LXXIII.

He came about with a pang in his chest: a cry, he knew before he saw from his blurred vision. “Ma…,” She was armed with nothing but her profound remorse as she beheld the shadow that towered over her. Eri was still in there, trapped in the infinite abyss of eternal suffering, and as the Nokshan Lord raised her bloodied hand, Aldebaran knew.

“I am sorry,” He stood witness to every calamity the Creator pulverize their family with. “Eri, ma is here now.”

“No…” After all those years, he thought that time made him stronger, but he was pinned to his place, his shoulder and gut pierced by twisted shadows into the wall.

He grabbed one blade like a fool and barely registered his palms burning as he saw the demon froze in its place by the voices of a wronged sprite. Alvenia walked to it, drawing runes on her way, “I will see you again,” it sounded so casual, like one of those utterances before she bend down to kiss him on the head before leaving for a long mission when he was a boy. One last smile, he wrenched one spike free but he was too late. The floating runes glowed, the beast suppressed its threads of consciousness, roared and it was over.

He knew what he had to do, dust settled though his vision swam and threatened to drown in tears as he ripped the other spike free. The ancient rite where a soul was the price, and the empty shell bowed forward to be swallowed by the darkness. He never envisioned his coming-to-power to be so violent and sudden, but what did he expect? Waiting out his mother’s death before he receives the title? He closed his eyes, embracing the warmth that calmed the burning, numbing sensations of his broken frame, finally able to breathe in his lifetime. They were there, the rulers past, and he could only thank them for their blessings as he knelt before them.

At last, he could do more than witness.

*******

Claud was flanked by his guards and certainty that he would die the pathetic death that perhaps, he deserved. The steady ooze of blood made him reflective, and each time he had to stop to pant, the nauseating sight of his stub of hand in blood-soaked bandages and his subordinates regarding him with increasing intent of abandonment threatened to make him retch. A carriage was waiting for him in the west wing’s exit, and with each screech of the palace’s marble bones under his demon’s abuse, he wandered what good galloping horses could do.

The beast was his shadow, and just a sprinkle of light would bring it out of him.

Right as he thought that came a ray of light outshining the setting sun. He was blinded, pained, and at last the two guards sought after their own life upon seeing the shadow against angry fiery red.

“You are not worthy to be a vessel of the Creator,” The voice was devoid of personal vendettas, a crystal sound delivering a divine message.

He could only see a world of pure white, and the Creator’s Messenger was before him. He was humbled, bowed his head to pray for the first and last time.

*******

She knew, that it was a foolish idea, attacking a demon without a plan like that, and she reaped the reward of her foolishness as she pried at the obsidian spike protruding through her chest. She fell to her knees, her adversary was towering over her, mocking her. Something within her called, Let us help you. And as darkness took over it dwindled to a voice, a warmth buried within a rare glimmer from her childhood, Lyra, let me help you.

It was him, Lyra closed her eyes to meet him.

You don’t frighten me anymore, she muttered as she walked to him.

He looked so foreign without a sinister sneer, almost just like his brothers, almost kin, almost kind. Forgive me.

I am no priest, I cannot pardon, she took his hand anyway, her eyes never leaving his though she almost thought she was looking into a mirror. Your time here is finished.

He blinked, bit his lips, very well. When she released his hand it was as though the world’s will to keep him on its surface disappeared, his will to haunt and remain disappeared, faded, off to the eternal abyss he knew he needed to face one day. Then power, the warmth in the dream under the rebels’ tents returned: freed, it finally manifested as the last of his shadows lifted.

She woke to herself in a pool of her own blood, though her wound was gone; the beast was writhing, the commandments that held it in place suddenly went silent and its hold on itself threatened to shatter. It looked up from the ravages it wrecked, screamed infinite blades of darkness at her. She brushed it aside with a wave of her hand, the loosened sprites recognized her, was confused.

Then the confusion led to wrath and another rumble of pure energy: she raised a hand, and the wave parted, thinned into air. The beast didn’t understand the sudden change, didn’t understand the overwhelming aura. The full power of the Fallen was contained in that woman who merely approached with uncanny calm as she gathered the wisps of tortured sprites stripped from its form, its body, its very core.

