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Monday, July 24, 2017

Courage Looks Like This



What does courage look like?

~~*~~


The Lizard and the Snake
~~*~~
Directly to the east, somewhat hidden by rubble, another approaching line of huge black birds.
To the north and west, too much fallen Temple, too much devastation to see beyond a few hundred feet. But Maggie had no doubt: Conor was being encircled on all sides. A circle with him as the center. A circle whose radius was shrinking with dreadful speed.
And then it dawned on her. The spinning black dust clouds over the ships! The horror of it struck her weirdly, her mind refusing to connect the beings closing the distance now and the image of tens of thousands of them circling slowly, minusculely over their warships like angry swarms of hornets over their nests. Warships annihilated by the furious Mathematician standing just feet from her, who reached behind his head and tore his cape off (the reptiles seemed unaffected by this, as if they were no more than ghosts), tossing it aside.
The first of the giant misshapen bird-things streaked overhead, then fell into a lazy circle under the morose fingers of broken walkways, staring down on him, occasionally uttering piercing, shrieking cries. They looked like mutated vultures from hell, with hooked beaks and long arrowed tails and thirty-foot wingspans. They came in to land, one after the other after the other—
—Flash!—Flash!—Flash!—
—and out of the sparkling aecxal balls stalked huge, hideous creatures, with thick, black, barklike skin, curving rams’ horns, and ... fangs. Glistening fangs. Their arms were overlong and grossly muscled; their legs thick as Conor’s waist. They were at least eight feet tall and armed with broadswords that would take three men to lift. Their immensely broad chests were clad in four-inch-thick brass-colored armor, chinked and blood-stained in spots, the Gyssian symbol prominent in the center. They landed directly in front of him, forty feet away, staring silently with huge yellow cats’ eyes, their bullish visages twisted in hate. The king stood still as a statue, staring back, the lizard and the snake on his shoulders concentrating fully on the Black Coffin’s killers.
More were landing now—lots more: more mutated vultures, giant hairless bats, things that looked like lumpy stingrays, and beings that resembled squashed pit bulls with wings. They’d flash, and out of the dying balls of aecxes were all manner of twisted dark bulks, some with double rows of golden eyes like reflective domes and wiry tufts of bristly gray hair in random patches over their repulsive forms, others like a cross between a monkey and lizard, with deformed faces and long ribbed tails that twitched back and forth in eager anticipation of bloodshed. Beings with open, drooling gray maws lined with yellow teeth and powerful arms ending at razor-sharp claws that clicked together excitedly. Flashes all around her and the Red Talon—rapid, unsynchronized flashes like malfunctioning strobe lights at a disco party. Maggie could hear a low collective rasp rise from the swelling mob as more invaders winged into sight, into aecxal balls, stepping out of them as seemingly every possible shape of stalking, armed evil and bloodthirsty anticipation.
In the midst of them, surprisingly, came seagulls as well, seagulls and terns and pelicans and cormorants and pigeons and a dozen other species of birds that looked familiar but which Maggie had no name for. These were humans after they flashed through, all male, heavily armored and heavily armed, their grizzled faces hidden behind battle masks, the glint from their shadowed eyes flat and dead and distant, their bodies covered in chain maille, clanking and creaking forward. The weapons of war were here, and in great quantities: pikes and lances and maces; war hammers and battle axes and morning stars; swords and knives and daggers of every length. Many were crusted over with blood and dirt. Archers were landing, taking higher positions in the circumferential rubble ringing the contracting circle that Conor Kieran was the center of, fixing their arrows in bows, pulling them back and taking quick aim at him. Through it all he stood motionless, waiting, occasionally glancing left or right, but not bothering to turn around or look up.
Maggie had witnessed all these things in a state of near panic: Conor was surrounded by hundreds of Necrolius’ soldiers; hundreds more filled the finger-clutched air above him, blanketing the sky, casting the throng in a continuous merry-go-round mural of nightmarish darkness and spinning, flickering half light. The malevolent mass was becoming deadly quiet, the circle of space around the King of Vanerrincourt maybe thirty feet. He was completely trapped.
A few moments of deathly stillness.
The first bullish hell-beast to land grunted contemptuously, then came forward two paces, its clawed hand on the two-foot-long hilt of its blood-caked broadsword.
Conor took one more slow glance left, then right, his gaze coming to rest on the beast, whose voice, a deep bass rasp, roared something like:
“HRGHLOCH!”
And Maggie somehow knew the beast had just ordered: “FIRE!”
—Multiple th-th-th-th-thwings!—
She wasn’t sure what happened next; it all took place in under a second. But at the exact same time she caught the rapid motion of multiple streaks closing in on Conor from all sides, he had thrown his fists towards the ground, diagonally from his shoulders, his index fingers pointing rigidly at the courtyard to either side of him, his eyes fixed on the monster—
—The startling sounds of heavy wet sacks striking stone all around her, at the mob’s periphery; armor clinking, grinding; loud growls of outraged surprise and mortal pain—
Silence.
A grin slowly creased the young king’s face. The lizard and the snake on his shoulders cast around at the mob, indifferent. Maggie chanced a glance—
The archers that had taken up positions in the rubble surrounding him had fired—and were dead to a man. They had shot a volley of arrows at him—and had in turn been shot somehow—arrows stuck from heads, from chests, from throats, the bodies motionless save for the pooling or jetting blood issuing from them.
