Unto the Ages
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Her mother told her a story, once, about a boy who was trapped in a courtyard.

Its walls were tall and sheer, and although they could be climbed on the inside, on the outside there was not a handhold nor a stop to be seen. Therefore, anyone could look out over the green and fertile lands surrounding it, but they could not descend to reach it, and this was a greater torment to the dwellers within than aught else. And daily the boy would climb the walls and look out, dreaming of what might lie beyond that horizon and what it might be like to stride among those grasses and discover it.

So the boy spoke to his sister, and he said, The only creatures that can cross that boundary are the birds, which we see each year as they migrate. If I am ever to flee, I must become like them: will you help me, sister, to gather the feathers they shed? For from them I am minded to make a pair of wings for myself, that I may follow them away into the wideness of the world.

And she agreed. So every day they would go out upon the grass and gather feathers, and every night they would take out the wings and fasten more of their feathers onto them. The boy would watch the birds and attempt to mimic their actions so that his body would know what to do when finally he made his flight.

And finally, the wings were fully-fledged, and the boy donned them and went out. The night was cool, the breeze gentle. He climbed up to the top of the walls and stood there with arms outstretched, and the air caught under them and lifted him until he felt weightless.

The guards, seeing his shadow dark against the starlight, rushed up to the parapet and tried to seize him. They tried to set hands on him, to pull the wings from his body. But they were too late - he had worn them so long that they had grown onto his arms, and no matter how they grasped the guards could not tear them away. And the boy leapt from the parapet and flew, the ground dropping away beneath him as he dwindled to a speck in the sky and was gone, away from the chains, away from the punishments, into the wilderness to be forever and always free.

She never said what had happened to the sister.

Saarn is not thinking, when she wrenches a hole in the membranes of space and time and flings herself away from the collapsing conquest and tumbles out into the snow. It bites white on her skin. Her portal has sealed by the time she struggles to her feet, stranding her alone in a colourless desert broken only by the bleak shafts of distant mountain-slopes.

(After the riot of coppery magic and autolysis she had glimpsed back beyond it, she is grateful for the white.)

When she stretches out her senses, she feels nothing - well, all the small burrowing things dormant underneath it, the slow pulse of sugar through deep-buried grass roots, but nothing with the taste of Nälkä in it, nothing that tastes like real flesh. She must be far from the rest of the hosts, far from the rest of the empire, far from anything.

(Anything. Like anything remains anymore. Kythera will be a ruin, now, after whatever the Mekhanites had done to corrupt his power. Now that Orok and Lovataar have been destroyed by their own selves, now that uncontrolled sorcery has shredded their halkosts. She had felt that first tug of corruption in her own guts before fleeing, and even so far away the memory disgusts her, pulls her pupils out wide.

That distance is probably the only thing that saved her, come to think.)

The sky is opalescent, revealing no sun or moon or any means of determining her location. So, at random, Saarn picks a direction and walks.

Only once does she think that it might be easier, if she had a body. Even if it hadn’t been his, even if it hadn’t been whole - a limb, a liver, an amulet, just something that she could hold in her actual hands, weep over with her actual eyes. Something she could wash and wrap in winding sheets and lay on fragrant fir in the bone-grounds at the edges of the forest and say a prayer over - like she had done for her first sister, the one to whom she had been bound by the sharing of a womb rather than the sharing of meat and drink.

Or maybe that would have made it worse - maybe grief is like water, harmless and easily passed through when diffuse as mist, but if given something to nucleate upon, all gathered together in one place, capable of striking any human instantly down.

And the infuriating thing is - she had known this. It was worthless to love anything, anyone: the masters, or the world in general, would take or sell it all away. She had had herself almost fully trained: when they had pulled her first family away behind the marketplace, she had bit the inside of her lips until they ulcerated, ground her nails into the skin of her hands, but she had not wept. Nor the second time, nor the third time, nor when the switches fell over her palms or when the sons of the house would hold her against the walls - Saarn had built her own walls, sealed in her soul until it could feel nothing, do nothing, until she had almost forgotten she had one.

But he had been - warm. Temptingly warm, and that hidden soul had shuddered and against all the rest of her will slipped out one tendril - please, can we bask here? it had asked, just for a moment?