It screeched, writhed under the pull of this woman’s power.

“Give up,” A simple command. “This world is under my jurisdiction.”

The power burnt her, but she couldn’t care. As she fought each agonizing step towards the monster, the world about her eclipsed into anguish; but she could see through it, her sights was illuminated by her will and memories guiding her to the core of the storm.

A reach, a leap, she gripped the form, a dagger of bone, and dashed it into the hell until it shattered and light remembered its name.

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LXXII.

“You have come, I am honored,” Claud hid his sputtering under courtesy as he snapped himself out of the daze imposed by the heavenly aura that humbled even the grandeur of the imperial palace deigned to regard him; Eridani was nothing in comparison.

She was flanked by two equally dignified lords, and their procession paused ten paces away from the stolen throne.

“I am here to honor my words only,” Her voice was crystalline, tainted by a slight accent and disgust. “And as out of your habit as it is, I expect you to honor yours.”

At that Alvenia’s clansman presented a bundle of silk to the Grand Priest, and as he peel the silks away to reveal the clear sphere. He grasped it like a greedy child after candy, and marveled at the antiquated power he was promised now pulsing between his fingers.

“Now, my daughter,” The feathers upon the Nokshan Lord’s back bristled subtly while her lips pursed. “Where is she?”

“Oh, she is right here,” Claud smiled.

The earth shook, the ancient walls of the palace shivered for its inhabitants, the air was enslaved by an oppressive aura that was strong enough to manifest into a physical force extinguishing all the torches and hopes within the throne room.

“Your daughter is dead, Lady Alvenia,” The beast appeared by his side, a blank facade of pure shadows screeching as a horde of tortured souls were forced to take physical form.

“What…have you done to this world?” Alevenia placed herself between the Priest and her clansmen, betraying no emotion beyond a deep frown.

“It is hardly in its full form even with a whole mountain worth of spirits,” Claud saw that his demon retreated slightly at the artifact in his hand, smiled. “Now with this, and you and your clansmen’s spirits, I can restore it to its proper glory.”

The figure of pure shadow regarded the Nokshans in animalistic hunger, morphing nightmares launched themselves to prey.

Alvenia found an unmistakable aura within the tumult and gasped, “My child.”

“Relieve the Lord of her duty,” Claud savored every syllable, though as he raised the sphere to draw its powers pain overcame him instead.

Previously concealed by Horatio’s illusion, Alde dove off of a vantage point into the throne room, a flap of his wings, and he was behind the priest. Claud saw, yelled incomprehensibly, but the momentum of his fall carried him to his target through a clean slice following the curve of his flight, singing through blood and flesh and bone.

Lyra leap off, too, breaking her fall with a spell before deflecting a thrusted spear, fell guards with a wave of her hand. She spared the priest a glance, his pathetic face twisted in the pain he deserved as he clutched at where his arm had been, those deceptive eyes fixed upon the blade about to crash into his skull.

Then the shadow came upon them.

“Alde!” He felt it, too, evaded with a twist of his heel and slashed across the beast.

He returned to her side, observed the scattered spirits reassembling into its cursed form now enraged, extending its grasp at them. Before it could touch them, Alvenia had retrieved the artifact from the dead clutches of the priest’s severed hand and bound the demon with ropes of light. It cried out, wriggled once, twice, seemed to have shrunk under the bindings of pure spirits but they were naive: it burst through twice as powerfully, a sheer explosion of shadows solidifying into obsidian shards.

Alde tugged her behind him as though he knew the shield they raised would still crack and crumble. A poor wing caught a few stray shards, Lyra winced at the wet crunch though he remained expressionless, eyes fixated upon the scattering dust where his mother stood as he pulled the blades free.

The Nokshan Lord was unscathed, but her face betrayed a deep fear and they understood as they followed her eyes to the glass powder in her hand where the artifact had been.

The monster, invigorated by blood and absorbed spirits, leapt at her, and her sword clashed against claws before tendrils sprouted to tangle with the blade, reached with its spiked edges her sword arm. She was wise enough to let go, ducked low to evade a swing that snapped the two central pillars behind her like dried sticks.

The form split, shot across the hall in a blur; an incomprehensible weight crashed down, her legs and the wall behind her gave away. She scrambled upon her feet as Aldebaran forced back the monster with sheer will.