Maggie turned away, sickened—and felt a frightening lurch upward, as though a giant had grabbed her by her neck and lifted her clean off her feet. But she fell back to the courtyard floor, fell very hard, as though her connection to Conor was anchoring her and the invisible giant had to let go.
The invaders’ one-pointed attention fell into complete disarray.
The beast that had ordered the archers to fire noticed this at once and roared, “I-RRTICHA TKOJHEC!—”
—and Maggie knew it had just said, “STAND YOUR GROUND!”
The sounds of confusion ceased instantly.
The beast: “GLOXFFEPH PHTOCC SSSPHI-LRROTKE SSEF EZCH SE’ TYACCCI-F ESHF KHAS!—”
She stared at Conor. The creature had just ordered him to kneel, had ordered his execution (“... BY DECREE OF THE LORD EMPEROR ...”) , had called him “Mathematician-King.” It was nearly as appalling knowing she could somehow translate this hateful being’s language as it was to comprehend what it was saying.
Conor spat contemptuously on the ground and stomped his left foot down, and the entire Temple rumbled as though stricken by an earthquake. Pieces of the reaching fingers of remaining walkways overheard fell around them, crashing loudly, sending blooming clouds of dust and debris back into the sky. The falling fragments crushed some of the flying beings circling overhead, sending the rest into a tighter spiral, blanking out even more light. It was like looking up from the bottom of an ashen funnel cloud in the greedy grasp of Satan himself.
The beast seemed in no way concerned by more loss of life within its ranks—or by the king’s frightening powers. It opened its maw and hissed and rasped and roared at length. Maggie understood it as:
“YOUR POWERS OF----------” Maggie couldn’t understand the word the monster used—“WILL FLAG. AND THEN YOU WILL DIE. IT IS EASY TO DESTROY AT A DISTANCE, MATHEMATICIAN. NOT SO EASY WHEN YOU ARE SURROUNDED BY YOUR ENEMIES. IT IS WE WHO OWN YOUR----------” for some reason that word wouldn’t translate—“NOW. WE HAVE FACED MANY OF YOUR KIND ON THE WAY HERE. THEY ARE ALL DEAD, AS YOU SOON WILL BE DEAD. YOU CANNOT ESCAPE. YOU ARE SURROUNDED FOR AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE. WE ARE UNSOLVABLES. YOU CAN SHAKE THE GROUND AND SEND FIRESTARS AT THE EMPEROR’S  WARSHIPS, BUT YOUR NOTABLE POWERS ARE ULTIMATELY USELESS HERE. WE ARE MANY—YOU ARE ONE. YOU FIGHT AS A MATHEMATICIAN, AS A COWARD. FIGHT ME NOW AS A WARRIOR—AND DIE LIKE ONE.”
Conor Kieran laughed. The sound echoed off the destruction, bounced off the angry sea of Gyssian-stamped armor crowding lustily around him. Like his face had earlier, his laugh made Maggie recoil into herself. For it was tinged with such biting, mocking contempt that it scarcely seemed human. Untouchable. Unreachable.
His Voice sounded in her mind:
Would that your “father” could hear you now, demon, Mathematician that he is. I accept your challenge. But be warned: I am trained in the warrior art of the Daen-Cer-Tain— —
“MATHEMATICIANS ARE A SLOTHFUL LOT. WHY TRAIN AS A WARRIOR WHEN SUCH POWERS ARE AT YOUR COMMAND? AND YET SO MANY OF YOUR KIND IN THEIR FINAL MOMENTS HAVE CLAIMED THIS TRAINING. ALL ARE DEAD NOW,” came the instantaneous understanding of the beast’s (demon’s?) hissing, spitting, and roaring. “WE BELIEVE THERE IS NO SUCH TRAINING,” it went on. “IT IS A RUSE. CAN YOU NOT THINK OF SOMETHING BETTER IN YOUR FINAL MOMENTS?”
— —trained by Malesherbes Quartermane himself.—
The name’s effect was immediate: hushed, awed whispers amongst the humans, quiet, spitting rasps of disgust between the—demons?
The huge monster (demon?—Maggie couldn’t get herself to accept the possibility) roared, and she heard: “MORE SCARE TACTICS. THE HUMAN NAMED QUARTERMANE DOES NOT CONCERN US.” Then: “THE MELANCHTHUS LEGION WILL STAND THEIR GROUND!”
Conor’s angry Voice filled her mind:
What a fool you are, demon. I will fight ye as a warrior, mate: and you will wish I had killed ye as a cowardly Mathematician. And when you are dead, I will cut your Unsolvables to bits like a drunken butcher— —
The demon took two giant strides forward, unsheathing its sword. The noise rang through the dead air, metal on leather, echoing off the rubble, the huge blade swinging up—
At that exact moment Conor lifted his arms, palms up, to shoulder height ...
—The lizard and the snake sparkled out of existence from his shoulders—
... and two very real, very substantial swords appeared in his grasp, the left one a four-foot-long gleaming green blade, arrow straight and banded brown from its midpoint to its glinting tip, the right one longer and slightly curved, with patterned elliptical designs of yellow and reddish brown down the shiny metal. Twin rubies sparkled from each silver hilt.
