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.

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XLVIII.

Life is a nightmare. An ugly one, and there was no end to it.Well, if one is brave enough to cross the threshold of the unknown, employ the instruments of self-destruction…

But no, not her. Her life was no longer her own…anyhow, when had the trek from one wing of the palace to the other always been so long? Her head was too light, and she felt the familiar crept of bile that had been loyally ruining her mornings for the past week. She still couldn’t breath, unwilling to accept anything, including air.

Miraculously she tumbled into her room in time to vomit the gruel that she could stomach from dinner in all its entirety into the nearest empty cauldron. She was exhausted. Still, she had to work. Washing out the acid burning her throat and throwing open all the windows — an act acceptable now that she was no longer next to the stables — she threw herself at her dressing-table-converted work station lined with instruments and herb and began to think: poisons, paralyzers. She marked the texture of the blood, tried to forget its owner, recorded its color, its properties. She realized she needed a certain seedling for her test…perhaps it could be replaced with…no. Nothing reacted. Normal red, why? She could use the crystallized form of…having something similar…having something…she thought she did. She thought she had Horatio.

No, she didn’t.

She was dizzy again, though she forced herself to continue. Where was she? Yes, to replace the seedling, and…still nothing, still she thought she meant something. No, no time for that, only time for truth and grounded facts. Proof, for his innocence…perhaps she could heat up the mixture, excite the molecules to exhibit a change, or —

A mindless hand knocked over a stray empty vial, she cursed, reached out to catch it but only succeeded in burning herself as her distressed mind rendered her as dangerously disorganized as her mentor.

The vial crashed against the marble floors, shattered. The impact toppled the last column that held up her mind. It was over, she fell to her knees, too indignant to pray, too hurt to make a noise even when her hand cut itself against the scattered shards.

Why? What did she do wrong?

She was wrong to think that she was excluded from his ambition: the position of second prince must have been irresistible now that the Emperor was not there to back him, and a woman as beautiful and powerful as Rosamund? God, she could almost be happy for him, she would convince herself to be; but he looked so broken, so torn.

Did she wrong him?

He wronged her. She curled her hand into a fist, embraced the searing pain of the infinite cuts in her palm and the bright red oozing through her fingers, a wayward droplet painted the white floor scarlet and she watched the beautiful tendrils bloom into a withered flower. She watched the rays of sunshine crash and bounce from the massacre of glass through the blur of her tears, saw the infinite rays of rainbows broken into pieces like the promises so often whispered against her stubborn ear.

“What if…he was telling the truth,” She reasoned aloud, then the instruments of her knowledge would be reduced to symbols of distrust, both of him and her own worth.

Does that mean…he was…

A gentle rapping cleared the darkening air. She looked up, saw the shadow at the window and summoned her best smile when she opened and greeted her visitor, “Are doors a strictly human concept?”

“Apologies, it’s a matter of urgency,” The Nokshan landed gracefully, his eyes fell upon the mess upon the floor and her bleeding hand.

“I was experimenting when I accidentally knocked things over,” She bounded her hands, sniffed the air, remembered the herb that was now burning at the bottom of the ceramic dish, rushed to extinguish the flame. “God…why are you here, Aldebaran.”

“A word of what happened last night.” 

She froze, knew that he knew but attacked instead, “What did you do to Lyra?” She folded her arms in feigned remonstrance to hide her shaking.

It took him an entire minute to understand and blush and stammer, “What..no, we…were just watching stars…I…that’s not what…”

God, this child was so adorable, she almost smiled.

Aldebaran cleared his throat and mind, “I came here because I heard a voice during my conversation with Lyra, a voice begging for death.”

“I am not sure if I can diagnosing mental ailments of Nokshans,” She strode over to another window. What if…Horatio was…no, he cheated. He had to.

“Hearing voices is the normal part, Athlem, I am constantly hearing the spirits around me,” Athlem took back what she said about son-in-law; Lyra deserved someone normal for once. “The owner of that voice is what I am here for.”

“Who?”

“It was Horatio.”

Of course.