And, like a fool, she had agreed.

Saarn does not feel the cold, as she trudges on through the empty tundra. She becomes aware of it only as a slowing, her limbs taking longer to respond to her thoughts and those thoughts taking longer to cross the expanses of her mind. This might be a cause for concern, but fortunately the cold slows that as well.

He said, when she and Nadox and he were curled around a brazier one night speaking of everything and nothing, that there were creatures lying within the frozen soils, so perfectly preserved over millions of years that he could revive one with scarcely a sliver of power, if he found one.

She will become one of them, soon enough. Frozen through, only waiting for the chance of someone to stumble upon her and revive her. If they ever do.

Lost in these thoughts, she overtops a ridge only for a sudden flash of darkness among all that hoar to catch on one of the many predatory instincts lying coiled at the bottom of her mind.

There are dwellings, here. There is smoke that smudges the sky, and small figures moving like insects.

But that is no reason to deviate from her path.

Saarn is good at camouflage, so it is but a moment to make herself look as one of them - blunt-cut bangs, resorbed appendages, melanocytes replicating and migrating over her face to cluster in jagged lines on her chin and forehead. And then she goes down among the huts - poor things but honest, built of packed snow and skins supported with slender ribs of bone. Almost they look like the shelters from the first days of Ion’s campaign, that had put forth their own ribs and gills.

Their inhabitants mill about, not looking at her - weaving baskets, sewing furs, stirring steaming cooking-skins. Outside one shelter, a young man stands threading sinew through a fold of leather, and a young woman runs up to him, hair tumbling loose. He says something and laughs; the woman does too, and he puts an arm around her shoulders, bends down to press his lips to her hairline.

And fury is a wildfire, a wave that crashes over and drowns her.

Saarn does not feel the cold, but she does feel the warmth - a third of the way to boiling smeared on her cheeks, soaking her kirtle, splattered bright over the snow. Her fangs fold themselves back up against the roof of her mouth, and her claws retract involuntarily.

It tastes the same - iron and protein and rich rare salt, steaming into the air. Centuries have passed, and yet she has trodden only in a great circle, come right back to where she was before with nothing to show for all that time but a handful more scars and a hole where a god once lived.

Her lips curl. What a waste.

She does not count the years she spends simply… moving. Crawling from territory to territory, among the hemlocks. And when each grows familiar, too close, too claustrophobic, she simply slits the world and moves on to somewhere else. Anywhere else.

But Saarn survives. No matter how many raw fields of lifeless black rocks she has to walk over, how many times her soles burst into blistering against the hot steam. No matter how many times the snow descends and covers her up as thickly as the ice-bear pelt Orok had draped over her. He had placed the cased-out head over her own, and she had laughed, it sliding down over her eyes to conceal her entirely in thick white fur.

She had still been wrapped in it hours later, once the moon had risen into a foggy, iridescent-fringed spot like a cataracted eye gazing down at them. Orok’s breath had shimmered as well in its light, but the trabecular permineralized ramparts had been warm and insulative under them - even more so for her, curled animalistic into his side.

Why did you come? he had asked, and she had known what he meant: to follow Ion at all. It had been breathed almost noiselessly, as though to ask that question was shameful, as though anything less than full devotion to the cause meant they would become enemies, even after all this time. Would push them over that hair-thin line between with us and against us.

I do not know, Saarn had answered honestly. Language - any of them, Adytite or Daevite or Ejienk, the accented tongues of the western sea or brought from the jungles of the south - was not designed to describe the knot of agonizing adoration that had settled among the limbs of her ribs. You?

Me neither. There were so many people who claimed to be Deliverer, in Jel, he had said. And I doubted every one. And was right! She did not bother to ask how he had known this, what had happened to them. It was the same in every city across the empire: every runaway wanted to think they’d be the one to survive, the one who would reach back and free all the others, be hero and break the fetters and none of them ever did and nothing ever changed. I could never afford to hope, he had said.

Neither had she. Her mother had tried to turn that sentiment on its head - nobody can afford your hope, čuoru, she had said, ruffling Saarn’s hair. That is the one thing they cannot buy, at any price.

