An Uneventful Evening

One uneventful evening, Athlem was channeling her inner feline-ness, basking in the sunlight by the reading room’s window with a volume stolen from Horatio’s library — it still made very little sense that Etzion royalties needed their own separate archives — when she noticed that she emptied her satchel of dried plums. She stared at it in lazy annoyance, then convinced herself to leave her warm spot.When she stepped into their room, Horatio was where she left him in his usual rigid efficiency, scanning the monolith of a volume set before him, presumably about strategies or spells, though he was already holding out her desired bag to her as his piercing eyes stayed on the page.

“I still don’t understand how your teeth are intact after you’ve devoured cartfuls of these in the matter of days,” He muttered as she took the bag with glee, pecked him on the cheek in wordless thanks. “How are you feeling?”

“These little beauties are keeping my food down,” Seeing that the other chair was five steps away, she opted for a more comfortable spot upon his lap before fishing out another plum and examined it.

“Ew,” Horatio wrinkled his nose at the wrinkled, fruity abomination.

“Do you want to kiss me now?” She nuzzled, pouted, giggled as he frowned in conflicted indecision.

“For the first time in my life, I shall refuse that offer for the safety of my mouth.”

“It’s not that bad! Even a fetus can handle it.”

“Our child is going to be born more sour and wrinkler than any newborn if you keep eating that,” He mockingly wailed. “Oh, the horror.”

“So, you mean our child will grow up to be just like you? That is not far from my expectations.”

“Hey!” She giggled at the tickle of his prickly stubble as he nuzzled her neck, pecked at her cheeks.

Then she wrestled him from his tickling advances, laughing, cupped his face and wandered amongst the lines of his features while leaning into the gentle circles his hand were drawing on her back. She traced the narrow bridge of his nose, the hiding his piercing eyes and observations, the darkening eye bags — which she was the proud author of for the past fitful night of cravings or nightmares or vomiting or a hellish concoction of all of the above — the thin lines at the corner of his eyes deepened by the above mentioned fact, his cutting cheekbones, parted lips. Stubborn, beautiful, beautifully stubborn, she placed her forehead against his.

The eloquence always escape him when she was with him, but his mind strove to mend: Her hair was glossed with streaks of sunlight, her eyes narrowed by subtle puffiness of sleeplessness and motherhood, but he hardly noticed. The lines of her frame, her round cheeks and nose, all streaked with sunlight, she was always so blindingly beautiful. Fragile, stubborn, succinct. A single lowering of her lashes, a pout, or a single phrase, and he would be fulfilled, blessed.

“I am,” she went back to cupping his cheeks, tilted his chin “too much in the sun.”

Of course, she meant not the highlights of her hair, and he wanted to verbalize his understanding, realized he didn’t need to. She leaned in, he met her, tasted sweet.

Then the taste sour, he realized, “Ugh, you didn’t.”

She pulled away, giggled devilishly, leap off of him and ran for the door before he could tickle her. He spat, reached for water to stop the burn of his tongue.

“Good day to you,” She waved childishly, disappeared behind the door to return, he presume, to her favorite perch in his reading room.

He stayed there, trying to savor the sour, sweet of her upon his lips as he grimaced, laughed, opted to lose interest in his volume and pursue a much greater importance.

LIX.

“We have to go,” She knew he was going to be fine and she was being more than a little silly for being so worried and if he was conscious she would never live it down but still, still she wanted to stay by his side, be the first thing in his feverish vision when he wakes.

What is this inexplicable irrationality?

“I will be there in a moment,” Horatio nodded and left her to her own devices.

She ruffled Jiube, straightened her belt heavy with a dagger and its longer pair; the weight was reassuring, though her training was not so. The pieces of metal were but instruments to focus her spells and spirit manipulations, the latter a skill seemingly passed onto her in gradually through her contract. Or perhaps from the voices that so often took the form of her father, visited her in her deepest nightmares.

No matter, they were to set out.

“Don’t worry about it,” Athlem’s hand rested upon her shoulder. “I will keep a close watch on him.”

