Aphelion’s lantern cast a dim glow around her, barely keeping away the shadows that crept in. It swayed sadly in the breeze, and she made no effort to hold it high and light more of her surroundings. The moon had set a while ago, and it was well past midnight. She wore her heavy winter coat, eyes seeming hollow beneath the hood, staring emptily across the lake. No light except the lantern’s reflected in the water; clouds had blanketed the sky. Frost touched the edges of fallen leaves. Time stood still. Only Aphelion’s heart kept the time. She stood in an eternal autumn, an endless destruction.
“Did I bring this?” she whispered, the words hardly more than mist as she moved her lips. Her magic was like autumn itself, a more tangible touch of frost and death. Sometimes she thought it bit at her, as if she were her own enemy. She wasn’t sure if she imagined it or not. A branch overhead sighed, answering Aphelion’s question with uncertainty. Maybe it was her fault, maybe it wasn’t. Which?, the autumn or the war, or the pain of losing friends or the way she wandered far from home or how she’d lost the family she’d been born into? She stood thoughtless, watching as observantly as a statue lost to silence, like a deer stuck in headlights, neither her presence nor her emotions truly belonging in this particular place and yet still she stood. But her mind was far away, lost to dreams of distant places left behind – places she no longer belonged to, but neither did she feel she had anywhere she could return to now.
She hardly needed the lantern to guide her, since she had no destination in mind, but it was a comfort. One of the friends she’d made in the war had given it to her. Everyone Aphelion had grown close to had fallen. As if everything she ever learned to love, even things that grew up around her and bloomed and followed the sun or burned at night or sung and babbled as she walked by, would wither and fade and fall away just because she had been there – because at the winterless heart of her autumn-like magic, there was the weight of a different sky trying to change the world so it could fit in, and it seemed to ruin everything it touched. Aphelion had walked to the end of light, to the twilight where darkness claimed its territory, and sometimes she walked into the night with her head held high. It scared her, that she chose that path, that she willingly chose to use darkness sometimes, that she willingly chose to use her magic. Yet, somehow, that fear only came afterwards in reflection, and never stayed in control when other emotions directed the magic onto a target.
Now here she stood at the lakeshore, pulling her coat tighter around herself, thinking about how she carried the weight of a thousand tomorrows with only one yesterday. There were so many paths she could follow and so many new things she could encounter, but none of it could erase what she had done. She closed her eyes and breathed in, the night air swelling inside of her. She let it escape as a whisper of mist. In and out, breath then mist, like the calm lapping of the water on the shore. Inhaling again, she opened her eyes. There was a gentleness in the night only the sorrowful knew. After all the pain, or at least after all the worrying about it, has been spent, there comes a peace. Aphelion looked up and saw the blank sky between the branches, and her hood slid off. She knew the stars still shone behind the clouds, and smiled as she remembered something one of her fallen friends had said: ‘When this is over, I’ll catch the starlight in a jar – you know, the way you catch fireflies –, and pour the glowing silver on everything I touch, and I’ll pour it into my heart as if it were the blood keeping me alive, to replace the darkness and despair. Then I’d be able to fill up my days with smiles again.’
Aphelion looked down at her lantern, whose fire was the colour of courage. The world was shattered, scattered, and yet still glowing. She felt broken, and often forbidding, but she would choose to create poetry rather than shards from the fractured pottery that was who she had been before her magic. She would try to choose wonder, not carnage. Maybe she felt so lost tonight because the stars were hidden and she had nothing to remind her where her home would be. Aphelion began to sing a fragment of a song, raising her lantern a little higher.
“I’ll find you in the stars/ we know in our hearts/ daybreak will warm us/ like nightfall warns us./ The harvest moon sings,/ the harvest moon sings/ what a fire the sun brings,/ what a hope on gilded wings.” She stopped (not only because she could never remember any other part of it) and tilted her head. She was alive in some untameable way – yes, even when her magic called to death – and there was a light she still kept alive that glowed even in the darkness where she so often walked. She would sing the dawn herself; why wait for the sun, when she was made from stardust too and she burned a thousand times brighter than the stars she’d been tempered alongside?
Aphelion turned and began her journey again, and this time she had a destination in mind. She would return to that homestead where she still had friends, and she would hope they would still accept her after everything she’d done in the war. Holding her lantern higher now, she noticed the light flickering on the trunks and shrubs around her. The frost on the leaves where she had stood was half-melted.