She knew it. She only wanted to test his blood and pretend that she was the one to be hurt, that she was simply betrayed and that was all and he wasn’t…he didn’t have to experience what she suffered, to be rendered so powerless, felt so dirtied.

But…in her denial she left him alone.

She choked on her breath, her selfishness, her unwillingness to trust, to understand…who was she to strand him on his own with his demon, with her… “I have to find him, I must tell him…” that I am sorry, sorry to have even questioned him, to have left him alone.

Aldebaran glanced at the cauldron at the corner of the room, back to linger a little upon her stomach, thought about speaking but thought otherwise.

“Do you know where he is?” She gathered herself together, the Nokshan nodded. “Take me to him.”

The Nokshan smiled, glad that he had stopped a spirit in its downward spiral before it was too late, “Alright.”

XXXIII.

Propelled by her friend’s enthusiasm, Doctor Denthea was thrusted into the solid crowd of spectator flooding the main square, wondering why the Emperor himself might deign be here.

She resurfaced from the other side of the throng, immediately before the soldiers forming a respectable wall about their ruler, who seemed more interested in the banyan tree that sheltered him than the attention. Her eyes briefly defected to the winged humanoid by the Emperor’s side, feathers a darkness silenced under the tree’s shade. Then the Emperor turned about, strolling into the light with his royal indifference while the silent angel followed a step behind.

“My good people of Arkmend,” The voice was surprisingly calm. “This town has always hold a place in my heart, for it is from this good township that my late brothers’ mother, consort Dia, came. For that, I am ever thankful.” Doth a town like theirs deserve the thanks of the heaven-sent? “So, imagine my disappointment to find myself with company all but good. Captain Fortin, is it?”

The named captain jolted, and Doctor Denthea remembered that cruel face in her office days ago, “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Here is this man I saw, attempting to harass my citizen over what? An empty accusation of theft?”

“Your humble servant was merely attempting to assure the safety — “

“– What is ‘safe’ about bothering a lad of seventeen walking down the street?”

“I was afraid he was armed, Your Majesty.”

“Armed with what? A mouth and eyes to read your gross incompetence? Relieve him of his duty, good men,” And so the captain was seized by his own comrades, struggled in desperate plea and dragged off the scene forever. “The pest dealt with, I should execute my original intent: it is to issue a declaration, to which I find this town most worthy to bear witness to. Today, our Empire faces dilemmas most dire: rebels uprising in violence and a traitor of treacherous means. The latter, High Priest Claud, has abandoned his post of worship to wage war against the people he was supposed to pray for. By a power most accursed he had the Capitol under his spells, and in their cultish rituals ousted the wise and good.”

The crowd murmured at the implications, shadows of doubts surfaced from faltering admiration.

“That is why I stand before you today, my citizens, accompanied by the messenger of the Creator,” And that sufficed as the winged one’s introduction. “For even if I have the command of the army of this land, I am not willing to use it: what Emperor am I if I raise a hand against my own people? Let Lord Claud take the blame, for the men who were led astray by him were merely lost lambs needed guidance.”

The tone of mercy was a new tune, and at some point of incredulous unbelief, the people of Arkmend beheld the declaration.

“I am no tyrant of rebellious missions, ravaging the countryside for a cause contradictory. I am no hypocritical priest sucking the souls of the empire for my own strengths. I am Luctus, son of Lucifer, rightful Emperor to this land, and upon the name of my father and those before, I swear to restore order, to uphold justice, and to correct wrongs.”

The Emperor read the silence of his audience: Doctor Denthea reckoned with the promises towards mere peasants from the heaven-sent, unprecedented. A villager enunciated such sentiments, rallied, “Long live Emperor Luctus!”

The declaration was made, the witnesses elevated, while Lyra, on the other hand, hated the voice that came from her mouth, the words composed by her mind and twisted by a major lie.

She had always dreamt of this moment, delivering promises to her people for a better future. Yet, she had to resort to this devil’s facade, revise the speech intended for her own glorified day (that she knew would never come because of her sex) to fit a monster. Oh, she pretends the declaration was her own, knowing this was the closest she will ever get to speak like such. She raised a hand that was not her own, accepted the blessings, tempted to strip off her disguise and yell at these fools. She suppressed.

