The Fallen Times
Fic - Epitaph Five
The sun at last touched the horizon, and Atsuko lay curled up with Eko on the crest of Stable Hill. Mustang lay in the grass beside them and puzzled over Noriko’s note. “There has to be more to the message than this,” he complained. He held it up against the fading sun, but no signs of invisible ink or hidden instructions revealed themselves.
Eko purred deeply as Atsuko scratched his head. “Lady Noriko is bold and true,” she remembered fondly, “but subterfuge and the clandestine arts are our weapons, not hers.” Her eyes were closed, and her skin glowed white and orange in the twilight. “Lord Eko is here, she cannot be far behind. His wisdom shall guide us.” She buried her face into the scruff of Eko’s neck, gathering the tiger around her.
Mustang stood up abruptly, but neither Eko nor Atsuko turned to look at him. “He’s just a cat,” he said dismissively.
Eko looked up sleepily, one eye open, and Atsuko laughed. “The tiger cares little what the wild horse thinks,” she observed, in Katese. Then she shrugged and patted Eko’s sides. “There is more on Heaven and Earth than even my lord can dream of,” she said.
The sky was deepening in colour, and the last beams of the retreating sun struck across the sky in spears. “Now that Theoren is returned,” he thought aloud, “my debt to Elreth is due.” Mustang began to pace, his demon mask dangling at his hip. “That bugger Frank will come for me soon… but if Noriko has forged the Godslayer, we can put both him and his master to rest!” Mustang clenched his fists. “The Blade changes everything,” he said, more softly. “We have a fighting chance now.”
“My Lord may consider visiting the Towers,” Atsuko offered. The curtain of evening finally fell, and night began to creep in.
Mustang’s face hardened. “Not for all the tea in Shufu,” he grimaced. “I lost eight bloody months last time I went in there.”
“You did,” Atsuko countered, “but in the weeks we gave to Bright Eyes, Saladin held.”
“After he murdered Earl,” Mustang muttered.
Atsuko rolled her eyes. “He’s just a bird,” she teased. Eko snorted, licked his nose and set his head onto his paws. Atsuko shifted over, and patted Eko’s side. “Please, Lord William. If the stars may cease to burn, let us enjoy them while they shine.”
Mustang sighed. He was tired. And this was the last night before he and Atsuko would ride out – to Shufu, or to Tachd. He laid down onto Eko, felt the tiger’s thunderous heart drumming beneath his sore and aching back. Atsuko put her arm around him, and they watched the stars wink in slowly.
“Do you think Lady Da’at is up there?” Atsuko asked quietly.
“No,” Billy replied.
It was five years ago, and he was at the crow cage. Sophia’s whispers were in his ear, but he ignored them. Claudine cyphered to him, We’ll always have Egalité. But Claudine had never known cypher. And he had never been to Egalité… not then.
Sophia was watching and Da’at was listening, but Claudine drew him into the cage. The door closed behind him, and Earl fluttered onto a roof nearby. She leaned in close, brushed her lips against his ear, making him uncomfortable as she always did. “Don’t I hate you right now?” he asked her, confused.
Yes, she cyphered with a sigh. Claudine put her hand on his chest. Suffer what there is to suffer, she whispered. She moved her hand down, sending cold shivers through his body. Remember Egalité, she breathed.
“Stop,” he said.
“Billy!” Atsuko cried. Eko roared, shocking Mustang out of his dream. He ached all over, and he was cold. “Billy, wake up!”
He blinked, and looked around. “What’s wrong?”
Atsuko was crying, her porcelain face streaked with tears. “The stars,” she shouted. “The stars are wrong!”
Mustang looked up. The sky looked much the same, to him. He looked back at Atsuko quizzically. She took a deep breath and pointed to several points at the star-splattered sky. “The constellations have changed, the omens are all wrong,” she said through her teeth. “The Pillars have shifted, and their storylines with them…” She was shaking. “There is an upheaval in Heaven, Lord William. We should never have challenged them.”
“Calm down, Atsuko,” Mustang began.
The panicking woman drew her wakizashi in one smooth breath, and Umashakkin glittered in the starlight. Mustang stepped back. “Look,” she said, frustrated. Mustang looked.