The previous strike left him a gaping gash he tried to ignore; but, she was fine, and that was all that mattered. The world swirled, and when the demon pounced back he barely sidestepped. Then it spouted more tendrils from the earth, infinite daggers piercing his leg. He fell on one knee, and it was as though it knew exactly where its last blow landed. He pretended he was deaf to the wet crunch of his poor ribs and numb to the taste of iron.

She was yelling something, and he pushed against the earth to leapt backward for a belated retreat but the figure followed. An iron grasp locked about his neck and slammed him into what was left of the marble walls. He stabbed, kicked, dug at the claws before he was out of breath and blinded by flashes of white agony.

Lyra summoned powers she knew she didn’t possess, temporarily stunning the tendrils that bounded her. She tore herself free, not caring about the scarlet trickling down her arms, dying her armor. Instead, she hurled insults and another spell at the creature. As though it relished the art of the dramatics it was content to drop the Nokshan after bashing him against the wall one more time. She winced as he crumbled to the floor, lifeless.

But she had very little time to frown: the beast was upon her.

LXXI.

Forsaken were her doubts, just for this indulgent moment when the luxury of imaginations returned briefly against the tide of her pessimistic nature. A small voice nagging at the back of her mind suggested that all would crash down on her regardless.

But she was happy, not because she deceived herself into thinking that life would not fall into pieces, but the knowledge that she had could catch it, or fix it, or move on and be fine with it.

Though one thing she was not fine with is this pair of skinny, polished, wooden sticks the Nokshans insisted to be sufficient instrument for dining. Yes, she had seen Athlem using these sticks to gracefully fish out noodles somehow cooked in a couldron (that left Horatio sick for a week. Athlem was by no means, a chef), but no, she never used them, and was about to drop them again as she attempted to pick up the marbles in the wooden bowl before her.

He was humming something, even thuds signaled one bizarre vegetable after another being diced into perfect pieces, “They would understand if you use a spoon.” She heard the smile in his voice.

“I want a good impression,” She whimpered through gnashed teeth.

The other Nokshan clan leaders were coming tonight. Alvenia jokingly explained that it was just that they missed her son’s cooking, though it was a meeting that they knew would determine Lyra’s future. She needed their support: so far, their allies were but their dwindling connection to Etzion, and that would not be enough to face the sheer power of those spirits Claud was collecting.

The chopping stopped, and before she knew it he was beside her. The marble she finally captured plopped back to the bowl as he pecked her on the cheek.

“Bleh,” She wasn’t sure what sound she just made, but her cheeks were redder than the root vegetable bleeding out on the chopping board.

“Here, we will go over it again,” He stepped behind her to guide her hands and correct her grasp, and she was about to burst into flames again. “Are you trying to break them or use them?”

She could feel the vibration of his laughter in his chest pressed against her back before she blurted, “I think I will just take a spoon.”

With each Nokshan leader that arrived, she prayed more fervently that each name would cling to her nervous mind.

She was still mildly disappointed at her uncultured inability to master the art of those wooden sticks just yet, but soon enough matters of actual importance steered her occupied her thoughts. Around a round table laden with Aldebaran’s latest crafts appreciated, a buzz of pleased intonations she interpreted as praise so casual as though he never left helped her relaxed by an insignificant degree. Strings of the expressive language filled air and her mind with guesses at the conversations that, if require a response from her, Aldebaran would translate.

After the pleasantries of foods they retired to the living room where Jiube seemed to be guarding a teapot slightly larger than itself. She attempted to not fidget with the tiny clay teacup in her hand while the elders sipped, observed her, waited.

Then one of them thought it appropriate to break the silence, an old woman of the Leon Clan, “Plans,” A heavily-accented mumble of an attempt at her language left her with one coherent word and infinite appreciation.

She wants to know your plans for retaking the Empire and how we may assist you.

Lyra was pleasantly surprised at the lack of questions about her qualifications, I was not expecting such willingness from a nation as reclusive as yours.

And I was not expecting my fated one to stab me on first sight.

“My plans, your ladyship, is as follows…” I was held to sword point! I didn’t know you back then.

Fair enough. Jiube hooted as Alvenia shooed the little thing off the table.