“As witnesses of my oath, you shall testify to the Creator my actions’ match to my words: for I shall quench the rebellion and the traitor. In this process, no harm from either side are you allowed to suffer by the law of the Creator.” The village, acknowledging the implications, embraced their immunity from war. “With this my words are done, and my deeds begin.”

As Lyra hid her hurry to leave, she wrenched at her tunic, her heart twisted and the cheers muffled by distance and the rage drumming at her ears. A guard inquired after the Emperor’s health, and she waved them away before storming off. Only one dared to interfere.

“Lyra,” She paused, saw the shadow that cut across her path and stood before her. “Are you alright?”

The question was rhetorical, for they both knew the negative. But, they were alone, at least, and Lyra casted the hateful skin from herself and sighed. She looked up at the only one amongst the hundreds to see her pain, then the complaints blubbered forth naturally, “Why does he deserve such power? Why does his words worth more than mine? What does that make me? If I am to accomplish what we set out to do, it would all be in his name. I can see it: Luctus the Just, the Righteous, the–”

Aldebaran pulled her into his arms, velvet wings enveloping, “Stop it. You’ve already done too much.”

She tested the warmth and security she never imagined the world can offer, grasped it, and buried herself there. Still, a stray thought escaped her cocoon.

“Why must it be so?”

He knew that he, too, is a questioner, so answered in the only way he can: silent fellowship. She finally stopped suppressing and allowed herself to weep.

XXXII.

She knelt before the sheathed sword, her hands unable to support its weight combined with the weight of indecision.

It was the third one within the month: a patient of hers found dead in their home. The first one seemed natural, but two dots make a line, and the young woman’s sudden death after consuming her medicines led to outrage until witnesses supported her discovery of a break in. Still, her grounds were ice, and the third cracked it: the young man choked on air, an empty medicine box by his feet.

She knew, as she traced the path of the wooden floors up to the hilt of the sword, seeing her own hesitation in the timber’s dull reflection, who did it.

They came during the night, two days before the first death, demanding for her “nephew” and “his” companion.

“They are traitors to our Empire, Madame,” The Captain began.“You must comply.”

“‘Must’?” She looked up from her writing desk. “Where in the world have you the right to raid a ground of healing, granted to be holy by the late Emperor Lucifer?” She didn’t recall standing up, but she was looking level into the eyes of the officer. “Would you, a soldier of the Empire, defy the Emperor’s father?”

The captain looked at the flimsy paper commission in his hand, “You speak true, so I shall not disturb this ground, but protect it by snuffing out the vipers plaguing it. Two days, madame. You have two days.”

The “vipers” he spoke of were no traitors of the Empire, but the woman who dared to resist. Denthea freed the blade from its ancient sheath, smiled into her eyes reflecting back from the white blade, but found a different pair instead.

They were odd, belonging to her best apprentice, her sun.

It came to be so: she was too knowledgeable to be a desirable wife; Thalem was too kind to abandon their family trade. It worked, anyhow, her love for medicine freed her brother to his own musical pursuits, while his name on the clinic freed her from accusations of witchcraft.

Time flowed, and amongst the tide he found love: her sister-in-law was an angel, a flautist of wisdom nearly as incredible as her ears. They were gentle people, the two of them, and their daughter came to inherit all that is beautiful of her mother, while hidden beneath the fairness was the genius and potential.

She saw her merely days after the delivery, when Thalem watched his wife tenderly holding the still-wrinkly child and asked for a name.

“Athlem,” The Doctor spouted. “This one is meant for greatness.”

Thalem didn’t like the notion of forcing any expectations upon his child, but his lady assured him that expectations is not in the name, but the eyes of the parents. So that was Athlem, the child who began to fulfill her name as soon as she could talk.

She found the girl healing a sparrow that fell out of its nest in the backyard, her wide eyes saw where to mend with a basic instinct that could only be the Creator’s gifts. The parents were content, watched to not pamper the child, while the aunt trained her in her arts before the village sage took her in. The roads were so clear for this beloved, lovely child whose gentle head of genius could only imagine good, yet no one could’ve expected mere recklessness from a stranger, a carriage driver, can obscure all that.