“Take care of yourself first, I am sure he will be fine.“

A kiss on her forehead, and she went out to her uncle. Accompanied by several able villagers, whose faith had been bolstered by the grandfather’s retelling of the confrontation, they took to the mountains in the unlikely brightness of midday.

“The fog forms only stay away during midday, we can’t have them alert whatever enemies we might be spying on,” Ophie’s logic was sound, and they could only silently endure the grueling sun, slightly saved by the occasional clumps of forestry dense enough to spare them shadows.

A young man led them, followed by Horatio while Lyra trailed a few steps behind, just far enough to overhear the mutters of conversation.

“The princess is quite a walker, isn’t she?”

“A fighter, too,” testified the grandfather.

“Why can’t she be our leader?”

“Why not?” Grunted the old man. “So far we’ve only had men ruling us, and they all turned out to be scums, so we might as well.”

“Prince Horatio might hear.”

“If he minds, then he’s a scum, too.”

Lyra smiled to herself and tuned into the series of small talks that her uncle has eased the nervous young man into.

“Doctor Denthea…where is she from? She looks almost Nokshan-like,” and a hurriedly added as the youth forgot himself in a sudden sense of familiarity. “If Your Highness don’t mind me asking.”

“Of course not. Her hometown is within a province length from the rumored realm of the Nokshans,” Horatio mused. “Thus the similarity, I suppose.”

“Ah,” the man swallowed other questions as he continued to systematically pick his way up the mountain.

Soon enough, he announced that they are within a few leagues to their destination, and all conversation died to watchful observation. Lyra attempted to pick out that same beat she noted within the temple from the rustle of leaves and the dull steps of earth about her, but a voice nearly made her jump.

Hello, my child.

God, she cursed under her breath. Not now.

The multitude chuckled, I take that you didn’t miss us?

I don’t need your power, be gone.

Well, Just like her, they were unconvinced. Had you borrow power from us, maybe your dumb crow wouldn’t be on the verge of death.

Please, I…know. She still blamed herself, for twice his blood washed her hands.

The mountains ahead, The infinite voices fell back to one, to her father’s. They are quite foul. You will need me.

I don’t need you.

Ah…you are quite the jester. Tell me a better joke.

You…Then a piercing screech, the earth shook.

“What was that?” A collective question, they hid; Lyra followed her intuition through the overgrowth, the villagers followed her.

They came to the source: at the clearing, imperial soldiers flanked the mountains dotted with workers scurrying to stuff themselves with gruel and the spot of rest they were allotted before they pick up their picks again to burrow deeper into the large crater they have made. For a second, one may think they were misguided miners. But, their methods were a purposeful purposeless; this became obvious to Lyra as she saw the chaotic aura plaguing the injured mountain, raw spirits and their disturbed energy waiting to be collected by a cloaked figure.

“The Nokshan,” Ophie rasped.

Ah, the pieces found their way to a hypothesis in Lyra’s mind: for the spirit of chaos was not unfamiliar, it was the same aura of the three revived corpses. So, Eridani had been harvesting spirits from the mountain to enable her experiments. How Nokshan of her. She turned over the options, chose one, signaled the others to leave.

She reached out to the disgruntled spirits, they made her plans easier, seized them, and with a forceful twist of her hands returned them to their shells. A hiss of violent chaos, Eridani was, as expected, alarmed and aware of their presence: but before she could bound upon them, the restored mountains let out a mighty rumble, the tree sprites and their lesser brethren sprung forth and seized their aggressors, tore and bit and strangled until the dried earth was watered again.

Then the first boulder fell, crushed a few poor workers.

She dashed down the path where they came. The mingled screams blurred by distance, still the spirits were too enraged to tell friend from foe; in a desperate shove, the tunneled side of the mountains caved in, pushed forth, drowning all those around in a wave of rocks and boulders and choking dust. Lyra saw the approaching crash, her faraway companions, ducked to opposite sides as trees were uprooted and buried. Then another screech. A shadow, a blur of bright blue in the stark blue sky.