Upon hearing her intentions of relying upon herself and the possible Etzionese forces Horatio might be able to rally, Alvenia chimed in, “You cannot do it alone, my child,” the eleven other clans head nodded. “We are at your service.”

She was at a loss of words, she rehearsed in her mind — while trying to pick up marbles from a bowl — different persuasion for their support, but she never imagined all the other Nokshan leaders to act like such, “Thank…thank you.”

The same elder who spoke first grunted out another string of attempted Lunzeldine, and she made out, “Family” amongst the mix and tried not to hug the adorable old woman. As they retired to their homes she went to the balcony to watch the stars sparkling like kind eyes. For once, she didn’t need to battle for approval, and home and peace and dreams seemed so close to her grasp.

“Mind if I join you?” The deep, calming voice of the mother was but a slight vibration beyond the chirp of the night.

She nodded, and with a slight movement the raven-winged was beside her, “You have done well tonight.”

“I have you and Aldebaran to thank for that,” She darted a glance back indoors to catch a glimpse of the latter chasing after a little owl thief hopping around with a chunk of leftovers.

“No,” Alvenia gently brushed off that idea. “They admire you: no Nokshan had ever been known for taming a demon, much less a human.”

“…”

“We all agree that we would have less to fear if you are the Lunzeldine Emperor.”

“Do you not…are you not wary of…my bloodline?”

Alvenia looked up to the ink black sky and traced the silver runes before pausing at the egret at the corner of her eyes, “Shouldn’t family help each other?”

She needed not words to do her gratitude injustice. The comfortable silence settling like the chill of night air spoke enough, just fellow sufferers basked in the silvery solace of moonlight.

LXX.

Even when she closed her eyes she saw him still, the paling skin, her hands soaked by his blood while his consciousness slipped through her fingers. Her brother was willing to save her at the cost of his own life even after what her had authored.

Then there was the human princess who she dismissed out of blind pride and jealousy: Lyra swept in like an angel, single-handedly breathed life back into her dearest brother. Of course, she saw now how the woman was his fated one, her beauty, prowess, strength…Eri felt dumb and useless. Her old self would have rushed to hide behind wrath-disguised shame, but the thorned vines of her contract was undone.

She had to make amends.

This was the thought drilling her in her place as the drone of old men’s bickering about the proper punishment for the rebels bled into eternity only quantified by the diminishing pots of tea served in dignified hurry of imperial servants. The affair gave her enough time to recite her plans: after she’s executed the deed, she aimed to fly home, assuming her brother and company went there. Even if she was to be banished from her people — if she was not, she would exile herself — she needed to see him, to tell her she was sorry, that she was thankful for his unwavering faith in her.

“I have reached an epitome with the experiment that I have previously disclosed with Sir Lawrence and Lord Paris; I believe that with Eridani’s help, I would be able to complete it in time,” The mention of her name raised alarm, she continued to watch the men and attempted to read Claud’s smile. “In fact, I ought to show you all now. Your lordships?”

A cacophony of pushed-back chairs, they followed the Priest towards the Eastern Wings to the Lesser Courts. The white marbles washed by sorrows of dethroned empresses or childless consorts was a perfect backdrop to his dark arts, Eridani recalled the sickly fascination and complete lack of sympathy when Claud first claimed the Palace as his own after he overran the place with an army possessed by sprites he summoned from some ungodly spell. No matter, she would avenge them soon enough tonight; she turned her attention back to the grassy knoll before her. The skies above was an oppressive orange: the conversation was longer than she expected, and that rendered her with less time than she would have liked for her escape, and more importantly, the assassination. The party stopped before a clearing, and she peeked between the cracks of each men standing before her.

“Eridani,” The Priest beckoned, and she resigned to an act of obedience for now while her mind attempted to seek comfort in imagining her blade sinking into that disgusting man’s heart; she went forward, her eyes trained on the foreign symbols burnt into the ground.

“What is this?” She tried not to flinch as the Priest placed his hands upon her shoulders, her wings itched to spread and carry her to safety. “This spell…” It seemed familiar, a call to a distant past when a book fell from her mother’s shelf.