When she rushed to the scene that day all was too late. Too late except for her to mourn for her brother, rush the mother for despaired aid and tug the trembling girl unbelieving that her hands failed, her power exhausted from her attempts and half of her vision blind to the spirits that used to guide her into her arms. She never wanted to be a healer then, until the sage schooled her with a shock of indifference. Still, that light was gone: the darkness of her mother’s room, the brutal deterioration from the damage of a drunkard drove the girl away, away from herself.

So she thought she could push her into a change of scene, when she wrote to her most influential patient, to let her leave the nightmare and head for the capital. It was the wrong decision in hindsight, overwhelming her in a sea of faces that she could easily find ghosts to match. Until…

She held the blade in tremors. Hope flickered like the light on the edge of the sharp sword that she thought had forever been lost. That light is so brilliant, yet dangerously contingent upon the wellbeing of her beloved. Who is this man, this Horatio, that seem to reach within the soul of her Athlem to draw forth jovial vitality? She thought him a manipulator at first, but his smiles too genuine for such villainy: the manipulative nature was as occupational as her constantly examining eye.

Surely that man will uphold his words, would understand what she meant when she delayed him leave days ago, forced him to swear to stay with her fragile child to the end.

“She’s not as fragile as you credit her, Doctor,” The usual smile correcting her diagnosis, not accusingly. “But it goes without saying, I will, though I suggest that you do, too.”

He stepped into the night after her niece, gave infinite thanks and blessings then adieu.

Now she heard footsteps. Her enemies trampling her garden to arrest her, she assume, and so she squeezed the hilt of the blade, brought it up, “Doctor Denthea!”

The boisterous voice of her friend and patient made her sheath the weapon and roll it under a shelf, just in time as the screen door was tore open, “You’ve got to see this! Come!”

“What…”

A meaty hand seized her, pulled her out of the shadows of contemplation and into the light of a commotion she was somehow deaf to until now.

“The Emperor’s here!”

XXIX.

The silence unnerved him. He called her again and again, yet the only thing that met him was nothing. The trees were too knotted and tangled for him to see much from above: even the bright blue, snaking stream were mostly veiled by thickets. He reached out to Jiube instead, only to find it making some incomprehensible cries. He was already hurrying, the grayish hue upon the trees darkened menacingly with the death of distance, still he was aimless without any hint of the two’s whereabouts. He considered asking the trees, but found too many of them withered — the ones still alive were too bitter to be any help — and so he landed by the convergence of the blue snake into the larger lake.

What happened here? It was as though someone plucked off the sun and the void in its place sucked away all life to compensate for the brilliance stolen. Aldebaran dared to stoop and examine the palmful of lake water he gathered in his hand, a hauntingly empty splash as it rejoined the rest of its body with a paranoia as though it feared being forever suspended from the rest of itself. Like iron to a magnet, a moth to a fire, the last droplet shot into the still lake like an arrow. As he watched the sombre ripple from the strange crash of violence, he formed a mild hypothesis. He circled the lake in search of clues to support his guess, tracked the scripts to a dialogue he missed. He nearly tripped over a root he swore wasn’t there before.

He retraced the root, found its owner, and wondered: by the bank of the lake perched the withered, wooden form. Graceful branches that used to provide an idyllic frame to the glowing sapphire snapped, crooked with angles sharpened by death. Dried leaves littered its feet, a speckled matt of yellow and rotten brown. Aldebaran placed a hesitant hand upon the dried bark, and fresh remembrances and tragedy poured forth. The story, the love, the men that came and took it away, then…then the accomplice of the crime, a Nokshan like him…the Nokshan he just sought with bright blue plumes and a tortured mind.

She was here.

The idea of the proximity, his imagination twisting the gentle sun’s rays baking the dried barks to be warmth from her touch, her hand, his sister’s hand.

Wait, he was looking for Lyra. And Jiube. The present has enough troubles of its own and saved very little space for dreams. So, he tore himself away, allowing himself to notice the haphazard prints telling stories in the drying mud

Ah. Of course.

