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- Mother Cypress speaks:
- “Welcome, my little night-birds. What brings you here upon your little black wings? Have you come for a tale? Yes… so I shall tell you a tale, my little birds. Settle down, yes, yes… what tale shall I tell tonight? Would you hear of the love that grew between Ambrani Rao and Catandra the Golden, in the halcyon days of the First Age? Would you hear of how they quarreled over a point of doctrine, and of the darkness that grew in the silence between them? Or shall I tell you more of the tale of the Sun’s bright children, and of the doom of the Second Age?
- “Then come closer, my children. Gather round, and spread ears like elephants, and I shall tell you more of the tale of those bright, shining heroes, and how they dealt with the demon Amalion.”
* * * * *
The eagle flew south through the night. Overhead, the moon gleamed like a fishhook cast into the sea of stars. To the right, the River of Willows shone like a black and silver serpent, slithering and hissing its way to the Yellow River and the sea.
Sparks of yellow and orange glimmered in the forest dark. There: soldiers camped at the edge of a village. The eagle dipped among bare trees. It became an owl; the owl became a mouse. It scurried past sentries, slid through campfire shadows. A pink tail vanished through a tent-flap.
Screams. Flesh tore wetly. The captain of the garrison died in seconds, followed by his guards, his aides. Drenched in blood, the Lunar rampaged through the camp, and wherever it went, the mortals died and died. Only a handful survived, fleeing into the village or into the night. The villagers wailed and screamed.
The Lunar became an eagle once again, and flew off into the south. Its thirst for killing had not yet been slaked.
* * * * *
The ruined temple stood atop the cliffs along the west bank of the River of Willows. To the south, amidst terraces green with winter wheat, the town of Brinlack sprawled within its own ruined walls, an overgrown remnant of centuries past. Looking out over the town, one saw hollow shells of buildings overrun with ivy and vines, pavements webbed green with weeds, courtyards thick with leafless trees. The townsfolk milled like ants among the inhabited sections, preparing for winter.
Li of Orchid and Thorwald of Stonehold stood upon a balcony at the edge of the temple grounds. Behind them, the stone face of the pagoda shimmered in the morning sun, its carvings blurred by centuries of rain and storm. Below them, the river chuckled and tumbled; an icy breeze rose from it to ruffle their hair.
“We cannot just march in and kill Amalion,” said the Northman. They had been discussing strategy. “It would take an army to break her walls.” He looked out across the water, to the black towers that rose in the ruins of Tul Tuin. “What is her plan?”
Li shrugged. “Who can know the minds of such creatures?”
“What will Lookshy do? What is the nature of their weapon?”
“Who can say? I have heard stories of the skill of their warriors and the power of their weapons; but they are but stories.”
“Can they succeed?”
“Who knows?” The swordswoman leaned out over the railing. Below, on the river, she saw fisherfolk netting their daily catches; white-winged terns perched upon the boats’ bamboo roofs, waiting for scraps. “Ledaal Vir still lives. He will want his city back.”
“And we have replaced him with a demon. Who would ever have thought that would come to pass?”
“Perhaps we should remain here. This is as good a place as any.”
Thorwald frowned. “Are you sure?”
“We can watch Amalion from here. Perhaps it is our fault; perhaps not.”
“I feel that it is.” The Northman watched the river. “It is our actions that have brought us here. We are responsible.”
“Then we remain, and watch her.”
The day brightened. A ferry poled through the maze of fishing boats, and found its way to the Brinlack docks. Zera Thisse disembarked. He made his way up to the temple.
“What happened?” greeted Thorwald, his tunic snapping in the wind.
Zera shrugged. “Fetek is gone.”
“Hah. I knew it. Amalion has done something with him.”
“I don’t think so.” The archer leaned on the stone balcony; he looked out toward Tul Tuin and the Tower of Winds. “I’ve been speaking to Aekino. He told him that Amalion had to go.”
“What did he say?”
“Not much. I don’t think he’s ready to accept it yet.” Fallen leaves spun in circles on the temple yard’s paving stones. “He loves her, you know.”
“I do not understand.” Thorwald scowled. “There can be no love. Demons cannot love! She must be using him. It can be nothing else.” He tossed a pebble from hand to hand, then flung it out into the water far below. “This makes a travesty of all my understanding.”
Zera regarded the northman wryly. “I wish you could judge a being’s character by the color of its skin. But you can’t. Who knows if demons can love, or if they deserve love? Humans are not far from demons, judging by their deeds, and yet no one says that they are unworthy of love, or unable to feel it.”
“They should love more wisely. Half of that city worships us.”
“Such is human nature. People need something to believe in.”
Thorwald spat into the river below. “It sickens me to look at them. They should have left.”
“They are accustomed to a way of life. They are not strong like your people.”
