The Fallen Times
Previously, on The Fallen Times:
“Then perhaps you should not have given up your love so easily,” Mustang said sadly.
“If you had the power to speak to kami and affect the movements of the stars,” she asked angrily, “then why did you have to kill Lady Da’at?”
Mustang took off his stupid oni mask. “It was the surest way,” he said weakly.
“But it was not the only way!” she shouted.
“Atsuko…” he said. “What’s done is done. We must suffer what there is to suffer.”
She slapped him across his plain face and his head snapped round. “Then suffer in silence, my lord,” she said. Voices were coming through the door, and Mustang came up behind her as she pressed her eyes against the slot.
Through the door, she saw Lady Da’at and Noriko standing together, though they had never met in the time Atsuko knew them. There also stood a lizard man… and Billy in his acolyte’s mask, holding an old man – Theoren! – against the wall by his throat.
Atsuko turned to Mustang. “It’s Lady Da’at… and…”
Mustang leaned to the view slot and watched. His face hardened.. “We have to leave,” he said, and slid his demon mask into place.
“Why?” Atsuko cried. “Here is a world where Da’at and Theoren both live! Years before the peak of Elreth’s power, before his Reapers! Crosston may still exist!” she exclaimed, unbelievingly.
Mustang shook his head. “It’s not right, dammit! Theoren coming back before I can lay the stage for him… all our plans…” The Billy in the other room – the other world – shouted something, and Mustang’s face went dark.
Atsuko grabbed Mustang by the shoulders and shook him. “Listen to yourself, you fool!” she shouted. “This is everything we could have wanted!”
“You don’t know what that storyline is like,” Mustang growled through gritted teeth. “We know our world, well enough to save it. Should we abandon all those we know in favor of one that seems better?”
Atsuko fumed, and slid her foot back to assume her Tiger Killer stance. In an instant, everything became a blur of black and silver. Mustang’s arms came in to grapple her to the wall, but Atsuko’s leg swept under his. They struggled until a decisive blow sent sent Mustang limp, smashing his face into the hard stone. Atsuko cartwheeled back to the door over Mustang as he tried to struggle to his feet..
“Atsuko,” he gasped. “No…”
She swung the door open… and screamed.
The stars in Heaven stared down at Atsuko as she crossed the tall grass from shadowed wood towards the Circus grounds. Loud and raucous was the music and celebration and Atusko could count the number that gathered there among the many-coloured tents. She ducked under a flag-strung fence and stepped into the shadow of a big-top, and took in the revelry.
There was a juggler throwing heavy sloshing bottles into the air, stretching his neck to catch with his mouth the streams of wine that spilled mid-throw. A bald woman climbed on top of a pyramid of barrels and thrust her drink into the air. “Peace with Shallowvale!” she toasted, and the crowd threw their own merry cups up. The roar of some animal stirred from the distance, then was drowned out by the midway barkers hawking their predetermined games of chance and skill, and the shouts of the roustabouts heaving one way or another. Corn cobs, roasted nuts and popcorn littered the ground and the smell of them filled the air when they were not filling the stomachs of laughing children.Atsuko took a deep breath and pulled her red scarf around her face. She pressed two fingers into her forehead, pulling her qi – her life energy – deep into the heart of her, shrouding her presence.
A chill came over her. She opened her eyes. The light of the stars stung like bright needles in her vision. She lifted a hand to shield her face and her limbs felt heavy as iron. She took a slow, ponderous step out of the shadows and moved into the crowd, slithering through the throngs of people like a snake through tall grass.
“…the news? The Matron is bleeding gold – oops, excuse me, sir…”
“…heard Fallend is gone, filled with new dead – hey, watch the feet, Demra!”
“…For Seven’s sake, don’t say his name – umph – who was that?!”
Finally the bar tent loomed before her, glowing red and orange. An old woman with a gold tooth and a pink feather skirt screeched over the din of the waiting rabble. “Beer with me, ladies and gents, we’re ale full up!” The line stretched around the tent twice over and Atsuko could see tensions rising with the crowd’s sobriety. “One out, one in, and ale’s well that ends well!”
Atsuko pushed past the line, but no one complained. The gold-toothed woman was shaking her head to a group of young minstrels. “But we’re the talent! We’re Samson’s boys, we’re here to play!”“Can’t letcher in, boys, we’re full up. Fire hazard. Strict rules.”
Atsuko walked past them all into the tent, just as a potbellied man smashed into her shoulder. Atsuko stumbled back. The man’s tankard splashed into the grass. “You son of a bitch,” he snarled. “Watch where you’re going!”
The minstrel turned, cradling his lyre. “Huh?” He stared right through Atsuko. “I didn’t touch you.”
“You smacked right into me!” the man roared. He pulled his trousers up over his belly. “I ought to shit on your godsdamned soul!”
Atsuko shivered. She was very cold. She heard the old woman’s voice behind her as she walked past all of them. “Look whatcher fool spilly hands did to me feather skirt!” the old woman screeched. Atsuko ignored them and lifted the flap into the tent, and the old woman’s voice was replaced by the roar of a party at its peak.
There were near a hundred people packed into the tent, grinding shoulders. She saw that their faces shone with sweat and knew it must be very humid, but the cold sat in her stomach like an icicle. Atsuko craned her neck, trying to find him – the man who had abandoned Gorbad to die, the man who killed Da’at, the man who found Atsuko in her most vulnerable moment and made her his servant under the guise of saving her life. The man who had taught her how to hunt men in crowds. Look to the high places for the hunters, she remembered. Look from the the high places for your prey.
There was a small stage at the back of the tent, and a small bar to her left. There was only one free seat next to a tanned woman in star-spackled robes. She pushed her way through the masses and climbed onto the bar. No one seemed to mind, as long as she didn’t kick their drinks. She looked out across the rabble, the volume of their voices filling every inch of the tent.
“…This Dark War will be the last days, mark my words…”
“I could join Samson’s tent, no problem, if the lizard didn’t play favourites…”
“I was saving this seat for you, Miss Tsurii. Would you waste it?”
“…cranberry juice? Why would I waste good liquor on…”
Atsuko’s snapped down. The dark-skinned woman was lazily reading her book. She patted the seat next to her. “Sit down, honey.”
“Pardon me?” Atsuko spoke. Her voice echoed faintly through the fog of her mind. Her hand touched the hilt of her wakizashi.
“Sweetheart,” the woman raised her voice, “not only can I see you through your qi shroud, your endothermic reaction is giving me quite a chill – so turn it off and sit down, please.”
“I cannot.” Atsuko’s eyes darted warily over the sweaty sea of people. “I came here stalking prey, and must remain unseen.” Who else might have seen through her shroud?
“I know,” the blue-robed woman said. “I’m the one who brought you here.”
Atsuko narrowed her eyes. “I am here on my own business.” She loosened the wakizashi from its scabbard.