With one last glance at the willow as he attempted to commit its place to memory, he followed the mess past the dried earth or hints or disorder or a stick snapped, too fresh, “Jiube, li di duaya?” The inquiry fell on deaf ears. “Lyra?”

Suddenly, a hollow screech rung out, bouncing off the equally hollowed trees. He leapt off for the source, swallowing the unpleasant taste of suppressed panic, “Lyra!” THe runes about his neck smarted, he ducked an ill intentioned branch. As he ran it seem as though the world was on fire. THe sky screamed an orange blood and him of unwelcomed remembrances. A blur of movement by the corner of his eyes, unnatural blue teased before it disappeared again. He took after it, the skeletons of trees the only witnesses to his stupidity. It egged him on, the deafening roar of laughter from the fallen leaves carpeting the floor, the root glued to their treacherous places to trip and maim.

The blue of blue again. But this time, he distrusted his eyes, for he saw not the dress of a water nymph as he assumed, but plumes of a bluejay. “Eridani?” The blue was far gone. He gave chase. The dead trees took a new hue, the leaves flesh and blood: for he ran in a nightmare. There was the tree, its enormous trunk that takes a good number of the village to circle. Its stair-like roots and their jade mirrors beckoned.

He blinked, gasped.

There he was before him, that same old bastard with his demonic sword and his filthy hand grabbing his father by the hair. Powerless, like before he was frozen in his place, powerless.

“Al…de…look away…look…a…way.”

No, no, nonono, not again. It can’t be.

“Close…you…r…eyes….do–” As he blinked the egret wings were gone, and in their place bluejay.

“Bro…ther…A-hya…”

No.

The blade raised, a clash of silence, it falls. He killed his scream.

“Aldebaran!”

The illusions, who casted them? For he saw now, he saw. There was no mercenary, just a tree thicker than the others, the blue but the body of the water nymph and the cursed man no other than Lyra. But she had no sword, no head rolled. The nymph drew herself close together, sitting on a protruding root embraced by a whirlwind of regret.

Lyra winced as she stooped, the gash on her arm still running scarlet, “It’s alright…” She didn’t like her own attempt at comfort. “It’s…over.”

It was raining. Aldebaran somehow never noticed it before, but he was glad. Rain disguises things.

The nymph was studying her hands, now, “It’s over.” She tested the words. “He’s gone…”

To that neither could say much. The rain pattered on all about them to fill their silence. The nymph looked up, caught her kin falling from the sky. “He’s…gone…” She tested those words again, told the raindrops, and they wept with her.

At that, Aldebaran helped Lyra onto her feet, and quietly they began to leave.

“Lyra,” The voice was the note of rain on dried earth. “Thank…you.”

She nodded, looking over her shoulder one last time at the nymph praying for the rain to flood and thanking the earth that it will before following Aldebaran out of the dead wilderness altogether.

XXVIII.

In between the fiery waves she thought there was a variation of a familiar dress, fabric, or maybe a face among the waves that were flesh, arms currents that pinned her down in her place.

A spell came to mind as she managed to find an opening for a gasp, though midway through the utterance the water sprite doused the spell out of her consciousness altogether. As she lost sense of direction, where the earth spread and heaven laid, she could only repeat the spell in her mind as though that would replace air and silence her screaming lungs. Somehow it took effect, she broke free, and a chill breath overcame her assailant, freezing and halting the shifting form after a horrible screech. Freedom, at last: Lyra scrambled.

The ice sculpture she’s made was incredible, cruel, incredibly cruel, and she stared for a split second before yet another spurt of movement briefly broke free from the ice. A hand, a claw, she dodged, it caught. The icicles tore open the forearm she raised in her defense, though her other hand gave a slight wave to reinforce her spell. Finally, frozen in place is the water nymph, its humanoid form distorted by rage and screeches. Already, treacherous tendrils had begun to melt and reach out at their aggressor. Still, its form, if she imagined, and its aura, were too familiar.

“…Ting?”

A mere human label invented for a disguise hardly have any claim over the nymph’s anger, “Release me, filthy human!”