“My people.” The northman heaved a heavy sigh. “We must not lose sight of what we were.”
Zera smiled. “That, my friend, is the heart of wisdom: taking what your ancestors knew, and adding to it. You are here to learn this. You are a leader; there is one in you. If you shirk this duty -”
Thorwald turned away, to the switchback stair that led back to old Brinlack. “Let us go and see Aekino.”
Zera followed suit. Then he halted, turned. “Aren’t you coming?”
Li hovered in the shadow of the temple door. She shook her head. “I need to stay here for a while,” she said. Which she did.
* * * * *
Thorwald and Zera crossed the river by ferry. The sky was blue, the clouds thin and feathery, and the wan sun gave some small warmth where it fell. By noon, our heroes had reached the Tower of Winds.
The pair passed a few words between them as they emerged from the black towers of the upper city and made their way through the encircling winds. They found Aekino in the chamber that had once been Vir’s study. Books and papers lay strewn about in wild profusion; they burst from the shelves and heaved themselves up from the floor in great humpbacked piles. Several of the upper shelves had been cleared of books, making room for idols and icons belonging to a wide variety of gods and demons. Zera indicated them with a smirk. “Pleasant company you’re keeping.”
The Twilight looked up from his reading. “They keep mostly quiet on their perches.”
“Unlike us, eh?” He seized the room’s only other chair. “And how is Fetek?”
“He has gone out. He needed space, and time to think. He is lovelorn and unsure; he is full of raging urges that he does not understand.”
“How old is he?”
Thorwald grunted. “He hasn’t gotten over these things yet?”
“We’re a bit slower, here in the south.”
Aekino grumbled. “Could you make it quick? I’m somewhat preoccupied at the moment.”
“Actually, Thorwald had something to say.”
“I thought,” the northman muttered, “that perhaps I should apologize.”
“Oh, think nothing of it.” The Dynast was magnanimous. “Perhaps over dinner?”
The tension between the two of them slackened somewhat. Thorwald peered around. “Can we move your books to Brinlack?”
“That would be a bad idea. I propose moving the people of Brinlack to Tul Tuin.”
“Zera and I had an idea. It is the opposite of yours.” Thorwald grinned. “I propose moving the people of Tul Tuin to Brinlack.”
Aekino disapproved. “Tul Tuin is more defensible. Brinlack’s walls are in ruins; its Manse is flammable. The Tower of Winds is well-fortified, with a single avenue of approach.”
“The people of Brinlack will not leave.”
Zera shook his head. “You’d be surprised what the people of Brinlack will do.”
“I do not even see why it would be necessary,” Thorwald grumbled. “Brinlack won’t be attacked by Lookshy.”
The archer snorted in derision. “If a toe is gangrenous, you cut the leg off below the knee. Once Lookshy brings its forces to bear, it won’t stint at destroying any place that might harbor demons. And if the stories of the old weapons are true, it’ll destroy everything within a disgusting radius.” He walked to the window, and leaned out to regard the rocky slopes and the bare trees below. “If Lookshy gets serious, there will be no safety anywhere.”
“Then it is clear that Amalion must go. It’s all up to Fetek.” Thorwald shook his head grimly. “Love is a hindrance to a warrior. How can he not see what she is? She sees humans as pets.”
“Many rulers do.”
“Many rulers are mortals, and can die. Not her.” The northman bit his lip with anger. “I don’t think she’ll listen to Fetek. Her love is a lie. This is a trick; she will not leave.”
Zera glanced over his shoulder at his comrade. The wind toyed with his hair. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “If Fetek asks her to go, I think she will. And if not, the four of us will break our bodies on her walls.”
* * * * *
The day sped past. Zera and Thorwald moved among the people of Tul Tuin. The archer moved easily among the ripe underbelly of the city, the urchins and thieves who comprised so much of the remaining population, while the northman felt disgust at the petty cruelty and squalor. Aekino lost himself in his books and scrolls. Across the water, Li meditated in the barren temple. And as evening came, an eagle flew out of the south.
Fetek had returned.
He circled the city, seeking his Solar comrades. He found two: Zera and Thorwald walked through a tiny, triangular plaza, circling a trash-strewn reflecting pool. Pigeons scattered as the eagle dived. It became a young man, kneeling. “I have failed,” he said.
The Solars halted. “Fetek,” said Zera Thisse. He gave the lad a hand up. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“I couldn’t find the army. I don’t know if they’re coming.”
“You were looking for Lookshy?” The archer grinned. “You should have talked to us. Lookshy is months away. And in any case, if they were bringing a weapon, it would be by airship.”
“So there is no army marching from Longcorner.”
“Oh, I’m sure they have an army. But they won’t dare attack, not while Amalion rules here.”
Fetek felt frustrated. “Then why do we want her to leave?”