Saarn had known better. What did that matter, if they could afford everything else?

But in the end, her mother had been wrong - not because she had estimated too low but because she had estimated too high. If any of the masters or mistresses had ever tried to buy her hope they would have used pierced and marked coins, placed them into her old owner’s hands - not a twisted handful of pig-iron rent from the walls and flung at her feet, not one follow me and one kiss on the brow.

He never would have paid a single measly kúan for any of their bodies - you are far too precious to me for that, he had said.

She wonders what he would have given, to ensure their hope endured.

See, this is what had bound them all - that they had loved a prophet. That they had lived within their own legend, within the tale that he had called out to crowds and whispered in their ears and hissed as curses to priests and tyrants bleeding out on his blades.

It had been terrible - she sees that now, with eyes gone milky as the crystallins within them freeze. But they had been young and wine-drunk on hope and novelty, and had taken him at face value when he said they could be happy, could be free.

And now the story has all gone wrong - she lives, and he is dead, and her wings have been clipped and she is falling, falling.

The hills grow green, lined with spruce-forests again. The mountains grow tall, the rock below their bases thrusting them ever upwards until their peaks are hidden in the clouds. Animals cross her path, occasionally, and her claws and venoms always strike their marks, send them folding gently to the ground, dead.

Sometimes she even eats them, after.

There is a small blue lake in a small shadowed valley, and she stumbles right into its shallows. When she kneels down to drink from it, her face catches in the water, wakens that same predator-instinct that demands her to focus upon it. She looks like a thing barely alive, with knotted hair and crusted eyes, clothing long since rotted away to rags - like a monster, slit-pupiled and scaled. For a moment she pangs to remember her old face, the soft and blunt-toothed one. The instinctual depths of her mind howl that she run back, to that place and that time.

(In years to come, men will drink from the water of this lake and die instantly.)

But what is there to return to, after so long? How could she bear to be human again, blind and dumb and undefended as she had been? How could she bear to be anything else, knowing the horror that had wrought everything living? He has strung her up on a gibbet between flesh and spirit, slave and goddess, and forgot to cut the cord.

It turns out that even liminality goes sour, over ages.

The world opens a wide mouth and swallows her up. Over flowstones and terraces, beneath stalactites hanging like swords suspended from threads, she wanders, seeking no end but unable to endure stillness either.

Eventually, she breaks out into a cavern lit by shafts of light falling from crumbling-edged sinkholes in the ceiling. The limestone waterfall to her left looks more liquid than the others have, drenched in some black, sticky substance whose volatiles taste of carbon when they drift between her lips.

Saarn does not realize what her hands are doing until they have already begun - dipping into the tar, dragging themselves over the walls. Tracing limbs, tracing hands and feet and eyes, the letter-shapes Nadox had shown her with his fingers rough over hers and lips and faces painted the way Lovataar had done them, with firm sure lines. The four of them take shape, there, on the wall - not perfect, for nothing that lives can ever be perfect, perfect is for crystals and metals, not for ensouled things - but beautiful. Full and flourishing, the way they ought to be. Once again, for the first time in uncountable years, she beholds Lovataar’s horned visage, Orok solemn and proud, Nadox with his hands frozen in the middle of a word.

And him - still gentle, and still lost.

She snatches up another handful of tar and steps forward again, slashing though the rock tears the skin from her knuckles. Liar, somebody snarls, and they use her mouth. They clench her hands and pull, and up there on the surface roots respond and hyphae, auguring down, spilling lithodegredative enzymes, and once again fleshy tendrils rupture from her companions’ bodies, tearing them to pieces.

He was worse than the masters had been, for at least they had kept their promises, no matter how monstrous they were. But Ion -

You said you would save us. He had taken her and used her, seized her when she had no choice but to obey and then hollowed her out for a weapon. Would he have discarded her anyway had his conquest succeeded, having no further use for her? For now he had left her with nothing, had replaced her hope in dying under the axe with hope in him, and then rent even that away from her.

Just another false claimant to the title of Deliverer, after all.

I hate you are her last words to the man - beautiful and loving and glorious, whom she had called welye and käsek, my life and yet for all that only that, a man and no more - who died, and did not take her with him.

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