

GRAVES: Offer’s open.

WEBB: Wow, okay . . . Hear that, guys? Better be on your best behavior. [strained laugh] Anyway, Mx. Graves, after the Second Tunguska Event, and you voluntarily committing yourself here in Site 92, what’s been going through your mind? If you could go back and do things differently with Voidshadow, would you?

GRAVES: What?

WEBB: You’re one of the most powerful superheroes in history! You outclass even the top Excaliburs during the Resurgence. You said yourself in a Q&A with Levar Orlando on Tomorrow Night’s Show a few years ago you weren’t even sure the extent of your powers, or those of Mx. Blackburn. Is that true?

GRAVES: I’ve . . . never tested it.

WEBB: Let’s play hypotheticals, then. It’s a feature on our show—but you know that, right?

GRAVES: I listen occasionally.

WEBB: For listeners joining us for the first time, this section of Capes For Justice is where we ask our guests big “What If” questions. Candid answers only, please. So, Mx. Graves, if you could go back in time and tell yourself one secret or important piece of advice, what would it be?

[ten seconds of silence, breathing]

WEBB: Take your time. Usually we edit out dead air, or Alec our audio engineer adds some effects, but as we’re broadcasting live, I’m asking listeners to be patient. I’m sure the answers will be worth the wait.

GRAVES: How far back does this hypothetical take us?

WEBB: As far back as you like. Usually Eli does this segment. An example I’ve always wanted to use, and excuse me for centering this on myself, but since, uh, Eli is indisposed, he can’t do his “monetize the show from the start” bit. [short laugh] Anyway, if I could go back in time and meet my sixteen-year-old self, I would tell her, “It’s okay that you like girls.” Um, wow, guess I just came out on live broadcast! Fuck it, right? We’re being candid. I’m bisexual.

GRAVES: That took courage. I admire you.

WEBB: Wow, thanks. That felt really good.

GRAVES: You deserve respect and happiness, Ms. Webb.

WEBB: Heh, I’m not sure if listeners can hear it, but I’m blushing so hard right now. Thank you, Mx. Graves. That really does mean a lot, coming from you.

GRAVES: If I could change reality, I would find where I keep breaking. Being broken. [slow inhale] I would save Matty. Every time.

WEBB: Matty? Is that . . . I’ve never heard you refer to Voidshadow that way.

GRAVES: Only I can.

WEBB: Fair enough. Honestly, I’ve always kind of wondered why you both took on such, uh, sinister pseudonyms in the first place.

GRAVES: They make a statement.

WEBB: Can’t argue with that. So. You would save Voidshadow? Even though they’re your arch nemesis?

GRAVES: Yes. We deserve a chance at peace. At being whole.

• • • •

Lord of the Betrayers (Book 1 of the Queenslayer Cycle)—Epilogue

Steel clashes.

The hillock is an old burial site, generations past having their bones rested in the hallowed earth. You first met Hiasburn here; first held their hand on this summit as you watched the rising dawn; first pledged yourself to them, as they did to you.

The battle around the foothills rages, yet seems so distant, so surreal. Like a dream.

“The war won’t end until one of us is dead,” they say, their arm unwavering as they hold their sword at the ready.

“I know.”

You cross blades. It’s a dance, a duel for ballad-singers and legends. Steel sings and your blood roars in tandem. Around the hillock you fight: slash, riposte, block, parry, thrust.

Your heel catches an old root, wrapped about older bones, and you crash to the ground. Your sword flies from your hand, and in a moment, Hiasburn is atop you.

The breath you take is the longest in your life, as your eyes meet theirs. The battle has faded now to a memory-hum; the apex tree that has hoisted the banner of victors for generations sways in the wind.

You throw them off, scrabbling to your feet. Their sword arcs past your shoulder, nicking flesh. You lash backwards with an armored fist, hear the grunt in pain, and you use the opportunity to reach for your sword.