The demon’s instant of surprise was its first. And its last.
Conor moved once—or what appeared to be only once, it was too swift for Maggie to be sure—and the beast’s broadsword fell in four pieces to the courtyard floor, clanging loudly against it, like plate iron against granite. Maggie had heard a double-swishing hiss-hissssss! when the king moved—she jerked backward uselessly, startled—
He took a single step forward and struck again, this time so fast she could not follow the motion of his arms.
The demon abruptly halted its aggressive forward motion, raised its great horned head to the sky, and gave a shocking, high-pitched, girlish squeal of agony. It shook convulsively, as from a deep chill, and its two massive arms separated cleanly from its mammoth shoulders, falling to its sides with a heavy, wet double-thud. Algae-green blood jetted horizontally from the stumps like evil fountains.
The Melanchthus Legion were completely frozen with disbelief. Their stunned silence left only the sound of cold demon blood as it spattered thickly on the courtyard floor. Maggie’s stomach turned over; she gulped back the fierce urge to vomit just as she felt another violent tugging motion off her feet, another jarring landing.
Conor Kieran calmly approached the squealing monster, which had sunk weakly to its knees, then back on its muscled haunches.
“How I wish,” she heard him say quietly to the huge bull’s head just under his chin, “that all the peoples in all the lands ye’ve slaughtered or enslaved for your filthy emperor could see ye right now ...”
He spun about and raged at the throng: “WATCH, YE GYSSIAN SCUM! AND THEN PREPARE TO DIE!”
He wheeled around, striking in the same motion. The cobrasword in his right hand hissed up then down in a sadistic swooping arc that cleaved the great demon from the crown of its head straight through its body to its crotch. The blade exited the bottom as he twisted away—the green blade hissed, too fast to watch, slicing effortlessly through the beast’s neck, just as the two other demons that had landed initially with this one roared in unison: “KSCHARRAK!—”
—“ATTACK!—”
The king spun around, underhanding the cobrasword straight at the bull-rushing demon who was less than an angel’s breath from having him. The yellow-gleaming blood-banded blade transformed in mid-air back into a snake, wrapping round the beast’s neck, its head fanning up, rising in an S-curve, spitting venom dead-on into the cat’s eyes of the second demon behind it, blinding it, just as this first demon, which was clawing frantically at its snake-strangulated neck, lunged sword-first for the king and found nothing but air—and a shiny four-foot-long green blade hilt-deep in its stomach. Conor reached up behind his head with his other hand for the snake, which was sparkling back into a wicked sword. It uncurled as he yanked down and away on the hilt, and the huge horned head spun like a top off the demon’s shoulders, rolling heavily in front of him, just as a frenzied, screeching, rasping rush of murderous evil converged on the Red Talon from all sides, fell on him from above.
In future times of trouble and strife, of doubt and indecision, Maggie Singleton often recalled what she witnessed next, would replay it in her mind, as it inevitably fueled the courage she needed to make every impossible, overwhelming decision facing her. Because in that moment she knew precisely what was so inhuman about Conor Kieran Faramond Benedictus I, what was so untouchable, so unreachable.
For the King of Vanerrincourt had transformed into a savage singularity of pure, uncompromising will. His training—the Daen-Cer-Tain—had made him lightning-swift, a fearsome black blur hefting hissing blades of death that dropped the first wave of attackers in less than a second, moving so quickly that they became aware that their arms had been cut off, their legs chopped, their heads sliced from their shoulders only in that last terminal millisecond after it had happened, when they went to move and before the pain had time to register, when the daylight sped away from them finally and permanently, when they glanced down and saw that they were falling to bloody stumps, that their sword arm was missing, that they were blind, realizing only then that a gray-yellow blade had just stuck them in their brains, and that they were dying now, falling like all the rest of the onrushers, the warrior before them indeed unreachable and untouchable, inexhaustible, unyielding, unstoppable.
The bodies fell around him, forming a gruesome ring of flesh and bone and spurting red or green blood that was suddenly very difficult to get around, to stand in without slipping, which many of the attackers did. The Black Coffin’s Melanchthus Legion solved that by flashing back into mutated vultures, scaly hairless bats, alarming winged dogs, seagulls and pigeons and pelicans, and dropping straight down on him, flashing as they fell, weapons at the ready, only to find him stepping maddeningly out of the way in the very last possible moment left to him—a continuous serpentine hiss-hiss-hiss! as the lizard and the snake struck, a yellow-green-sparking Pleiades surrounding him, protecting him.... Man and demon fell, one atop the other, their weapons useless, their numbers irrelevant. New archers had joined the melee; they aimed indiscriminately, firing at the black blur, missing, often striking their own, firing and missing, firing volley after volley after volley, goaded on by their superiors, who rasp-shrieked for them to continue, to fly over him and “Flash and fire! Flash and fire!—” who did so, only to suddenly splat face first, dead, to the gore-puddled stone of the courtyard, their own arrows protruding from their chests, from their eyes, or missing their heads, their shooting arms, their hands, their legs.
