“My dearest Fi,
I’m afraid this will arrive rather late. Still, as I’ve always said-- better late than never. Forgive me, Fi, that I could not tell you this in person.
The world beyond the sky is… well, it’s quite difficult to describe. For all of your life I’ve hidden the worst of us from you, and that’s what this place is. I’m afraid there’s nothing I could say that would make you understand it. Maybe I failed you.
We met others here. People not like us. As you read this, they’re evacuating to Aequor-- you may meet them soon. Be kind, Fi. I know you have it in you. Be good to them. I’m not sure they’ll have a home to go back to when this is all over.
You’re still so young, Fi. I know all of this is going to seem like it’s too much for you. But I believe in you. I know you can do it. When I’m back, I’ll tell you about the day I became queen.
Take this letter to the Garden. You’ll know my bloom when you see it. Remember, so long as it’s strong, so am I. Don’t worry about me one bit. I won’t wilt.
I love you more than the sun and stars in the sky, my sweet Fi.
Wait for me,
“THAT’S ALL?” the princess cries once the royal messenger finished her read. Quincey frowns as she begins to roll the scroll once more, the queen’s words disappearing from sight.
“That’s all, miss Fi,” Quincey puts on a smile. “But there’s nothing to worry about. Saw your mom myself, healthy and hale as can be.” She leaves out that was… well, more than a week ago. “Why don’t we do as she said and… check in on her garden plot?”
Princess Fiorel snorts from her nose, and without another word she turns towards the spiraling ascent to the Dawn Garden. The pair climb together, silent as the grave.
“A lion will only retreat if you stare it in the eyes; likewise, so will fear.”
― Matshona Dhliwayo
The Bridge was steeped in chaos. Everywhere one looked, those that remained were embroiled in conflict with their bitterest fears. Even as the stars rained destruction from the heavens, they gained no ground. Skyfall pushes ever forward, insurmountable. How could you defeat fear?
How do you overcome nothing?
They press on, regardless of the futility. Was it brave, or was it stupid? Oh, it could be both. War always was. Stupid, brave soldiers, to the last of them. Andras and Bellacoste glitter like jewels at both ends of the line-- something worth protecting. They all had something back home. Something they wanted to preserve. If that took everything they had, well…
Axel fights as Tejat and Jishui light up the sky, bathed in the light of the dual stars. Wild eyes roll as the Nothing rises high above him, sharp claws and strong jaws tearing and gnashing. He saw his Strata, the faces of his parents and kin interchangeable now with something strange, something foreign. A monster had threatened them once, and it threatened again now. It clawed at the hard-packed floors and screamed for them by name. This time, his Strata had the faces of his friends. Jishui. Avalon. Tiny. Titan. He never fought for anything harder, not in his entire life. This time. This time he would save them.
Kilau grapples with Tooth, muscles rippling as her shifter stone works its influence. “ASAJJ,” shrieks her guard, the shifting form of the other criminals skulk around at the edge of her vision. Something wasn’t right. How had they come to be here? They’d been locked up, and yet-- ouch-- Tooth’s bite hurt just as much as it had before. The Mazri woolyne spreads her webbed wings, sinking claws into the facsimile of her former enemy. A great gout of fire spears the darkness, and with a shriek of effort Kilau tosses Tooth aside and dives into the ash after the beacon.
As the friends climbed towards a necessary truth in a castle high, deep in the city a matronly old pouflon ushers a bouquet of blooms towards the hearth. The grandmother clucks at them as the youngest wobble on their legs. An older bloom settles by the fire and looks towards their guardian ruefully.
“When are our parents coming back?” the eldest asks. “It’s been…” quieter, they add, “...weeks…”
“Any day now,” the elderly pouflon reckons, a waft of magic straightening her glasses. “Settle down now, kids, and I’ll tell you a story--”
“Tell us the one about the QUEEN!” a starry-eyed youngster bubbles over, tail wagging behind them. “A.. a good one!”
“A good one about the Queen?” the matron muses, weary eyes glimmering. “Alright. I think I know one you won’t have heard…”
Even the eldest pricked their ears at that, drawing closer to listen as the matron began her tale, as all tales must begin:
“Once upon a time, before our Queen was queen…”
The battle rages all over the Bridge, pockets of resistance pushing against the immovable force before them. The stars spiral overhead, meteors pockmarking an already stricken land.
