XLII.

They growled against the metal bars, each raspy screech a reminder of her failure.

“You’ve failed again, haven’t you?” The oppressive voice was too familiar, accompany to the cold gaze falling upon the animals: half human, a quarter Nokshan and a quarter insanity, hissing.

The limp pair of grey wings stitched to the first subject was already rotting, the spirits sustaining it having been misused. She had the chance to revive them, but not the skill to match such odds.

“This is just wrong…”

Claud paused in his pacing, raised a brow, “What else could we have done to amend for Emperor Luctus’s wrongs?”

“…” Eridani looked at her hands, wrists that had shed their bandages and wore scars instead.

At that the priest approached her, covering the jagged scripts of new skin with his forceful hands, “Child,” oh, the pretense of gentility was more revolting than the smell of this room. “You are simply restricted by your hesitation. You fear of betraying your brother.”

“And what’s so wrong about that?”

“Not wrong: it’s quite admirable, actually,” He brushed over the scars, read them. “But, he doesn’t deserve your devotion.”

She snatched her hands away, “You can’t be the judge of that.”

“Why, he’s abandoned you to chase after his revenge, then he became enamored with the daughter of the man who massacred your people.”

“You know nothing of him,” She snapped. “He was forced into a contract…he was desperate to save me. He would never…” Words caught at her throat when she recollected the last time she encountered him: time and her suffering twisted details and now she saw his arm too natural around the princess. “He would never…”

“How about this, Lady Eridani, shall we leave this dreary place?”

“What?”

Of course, it was a mere excursion for Claud’s businesses. Eridani found herself staring out a square of dull, flying scenery that was still better than the damp towers. She did not know where this insignificant town they stopped at was, but was just grateful to feel raw earth directly beneath her sole again.

An official greeted them with information that sped past Eridani’s ears as she was too distracted reviving her lungs with fresh air.

“This way, my lord,” They followed the man to a ran-down cottage.

“Who are we meeting?”

“The last person to have saw your brother and his new friends,” Claud mused.

A woman, seemingly young except for the dark clouds about her eyes, answered the door. At Claud’s introduction the fatigue melted off of the woman’s face temporarily as she invited the Grand Priest into her unworthy abode.

“Thank you,” The genteel Priest thanked the daughter of the older woman, who set tea down before them, cracked ceramics on a cracked table. “Madame, I am dearly sorry for your loss.”

“I have been helped with this township’s support, and now, Your Holiness’s presence, so my grief should be a burden for myself.”

Claud smiled solemnly, “It pains me to do this, but for the sake of bringing the criminals responsible for your husband’s death to justice, I must know how it conspired.”

The woman complied, “The day before, an one-armed man and his wife by the name of Elsinore came for my husband’s assistance. Mr. Elsinore appeared awfully ill, so I extended the courtesy of letting them stay. Then night came…my husband and I had a small argument, and Mrs. Elsinore interrupted. Out of embarrassment, my husband stopped but later decided that he needed to get some fresh air. He went downstairs on his own and I heard a loud bang, and I rushed downstairs…a shadow was there. Just a strange monstrous bird with…four powerful taloned limbs and amber eyes,” At this Eridani’s throat ran dry. “Then there was my husband, de…” Claud offered a hand in silent sympathy, and the widow found strength from the blessing and continued.

“Mrs. Elsinore was there, and beside her were two strangers that she later introduced as her fellow travelers: a young girl and a…Nokshan. I was too shaken to be suspicious, so I cleared my younger daughter’s room for the two strangers. The next–”

“– One room for the two of them, the Nokshan and the woman?” Eridani thought her voice unbearably cracked, but the inquiry necessary.

The woman did not find the fact crucial, though it meant the world to the inquisitor. “I thought only intimate relations would travel in each other’s sole company…still, I curse myself to this day for allowing them to defile my daughter’s room with their presence.” Claud thought he heard a crack, searched the unstable house and saw Eridani’s hands balled into pale fists; he smiled. “The next day, the guests left me a generous sum and I was almost thankful. Little did I know, the beast along with the Nokshan and the woman returned and attacked our house. My youngest daughter managed to convince the woman to stop and the beast vanished. She then seized my daughter when she saw the guards came, threatened to kill the poor girl–”

Eridani got up and left the damned house where her brother had murdered a man using Jiube and…her face burnt at the idea…shared a bed with the witch.

“Brother…he wouldn’t…” Was she blubbering like a fledgling? She hated so many things at once.