Maggie had watched this, invisible, a spirit attached to the king somehow, from ten feet away. Time had stopped for her. The demons and humans rushed through her as they swarmed in on him: she felt them pass into the space she occupied. The sensation was revolting: she could feel the blind hatred and, increasingly, the fear of the soldiers as it came to them what they were up against. She would watch them die right in front of her, three, four, six at a time. Some stumbled backwards in their final moments, stumbled back through her, and she could feel their pulse pounding, could feel it falter and weaken, could feel their mortal injuries, could sense past their twisted souls the caustic terror they experienced as the inevitable came for them. These were always the humans, and she cried for them: not just for wading towards Conor weighed down with ridiculously heavy armor, which slowed them even more, but for what they had done to themselves, to their spirits, in order to clad themselves in Gyssian armor and go to war for a vile being such as Emperor Necrolius Anaxagorius. As they passed through her she could feel their fleeting, tortured thoughts of longing, of heartbreak, knowing this was where they would perish, never to see their loved ones again. The king’s blades cut through their armor as though it didn’t exist, as though it were made of air, nothing more. These humans were pathetically no match for him; and as for the demons, though some seemed to beg a novice’s understanding of the mysterious training that made Conor nothing less than a Celtic god, fighting him in groups of eight or even ten, fighting him with great coordinated speed and ferocity, they never lasted more than a few seconds, their swords or pikes or morning stars flying apart, their horned heads next, their malformed bodies mortally gored or cut five times before they even struck the bloody Temple floor. Some of the demons passed through her as they died—and Maggie could feel nothing but alien, ice-cold loathing in them for the human who had just expertly dispatched them.
But the most disturbing, sickening thing of all wasn’t the slaughter she was witnessing, but what she felt change inside her own spirit as she watched it. She had gulped back viscous acidic revulsion once the bloodshed had started; now ...
... Now she understood the look in Conor’s eyes as the boulders had spun into stars. It didn’t frighten her anymore, because she knew her own eyes, were her disembodied soul to have them, would look just as his did. As his looked right now, when the ruthless triangular nebula that was his large form stopped long enough for her to gaze into them. And this was the greatest revulsion to her of all. And with that came a tremendous neck-jarring tug from above, yanking her off the courtyard and into the Gyssian-clogged sky.
It was only then she understood Luis’ last words to her—and why she was floating up.
“No!” she screamed as she rose. “No! I want to watch! Leave me! No! I’m not the same anymore! I want to watch them die!
The grasp of the invisible giant lifting her into the Vanerrincourtian sky disappeared, and she fell fifty feet back to Conor’s side, back through the circling Gyssians, feeling jarring pain in her ankles as she landed, just in time for a thin, high Voice to say in her mind:
Gyssians, stand back.—
The pressing circle of weapons-wielding invaders, as though one integrated unit, fell instantly back three paces, kneeling and bowing their heads. Conor held to his fighting stance—the green sword over his head, the yellow-glinting one diagonally to his side, his legs wide apart and bent deeply at the knee—but glanced up, as if he knew exactly where the omnipresent Voice had come from. Maggie glanced up with him.
Five alarming dragon-like beasts were approaching him, each several times the size of a horse, beasts that were semi-translucent and wingless. They swam gracefully through the air as though it were water, their fifty-foot tails waving like battle standards behind them. Two pairs of dragons followed a single lead, each with a single rider aboard. The lead dragon carried Prince Trajan Chaundran.
Necrolius Anaxagorius’ top henchman floated twenty feet up, almost overshadowing the king, his disdainful, impatient gaze catching Conor’s maniacal glare. Trajan’s entourage were clad in bright red, with long black slits for eyes showing through the flimsy, fluttering cloth. They were winged, their wings naked and also bright red, but Maggie couldn’t be sure it was natural coloring or body paint.
Trajan’s contempt-laced Voice echoed through her being. He said:
Well, well, cousin. Look at you—covered in Gyssian blood. What a display you have put on here today! Dear Aunt Kathlin, may the gods receive her selfless soul, must surely be commended. She did the impossible: she managed to hide you from me, from the Lord Emperor, and, perhaps most surprisingly, from his many Tracluse spies. And for years, no less! And—what powers you have! Thousands of Gyssian sailors dead. Whole dreadnoughts vaporized. On the whole, a most disappointing homecoming for me, I must admit. Quartermane must be very proud of his ever-faithful student, both for his fighting skill and— —a damning sneer lifted his lips— —his o’ so noble adherence to the Oath....
Conor flourished his swords, spattering the nearest Gyssian faces with blood; he flourished them again moments before they sparkled out of existence, the lizard and the snake reappearing on his blood-streaked shoulders. He raised his arms—
I wouldn’t, cousin Aedan. Not before I inform you that your fleeing people have been surrounded by five divisions of the Lord Emperor’s most—shall we say, enthusiastic?—killers just north of the Lower Arrowsquallian Sister. Your pathetic fleet is burning as we speak. I’m so sorry, cousin. There are so many Tracluse among the Vanerrincourtians that your amateurish little plans to save your people were instantly relayed to the Emperor. If you strike me down, there is a standing order to put them all to the sword right down to the newest little suckling. Half a million more deaths will be on your hands, dear cousin. Half a million of your own people. Now lower your arms.