“Let me break it down for you. If she leaves, we may have to face an army, but it will be an army of men. If she stays, Lookshy will send an airship with a First Age weapon. Everyone will die.”
“If they send an airship, she can knock it down.”
“And if the weapon falls and explodes?” The Night shook his head at the boy’s stubbornness. “It’s not a chance we can take. Lots of lives depend on your decision. You have to figure out what’s more important: what’s good for you, or what’s good for all of them.” He waved a hand toward the lower city. “The luxury of time will not be yours for very long. And now, because this needs thought, Thorwald and I will leave. We will be in yonder inn.” Elbowing his northern bother, he added, “Come on. You owe me two weeks of drinks.”
Thorwald screwed up his brow. “I thought you owed me two weeks of drinks.”
“One last thing.” Zera leaned toward the Lunar. “She is elsewhere in Creation. Life is long.”
“I thought of that. But she’s here now.”
“Convenient… for you, and for her. For everyone else, it’s a death sentence.”
Fetek heaved a sigh. He had known what he had to do; it was simply a matter of giving in to the inevitable. “In three days, I will ask her to leave.”
“Fair enough. Fair enough.” The archer nodded uncomfortably. He understood how much that surrender had cost. “If I were you, I would take advantage of that time. Just… don’t let her change your mind.”
“She already offered to leave. I told her not to.”
Zera regarded Fetek blankly. The Lunar shrugged and turned away. Silver Essence blazed around him; he dissolved into a flock of thrushes, which scattered upon the breeze.
The archer waited a few moments, until all trace of the No Moon’s flashy departure had faded. Then he swore up a blue streak. “That little furry mongoloid! She said she’d leave, and he said no?!”
Thorwald shrugged fatalistically. “It has happened before.”
Zera spat. “I need a drink.”
* * * * *
Three days passed. Zera continued to gather information from the human vermin of Tul Tuin. Thorwald returned to Brinlack, where he labored alongside awestruck townsfolk to heft logs and stones into the gaps in the city walls. Li remained closeted in the abandoned shrine. Aekino assessed the staff he had inherited from Darien Tal, discharging those who seemed untrustworthy. And Fetek Breath-of-Midnight vanished into the black cathedral that was Amalion.
Thorwald of Stonehold met with Tepet Aekino over dinner. They acknowledged certain difficulties that had arisen between them; Thorwald resented Aekino’s peremptory manner and his softness towards those that the northman considered foes, but respected his knowledge and his understanding of the human heart. Aekino disliked Thorwald’s stubbornness and provincial mindset, but admired his will and courage. The two agreed, in the end, to disagree, and settled instead into a discussion of Amalion’s relationship with Fetek.
“What will we do in three days?” The barbarian fingered the ivory whiteness of his daiklave’s pommel. “She will not leave.”
“You are allowing your judgment to cloud your logic.”
“It is simple logic. We know how hard it was for her to arrive here. Why would she want to leave?”
The Dynast smiled. “Would you care to make a wager?”
* * * * *
At the dawn of the fourth day, Fetek and Amalion emerged onto a balcony, its balustrade an intricate web of polished basalt. They held hands for a long time. Words passed between them; their eyes lingered. The air was calm and still.
The moment passed. They stood apart. Fetek turned away, took eagle shape; he hurled himself away upon the air. Amalion vanished into the building that was herself. The balcony melted away behind her.
A ripple passed through the air, through the stone; the black towers shivered. Winged demons took to the air; others, half-hidden masses of fur and feather and scale, withdrew into the windows and niches from which they peered. The air hummed with expectancy.
At the edges of the black zone, where the demon towers met the rest of the city, the stones began to quiver and melt. Bulges flowed inward through bridges and buttresses, like rats swallowed by a nest of hungry serpents. Buildings sagged and collapsed as the darkness flowed away from them in a black tide, leaving a wrack of pathetic human shapes, pale and mewling, crawling among the pitted, corroded heaps of granite and marble that once were the manors of the rich.
The blackness continued to draw inward, like foul water swirling down into some hidden sewer. The heaps of rubble grew smaller; Amalion grew larger, a cyclopean presence of brass-scribbled night against the early sun. The last towers vanished, leaving only smooth stone where holes in the ground led to the cellars and basements of obliterated mansions. Buttresses flailed at the air like a scorpion’s legs, then compressed themselves against the sides of the great cathedral. Amalion folded in upon herself like black silk origami, a conjurer’s trick, a shadow in the sun.
She was gone.
* * * * *
Zera ignored the cold wind as it cut through his thin shirt and into his arms. He glanced over as Li climbed up beside him onto the rooftop. Together, they stared at the wreckage of the upper city.
Zera observed that Li no longer bore Burning Tiger. Without it, she seemed diminished; pale and sallow, older than her years. “Walking a little lighter now, are you?”
“The sword… I didn’t think I needed it. Not now. Maybe later.”