Lyra barely dodged as the ground where she was caved in, the fiery of a slash explained the irrationality that wasted stealth.

“Lyra of Lunzeldine,” The young Nokshan hissed. “Come to die.”

LVIII.

Eridani confirmed that the Taurian clan had very little concern for what became of her: their continued ignorance of her disappearance was proof enough.

The fact was no shock.

Ever since she was born, she knew: mother was too fatigued rebuilding the clan to bother hiding her disdain for the child that lived in her mate’s place. The prophecy diverted when she was born, she often mused with her important advisors about her younger child. It’s as though her cries silenced the Creator.

Yes, she knew that by defying the texts of the Creator’s foretelling, her birth had doomed her people into this unforeseen period of utmost confusion.

So, she thought she was so lucky to have a brother who treasured her. She thought she was blessed to be protected by the prophesied “great King,” the raven with the same blood as her, the blood of the strongest warrior and the greatest healer in the history of Nokshan existence. She thought Aldebaran saw her simply as “his bluejay,” his precious little sister, and not the child cursed into isolation for her tenets-defying existence that he needed to pity.

And so she was wrong. He probably only shielded her for the praise of their clansmen. He chose a mere human over her. It made sense, Eridani supposed. Even he, her sole protector, could not help but thought it better if father didn’t die for her, that she should have just been a stillborn, mourned than forgotten.

Interestingly enough, she realized her brief days of life as a stillborn would have left her at a better opinion amongst the clan, anyway.

But she digresses. She embarked upon this strain of thought merely by the sight of the crumbled corpse upon the floor. A few spots of snowy feathers remained, and while she knew the owner of those egret plumes also possess half of her blood, it was difficult for her to be moved.

“Ha, I won, again,” She choked out bitterness and bile: the reason she was alive was the reason she had to be cursed.

Did she ever choose to be born? The father she never met allowed himself to be blinded by his love for his mate, his children, yet never thought about the broken pieces his loved ones would be left in at his death; and the shards of broken hearts cut her infant mind and her wounds remained, if not multiplied stubbornly each year she struggled on.

“I won,” She recalled a comment made behind her wings: why is she a bluejay? Aren’t Lord Aldebaran and our King ravens?

The bright color is a warning, the mother answered her son. Warning for all to just stay away.

But aren’t bluejays common and weak? Back then, Eridani cared enough to peer back and glare, saw the eagle fledgling be led by his mother to the other side of the street.

“How am I common and weak?” The common ones won’t be isolated.

And weakness? She strode over towards the entrance of the temple, followed the trail of crimson, his blood, she could tell from the smell. The blood of the almighty King of Nokshans, spilled by her puppets. By her.

She was capable of wounding the so-called prophesied King.

Unlike him, she was not distracted. No traumatizing pasts or useless sentiments haunted her, no human bewitched her. She was far greater than him, a raven. Shame on him for losing to a little, common bluejay.

“Very well done, Eridani,” Claud followed the trail of blood to her. “Now that they are without their Nokshan, we will see how they fare against your minions.”

“Shut up,” She needed not the priest to remind her of her hypocritical diagnosis of her brother; besides, the Priest was far too talkative for her liking, anyway.

“It’s a pity three of your minions were dispatched of,” He mused. “And, our most useful one, too.” Of course, he meant the egret.

“No matter, we still have plenty.”

“And I thought you had some qualms about the whole operation of using your dead clansmans’ wings?”

Eridani gritted her teeth, “Did you give me a choice?”

“No, but you didn’t take half the persuasion that your brother endured,” Claud mused, feeding upon the young Nokshan’s rising rage. “And, he still persisted.”

Weaknesses, weaknesses, “but what good did that do for him?” He would just continue to be weighed down by his sense of purpose, protecting humanity and their selfish interests. “It seems to me that he needed no persuasion when it comes to the princess. Perhaps the problem is not about the subjects to be persuaded, but the persuader?”