Conor Kieran did as told, though very slowly. His Voice, at the ragged edge of control, said:
Where is your soul-sucking mosquito leader? Buzzing over his conquests, feeding?
Trajan Chaundran’s answer was calm, but Maggie was sure what Conor had spoken was nothing less than blasphemy. His face betrayed his feelings, darkening with outrage.
The Lord Emperor has far more pressing matters than dealing with a renegade Mathematician,— he answered. —Surely it must have occurred even to you that we have met Mathematicians in battle on our way here. The Oath, as I have suspected all along, was nothing more than a ruse to keep rebel Mathematicians in line. It had no weight with kings and governments interested in protecting their own precious skins. Those Mathematicians we inevitably met—those who didn’t flee outright, that is—we liquidated. We’ve become quite proficient at it, in fact ...—
Came Conor’s reply as he looked around himself, at the scores of Gyssian warriors dead at his feet: —Have ye now ...—
You will die today as well, cousin,— Voiced Trajan Chaundran, —rest quite assured of that. The Lord Emperor has ordered your execution. If you refuse to kneel and yield your life, I will signal the order for the slaughter of your people to begin. I have come here to watch you die personally, as the Lord Emperor’s second-in-command. If you do so willingly, the Vanerrincourtian refugees will be spared—
To be feeder-slaves for the mosquito?— echoed the Irish snarl in Maggie’s mind.
We all must die, cousin Aedan. Better they are granted a few more years, albeit in captivity, than eat cold steel now—or worse. Wouldn’t you agree?—
Conor held still for a long time. Presently he closed his eyes, his head dropping, his blood-streaked face emptying of all resolve.
I will have a kingly death,— he said. —By sword. You will honor me that much.—
He glanced up.
Trajan nodded. —Granted.
Then order your archers to take the bead off me, ye debauched traitor, or I’ll shove those arrows straight up their arses, one by one.—
Trajan, appearing suddenly like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, broke his stare and looked up. Nodded again. Maggie heard:
Stand down.—
All around the king, longbow archers lowered their bows, though they did not remove the arrows from them. Conor’s eyebrow lifted. He cocked his chin.
All of them,— Maggie heard him growl, —including that one....—
He flicked his left hand, and the green iguana dissolved into a brilliant luminescent ball, streaking well up a huge debris pile at the edge of the courtyard, one with a half-intact roof and partially smashed entrance. The entrance was a broken archway, and dark. The ball tore through it, and Maggie heard a frightful muffled scream of pain, then silence. The ball returned to his shoulder, sparkled back into an iguana.
Your treachery has no end, cousin,— he said. —The same goes for  your cowardice. Mark me, young one: Grandfather will be avenged. As well as your crimes against your own people—
Trajan’s face went from disdain to insane in a heartbeat.
“THEY ARE NOT MY PEOPLE!” he shrieked (actually shrieked). “They deserve what’s coming to them. I am the rightful ruler of this land—I AM. NOT you! And when this war is over, I will be made Governor of this territory. I will. And you can mark my words, dear Aedan, that any survivors left of the refugees will wish that they had been run through today instead.”
“This war has just begun, Trajan,” rumbled Conor Kieran, the emerald in his eyes once again intense, inhuman.
The prince laughed. It was a lonely, tortured sound; no one joined him. The black funnel cloud of his winged warriors glided noiselessly above; the Melanchthus Legion on the courtyard still kneeled, their heads still bowed. Only the archers were standing, their faces impassive, detached. Of those, Maggie kept shifting her attention around, trying to locate them, certain that the king was being targeted even as he stood there. But she couldn’t spot any taking aim for him. She wished she possessed the same sight—or whatever it was—that granted him the ability to know such things. She was jumpy with fear that at any moment he was going to be shot. Trajan clearly was not a man of his word, not by any stretch of the imagination. It occurred to her just then that she had hated him on sight, from the moment she first saw him in his stateroom with Flaglyas; and now, seeing him up there, on that dragon, laughing, laughing loudly, laughing madly, laughing lonesomely, her loathing sprouted roots, wrapped round her spine, reached greasy tentacles into her skull, where they burrowed through her brain to an aching point just behind her forehead. She felt her lip curl upward involuntarily.
Presently the Black Coffin’s first quietened, wiped a tear from his eye. He glanced jovially at Conor and said, “Fascinating pets, cousin. Do tell me, were they a gift from Auntie Kathlin? From Quartermane?”
They’re the Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm.—
Trajan’s eyes widened in surprise; and then he laughed again, this time with many of the Legion surrounding the king, who were able to hear Conor’s telepathic answer just as Maggie was. They laughed with their heads bent, still kneeling.
Of course they are!— said Trajan. —You, an illegitimate bastard child, the bearer of the Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm! You, of a whore’s womb. You had the power to enter the Temple and retrieve it, I suppose? You—when thousands of others have tried for time immemorial, who have tried and died? Really, cousin Aedan, your story is quite entertaining. Do go on, do!—
But the king did not reply. When it became obvious he wasn’t going to, Trajan said:
And I suppose with your mighty powers you defaced and destroyed the Temple? Of that I must warn you: the Emperor will be most displeased....—
The Temple is dead. It gave me the Serpenthelm just before it died. And your emperor consumes diseased------ —Maggie couldn’t understand the word Conor used right then— —in hell.—
The prince’s face fell, his laughter instantly cut off. A murmur of outrage spread among the kneeling warriors, as if the king had just spoken the worst sacrilege, as if he had insulted their deity, their very god.
