In the end of the world, where the only things in existence were myself and the haze of memory, I thought there was one truth. I was a Warrior, and I could fight. The armor clicked with every step, it’s weight upon my shoulders the only indicator of who I could be. I knew not my name, my past, nor my future, but I knew I could swing a sword and cut down giants.
The other survivors at our meager respite slowly helped me rebuild my self-perception, little by little with each interaction. I was young, barely a man, holding onto a small spark of hope despite the end of the world. I was, ultimately, the expected protagonist. Strong. Masculine. Defiant. It was I who returned from perilous expeditions with meager food and supplies. It was I who, time and time again, drove my blade through the ribs of the Lich as his hoarse cries sunk into the depths of the dark void surrounding us.
Steadfast. Brutal. Deadly. This was who I was. This is what our fractured world needed me to be.
With the help of the other survivors, we constructed a refuge. It was the proper thing to do, was it not? Keeping the monsters at bay was only one battle in the war. There was still food to worry about, wood for the fire, stone for buildings. What was the point of fighting if those I protected died within our walls? But my weapons could only destroy, leaving mere mincemeat behind. I could return with trinkets and baubles, worth a fortune in another time, but meaningless to those with empty stomachs.
I confided in Yota, “Despite everything, I feel that I’m failing them.”
She replied, “You will only fail if you give up.”
“But our rations are dwindling,” I said. “More people are showing up, but we don’t have enough for them. I don’t want to turn them away, it would be murder.”
A strange little smile tugged at Yota’s lips, like a tear in the universe. “Then you must adapt, like all else.”
The change came slowly, then all at once, much like the end of the world.
I saw it first in my eyes. Their blue color faded with every lost battle until they were almost white, devoid of hue. As the enemies grew faster, I abandoned my heavy swords for daggers, favoring agility over power. The armor was the next to go, metal replaced with leather, helmet with hood. What good was armor when facing magic that ignored it completely? It was easier to dodge an attack completely, rather than brace myself for it.
The catalyst of this transformation came in the middle of one of those forsaken loops, one where I knew I would have to flee before the final confrontation, where I scrambled to gather as many resources as I could before running. I came across a bandit, bloodied and breathing heavy, standing over the body of a ratwolf. Wounded myself, I ducked behind a large slab of rock, gripping onto my daggers with white knuckles. I heard a whistle.
“If you don’t hurt me, I don’t hurt you,” the bandit called out, his voice hoarse.
Cautious, I stepped out from my poor hiding place. The bandit was now kneeling next to the ratwolf corpse, cutting into its hide with a sharp knife. I watched him with an inquisitive eye, unable to see what value he saw in the corpse.
The bandit’s dark eyes flickered up to me, and he smirked. “What? Never seen a man skin a beast before?”
“Not a ratwolf,” I replied, curt. “Are you that desperate?”
The bandit’s gaze swept up and down my frame. “Are you not?”
I could not reply. I was too proud.
With a snort, the bandit pat the ground next to him. “Watch. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
I did as asked. The bandit did not speak as he worked, leaving me to discern his actions on his own. He pulled out the ratwolfs teeth (they must have value), cut out the beast’s liver (food), removed the hide (to be made into cloth), and stuffed them into a sack. He only left behind what he could not carry or what had no use- large bones, the skull, unimportant guts.
When he stood, slinging the sack over his shoulder, he took my hand and helped me onto my feet. “In these days, you do what you have to do to survive. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Already, my head was buzzing with ideas-- trophies, thievery, trade. For years I abhorred the thought of stealing from another, but now I saw it was a necessary evil. There were those at camp who would be willing to trade for a few ratwolf teeth. What could I get with the head of a harpy? Or the fangs of a vampire?
The bandit’s smile mirrored the grin of the ratwolf skull lying upon the road. “Good.” He reached into his pack and pulled out a metal mask. “First and only rule of this world- don’t get caught.”
I turned the mask over in my hands, running my fingertips over the intricate designs embossed into the dark metal. I slipped it onto my face, and something clicked.
Whereas the Warrior was a piece of armor, the Rogue fit like a tight glove.
The others at the respite must have noticed my transformation, but they did not comment upon it. I could see their surprise when I joined them more and more for meals, sharing in the weak booze and songs we discovered as the neverending night continued.
It should have felt strange, slipping through shadows where I once charged into the light, attacking with vicious strikes when one merciful blow would do, but it never did. Each new attribute I discovered sparked a new type of joy and sense of completion within me. I was androgynous, becoming a beautiful dance that stepped both into masculinity and femininity. I smiled more; a wicked grin that flashed as brightly as my blades. Sneaky. Witty. Vicious. When I came across the bandit again, I kissed him, my deft fingers finding their way into his purse, his trophies finding their way into my possession. Quick. Beguiling. Resourceful. When he attacked me, I drove my dagger into his stomach. He was right. We had to do what we must to survive.
