Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Three

They cleaned up the room with the Rainbow Door before they closed it. It wasn’t as if they could fix it, without someone who could use the Starsword.

They built a tomb, and they put the Starsword and the Sunshield in it until they could be reclaimed.

Karzarul had all the houses torn down and rebuilt, replaced all the strange towers and treehouses with proper houses made with fresh stone. He’d seen enough real houses to know what they were supposed to look like.

The Brutelings had built a ropeway, but they were the only ones who used it. And Rex, once. The cables had snapped under the weight of him, and the Brutelings had to build a new carriage to replace the one he shattered. They’d added a sign to indicate weight limits, carefully painted Aekhite calligraphy. They’d also added a diagram showing a Tauril crossed out, in case that wasn’t clear enough.

It was a little more like a real kingdom, anyway. Karzarul stayed in the castle, and let Impyrs be the ones who did things, Rubelite and Sapphire and Emerald and more. Obsidian stayed on Monster Mountain, though Karzarul could only sometimes bear to look at him. He knew it wasn’t fair, to treat him like a mistake. He was still a mistake. His attitude was the least objectionable of the Impyrs. It was still a touch objectionable.

The delegation from Aekhite were the first humans to use the ropeway. Karzarul resisted the temptation to meet them at the station, waiting in the throne room instead. The throne was itself more of a chaise, better suited to a Tauril’s body. Brutelings had offered to build a more traditional throne, one he could use as an Impyr, but he’d declined. He didn’t want Vaelon or Lynette to see him looking like that when they came back. He didn’t want them to see Sid at all, not until he was sure they’d forgiven him.

Indie and Mo acted as escorts, the most reliable of the Taurils. Bullizards lined the throne room like guards, though they didn’t care for the cold marble that had been put in for the floor.

Karzarul had seen real throne rooms, before. They had marble, not noisy mosaics made of broken mirrors and discarded dishes.

The woman who entered surrounded by knights was neither tall nor broad-shouldered. Older, too, than he remembered Lynette being when she had stopped aging. Karzarul hadn’t realized they would change so much. A much slower version of shifting to a new form.

When she was close enough, Karzarul could see her eyes. The same blue as she’d had before, the color of the sky on a sunny day in summer.

A knight stepped forward to announce her. “Her Highness Mida of Aekherium, Eighth Daughter of the Fourth Consort of Empress Aekhet the Fourteenth.”

“I am here,” she said, her head held high, “for the Sunshield.”

“Hello, Lynette,” Karzarul said. “What do you think of the Monster Kingdom?”

“I am Mida,” she said. “Lynette was my grandmother. You killed her. The Sun Goddess has chosen me as her heir.” Mida held up her right hand to display the sun symbol on the back of it.

“You got better,” Karzarul said impatiently. “Are you still upset? I don’t think you get to be the one holding a grudge, considering.”

“I am not here to play games,” she said. “I am here for my birthright, which you have stolen from me. This visit is a courtesy, as the Empress believes you can be reasoned with.”

Ashel had sent a few letters, all of them carefully crafted formalities. Karzarul wasn’t convinced she’d written them herself, or that she would be the one to read them. He had tried to respond in kind, though diplomacy and a way with words were not his strong suit. He hoped she didn’t hate him. Ashel knew as well as anyone what her mother was like.

“You know very well I’m not the unreasonable one here,” he said, rising from his throne and descending from the dais. “What do you think?” he asked, spreading his hands outward. “Does this better suit your idea of a king?”

“My idea of a king,” she said, “does not include a monster.”

Karzarul was beginning to lose patience. “I have made every effort,” he said, “to correct my mistakes since I saw you last. The least you could do is acknowledge that, even if you won’t apologize.”

“What do I have to apologize for?” she asked, indignant. “And to the thing that murdered me, no less?”

“What do you have to apologize for?” Karzarul repeated, voice rising. “If that’s a joke, it’s in poor taste.” Knights moved closer to Mida as Karzarul loomed. “If you wanted to make him choose,” Karzarul shouted, “you should have asked! You think I don’t know? You think, in all this time, I never figured out what you did? Do you not remember how many opportunities you had to stop?”