“Ah, but you cannot blame me for not being equipped with the art of seduction,” Claud had little qualms for entertaining Eridani’s nightmare and largely inaccurate interpretation of Lyra’s character. “My methods are a lot more…forceful.”

“Yet forceful methods will only get you a common bluejay,” She muttered more to herself than anything, whatever line of flawed logic her mind pondered upon before was forever ruined as she considered her own self worth altogether crumbled like the antiquated, obliterated temple about her, obsolete. “It surprises me that you think yourself in possession of any methods at all. A man with methods would probably allow me to attack them now since they are at their most vulnerable?”

“Oh, I am sure they already weaseled back to their little den behind that old geezer’s talismen. Their paranoia will be their adversary enough, we can wait,” Claud belittled the young Nokshan’s temper too much to take any insults she hurled at him seriously: who was he to deprive the young Nokshan the means to normalize her enslavement to their contract? “I am sure they noticed our operations on the other end of the mountains and would eventually come to us…”

Eridani growled at the idea of idle waiting, kicked at the loose pieces of debris until they tumble off the clipped stairs and down the jagged hills.

“So be it.”

LVII.

No…the glint of the sword and those egret wings, the sheer power they possessed that never before were seen by his people, only meant to be used for healing and only belonging to the man that was his father.No, his father was incapable of such a mocking smile, incapable of raising a sword against his own beloved son that he gave his own life to protect. His instincts guided the oncoming storm of slashes and stabs aside, his doubts aside.

Still, the latter hindered him enough for the puppet to fathom an effective idea: instead of attacking the skilled Nokshan, it stunned him with an explosion, cratering the ceilings directly above them and tested the crumbling temple further. While Aldebaran dodged debris and shielded the villager and Horatio nearby, the grey-winged launched itself at him with a spiral of maddened slashes, though he saw through the apparent disorder and found an easy crack within its defenses that allowed him to put the corpse back to peace. When he raised his attention back the egret, it had swept to Athlem’s side on her unawares with a smooth bat of the wings, and only by Lyra’s warning and her last-minute spell the blade missed her vitals, but the pierced shoulder stunned her. The egret kicked the doctor aside, Lyra screeched something incomprehensible. He told Horatio to take the villager and doctor to safety, and his wings carried him swifter than Horatio’s panic. The puppet gathered yet more energy into his hands, and it took shape, grew dangerous edges. A spear? A long sword? He didn’t really try to see it as he just thought about getting to her. It raised the deadly weapon, brought it down. He called forth spirits of his own, dove.

She was deafened by a screech of the earth as it shivered under an explosion of heat and sounds and light, blinded, deafened, scorched. The temple’s only thin traces of light had been extinguished, and she willed to tear herself free from the rubbles.

Lyra? His protective arm was about her shaking frame. Hold still.

He eased the rubbles off her leg, pulled her free; she screamed into her sleeve.

He hovered a hand over the broken bones and flesh, she leaned into him instinctively, felt the breath of his words brushing the top of her head, this time said aloud as though for affirmation. “Hold still.” It was that same warm sensation engulfing her poor leg to the point that it was nearly unbearably scorched before all the pain were memories.

“Thank you…” She wanted to see him, but a vague outline in the darkness was all her human eyes could make out; then she remembered her aunt. “Athlem, is she…”

“I forced the others to go ahead first,” Alde suddenly slinked away, reducing the enveloping warmth of his being to but a single hand helping her to her feet.

She felt stupidly alone, tested her steps before nearly stepping on what she could only assume to be the limp body of the white-winged Nokshan. So in the end, she bit her already cut lips. I still failed to protect him.

Alde pulled her forward, “I am only sustaining this place from falling apart for a while, so let’s go.”

He dragged her along the sharp turns made more difficult by her still weak leg and his unwillingness to slow down. Still, she fought to keep up, as each treacherous step lend to more rays of light courageously leading them to the exit. It wasn’t so bad after awhile, she thought she was matching his pace. Then she realized it wasn’t that she was getting faster, but that he was slowing down, perhaps the darkness was an obstacle even for a Nokshan since his steps slip once or twice amongst their long trek.