It is to hell that you will be going very soon, cousin Aedan,— said Trajan, his Voice trembling. —And you will kneel now, and I will send you and your pets there, where you and they will pray I don’t send your countrymen shortly afterward. And of the Temple: it is immortal. Your lies have become tiresome. Now—kneel.—
Conor obeyed, going slowly down to one knee. But as he did, Maggie heard him speak:
“Why don’t you ask one of your Dreamcatchers there if ye don’t believe me?”
Thought Maggie with a start: Dreamcatchers?
Trajan Chaundran glared at the blood-streaked man staring defiantly back up at him. He turned abruptly, glancing over his right shoulder towards one of the red-clad winged beings seated on dragons behind him. The being held silent for a long moment, staring back, and then nodded.
Necrolius Anaxagorius’ first turned back in his seat, his face a bitter sneer.
How utterly noble. An immortal—a god, really—committing suicide instead of facing the Lord Emperor courageously.— His high, thin Voice exploded in Maggie’s head: —LET THIS STAND AS A TESTAMENT: NO MAN OR DEMON SHALL EVER QUESTION THE LORD EMPEROR’S POWER! AN IMMORTAL WOULD RATHER END ITS LIFE THAN FACE THE GREATEST MATHEMATICIAN AQUANUS HAS EVER KNOWN! THE GYSSIAN SWORD SHALL RULE FOREVER!—
From around her, a punctuated “HUH!” or some such from the hundreds still kneeling around the king.
Trajan turned back in his seat abruptly, impatiently, catching the stare of another of the winged monsters behind him. They stared at each other a long time. When he righted himself in his seat, he said:
How odd. I’m told that you’re hiding something, cousin, something quite important. Something to do with the Temple. Care to share it with me before you die? The Dreamcatcher feels it is vital I learn what it is.—
Funny that only one Dreamcatcher feels such a thing,— answered the king. —Either he is delusional and the Lord Emperor’s other Dreamcatchers aren’t worth a seagull crap, or he is quite capable and the other three incompetent....—
He grinned.
Without responding, Trajan stared back at the trio of “incompetent” Dreamcatchers, who, one by one, shook their covered heads. Conor had closed his eyes and bowed his head, his lips silently moving, just like they had on the cliff, as if voicing a chant or oath. Maggie jerked her gaze from him to the archers all around him, and felt cold horror: they were raising their bows, all of them, raising them slowly, taking aim....
The prince righted himself in his seat, looked down at him, and said:
A clever ploy, cousin. Divide and conquer. But ultimately useless here, a bid for more precious seconds before your head is separated from your shoulders. The Dreamcatcher is mistaken in any case: for there is no information that can hide from the Lord Emperor for long. Time has favored us, as well as the many Tracluse in his employ, as well as the winds. Any information you possess of a strategic or pressing nature is insignificant, just as you are insignificant. You are the king of a vanquished nation, a nation that chose to flee like frightened sheep rather than fight, as so many others courageously have. Truly, you have nothing to offer that is of any importance whatever....—
... Archers all around him, all aiming, waiting for the word or signal. Conor had no idea; his lips were still moving, his eyes still closed, his head still bowed.
Trajan raised his gloved hands and clapped once, twice, thrice, making Maggie jump. A heavily armored human came to his feet within the kneeling Legion, unsheathed his blood-caked broadsword, and waded through the bodies and gore, where he approached Conor Kieran from behind. The Gyssian soldier’s own eyes were without affect, without spark, without life. Trajan spoke loudly:
“By Direct Decree of the Lord Emperor Necrolius Anaxagorius, you, Aedan Chaundran, illegitimate and illegally appointed King of Vanerrincourt, have been sentenced to death by beheading. As a head of state, you are allowed a single statement before dying. Does the condemned wish to speak now?”
Conor lifted his head and opened his eyes. Dreamy eyes, as if he were somewhere else completely. He nodded one time.
“The condemned may speak.”
The executioner raised his broadsword high over his head, waited.
Conor took a breath, then muttered flatly:
“It is better to die free today than live even one second tomorrow as a slave.”
Th-th-th-th-thwing!—
—Whistling streaks of motion—
—The executioner’s broadsword came swishing down to Conor’s exposed neck—
—A black blur of motion; blinding red-laced bolts of lightning—the pathetic braying cacophony of mutant donkeys being killed: Conor had disappeared, had stood, had moved: he had somehow come up behind the executioner, who was suddenly butting his chin against the wrapped hilt of his own broadsword, which had been plunged down his sternum and into his belly. His eyes crossed as they lost light; he gurgled richly; he keeled forward—the Dreamcatchers were all dead, shot multiple times each by their own bewildered Gyssian longbowmen: they fell limply to the courtyard because the dragons had exploded—whump! whump! whump! whump!—in bursts of aecxal light and scaly, semi-translucent flesh; Trajan’s dragon too, one last WHUMP!—The Black Coffin’s prince was suddenly alone in mid-air and falling fast, where, screaming, he landed awkwardly, bouncing ass first at Conor’s feet. He raised his hands at him, who moved instantaneously—flick! flick!—and now stared at horror at them, for both of his pinky fingers had gone missing. A woman’s shrill cry issued from his throat, his eyes white saucers as he stared with horror at them; he pulled them protectively against his chest, the stumps of his amputated fingers bleeding freely, as two sword-points, one banded brown and green, one glinting yellow and gray, came to rest an inch from his exposed neck.