Claud was just glad. He stayed to interview the widow’s younger daughter, only to find discrepancies pointing to a more likely narrative given the princess’s stubbornness: she must have told the woman to place the blame on her, while the little girl refused out of naivety even though the widow knew better.

And Claud knew better, too, for he will continue to have the princess and her raven bear the blame: seeing the small, hooded frame of the young Nokshan wrecked by suppressed sobs and betrayal, he could only wait for the wrath to drown envy, to fix broken pride.

He smiled and counted at least one experiment successful.

XLI.

It really didn’t help stabilize the earth beneath him when a man-crow carrying his beloved niece literally swooped down before him. He was faint, and the need to maintain an assuring smile for Athlemwas a chore he did not anticipate to be so bothersome. Athlem tugged herself closely to his side, rebuked his stubbornness in remaining standing with a quiet glare and pursed lips.Lyra threw herself at the two of them in renewed joy, which Horatio appreciated but did not understand, “What’s wrong, you saw us mere instances earlier.”

The girl mumbled, “I know…but it felt much longer.”

They set out for Etzion soon after, unwilling to indulge in the moment of familial unity lest it be ruined by the more clever ones of the searching guards. It was quieter than Lyra was accustomed since Jiube had yet to acceot the two additions to their travels: its owner seemed to share the same sentiment, preferring to scout ahead or to stay behind with Jiube’s temperamental whims. 

A few days into their travels, the Creator doused the world in His mighty tears. In response, they’ve found refuge within an inn intending to stay the night to give Horatio time to inform his brother and not ambush the Etzion king with an unannounced visit. As Horatio went to find ink and leaves while Aldebaran for the mysterious whereabouts of Jiube, Lyra found herself alone with Athlem. The older woman perched upon the bed meditatively, her usual disguise shed: the usually closely plaited hair were freed into a gentle flow of silken locks framing her tender cheeks. Just how could one possibly be fooled to think her a man? Perhaps men thought that a mind so brilliant cannot be feminine, and that women were only characterized by their fragile, shapely forms to be worshiped, which unflattering clothes could easily hide. 

The thin shower of lights from one of the brief breaks of pouring rain fell across the physician’s lap, striped her shoulders, illuminated hair. As Athlem gathered the miniscule warmth from the dull stripe of light before her, Lyra rummaged through so many questions conceived during her misadventures, dared — prompted by the sense of security and the warmth of company — to recollect the images, those flashes of darkness came to focus. Cruel words spat at her face, the spit merely a disgusting guise for valuable information. What did that despicable priest want from her again…?

“The seal,” Her mouth found the words before her mind put together a coherent thought. “Have you heard of it? The traitors seemed to be in search for it.”

“Seal?” A voice of continued dreamy contemplation. “Perhaps…but if Lord Claud sought the thing upon my mind, he is very much misguided.”

“Oh?”

“The seal…I am not perfectly knowledgeable of it, for even Horatio knew very little, is an artifact of sort. An inheritance from your grandfather that was meant to be passed down to his heir. Some suggested that he gave it to his favorite son, Lucem, instead, and I hardly have any clue as to what type of incredible power it harnessed nor its whereabouts. But, what good had it done its supposed owner?”

Lyra was bitterly disappointed by the revelation, but grateful for the confirmation of her inferences and moved to more trivial topics. Then odd, bright colors twinkled and smiled playfully.

“I must ask.” Lyra tilted her head in silent inquiry, “Of the Nokshan, I meant.”

Lyra wasn’t sure why she turned away, hiding a burning cheek, “What of him?” Was she smiling?

“Are you fond of him?”

“What, no!” The snap was too loud to be blameless: as always, the physician’s diagnosis was flawless.

“Do you know,” Athlem teased her flustered niece. “A Nokshan’s familiar is connected to his mind and soul.” Lyra could not help but burst out laughing at the thought of the fluffball and the stoic Nokshan being so intermittently linked. 

Athlem continued, “Don’t you think Jiube is quite fond of you?” Then the fluffball ceased to be funny.

Lyra froze mid-laugh, scoffed, “Stop that, it’s only because I feed it so much.”

“Oh, so you are his soul’s food.”

“Ath, please,” Lyra drew her legs to accompany her in her contemplation. “How in love could he be with an individual who stabbed and nearly killed him?”

Athlem was undeterred by the denial, “I supposed I am not one to judge or say from a study over several short days, but just don’t be fooled by yourself.”

“I know,” She knew the physician’s words were dual-sided.

“Just because he is the first decent man you have ever met besides your uncle doesn’t necessarily mean that he is the only one,” Athlem gave a conclusive nod. “And your uncle sets an incredibly low standard for ‘decent’ characters, anyhow.”