Umashakkin and Torakirā was forged from the steel Billy and Atsuko had gathered from the ashes of her home outside Shufu – the place where their fathers had died. There had begun their journey across the continents, sacrificing friends and family and selves to bring about the end of Elreth from within. Noriko had worked the smithy for thirty days to purify the blackened slag of Theoren’s arrowheads and the Tsurii family katanas, and another thirty to temper that steel into Torakirā and Umashakkin.
So it was with horror that Billy watched the shining, perfect blade slowly lose luster and turn black with burnt rust. Then, when the wind blew, ashes filled the breeze. As suddenly as it had dissolved, Umashakkin was shining again. “Something has happened,” said Atsuko with a tremble in her voice.
His demon mask clicked into place. “Let’s go see the Fae,” Billy said.
Deep within the heart of Stable Hill was Billy Buttery’s secret weapon. It was what made his movements across the world hidden from the Gods and Saints and Kami; what had allowed him and Atsuko to undermine Elreth and his Reapers, what could allow them to warn the One Clan, the Last Legion, or the Gore Brigade of attacks days or weeks or even months before the plans even existed.
Billy had spent the last five years gathering all the pieces slowly. Five years in real time – much more had passed for him. Atsuko had no real idea the cost of tower travel, but then again Mustang didn’t plan to reach retirement anyway.
The two of them, dressed in deep fitted black, rappelled down both sides of the hidden shaft. Above them, the trap door to the barn grew smaller as Mustang and Atsuko descended their silk ropes into the depths of Stable Hill.
“Well, at least you finally get to see the Towers,” Mustang joked.
Atsuko didn’t answer. Mustang knew she had a habit of retreating into herself during trauma – that’s why they could become so close. They respected each other’s distance. Neither of them felt a compulsion to fix the other – they were broken, jagged things, and better for it. Not like with Noriko – Noriko, who had tried desperately to move Billy towards enlightenment to save him from Elreth’s darkness. Noriko, who herself was bound to her own shinigami. Noriko, who served a tiger, and could be as silent as her only counsel. That silence had driven them apart.
Below, torchlight glittered in an opening in the shaft, so Billy pushed hard off the wall. He loosed his grip on the rope and let momentum and gravity carry him faster – diagonally downward – until he hit the precise speed he would need. He closed his grip again, jerking him to a halt in mid-air before swinging forward towards the opening. There were not many people who had the skill to enter the Tower Room, and if Mustang was honest even he had failed the jump a handful of times. Luckily, he did not embarrass himself, and slipped feet first through the narrow window, a foot wide and slightly wider. He felt his hair and hood brush the bottom and let go of the rope. He slipped through like a minnow through coral and landed firmly on his feet, dust rising off the landing mat.
Atsuko came in headfirst, and hit the ground harder before rolling coming to knee. “How does my lord do this every time?” she complained.
“Practice,” Lord William replied with a sly smile. He brushed her off as she stood up, and she smiled at him. He nodded towards the room. “What do you think?” he asked shyly.
Atsuko looked around, eyebrow raised. “It looks like a model toy set,” she said.
And it did. Stretching over the room, resting on several tables pushed together, was a collection of clockwork towers and buildings in miniature were linked together by streets and their own brass and wood extensions. A whirr of clicking emanated from the town, mimicking the buzz of a busy city. Atsuko walked closer, and examined the buildings more closely. She ran her finger along the pagoda rooftop of the Katese lighthouse where William had appeared – years ago – to save her from jumping, and looked up at him.
“Oh yeah,” said Lord William sheepishly. “I didn’t tell you that part, did I?”
Atsuko moved along the edge of the table until she came to the tall shrine to Kalnon that stood in Egalité. It was the only one that was not humming with spinning gears, and its gate was closed and barred. She touched the miniature gate with her finger, but William’s hand closed on her wrist.
“Let’s keep that one closed,” he said. She moved her hand away.
Her lord strided quickly to the end of the room, where an ornate brass cabinet, the size of cathedral double doors, was mounted into the wall. He skipped up the five steps that led up to it and deftly spun several gears hidden in the decorative carvings. A series of arrhythmic clicks followed, until the doors popped open.
They seemed to be mounted on rails, sliding to either side instead of swinging out. Lord William slid one door open to reveal several dozen carved wooden figures. Some were discoloured, others burnt almost black, but he palmed two of them and closed the disproportionately large door too quickly for Atsuko to clearly see.
