XL.

Father looked much kinder, warmer; his face intruded by the foreign, upward turn of the corner of his mouth.

So that’s what he looked like when he smiles.

She was unbelieving of that expression, the secure sensation when he effortlessly lifted her over the muddy parts of the beautiful mountain trail they were ascending.

“Where’s mama?”

He chuckled, “We are going to meet her.” So their trek continued, her pulling the hand of this strange apparition of her father.

Then their journey ended abruptly by a cliff, preluded by the gradual climb of hills. As they neared the terrifying edge she finally felt a hint of familiarity: the inevitable feeling of falling. While he paced nonchalantly by the highest point of the cliffs looking down at the roaring streams crashing against boulders, she repeated, “Where’s ma?”

He scoffed.

She looked down at the thin thread of scarlet water and the white foams forming from the liquid’s fatal crash against boulders, which were not even rocks, but bones of those wronged by this smiling man beside her, “Why?”

Instead of answering, he stated simply, “I made you, Lyra.”

She knew. Her title summoned her hand about her throat.

“You donned my title for this power, Lyra.”

She knew. So her hands closed tighter.

“You used my face for your own power.”

“Lyra!” Her cheek stung from a strike she did not see, reality swam back in the form of odd-colored eyes. “My God, you were…oh are you alright?”

“…” Air returned to her lungs along with a rush of colors.

The girl was hugging her knees at the corner of Lyra’s eyes while Aldebaran stooped by, coaxing her to try to see, “Don’t overthink it: try to see what it wants to do.” The girl nodded through tears, closed her eyes in concentration.

Lyra looked about, “Where’s Horatio?”

Athlem rolled her eyes, “He went after the thing. I couldn’t just leave you here, so…where are you going now?!”

They darted into the dense forest paths once again.

*******

He hated himself for being so stubborn, to think himself well enough to chase whatever abominable beast, but he had to exterminate those images.

He noticed that it was cutting through the overgrowth to town. Every twist and turn lend more space for those ill omen: her odd-colored eyes dimmed, deep, thoughtful whisper of parting promises…”Horatio…” “No!” He made out the first wooden frame of a cottage, then a pang struck his right shoulder at the most inopportune time, though he bit his lips and persisted, and so did the visions in increasing vividity.

Pure white dyed a dark scarlet. “No…” He left the cover of the forest, followed the beast’s track.

His bride was cold in his arms, and no kiss could warm her delicate frame. The pang morphed into agony, and his world flashed white then red. He reeled and leaned against a convenient wall, gasped, “Athlem…”

He was trapped for an infinity until a voice broke the spell, “Horatio!” Full of life, like the arms that cradled him: so warm, plagued only by concerns and worries.

She saw his visions in her all-knowing eye and pressed her lips to his forehead, “I’m here…I’m here…”

Seeing that Horatio was attended to, Lyra directed her attention to the beast roaming at large.

She drew closer to the ran-down cottage, spotting the dark cloud sweeping across the skewed fences and the obsolete planks; a crystalline screech, the glass and frames gave away. The widowed and her eldest daughter ran out of their house, watched in utter horror as their home wobbled, groaned.

The silent beat of midnight wings were drowned in the chaos, but they brought in the author of this destruction, the girl that ran forward proclaiming, “Stop it!” Her voice was a thin wail to the roar of the storm.

But did she mean it? Lyra remembered a scene shortly after her father’s disappearance, when she turned to her advisors and demanded the rebuilding the palace.

She convinced them it was  good, “to do off the past indulgences.” But it was not for “better use of land,” but the riddance of moments: her father’s cruelty, her mother’s death, etched into the marble halls and pillars.

She, too, wanted them all obliterated.

Lyra didn’t know that she was holding the child’s hand, calloused from whipping and writing. She embraced the fragile form sobbing in powerlessness: ‘tis strange, Lyra thought, to embrace a mirror of her past. She wanted her to see, and she did.

“It’s alright,” Lyra couldn’t hear herself, didn’t see that the beast paused. “He’s gone.” The beast approached them, saw its source of power depleted, cried out. Mourned.

“It’s over now…” Lyra said to herself. “He’s gone.” And so did the beast.

She kneeled there holding the girl in an unspoken redemption, washed by the child’s unrelenting tears.

Yet of course such a precious moment was curtailed, the patrolmen came tumbling and shattering peace, “The criminals are here, the Princess and the Nokshan.”

Lyra cursed under her breath and in a turn of wit grabbed the girl and shouted, “Take another step toward us and I will end this child.”

The girl, confused by the turn of events, realized Lyra’s true intentions, protested, “No…please don’t do that for me…”

“Did you also kill the doctor?” The bows are drawn, Aldebaran stood a careful step between Lyra and the guards with his hand upon the hilt of his sword.

“And what if I did?” “That’s a lie –” “– Silence.” Lyra surprised herself with her own outward cruelty.

“Put the child down,” Lyra exchanged a quick dart with Alde, and he sprung to action: with an imperceptible stir hand daggers sailed through the taut bowstrings. Then in a blink Lyra pushed the girl away, a powerful beat of wings and they were gone, a mere black dot in the distant sky. The girl, numb to her mother and sister’s comforting caresses, traced the spot and thought aloud, “Thank you.”

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