The woman brushed her dark hair back and sighed in frustration. “Sure, but I hired the man who told you Billy Buttery would be here. He’s not, by the way.” She flashed a stunning smile up at Atsuko. “I am, though. My name is Sophia Hayden. This is a job interview.”
“I am not for hire, Sophia-san,” Atsuko said. Her voice still seemed strange, hanging in the air, travelling too slowly. She brought two fingers to her forehead and released the qi shroud – a blast of hot heavy air rushed over her. She could taste the sweat in the air. A man sitting beside Sophia pushed himself back with a yelp, and fell off his barstool. The bartender screamed at her to get off the bar. Atsuko began to climb down, eying Sophia suspiciously. “I do not appreciate you wasting my time.”
Tinkling laughter escaped Sophia’s mouth. “Ask me who I work for, darling.”
“Why did you bring me here with such a lie?” Atsuko demanded.
“Billy Buttery was about the only thing we could figure you cared about,” Sophia said.
“You know many things that it is impossible to know.”
Sophia smiled. She closed her book and stowed it away into the sleeves of her robe. “Maybe. But the Atsuko in this world is not half so cautious as yourself, Miss Tsurii.”
Atsuko felt the blood drain from her face. “Is it to be a fight, then?”
At the stage, a gold-toothed woman screeched for silence. “Ladies and gents! Your attention please, for tonight’s entertainment!”
“Don’t be silly, sweetheart,” Sophia said. “Reading the stars happens to be a point of pride for me. I know why you’re here in this world and I know you can help us save it.”
“You must then know also that I am a pike, not a minnow. I do not swim in schools.”
Sophia yawned. “That sounds awful in Homlish,” she said. She stood up. “Listen, this isn’t really a job interview – the job is yours, if you want it.”
“I don’t want it,” Atsuko replied.
Sophia tsked. “You really, really want to ask me who I work for.”
“Fine!” Atsuko snapped. “Who do you work for?”
“Da’at Soldat,” Sophia said. Atsuko’s heart leaped into her throat.
From the stage, the musicians strummed together a resonant chord, and the crowd quieted in the humid tent. “We’ve added a new verse for today’s victory,” the minstrel declared, and the crowd cheered. A few beautifully plucked notes floated over the crowd as the minstrels began to play together in beautiful harmony.
“She tumbled as a humble acrobat
but Fate had greater plans than that…”
“Oooh,” Sophia said. She craned her neck to see above the audience. “I love this song.”
Far from the celebrations, Sophia brought Atsuko towards a row of black tents lit vibrantly by torches of every size – massive staff sized torches with their fires encaged, regular linen torches burning red or blue or purple, sconces throwing sparks – all driven into the ground. The sharp smell of sulfur wafted in the air.
A gruff man in leather armor sat upon a stool stroking his beard, watching a young elf grooming – or trying to groom – a raggedy looking warhorse. The bearded man said something and spat, then the two of them laughed together.
“This is Mordiah and Pacer,” Sophia declared. “They do a little reconnaissance, handle our dealings with the unsavory types, bandit tribes and the like. Though Mordiah isn’t half bad in a fight, and Pacer has a deft hand at accounting for silver.”
“Working with a man with holes in his pockets, it becomes a necessary skill,” Pacer drawled. “A pleasure, miss…?”
“Tsurii,” Atsuko replied. “Your horse may have a pebble in his left hind leg. And he has fleas.”
Pacer rolled his eyes. “Miss Tsurii,” he said, “why don’t you focus on being pretty, and leave the horse to me? Horsecraft is hardly a girl’s—”
Atsuko’s hands grabbed onto the elf’s ear and and almost lifted him into the air. “It has been said that even the sailors of Shufu,” Atsuko said, “know to speak gently to a woman with a sword.”
A guffaw broke out. Mordiah was slapping his leather armored knee, pointing and laughing at Pacer. “Aheee,” he gasped, “Ahoo haw haw haw heh!”
“It’s okay, honey,” Sophia said softly. “Put him down.”
Pacer rubbed his ear, red and swollen. “I just do not get any respect,” he muttered, and stomped off towards the celebrations, leaving the warhorse with brush still tangled in mane.
Mordiah wiped at his eyes. “Ahoo, a haw, ahem…” he croaked. “I’m gonna be gettin’ an… earful… aheh… about that later on. Damned if it wasn’t worth it.”
Sophia snorted. “He’s lucky Da’at didn’t hear him. She would have taken the ear clean off. Is Henri back yet?”
“Not yet,” Mordiah replied, “And you’ll be hearin’ about it. You said three days, and she ain’t happy ‘bout the tardiness.”
“Day isn’t over yet,” Sophia smiled. “So you still have time for a bath.” She pulled the tent flap open and ushered Atsuko in.
Inside, glass lamps were lit instead. There were crates and trunks stacked high against the tent walls. Each box was painted with either crossed torches or candles. Atsuko peeked in a hay-filled crate and saw a red and white striped cylinder atop a thin wooden stick, the nature of which was inscrutable.
“A Sulthan Candle,” a voice said. It was high, but powerful. Atsuko turned to look at a young merchant, dressed in fine travelling clothes. “It burns bentonite in a pyrotechnic star, whatever that means. I do the hard work of selling them. My wife only has to invent the things.” He was handsome in a craggy way, but it was his eyes – a blue so pale it could be called grey – that caught her gaze. And he was young, though not unweathered.
Sophia waved in the merchant’s direction. “Atsuko Tsurii, this is Lord Dallia Iceheart. He finances our operations and makes deals with the snobby types that look down their noses at anyone not born with a title.”
Dallia grinned. “Are you still sore about not being invited to the party, Lady Hayden?”
“I own land in Terre des Septs too and they knew it,” Sophia mumbled. “Classist pigs.”
Dallia closed shut the open crate. “You are welcome here, Tsurii…san?” He turned to her. “Is that the right honorific? Please forgive me, I have not had many dealings with Katei.” He looked at her for a moment, then suddenly remembered. He bowed low.
“Atsuko-san is fine, Dallia-san.” Atsuko smiled. “And there is no need to bow so deeply.”
“Err on the side of caution, I’ve learned,” the merchant said. “If it pleases you, Atsuko-san, I would learn more about Katei one day. My wife has encouraged me to send a trade expedition there.”
“You have the gist of it, by speaking politely and without imposing,” Atsuko suggested, “though it would make me happy to converse at length of my home in Shufu.”
“When you have time, then,” Dallia said, and his eyes twinkled. “Lady Da’at is awaiting you, Sophia.”
“Is she mad?” Sophia asked.
“Worse,” the merchant replied. “She’s worried.”
Atsuko sat on a barrel, swinging her feet as the muffled voices argued with each other behind the canvas wall. A lone glass lamp lit this small area and sat upon a low wooden table. Scrolls and ledgers sprawled out on it and Dallia-san had come and gone thrice, making marks on a scroll and giving her a sympathetic look. Nothing remained except to wait.