When he returned, he opened his fist to show her: two wooden figurines in his and her likeness, exquisitely detailed. She picked up Lord William’s and held it to the light. Beneath the demon mask, even his scars and milky eye was represented. “What now, William-sama?” she asked.
He took the figure from her and walked to the Tower Town. “Now, we have to…” He trailed off, and frowned. His eyes widened. “Oh no, you’ve got to be bloody takin’ the fuckin’ piss…” he muttered.
Atsuko watched his eyes darting from one clockwork tower to another. She could see nothing out of place, but she had never seen them at all before. “What is the matter?” she asked.
Ducking underneath the table, he stood up in a space in the centre of the town and turned slowly until he found the gold and oak representation of Stable Hill’s barn. “Look Atsuko – this is not our home as it is,” he said, tapping the building. “It is as it was – before we settled here on Stable Hill.” He turned pointed to the Homlish guard tower farther northeast. “The crenels on that tower were destroyed when we lay siege to Gibodo’s band, but there are as if the battle never happened!”
Atsuko nodded. “It is as this one said, my lord. The storylines are shifting, and the world with it. We to the Heavens as these buildings are to us – change one, and change the other.”
With two fingers of each hand, he tremblingly pulled upwards on the roof of the barn until it rose – quite impossibly – out of the table. Iron walls unfolded and locked themselves into place, and through its diamond spaces Atsuko could see the hidden shaft they had just traveled through within. She heard Lord William sigh with relief. “Just in time then,” he said. “We have to hurry before the Tower Town disappears, or us with it.”
With practiced precision, he slid something open and placed the two figures into a hidden space. He then pushed the barn back down into place, level with the rest of the clicking town and rejoined Atsuko on the outside of the tables. He gripped her shoulder. “No matter what happens,” he warned, “keep me in sight.” He pulled her over to the cabinet and adjusted his leather hood. “Don’t let what you see or hear distress you,” he continued. “Follow me and you’ll be fine… alright?”
Atsuko nodded, her heart pounding.
William walked up the five steps, and gripped the handles and pushed out, sliding them both to the end of their rails. Where she had glimpsed shelves of wood figures there was now a long hallway extending impossibly long. Her lord took several steps in before looking over his shoulder. His voice was muffled, as it always was beneath his oni mask. “You coming?”
“No seriously,” Billy laughed, “that princess is always a bitch. Personally, I’d save the dragon if it ever mattered what I did.”
“This is so strange,” Atsuko said. “Not even the Catacombs defied so readily the laws of reality.”
“You haven’t seen the worst of it,” said Billy. He took a left down a stone hallway, where a series of levers group in threes were paired with barred windows. He peeked through one and pulled the middle lever. Screams emanated from the rooms as he repeated the action down the hallway.
She was almost afraid to ask. “What… what are you doing?”
Billy shrugged. “Paying the toll.”
The tiny man looked up from his carving tools. “Hello,” he said.
“Encounter one hundred and sixty-seven,” replied Billy.
The tiny man turned to Atsuko, his wide eyes placid and unmoved. “What?”
“Ugh,” Billy muttered. “Never mind.” He pulled Atsuko through the next door.
Before she could catch the grinning bastard, William’s arms wrapped around her and pinned her to the wall easily. She watched Daitora slip around the corner, laughing. She tried to fight William off of her. “Easy, Atsuko-chan,” Billy said urgently. “He’s not real!”
“Let me go!” she screamed. “I’ll kill him again if I have to!”
Her lord did not relent. He held fast, until her anger’s flames faded to a coal’s embers instead. “It’s okay, Atsuko-chan – he’s already dead…” her lord murmured. “We made him suffer, remember?”
She did. Sometimes when her burdens were too heavy, the memory of Daitora’s screams were the only thing that lightened her load. She recalled them now. Yes, he was dead. She went limp.
“Muster up your strength of will, Atsuko.” he said, and let her go. “That is not the worst we shall see, by far.”
The tiny man looked up from his carving tools. “Billy!” he exclaimed.
“Encounter number one-hundred and sixty-eight,” Lord William replied tiredly. He and Atsuko had not slept for Gods knew how long, and it was wearing on them. Atsuko could feel the oppressiveness of this place pushing in on her, and the stress was becoming overwhelming. It was not the visions they had seen that bothered her – it was the idea that these events were not illusions, but possibilities. That in another time and place, Atsuko and Lady Da’at would conspire to murder Lord William, or that her lord could ever hate her so much as to throw her off the lighthouse instead of talking her down… these things shook her to the core.