“YOU CUT OFF MY FINGERS!” he shrieked, goggling at the cleanly sliced digits lying curled on the bloodied stone of the courtyard. “YOU ... CUT THEM OFF!”
“I’m going to cut off a lot more than that, mate!” roared Conor Kieran. “Now call off your Legion, or ye die!”
The huge mob of Gyssian soldiers surrounding the king still kneeled, bound by orders, but all were glancing up now, eager to move but completely unsure what to do. In all their conquests, they had yet to encounter one such as this Mathematician, trained not only in the manipulation of the aecxis, but in the legendary art of the Dain-Cer-Tain as well, who had their leader at his feet, at his very mercy. Maggie almost felt sympathy for them: she wouldn’t know what to do, either.
Both blades of the Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm were at Trajan’s neck. His eyes were wild with fear, his chin streaked with his own blood. Still staring at his amputated pinky fingers, his Voice stuttered, —B-By order of the L-Lord Emperor, all Melanchthus Legionnaires are to d-disperse and return to the fleet immediately—
“Again!” Two thin cuts instantly appeared on Trajan’s neck, began bleeding—
IMMEDIATELY! IMMEDIATELY! BACK TO THE FLEET IMMEDIATELY!—
The armed throng didn’t wait: the flashing balls of aecxes soon left the bloody courtyard with only the King of Vanerrincourt and his younger cousin, whose sleeves were soaked with his own blood, whose face had flushed of color, who gaped up at Conor with a mix of awed horror and desperate loathing.
“I’m going to bleed to death,” he whimpered desperately. “I’m going to bleed to death ...”
The king nodded indifferently. “Ye might.” He glanced up; the black funnel cloud of attacking Gyssians was spinning apart and winging away, heading back for their vessels. He glanced back down. With steel in his voice, he said: “Kneel before your king.”
Trajan’s laugh was an effeminate snivel of hysteria. “Kneel!” he bawled. “Kneel before you! I’d rather be consumed by the Lord Emperor himself!” Then he squealed: “Your people are dead, Your Highness, do you hear me? They’re dead! The slaughter has begun! The blood of half a million of your own countrymen is on your hands—”
The cobra sparkled back around Conor’s right shoulder. He took a single step forward and slapped Trajan’s face hard, the green-brown blade still at the ready.
“I told you to kneel before your king.”
Trajan recovered from the slap, jerked his face up. A line of blood ran down from a split lip. “You cannot win,” he blubbered. “There are Tracluse everywhere, undetectable allies of the emperor! You cannot hide, we will find you, and we will hunt you down wherever you go, I promise you that—”
Conor grabbed his cousin by his hair and pulled savagely up, the iguana sword drawing a vertical line of blood to join with the three-inch-long cut below it. Maggie flinched: Conor’s voice was itself laced with mania—
“I TOLD YOU TO KNEEL—BEFORE—YOUR—KING!
Trajan Chaundran cried out, and Maggie saw why: both of his legs had shattered when he fell twenty feet from his doomed dragon. There was no way he could kneel—but kneel he did anyway, wailing and shaking in pain, his hands clasped jealousy to his chest, his face red with effort and hatred.
Conor said:
“What will your gluttonous swine emperor say to you, Trajan, when he discovers how ye surrendered before me today instead of die with his glory on your lips, eh? Think he’ll consider it a betrayal? Think he’ll consider your failure to kill me a sign of your incompetence and weakness and cowardice? I’ve never been a bettin’ man, cousin, but I’d wager rings on that one.
“Hunt me ye will, will ye? I’m counting on it. I want it. Think your emperor is powerful? Ye haven’t seen power. Try fighting a story; try fighting a legend. I’m going to let ye live for precisely that purpose. Because that legend is out now; it’s free and flying back to your warships, where it will take root like a virus and spread. And when ye finally find me, when ye see what has become of that legend, that story, how it has hidden under your repression and death and slavery, how it cannot be crushed no matter what you do to those who speak it, even your own, who will whisper the story, who will pass it secretly on, you’ll find me a fine lot less merciful than today, trust me on that, mate. I’ll kill ye where ye stand, ye spineless traitor, and then I’ll finish your soulless freak of a leader, I will!”
Trajan’s head was down, his jowls quivering, his face purple. A line of bloody spittle ran from his chin, his eyes bulging with agony.
“I will kill you someday, Aedan Chaundran,” he spat at the ground. “I will outgrow you in power, and I will kill you, and I will sit at the right hand of the emperor, and together we will rule this world, we will rule all worlds, and when we speak your name, another world will be consumed, and we will spit the bones of the slaves into the bottomless hole we dumped your whore-suckled carcass....”