Sophia had left her here and entered the main tent, shutting it quickly before Atsuko could see within. But of course, Atsuko could see – the qi within burned brighter as the emotions rose and whatever debate became more heated. She could identify Sophia’s easily: a dense, bright point of blue, like a young indigo star. There was one she could not recognize, a heavy slithering violet that coiled about and hid itself like a dimming candle in a smokey room. She saw an unambiguous silver spirit that she guessed to be Theoren’s – heavily bruised but shining nonetheless. At first, Atsuko awaited Da’at to enter the tent and join the discussion, and so focused only on the qi of those within. Then she realized Da’at was talking, was sitting or standing or pacing only steps away from where Atsuko sat. Where then was her qi?
Ah. Then she saw it. Wispy, ethereal, like a soft mist on a summer day after an early rain. It filled the room, stretching itself thin to cover ground. Tendrils of it settled gently on all the others. Atsuko sat still and eventually felt it touch her. It was refreshing and sweet, like spring water after a drought. She closed her eyes.
“Billy will hurt you, Atsuko-chan,” Da’at said flatly. “He’s a stupid boy lost in darkness. All he sees is Theoren glowing in the fire, and rising from the flames. But he doesn’t care – at all – how many innocent people burn so that he has light.”
“I know,” Atsuko replied.
“Atsuko! You know who Billy serves. Whether or not he holds them in his heart, he follows the Reapers. Why would you go with him down that road?”
“I would cry for you, but I’m just… so angry!” Da’at exclaimed. “A part of me perished also in that house in Shufu. Can’t he see that?”
“Onee-san…” Atsuko started, “it is perhaps insensitive to speak of your loss to the girl whose home was burned.” Silence. She continued. “Lord William lost his mentor – the closest thing he had to a father – and I lost my family, but that is not why we go back to Shufu. Elreth rises, -”
“And more dead with him every day,” Da’at muttered.
Atsuko nodded. “Crosston is gone. The Gore Brigade retreats to the Long Plains. Of the the Loyal Legions, only one remains so. You are losing this Dark War.”
“Perhaps the Keepers – “Atsuko continued speak. “Perhaps if the Temple of the Keepers of Love had not fallen in those first days of the war, perhaps if Gorbad had not come to hate Lord William, perhaps if Claudine had not pledged her awful love to Lord William… Perhaps if none of these things had happened, Lord William and I could have stayed.
You are losing this war. We will not lose it with you. We have kept Lord William from his destiny long enough. I love you, onee-san – you have given me happinesses I never thought to taste again. But we must suffer what there is to suffer.”
“Who are you?” a gruff voice demanded.
Henri reared up, his face stained with dirt and armor filled with deep gouges. His swirling blue woad tattoos were barely visible beneath the film of brown mud, riding dust mixed with sweat. He carried his shield under one arm and a scowl on his face.
“Atsuko Tsurii,” she replied meekly. She felt her face flush, then became angry at herself. This was not the Henri that mercilessly mocked her during her training. It was an entirely different Henri who had never known her.
“I will see Da’at first,” Henri said. “You will wait a while longer.”
INSERT A LOT OF STUFF PLUS AN ACTION SCENE HERE
“Know why old men never trust stairs?” Theoren asked. When no one replied, he finished: “It’s because they’re always up to something.”
Henri glared at him. “Shh,” he hushed sourly.
When Theoren had dreamt about his return to Homlan, he had imagined banners hanging from every tower and crenel, flying proud in a bracing wind against a cloudless sky. He thought he would lead – on horseback – his own victorious army past every great stone wall that divided the city, his voice one amongst the thousands singing the song of victorious patriots.
Instead his feet were aching from the miles of walking, the city was burning, he was taking orders from the woman that once left him to die in a fire to die. And no one was laughing at his jokes.
“Tough crowd,” Theoren said, to no one.
Henri turned his head again. “Shhhh!” he hissed.
It’s not that Theoren minded terribly that he wasn’t leading the charge, or that great Fire Storms burned behind them in the blackened sky, or that his country had been ravaged by death and destruction or even that they were climbing two hundred steps of the Stony Stair and he was pushing threescore and five years. It was just that Henri would not stop shushing him.
“Give an old man a break, won’t you?” Theoren snapped. “My days of painless joints are behind me. Give me at least the comfort of cracking a joke.”
Henri scowled, but said nothing. Somehow, the man from Terre des Sept had not broken a sweat, and made neither clank nor grunt despite his full suit of armor. Ahead of them, Da’at looked over her shoulder with an exasperated look and held a velvet gloved finger to her lips.
Theoren gritted his teeth as the others passed him on the stair. Atsuko glanced at him sympathetically as she caught up with Sophia and Mordiah. Theoren pulled his feet up, step by step. His sweat was dripping on the smooth granite steps and he could swear he could hear the droplets sizzle. He took a shaky breath and the air seared his lungs.
Finally, knees aching, he reached the last step. The rest of them were waiting for him, looking across the massive courtyard. “They’re not here yet,” Da’at told him.
Stone tiles stretched out in front of him, a cracked gray plain interrupted only by a garden of statues in the middle of the courtyard, some hundred feet away. Theoren frowned. The garden was still green with hedges and grass, and manmade brooks could be seen bubbling out from the fountain at its centre. It was an oasis of Homlish extravagance in a wasteland of broken relics. Beyond that stood a pair of towering doors resplendent with a mural carved of marble and metal that shouted of Homlan’s glories.
“An opulent king must have lived here,” Atsuko said quietly.
“Emperor-Generals, actually,” Theoren corrected. He wiped the sweat from his brow. “A few rich senators now and then.”
“Not anymore, though,” Sophia said.
Past the wall that guarded the inner sanctum, a fresh Fire Storm sent a twister of wicked looking cinders swirling into the sky. The creak and crash of wood collapsing reached them, distorted by echos and the wind.
“Not anymore,” Theoren agreed.
Mordiah grunted. “So, do we knock or somethin’?” he asked.
“He’ll be here soon,” Da’at said. “We’d best wait quietly.” They quieted at once, though Theoren noticed that Mordiah shifted his mace from one shoulder to the other, scratching at his wiry beard. Atsuko moved her weight thither, her feet restlessly testing the smooth stone floor. Somewhere in the clouds, there was the thick sound of powerful wings. Henri scowled.
Ashes had begun to fall from the sky like snow. A thin layer of white blanketed the ground when finally, the towering doors of the Emperor-General’s quarter cracked open with a deep, echoing groan.
They watched Chenzira an Shut and his disciples glide out like a funeral procession of dark-robed ghosts. They drifted across the great stone courtyard. A heavy, ogre-sized automaton followed behind them, clanking footsteps stomping gracelessly on stone.