The little man grinned. “Encounter ninety-five, for me!” he said. “How did Egalité go? Don’t tell me,” he continued, “I already know.” He winked.
“Listen, I have some questions,” William began.
“I want dreams and aspirations,” the strange little man interrupted.
William paused. “My aspiration to bring Theoren back to life,” he said.
The man’s eyes went wide, then narrowed in suspicion. He sniffed at Billy. “It’s not an aspiration if you’ve already done it,” he said.
Lord William went back to thinking quietly. Atsuko knew that so much of his life was consumed with bringing down Elreth, none of those motivations could be sacrificed without cost. Atsuko spoke up. “Would this honorable lord accept my dream to be loved?”
Lord William was startled out of his thoughts, looking at her. The tiny man sniffed in her direction. He grinned, showing his teeth. “Loved by whom?” the tiny man asked, though he knew.
She muttered his name, and tried not to look at her lord. The tiny man nodded. “Question?”
She focused on asking precisely. She knew from Lord Billy’s stories it would have to worded carefully. Why have the storylines and the stars changed? But that was two questions… What happened to the storylines? But that wouldn’t tell them how to fix it…
“Where do we go to do what we need to do?” she asked.
Billy laughed annoyingly. The man never did have any etiquette, further evidenced when he patted the small of her back. “Well done, Atsuko,” he said. She stiffened. He was being far too familiar.
The tiny man pointed to the door they had come through. “One left, one right, two lefts, three rights, five lefts, three rights, then pull every third lever on the ceiling. Go through, eight lefts, thirteen rights, twenty one lefts, thirty four rights.”
She bowed. “Thank you, kami-sama.”
On their thirty-third right, Mustang asked, “Are you alright?”
“This one is fine,” Atsuko replied briskly. They were almost there.
“That question was well-phrased,” he complimented, testing the waters. “I have never received such a specific answer from him.” They approached the thirty-fourth right, the smooth stone walls turning sharply in both directions in front of them.
“There exists those who choose to think before they act,” replied Atsuko. She picked up her pace, but after several steps Billy grabbed her arm and stopped her.
“Then perhaps you should not have given up your love so easily,” he said sadly. “We seem to be bearing the consequences.”
“You are,” Atsuko responded. “This one finds she is seeing more clearly.” She shook her arm loose of his grip. “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 rightward. “Then suffer in silence, my lord,” she said. She walked away and took the last right, coming to a stop at the a door with a small viewing slot. 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 against the wall by his throat.
Atsuko turned to Mustang. “Lady Da’at…”
“Let me see,” he said, and pushed her aside. He leaned to the view slot and watched, his face slowly hardening. “We have to leave,” he said, and slid his mask into place.
“Why?” Atsuko cried. “Here is a world where both Da’at and Theoren live! Years before the peak of Elreth’s power, before his Reapers! Crosston may still exist!” she exclaimed, unbelievingly.
Billy shook his head. “It’s not right, dammit,” he replied. “Theoren coming back, before I can lay the stage for him… all our plans…” The Billy inside the room 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 said 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?” He pushed her away from him. “How is that honorable? How is that not cowardly?”
Atsuko fumed, and slid her foot back to assume her Tiger Killer stance. “How dare you speak to me about honor, William.”
That gave him pause. “Atsuko, the worst mistake we could make is to fight each other… especially here, in the Towers.” Even as he said this, his own feet found purchase on the ground and his arms reached out in anticipation.
Atsuko nodded. “So don’t fight me,” she said, and sprung to open the door.
It was a blur of black and silver – His arms came in to grapple her to the wall, but Atsuko’s leg swept under Mustang’s. With lightning reflexes and pinwheel precision he spun onto his hands before whirling his legs around to leglock Atsuko’s neck from behind. She went with his momentum, springing off the balls of her feet to flip backwards, loosening his hold before delivering a decisive blow with her fist to his groin, and he went limp, smashing into the hard stone with his face. His leglock opened. Atsuko cartwheeled over his weakly struggling body back to the door.
“Atsuko,” he gasped. “No…”
She swung the door open… and screamed.