In hindsight, that seemingly random volume must have fell from a cruel tug of fate, the page she flipped to and stopped on made a deeper dent in her mind than the book made to the reading room’s floor, an image she now matched to the one upon the earth.

“No…that is impossible, you would ruin all of us…” She brushed off the vice upon her shoulders, incredulous, furious. “You knew what happened to the Fallen.You cannot possibly be so insane to think you can contain a spirit of that caliber –”

“– You are right, my dear, I do not expect myself to control it,” His smile stretched from ear to ear; she made to fly but strong hands seized her wings, arms, a kick elicited a wet crack from her leg. Blinded by a white flash of agony blinded, she fell too heavily into her captors’ grips.

“…No…”

“But you, my dear,” The Priest retrieved a dagger made of whatever poor beast’s bone offered by a silent servant. “I know that you.

She couldn’t see the blade fall. She could only hear the wet crunch as a cane crashed against her left side and wing. She couldn’t put strength in…anything, and she slumped into the blade that…disappeared to the hilt into her chest. Nauseatingly red, so much red, too much. She screamed out another spell between wet coughs that tasted of iron. A shock freed her momentarily from her captors, but that left her entire broken weight upon her legs. Her wings flapped helplessly like the clipped fledgling she was, the world spun, the sky a fiery red and her hands slicked scarlet to match. The crimson rivulets steadily seeped through her fingers, the river of time paused.

This…was the end.

Not even near two decades. She hated her life, but she was finally ready to change it. The rough grass felt harsh against her cheek. Her teeth buried into her lips. A goal, she found one, needed to go home, to see her brother, to tell…but she knew.

There was only one thing she could do. She had to stop this demented Priest. Her hand grasped at the handle of the dagger but her blood made her grip too slippery. When she finally forced the blade out, she was numb, cold. She blindly bashed the ceremonial blade against the dried earth now greedily drinking up her blood. Hollow thunks.

She had to break it.

She raised it again. But, before she could bring it down, a hand caught her arm. She wanted to see the face of the man she would spend eternity to haunt and torment, but all she saw was red, the boiling sky and roaring shadows flickering, casting her to the exile of hellish agony.

“Ah…ahyung,” She gasped her last, forsaken.

LXIX.

“This…is just wrong,” He was misguided perhaps, but not completely wrong.

“You don’t understand, child,” She was nearing the edge of irritation. “We cannot afford another confrontation.”

“But, we are not created for the purpose of wallowing in our sorrows and ignorant of the future,” He pleaded, as much as it was for his people, it was for Eridani, for her; his mother was trapped in a portraiture of fear and insecurities. “Imagine, our human charges would suffer the same if we are stuck in inaction!”

“We were slaughtered the first time, what makes you think we are in a position to defeat that demon this time?”

“We were surprised before, if we plan with the other clans and prepare –”

“– You are an image of your father, full of ideas and inexplicable assurance with no grasp of reality,“ She was exasperated, he knew, she only mention the comparison when she was truly upset. “Look what that led him, he defied the Creator, rendered his family fatherless with a poor excuse of a Nokshan in his place –”

Words crept up his throat before he checked them: her dismissive attitude towards his sister, her daughter, so he lashed out, “You cannot speak of Eri like that. She’s miserable because of your thick skull’s idea of respect for father that is in truth a parade of pointless mourning that kept our people in circles –”

His mother’s reputation as a fighter is not baseless, as even her reserved strength in the strike across his face made him question if his jaw stayed its ground before he drank in the sharp sting of iron pouring over his tongue from the inside of his cheek.

“You do not deserve the lordship with your brash, immature judgements,” She ruled, cold.

“And you,” He panted, though his jaw was fine. “You do not deserve to call yourself a mother if you blame your child for an incident she did not even witness.”

He opened his eyes from the memory then, saw instead of the stormy night the welcoming, warm sunlight pouring in through the half-opened window, falling upon the plants he used to raise and a few books in neat clusters upon his writing desk; his hand darted to his side as he shifted against the comforting weight of blankets, found the wound well on the way to scar and leaving nothing but numbness in its wake. Then he realized he wasn’t alone, turned to his bedstead and met the calm eyes he spited in his nightmare.