Sharp pain drives up your ribs and you look down. Hiasburn’s dagger has plunged into your side. You meet their eyes as your knees give out, your strength suddenly dissipating like mist at sunrise. Blood fills your mouth.

Then Hiasburn is catching you, lowering you to the battlefield’s chill ground. You press your knuckles against their cheek, your hand cramped from old wounds. They lean into your touch, tears streaming down their face.

Only one flag will unfurl now, and it will not be your sigil the armies see. It will not be your victory that is celebrated when the bloodshed lulls.

“Don’t weep for me,” you rasp. “Today, this is . . . the only way . . . it could end.”

“I know, Solgra,” they whisper back, and kiss your hand. Darkness claims you and you welcome it, for even if they are your enemy, to see Hiasburn’s eyes one last time before you die is enough.

Interview with Sol Undertaker, hosted by Teodora Webb on Episode 319 of Capes For Justice

WEBB: We talked a bit about . . . repeating loops. Like cyclical behaviors, or toxic relationship decisions someone makes over and over.

GRAVES: [cloth rustling, footsteps pacing] Yes.

WEBB: You mentioned you would save Voidshadow “every time.” That implies, well, more than once, right? Like your souls have been repurposed in other realities, in other timelines. You keep living out the same loop, just with the details changed.

GRAVES: I remember them in so many ways. I think they remembered, too. I saw it in their eyes when we fought above the forest. [shaky breath] That’s when it all flooded back, before I . . . killed them. Again. We were enemies over and over against our desires. I don’t know why. We’ve always been soul mates and forced into the role of arch nemesis.

WEBB: Like someone’s pulling your strings? Manipulating you?

GRAVES: Yes. I feel like we’re all being written into stories that aren’t meant for us. Matty and I. Our pain mined for profit. And I want it to stop.

WEBB: You’re . . . um, glowing? I didn’t know you could do that?

GRAVES: I’m not some authorial plaything. Voidshadow and I don’t deserve this constant grief.

WEBB: Should I be . . . ow, that’s really bright—um, Sixten, could you . . .

GRAVES: I WILL NOT BE BROKEN AGAIN.

[static]

REALITY

You jump, brilliant light surrounding you. You smash through Site 92’s roof; higher, through the clouds, into the stratosphere like an inverse meteor shower. You fly into the void beyond. Past the moon, past the sun, past the boundaries of the solar system, and still you fly, unslowed, undimmed, your fury a trail of light that the galaxy will never forget.

Deeper you go, through dark matter, through uncharted systems, through theory and absolute zero and probability. Somewhere, in the center of existence is the answer: the true nemesis you have always faced, the thing that condemns you to die, to kill, to grieve, to suffer.

And finally, sharp as epiphany, you arrive at the absolute heart of everything.

A nebula unlike anything you’ve seen: it’s soft, translucent, an artist’s rendition of a dream. This isn’t the hell you expected.

There, in the center of the nebula, you find the focal point. It isn’t an omnipotent god, or a terrifying entity carved from void and malice. It isn’t a monster spawned from the pits of a black hole.

It’s a child, surrounded by books. They’re suffused in a directionless glow of light, walled in with thousands of stories, each color a hue in the spectrum. This is what you must destroy?

The child doesn’t notice you. Messy hair hangs about their shoulders and falls over their eyes. They sit cross-legged, a thick book splayed open on their lap, their breath shallow as they mouth the words on the page.

Careful not to upend the precarious library the child lives in, you kneel by their side and peer over their shoulder.

You’re there, on the page. In full battle armor, sword dripping blood, back-to-back with Matty against a horde of animated corpses.

Hollow, dead eyes were lit with sorcery. There was no end to the horde. This was the final stand. Gaveon knew it to be the end—but with their last breath, they would buy time for the Prophesied One to escape. He would save the world, honoring their sacrifice.

“Afraid?” Gaveon said, smiling grimly.

“Not when I’m with you,” Marcus Larkin replied.

