The Lady of Fire sat next to her friend while the others circled the gatestone. Twenty feet high, the monolith had not always been on this desolate planet. Once, it had been part of a network of similar stones, all arranged in an arcane pattern around the City of Secrets. Then came Vecna's defeat in Sigil. The backlash shattered the city, stripped the Maimed Lord of most of his power, and sent him hurtling into a dark, dreadful demiplane where the foolish and the hopeful believed he would be imprisoned for all time.
Unfortunately, beings like Vecna have a way of deciding their own fates. The Eye and the Hand, as he was often called, had escaped. The "how" of his emancipation were still unclear but most believed he had made a set of dark pacts and managed to use the demiplane's own powers against themselves. He had even, in the process, managed to destroy or negate all of the beings behind his oaths. An escape free and clear, it would seem.
The truth behind this had become painfully clear to the Elementals during the past year. Vecna hadn't quite gotten out of all his vows. One survived his flight from Ravenloft and demanded repayment in full. In exchange for Vecna's freedom, another dire deity wanted to slip the bonds that had held him for eons.
Tharuzdin. The End of All Things. If he ever became free and unfettered, everything would die. Everything. Everywhere. A primal force of entropy incarnate, he was both the herald of reality's end and its executioner. And now, he had the power and intelligence of Vecna behind him in his bid to make the Endtimes actually happen.
That thought always made Byrne shudder, just like she was now. In her hands, she held Faile's fingers, stroking her friend gently and trying not to let guilt eat at her inside. She wasn't doing so well with that; she already wanted to find a small dark cave, curl up, and die.
Rather than focus on that while the Lady of Air lay unconscious beside her, Byrne steered her thoughts back toward the present - specifically, the monolith. This was one of 10,000 stones that used to mark the streets of Tovag Baragu, Vecna' so-called City of Secrets. A place likely older than the ancient lich himself, he had claimed it after scoring a major victory concerning the site. With it, he claimed dominion over thousands of interdimensional portals, each one tied to a stone just like this one.
When Tovag Baragu detonated, most of the stones were destroyed. However, a few hundred survived the cataclysm when the explosions knocked them through other portals. Scattered across the multiverse at random, each one was now an enduring symbol of the power of the City of Secrets and a link to one of the other existing stones.
And one of them, somewhere out there, was the only known way to reach Vecna's divine realm without his direct permission or knowledge. It was certain that the Maimed Lord knew they were coming, what they had planned, but he couldn't know where or when because even they didn't know that much. Even the Master of Secrets couldn't learn what no one knew.
The other Elementals were just about finished activating the stone. Each one had a complex series of runes that had to be touched in the right order to make it function. Between Nyx' mystical knowledge and Azure's ability to see the "flow" of any power he witnessed, they had been quite successful so far at triggering the monoliths without calling down their wrathful traps. Corundar and Akasha were with them just in case that record of success finally failed.
Byrne caught herself wondering if this would be the gate that finally took them to Vecna's realm. If it was, she knew what she had to do. She was out of control; Faile's burning had shown her that. Even if the others were lying to her, even if she couldn't trust any of them, she couldn't trust herself now either. She looked over at the black satchel lying nearby. Inside was...
"You... are going... to use it, aren't you?" It was Faile's voice! Shaky and quiet, almost a whisper, but she'd spoken!
Byrne forced herself not to hug her injured friend in relief. Then the winged woman's words sunk in and she frowned again. Closing her eyes, she said the thing she'd been rehearsing since hurting Faile days ago. "I am so sorry, Fae. I was so upset and so mixed up that I just lost control. I know you may never forgi..."
"I forgive you."
Byrne's brain crashed. "W-what?"
"I should... have backed off... when you told me too. I'm sorry."
Again with the crashing and now with the burning too. "Why in the world would you be sorry?! I'm the one that hurt you. Dammit, Fae-Fae. I could have killed you."
The singed elf nodded slowly, obviously not a comfortable thing to do by the slight grimace on her lips. "Is that why... you are going to throw your life away?" With one bandaged hand, Faile pointed at the satchel, its leather so dark it seemed to absorb all light.
"Someone has to, you know. It won't work unless someone dies."
Faile tried to sit up and failed. From her reclined position, she stared at Byrne reproachfully, or at least as reproachful as she could be with one side of her face covered. "That's why Akasha's going to do it. Her power over Life might save her."
Byrne shook her head. "Might is a damn strong word. If it doesn't, you all get stuck without a healer in the middle of the biggest fight any of us have ever seen. That doesn't make good tactical sense. Even Big Stupid over there agrees with that." Byrne nodded at Corundar, using the nickname affectionately given to him years ago.
"Look, Fae. I have to do this. I have been so out of it lately and I can't just blame the children for it. Ever since we emerged from T's nightmare realm, I haven't been the same. maybe I'm tainted or maybe I've just always been this screwed up and it took me a while to notice, but I am a danger to everyone now. If I don't get away from you all, I might hurt someone again like I hurt you. They don't even know I did it, but they will if one of them is next. You know?"
Byrne squeezed Faile's hand. "You know? Ummm, Fae?"
The elf was gently sleeping beside her, having passed out during her tirade. Byrne sighed, cuddled in a little closer, and waited for the others to activate the gatestone. None of them needed to know anything about this. Not a damn thing.
Not until it was too late to save her, anyway...