As though sensitive to such attack upon his character, Horatio knocked upon the door and stuck his head in at the utterance of the last line; he blinked a few times, “What did I do this time?”

Athlem raised a brow, “Not only is he guilty, he is clueless: one of the many offenses, perhaps, is barging into conversations unannounced? That is quite an indicator of cheap characters indeed.”

Horatio rolled his eyes, “I am merely here to innocently report that I’ve sent my (very much unreadable) letter and that, as always, you are beautiful.” 

Athlem snapped and threw a cushion, “You smug little–” Horatio quickly shut the door, the pillow struck the handle and the two laughed.

Lyra marveled at the delight and warmth of these brief moment of domestic felicity, could not help but loosed her usual leash upon her imagination: if she was in Athlem’s place, meditating, reaching her hand into the sparkles of sunlight. She would jest with her beloved whose perfect features would wrinkle in feigned hurt at her banter, the cool midnight then quip back in wit at her.

She hated it, the whole idea, of course. She blushed. At her foolishness, of course. 

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.”

XXXIX.

The roots were an angry congregation, zealous in their task of tripping whoever dared to cross their brotherhood. Lyra was the heathen, excommunicated from the church of nature by the sheltered life she led. Now that she walked amongst the aisles between each ancient trunk, she was amazed. The sheer number of life she trod under her feet, the harmonious pulses and impulses were different in that they were indifferent to the temporary being that was mankind.

Still, she was a tumbling fool: her attempt at poise only seemed to distance her from her winged companion more. She recalled why she subjected herself to such a pilgrimage.

Earlier that morning, she was prepared to leave with Horatio and Athlem, meeting Aldebaran at the edge of town. They left the widowed and her two daughters with gratitude in enough gold to straighten the three’s rundown place.

“I wonder,” Horatio mused as they took to the covered, forested paths. “Could they be free now?”

“Free?” Athlem thought the concept oddly idealistic and uncharacteristic of her beloved’s usual utterance, but thought it cruel to stub what must be his attempt at optimism. “Why, one day, perhaps.”

But Lyra wasn’t so susceptible to character change, and was more concerned with expressing the contents of a moving script that she vaguely remembered from a night of wandering, “It’s much easier to dispatch of a man than his shadow.”

Horatio resorted to silence after that.

They were greeted by Aldebaran — technically first ambushed by Jiube the furball that threw itself at Lyra in chirping joy since it was unconvinced that the Princess was coming back — and was going to continue for Etzion when Aldebaran suddenly snapped.

“How did the three of you combined not notice that you were being followed?”

From their connected mind Lyra realized a weight that sank her heart into blank terror. How could she not feel such an aura before? She looked up at Alde, his face frozen in an unblinking intensity glaring into the path from where she just came.

The intruder seemed to have heard her discovery and made a move, ruffling the dense bushes before revealing herself in harmlessness.

It was just a little girl, Lyra found herself stupid for being so frightened as she release the elbow of Alde’s sleeve that she did not remember grasping. It was the girl they ran into yesterday, the younger daughter of the dead man.

“Sorry to have startle you,” She bowed, the hood of her cloak nearly swallowed her head. “Good day to you.” And as random as she came, she left, the roughly-bounded book still clutched to her chest.

As soon as she left Aldebaran stated blankly, “We have to take the notebook from her.”

“‘We’?” Horatio was unamused. “I understand that knowledge is powerful, so how is it our business to rob a girl of that?”

“Please, it’s not that, the pages…” It was not the barrier of foreign language that made Aldebaran pause, for reality and typical understanding of normality has a gap words find it difficult to bridge.

Still, Lyra interpreted the feeling — the sinking, utter doom elicited by that simple girl, or rather, the book. So she was ready to rush to action, to which Horatio acquiescence with a sigh. That is how she faced the predicament described towards the earlier part of this chapter: trekking on, the fading aura of menace and Alde’s steps her only sense of direction. Then all the sudden the sensation doubled, screeching rage swallowed despair whole.

What on earth happened?

The trees thinned subtly at her inquiry, giving away to a clearing that answered. There was the girl, standing before a general splatter of pages in an almost ritualistic light that seeped past the overarching branches. To the four’s amazement, there was also the darkness, the beast, directly above the pages like an apparition. Lyra squinted and saw a man, taunted herself into thinking otherwise.

“Why did you do that?” The girl scold her monster. “You didn’t have to kill him.”