The undead closed like a great pincer, and though their swords flashed and their lungs burned with battle cries, first Larkin and finally Gaveon fell amidst the mountain of corpses . . .

“Oh no,” the child whispers, and a tear splashes the page. “Why don’t they get to live?”

You strangle a curse, and grab a nearby book. You flip it open. There you are again—or this story’s analogue of you. There’s Matty. Sometimes you are both together, sometimes you are a lone presence in the story. Hero or villain, the ending is always the same. You’re doomed from the start, over and over. Your death scenes have tear stains.

You frantically scan dozens more books, all lovingly worn with cracked spines and tattered page corners. Different authors, different eras—and yes, different characters, whether you or other non-binary people—yet everything is entwined with an inevitability of loss. As if the cosmos cannot accept the probability of your joy.

The child sniffs, closes their book, and picks up another one. “Maybe this time they’ll be happy,” the child says aloud, a hope sent into the universe. It’ll be shattered against the cold light of stars and vacuum.

The images swirl in your mind as the pages turn, and you know what you’ll see in the text: dueling admirals, staring each other down over the remains of their fleets. You’re a backdrop for a boy and a girl to become heroes of the galaxy. You’re the footnote to someone else’s glory.

Gently, you tug the book from the child’s hands and close it. They reach for a new story without noticing you. This book has a quote from a bestselling author: “Breathtaking prose . . . a welcome dash of diversity in the superhero genre!”

From the blurb: . . . makes a splash with his newest stand-alone title, featuring the world’s first non-binary superheroes in WHITE VOID, DARK SUN . . .

The child’s heart skips. “Yes,” they say, and eagerly flip to the first page.

There you are. Side by side at the red-carpet award show with Voidshadow, both of you in bold costumes, arms linked, so openly in love.

Your guts clench as you read along with the child, remembering every page before it happens. The marriage ceremony. The epic battles. The people you saved. The cities you kept from crumbling. Then Voidshadow’s drinking problems, the fissure growing between you. Their seduction to the path of evil, and your inevitable confrontation where you must kill your best friend, your soul mate, your heart. Because the narrative demands your blood and suffering.

That’s not how it goes, you want to yell, but you can only kneel there and watch the child’s heart break again.

You brush hair from the child’s forehead, and they glance up, puzzled. So you can affect their reality, bound so intimately with your own multiverse. You could stop them reading, and you’d be free—if oblivion is freedom.

That’s not what you want, is it? You want your due. You want your story to end not in tragedy but in triumph.

As gently as you can, you take the book from the child’s hands and rub your thumb across the last few pages. Ink smears and vanishes, leaving blank paper in wake of your touch. The child frowns, looking around.

Your power has always been malleable, infinite—bending to whatever needs arise. This is your need now, and you materialize a pen. This power will serve your purpose, not those who would exploit your grief and your pain.

You write a new ending.

Then you give the book back to the child and let them finish reading.

Interview with Sol Undertaker and Voidshadow, hosted by Teodora Webb on Episode 319 of Capes 4 Justice

WEBB: Welcome to this week’s episode of Capes 4 Justice! I’m your host, Teodora Webb, and today we have two special guests joining us! Sixten Graves and Matthias Graham Blackburn. They’re everyone’s favorite ace power couple. Also, you guys are celebrating your ten-year wedding anniversary, right? Which, if you weren’t aware, listeners, they spent defeating Cryptshow over the New Camelot National Forest only yesterday. [laughs] Very romantic!

BLACKBURN: We like to spice things up.

GRAVES: The trees will be okay.

WEBB: Yes, you managed to subdue Cryptshow without any collateral damage, and the footage was epic. Especially at the end, when it looked like Sol Undertaker would have to kill you, Voidshadow. My heart was in my throat the whole livestream!

BLACKBURN: Thrilling, wasn’t it? The roleplay we did to lure Cryptshow out of his lair was delicious. He honestly thought I’d turned evil. [chuckles] It was rather exhilarating. I think I understand the appeal of acting!