Still, a screeched command is hardly convincing proof that Lyra have a chance at survival should she comply. Though she saw as the water seethed with rage a tendril of darkness, spreading, contracting, at its very core.

How did the Fallen reach so far? The voices plagued her not but…out of the sympathy for such an ailment she reached for the darkness, a hand placed above the empty void where the heart used to live, “Shh…I am here to help you.”

“A mere human? You cannot undo what your people had wreaked.”

“Am I a mere human?” Lyra questioned without hearing. “How can you know if I can’t fix your grievances if you won’t even cry?”

Sympathy is a rare beast, for deep betrayal startle it forever, extinct.

Lyra watched the tendril tumble, mangling the heart so pure, then no longer could she just watch that she seized the darkness for herself, and wrenched it free. A few things were torn, for the thought was so deeply lodged within the nymph’s mind, and at this necessary violence and the creature’s cries miniscule roots originally suppressed flourished. A memory disturbed, the dusts unsettled: Lyra was instead irrevocably drawn in.

For it was a warm afternoon in the lively summers: she was the singing stream, and he was the willow tree. In the same stroke of nature they were born, together, as a major flood filled the crevices of the earth and in the murky recession of the waters she was left behind while he emerged from the nutritious muck of earth. A pond, a seedling, in an orphic world of mud.

He whispered “hi,” first, handing her a leaf. She giggled, kicked some pebbles about, while she paced and read the letter. The poetry, in hindsight, was meager at best. But, her heart was set, at last, and they were inseparable since.

So the river and the tree, together, watched the currents of time slip faster than the winds of a harsh storm. He wanted to forever stand by her side, his roots digging deeply into the earth and grasped for eternity. She wanted to forever stand guard to his gentle branches, careful to see if the winds of heaven visit him too roughly. The wind sprite never did much harm, though, besides a teasing line or two. And they were left to live at the peak of their happiness.

Of course, it was the peak because there was a dip.

They were in their favorite spot of heaven under the shade of his willow tree when they came. The two didn’t think much of it since they saw the plumes of the Nokshan, a promise bright as the sky. A Nokshan can never hurt nature, he calmed her suspicions. Our Guardians won’t hurt us.

His good humor turned sour, however, when they saw the men with the Nokshan. If sins were people that’s what they would look like, and she would call them greed and pride, partnering shadows hiding behind self-righteous ambition. She suggested that they attack first, and he was hesitant until they saw the Nokshan’s outstretched hand. The void beneath that hand, the black sphere insatiable…though before they could act one of the willow of the grove gave way as its spirit, part of his spirit, was ripped from its tender branches. He doubled in agony.

She was furious. This Nokshan was a traitor of sanctified trust. While he moaned for her to run she charged instead. She was blinded by rain and tears, and all she wanted was to stop his hurts.

The Nokshan was deterred, but the men polluted her: they had with them a strange potion that they emptied into her river. The rancid smell, the burning acidity, the tar that blinded her from all senses of the world besides his voice in the background, fading, leaving. Not now…she still didn’t tell him…his seed…their seed…they killed it, they killed it, killed it. She was mauled, mutilated and he was nowhere to be found. Wisped away in the sphere of the forbidden spell as though he never existed beyond that dried stick of a carcass that only pained her more.

It was wilting, wilted, and she lost their seed. They killed it.

The men who hurt and break took his spirit, found her too broken by their own hands to be of any use to them so left her to die.

So, she will die, but so will they.

XX.

He was ashamed of himself to give way to rage the way he did. But, he allowed the flashes of white to distort his world. He only realized such when his fingers dug into the neck of a surviving captain, his blue uniform scarlet with his comrades’ blood.

“Where is Lord Francis?” He who must had sent his sister on her suicidal mission…Aldebaran slammed the man against a tree trunk to kill his silence.

“I don’t…know…Are you…Lord Alde…baran? I am…your ally…”

Aldebaran brought up his bloodied blade to remind the man that it only took him less than three blinks of the eyes to fall the fifty men and babbling about useless claims does not bode well, “I am well aware that you are of the rebellion, thus it only makes sense that you would know where your leader is.” His grip tightened, his guilt doubled for he knew well that torture never extract truths anyway.