At some point, she just focused on the ground immediately before her in fear of twisting her ankles or falling on those jagged, broken rocks. Then she saw at first the imperceivable spots. Irregular, but more and more common. She attempted to distinguish it, thought it some rare stone unearthed by the explosions, but as she walked on a ray of light struck a spot and the dark red beamed back alarm. Too fixated in her study she didn’t see the feet before her pause, and she effectively crashed into him.

“Sorry,” He mumbled, made a lame attempt at continuing forward but instead slumped against a convenient wall.

“Alde!” She flew to his side, wrestled his wings aside to expose his face dressed in deathly palor and his tunic darkened by malicious crimson. “My God, you…” He crumbled to his knees, brows wrinkled in troubled perturbation as he attempted to find her face within the blurred visions multiplying before him.

“Lyra, I…,” If he was to die, would it be selfish to tell her? She was holding him as though he was made of glass, though his mind was muddled and she failed to see. “You…you are…”

As though to thwart him even at a time like this, the ground beneath them growled, antiquated bricks gave way in the distance.

“No…get up,” She swung his arm over her shoulder, managing to hoist him up with incredible effort. “We have to get out of here.”

He mumbled, his conscious slipping as much as her steps. She didn’t notice how blinding the sunlight was when she set foot upon soft dirt and grass, didn’t notice the distress of her aunt and uncle when they found her covered in blood, didn’t mind the villager’s state of shock at the defeat of not one, but three Nokshans. All she knew was the haggard breath brushing against her neck, the suppressed winces of pain that tore at her heart, that they were far too slow, that she hated herself when she couldn’t heal him due to some strange disturbances within his own spirits. All she knew was that if his heart stopped, so would hers.

LVI.

“Who’s there?” The sun has yet to set, it was far too early for the appointment; the villager stood behind his bold question with a straight back and a weathered hand upon the broad sword strapped to his belt, waited.

The others darted behind fallen idols and a spell of illusion, and together beheld the approaching sound. Lyra’s throat went dry, for one reason or the other the incoming enemies escaped Alde’s observant eye, or they gave him reason to be unable to warn her. Alde? In dreaded silence, she watched the three shadows approach, though all of them were not human, but rather, winged. She attempted to reason, deemed one of the figures familiar but not enough to be Eridani. Then she saw, as the approaching forms came closer, amongst the three she recognized the bright, pure white wings.

Snowy, she remarked. Just like that of a nightmare not too long ago.

“Who are you?” The grandfather demanded, his grip upon his weapon tightened.

No…Lyra thought to herself, for she knew this aura as the three drew closer; though the face disagrees, it was identical to the egret-winged man in her vision about the mercenary, about Alde’s childhood tragedy, this spirit was that of his —

Father? His alarm went to her. That…can’t be…Lyra, what is going on? Those fogforms returned, I was occupied but…

I…The figures drew closer, blank eyes scanned over the old man and ignored his propositions of peace as the grey-winged by the egret’s left hand drew her sword, deflected the old man’s machete. He screamed a spell and shielded himself with a talisman, though the egret shattered his defenses with a blast of sheer energy. But, before the third, brown-winged Nokshan could slice through the old man, Lyra sprung forward, parried the swing with a stab. The brown-winged retracted its attack and spun aside with perfect ease, returning the princess’s attack with tenfold the ferocity. A sharp pull from Athlem saved her head, though not from the crumbling, raining debris of the ancient stones as the egret aimed to miss with yet another explosive blast. Pillars snapped, caved; Lyra gasped, gave her aunt a final shove into the clearing of the main hall before a crushing pain knocked the wind out of her lungs and her off of her feet and smashed her against the ground.

“Lyra!” She looked up in swirling visions of the ongoing battle; the cry came from her aunt, though instead of being directly before her, the woman had been captured by the vicious grasp of the brown-winged one, strangled, suspended in midair.