“Mother,” He muttered, wondered if the Creator imparted his dream for the sake of making this meeting even more difficult than it already was. “I…”

“I’ve missed you,” She took his hand in hers, read his mind. “Forget about all that.”

“I…should not have said such a thing,” He mumbled, realizing for the first time how dry his throat was. “I am sorry.”

She bowed her head in silent agreement, never expected her pride to allow her the utterance of a direct apology, “You have a firm grasp of our people’s purpose at such a young age, you are more than deserving of the title.” He felt the gentle squeeze on his hand. “In an attempt to save myself from my own fears, I have trapped you in them.”

She let go, and he managed a smile, “Is this another dream? It’s quite a sudden change of heart now that you are blessing me,” He jested, she smiled before embracing him.

Then a polite knock interrupted, knowing it was one she summoned, Alvenia sprung up and answered.

Lyra stepped into view, scanned the simple decor before her eyes settled upon him. She smiled so brightly, it didn’t help him feel less dream-like.

“I have some business to attend to,” Alvenia left with a purposeful expressionlessness that made her son shake his head.

“I brought you some water,” She offered as she plopped down on the edge of the bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Significantly better, thank you,” He accepted the wooden cup, sipped as his groggy brain stumbled for a word.

Lyra wasn’t sure what to do with her hands again once they were free of the water cup, and questions boiled over relief as she contemplated if he remembered the little moment his feverish self instigated. Part of her demanded that such improper interactions remain in her memory alone, though a larger part of her wanted to feel his arms about her again, the warmth of his wings protectively draped about her.

What did she just…imagine?

She shook her head to clear her mind, and as though the thought left her mind and landed on his with the motion, a dull thud of wooden cup on wooden bedsteads, “I vaguely remember….some impropriety on my part, I am sorry…”

“…No, no, don’t worry about it. I would have caught a cold otherwise.”

Silence fell, she thought to leave, but he cleared his throat, “Lyra.”

“Yes?”

“…Thank you…you…saved my life, you defeated the Fallen. You undid the contract: I am…amazed…” Once the silence was broken, he wanted it back to save his rambling mess. “I was just trying to say that…I am infinitely grateful, and despite the fact that I am no longer obliged to help you out of the constraints of the contract, I want to stay by your side –”

She pulled him into a tight embrace, pressing her ear against the racing drum of his heart. She felt the clumsy, shaking touch brushing her cheeks and strands of her hair, smoothed the ruffled feathers beneath her fingers.

She shifted back only enough to meet his eyes, “I love you.”

She felt her short breaths merging with his as she squeezed her eyes closed.

He rested his forehead against hers as though to convey the thought he declared aloud regardless, “I love you, too.”

She nearly froze, felt him lean forward while she tried not to burst into a happy ball of flames.

LXVIII.

They stopped just shy of the edge of their goal, uncertain.

“We don’t have any idea of how to enter their realm: there must be a barrier of some sort for their presence to be so mythified,” Horatio spoke to the pointless lines his beloved was drawing in the sand where they settled briefly.

Lyra figured from Jiube’s hoots that they were a day’s journey away from its home.

They had to: Alde needed rest, they needed help. Horatio rejected the idea of returning to Etzion, Arkmend was too far, the capital was gone, leaving the Nokshan realm as the sole option, though she still dreaded it. Not only was the only conscious being in their party remotely familiar with the realm the chirping familiar, she knew so little of anything Nokshan beyond Aldebaran.

But, as unreliable as the beast was, it had been a reliable guide — Lyra recognize the field of greens where they once came to retrieve a root for her uncle — and as glad as she was to help Alde, she was mostly lost in speculations and concerns. Athlem easily read her unease and drew in the dirt with added urgency.

“I am sure they will welcome you,” She muttered to the girl as the latter sat down next her, a slight smile of reassurance.

“Your baseless assumptions comfort me not,” Lyra rebutted, checked for the hundredth time if Alde was still comfortably tugged under his familiar’s wing. “I know, you are going to argue that your assumptions are not baseless.”

“And I would be right, supported by the numerous times from which you rudely averted your eyes from mine just to blush and check on your beloved,” Athlem raised her chin and commanded her words with her stick like a queen’s scepter.

Lyra laughed it off.