With a fierce intensity, Da’at watched the speck that was Chen float towards them. Theoren nudged her. “Are you okay—” he rasped. He swallowed and found his throat dry. “Are you okay to do the talking?” he finished. “If you need, I can handle Chen.”
“No one needs you,” Henri growled.
“Our thanks, Pfenning-san,” agreed Atsuko. “But this matter has a delicacy to which others may not be sensitive.” The woman from Shufu patted Theoren’s shoulder. “The time will come when we may help her,” she assured him. “Now is not that time.”
Theoren was not so sure. He glanced at her: Da’at stood so still ashes had gathered in her hair. Her arms were held tense and out from her hips. Her fingers curled and uncurled as Chenzira closed the huge distance between them.
Swaths of of grey ash stirred in great cloud in the disciples’ wake as their hems dragged on the ground. Between the v-shaped formation walked the golem. The metallic sound of the its footsteps was like a blacksmith working steel, echoing in the hot air.
Theoren watched as they both stopped in the garden of statues of limbless and headless heroes. The silhouettes’ figures were close enough now that they could see the black iron golem was carrying something in its arms. Something body-sized.
“Eyes, Theo,” Da’at said softly.
“Five disciples, plus Chen. Automaton’s holding a body bag. Could be him,” Theoren responded. “Height and build matches, but hard to tell with the bodybag on. No movement.”
The golem, seven feet tall, stomped behind its master and with a mechanical whine lifted the body bag high into the air, like a hunting trophy. Theoren noticed the sudden gleam of steel in Da’at’s hands.
“He might already be dead, love,” Sophia said. “You had best be prepared for that.”
Da’at shook her head. “Chen has always been a terrible liar.”
“Whether he lied or not, he may still betray us here,” Henri cautioned. “If Chen makes the slightest move to harm him…”
“Y’all knock ‘em down,” Mordiah agreed, “and I kick ‘em.”
“Da’at,” Theoren said gently. “Diplomacy must prevail. Let me speak with Chenzira.”
Sophia scoffed. “You’re a good talker, love, but not that good. Why go alone? I couldn’t even cast Whispers at that range.”
Theoren ignored the mage, and put a hand lightly on Da’at’s shoulder. “Please. I got us into this, let me get us out. No one else has to get hurt.”
Mordiah growled. “Except that two-timin’ half-roasted mealy mouthed Bad-ick.”
“The Unborn is of little consequence,” Atsuko declared. “There are battles ahead for which we must ration our strength. Better that we all leave with our lives.” She drew up her red silk scarf over her mouth and pulled it tight. “But I serve Lady Da’at, and if the Unborn must die, so be it.” With a graceful motion, she drew in each hand her katana and wakizashi. Her feet swept the gathering ash in a wide circle beneath her as she entered her stance. “Leaves glisten with night-time dew,” she said in Katese. “Their faces turn to await the dawn.”
There was a moment when Theoren thought Da’at might hurl the dagger in her hand. At a hundred feet, it was a stretch, but if anyone could do it, it would be the star of the Cirque du Soldat.
“I think I’d like to talk to him first,” she mumbled. She straightened her back. “Theoren, would you like to join me?” She opened her fanblade with a flourish (Was it always her fanblade in her hand? he wondered) and stalked off into the falling ash.
Theoren looked around him. Henri’s knuckles were white from gripping his hilt, his eyes scanning the sky. Atsuko sheathed her swords, brow knitted in uncertainty. “Wait for the signal,” Theoren said, and went off after Da’at.
“What was the signal again?” he heard Mordiah ask, and Sophia answered grimly.
“When hell breaks loose, honey.”
A green hedge rose on both sides, though it was smoking from the hot ash gathering on it. Dozens of stone sculptures stood in the garden of statues: all of them human, all of them worn. Some of these faces had altered the path of history. Their names were stripped off now, their carved faces cracked by rain and time. All these Emperors and Generals, brought low by entropy and death… back when Death had some semblance of order.
They jumped over a stream of water as they approached the garden of statues. Chenzira an Shut smiled… or tried. He had not fared well since their last encounter. Though his eyes still glittered and half his face was pale and beautiful, the other half had melted in scars that shone like enamel, dripping down his neck into the darkness of his robe.
“It’s always fire with you,” Theoren said.
Da’at looked offended. “It was an accident!”
“What, all three times?” he retorted.
“I can see where Billy gets it from,” she smirked, then guilt passed over her face.
Theoren smiled sadly. “I think I got it from him, really.” They slowed, twenty feet away. “Thank you for letting me do this.”
“Be careful, old man,” she murmured. Da’at stepped forward, dancer delicate, fanning the falling cinders from her face. “Hello, Chen.”
Theoren followed suit and bowed formally, palms together at his forehead. “Greetings again, Chenzira an Shut,” he said. “And to your company,” he added, nodding towards his disciples. He gestured to the black sky. “Nice weather we’re having.”
“THANK YOU,” boomed the golem. Above thunder rumbled in the coal-bright clouds.
Chen smiled and said nothing. Theoren could see that his lips were sewn shut with black thread. His nostrils were flared in impatience, but he held his court poise and bowed deeply. One hand was pale and immaculately manicured. The other was an evil-looking black iron claw.
“You look well,” Theoren commented. “I heard the Matron had fallen on hard times because of this Dark War. It is good to see you so… ambidextrous.” Da’at elbowed him in the ribs.
The golem’s thick plate jaw had hinged open with a high-pitched screech. “HIS SERVICE TO THE MATRON HAS ENDED. WE ARE FREE TO PURSUE HIS STUDIES WITHOUT OBLIGATION. ALL IS WELL,” its voice crackled. The automaton was eight feet tall and must have weighed two tons of the same black iron as Chen’s new hand.
Despite that, Theoren kept his eyes on Chen’s face, half flawless marble and half melted wax. “Will you speak with us? I do not know your compatriot and will not deal with him,” Theoren said. Chen’s sewn lips twitched, but remain closed.
“THE MATRON’S SECRETS MUST REMAIN SAFE. THUS, I AM THE VOICE OF CHENZIRA AN SHUT. DOES OUR AGREEMENT STAND?” the golem blared.
Da’at glanced at Theoren, who hesitated. The old man looked between the Unborn and the golem, weighing events in his head. He turned to Da’at and nodded. She stepped forward. “First the hostage,” Da’at demanded.
“FIRST,” it countered, “THE TOWER.”
Theoren studied Chen and the automaton both, thrown off from having to read two bodies for deception. “He means to honor the agreement,” he murmured to her. “I think we can trust him.”
Da’at hesitated, then unslung her bag. From it, she removed an exact replica of the tower at the outermost gates of Homlan. Delicate gold trim, varnished rosewood and clicking brass cogs marked it as Faework. “This is one door of many that the Fae have built across the continent,” Da’at said. “The mistake you must not make is to think they lead to one another. They do, but they also lead to themselves. Each door opens a thousand ways.”
Chen’s disciples murmured amongst themselves, their voices muffled by the scarves and veils around their faces.