Horatio had met more than his match in the two other Nokshans, clashes of metal heavy against her drumming ears; the old villager attempted to help, but the egret tossed him against the stone walls with savage, amused ease. A horrid screech beside her drew her attention away from the onslaught, and Athlem had regained ground and air as her previous captor clenched its eyes, blinded by a concoction of acids splashed to its face by the desperate physician. Immediately, Athlem took this chance to scurry to her trapped niece, predicted with a grimace the state of the princess’s right leg buried to the knee under a broken segment of the stone pillar before starting to loosen the debris with careful blundering. Lyra tried her best to limit herself to a wince though her world swimmed black and bright.

Lyra, release this stupid command! He sprung into the temple despite the heat burning into his neck.

She might have called off the contract, but the pang remained: images flushed his mind of that fateful day, his dying father suspended before him, slumping to the ground, red, red and muddied white. Father…his head threatened to burst with every turn, he stumbled through the darkness, screamed the only name that made him remember that this was not the past, not that evening, “Lyra!” The booms and low rumbles of the earth were nostalgic ill omens, he sprinted, the main hall opened before him with the deliberate relish of a nightmare.

With its back to him was the shell, the crude imitation that reminded him of his father. Those wings, the snow white that had so often been his blanket or held him for a tale by the fire, the spirit within them, all stolen, intermingling in a forbidden existence sustained by the aura of their resurrector. How and when Eridani had learned such a sacred, damned spell, he knew not. And at that moment, she had sealed her fate.

Still, the parody of a Nokshan turned away from the struggling humans to face to him, studied him with its blank eyes.

“Those wings do not belong to you,” Aldebaran bellowed more to the conscious controlling the corpse than to the subject itself, his knuckles turning white from gripping his sword; he darted a quick glance to the suffering around him, saw Horatio nearly exhausting his powers just keeping the villager out of the way of his opponent though much relieved now that the attention of the egret was diverted; impressed by what he could only guess to be Athlem’s handiwork, the temporarily incapacitated Nokshan tumbling about in pained blindness, though his heart skipped a beat at Lyra’s agony.

Her teeth had mercilessly dug her lower lip open to suppress her screams as Athlem made yet another fruitless attempt to dislodge a stubborn stone just enough to create corner of air for the princess’s leg to slip through. Had the egret not suddenly speak at an unexpected proximity, he would have forgotten himself and gone to free Lyra instead.

The shadow of a familiar voice rasped, “Have you came to save me?”

“Eridani, you have crossed the Creator’s limits,” Even when he was calling it a different name, the images imprinted themselves onto the moving corpse’s facade to the point that he was tempted to hack them away.

“Come,” The images said. “Save me, my son.”

LV.

Unforgivable, he slammed a fist against an innocent tree trunk, the spirits around him reminded him. Your negligence…had you taken your power, she wouldn’t have…

Yet he knew, the Creator’s voice was a dull drum guiding his steps. It urged him against all odds to leave his home, to seek out the Emperor for what he thought was purely revenge but instead…he looked down, surprised by the bright eyes peering back up at him a few respectful steps away.

“Stop it,” He didn’t feel her closing their distance, didn’t feel her hand on his, a gentle breeze seared the skin of his knuckles broken by jagged bark. “You had no control over her. You can’t blame yourself.”

His thoughts meandered on: instead, the Creator led him to her, and she was no subject of his revenge, no, quite opposite, she was… The warmth of her soft hands temporarily blocked out the sting of his desperate stupidity, and he only muttered idiotically, “I didn’t know you are right behind me.”

“You silly, blind raven.”

Is that an improvement? Before he could retort, heat overcame his knuckles, and she chuckled in that musical way of hers.

“It worked,” She smiled at the result of her successful experiment, his healed hand. “This is just an attempt at a ‘thank you’ for earlier.”

“If you temper with the spirits like that you will exhaust yourself,” God, he nagged like his mother: all he was trying to do was to name his inexplicable reluctance in pulling his hand away before opting to mutter. “You are a fast learner, I will give you that.”