If the Mazri queen could hear Kilau screaming for her, she made no effort to answer. The fire spirit within her shrieked to burn, and for once she agreed completely. The object of her ardor laughed as the fire whipped around her, crisping his edges. Every time she burned Baldric, he came back, good as new. “Give up, A̷s̸a̶j̸j̷. I told you, A̴m̶i̶r̴l̴y̴n̶ ̵c̷h̷o̸s̸e̷ M̷͙̝͑E̵̛͈̥̓̂́!” He laughs as the fire engulfs him, his after image remaining as the glow fades. “You miss her, d̴o̸n̸'̵t̶ ̴y̸o̷u̷? Your precious P̴̼̒ ̸͙̄å̶͙ ̶̠̽n̶͖̑ ̶͕̈́d̴̼͐ ̵̻̽o̴̯͂ ̷͍͂r̷̜͘ ̵̳͌ă̵̝?̶̟̊”
“You aren’t worthy of speaking her name,” Asajj retorts, smoke billowing from her mouth. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t wise to let the spirit overcome her, but how could she let this villain slip between her fingers like sand? “Amirlyn has forsaken you Baldric! Your reign ended before it ever began,” with a flick of her fingers, fire billows towards the smoke that concealed him. She follows behind, stalking towards the false king.
“Oh, I see. Y̶o̸u̴ ̵s̸p̶e̷a̵k̶ ̶t̵o ý̸̖o̴̡͂ù̴̼r̷̕͜ ̸̤̋G̶̻̈ȍ̷̹d̴̰͝s̷̲̅?” Baldric rumbles. Asajj reaches for the smoke that should contain him, grasping only air. “Ẁ̶̪ḧ̴̝́ă̵͎t̴͍̔ ̶̡̾ȟ̶̟ȃ̷̙v̴̲̄è̵̠ ̴̘̚t̶̯͠ḩ̴͠e̵̲͛y̶̱̿ ̴̮͋t̴̃ͅo̷̠͛l̵̬͛d̸̺̀ ̴͔̾y̷̡̓õ̸̼ù̵̩?̷̣̍” The Mazri queen takes a step back, looking up. There Baldric towered, at least twice as tall as he’d been a moment before. “Ẁ̶̙ẖ̷́e̸̞̿r̸̠̐e̸͈͑ ̷̫͐ḁ̶͌r̸̙̋e̷̮̒ ̷̫̓t̴̝͂h̵͉̾ḛ̸̾y̴̟͊ ̷̪͝N̸̫͊O̸̹͂W̶̩͒,̴͎̇ Ḁ̷̓͆̚S̴͎̗̔̆͠A̸̲̓̅J̴̼͔̪́̾̓J̶̛̫̘?”
“Nowhere near enough,” the queen responds, sparks flickering between her teeth, “to hear your prayers now.”
The amalgamation laughs as they’re both engulfed by flames.
Princess Fiorel and Quincey arrive at the Garden, the Queen’s scroll allowing them admittance into the sprawling complex. The messenger looks around, trying to disguise her awe. Even Fiorel had to strain not to gawk-- mother took her duties seriously, and even her child had been allowed in the Dawn Garden only a handful of times.
“Where is she?” whispers Quincey.
The princess recalls why they’d come, awe turning to ash. “Deeper in.”
The two venture past blooms new and old, the garden awash with color. But there was only one that they were here to see.
“Did you know, little ones, that we used to be at war?” inquires the grandmother, expression serious.
“...Like now?” one of the middling blooms asks, frowning. “Did parents leave their blooms behind then too?”
“...They certainly did, my sweet dear. But never you fear-- parents always come back for sweet little blooms like you!”
The lie seemed to placate the child. It hurt her a bit, but these little lies were harmless kindnesses. “Long before any of you had taken root, our people fought the vespires of the Ebon Wreath-- oh, they were monstrous back then! Why, we would cower under the eaves when we heard the vespires were flying…”
For a moment the matron is lost in memory. Then, she continues, “They would burn our crops, right to the ground!”
“But… ma’am…” one confused child chimed in, “Didn’t the queen stop the fighting?”
“Ah…” the caretaker smiles. “That she did. But you’ll remember, this is a tale from before Nouvel was queen. This is a story about the Old King.”
Glittering fire jets from Azariah’s throat as she soars over the King, her eyes burning as she wreathed his forsaken crown in flame. His eyes follow her through the air. His smile mocks her, all these years later. She thought she had forgotten it, buried it amongst all the other memories she wished not to relive. Years of practice had made her quite good at it, but years of practice folded, crumpling to nothing. They raced back, white hot scars behind her eyes as the vespire wept, screaming pneumir at the cause of all their-- all her hurts.