“If the worlds were an endless song,” Theoren added, “Then each door may be a verse, a word in that voice, an intonation of word. The meaning of the song will change and you may change with it.”
“WE KNOW THE NATURE OF THE TOWERS. WE WILL CONFIRM YOUR HYPOTHESES WITH OUR OWN STUDIES. OUR AGREEMENT STANDS.” The body bag dangled in the air like bait. Theoren thought he saw movement in the bag, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Here it is,” Da’at said. She clutched the intricate model to her chest.
Chen frowned. He held out his hands and his claw clicked open with clockwork precision. Da’at continued to hesitate.
“OUR AGREEMENT STANDS,” the golem repeated. His hips began to whirr and the arm holding the body bag began to spin away from them…
“Wait!” Da’at yelped. The golem clanked to a stop. She loosened her embrace of the Homlan Outer Gates Tower. “This is just the one Tower,” she warned. “No matter which turn you make, the Fae will send you back to Homlan until you’ve earned the others.” She held it out, barely trembling. “Time passes differently there, and the price he asks for each small favor is high.”
“WE HAVE ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD,” Chen’s golem replied. Chen’s eyes glittered and he took the tower from her arms and cradled it like a child. His smile was so wide Theoren could see the black thread pull at his lips like fishhooks. He held the Tower up to his golem, who delicately pinched it between its giant forefinger and thumb, and opened a space in its chest where it stowed the Tower.
Theoren spoke up. “What are you planning to do there?” he asked.
Chen turned to Theoren, a gleam of long-awaited victory in his eyes. “FLESH WILL ROT,” the titan declared behind the Unborn mage. “IRON WILL RUST. CHENZIRA WILL LIVE FOREVER.” The titan’s chest slammed shut and locked with a whirr and a click.
“Ugh, gross,” Da’at muttered.
Theoren nodded in agreement. “May he wander Faetown forever.”
Chen’s ears twitched. Theoren barely noticed before Chen snapped his claw, and the golem spun on its hip axis with a clunk, and its arm descended smoothly to the ground, depositing the body bag. “OUR AGREEMENT STANDS.”
Theoren watched Chen untie the knots delicately, a taut frown on his face. Despite the heavy metal hand, he worked with surprising deftness. From all around them the broken statues seemed to stare at them. Finally, Chen pulled the bag open and yanked Dallia Iceheart out by his hair. His iron claw clamped shut on Dallia’s throat.
Theoren quickdrew his bow in a heartbeat, a burning arrow nocked. He focused between the eyes of the Unborn and growled, his feet firmly planted.
“Let him go free and unharmed,” Da’at said calmly. “That’s what we agreed to, right?”
Chen scowled, then winced as a stitch pulled open. He opened his claw, dropping Dallia’s head hard onto the ground. The sewn lips pursed eerily in Chen’s burnt face. A musty white tongue snaked out, trapped by the stitches, and licked the black ichor away. He gave a shallow bow, and backed away.
Theoren lowered his bow but kept the arrow nocked, but Da’at was already sprinting to Dallia’s limp body. She kneeled in the dirt and pulled Dalia’s naked body from the bag. She shook him frantically. Theoren couldn’t see any wounds. He couldn’t see any signs of life, either. He started walking forward, his arrow pointed low. His bowstring taut. A flash of guilt went through him: This was his fault.
He saw Da’at shake Dallia again. His arms flopped limply. She let out a wail and threw her arms around him. She whispered into Dallia’s ear. Theoren couldn’t make out what it was. But then… The young Iceheart’s arms flew up and returned Da’at’s embrace, and a squeal of joy escaped the acrobat as she squeezed him hard. Relief blew through Theoren like a breeze on a hot day.
“Marwa?” Dallia asked hoarsely.
“I promised,” Da’at replied, “no one could hurt my family.”
Dallia closed his eyes. “Thank you,” he said. He made to say something else, but the words escaped him. “Thank you,” he said again.
“THE CONTRACT HAS BEEN FULLFILLED,” the titan declared.
Da’at rolled her eyes, and put her arm under Dallia, supporting his weight. “You know the drill, right?” she asked, grunting.“Sure,” Dallia grinned. “Stick close and don’t make a sound.”
Theoren’s hands were shaking. The arrow quivered in his hand, the bowstring taut with power. Chenzira was walking away, his disciples trailing behind him.
“I propose a new agreement!” Theoren shouted. He aimed his arrow high, almost to the sky. “Lead us to Billy Buttery. Show us the way to Elreth’s throne, and help us stop him so you may have a world to return to. You were our ally once! Be one again!”
Chenzira looked over his shoulder, intrigued. His titan spoke for him. “WE ARE AGREEABLE TO DELIVERING YOU. THERE IS AN ADDENDUM.”
The ash was falling in drifts now, hitting the ground like siege stones in slow motion, each impact rolling out in waves. Theoren couldn’t see back to the great stone stair on which they ascended. In fact, he could barely see Chenzira, save for the fingers of both hands moving rapidly in strange patterns…
Theoren screamed: “Da’at, get back!”
The ground shook with every step of the iron titan. “FIRST, YOU DIE.”
Above the clouds. Lightning jumps from the cumulus to the cumulonimbus.
In the distance, plumes of smoke break through the clouds like swirling black weeds. Great white feathered wings flap powerfully against the hot rushing air. Coraline de Valcœur glides through rough winds with the grace of a predator bird. The wind blows through her fine tailored clothes, but neither cravat nor epaulette comes loose. The tail of her coat flaps wildly as she sweeps from opening to opening across the landscape of dark clouds, glancing down and searching the landscape for the span of a sharp breath before swerving away.
Then she spots it – a flaming arrow shot upwards from the Stony Stair. So the deal went south, she thinks. She can’t help but grin. Figures.
She rolls her shoulders up and her flight curves upward on the currents. She tilts her wings and her climb becomes steeper and steeper until her horizontal speed slows to a crawl and she stalls in the wind, wings spread to their limit.
For the span of a breath, she savors the view. From this vantage point she can see even the edges of the storm, touching the shores of both the Merchant’s Sea and the Inner Sea. How peaceful it all looked, up here – how profound the silence, how radiant the sun. How she wishes she could fly forever, face upturned, sword sheathed, with Love – and only Love – in her heart.
But who is she kidding? She pulls her wings in, tucked close against her form, and begins to fall.
She loves this part.
Thick smoke mixing with mist concealed the horizon. Henri couldn’t see more than ten feet in any direction, so he stayed close to Mordiah and – Saints above – kept his back to the mercenary’s. The granite soldier and the marble senator pressed their attack.
Mordiah whirled his mace into the armpit of the granite statue and it stumbled backwards, cracks spreading through its shoulder. “Tapdancin’ ponies, Henri,” he shouted over his shoulder, “a little help’d be appreciated!” The stone soldier’s eyes flashed white! and it reached up and ripped off its injured arm. It hurled it at Mordiah in a swarm of razor sharp rubble.