“I am so flattered, oh great Nokshan king,” She rolled her eyes. “You’ve healed gashes on my back without a problem, so I should be fine.”

“Perhaps you forget that I am not human?”

She didn’t forget that fact that stands like an abyss between them, but only forgot that she was still holding his hands until now, “You are welcome,” before she hiked ahead, only glanced back to stick her tongue out in childish victory.

He couldn’t help but smile, and before he could scold the idiotic grin away Jiube gave his head a hard peck, hoppping away with a triumphant hoot.

“Hey!”

How he hated that fragment of his own damned spirit.

No matter, the rot of the sea was lost in the damp forests, and he could already see the greyish green of the cursed temple. At the conclusion of Ophie’s tale, they arrived upon the same conclusion to help. If his sister and that priest resorted to such low means, who was he to stand aside?

Despite his apparent iron resolve to end the blue jay altogether, he was far from ready to execute such resolution. And each step towards the confrontation fragmented the nonexistent determination until all was left was dust and remorse when they were at the gates. Yet, the gentle drums of the Creator beat on: put an end to her cursed existence, it should have been so too long ago.

I know, he knew, he simply couldn’t…that was another reason he ran away from his power…from —

“ — Alde,” She pulled him back from the whirlwinds of thoughts yet again. “Stand watch here.”

“What? That’s ridiculous.”

“We may not have to resort to violence,” She was unconvinced herself, but determined to try. “Unlike you are ready to raise a hand against her, anyway.”

“I…”

“Just stay here.”

“No, I can…”

“It’s a command,” He jolted as the runes about his neck seared and warned him at his first disobedient step.

“I don’t need a collar,” He winced in disgust, but before he could see her pained look he took to the cover of trees and a disguising spell.

Lyra immediately regretted her decision when she followed the grandfather, her uncle and Athlem into the chilly shadows of the stone temple clearly losing its battle to time and lichens. But she had to, the Creator already subjected him to too many cruelties and she deemed it her duty to change that. Still, how she would have preferred to have the Nokshan by her side is a sentiment she dared not pronounced even when each eroded carving looked more than ready to collapse onto her with their uncanny shadows since she needed not her aunt’s teasing.

“Here,” the old man barked, setting his lantern upon an altar that she tried not to imagine covered with blood offerings as it was when it still used. “Now, we just have to wait for sunset.” He set himself upon the mat of tangled ivy weaving together the cracked stone floors, meditating.

Lyra thought better than to disturb the old man and went to join her aunt and uncle.

“I told you not to come here,” Horatio’s whisper to his beloved was largely ignored as the addressed merely wandered off to study a relatively preserved fresco.

“This entire affair stems from me, so I should at least have a hand in solving it,” She offered her reasoning, resting a hand on her still flat abdomen. “Don’t worry, love.”

Lyra instinctively tugged herself close to her aunt to silence any more nagging from Horatio, attempting to understand what fresco would be interesting enough to deserve attention at such a crucial time, “What do you make of that?”

Athlem dared to touch the fragile walls, “I was trying to see if I am insane, but could you hear that?”

Lyra attempted to quiet her racing heart but to no prevail, “What?”

“Is the earth rumbling, just the slightest?”

“Hrm…” Then she felt it, too, the solemn thuds of the earth beneath their feet in miniscule, dulled drums.

No, not exactly beneath their feet, but before them, burrowed deep behind the frescos a mountain’s length away. If she squint, she could almost see it, a strange apparition, no, apparitions drifting in immense chaos and disturbance, running away from —

The distinct clacks of steps against stone drew them away from their reverie.

LIV.

“My name is Ophie of the Polonus. Our family had always been one of the most skilled fishers of the Southshores, our nets always so full that our village dubbed us the whisperers of the sea. Altogether, our village was prosperous, tradesmen from all over the world make their way here from the main city ports.”

“A few months ago…my father went out to sea, but he never returned. We thought we lost him…turned out it would have been better had he been buried at sea.”