“So be it,” Conor nodded. “And as for those slaves, for my countrymen, for those you will slaughter today, for the millions of Aquanians ye’ve already killed, for their cries, their pleas for mercy, all unheard, all ignored, all falling on deaf ears, for all of them, for all who are yet to be born in your emperor’s hell, you’ve demonstrated that ye don’t need these—”
Maggie cried out, turned away. For the king had moved the sword, too fast to follow—flick! flick!—and Trajan Chaundran’s ears were cut off, falling like wrinkled pink rubber rings to his sides, embedded in twin mats of shorn brown hair. The wail of pain that issued from his mouth wasn’t real, didn’t seem possible for human vocal chords to make, so anguished and agonizing and distressing was it. The Black Coffin’s top henchman curled fetally into himself, crumpling to his side into a screaming, bleeding ball as the iguana sparkled back on Conor’s shoulder, as the king turned and strode through the grisly circle of death and away.
In Maggie’s mind then came three things in immediate succession: Conor’s tired Voice, which said, —Come, Ion. It is time to go—; a beautiful noise, one like ... like church bells, but purer, more drawn out ... and something ... another Voice ... No, an ominous, unholy multitude of Voices speaking in unison, one that carried an overpowering deathly chill with it, so much so that she shivered and hugged herself involuntarily when she heard it. It wasn’t Trajan’s Voice, she knew. It was the emperor’s. It was Necrolius Anaxagorius himself.
Return to the Temple Intersectum at once, Legion Melanchthus, and destroy the Mathematician. Do not fail me, or you too shall perish.—
Maggie had been dragged along with the king, of course; and she watched, dazed and in shock, as he approached the stairs he had climbed earlier. In the distance, the line of misshapen birds were coming back, coming quickly. She had no idea how Conor would escape, but just then, another one of those unearthly, beautiful chimes sounded in her mind—no, not in her mind, from—from beneath her! She glanced down the stairs. She gasped.
A sea horse was floating up towards the king, the most magnificent creature she had ever seen. It’s body was purple, its scales glistening with living spiderwork veins of red, silver, and white, the great ribbed fan on its back a myriad of shifting colors like the light of Ammalinaeus filtered through diamonds. Its comma-shaped eyes were like black onyx stone, reflecting the king’s face as it rose before him. The beautiful chime sounded again, and now the king was floating off the ground, was floating into the saddle in the crook in front of the fan.
The sea horse named Ion had a large ivory-colored horn jutting out of the back of its head, one that curved downward into a sharp point and was carved and inlaid with glinting precious stones. Conor grabbed it with one hand, the reins in the other, the lizard and the snake staring straight ahead from his shoulders. He yelled “YAAAH!” and the sea horse streaked up and away, trailing a sparkling comet’s tail of aecxes, rising like a missile over the approaching black circle of Gyssian warriors, disappearing into the imposing purple-blue majesty of the skying Empress moments later.
And there was Maggie—all alone. Somehow the invisible line holding her to the king snapped when he had fled: it had felt like an umbilical chord pulling free of her midsection, causing her to cry out in pain. And here she was, without a body, without a way home ...
A shapeless fog of numbness enfolded her, carried her down twenty or so stairs, where she sat without realizing it next to a cascading stream of glittering, jumping, happy water. She extended her right hand—she couldn’t see it, but knew it was exactly where she had willed it—and fed it into the stream. She could feel the cold water wash over her fingers, could feel it somehow cleansing them, cleansing her. The water bounced down the stairs, burbling, simple, pure....
Shadows.
A wide, black stream of winged Gyssian warriors surged overhead, and then on, hot on the trail of their escaped quarry. Their echoing cries pierced the satanic fingers thrusting into the sky—she was crying, too—and the stream glimmered happily, and the water felt gratifyingly cold on her nonexistent face as she bent to it and drank of it, drank deeply. The water was brash and sweet, like childhood, like panoramic innocence, like life lived as if it really meant something, like he lived it.... The winged shadows passed overhead, endlessly; the water flowed over her hand, under her chin, into her mouth, endlessly.... Death ... life.... Did it really matter if she continued on past this point?
She brought her face from the stream, sat back, closed her eyes. The water felt good in her soul’s stomach, cooling, felt as though it was trying to heal her, trying to touch her somehow ... She breathed in, breathed out. Did it again. And again. The urgent shouts falling over the stairs told her that Prince Trajan Chaundran was receiving aid from his underlings, was being looked after. She almost felt ashamed that she was glad of it.
A long time passed.
The sun had set well behind the Western Empress, casting the Temple in deep shadow, when she heard:
“Margarita.”
Maggie felt no surprise to hear Luis Arroyo’s voice, now loud and clear; nor did she feel joy or any kind of relief. She could have stayed here for all of eternity, under the continuing river of soaring hate above, with the lifegiving water washing over her right hand. Sitting on the steps of a dead and destroyed Temple.
She closed her eyes. The things she had witnessed here today were there, on the back of her eyelids, waiting for her. She knew they would never leave, ever. After a long time she sighed and, with her eyes still closed, said:
“Take me back, Luis. Take me back.”
“Keep your eyes closed, my friend.”
Maggie did so, and immediately felt heavy drowsiness overcome her. She was sound asleep moments later, unaware that she was rising up and away from the Temple courtyard into a dissolving white vortex of aecxes.
She dreamed of the Pleiades.

~~*~~

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