“I…don’t…know…”

At last he let go, and the captain dropped to the floor, drowning.

“Why did you have to destroy the village, they did nothing wrong?”

The captain finally caught his breath, “They…refused to comply…to provide for us even though…we are fight their war…”

Aldebaran saw a lost cause and brought his blade down. He was no different: his rage set aflame forests where he spotted the blot of blue amidst the uniform green from above, his blade drank screams of agony without any question. He wrenched their lives from their vessels calloused with sins, painted with their blood.

He, too, was a monster.

When he returned no villager had the mind to inquire after his abrupt disappearance, his dark robes did a decent job to not flaunt the crimson of his deeds. As he sought for rest he made for his tent, though on his way he thought he heard a songbird, but only to figure that it was a woman’s lullaby. He strained to hear.

…of the nocturne, children of Etzion,

Trust the paths strewn by osmanthus, road sprinkled by the moon,

Trace the song of the crow, its midnight feathers

And you would be home,

The children of Etzion.

He was stuck in his place until the dark night swallowed the ring of the last note, and he didn’t have the mind to leave before a stir among the flap of the tent from where the song came from revealed Lyra. The surprise upon their faces matched.

“Where had you been?” Her harsh whisper accompanied a tug at his arm to direct him away from the resting children.

“…Hunting…”

“…Hunting what? You said you don’t touch meat.”

“…I found the rebels…and…let’s just say that they knew very little of Eridani’s fate.”

“…” She noted the splatter on his sleeve darker than the rest of its silky material, but kept to herself.

As the grass crunched beneath their feet with each strolling step he heard the need for conversation that may distract the implication of his vengeful massacre, “I didn’t know that you sing.”

The night was dark enough to hide her embarrassment, “It was…a silly song Horatio used to sing for me when I refused to go to sleep…I was reminded of it by this.” She presented a note clearly weathered but endured. “It’s from Athlem…carried by Horatio’s raven who miraculously found me. Apparently they are currently staying at Athlem’s hometown.”

He could hear the smile in her voice, and that giddiness only reminded him of his bluejay, “That’s…wonderful,” His attempt at suppressing his bitterness failed, and his leftover wrath against monsters and the fruitless search for his still missing sister sharpened his words, “Lyra.”

She noticed his discomfort and paused, her eyes bright but the stars above them brighter, “We ought to set out tomorrow.” The thought of seeing his sister’s face among the children for another day was unbearable.

“…Tomorrow?” That would be quite perfect, actually, just in time as Athlem’s note served as a faithful reminder of things forgotten during a week of constantly negotiating with death. “…Yes, we’ve already delayed so much.”

“Don’t worry, all will be well.”

The sound of the hollow reassurance was also swallowed by darkness, joining the beautiful note of her lullaby.

The next morning Lyra attempted to recollect the bits of her speech she drafted in her sleepless night while she threw her belongings into a haphazard bundle. Our original purpose calls us, that just sounds as though the villagers’ distress was unimportant and they were selfish. We must go stop the rebels? That is quite a stretch, a lie. Still, as she examined the circle of her humble living place littered with pointless trinkets that symbolizes both the villagers’ gratitude and their attempt of finding normality in pretending that they are still in a position of power where they could still afford to pay others.

Part of her had yet to believe that a week had passed, while most of her cannot believe that she wanted to stay. Never before had she feel so demanded, needed by all, and freed to help those she wanted. But, she knew from Athlem’s note that Horatio needed her most. So, it was with renewed purpose that she stepped out of her shelter, stretched forth for the future, before she started for the main gathering place of survivors still without the faintest shape of the words she was to speak.

Had she not been spending all of her night and her current attention tossing and turning about in contemplation she might have seen the shadow flicker by the corner of her eye. It crept up upon her, raised a hand. A paralyzing pain slammed across the back of her head. She might have yelled, fell, and found herself on the ground, her world flashing and fading.

What…who…

The world spun like a descending crow on its downward spiral, plumage that brought such good news now nothing but midnight.