“You haven’t f̴o̷r̸g̷o̴t̶t̴e̶n̷ me!” thunders the Old King, swiping at the gnat as it ignited his hair. “Ẇ̷͇͓̣̈́͌Ȳ̶̧̯̆R̴͕̞̅̓̋M̶̥̒͐!” spears the horn, tail singing over the head of Nouvel who gawked at his feet. The air itself seems to groan as the gargantuan embodiment of the rift between them sprawled his legs, rearing up to reach for the Arbiter.
“How,” Nouvel murmurs, ducking as the tail swings overhead. “How could he..?”
Azariah shrieks above, words tumbling from those articulate jaws, her rage and sorrow beyond understanding. But Nouvel felt them, deep in her bones, that keening angry sound. Her eyes dance over the faceted form of her haunting past, watering. See saw him before her, larger than life, kneeling, bleeding--
The King snatches the ancient from the sky, teeth closing around a limb before he flings her like a ragdoll through the spiraling ash. The Arbiter spins out of sight, the monster crashing back to earth. His eyes turn on Nouvel.
“Kneel,” the Old King beckons.
Princess Nouvel obeys.
The pair walk through the garden, attendants giving the princess and her entourage a wide berth. It spiraled inward on itself. Fiorel walks the path as if familiar with it, drawn closer to the center.
There, quite out of place amongst the whispering blooms, stood a tree. It’s boughs reach towards the sky, dainty peach blossoms decorating its branches.
Fiorel stops at the base of the tree, bunting her forehead against it. A petal dislodges and spirals down, landing on a hewn stump nearby. Quincey stands slack-jawed as Fiorel murmurs, “Mother.”
“King Vieux was a bellyache of a king,” the matron croons, the blooms creeping closer to her, attention rapt. “But he was ours, and he led us to victory against those that would hurt us time and time again.”
The battles had razed the fields and torn the land asunder, but they had won. What was now forgotten still lived in her mind’s eye. It wasn’t spoken of, really. Not anymore. Call this afternoon a little bit of extracurricular learning.
“There were those that didn’t agree with his tactics. They whispered in the darkness, and behind his back they hatched a plan. Oh, that old King, he was a clever thing. He knew they had it out for him, but he didn’t expect it from…” the old pouflon pauses for effect, eyes sweeping over the bright, wide eyes of her audience. “...his future daughter-in-law!”
One bloom gasped. Another fell over. A third, quite understandably asked, “Who?”
“The princess,” the elder responds gravely. “Our very own Nouvel.”
“ASAJJ,” Kilau roars, reaching through the deluge of flame to grasp the dragon queen. Fire licks up the shifter’s arms as the queen turns blazing eyes on her guard. Recognition glimmers there and the fire withdraws, blowing out in great wisps of smoke. The guard’s grip on her middle relaxes as Asajj returns to herself. The queen reaches out and steadies herself on Kilau’s arm.
“He’s dead,” she says simply, still exhaling smoke.
“Indeed,” her guard agrees, muzzle wrinkling.
With Kilau there to keep her hooves beneath her, the pair advances on the place where Baldric had stood. There the miasma coagulates, shrinking back from them. It leaves behind glimmering pieces.
Oh, how the golds and violets ached. The sky of Andras twinkles as Queen Asajj reaches for it, reverently gathering the scrap with her hands. “Sweet Summer God,” the Mazri queen whispers, the tattered pieces flowing over her claws like silk.
She held their stolen sky in her hands.
More petals cascade from Nouvel’s Tree, carpeting the ground around them. Fiorel snorts her frustration, walking worrying circles through the skyfall. Peach bruises beneath her stubborn hooves, her friend fretting by the roughly cut stump.
“Doesn’t mean anything, Fi,” Quincey insists, looking pointedly at the crown of the tree. “Look at how many flowers are up there! Stars, Fi, your ma must be so strong, having all those…”
“Quin,” Fiorel clips. “Please be quiet.”
The messenger squints her eyes.
“I’m thinking,” Fiorel says after a long moment.
“Roger that,” Quincey replies, flopping down with her back against the stump.
Peach petals rain down on them both.
“Queen Nouvel, when she was a girl, was selected from her esteemed family and brought to court. It was an honor at the time, you see, because she would marry the Prince and one day, become the Queen.”
The blooms gawked at the grandmotherly pouflon. Some began to exchange looks. This story didn’t make a whole lot of sense!