They soon continued their journey, stopping occasionally to pass the night. Their trek took a continuous incline, passed the tangled branches and grass until they met a cliff of broken rocks seemingly stretching into the skies. It was chiseled by time and a shroud of mystery materialized in thin mists. She was suspicious. The rustle of leaves whispered, emitted energy pure yet potent. Intent eyes matched drawn bows, silent breathes melting harmoniously into nature in imperceptible disguise she only learned to recognized from the best.

The Nokshans were here.

While Athlem observed the energy and the plants crawling over the cliffs and Horatio scrutinized unworldly auras with watchful paranoia, Lyra was certain enough to speak aloud, “We are here with your King, not ill intentions.”

The two were slightly startled by her assurance, silence answered before wisps of air introduced five Nokshans. She immediately recognized the woman before her, the ageless facade of royal impassiveness masking unspeakable sorrows of losing half of her soul. Lyra recalled the eyes, fearless in the face of the mercenary, so identical to the Nokshan she had come to love.

“Lady Alvenia,” She made to bow, but felt gentle hands upon her arms and a musical voice poured forth in an ocean of peace.

“Lyra, my daughter,” — oh, Athlem won’t let her live that down — “my warmest welcome and my deepest thanks.”

She looked into those eyes studying her, met the aura of ungodly power reserved for the Nokshan lord; Alvenia nodded and went to personally greet Horatio and Athlem, while Lyra noticed from the corner of her eyes Jiube snapping at a poor kinsman of its master that was trying to retrieve their prodigal prince to rush him to the treatment he needed.

“Jiube, no,” She whispered, and the familiar froze, mortified, retreated to her side in its full size to beg for forgiveness.

The congratulations and blessings were interrupted as Alvenia erupted into laughter behind her, “Of course, if you are capable of taming the Fallen, Jiube is no challenge.”

Lyra managed a grin of embarrassment checked by pride before Alvenia glided to her side, guiding her by an arm towards the cliff, “I am sure all of you are exhausted and famished by your travels, it is rude of me to have kept you here.”

Hearing no protest, the Nokshan Lord guided her towards the stone wall, raised a hand. Runes illuminated the aged rocks under hushed utterance, and when Lyra blinked again she found herself in a forest dotted by gems of light falling in lazy rays illuminating young grass splattered with wild flowers. Some Nokshans had assembled in a graceful symphony of curiosity lining the paths, making each step a chore as she weighed the eyes watching her every breath.

As they walked down what must have been their town — the houses lodged between the strongest branches of ancient trees hid fledglings peeking from round windows — Lyra held her breath as a familiar tree emerged to view. The trunk was more weathered and broader than before, its roots a web of stairs spanning the size of any Lunzeldine city squares collecting tranquil ponds mirroring the sparkles of recent rain.

It was here, those small mirrors once tainted scarlet with greed and hate. All because of her father, his monster, the demon she came to possess.

“Lyra,” She didn’t notice that Alvenia was watching her contemplation until she felt the gentle hand brushing a wayward tear that rolled down her cheek without her knowledge. “We do not remember to hate, but so we can love.”

No one ever think like that around her, and its ring of forgiveness undid her. As Alvenia embraced her and shielded her in her raven wings, she didn’t know why the tears fell forth.

No, she knew why: she wept for the crimes this tree stood witness to, the blood her blood shed, the years leading up to this day when she couldn’t fathom anything but hate for her father. She wept for her, for him.

The rivulets of time seemed to pause until a gentle voice coaxed her to give into fatigue.

For the first in the longest time, she didn’t dream and just slept.

LXVII.

Something was…off.

As skies crackled with lightning and thunder cackled beyond the dull roar of rain, she made a blunder. If only she still had her dagger, then she could have seen their progress, sense them better. But, it made sense, the gradual tumble of the dense grey clumps of storm characteristic of the region, the unrelenting, patient drum of water against faltering wills spanning over the last week.

This could very well be her uncle’s doing.

The rebels did not seem to have caught on yet, inexperienced with illusionary crafts that only the imperial advisor was known to wield. But as Jiube hopped in and out of the mouth of the tent to tease the rain in an almost ritualistic jubilation, she realized that it was not as much as the rebels are inexperienced as it was her becoming more susceptible to these things.