“I remember,” she said, “choking on my own blood.” His jaw set. “I remember a monster who could not bear to see me have anything of my own. Not my victories, not my title, not my children.”

“Stop it.”

“Parasite, usurper, face-stealer.”

Karzarul roared, and when a knight moved to protect Mida he stomped him with one of his front hooves. Bullizards took it as their cue, blocking the way of knights already trying to take Mida away. She tried to pull her sword, but Karzarul knocked it out of her hand with the same hoof, reached down to pick her up by the collar of her jacket.

“If it weren’t for you,” Karzarul snarled, bringing her face close to his, “Vaelon would yet live. If you ever loved him at all, you’d apologize for that, at least.”

She pulled a dagger from her belt and stabbed his forearm. With a roar, he threw her to the ground. Her body bounced once against the marble, then fell limp.

“Ah.” He hesitated. “You. Used to be stronger. Than that.” He knelt, but her neck was at an odd angle, her eyes already dim.

Another sun appeared on the back of his left hand.

“Shit. Shit.” He rubbed at his face. “I shouldn’t have done that, why did I do that.”

Bullizards and knights were still fighting through the throne room.

He pressed his palms into his eyes and tried to catch his breath. It was less upsetting if he didn’t look at her. “It’s fine,” he said. “She just, she needed more time. Once Vaelon is here, he’ll. We’ll be ready, next time. I wasn’t ready for her to, to be like that. That’s all.”

“Hey, Boss,” Sid said. Karzarul had been too distracted to notice him entering the throne room. The shimmering pitch-black Impyr crouched beside him. “Delegation’s dead.”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said.

“Want me to clean up, act like they never made it?”

“I guess,” Karzarul said. “What else am I supposed to say? ‘Sorry she was being a bitch again’?” He rubbed at his nose, made himself reach down to pick Mida up. “Shit,” he said, holding the limp body against his chest. “She’s—she was too small, this time. She shouldn’t have been so small. Stupid.”

“Don’t know what you feel bad about,” Sid said. “She’s still only going to remember dying twice. That’s not so bad.”

“You’re not helping.”

Despite the disastrous incident with Mida, Karzarul couldn’t restrain his excitement when a man with a star on his hand took the ropeway up the mountain. Karzarul ran to the station instead of waiting in the throne room, standing at the great stone gate at the top of the stairs. He was surprised despite himself when the person who emerged from the carriage was blonde, his features softer even from a distance than the sharper angles of Vaelon’s face.

Karzarul’s heart constricted, and he swallowed down the lump in his throat. He could learn to love a new face. He could love any face, if it was Vaelon’s.

“And what new songs are you here to sing me?” Karzarul asked, projecting his voice down the stairs.

“I am Qaelin,” the human called from below, “Knight of the Imperial Palace of Empress Aekhet.”

“Ashel made you a knight?” Karzarul laughed. “You? I can’t believe you let her.”

Qaelin unsheathed his sword and pointed it up at Karzarul. “I am here to challenge you,” he announced, “and to win back the Starsword that is my birthright.”

Karzarul hesitated, flicking his ears. “I—of course you can have the Starsword. It’s yours. You don’t need to challenge me.” He looked Qaelin over again. “Are you really Vaelon?” he asked, wringing his hands. “You’re acting weird.”

Qaelin switched the hand of his sword, pulled off his armored glove to show the star there.

It still didn’t feel right. His attitude, his body language, none of it was Vaelon’s. Anyone could paint a mark on their hand. “Prove it’s you,” Karzarul said. “Sing for me.”

“I will do not such thing,” Qaelin said, pulling his glove back on. “Do you think I need the Starsword to end you?” he asked. “That I give you the opportunity to allow me to pass is a kindness.”

Karzarul’s heart sank. “You’re not Vaelon,” he said. “Vaelon wouldn’t speak to me that way.”

“I told you already, monster,” he said. “I am Ser Qaelin, and I am here to take back what you’ve stolen.”