“But the princess saw how cruel the King truly was,” the matron continues in a conspiratorial whisper. “He won battles for us, yes! But he was also horribly mean to his subjects. Have you ever been bullied?” she asks, scanning the crowd.
As a couple of the blooms glance away or nod demurely, the elder waxes on, “King Vieux was a bully, and princess Nouvel hated bullies. You know what she did?”
The children glanced amongst themselves until one ventured, “...What?”
With a twinkle in her eye, the old pouflon leans forward. “She thrashed him and sent him packing!”
Princess Nouvel knelt before the Old King, her ears ringing as the giant loomed overhead. She dared not look at him as he lifted a hoof, offering the cacophony of skies to his prostrated subject. The princess raises her chin to the impossibility of it all, the stitchwork foolishness of her hopes and aspirations. With grit, she steels herself, leaning forward to kiss the proffered hoof.
“G̷o̵o̵d̵ ̴g̴i̷r̴l̵.̷” the Old King murmurs, as if against her mane, the hair trigger at the back of her brain clicking. Her eyes roll towards that vaunted neck as a haze of indigo screams across the sky.
Azariah crashes into the Old King’s skull, dragging her claws across his brow and tearing at his eyes. His head bows as Nouvel surges upward, her sapling sprouting branches. Princess Nouvel rose as David speared Goliath, baptized at last as The New Queen.
In the myriad she saw the Bridge through the Nothing, a land as it once was, verdant, lush and sprawling. It was so lonely. It was so greedy. She tears her eyes from it, plucking the jewel of Bellacoste from the one who sought to consume it.
Together, they drive the Old King down, Azariah tearing shreds of sky from the form as it loses shape. Queen Nouvel emerges with their prize as the Arbiter kicks ash over the remains. They share a look as Skyfall relinquishes itself back to Nothing, pilfered skies fleeing back to the heavens.
As their color strengthens, it hides the stars from sight. They float, unseen, pulled by the gaps left behind with Andras and Bellacoste gone. Responding to that irresistible pull, the twins drift apart, the distance expanding until each was gone.
In the garden, the princess and her best friend watch in awe as another branch sprouts from Nouvel’s tree, reaching ever closer to the sky.
“And that, little buds, is how Nouvel became Queen.” the elder concludes, nodding decisively as if to punctuate it.
In the end, it was less of a victory and more of a noble retreat. Skyfall fades into obscurity as the Nothing sinks back into its lonely vigil. Stolen skies glitter above as dignitaries meet one last time.
“We will usher your people out of Aequor,” King Ericius promised Queen Asajj, Naia glimmering at his side. “With your help, we can escort small groups from our rift to yours.”
“Your hospitality was an unexpected blessing King Ericius, thank you.” The Mazri queen clasped her hands together and bowed deeply. “We are forever grateful to you, and to you, Queen Nouvel, Arbiter.”
While the four exchanged pleasantries, Axel searches feverishly through those that remained, rustling through the camp doggedly. Avalon was safe, of course, with Tiny and Titan in Aequor-- he’d wait to escort them back home-- but where was Tejat? Where was Jishui?
He calls for them above the crowd of weary soldiers bound for home. They’d been right there, hadn’t they? So close he felt he could pluck them from the sky, and yet… now they were nowhere to be found.
The vespire searched until he couldn’t any more, meeting weakly with Avalon as she ushered the kittens back onto the Bridge. Silently he bumped heads with her. Quietly he whispered his fears. The plucky comforted him, and together they escorted Andras’ finest back home.
It was a tearful farewell-- one of many-- because despite themselves, they’d grown quite close, hadn’t they? “Don’t ya worry, sugar,” Avalon hushed a weeping Tiny, “We’ll come see you, won’t we, Axel?”
“...Yeah. Yeah, we will,” the vespire promises, glancing at the Bridge and wondering if that was a promise he could keep. He could, couldn’t he? For them?
Just like that, their struggle came to a silent end. The Bridge remained open as the people of Andras and Bellacoste bid their farewells and stepped back into their ordinary lives. The sky, nurtured and cared for, flew from them like a wisp of smoke. When Asajj looked to the horizon, she saw that the crack was gone.
The rift patched itself in Aequor, the shimmering portal a reminder. The temple doors sealed behind them, and the might of Bellacoste begins it’s long trip home.
When they breached the waves at last, they saw an open endless sky stretching before them. The beauty of it ached, and when followed to its logical end a treasure remains, stark against the white sand.
“Jishui!” cried Axel, jostling against Avalon in their excitement to get to shore.
The darkstar twinkles like the first star in the rising darkness. “Welcome home.”
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