The beast cowered at the girl’s reproach, lowered its massive head.

What is that? Lyra thought better than to mumble and thought to Aldebaran instead.

I am…not sure…but clearly the girl — at that the beast turned about, its fiery eyes flared at them. There was a blood-curling roar as it charged at the latest offender of this sacred space. “Did it somehow hear me?” was a query Lyra postponed, quickly dodging out of the way as the immeasurable darkness crashed into where they stood. A scar into dense greenery, a collateral hiss of the millions of life Lyra was just marveling over a few heartbeats ago. After the ring of her deafened ears subsided she made out the girl’s screeched remonstrance.

“What are you doing? Leave them alone!” The fiery eyes and their formless darkness of a frame could not be persuaded.

It was so much more than words, so little to do with its original scripts at this point of the narrative the beast broke the chains of its creator’s self restraint: all fury, setting aflame all that could be blamed.

Horatio drew forth an utterance powerful enough to trap the beast, a shell of energy that it was readily snapping against in increasing fervor, “Destroy the pages!” Athlem observed.

The girl beat them to it and took up the first leaf and ripped. As the page screeched and bled, the ink was freed and tainted the earth. As she and the others grasped at the pages a roar from the beast signaled its newfound freedom, a gust of wind swept them out of reach, drew them into the void that is the creature. Lyra would’ve been concerned with her uncle’s increasing pallor had the darkness not shift as she blinked, took form, stood.

She drew a broken breath, he of all people waved at her. The man, curt smile and an outstretched hand.

“Lyra,” The beast’s voice was a quiet command. “Come here, my child”

XXXVIII.

And the darkness spoke to Lyra in a bodiless voice, an apparition whose language was feelings. So it said,The thing came from his shadow. Specifically his shadow that got cut off from him as he slammed the door too hard and fast. Mother opened the windows in the usual mighty struggle, coaxing the roses’ sweet scent to alleviate the fumes Father left behind. But the fumes were only gone since we breathed it in, my share of chopped shadow already enough to choke me.

Knowing that I already have the smallest serving I rushed to my room and vomit there. Found a page and spilled some ink, then from boiling my blood it mauled the pages instead, simmering scripts to tell the tale of how a doctor broke someone’s back. His wife’s back.

She was the envy of the township and beyond, her grace and poise and intellect and beauty supposedly worthy of a man as educated as him. People whispered in general good will, wishing that she would be dumber, and him a little handsomer, but otherwise ‘tis a good pair.

So? He wasn’t thinking all that, though, for as long as his wife’s father’s trade continue “love” was well fed.

Of course. This world is not ruled by the Divine. Trade fails. “Love” fails.

The pages grew more numerous at each door slammed, each piece of shadow curtailed from its often drunken source then stuffed down our throats.

“Silence,” He hissed. “Get yourself educated so you can be more reasonable.” A mumbled contradiction: why would he grimace at the tutors should he truly wish his daughters educated?

From the pages the thing grew, a dark shadow came from each bent of my pen.

I’ve done a terrible thing, I realized too late, to infect the pages with such spite. They were not even cheap, these flimsy old things, and their potential was priceless, now ruined. But from there I found my beast, my demon, whose sole purpose was to soar for me on clipped wings.

Panic Attack

This is the first time I had a panic attack.

It started as a simple attempt at relaxation during AP Computer Science class. I accepted an ear bud offered to me from a project partner of mine. As soon as the little thing was snuggled into my ear the nostalgic mumbles of Jay Chou occupied a good half of my mind. Absent-mindedly I was typing out lines of code, trying to remember that I’m not sitting in the back of an old Toyota driving through a typhoon storm, and my mother was not pretending to be annoyed by my sister and my attempts at imitating the loose jaw and nasal voice characteristic of Chou.

Then the strangest thing occurred: some of my classmates conversed or sang off-key as per usual while they work on their own projects. For the longest time I listened to each syllable pronounced. For the longest time I knew not what they meant.

What year is it? Why are Taiwanese people so good at English all the sudden?

Why did I think I’m surrounded by Taiwanese people?

I stopped coding and attempted to convince myself that I’m in America. A shaking hand ran across the laptop before me. Right, a school laptop. That was not a thing in my elementary school eight years ago. But, still. The syllables ran on, a flood of syllables clicked against my ears, and I listened, drowned, only with a fixed eye upon the light at the surface of the water knowing full well all is but an illusion. My heart’s pounding was another chaotic noise that I failed to comprehend.

I pulled out the ear bud, thanked the person giving me the music, wondered and continued coding.