The change was evident, her nightmarish, dream of an encounter with the Fallen silenced the noises tearing at her mind. She even tried to call for them, only to find blessed silence. So this was it, she boldly assumed. The end of the reign of the Fallen.

Still, the skies were solemn, even as her powers blossom she could hardly take risks: she sat on edge of the makeshift bedding, cursing inwardly at the cold as she stayed her dutiful watch over Alde, who, she observed, was thankfully well enough to mutter phrases teetering on the edge of comprehensibility on sporadic occasions, the last blur of which begged her to stay with him.

Who could have the heart to refuse the simple, feverish plea?

Her post was more difficult than she could’ve imagined: as soon as the rain dropped the temperature did as well, and her blankets, thin slices of canvas and sackcloth haphazardly stitched together, are more apt at containing fleas than heat. The bedding shuffled beneath her; he was flattening his feather cocoon, shivered.

She buried her teeth into her lips to stop their chattering, cursed Horatio under her breath before decidedly casting her canvas-cloth-blanket onto Alde instead. Immediately the cold rushed in and made her pores scream, and she hugged herself in an attempt to rub her numbing arms back to senses.

After what must have been two years of suppressed cold a miracle happened, a slight groan, the relent of lead eyelids followed by a stir. She turned to him, met his groggy eyes squinting in confused disbelief as he tried to decide what was more improbable, his survival or her presence in whatever special hell the Creator would concoct for him.

“Ly…?” He sat up against all odds, winced a little at his side; his wings were an abominable mess and incredibly awkward and stiff. Their attempts at hiding behind him remained as nothing but attempts.

“Does it kill you to stay still?” She smiled with bitterness masking sheer relief, then her teeth remembered and chattered again.

He frowned, seemingly noticing for the first time the rain outside, saw her miserably cold.

“I shall bring you water,” she decided that water was a good enough distraction, but she heard a small shuffle, a coarse warmth clasped her hand, drew her back.

His chin rested upon her shoulder, cold crept over her arms as he instinctively embraced her, invited her into the cocoon of his wings and she gladly accepted.

She felt her fingers and toes’ blood vessels roar back to life, the tickle of subtle stubbles against her neck was embarrassing to sear the tips of her ears. She felt like she should be more bothered, but she felt so…safe. The uncertainties of her powers, the murderous apprehension interpreting Horatio’s spell, melted away. Then she felt his breath against her collar, even, deep. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

She woke to a cough at the mouth of the tent, strange that Jiube should have remained so quiet, and she nearly fell from her perch. A rebel officer, his face covered. One of their spies, perhaps? She straightened her back, though still didn’t have the heart to move the peacefully sleeping Nokshan.

The spy stepped in, looked about, a thin hand wrenched off the veil, “Lyra, dear, collect your raven and let us be off.”

She suppressed her yelp of joy to a hushed excitement, “Aunty!”

The addressed assessed her beloved niece and the Nokshan draped across her shoulders in protective sleepiness, “Am I interrupting?”

“No, no, but how did you know…”

“I never knew bluejays can be messengers, either, but she delivered.”

“Where is she now?”

Athlem bit her lips out of unbreakable habit, “She said she had unfinished business with Lord Claud.”

“Ah,” Lyra stated flatly, felt a wriggle at her shoulder: someone seemed to be unhappy with the noise of whispered conversations and was burrowing into the crook of her neck. “We ought to go, I assume uncle took care of the guards?”

“Of course, they think themselves drowning…but, surely they won’t be very happy once they came about. Shall we?”

Before Lyra can blush again they were half way across the mountains on the back of trusty steeds, when Athlem jested about her excitement for winged grandchildren. She was so tempted to elbow the older woman, but the slight hill of the doctor’s stomach convinced Lyra to let the mother have some fun.

Besides, she was past the point of denial, she loves him and he loves her. And just stating this phrase in her mind filled in the blanks he drew that starry night, when she ventured to ask of his mate and he could only turned away in what she initially thought was annoyance, but now realized was just to hide the tell-tale pink that conquered his cheeks.

She tugged a strand of midnight hair behind his ear, fingers lingered to trace his jaw and paused. She dropped the idea along with her hand, scoffed at her own pathetic self, and looked on to the brightening skies instead.