“A few days later, we heard a knock at our door in the middle of the night. We were all sleepless from our anxiety and grief so my brother answered it like a bolt of lightning. There were no one except for a note and a ring — my father’s ring — the note said, ‘obey us and turn over your family’s secret or another part of your fisher will be returned to you.’ Then there were instructions for us to leave our family heirloom at a temple by a nearby jetty.”

“None of us knew what they were asking for: the only thing remotely like an heirloom is my great grandfather’s watch. We almost suspected our own townspeople, but we know they are far too wise to be jealous to this extent. We brushed it off, thought it a cruel trick. Then the next day, we found a bundle at our doorstep: it was a….severed hand, my father’s. A new note written by what we immediately recognized as my father’s writing told us in earnest to give the heirloom away. Meet them at the temple, they insisted. We had to.”

“So the next day, at the appointed time, we went and had some of our trusted neighbors hideout with whatever weapon we could find…When the sun sunk to about half a disk, two hooded figures came to my grandfather, who was representing us to meet with the strangers.”

“Grandfather presented them the pocket watch, and — I saw the two strange figures and thought that they must be a hunchback and a man — they took it, and the hunchback dashed it against the rocks and shattered it to pieces: the figure raised its voice, and it was a female’s, sharp and shrill.”

“ ‘Deception,’ I caught her saying with a strange accent. ‘You are trying to trick us for settling such a foolish trap.’”

“We didn’t know how they saw us, not one of us even batted our eyes during their meeting and we know the area like the ridges of our hands. Mother took the moment to attack the man, and others followed suit. We thought they didn’t stand a chance: we felled beasts of the sea at a smaller number often.”

“In a blur I just smelled blood…blood everywhere. Many of our kinsmen were hurt, sprawled on the ground. I couldn’t believe my eyes but the hunchback had lost her cloak during the struggle, and there revealed that the bump was no twisted back, but a pair of wings. They were not unlike yours, Lord Aldebaran but the hue is of a bright sky blue. I would never forget those wings with their ungodly blue.”

“She saw that most of my family were not unscathed and smiled. At any other time I would have found her ethereal, beautiful, but she was a murderer. Then the man threatened us to bring in our actual heirloom, or else all who we cared about would be killed. Grandfather pleaded that there were no such heirloom that they sought, but they left without another word. We patched and helped our wounded.”

“Since then many of our fellow villagers heard of the confrontation, of the menacing banshee. Their fear became so strong that they were willing to forsake their ancestors’ ways and moved from the shores. Despite our simplicity, our town provide a great amount of food sources for the rest of the kingdom, so the local magistrates soon noticed the change. They prohibited the sudden flight in fear of disturbing trade. That only made matters worse: people thought that the king had some plan of sabotage and snuck out of the area as though to escape a plague.”

“But we knew the truth, and the few that saw or believed or were brave enough stayed. We wanted to reclaim our proud town from this irrational fear. We had to. However, before we could plan to retake our town by hunting that strange banshee, something worse happened.”

“They must have realized that we are determined to ignore their demands as each note became more menacing. One day, we just got a nameless bundle. We all saw this day coming, but…You see, in our belief, the head symbolizes the seat of the soul. Once gone, the soul would then be trapped in a state of uncertain meandering for eternity.”

“So imagine…how we felt when our father…or son…or husband…”

“Even worse, within that same week, all these apparitions began to appear, killing whichever villager remained. By the charms of our ancestors, we have the curse to continue living. We were safe as long as we staid behind these doors barred and fortified. Grandfather only risked yielding the door for you when he saw that your companion is not unlike our tormentor, and that he was capable of dispersing the vile spirits.”

“Now, your Highness and honored guests, please help us. For we are desperate and lost, on the verge of death. The Polonus would forever be in your debt if you should be able to lift such a curse.”

The address was to the Etzion prince, thought the eyes were upon the Nokshan King, who buried his mind in blank inexpression only interpreted by the one that read his mind.

No, Lyra began.

I have to kill her, His resolve remained, while the rest of the world could only guess at the dull glint of rage in his otherwise immoveable facade of perfect impartiality.