It didn’t take long for the villagers of Three Oaks to return to their normal routines. After all, part of life in the valley was the knowledge that the Wyld could come calling at any time. For many generations, the people had practiced their evacuation processes, both in drills and in live usage. So once Soaring Ibis and the others returned, and deactivated the warning sirens, it was back to business as usual in the valley. Families went about with their laughing children, aged seniors sat back to their stones and mid-day snacks, and everything resumed as if nothing untoward had happened.
But not for Ibis and her friends. After performing a cursory check of the village’s perimeter, they headed for the shrine atop the hill, and went into one of the central chambers, closing the doors behind them. The four of them took seats on the floor around the low table at the back, and Lilac drew in a deep breath, but then spoke right up. “So, as stated before, the news of my trip is…unfortunate. I’m afraid that the world outside has not improved much since the last pilgrimage I made.”
Soaring Ibis folded her hands on the table in front of her – she could have really used a cup of tea, but it could wait for a while. “I had a feeling you might say something like that, Lilac. How far did you go this time?”
“Not quite as far to the borders as we live here, but close. It really didn’t matter. Creation is not in good shape. And I don’t quite like what I’m seeing from the Realm. The Wyld Hunt is ramping up again; they’re devoting an alarming amount of time and energy to hunting for Solars and Lunars, and the Scarlet Empress’s hold only grows stronger with each passing day. She’s a crafty one, and a deadly foe in more ways than I can count. We just have to hope she keeps her eyes focused on the Threshold and continues to leave the rest of the world be.”
Cerulean Wake closed his hands into fists, and clenched his jaw visibly. “Again, this ‘Empress’ and her Realm. How readily the rest of the world abandoned the old ways. How can they continue to be so foolish?”
“It’s their religion,” Smoldering Cinder responded evenly. “This ‘Immaculate Faith.’ We’ve only heard little bits and pieces of it all the way out here, but as you start nearing the Realm, it’s everywhere.” Cinder was the only other one among their group – in fact, the only other person in the valley, so far as any of them knew – who had ventured west enough to even remotely approach the Threshold. In fact, she had taken one such journey not long after meeting Lilac, accompanying him for several months away from Three Oaks before returning. She never talked much about what she saw there, but Ibis didn’t need to hear. The ebb and flow of Cinder’s emotions, deep underneath the surface where everyone but Ibis was largely unable to perceive, whenever she started talking about the Realm and its reach spoke volumes. “It seems fairly innocuous at first, even positive, when you listen to how they speak about emulating the virtues of their heroes, and just attempting to live good lives. But then their talk of the ‘Anathema’ begins, and it just devolves into vitriol.”
“Unfortunately, Cinder has the right of it,” Lilac said while shaking his head. “The world is still only slowly recovering from the Contagion, if it ever truly recovers at all. Even discounting the fear of Solars and Lunars, there’s still the Wyld, and any number of other potential threats, to keep people afraid. Supposing not everyone truly accepts the philosophies of the Realm, so long as they remain one of the few powers able to stabilize the regions they claim, we’re still not going to see many people willing to go against them. Which means that I still can’t recommend leaving Three Oaks, even for a very short period of time.”
Wake sighed heavily, and Ibis shared his disappointment even without letting herself actually share it. She had a number of reasons for wanting to see the world outside of Three Oaks – one very persistent reason that she felt tugging at her even now – but many more reasons to stay. The Wyld attacks were not going to just cease, after all. And then there were the day-to-day tasks of the shrine proper. She could leave them to some of the other priestesses in the valley, since there were other shrines, but she couldn’t justify it, given everything else Lilac had said. “Then it’s decided. We defer the issue of my traveling away from the valley for at least three more months. Thank you very much for filling us in, Lilac.”
Giving a slight bow, Lilac dipped his head respectfully as well. “I only wish I had better news for you, Ibis. I know how important this is to you.”
“It is, but fulfilling my obligations is more important to me. I can’t leave others to do my work in such an environment, and I most certainly can’t ask my guardians to risk their lives for me so irresponsibly.” She did feel Wake’s surge of emotion that time, and looked up at him just as he started to open his mouth. He caught the expression on her face that said “we’re finished discussing this for now,” and looked down, embarrassed, for all the world as if she had just verbally scolded him. “Anyway, enough weighty talk for now. You’ve just arrived back – we should be out celebrating your return.”
Wake’s embarrassment vanished, and he stood up. “I agree. I’m going to Kagari’s to see if we can use the party room. No ’but’s’, Lilac. You’re drinking with us, and that’s that.”
“Very well,” the taller man said with a quiet laugh. “But don’t forget, I tried to warn you.”
Kagari Minomiyo was a middle-aged matron who ran one of the oldest restaurants in the valley. She and Cerulean Wake had been friends for decades, and it was no secret that she saved most of her best booze for his requests. So when Wake had mentioned “going to Kagari’s,” Cinder was well-aware of what sort of night they were all in for. When they arrived at the expansive one-story structure on the other side of the lake, Kagari was waiting for them, looking ever the professional with her brown tresses pulled back into a tight bun and clad in a saffron dress that was both simple and subtly elegant. She bowed deeply, and gave a welcoming smile. “Welcome back, Cerulean Wake. So you managed to talk them into joining you after all.”
“Yep. Our itinerant friend is back, so of course we have to do something special,” Wake said with a nod of his head towards Lilac.”
“A pleasure as always, Minomiyo-san,” Lilac spoke with a nod of greeting.
“Likewise. It’s good to have you back in the valley again. I’ve been working on a few special mixtures for you all for some time, so it’s perfect that you stopped by today.” Gesturing to two of her daughters, who stood nearby with trays held at the ready, she turned towards one of the side hallways. “If you’ll follow me? I’ve got your usual room already set up.”
Leading them out of the main room of her restaurant, Kagari continued on down that hallway to a series of private dining chambers. Stopping at the third, she slid the door open and stood aside so they could enter. Two low tables sat parallel in the center of the room, with plenty of space for a group twice their size, and cushions in the red and white colors of the restaurant sat in three neat piles. The tables were already set up with over a dozen bottles of differing sizes and shapes, and Wake was the first one over, avidly examining each before opening them and taking a long whiff of their contents. “Oh, wow. I can’t even place most of these.”
“That was the intention,” Kagari said with a self-satisfied grin. “Ayame and Yui will see to you, but feel free to let me know as well should you need anything.” With that, the woman gave another bow, and then departed, leaving the group to their merriment.
The routine was more or less the same. Soaring Ibis poured the first drinks for the four of them, and they drank to Three Oaks, to good friends, to family, to honor, and to whatever else Wake could come up with before he grew impatient. A pot of hot water arrived just as they were finishing their first toast, so Ibis then poured the three of them another round before giving herself a smaller portion and setting some tea aside to steep while she watched the others. Cinder and Wake tried a cup of every bottle on the table, pouring for each other, while Lilac picked one or two he liked the most and sipped away idly. It was routine, but a good routine.
After about two hours of relaxing and socializing, Wake stood up and issued his usual challenge. “Lilac at Dusk!” he said with a dramatic point at his seated target. “You. Me. Drinking contest. Now.”
Ibis laughed into her teacup, but Cinder maintained her smooth-faced equilibrium. She was only a little tipsy, whatever the shoulder of her kimono seemed to think, but Wake had emptied at least three more bottles than her by this point, so he had to be much farther along. Did he really think he had a chance to beat Lilac? Didn’t he always think he could? She would have a good chuckle about it, but it was better saved for after the fact, when she could add a well-prepared verbal barb with it. As soon as she finished this current bottle to give her some inspiration.
“As you wish,” Lilac said with a slight hint of a smirk. “I leave the choice of drink up to you.”
Narrowing his eyes, Wake’s face suddenly grew very serious and focused. He stood very still for a long moment, silently, and then reached over towards the cluster of half-empty bottles on the table, snagging one by the neck and hefting it over his head. “Number Six!”
Ayame and Yui, waiting by the doorway, had been watching the scene in rapt attention, and when Wake called out his choice, they scurried out of the room, returning later with several trays bearing more bottles identical to his selection. Wake shifted so that he and Lilac were on opposite sides of their table from each other, and the girls unloaded their trays, settling the bottles into neat rows and formally pouring the first cups of dark liquor.
“Interesting choice,” Lilac said as he studied Wake. “I would have thought you’d go with something slightly more bitter this time.”
“I’m just full of surprises,” Wake responded with a toothy grin. “Are you ready?”
The contest began with the two raising their cups in salute, Lilac’s expression smooth and impassive while Wake’s was intense and confident, and then they were off. One cup down, then two, then four, then seven, without either of them so much as slowing down. Five bottles went bone-dry, and still, every time, both Wake and Lilac lowered their cups and tapped the table for another. Cinder was moderately impressed by the time the first tray was empty, but she knew it wouldn’t last too much longer. Wake might have been holding strong, but she could tell he was nearing his last legs, while Lilac looked as fresh-faced as he always did, save for the slightest flush to his cheeks. The dark-haired man’s progression of challenges also gave away just how he was doing: at the start, he had been “Let’s do this!” and “You look a little flushed there, Lilac,” but at the start of the second tray, he had started missing a few words here and there, and as that tray too emptied, he could do little more than grunt before tossing his cup back.
Finally, midway through the third tray of bottles, Wake took a few seconds longer to finish his cup, and slowly lowered it to the table. Lilac had already downed his, and sat with a half-grin across the table, drumming his fingers quietly on the surface as he raised an eyebrow. “Shall we have another?”
“I thi…er…think,” Wake started, measuring each word carefully, “…that I’m…done. Well…” His eyes started to droop mid-sentence, and he attempted to snap back to attention. “…played.”
Ibis giggled openly, and Cinder cracked a smile, tugging the shoulder of her robe up yet again. She fished for something to say – she had been thinking this whole time and was still very much alert, of course – but just shook her head after a moment, and took another sip from the rose-scented liquor she had been steadily working through for an hour. “You never learn.”
“You never…learn,” Wake retorted peevishly, leaning forward against his spot on the table and propping his arms up. “One of these days…I’ll get ya’, Lilac. Honest.” Kagari’s daughters cleared the bottles away, visibly trying not to laugh, but Wake hardly seemed to notice. The grin on his face, and the droop of his eyelids, said quite plainly that he was in his happy place at the moment.
“I’m sure you will, old friend.” Lilac took one more drink for good measure, and then nodded respectfully to the serving girls. “Thank you very much for putting up with our requests, as always.”
“It’s our pleasure, Lilac-dono,” replied short-haired Yui with a faint blush. “It’s always enjoyable having you and your friends here.”
Standing up from his spot, slowly to avoid disturbing the now-snoozing Wake, Lilac reached into the small pouch tied at his belt and stepped over to the two of them. “Though it’s appreciated, still, take this for your trouble.” He pressed a coin into each of their palms, and gave a slight wave of his free hand. A moment later, a green flower bloomed in Yui’s hair just above her left ear, while another of a deep crimson color appeared in Ayame’s hair. They bowed deeply, and Yui turned as red as a beet before scurrying off with a tray full of bottles, her sister following at a more normal pace.
Lilac turned back to the group then, and laughed quietly when he saw Wake all-but-sprawled out over the table. “As much fun as this has been, perhaps we should call it for now? Much longer and I fear Cerulean Wake will be impossible to move.”
Cinder finished off the last of her drink, and cleared her throat a bit, steadily getting to her feet. “True enough. I’ll take him back to the house.” She knelt down, and after a moment of effort, managed to get a shoulder under Wake’s, the other guardian still clearly half-asleep as she got him to his feet. “What of the two of you?”
“I think I’d just like to take a walk in the forest for a bit,” Lilac mused. “I’ve missed how things are this time of night around here.”
“And I think I’ll go check on the machine.” Ibis set her teacup down, and stood, brushing off her skirts several times before raising back up.
“Very well,” Cinder said with a nod. “Don’t stay out too late, Ibis – I was thinking we could hit the springs in the morning. I’ll likely see you tomorrow, Lilac. Rest well.” Nodding to each of them, Cinder got Wake walking, and led him out of the room. “Come on, sleepyhead. You can nap once we get back to the house.”
Descending the last of the stone stairs beneath the shrine’s hill, Ibis placed her hand to the smooth door in front of her, and closed her eyes. Her forehead shone with her setting sun mark, and the door opened, retracting into the ceiling and revealing the chamber beyond. The circular room was immense, as large as two or three amphitheaters across, and its wall space was dominated by smooth crystalline panels that stretched from about waist height nearly to the ceiling more than three dozen feet up. In the center of it all was a throne-like chair, made of some smooth stone and looking very uncomfortable to the naked eye. The chair was Ibis’s destination; as she walked over and sat down, the featureless stone contoured to fit her body shape, complete with armrests, a horizontal panel with scores of sigils and runes scattered across its surface rose to waist level from the floor, and the great crystalline surface against the wall came alive with light, as an androgynous voice resonated through the chamber. “Welcome back, Soaring Ibis.”
This was perhaps the single most important place in the entire valley, and indeed the real treasure that Ibis and the others were tasked with guarding: the essence computer known as Argus. Millenia prior, Argus had been only one of a class of First Age devices built for maintaining the borders of Creation. Indeed, at the time of its construction, it had been only a relay point for other essence computers – the Wyld had not been at Three Oaks’s doorstep, back then. But as the encroachment following the Usurpation had continued, a lone Solar whose name was lost to history had re-purposed it to generate its own Wyld Barrier, thus giving the people of Three Oaks a fighting chance.
It had not always been so, however. Though the original Solar left Argus in stable condition, the actual operation of the system was beyond the capabilities of any mortal thaumaturge who had ever lived in the valley. They could perform maintenance and very basic diagnostics, but they had to leave it on automatic mode or else risk a catastrophic shutdown that would leave them completely exposed to the Fair Folk. And as century after century passed, the barrier had grown more and more in need of complete restoration.
In fact, by the time the young Songstress-in-training Soaring Ibis reached teenage, there was talk of the entire valley abandoning the system to seek new lives elsewhere. Though it still held, the barrier had started to slip occasionally, which meant that not only could Fair Folk of sufficient power push their way across, but now the occasional hobgoblin horde could just pass through unobstructed. The fact that the blood of the Dragons was still strong in the valley had been the only thing saving the people from being regularly harvested by the Fae – even during the Contagion, there had usually been one or two Dragon-Blooded heroes who spent their lives in training to keep the valley safe from Wyld threats. Even though the current guardians, Smoldering Cinder and Cerulean Wake, were joined by a third by the time Ibis was fifteen, Lilac at Dusk, the attacks had become frequent enough that everyone was worried the valley might not survive much longer.
Then the day had come, four years later, when everything changed. Not one, but five raksha, along with a veritable army of hobgoblins and Wyld mutants, had managed to force the ailing barrier to drop. Wake, Cinder, and Lilac quickly responded, and were keeping the invaders at bay, but everyone knew it was just a matter of time before their defenses fell entirely. Ibis had been performing offerings at the shrine that day, going through the last of her training under Cinder’s direction; and when her sempai had grown more dire than she had ever witnessed, grabbed her sword, and rushed out of the shrine, Ibis knew it was bad. Exiting the shrine to look down into the valley, she could see the people moving about, unhurried and orderly, but with an almost palpable feeling of dread thick in the air.
Ibis knew she should evacuate with the others, but out of the corner of her eye she noticed a lone figure heading for the staircase underneath the shrine’s hill. It was White-Spotted Owl, the boy a couple of years her junior who was the valley’s best thaumaturge. She had talked with Owl many times – they shared similar interests, as Ibis dabbled in the theories of thaumaturgical arts herself, but never had the time to truly pursue them with her Songstress training. Which was why she understood the look of abject horror on the young man’s face as he made for Argus’s control chamber. He had told her how little any of them, himself included, understood of the computer’s workings; he knew that he was likely wasting his chance to get away by trying to give it one last shot. But he was going, anyway. And in that moment, Ibis decided that she had to go, as well.
Following behind as best she could – he was in a mad dash – she got to the chamber a few moments after him, and arrived just in time to see him place his hand on a panel she had never seen before, on the side of a pedestal that had risen next to the control chair. Before she could speak, Owl’s eyes suddenly went wide, a golden light emanating from the panel, and for a moment he looked almost euphoric, despite the red warning flashes on every screen in the chamber and the alert tones. But then the light became burning, and his expression changed from epiphany to tortured agony, as the light immolated him and turned him into little more than a pile of ashes on the floor. Ibis stood frozen in shock, and screamed, dropping to her knees, the sound echoing throughout the chamber. Her heartbeat pounded in her own ears, and all she could think about was Cinder, Wake, and Lilac, throwing themselves against the tide to give the people above one last shot. On top of that, one of her good friends had just died right in front of her eyes, doing the only thing he could. The warning lights and sirens became oppressive, mocking, a countdown signaling the end of her life as she knew it. How many prisoners would the Fae take? Would they leave anyone behind at all? What could any of them do, now?
A few long seconds passed. Seconds that felt like days, years. In the middle of it all, in the face of the greatest despair young Ibis had ever known, something else joined the litany of thoughts in her mind: a song. It was a wordless song, one that may have had lyrics many centuries ago, but which carried with it some very definite feelings: hope, determination, resolve. Though there were no words, the melody started out mild and meek, uncertain, almost desperate, but grew stronger, more confident, more alive as one sang it. She knew it well; it had been one of the first songs she had ever learned in her duties. Some people thought it was from the Contagion, a lullaby parents sang to their stricken children in the hopes they might pull through, while others believed it may have dated all the way back to the First Age, perhaps starting as a battle hymn for the first Solars as they marched against the Primordials. Whatever the source, it was exactly what Ibis needed to hear, and so she sang it.
As the notes wafted through the chamber, reflecting off of the crystal, the alerts seemed to drift away. The Wyld forces became a distant concern. Even the loss of her friend suddenly took a backseat in her mind. She looked up at the screens, and over at the raised panel in front of the central seat – how many times had she tagged along with Owl, trying to learn what she could, only to sit stymied and confused, feeling as if there was just something vital she had been lacking? But she went anyway, sat in the chair, and studied the symbols on the panel one more time. And that was when everything clicked.
At first, she was too shocked to move. She had known Old Realm for some time, and yet still all of this had made no sense. But now, as she looked down at the panel, she understood. Finally, she understood. Pressing a sequence in with her fingertips, she dismissed the pedestal at the side; it was an overflow mechanism designed to give the user as much raw input as possible, but it was never designed for a human mind to handle. She sorely wished Owl had waited even another minute before trying something so desperate, but there was no time to worry about that. Her fingers continued moving, and much smaller analogues of the wall-mounted crystal panels popped up into view just a couple of feet from her chair, while their larger cousins began to clear their warning messages. Seconds passed, and then the large panels displayed views of the valley from multiple angles, with several views of each of her three friends out in the field. They appeared to still be going strong, but the numbers were still very much in their enemies’ favor. But once again, no time.
Ibis’s hands moved as if she were possessed, pulling up reports of the village’s perimeter and locations of all of the villagers, gliding along the images in front of her to shrink, expand, and swipe them away as necessary, and so on. All the while, she sang, barely able to contain her own voice. It all made sense; she could barely even believe it had been beyond her grasp, now. Once she had the monitoring systems up and online, she dropped into a lower layer of protocols, searching for the reasons the barrier was not responding. The damage turned out to be far worse than even she or Owl had realized; minor inefficiencies in the work-around the previous Solar had made to get the system quickly switched over had accumulated like a logical rust in its workings, to the point where it was so overburdened just maintaining itself that it couldn’t exercise its full function. The raksha pushing against it in such concerted force had overwhelmed what little resiliency remained, and to get it all back up and running, she would have to clear the morass. Which she set about doing in short order.
As she worked at blinding speed, Ibis could sense a presence awakening in the chamber. It was almost like the feeling she got while meditating in the shrine, or at the borders of Lake Noamin – both locations were the seats of local gods, but those gods no longer communicated with the people of the valley very often, having lost most of their power over time. At least, that was what the prevailing theories had been, but Ibis suddenly knew better. The problem with the system was far more than just a logical block; it had put such a burden on the essence lines of the area that the gods were literally too continually drained of their vitality to manifest. When she had cleared some of the quagmire, the presence in the chamber suddenly popped fully into her awareness, and a voice spoke up, weaving underneath her song without disturbing it.
“Hello, Soaring Ibis. I am called Argus.” As the voice spoke, an image of a sun-dark man with three faces and an eye in each palm appeared on the central screen, translucent as if overlaid by her viewing screens.
“An animating intelligence!” Ibis felt a leap of excitement in her chest at seeing one of the many things she had only ever read about in books, but stayed focused on her task.
The man nodded. “Correct. I am the spirit entrusted with this system. Thank you for rousing me, I have been in fugue for quite some time.”
“I’m glad to help, but I’m currently in a bind. The Fair Folk are attacking my home, and I’m trying to restore the Wyld Barrier. Can you help me with that?”
Argus dipped his head respectfully. “Of course. It is my pleasure to assist an Arrow of Heaven.”
Ibis blinked in confusion. Arrow of Heaven? What was he talking about? But then she noticed the light. Where was it coming from? Looking around quickly, she suddenly realized that she was the source of the light. She had scarcely noticed anything outside of the screens and panels she had furiously been working away on, but now that she had a moment, it became clear that she was radiating with her own light. And a glimpse at her own reflection revealed the golden mark of a setting sun on her forehead. In that moment, she knew herself for who she truly was: a Twilight Solar of the Unconquered Sun.
Furrowing her brow in concentration, she shook herself back to the present, and looked back up at the image of Argus. “Then lend me as much of your power as you can, Argus. Let’s save the valley, together.”
“By all means, Soaring Ibis.”
With Argus’s help, getting the rest of the system up and online was a breeze. Ibis descended on the rest of the backed-up protocols relentlessly, and quickly cobbled together repairs for the function of the Wyld Barrier. When she reactivated it, all of her screens flickered for a brief moment, and then the repulsion began. Hobgoblins dropped like rag dolls in her images, melted away, or exploded outright, while the four remaining raksha pulsed with eldritch light and froze momentarily in their tracks. Not waiting for some sign of what had happened, Cinder beheaded one of them on the spot, while both Lilac and Wake returned to the offensive. She didn’t need to watch the rest, and so she just collapsed back into her chair, the weight of the past few minutes crashing down on her suddenly, and let out a deep breath. “We did it…we actually did it.”
“Would you like me to handle what remains of the restoration effort?” Argus chimed in without reappearing.
“Yes, please, Argus. I think I’d like to just sit here for a while….”
“It’s good to be back, Argus,” Ibis said as her mind returned to the present. She still remembered that day four years ago as if it had just happened. Only one of the raksha had survived that battle, the one they knew now as Ravinius the Relentless, and things had changed for the valley. With the barrier up and working at full efficiency again, none of the weaker Fae could even get close. Only Ravinius was strong enough to slip through, and only with a group not even a fraction the size of the one that had assaulted that fateful day. Which meant that, for the first time in a long time, the people of Three Oaks could live without true fear. Even with her promotion to Chief Miko of the shrine, and the development of her Twilight powers, it had been a halcyon four years.
Another voice interrupted her thoughts, one different from Argus’s but no less familiar by now. “You have that distant look again,” spoke a voice from next to her ear. It belonged to a figure no more than four inches tall, one that looked like a small clay statue of an armored man. “What troubles you this night?”
“Ah, it’s nothing, Matsuri-Ono. I’m just reflecting.”
The little man crossed his arms and gave her a stern look. “Come now, you can tell ol’ Matsuri-Ono. Is it that Cerulean Wake? You would tell me if he were picking on my favorite songstress, yes?”
Ibis smiled. “I promise.”
“Well then. Let’s have it.” The little god sat down on her shoulder, and his arms remained crossed. “The spirits said you were down here, and we all know you only work on Argus this late if something severe is on your mind.” In this form, one would hardly think that Matsuri-Ono was the god of the entire valley. When Ibis had Exalted and restored Argus to full functionality, Matsuri-Ono had been freed of the essence drain and regained his ability to manifest. But he and Ibis had known each other far longer than that. She had been sensitive to spirits since childhood, and even though she had never been able to see the valley god in the waking world, she had met him while dreamwalking before she even realized she possessed that gift. They quickly became the best of friends, and he had taken it upon himself to serve as a guardian and father figure for the young orphan as she grew up. None of that changed with her Exaltation; if anything, they had become a more effective team, now that he could reappear materially in the world. As well as a more active confidant. “You know me too well to think I will simply leave you be without a fight, Little Bird.”
Nodding, Ibis gave a quiet sigh, and looked back up at the crystal screen of Argus’s chamber. “To be honest, I’m worried, Matsuri-sama. You knew that Lilac at Dusk returned today?”
“I did. I rode along on his shoulder very briefly when he was heading towards the scene of your battle.”
“He didn’t have very good news for us. Apparently, the outside world is only becoming worse as time goes on.”
Matsuri-Ono nodded gravely. “Indeed, I have heard much the same from my friends who have visited from time-to-time. Neither the world of gods nor the world of mortals is in a desirable state at present.”
“And yet here I sit, cloistered in my own valley,” Ibis began with a wry smile, “letting my guardians protect me when I’m better-equipped to deal with the danger than most.”
Small bursts of steam left the ears of the valley god’s helmet, complete with a tiny whistle, and he frowned. “Fishfeathers! You do not hide from the danger, Little Bird, any more than Smoldering Cinder or Cerulean Wake. You have important work here in the valley, and many people under your protection. I wish to help the world as much as you, but we must start somewhere. And I will not support you putting yourself at undue risk any more than your Shrine Guardians will.”
Ibis hung her head slightly. She knew he was right, of course. If she did leave the valley, she didn’t even know where she would begin fixing the problems that Lilac and Cinder had told her about in the outside world. She had reached a keen level of understanding of her own powers in four years, but she still needed more time, and much more training, before she could even think of going up against the Realm. Also, she had to be able to leave Three Oaks in a state where it wouldn’t be in danger, and though she had made some important advances in that regard as of late, once again, she needed more time. It seemed there was never enough of that particular commodity.
“At any rate,” Matsuri-Ono continued a moment later, in a softer tone. “I did not come to browbeat you. You have a good head on your shoulders, and I know you will continue to make wise decisions. When the time comes where you feel it truly necessary to leave, I and the others who stay behind will continue to support you.” He drew himself up a bit further, gaining maybe half an inch in height, and lifted his head proudly. “So sayeth Matsuri-Ono, Warlord of the Three Oaks court!”
That drew a wide smile from Ibis. There was still one other thing that prodded the back of her mind, but it was something she had grown quite accustomed to silencing. It would return, but for now, she could let it go. “You always know just what to say, Matsuri-sama. Would you mind sticking around for at least a few more minutes? I’d like to look over a few things in Argus’s third-level subroutines, and I would appreciate the extra pair of eyes.”
The little god swelled with pride, and made an excited clicking sound from his helmet. “Of course! I’m here to help, Little Bird.”
Stretching her arms for a moment, Ibis reached around behind her head and lifted her hair up into a high horsetail, tying it securely and then leaning forward a bit in her chair. She raised her hands up, and two images appeared before her, views of the valley from different angles far above ground-level. As she rotated, expanded, and shifted the images, she viewed the essence patterns before her, and let her mind slip into maintenance mode. Argus’s original functions had been restored, and he was running at full efficiency now, but there was so much more that could be done with his systems. If she could puzzle out how to apply some of his auxiliary features to the defense and monitoring of the valley’s perimeters, she might actually have a feasible method of seeing to the safety of her home from external threats once she had begun her travels. Just sitting there, working away with her old friend occasionally giving her some advice from her shoulder, she just let the beautiful complexity of Argus’s systems wash over her mind, as entrancing as any tapestry and every bit as intricate as one of her songs. How had she ever lived without this sort of complete and utter mental immersion in something so challenging?
Before Ibis realized it, several hours had passed. Her work was interesting, but she was starting to feel antsy from having sat in that chair for so long. And she had told Cinder she wouldn’t stay out too late. So disengaging Matsuri-Ono’s tiny sleeping form from her shoulder, and setting him down onto the central panel of the chamber, she switched Argus’s non-essential systems over into standby mode, bid the animating intelligence a good night, and left the recesses of the hill’s warrens. The night was cool, but pleasantly so, and though she was still a little on-edge, overall she felt better. It was time to return home.