From Mordiah’s left, Henri’s sword snapped in like a snake and deflected it away. Suddenly, Henri had pivoted on one foot to stand in front of Mordiah, bringing the Terrien’s swirling woad tattoos inches from his face. The granite shards pinged off of the back of Henri’s armor.
“Thanks,” Mordiah muttered.
Henri grunted. The Terrien spun back around and blocked a roundhouse kick from the marble senator with his sword arm, then slammed his shield into its face, cracking its nose off. Henri pulled his shield back in close. “Don’t break formation until we see Da’at!” he shouted.
“Easy for you t’say,” Mordiah replied as they circled and switched opponents. “You got phalanx trainin’.” He lunged forward and thrust his mace into – and through – the chest of the noseless senator. White dust filled the air and the light died in its eyes. “Yes!” he bellowed. He pulled his mace back and spun on his heel, shouldering Henri aside. With both hands, Mordiah swung his mace from the ground upward and – crack! – knocked the granite statue’s head off its shoulders and spiraling into the distance. “Yes!” he roared. He saw movement in the smoke ahead and squinted.
“Nooooo,” Mordiah groaned.
A dark robed disciple emerged from the smoke. “Wathanni,” he hissed. His hands conducted the symphony of stone and marble. Three ivory Emperors, twelve feet tall, stomped out from the clouds of ash, light streaming from their eyes like search beacons.
A soft voice slipped into their ears. “Darlings,” Sophia’s voice whispered, “you might want to get out of the way.”
“Throw them back!” Henri commanded. They locked shoulders, Mordiah with his mace held at both ends and Henri behind his shield. The statues moving towards them were met with a violent shove to their knees, and they stumbled backwards to regain their balance. “Now retreat!” Henri shouted.
The two of them managed to take ten steps back before three clear streams of force punched through the clouds of ash, swirling the clouds into spiral coils that then scattered in a gust of air. The magic missiles struck each statue in the chest, cracking their stone skins open and sending beams of hot white light streaking erratically through the dust storm. Shrapnel flew every which way and Henri winced as a chip sliced his cheek to the bone. He felt the blood spill down his face onto his neck.
“Sawf tamut, wathanni,” the disciple spat. “Awamir Chenzira!”
“I don’t speak none o’ that Bad-ick, whoreson,” Mordiah shouted.
“They’re still standing, Sophie,” Henri warned.
“Damn,” Sophia said. “I can’t see you anymore! Hold on, I’ll be there soon.”
“Wait! Who’s with Da’at…?“ Henri scowled. “Atsuko?”
“Busy!” the Katese replied curtly.
Henri watched one of the Emperors push itself up from the ground. He shoved Mordiah hard. “That way,” he ordered. “Find Da’at and protect her.”
Mordiah shouldered him back. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere, son,” he said in a low voice.
Henri fumbled at his belt with his sword hand, then tossed his purse to Mordiah. “That’s thrice your fee,” Henri growled. “Now that’s an order.”
Mordiah looked at Henri strangely. The curses of the disciple filled the air, and the ground rumbled as the marble Emperors returned to their feet.
“Go!” Henri roared. “Run, you cretin!”
He watched Mordiah stumble away until the mist took him. It didn’t take long. When he turned around, all three ivory Emperors were standing, skin cracked and eyes blazing. They stood ten feet tall each, muscles sculpted from stone. The ground cracked from their footsteps. He gritted his teeth and ran – ran – towards the closest statue and thrust his blade up! Henri buried his blade up to the hilt into its ivory gut.
The Ivory Emperor shone his eyes down into Henri’s sweaty face. It raised its hand as if to wave, before it crashed down and shattered Henri’s arm.
Mordiah slid to a stop and whipped his head around at Henri’s scream. White and gray swirled in every direction. The erratically moving light of the Emperors was still visible, and the echo of Henri’s howl hung in the air. In the distance he could hear something pinging off a metal frame, and Da’at’s familiar shouting.
Ugh, a moral dilemma. Pacer would know the profitable thing to do, he thought. Hell, even Jerky could have pulled him in one direction or another. He scrunched up his nose and thought hard… then brightened. He pulled out a coin from Henri’s purse – a silver coin from Terre des Sept. He flipped it into the air… and it came down tails. Mordiah shrugged as he tucked the coin into his pocket. “Sorry, hombre.”
Henri’s shield clattered onto the ground and the Emperors grabbed onto his breast plate as one, and lifted. His eyes widened as his feet left the ground. Other hands wrapped their fingers around his pauldron and cuisse, and pulled hard. Henri grappled with the cluster of limbs but felt the leather straps under his armor straining to their limit. He grabbed at the sword stuck in the Emperor’s belly, but then an open hand hit him like a sledgehammer and the world spun. The leather straps snapped, and his breastplate was ripped away, thrown spinning out of sight.
“Need help,” he grunted.
“Atsuko, where the Stars are you?!” Sophie’s voice hissed.
“Busy!” Atsuko replied.
He felt a cold hard arm slither into his mail-shirt, yanking it loose. “Sophia!” Henri bellowed. He pushed and pulled against the three Emperors to no avail. An fist came hammering down and broke his ribs on his left side. “Da’at!” Henri cried. No one answered. Only the Emperors of Homlan, their fiery eyes blazing in judgement. Blackness crept into the corners of his vision.
Another blow to his ribs – Henri felt them splinter and pierce his lungs. Blood bubbled up his throat. “Daaaa’at! Help!” he howled. Blood sprayed into the air. Droplets settled on his face. “Da’at, where are y-!”
It struck his face like a boulder. Teeth tumbled to the back of his throat, and he choked as blood rushed into his lungs. He was still awake. He could still fight. He could still fight.
The Emperors pulled tight on his legs and his broken arm, then tightened their grips until the bones were crushed to powder.
The Emperors raised their three fists in tandem.
“Kuh… K-KAY—!!” Henri screamed.
A mace flew from the edge of Henri’s vision, and bounced off an Emperor’s head with a shower of dust. They turned their heads, fists still raised. Mordiah was charging bowleggedly from out the mist and smoke. “Put ‘im down, you sons of bitches!” he hollered. He smashed into an Emperor’s leg and wrapped his arms around its knees. “The bigger they are…” Mordiah shouted. He headbutted its kneecap and immediately howled in pain, clutching his unprotected skull.
The Emperors paused to process, then one of them released Henri’s arm and peeled Mordiah off its knee. It lifted Mordiah up to its face, examining him like an insect. Mordiah saw Henri looking at him and grinned. He held out both hands with his thumbs up. Then he plunged those thumbs into the Emperor’s glowing eyes. “Ahahaha!” Mordiah laughed. “There’s a sight for sore eyes!”The statue stumbled back. Light shot and erratically from its face. It reeled Mordiah back and pitched the mercenary like a ball. Mordiah streaked through the air but before he could crash, a queer wind caught him and he floated, feather light, to the ground. Took you long enough, Henri heard him growl into his ear.