WEBB: You had us all on pins and needles! That reversal? Where you vanquish Cryptshow, then hug your partner in triumph? I’m convinced the whole city was cheering in unison. Do the pressures of the job ever feel overwhelming? Do you have days where you question why you do this?

BLACKBURN: Honestly? No. If we don’t take up the mantle of responsibility, who will?

. . . Gaveon and Larkin shake off the undead remains, standing now on a mountain of rotting flesh and cracked bone. They turn to each other, gore-soaked and bleeding, but alive, and they laugh . . .

GRAVES: Sometimes I have doubts. When I do, I imagine this kid. Maybe like I was once. Reading our stories in the years to come. I want them to cheer for a happy ending. I fight for them. For who they will one day be.

BLACKBURN: I don’t fear what’s to come. Every day is perfect when I can be by Sol’s side.

GRAVES: Same.

. . . Admiral Xentsiu does not fire the last cannon, nor the first; there is no ruined fleet under their heels, for in the beginning, they choose instead mercy, and Thracius surrenders to them when they ask . . .

WEBB: You two are so cute! And honestly, hashtag relationship goals. My wife and I were just discussing what great role models you both make. Loving, respectful of each other’s agency and needs, committed to peace and equality—God, I could use the whole hour just praising your efforts at restorative justice! So tell me, what motivates you each day? You’ve done so much, I don’t think anyone would blame you if you retired and went to live somewhere by yourselves.

. . . I stood breathless on the quay, back-to-back with Marius. I braced for the end, expecting a storm of bullets and pain. At least I’d die beside my partner, not alone. But then, sharper than the Devil’s tongue, the sun rose in the east and the infernal enforcers melted away. I sagged against Marius, and they laughed in triumph, alive and free . . .

BLACKBURN: I sometimes have nightmares where I’m watching the world crumble and burn around me, and in the dreams, I do nothing. Then I wake up beside the love of my soul, and I think, I have this power to do good. For them. For our people, our global siblings, and those generations to come after us. For our future. It is duty and honor that keep me rising each day to fight for those who cannot.

GRAVES: What Matty said.

[laughter]

. . . the nuke takes out the carrion-dragon, the explosion hurling you and your partner across the garage. Your shields are down to one percent. You pull the health stim from your pack and yell, “Don’t you fucking die on me!” as you inject it into Butcher’s suit. They gasp, grabbing your hand, and you hold them steady as reinforcements arrive in a hail of laser fire that scatters the last demons into the void . . .

WEBB: You know, it’s funny, I had the weirdest moment of déjà vu just before we started this interview. It was like we’d been here before, but sadder, lonelier. I had a moment where I thought someone had died.

BLACKBURN: That sounds awful, Teo. Are you okay?

WEBB: Oh, yes, I’m fine. Just one of those weird brain blips, you know? I’m glad real life isn’t as bad!

. . . their knife hovers over your heart, and the sounds of battle fade until all that’s between you is your ragged breathing. You expect the pain, but Hiasburn lowers their arm and drops the blade. “Not today,” they whisper. “Not today,” you agree. You lie down side by side, staring at the eagles wheeling in the graying sky, for tomorrow you will start again. A new day, a new story, a new ending . . .

BLACKBURN: What are you smiling at, love?

GRAVES: At the knowledge reality is healing.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor. photo of a white non-binary person with short, close-shaven brownish blond hair, wearing a red and black winter jacket and standing outdoors with pine trees slightly out of focus in the background.

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer from Minnesota, where they live with their two cats. Merc is the author of the short story collections So You Want to Be A Robot (2017) and Friends For Robots (2021), and the novella The Wolf Among the Wild Hunt. They have had short stories published in such fine venues as Lightspeed, Fireside, Nightmare, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Escape Pod, Uncanny, and more. Visit their website: mercfennwolfmoor.com or follow them on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor.