When Cinder regained consciousness, everyone else around her was still out. She could see them breathing, though, so her mind immediately went to Ibis. For the first time in years, the little corner of her heart where Ibis’s emotions had nestled was vacant, and it panicked and terrified her.
Coming down to the door of the chamber, she stopped in her tracks just inside of it, and her worst fears were realized. Argus’s panels still buzzed with light and motion, but the overflow panel next to the control chair had fractured into a dozen pieces. Next to it lay Soaring Ibis, unmoving, her clothing torn and charred.
Walking in as if in a daze, Cinder stopped next to Ibis’s body, and dropped to her bottom, the strength suddenly fleeing her legs. Despite everything that had just happened, Ibis’s face looked peaceful and content. Cinder couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse; no matter what people said, there were no beautiful corpses.
“You should have let us help,” she said, barely above a whisper. “We might have been able to save you. We should have tried something, anything, besides this.”
She heard footsteps, but the sound was distant. A moment passed, then Wake, Lilac, and Naratis entered the room as well, though the shikari hung back at the door.
“She’s gone,” Wake said in a hollow, disbelieving voice, though his emotions were a tempest under the surface. “After everything we did here … we won, didn’t we? It wasn’t supposed to end like this.” Lilac put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder, but Wake didn’t seem to notice. “Why? Why didn’t we stop her … ?”
Summoning up all of her will, Cinder got to her feet. Turning toward Wake, she put both hands on his shoulders, and brought her face right up to his own. “There was no stopping Ibis. We both know that.” She embraced him for a long moment, as much to reassure herself as him, and then stepped back. “We can’t fall apart right now. We have to go make sure everyone is alive and well.”
Wake’s eyes were vacant, but they looked to her gradually and he nodded slightly. “You’re right. We promised, didn’t we? We promised.”
“I’ll see to her and prevent anyone else from entering the chamber,” Lilac offered.
Cinder nodded. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
As Cinder and Wake climbed the staircase, Lilac knelt next to Ibis’s body. Her injuries were extensive, and even at just a glance five or six of them would have been fatal on a mortal woman. He didn’t think he would ever understand how she kept fighting so long. “You always were far tougher than you appeared,” he said with a slight smile as he brushed some of her matted hair away from her face. It would take him some time to prepare her body for the burial ceremony with that level of injury, but he had learned from masters in the rites when he was still just a mortal man.
“Is she the reason you came here?” Venerer Naratis spoke up behind him, having crossed the room.
“More or less,” he replied. “I owe a great debt to a Solar, and I do believe she was the one I’d been searching for.”
Naratis was quiet for a long moment, then finally spoke back up. “I should like to hear about that, if you have the time.”
Lilac looked up at his old mentor. “Are you sure?”
“There is a great deal that I have remained willfully blind to over my long life. I don’t think I can continue on in that manner, though.”
Giving a slight nod, Lilac looked back down at Ibis. “It’s not that long of a story. Have a seat.”
It didn’t take Cinder and Wake long to find the valley’s inhabitants. Now that they had both had a short time to rest, they could move at top speed again, and out near the valley’s outskirts they came across the caravan. The handful of soldiers that Matsuri-Ono and the others had not slain or otherwise completely incapacitated were clustered together, away from the several thousand villagers following Seven Vaulting Staves’s lead. The soldier Naratis had left in command came over to join the old warrior-monk at their approach, and waited for him to speak up first.
“Seeing as how you two are alive and well, I’m guessing we’ll be fine, but something’s wrong.”
“It’s Ibis,” Cinder spoke quietly, so as not to be overheard by the villagers. “She saved us all, but died in the attempt.”
“I see. I wondered why the two demons suddenly declared their jobs finished.” The old man shook his head. “Damn, that’s awful.” He glanced back at the villagers, and then looked over to them once more. “Well, what do we do from here? Do we declare an All-Clear?”
“That mostly depends on Naratis,” Cinder replied. “Though I believe she’ll hold to her decision to leave.”
The soldier finally spoke up. “Venerer Naratis declared an end to the operation. She wouldn’t have done so if she weren’t entirely certain.”
They spoke back and forth several more times, but Wake only caught bits and pieces. He was zoning out, but he couldn’t bring himself to care; there was a gaping hole deep in his chest that was only getting worse by the moment.
“Hey, young’un, snap out of it.” Staves reached up and shook him by the sleeve.
“We have work to do, Guardian,” he said firmly. “Your people are going to be looking to you for strength. I know you’re hurting right now, but you have to stay with us.”
Wake looked down, and his eyes teared up. “I know. I know that. I’m trying, but … I can’t stop it. She’s gone, sifu. It’s like a piece of me was just cut right out.”
Staves gave him a moment, standing there silently, and Wake wiped his eyes. “But no, you’re right. Thank you.”
“Good.” Turning to the gathered people, Staves barked out a declaration. “Alright, folks. We’re going back to the valley. Let’s turn it around and get moving!”
The rest of the day was spent getting the citizens back to their homes, while both sides assessed the numbers of their injured and dead. The valley had only lost a couple of people, but the Wyld Hunters had fared considerably worse. Of the one hundred fifty-odd soldiers that had come along, forty were confirmed dead, including all four of the other commanders, with another eighty injured. They would just barely be able to limp back to their forward camp, though at least once there they had the resources to travel back to the Realm with so many injured with less difficulty.
The three Valley Guardians had provided Naratis with the bodies of her four fallen comrades before the sun had set, and she had forced herself to pull back their cloaks and look at every single one. Nehor was intact, but his back had clearly been broken by a single powerful blow. Karanya had huge chunks of her body missing, and wilted flowers covered much of the rest. Ryotheras was a bundle of glass shards. And Asalis, her oldest friend, had a fist-sized hole in his chest; that was the one killing stroke she had seen, made by Soaring Ibis’s final attack in their fight.
“I’ve followed you for almost two hundred years,” she said to her friend’s corpse. “I always knew this day would probably come, but I never gave much thought to it. You always seemed so invincible, so inevitable and unstoppable. I think I honestly started to believe you’d just take root one day and become some giant tree.”
She laughed, quietly and bitterly. “And what do we really have to show for all of that, old friend? Dead buddies, orphans, and grieving loved ones. And we were being used. Maybe just at the end, maybe the entire time.”
Naratis wondered for a moment if Asalis had known, then shook her head. “It wouldn’t have mattered, would it? You believed this was the only way to protect the world. I suppose that belief was the thing that caused us to drift apart. And you and Merari, as well. I think he still looks up to you, even after all of this time. You may not have agreed at the end, but you taught him to live with conviction and find something to believe in.”
Pulling the cloak back over Asalis’s face, Naratis sat in silence for a long while. “You traveled the world, and came to the conclusion that the Wyld Hunt was our only hope. Merari traveled the world, came to a vastly different conclusion – that the Hunt was wrong on a fundamental level – shed his name, and became friends with a Solar. Perhaps, with the rest of my life, I’ll travel the world without the Hunt, and see what I learn.”
Naratis stood up, and gave the four corpses one last look. “We failed the youngsters, Asalis. There is no doubt in my mind or heart about that. I hope we can both do better in our next lives. Goodbye, old friend.”
The next morning, Cinder and the Guardians met with Naratis in the central shrine of the valley. The light that had poured down from the barrier had partially destroyed the building, but it was intact enough, and this was the place this meeting should occur. Cinder was certain of that.
“I’m taking my people back to the Realm,” the Venerer opened, “and telling the Hunt not to come back to this valley.”
Wake sent surprise across his bond with Cinder, but she had been expecting such a thing. “That’s a bold move. Aren’t you concerned they’ll think you’ve turned traitor?”
Naratis shook her head. “Not really. Three Oaks is a very remote location; if not for the Wyld Barrier, we’re pretty certain this entire area would have been overrun by powerful Fae decades ago. With the level of casualties that we suffered on this mission, I don’t think it’ll be hard to convince anyone that further operations won’t be worth it.”
“I second Naratis’s conclusion,” Lilac spoke at Cinder’s side. “From my time with them, I do not believe the Hunt will so readily assign further expeditions into such a situation. They’d much rather leave us to the Fair Folk and worry about the more densely-populated Realm.”
“In fact, I was surprised at this assignment in the first place,” the older woman continued. “Now that I know River Rat was manipulating us, I suspect we never would have come out here if not for his intervention. Regardless, I am through hunting Solars and Lunars. I clearly cannot trust my own command structure, so I cannot be sure that what we’re doing is right.”
Wake was still quiet, but he and Cinder had already spoken at length about A Devil in the Darkness. When he didn’t add anything, Cinder spoke up once more. “We would certainly appreciate anything you could do to keep us from being targeted in the future.”
Naratis shook her head, and looked intently at Cinder. “I still can’t understand why you’re speaking to me so amicably. Misled or not, I was at the head of an invasion force that harmed you all greatly, and which you defeated utterly. You should be demanding such things from me.”
“I saw into your mind and heart, Iselsi Cherak Naratis, just as Soaring Ibis did. I know what sort of person you are, and I respect you. That’s all there is to it.”
Studying her for a long moment, Naratis finally bowed, placing her head to the wooden floor. “Be that as it may, I am truly sorry for what we did here. I will do whatever I can to make sure that the Wyld Hunt never bothers your people again.”
Less than an hour later, Naratis and her force departed the valley, their injured and dead in-tow. Once the last of the soldiers had passed out of the range of Cinder’s clairvoyance spell, she gathered up the other two Guardians and began preparations for Soaring Ibis’s burial. Bringing the news to the people of the valley had broken her heart a second time; despite their victory over the invaders, it very much felt to her like their hopes for the future had died with her kohai, and the people took it only slightly better. But she had gotten through it, and so would they. Valley folk had survived horrors beyond imagining for centuries, and this would not break their spirits.
It had only taken Lilac a few hours the previous night to clean the wounds on Ibis’s body, so when Cinder arrived at his house, Ibis was in a pristine miko uniform, already set up on a litter and ready for transport. As he went about his work, she watched him in silence, until he turned to look at her.
“Lady Guardian,” he said in greeting.
“Thank you for working so hard all night, Lilac.”
“You’re welcome. My family has always been especially skilled with burial rites, and among a people as fascinated by death as mine are, that’s saying something.” He looked down at Ibis wistfully. “But it never gets easier. They say that performing the rites for one of your own family is the highest honor, but it’s an honor I could have done without.”
Cinder nodded solemnly. “Has there been any sign of Wake?”
“Staves-sama stopped in earlier this morning, and told me that he was up on the Mountain of Elders all night and still hasn’t come down. He seems to be taking it particularly hard.”
That wasn’t news – right next to the empty part of her heart where Ibis had once been was a stormy, devastated patch of emotions that belonged to Cerulean Wake. Feeling his grief on top of her own was almost more than she could stand, and she longed to find him, but for now it was better if they both went it alone. “I respect his decision. We’ll see him at the burial tomorrow, I know it.”
“I’m confident, as well.” Lilac looked at her again. “Perhaps now isn’t the best time for this, but thank you for continuing to trust me, even after learning about my past.”
“Nothing that I learned from Naratis changed what I already knew or believed about you. I got little bits and pieces of your history when we first met, enough to know that you weren’t our enemy.”
He smiled a bit. “Still, I appreciate it. Not many people from such a strongly Sol Invictus-aligned culture would be so welcoming to a former Shikari-Amercer. You’ve all become my second family, and I would like very much for that to remain the case.”
She put her hand on his shoulder, and smiled back. “Good, because that’s what we want. And I know it’s what she wanted, as well.”
They held Soaring Ibis’s burial at dawn on the following day. According to the legends, the job of the Twilight Caste was to prepare the world for the coming of night; so it seemed fitting to Cinder that they should say their goodbyes to their High Songstress at the break of day. It seemed that the whole valley had converged on Great South for the burial, and Cerulean Wake did show, just as expected – after Lilac and Cinder herself, he was among the first. Ibis was laid to rest at the foot of Great South so that the tree might carry on her spirit, and their Wood Aspect friend planted live lilacs atop the burial mound, rather than leaving a single plucked one.
Once the ceremony was over, the three Dragon-Bloods headed to Argus’s chamber. Cinder put her hand on the door, and the image of a red flame appeared on it before it opened and granted them access. Waiting inside was a two-foot Matsuri-Ono, perched on the control chair with his eyes closed; as they made their way in, his eyes opened and he turned to look at them. “I am sure the Little Bird would have been quite pleased with that ritual, Lilac at Dusk.”
“Thank you,” Lilac replied. “I hadn’t expected to see you in here, Matsuri-Ono. Did you require something of us?”
The valley god clicked several times. “I wish to see what it is that the Little Bird gathered you here for. I hope there are no objections to my curiosity?”
“Of course not,” Cinder said with a smile. “I probably should have invited you as well, anyway.” Walking over to the control chair, Cinder sat down in it as Matsuri-Ono shrank to palm size and hopped up onto her shoulder. Just like … this, right? The chair molded itself to fit her body comfortably, and she tentatively reached out to the panel, touching runes in sequence carefully. She had watched Ibis do this many times, but this was her first time in the control chair solo.
Argus’s image popped up on the central display panel shortly after, and his faces turned to take them all in. “Good morning, Smoldering Cinder, Cerulean Wake, Lilac at Dusk, and Matsuri-Ono. What can I do for you?”
“Good morning, Argus. How are you feeling?”
“Diagnostics have been running for thirty consecutive hours. No damage to the system has been discovered.”
“Glad to hear it. Are you ready to carry out Soaring Ibis’s instructions?”
“At any time, Smoldering Cinder.”
Cinder got up out of the chair, and stepped away from the control panel, out into the empty space of the chamber. “Alright then. Argus, please clear the chamber and provide us with sterile conditions.”
“Acknowledged.” The room began shifting slightly, the control chair and panel sliding off to one side and the display panels retreating to the walls. A light mist filled the room, then settled a few moments later, vanishing as Argus spoke up again. “The chamber has been purified. Please continue whenever you are ready, Smoldering Cinder.”
Wake and Lilac watched her curiously as she began to shape sorcery, and when she finished the spell a tall woman, with purple skin and a small fortune in body piercings, stepped from the shadows of the chamber into the center with them. “Smoldering Cinder, I presume? And Cerulean Wake, and Lilac at Dusk?”
“Hello, Tixia. It’s nice to meet you. Though I would rather have done so under better circumstances.”
The demon studied her for a moment with eyes like smooth obsidian. “I was told that, should I be summoned without Soaring Ibis present, I was to assume that something had befallen her.”
“It’s true,” Cinder managed to force out. “She’s no longer with us.”
“That’s a great shame. Bright girl, that one. Working with her was especially invigorating. Regardless, she left a request with me, and should you desire my assistance, I’ll honor it.”
“What kind of request?” Wake asked, his voice unsure.
Cinder looked up to Argus’s image on one of the display panels. “Please play Soaring Ibis’s message.”
A second later, Argus shifted to one of the side panels, and an image of Ibis lit up the largest display on the wall. It was incredibly clear, and when her voice spoke, it was as if Ibis were right there with them again.
“This message is for Cinder and Wake, though I imagine Lilac may be here as well. And if Matsuri-sama happens to be around, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you’re hearing this, it means I’m no longer around. I won’t tell you not to grieve for me, because I’d take the loss of any of you very hard, but please, don’t lose heart. The Valley survived without me for many centuries, and with so many amazing Guardians, I know it will live on.”
The sound stopped for a moment, but only because Image Ibis started to fidget a bit with her hair, looking nervous and unsure about what she was about to say. “There’s really only one thing that I feel was left undone, and that was the three of us starting a family. To that end, I’ve enlisted the help of a demon friend of mine, Tixia the neomah. I won’t go into the specifics of how things would work here – she’s the expert and would do a better job of explaining, anyway – but … if you two want … she can still help us to have a child. I left behind a piece of myself that you’ll need for the process, in that shared Elsewhere pocket I created. It’s in the sapphire cube.”
The image paused again, and she was bright red in embarrassment, but the look on her face was tentatively excited. “I know it’s asking a lot, and I was hoping we would be able to get to this while I was still around so I could carry it. But don’t feel like you’re obligated to go through with this. I just … um … I wanted it to be possible, no matter what happened. Whatever you decide, I want you two to live your lives to the fullest, so that there’s no regrets about what could have been. What we had was incredible, and you made me happier than I could ever tell you.”
Image Ibis looked down for a bit, chewing her lip, and then looked back up. “I think … that’s everything. So long, my dragons – we’ll meet again someday, I know we will.”
Cinder turned to Wake, and took his hands in hers. “I got this all through that last mental exchange, so I’ve had some time to think about it. But you should take some time, too – I know this is a pretty big decision, especially right now.”
She could feel that his emotions were still a big tangled ball, but she also felt a sudden surge of happiness and hope that almost took her breath away. He linked his fingers with hers, and his eyes, though red-rimmed, looked like his usual self again. “I don’t need time. I know I want it. It doesn’t have to be right away, of course, but there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Lilac actually laughed before covering his mouth with a fist, and Cinder blushed heavily in spite of herself. “W-well, I guess I should have known you’d agree. I’m in too, naturally, but we should give it at least a couple of weeks, so we know we’re ready for this.”
“I can perform the procedure whenever you are ready,” Tixia chimed in. “I’ll need a suitable offering from each of you to combine with Soaring Ibis’s. The manner is up to you, though you should be warned that my methods are not quite as … streamlined … as hers was.”
“So, what does this offering entail?” Wake said, looking at the neomah.
“I’ll show you,” Cinder said. “I haven’t seen it myself yet, but I know what’s involved.” Walking over to the wall that held the panel with Ibis’s image, Cinder waited for the panel to shift, and a small hatch appeared. Opening the door, she drew out a bright blue cube and opened it. A small pink sphere floated inside, and she held it where Wake could see it. “As Ibis said, it’s a piece of her. Bits of bone, fat, muscle, and so on, gathered by one of her demons, a stomach bottle bug. I know how to summon one as well. It’s an odd process – they literally swim through your body – but it’s painless. We’ll both just need a lot of food and rest for a few days afterward.”
Wake looked at it for a moment, tilting his head at different angles, then nodded. “If you’re okay with doing it, then so am I. It’s a lot weirder than I would have guessed, but I’m still in.”
“Then I await your notice,” the neomah said. “Call me back when you’re ready, and I will provide my services.”
As the demon disappeared again, and Cinder replaced the cube into the Elsewhere pocket, Matsuri-Ono whistled happily from Cinder’s shoulder. “This was most unexpected! I am excited for the both of you!”
“As am I,” Lilac said with a smile. “You’ll make excellent parents, I’ve no doubt.”
“I had always looked forward to Ibis and I being pregnant at the same time,” Cinder said as she came back. “But I won’t lie, I’m eager, now.”
Wake took her hands again, and held them warmly. “I am, too. Having this to look forward to should help keep us occupied for the next few weeks.”
Cinder nodded, and pulled him into an embrace. “I can’t wait.”
The journey back to the Realm was long and difficult with so many dead. It was the most disastrous expedition Naratis had ever been a part of, to be sure. That would have been hard to guess from the way she was greeted, though – everyone at her base already knew that the team had killed an Anathema demon, and Shikari-Amercers were treated to heroic receptions, no matter how many kills they scored or how many comrades came back under their cloaks rather than wearing them. The sight had lost its appeal for her decades ago, and now it actively disgusted her, though she kept up appearances to avoid arousing any suspicions.
Heading to the command building to give her debriefings, she headed to the office of Cynis Marana Kaoma and dropped off her report. The blond Venerer was technically of lower rank than Naratis or Asalis, but she was in command while they were in the field, which effectively made her in charge since Asalis greatly preferred being on campaign to daily command.
“Thank you, Venerer,” Kaoma said, accepting the sheaf of papers and glancing through the first couple in short order. “I was very shocked and saddened to hear about the loss of Venerer Asalis and the rest of your team. He was a legend, and he’ll be hard to replace.”
Yet replace him you will, just like the rest of them. “I appreciate that, Venerer.”
Kaoma blinked as she read over the next page, and looked up in disbelief. “It says here that you’re letting your commission expire?”
“Yes, that’s correct. I’ve already put in for retirement as well.”
“That’s quite a surprise. I rather thought you’d be in for as long as Asalis was.”
“Years ago, I would have said the same. But after the loss of this team, I think it’s best if I call it quits.”
Kaoma nodded in understanding. “I don’t think anyone could blame you for that. Let’s see … you’re also advising against any future action at the target site?”
Naratis chose her words carefully. “That valley is more dangerous than our scouts were able to originally assess. With it being so far away from the Realm, I don’t think it’s really worth our time and effort to travel out there again. I feel we would be better served focusing our energies on the Blessed Isle and in the Threshold.”
Venerer Kaoma looked over Naratis’s report for a moment, then finally nodded. “Even if the Anathema was terminated, this was quite a hefty cost. Your opinion carries quite a bit of weight with the rest of command, so I expect this will get approved, for what it’s worth.”
The debriefing lasted a few more minutes, and once it was over Naratis headed to her quarters. On the way back, she had freed Raiton, written several letters to her various contacts, and handled a few minor tasks to prepare for her retirement. After she had first made her decision, she had expected to have at least a little hesitation at just walking away after so long, but now that she was here, it was remarkably easy.
The harder part was still to come, of course. She wasn’t just leaving the Hunt – she had to find out whatever she could about A Devil in the Darkness, and what had really gone on behind the scenes. If some group had infiltrated the Wyld Hunt thoroughly enough to pick their targets, then they would surely be smart enough to cover their tracks. She had a feeling that the most difficult battle of her life lay ahead of her, but this was a new enemy, one she much preferred to killing youths.
A few days later, all of her arrangements had been made, and she left for her family’s holdings back in the Realm. The lands, titles, and riches she had accrued in the Hunt needed transferring to her children and their descendants; Iselsi Cherak Naratis would begin this next stage of her life with nothing left to tie her down in the Realm.
Nothing I could ever do would wipe away my mistakes, but maybe I’ll find something to believe in again.
“And that’s my entire report,” the young soldier spoke into her communicator. “Venerer Naratis cleared out her quarters and left just a few minutes ago. I don’t think she wants anything further to do with the Hunt, and maybe not with the Realm, if I read her as thoroughly as I think I did.”
“Excellent work,” spoke the voice on the other end. “We should probably keep an eye on her, but she might also make a useful ally. Only time will tell.”
The soldier frowned a bit. “I still wish you had let me act back in the Valley. Rather than getting found tied to the tree, I could have gone missing-in-action and snuck away to help Ibis. I could have saved her.”
“That’s quite possible, Raven. But we don’t know yet how far your old partner’s assignment went up the chain. It’s unlikely he was working alone, or on his own recognizance. Even if we had saved Soaring Ibis, another Hunt would have come along, and we might have gotten discovered. So long as most of them are locked away, we can’t take any huge risks. We have to keep going like we are.”
Giving a quiet sigh, the soldier looked down. She remembered A Devil in the Darkness quite well. There had always been something off about him, ever since they had trained together. It didn’t really surprise her that he had gone Bronze Faction – and so thoroughly Bronze Faction that he actually enjoyed carving bloody swaths into the landscape whenever a Solar was discovered – but she hadn’t wanted to see him die. Sidereals were supposed to be better than that, were meant for better things.
“You’re right. I don’t like it, but you’re right.”
“This won’t last forever, Raven. Someday, we’ll be able to leave the shadows and do what’s right. For now, though, we have to bide our time. Come on back, I’ve got a new assignment for you.”
“Got it. I’ll see you shortly.” Stepping into the shadows, the soldier let her appearance melt away. Only Naratis had known her face or anything about her; with the Venerer gone, she wouldn’t even have to arrange a transfer for her Resplendent Destiny cover. She became a tall man with a hooked nose, and as Raven reclaimed his form, he flash-stepped away from the barracks and started making his way into the wilderness. It galled him to have to put the Three Oaks situation behind him, but for now it would have to be filed away and forgotten. It was time to return to Yu-Shan, and in Yu-Shan there was always more work than there were hands to do it.
Six months later … .
“Alright, that’s enough for today. Go have fun, and I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow.”
Bowing slightly to her three students as she dismissed them, Cinder watched them leave Argus’s chamber, smiling to herself. Life had returned to normal in the Valley, as it always did. There had been some rebuilding, of course – most notably, the shrine above the chamber had needed repairs, and the hole in the top of the chamber itself had been patched over. But their people were a hardy people, and though the loss of Soaring Ibis still weighed heavily on them, they had picked up and moved on.
Picking up the large basket sitting next to her and walking out of the chamber herself, Cinder found Lilac at Dusk waiting for her at the top of the stairs, and joined him shortly. “Good afternoon, Guardian.”
“And the same to you, Guardian. Your trainees seem to be picking the new work up quite readily.”
“It’s true. Now that we can fully interact with Argus, I think it’s prudent to teach the next generation as quickly as possible. I suspect we’ll have at least two Exalts of those three in a few years.”
Turning to walk alongside her, Lilac nodded and looked to her again. “And how are you two doing today?”
Cinder looked down into the basket, and tucked the blanket more fully around the infant inside. “Right as rain. Little Sky is quiet and well-behaved. Wake and I have barely had to alter our schedules at all – she’s perfectly content to nap while we’re busy.”
“Having her around certainly didn’t seem to get in the way of your sparring match with Wake yesterday,” Lilac said with a sly grin.
“You know as well as I do that we were made to be warriors. A little thing like carrying around infants can’t be used as an excuse to slack off.”
Lilac laughed out loud at that. “I suppose not. Even in a House as decadent and hedonistic as Cynis, most of the female Dragon-Blooded soldiers I knew who became mothers were still in fully-active duty up until delivering, and then went right back to their duties the next day. Though, Wake and I would still prefer you take it at least a little easier for the next few weeks. You’ve been even busier than usual, and we’re having a hard time keeping up with you, to be honest.”
“Hmph. Wake’s decision to mope around for nearly a month without doing any training was fully his to make. And now he’s paying for it.” Her tone was softer than her words, though – she knew quite well how strong his depression had been, so it was mostly in jest. “But you’re more responsible, Lilac, so for you, I’ll consider it.”
They walked toward Great South, and found Wake exactly where he had been every day around this same time.
“191 … 192 … 193 … .”
Next to Soaring Ibis’s grave, and the beautiful hybrid flower bush that was growing atop it, Cerulean Wake was doing one-handed handstand pushups, his other arm held behind his back. “198 … 199 … and 200!” Pushing himself up into the air, he landed on his feet and turned toward them, wiping his brow. “Heya. You’re a little early.”
“I gave the girls an early day off. I’m making each of them run through Argus’s systems solo tomorrow morning.”
“And here I had hoped you were just that eager to see me.” He walked over and pressed a kiss to her cheek, smiling down at their sleeping daughter. “Lunch at Kagari’s?”
“She’ll be setting up for us within the hour.” Cinder took his hand in her own. “You should take a dip in the lake first. You’re a little ripe.”
Wake laughed, something he was finally starting to do more of again. “So brutally honest. I will, if you’ll come with me.”
She blushed and grinned at him. “Very well, I’ll come with. We’ll see you shortly, Lilac?”
The other man laughed quietly and dipped his head. “Of course. I’ll have the tea ready as well.”
Wake led the way toward the lake, pulling her hand eagerly. As Cinder followed him, she looked his way and laughed. “Don’t pull so hard, silly. I’m right behind you.”
Winter Sky pushed her long sapphire locks over her shoulders and then picked up her calligraphy brush again. The sigils needed for the monthly Ceremony of the Winds were complex, and hard enough to get right when she was completely focused. With her mind distracted, they were a royal pain; she had already drawn this particular sigil twice and erased it, and she really didn’t want to have to do it a fourth time.
When she finally finished her brush stroke, she sat back on her heels and checked her work. The sinuous line was the proper width all throughout, and when she channeled Essence into it, it flowed uniformly throughout the entire structure.
“Excellent work, Little Breeze!” Matsuri-Ono whistled happily, his tiny cat-sized form bobbing back and forth across from her. “Only four more to go.”
Sky pouted, and set the sigil aside. “Matsuri-sama, I’m booooored. Today’s my birthday, and I should be having fun. Can’t these wait until tomorrow?”
The valley god’s helmeted head shook, but his eyes were little amused arcs. “Nonono. I cannot let you slack off, Little Breeze. If I were to do so, Miko Iori would put a great frog inside of my armor, and I would only be able to speak in croaks for a month!”
Rolling her eyes, Sky shook her head, and began on the next sigil. The valley god was full of tall tales. “If that were true, wouldn’t you just be able to grow to your war form and shake it out?”
“Ah, but then the frog would grow too, and the croaking would be so loud that people in all three villages would be unable to sleep. They would start praying to the Great Frog for relief, and poor Matsuri-Ono would become known as the Big Green Armor.”
She laughed for a moment. “Uh-huh. You do realize that I’m fifteen now? I’m getting a little too old to believe your stories.”
Clicking several times, he walked in a circle then pulled his legs into his armor and settled onto the floor. “Fish feathers. Both of your mothers believed my stories until they were far older than you, Little Breeze.”
“And my father?”
“Cerulean Wake told me several of those stories himself. And he got them from Jorudo, and the master of the lake can always be believed.”
Sky continued working diligently, and just as she was finishing the last one, High Songstress Temari Yula arrived at the shrine. Twice Sky’s age, the High Songstress was short but solidly built, with hair like spun gold that she wove into two thick braids. The first Earth Aspect in the valley in almost three hundred years, she was a powerful warrior, but had a beautiful voice that Sky had always thought sounded as if the earth itself were opening up and serenading its beloved children. She was also Sky’s teacher, tough but fair and constantly pushing her to improve in her responsibilities.
“How go the sigils, Sky?”
“Almost finished, High Songstress. Matsuri-Ono kept me motivated.”
“Mm, that’s good to hear. I would hope Matsuri-Ono is keeping quite the close eye on our future Chief Miko.”
Sky blushed nervously. “You seem so convinced that I’ll be taking over someday, sifu, but that’s a lot of responsibility. How can you already be so sure I’m right for it?”
Temari laughed musically, and came over to lift Matsuri-Ono onto her shoulder. “You gained an Aspect at fourteen, you’ve been talking to the spirits since you were seven, and you’ve grown up learning at the feet of two of the valley’s greatest heroes. If anyone was meant for the position, it’s you.”
Matsuri-Ono nodded several times, crossing his arms. “You are the daughter of two previous Chief Mikos and the successor to Seven Vaulting Staves, and a bright young Air Aspect. But more than that, you are Winter Sky, and should you wish to be our Chief Miko, I have every confidence you will make yourself ready.”
Once Sky finished the last sigil, she accompanied her mentor and Matsuri-Ono down into the valley. Along the way, they were joined by Mikos Brightmoon and Catstail. The Water and Wood Aspect had been like aunts to her her entire life, and always made time to help her with her training when they could spare it from their responsibilities in their own villages. But it was good to get to spend more time with them in a recreational sense.
“There’s the birthday girl,” the tall and willowy Lilica Brightmoon said, walking up and hugging her.
Iori Catstail, despite being in her mid-twenties, was still petite and tiny, and reached up to ruffle Sky’s hair. “I’m looking forward to this big dinner with the whole family. I haven’t seen the little one since, what, the Spring Festival?”
Sky smiled and linked arms with the two of them. “If you want to spend an hour or two telling stories about how amazing I am, I certainly won’t object.”
When they reached Kagari’s, the rest of their party was already waiting for them around a table. Lilac at Dusk sat sipping tea, next to Seven Vaulting Staves, who was eating a pork bun. Her mother was sitting with her hands folded in her lap, her eyes closed but a serene expression on her face, next to her father, who was lifting Sky’s toddler brother up in the air and poking him in the tummy to make him laugh. Cliff Sage only shared two of Sky’s three parents – though unlike Sky, who had been fully-formed as a newborn by magic, he had actually been carried in Smoldering Cinder’s womb for nine months – but he was still every bit as much family to her.
They made room around the table, and Sky took a place between her parents, pulling Sage into her lap and booping his nose. “Hello Mum, Da. I assume I haven’t missed anything yet? Didn’t start regaling my greatness without us?”
Her mother laughed quietly and looked to her with a smirk. “I see someone has been listening to Matsuri-Ono’s motivational talk. Should we begin with discussing how humble and down-to-earth you are?” When Sky giggled, her mother winked at her. “It’s hard to believe you’re already fifteen. Nearly a grown woman.”
“Yes, but she’s still our darling little girl.” Her father put his hand on her shoulder. “You look more like Ibis every day. She’d be proud of you, just as much as we are.”
Sky had seen images of her other mother in Argus’s chamber – Soaring Ibis had stored recordings of herself explaining the animating intelligence’s system for future generations, and Sky had watched them all a dozen times already. It was a bit surreal, but even though they hadn’t been meant specifically for her, they had always been comforting. Working with Argus and learning the operations of the Wyld Barrier gave her a way to get to know her other mother, after a fashion.
“So what are we having first, Sky?” Lilac asked in his gentle voice. “Let me guess … red bean buns?”
She grinned as she turned to him. “One day, you’ll have to tell me how you can always do that. But yes! Red bean buns, please!”
Pushing aside evergreen bushes, the blue-haired Water Aspect finally got her first close-up view of the building that was her destination. The structure was massive, with grounds as large as a palace and towering far larger than any she had ever seen; if it weren’t tucked so far into a remote nook of the North, someone else surely would have found it by now, even with the massive overgrowth of ivy covering it. Then again, there were icewalker tribes in the region, and some of them were incredibly aggressive. She had had to beat several dozen warriors to within an inch of their lives – and a few more past that – already to get the message across that she was not prey.
She wiped the sweat from her brow, and shielded her eyes as she looked around. It had been fifteen years since she had left the Wyld Hunt, with little more than the name of one spy and the memories of her last mission to go on. It hadn’t been easy – any organization crafty enough to infiltrate the Wyld Hunt was not a group to be taken lightly, and with her fame in certain circles she knew that being discreet would require more care. So she had taken it slow and steady, doing research in obscure places and only asking questions when absolutely necessary.
In all honesty, she still didn’t know much about A Devil in the Darkness. It was clear that he had been River Rat all along, but she seemed to be the only one who remembered much about the spy’s pudgy alter-ego. Clearly some sort of magic was in effect, but she couldn’t poke at that mystery too strongly; she had a feeling that might attract just the kind of attention she was seeking to avoid.
Despite that, she occasionally found little tidbits of information that seemed to be bread crumbs. Whether or not someone had intentionally left them for her, she couldn’t really say, and at first she had been incredibly reluctant to trust any information she acquired. But ultimately, she had taken the risk, and one clue had led to another – buried in an unassuming and defunct collection of ledgers here, a mundane personal library there. Though much of what she found was vague and open to a wealth of different interpretations, she was fairly certain that her trail was leading her to some sort of archive. If she was being led by someone, they didn’t seem to have malicious intent, unless there was a deathtrap waiting for her in a library of all places, and after a decade and a half of searching.
Making her way through the overgrown courtyard, she headed for the central building itself. She could already tell that even though this place looked – and probably was – ancient, it hadn’t suffered much from the wear of time and nature. She had to force the central doors open, but once inside, she gazed upward into a colossal spire with level after level, each one featuring a massive section of bookcases at its center. There was a thick layer of dust all over the place, but everything she could see was in quite usable shape.
Well, Naratis, we wanted answers. Let’s get to digging.
Smoldering Cinder splashed water on her face, then peered at herself in the mirror. That face had barely changed much in the half-century since her time with Soaring Ibis. It felt like a lifetime had passed; she was now a mother, and grandmother, several times over, and with the exception of a few minor Fair Folk attacks, Three Oaks had known a peace like few in the valley’s history. Yet her memories of the days that she, Ibis, and Wake had shared were still as fresh as they had ever been. That was partially why she was more excited to be on the road than she was letting on.
Gathering up her traveling pack, and sliding Ivory Blaze Dancer into her belt, she walked out of the house and made for the road out of South Oak. It had gotten larger in recent years, but then again, so had the valley on the whole. Three Oaks was a bastion of safety on the border of the Wyld, so some of the outlying barbarian tribes had moved closer and settled into a peaceful coexistence with the villagers. And the Dragon-Blooded population was booming as well, relatively speaking: in addition to Winter Sky and Cinder’s three former pupils, Cliff Sage had Exalted as an Earth Aspect; Wake had fathered a daughter with Lilica Brightmoon who had recently been blessed by Fire; and Lilac had two Dragon-Blooded scions now as well, one of them with Kagari’s daughter Yui and the other with Cinder herself. The current peaceful days probably wouldn’t last forever, but it seemed Three Oaks would have no shortage of Guardians to look after it; the blood was stronger than ever.
I wish you could see this, kohai, Cinder thought with a smile as she passed a cluster of children playing a loud game of tag. But maybe I’ll get lucky this time, and be able to show you.
Waiting for her near the outskirts of town was a cluster of folks she knew well. Cerulean Wake was the first to spy her, standing with his hands clasped behind his back. He was aging quite well too, and had finally gained the more distinguished, less boyish look he had longed for – his short beard actually suited him, though she still teased him about it from time-to-time. Lilac was there too, and he looked as if barely a day had passed; only the increased length of his bright red hair spoke of any time at all. Cliff Sage was huge and reserved as ever, towering over everyone else by several inches. A gentle giant, he looked much like paintings of one of the valley’s long-dead heroes, Shattered Earth Soldier.
And, of course, Winter Sky; now that she had grown up, she looked almost regal, her long sapphire tresses trailing down around her pristine miko dress. Temari had passed the mantle of Chief Miko down to her almost four years prior, and she wore it well. There wasn’t a day that went by that the mere sight of her didn’t make Cinder swell with pride.
Sky smiled warmly when she saw her, and called out to Cinder as she approached. “Going out for a walk, Mother?”
“A bit of a long one, yes,” Cinder replied. That was how they always had this last exchange before Cinder’s pilgrimage, every five years for twenty now. “I’m trusting you to keep your father in line while I’m gone. Sage of the Mountain or not, he needs someone to keep an eye on him.”
Wake laughed, and shook his head. “Which direction will it be this time, Flame of My Heart?”
“I’m thinking I’ll try the South again. There’s only so many places a Twilight Solar can hide, after all.” She knew better, of course; Ibis’s next incarnation, if she were even already reborn, might be anywhere at all in the world. She – or he – could have an entirely new family, and might not know her at all. There was little-to-no chance Cinder would even find her again, but that was alright, too. Seeing the world outside of the village for a few months every so often kept her, and the others, informed. And even if it was entirely improbable, the chance that she might get to meet Ibis all over again was enough to make her go. “You sure none of you want to come along?”
“You’re the only retired one among us,” Lilac said with a slight grin. “The rest of us don’t have proteges to hand our responsibilities off to yet.”
“Ever the stalwart Guardian,” Cinder replied, smiling back at him. “But a good point. Next time, perhaps.”
“Be careful, Mother,” came Sage’s soft-spoken voice. “We know how much you like to wander.”
“I’ll try to be good and not stay gone too long.” Reaching up, she patted him on the cheek affectionately, then hugged him, doing the same with each of them in turn.
“I’ll see you soon,” Wake whispered into her ear. “Good luck, and give her my best if you find her this time.”
“I will.” Cinder kissed him for a long moment, then pulled away and pulled her pack up onto her shoulders. “Well then, I’m off.” Waving to her family, she turned and got back onto the road, speeding up to long cross-country strides once she was out of the village. After a few minutes, the valley disappeared behind her, and she smiled eagerly at the thought of the journey to come.
The great courtyard below the balcony was alive with hustle and bustle. Once the local tribes had learned that the old library was a safe haven for those who wished to live in peace, people had started streaming in by the dozens, and then by the hundreds. The library held only the barest tidbits regarding the secrets Iselsi Cherak Naratis had sought – and those few were ciphered so heavily that only someone who had had firsthand experience, and spent years digging through clues, could spot them – but it held a wealth of information on other matters. Agriculture, medicine, science and mathematics, history, art, and so on. There were even entire sections dedicated to magitech research.
Every type of knowledge needed to build a civilization was there, and in truth, a civilization far more advanced than that of even the Realm. So since there were thousands of people languishing in the harsh climate nearby, that was what the new library master had decided to do. The library itself had clearly had enough living quarters for hundreds of people when she arrived; as more people moved in, and the residents began learning from the records left behind, they had added more and more quarters. Now, easily two or three thousand people could reside inside the library itself, in cells no less comfortable than what scholars back in the Realm might have. They had come there a ragtag collection of outcasts from different peoples, and within just a few decades had become something organized, an order of their own.
Iselsi Cherak Naratis had changed, as well. She had left next to no trail behind during her years of investigation, and after all of this time, had no interest in returning to her old life in the Realm. So she had become Styrion Azure, Master of the Saeculo Antiquis Librarium. Looking down at the activity in the courtyard below – at the classes, the tinkering, the research – she knew that these were her people now. This, a society based on learning and cooperation, where she could guide later generations rather than hunt them, was her new calling.
Smiling to herself, she stepped away from the railing of the balcony and walked back into her quarters. She had accomplished a great deal in the years since she had left the Wyld Hunt, far more than she had as a murderer. Unfortunately, she had not completely unlocked the truth of this mysterious faction inside of the Hunt – these “Sidereals”. But there were still plenty of books she hadn’t read in the Library, and she had left careful detailed records of what she had learned. Someday, the truth would come out. In the meantime, it would be enough to keep helping these people, however she could. It would be a fine way to spend her last days.
“I wonder what that young Solar would have done with her life had she been able to wander the world like we have,” she mused out loud to herself. She thought often of her short time in Three Oaks; of the resolute bonds she had sensed among the valley’s people; and of the mettle and character she had witnessed in Soaring Ibis and her guardians. Part of her even secretly hoped that the girl would be reborn among her new people, though her better judgment knew that would almost certainly draw the Hunt down on them. “I sincerely hope that someday, being reborn as a Solar or a Lunar won’t be a death sentence.” Perhaps that was part of why she was doing all of this.
Styrion sat down at her desk and drew out her pen, getting to work on a letter she had been considering for a while.
“To the next Master of the Library,” she wrote. “I expect I will have trained you personally, but just in case, there are some things that you should know about me, and about our purpose. Our world is in bad shape, but there are good people in it. Some in places you would never expect. That is why I created the Loresmiths, to help lead the way in ending this ‘Age of Sorrows.’ I’ll start with where I came from. Long ago, I was part of an organization called the Wyld Hunt … .”
Blazer snapped out of his trance, stumbling and almost falling backwards before catching himself. Blinking several times, he realized he’d been crying, and his heart was racing. As his vision cleared, he caught sight of what he had just been holding, lying on the floor in a heap: that pesky miko robe that Ven kept sneaking out of his possessions to tease him with. He suspected Snapdragon was involved with that, somehow. That dress had been what triggered the memory, he was certain. It did look like Soaring Ibis’s clothing, he had to admit.
Soaring Ibis. One of his previous incarnations. It usually took conscious focus for him to call up memories of a previous life, and they were usually just short glimpses. But for some reason, just handling the miko robe this time had triggered the longest memory he had had thus far. He had seen the last moments of several of his incarnations, but Ibis’s was particularly powerful. He remembered them all – Cerulean Wake, Smoldering Cinder, Lilac at Dusk, and her other friends in the valley – as well as if he had known and loved them personally. Bending down and picking the robe up, he clutched it to his chest and closed his eyes.
“Why the serious face, you?”
Blazer looked up, and saw Seven Devils Clever walk into the bedroom. Her strawberry hair shone, clearly freshly-brushed, which made the blue flowers on her kimono really pop to the eye. She walked right up to him, and furrowed her brow, her fox ears twitching as she leaned over into his face.
He let go of the robe with one hand and put his arm around her, kissing her deeply. She returned it for a long moment, and then pinched his side finally, putting her hands on her hips. “What’s gotten into you?” she asked, though she didn’t look nearly as annoyed as she sounded.
“S-sorry. I … I just had a memory, Sev. A long one.”
Scrunching up her nose, Seven shook her head, turning away a little. “You’re making even less sense than usual.”
“Her name was Soaring Ibis,” Blazer continued. “She lived several centuries ago, and … she never found you.” At that, Seven glanced his way curiously, and he kept talking. “Too many times, I’ve lived my life without you, Sev. It means a lot to me that I met you early this time.”
“Appreciation from an Orpheus? I’d better mark this down as a holiday.”
“I mean it, Seven.” Blazer stepped closer to her again. “And it’s not ‘from an Orpheus.’ It’s from me, Blazer. You’re my Lunar mate, and you pull my feet to the ground when my head is too far in the clouds. I love you, and I want you in my life for good.”
“Hmm … .” She looked at him dubiously, but when she met his eyes, hers softened, until she blushed a little. “Stop looking at me like that. I might start thinking you like me or something.”
“You would say that.” After a moment, he noticed her looking at his arms. “What is it?”
“Put it on.”
It was Blazer’s turn to blush, and far brighter than she had. “What?”
“You’re hugging that robe like it’s a lifeline, so I can only assume it’s something she wore too. So put it on, and let’s see how you look. And use that spell of yours; I wanna see the whole thing.”
“Form-Bending Prism? That’s not really what it’s for-”
Swapping out of his long-sleeved tunic and pulling the robe on, Blazer shaped the sorcery of his Prism, and looked over his appearance in the floor-length mirror as it shifted. He didn’t need to change much; from his memories, he and Ibis looked very similar, with nearly-identical faces and the same long dark hair. The cosmetic changes to give him a feminine shape were just within the bounds of the spell.
“Okay, I admit it. You were cute.” Seven stepped over to Blazer’s side and panned her eyes up and down.
He turned bright red again. “Don’t get too excited. It’s not like your shapeshifting; the, ah, fleshier bits are just constructs made from Wyld energy, not actual skin.”
“Oh boo. Leave it to a bookworm to downplay the sexy possibilities of a shapeshifting spell, imperfect or not.” She leaned over and bit his collarbone, and met his eyes in the mirror. “How long does this spell last?”
“A while,” he replied, a little nervously.
Her grin was as devilish as her name. “Good.”