“Had to find the cavalry,” Sophia whispered.
Then the Emperor exploded.
Lightning struck struck into its chest and sent a shockwave of heat and air rushing over Henri’s face. Light filled his vision and the world went silent. Pain coursed through his body but he felt a peace wash over him. He thought of the smell of Caelwich’s hair on a summer day. “It would be an injustice to let those rugged good looks of yours go to waste,” he heard his memories whisper. Henri felt himself smile. This was it, then. This was his limit. Caelwich’s face emerged from the light.
Caelwich’s lips moved, but his voice seemed to be moving through water. Henri felt a painful longing – he craved it, the tone and timbre of their native tongue, thick with honey and love, spoken by the man who knew him best.
But what about Elreth and his Reapers? Justice awaited them for this Dark War. What about Billy Buttery, who had laughed at him last they met? He remained unjudged. But, here with Kay… in the fields of their childhood… none of it seemed to matter. It was his time, then. Saints forgive him, someone else must fight now.
Caelwich slapped him.
“Wh.. What was that for?” Henri demanded.
“You great, handsome fool!” said the prince in his svelte voice. “What about Da’at?”
“What about her?” Henri retorted. “She’ll get on. She always does.”
“But,” Caelwich protested, “you love her.”
Sound rushed back in. A distant whine filled his head. Pebbles fell from the sky like rain, clattering onto the ground and his broken face. The pungent smell of ozone filled the air. Burning black clouds swirled in the sky like coiling snakes made of coal and ember. Henri felt the cold stone of the courtyard against his back. He turned his head.
The clouds had broken open and a single beam of sun pierced the ash and smoke, like a spear thrown from the Heavens. Coraline de Valcœur slid down the sunbeam, her wings unfolded to a span of fifteen feet. A halo of light outlined her hair and left her face in shadow.
“I am Love,” she sighed, and the voice rustled softly from every direction. Henri felt his hair stand on end. The pain in his lungs lessened and thoughts of Caelwich and Da’at filled his heart.
“Shaytan!” the disciple screamed. “Shaytan alssabea!”
“Of the Seven, yes,” Coraline returned. “But not a demon. I am your mother’s love, Hassan Hajar.” A surge of silence shot out from her, clearing the ground of ash of shrapnel. “She looks to the west every day, watching for your return.”
Henri could see Mordiah and Sophia watching in awe. Henri turned his head. On the other side the two remaining Emperors stood guarding the disciple. The dark robed priest had sprawled quivering onto his back. “Alssalam ealaykum,” he cried.
Coraline smiled. “And unto you.”
The two Emperors were unmoved. Bound to their master’s standing orders, they lumbered forward. With great effort, Henri turned his head again.
Mordiah and Sophia stood ready, backlit by Coraline’s glow. “You have the Favor of the Saints, my friends,” Coraline murmured, and Henri felt her strength fill his heart.
Mordiah lunged forward, stooping to grab his mace from beside Henri. “This stuff s’better’n hot whiskey!” he whooped, nose still bleeding, and leapt over Henri. Sophia circled around past Henri’s head, a staff appearing impossibly from the sleeves of her robes. He wanted to watch them fight, but he couldn’t lift his head. He became suddenly aware his head lay in a pool of blood. He closed his eyes.
He could feel her presence. Waves of warm comfort washed over him like the shallows of a calm summer sea. A lone finger touched his forehead and her voice echoed in every cavern of his heart.
Would that all could love as fiercely as you do, Knight of Justice, she breathed into his mind. Je guérir vos blessures, mon chevalier. Go to her.
He felt a sword – his sword – being pressed into his mended hand.
Go with the Grace of Love.
Through the clouds of ash Atsuko Tsurii went charging, head bent forward and arms crooked out behind her. A red silk sash streamed behind her, wrapped around her mouth and tied at the back of her head. Her black gi flapped as her feet blurred over the ground. She swept her senses across the clouded courtyard, searching for life energy.
A dark qi pulsed and Atsuko turned a sharp left. Out of the swirling cinders a priestess of Chenzira appeared, her back to Atsuko, head turning left and right, searching for foes.
Henri’s voice reverberated in her ear. “Who’s with Da’at…? Atsuko?”
“Busy!” she replied. Atsuko threw herself into a slide towards the dark robed priestess. “Surprise Strike!” she cried, and when one foot was under the robes of the disciple she swept her right leg around, and thrust her palm against the back of the disciple’s head. It smashed the woman’s face into the hard stone ground and Atsuko quickly broke her neck.
There was a time Atsuko could not so easily take a life. William Buttery had changed that. There were some nights when she thought would spend her twilight years searching for redemption, like Noriko-san had when she left them. Most nights she figured she would end her life in dishonor, as Minoru did in Shufu, days after Da’at-sama and the others returned her to her fiancé.
She came upon his body on their wedding night but did not weep. She remembered thinking: “So the marriage did not lift his burdens after all,” and thought so with disdain. She thought this because Minoru had never seen her as Atusko Tsurii but always as a means to his ends. He imagined that marriage would put the hardship behind them, that an obedient wife and perhaps a child would return things to as they were before the fire at Tsurii Manor.
The end of his life grew from his final disappointment in her, that she would not let his standards of who she should be define who she truly was – the eldest daughter of a proud family; the heir to a dark ancestry; a headstrong woman defiant of marriage; now an orphan in disgrace. She was a woman who resented being engaged to a man so defined by tradition that he had no will of his own.
She had kneeled next to his bleeding body and mouthed the prayers, but the fire at Tsurii Manor had dried her of tears. She remembered pulling the ornate tantō from Minoru’s belly and pressing the tip against her own. Her hands were calm and still. This was what she wanted…
But she did not do it. Her family and servants were all dead, as was her fiancé. There was no one left to mourn her and that did not sit well with Atsuko. If she was to die, she would die well-loved.
Atsuko performed her final duties. She put on her white kimono and wet Minoru’s cold lips with the water of the last moment. She made elegant conversation with the clerk who recorded the details of Minoru’s death. “We should meet for tea at the next new moon,” Atsuko suggested, but did not listen when the clerk told her where they should meet.
She sat helping Minoru’s body in passing the night in her black kimono, burning incense and offering gifts to the guests. Minoru’s mother had not come, such was his disgrace to the Magoru family, but his favourite cousin came in a veil. Atsuko laughed with her of happier times, then spoke vaguely of matters of the grave. “I should like colourful flowers on my shrine,” Atsuko remarked, and she did not listen to the cousin’s reply.
Finally she burned Minoru, picked his bones from the ashes and dropped them into his urn, along with six coins for his crossing of the three rivers. She placed it in the Maguro family shrine and a young gravekeeper stood with her as she placed the only flowers anyone would ever place on Minoru’s grave. She surprised him with a kiss and left him holding his cheek in awe. “Wait for my return,” she told him, but did not answer when he asked when.
There, she had thought. A friend to miss me, family to mourn me, and a suitor to think of me into his emeritus.
She travelled away from Shufu. Atsuko had wanted to see the sea that Da’at-sama had sailed away on. She wanted to dream of the other worlds that lay outside Katei, worlds where she could perhaps have been happy. She did not want to think of her father’s face shriveling into charcoal, nor did she wish to waste her heart’s strength on her late husband, whose featureless face was already fading from her mind.
Storm season hit full stride the night she reached the shore, and the bargeman tried hard to talk the widow out of her trip. He had known many widows make this trip to the pagoda lighthouse. Atsuko had no qualms giving him what remained of her fortune, though she kept six coins (for the crossing of the three rivers). The bargeman had a hungry family and knew the storm would keep him from plying his trade for many more days. “You will not have to wait,” she reassured him, “nor return,” but he already knew this.
The lighthouse with the pagoda rooftop was far from Shufu’s coast. Water tumbled off its upturned tiles in streams. Drenched with rain, she entered the modest stone entrance, ducking her head. As she climbed the lighthouse steps, she shed the weights the world had chained upon her: the heavy dignity, the binding honour, all the layers of silence and humility that insulated her from the world. She wanted to be as a butterfly, whose only responsibility was to live beautifully in the world, and prayed to the kami they would bring her back as such a one.
When she stepped onto the lighthouse balcony, the sky was clear and the world was dry and still. She looked out past the railing to the endless North Sea. The fires of the beacon burned hot and bright behind her. More stars than she had ever seen sparkled next to a happy moon. The wind blew through the holes in her soul and played a song she did not recognize – the song of herself, lost these twenty years.
In one sense she wanted kill herself… but not as Minoru did – out of shame and weakness. She wanted to die in defiance, cursing the world that had bound her in clothes she did not wish to wear. They wanted perfect cleanliness, so she tore her hair free. They wanted silence, so she sang and screamed to the stars and sea. They wanted her to serve them forever, so…
She climbed up onto the railing and let the wind hold her aloft. She stood embracing chill night and roaring shore, steeling herself against the wind’s cold kiss. When it calmed, she would fall.
“That’s excellent balance you have there,” Billy had said from behind her, and she had slipped. Lightning quick, her hand found his and she stared up at him. The wind howled at his scarred face, and the sea beat the rocks beneath them. Moonlight struck his clouded eye and made it seem like glass – but it was not. The lighthouse beacon passed over his back, and retreated as it revolved away. The world seemed to cry: He does not belong here.
“I don’t mean to intrude, Atsuko-san,” he said gravely. “If you wish to fall, you need only let go of my hand.”
She found her grip tightening. “I don’t want to die,” she confessed.
He had smiled his scarred smile. “Then, would you like to help kill Lord Daitora?”
“Atsuko, where the Stars are you?!” Sophie’s voice hissed.
“Busy!” Atsuko repeated. She drew Torakira – Tiger-Killer – silently and quickly. She focused her qi sense and locked onto the disciples aura, and leapt into the air. Her katana sliced through the smoke as she flew in a long impossible arc, just shy of fifty feet. She felt the poppy tea roaring in her blood. The ground rushed up to meet her and the two dark robed disciples – one lean, one fat – appeared at the last moment – swinging their curved daggers at her.
“True Strike!” she roared against the wind, and when she landed Torakira severed the thin man in half. The disciple’s eyes were wide in surprise as his waist split in two.
The other disciple was a heavy woman hooded in dark purple. “Dukhan!” she screamed, and she sliced her curved dagger at Atsuko.
“Snake Strike!” Atsuko called out, and her left hand drew Umashakkin – Debt-to-Horse – and feinted freely at the fat priestess, whose twisted dagger moved to block her wakazashi – but it cut only empty air. She had flipped Umashakkin in her hand, and cut off the disciple’s hand with a backstroke. Before the wakazashi had been resheathed, Atsuko was already gone, watching from the thick smog.
To her credit, the priestess did not scream when wounded. Instead, the dark haired girl clutched her stump and conjured: blood flowed into the air like wind blown silk ribbons. “Return, my friend!” her voice shook. “Animate!” The bloody strings attached to her comrades severed body and stitched them together… then pulled the corpse to its feet, standing crooked and puppetlike.
“Please,” the disciple yelled into the smoke. “Let me escape – I’ll flee, I swear – I just want to go home and bury him!”
“Arrughhh…” the dead man groaned.
The fat disciple spun, searching for Atsuko’s shadow in the smoke. “I didn’t want this!” she shrieked into the air. “Chenzira promised us his Eternity!” Atsuko’s misdirection made sure Chen’s disciple faced the wrong way. Atsuko flitted behind her and sliced her hamstrings through her robes. Chen’s priestess fell to her knees, screaming in agony.
The zombie groaned and staggered toward Atsuko. She could not hide her life energy from him so she stepped out of the smoke, and slid two fingers along the back of Torakira. For this to work, you must think happy thoughts, she remembered Billy saying, and fought off a smile. “Disrupting Weapon,” she murmured, and it shimmered to a blinding white. She walked slowly forward.
“Gak,” the zombie spat.
Atsuko slid the katana into him softly and watched the glow ripple out from the sword and with a whoomph, vaporize the zombie into exploded dust.
Chen’s remaining disciple struggled to remain on her knees. She whimpered into her chest: “Dukhan, I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “Forgive me. Please, mistress of the red cloth, let me free.”
The tip of Torakira touched the woman’s chin. “Look at me.”
The Badik’s brown eyes were wide and wet. She was seventeen. Maybe younger. A tattoo of two hands joined was freshly scabbed under her left ear. “I beg you,” she mumbled. Snot ran down her trembling lips.
“Would you have spared me,” Atsuko asked softly, “had I begged you so?”
Atsuko wrenched her sword free from the girl’s neck and dodged the squirt of arterial blood. Yes, Billy had changed her. But he had also freed – or helped her to free – Atsuko Tsurii. Of her bonds to Katei, to men and mankind, even to himself.
He had driven Da’at away with his anger and Noriko with his silence. Even Atsuko could not forgive him, when he murdered Da’at to bring Theoren back to life. He had taught her this: “Suffer what there is to suffer.” But perhaps he enjoyed the suffering: the impossible ideals, the masochistic missions, the stubborn savior complex that convinced him that he alone knew how to save the world.
She had loved him fiercely for that, hadn’t she? She could scarcely remember.
All that remained of the world she came from now was Torakira, Umashakkin, and her. She had killed the tiger, and had paid her debt. After this, perhaps she would find the lighthouse again, and let the wind decide which way she fell.
INSERT SATISFYING CONCLUSION TO THIS FIC HERE