I found myself straying from my duty, finding solace and comfort in food, drink, and company. What did it matter? The world was in shambles. Everything would reset. Barely anything I did mattered. I drank myself to sleep most nights, but I still kept smiling, for those in camp who still looked to me with hope. What else could I do?
Then we had our first death.
One of the guards in the outpost went out on his own. We needed supplies for a smelter- a building that would allow us to improve our weapons. I couldn’t get out of bed. He held onto life long enough to return home with stone we did not need. He lay by the campfire, and died.
We built the crypt together, the man with the orange cat rising to become the Grave Keeper. We had little, but we left offerings on top of the guard’s grave: his helmet, a loaf of bread, flowers picked from the road, a tarnished gold ring. One by one, the survivors left, till it was only me, and the Grave Keeper.
“This is my fault,” I whispered.
The Grave Keeper cradled his cat. “Nothing can stop death. It’s inevitable.”
I thought of the Lich.
“No,” I said, “It’s not.”
I locked myself in the library, pouring over every blasphemous tome I could. I made notes on scraps of paper, and when those ran out, I scrawled upon the walls. The other survivors tried to coax me out but quickly saw that their quest was in vain. They would leave food and drink at the doorstep and leave me alone. Grief was a strange thing, they would say.
Without the cycles of day and night, I could not tell how long I spent within the darkened rooms. My hair grew long, the influence of magic and stress turning it stark white. Without the need to stay hidden, I abandoned my hood and mask for simple robes, finding comfort in a feminine presentation. When I came to the end of my studies, I was near irrecognizable.
I marched out of the library, my hair billowing out behind me, tome clutched against my chest. In my studies, I had found there was no true cure for death, none without sacrificing happiness or good quality of life. But I could make use of the bodies left behind. I could prevent further deaths from occurring.
Determined. Melancholic. Radiant. The Necromancer was a beauty of dark truths.
The survivors remained out of my way, only interacting with me when necessary, aside from the Grave Keeper and Yota. When I was out in the Loop, the guards I once considered to be friends now attacked me, afraid of the skeletons I summoned, cursing my dark magic. I could not make them see the benefit of my ways, so I struck them down before they could strike me. Powerful. Ablaze. Outcast. An old friend once told me that we must do what was necessary to survive.
But despite my transformation, the world remained at a standstill. I still ran through my Loop, killing again and again, dying again and again.”
Yota approached me when everyone else was asleep and I alone was at the campfire. “I am proud of you.”
“Of what?” I asked. “Nothing has changed. I am still doing the same things over and over.”
“But you have.” Yota folded her hands together. “Look around you, dear Hero. Not very long ago we only had a campfire, but now we have a civilization. We have a home. This is because of you.”
“But the world is still a wreck,” I retorted. “I’m still a wreck. The Warrior can not provide enough, the Rogue can not protect everyone, and the Necromancer is so alone.” I hugged myself, rubbing my hands up and down my arms. “What’s the point of changing if every version of myself is as flawed as the next?”
Yota sat beside me, her blue eyes reflecting the gold of the firelight. “Which one are you, deep down?” she asked.
I thought, and thought.
“I-I don’t know.”
With a smile, Yota tucked a strand of white hair behind my ear. “You are a Hero, my dear. You do not have to choose any, if you wish. Your roles are simply masks you wear, shoes for a specific purchase. You do not have to stay stagnant as one. You can be all.”
I stared into the flames, wringing my hands, running my fingers over the tiny scars on my knuckles. The Necromancer could protect the survivors, but she could not earn their love. The Rogue could provide for them, but they became nihilistic at the world. The Warrior could slay beasts, but could not feed those he protected.
But the Hero… the Hero could.
I stood up, brushing off my robes, not thinking twice as they became leather armor, as my hair became short and red. “What do we need?”
“Our usual supplies, and more for another watchtower. That way, when you go to fight the Hunter, your Loop will be easier.” Yota stood, and gave me a small bow. “Glad to see this side of you return, Hero.”
Pulling my mask from my bag, I put it on, and smiled. “Thank you, Yota. I think I understand now.”
In the Loops to follow, I drew upon all aspects of myself- the Warrior’s sense of purpose, the Rogue’s resourceful nature, the Necromancer’s willingness to do the forbidden. I charged forth, slaying the beasts in my way, rebuilding for those at home. It was easy to switch between roles, to the point where they began to merge together. Masculine, feminine, and androgynous. The Rogue was the one who took down the Hunter. The Necromancer laughed with others around the campfire. The Warrior returned with enough supplies to remember a river- we had fresh water running through camp all this time!
Defiant, resourceful, and powerful. The Hero was all of these, the idea that encompassed all of my other roles with a wide embrace. All my flaws, all my virtues, the Hero held all of them, and who was the hero, but not the true essence of myself? I was all genders, all power, all despair, all joy, and rage, and bittersweet happiness.
And I could smite gods.