“You’d better make sure that someone nasty doesn’t get hold of it.”
“I don’t think it would go with anyone else. It’s in a safe place.”
Seeing the wretched exiles from Amalion shuffling hopelessly through the upper city, the two went that way and gathered them up. At least a hundred of the poor folk were there, aimless and helpless without the demon queen; Zera got them all moving down toward the water, where he found a ferryman to bring them across the river to Brinlack to be cared for. When the ferryman expressed his fears that the rabble might do him harm, Li agreed to stay with him, day and night, until the ferrying was done.
* * * * *
They gathered for dinner that evening at the Tower of Winds. Zera Thisse was the first to arrive. Tepet Aekino welcomed him cordially; they retired to a sitting room undamaged by the Dariens’ plunder, where a fireplace cast a warm glow across polished walnut and green silk. There, they discussed the disappearance of Amalion.
“We should keep an eye on Thorwald,” the Night observed. “Make sure he doesn’t push Fetek around too much. The boy will be in a lot of pain. This applies to you, too,” he added pointedly. “There’s no sense in rubbing salt in the wound. He’s done the right thing.”
“When have I ever done a thing like that?” Aekino’s voice oozed with mock-sincerity.
“Stop playing. This is me you’re talking to.”
A manservant knocked at the door. “Thorwald of Stonehold has arrived.”
“Send him in.”
The northman seated himself heavily in a sturdy armchair. It creaked. “She’s gone.”
Zera nodded. “Even demons can love, apparently.”
“Everything I understand says this is a part of her plan. But I know it’s not true.”
“Right. So let’s not rub it in, okay? Take it easy on Fetek when he gets here.”
Aekino rolled his eyes. “We shouldn’t coddle him.”
“I’m not talking about coddling him. Just don’t throw it in his face.”
“Look.” The Dynast’s expression turned serious. “He’s going to have a lot of unpleasant experiences in his life. He’s already had more than his share. I intend to treat him as a man.”
Another knock at the door interrupted the exchange. Fetek had arrived.
“Good evening, brother Midnight,” said Aekino cordially.
The Lunar looked tired. His face bore the marks of keeping his feelings hidden. “I have done as you ask.”
“How are you tonight?”
“I am fine.”
“Good.” Aekino signaled a manservant to bring tea. “We need to discuss what our next actions are. What are your ideas?”
“Destroy Longcorner’s army when it comes.”
“I had hoped to parlay. Still, we must be ready.” He gestured to a chair. “Please, sit. Take refreshment.”
Fetek sat stiffly. Aekino enquired as to Thorwald’s progress.
“These people,” said the northerner, “are at once the bravest, most wretched, poorest and most evil of all those who lived here. Either they could not leave, or they did not want to. They live like pigs. And now that they are frightened, they are even worse.”
“And what do you suggest that we do now?”
”I do not know.”
The Dynast accepted this. “Zera Thisse?”
“It sounds to me like these people have no cause to hope. It sounds to me that these people need something to believe in.” He continued in this vein for a short time, until the servants announced another visitor. The last of the Circle had arrived.
Li looked wan, thinner than usual, and dark circles hovered under her eyes. She waved away offers of food and rest. “Do I have any ideas?” She shrugged. “I have thought about it. We have to stay, don’t we? If we leave, this place has no defense against Longcorner.”
“Or the Fair Folk,” added Zera
Aekino chimed in with, “Or Vir may return.”
“I have no wish to spend the rest of my life here,” Zera stated. “Make these people self-sufficient, and they will be able to protect themselves. Then we can go. There are many things I’d like to see, and many things we need to do.”
So it was agreed. There were many things they wished to try their hands at, many people and places that they would see. Were there not other Solars in the world? The memories of Kuro the Raven and Blessed Wind spoke of Kiri the White, lost in the Eastern Wyld. Amalion had told Fetek of an ancient Solar in the Southwest, at the edge of the world, who had torn his citadel from the stuff of the Wyld and sustained in, moment to moment, by the force of his will. She had also spoken of vessels in which the shards of other Solars had been sealed; might these not be broken, and the souls released to be reborn?
But for now, they decided, it would be best to bring back Ledaal Vir and Cessair. They ruled in Tul Tuin once, and their presence guarded the city from attack. Much as Thorwald, for one, might have liked to install Stone Rain as the ruler of Tul Tuin, no mortal could hold the city against the Exalted and the Fair Folk. Messengers would be sent; a summit would be held. They only hoped that Vir would remember the power of the Anathema and stay his hand from a ruinous assault. Once the former rulers came together, they could take the burden of responsibility from the Circle, who could go elsewhere in search of their destiny.
Steaming cups of tea and rice wine clinked together. Outside, beyond the warm circle of firelight, clouds darkened the evening sky. An icy rain fell upon the fields.
Winter was coming.