“You are a fool,” Karzarul said, “to think that I would believe you, when you are not fit to even speak Vaelon’s name.” Karzarul summoned the Moonbow into his hands, felt time slow as he drew the arrow and let it fly. It ran Qaelin straight through, impaled him into the cobblestones behind him at a sharp angle like a spear through his heart.

Karzarul watched the star appear on the back of his left hand.

“Hey, Boss,” Sid said when he finally found him. “Want me to clean up that mess by the ropeway?”

“It was Vaelon,” Karzarul said. “It was Vaelon and I killed him.”

He hadn’t been able to go down and get a closer look, couldn’t bring himself to see the person Vaelon had become. Who had said those things with Vaelon’s soul.

“If it was Vaelon,” Sid said, “you wouldn’t have killed him. You’d let him kill you first.”

This was true. “Something went wrong,” Karzarul said. “He didn’t—neither of them came back right. They weren’t themselves. They got lost, or—spent too much time as a different person. It didn’t work right.”

“Shit,” Sid said.

“Maybe they aren’t used to it,” Karzarul said. “Having a new body. Being the same person.”

“Humans are pretty attached to their bodies,” Sid said.

“Right,” Karzarul said. “Exactly. This was just the first one. The first one doesn’t have to turn out.”

“You might be thinking of pancakes,” Sid said.

“Shut up.”

Karzarul gave up on being a proper king. His only order was the find the man with the eight-pointed star on his hand, find him in case it was time that was the trouble.

Karzarul fashioned himself a pair of gloves.

He’d gone back to the Faewild to read the terms and conditions again, but all he was allowed were the ones for the Moonbow. They didn’t tell him anything about humans or the Starsword. If there was anything useful in his portion, he could not interpret it.

The Fairy King had no useful feedback. Only a shrug, and a ‘people change’. This did Karzarul no good at all.

Dain was too old already when the monsters finally found him. Karzarul saw him, the star on the back of his hand, using a cheap sword to kill a Bruteling. And another, and another, and another. Karzarul used a Rainbow Door to find him, a Tauril as he galloped across fields trying to find the farm this new Vaelon called his own.

“Sing for me,” Karzarul said, his arrow at Dain’s throat, bowstring taut. “Prove it’s you. Prove it worked right, this time.”

Dain tried to slice Karzarul’s arm at the wrist. Karzarul didn’t move.

“You tell her,” he said. “Tell the Void Goddess to do it right, this time. You tell her to send you back right, or I’m going to kill every wrong one she sends me. I waited. You tell her, I’m waiting, and you need to come back for real this time.”

He let the arrow fly. Another star stained the back of his hand.

Karzarul did not learn until later that her name had been Elisa, the heir to Aekhite that could not bear to ask for her shield back. The one who decided she’d rather go on her own terms. Karzarul could almost be grateful to her, that it wasn’t his mark to bear. She was the last from Aekherium.

Aubron was from Gaigon, newly freed from the yoke of empire. Karzarul was surprised to see a man at all, let alone from there. If he’d asked, Karzarul might have given him the Sunshield. Let him have it, and let him go be not-Lynette elsewhere.

He did not ask. Karzarul had another sun on his hand.

They were young, both of them, younger even than Vaelon had been when Karzarul first took form. Barely adults, childish faces. It was a year after Karzarul killed Aubron that Blade came to the mountain.

“That’s not a name,” Karzarul said. He tossed the belt with the Starsword’s sheath on it across the courtyard. “Take it.”

“I won’t fall for your tricks,” Blade said.

“Take the fucking sword,” Karzarul snarled. The hilt of the blade glittered. Slowly Blade moved closer, close enough finally to pick it up, dropping his other sword. “Remember anything?” Karzarul asked as Blade unsheathed it.

“I remember,” Blade said, “blood.”

Impyr form put Karzarul at a disadvantage, but he took it anyway. He wanted to be closer, wanted him to see, wanted it to trigger something.

It didn’t.

“Sing for me,” Karzarul said, holding an arrow at Blade’s throat like a dagger. “If you can sing for me, I’ll let you live.”

Sid found Karzarul sitting on the castle roof. He was a Bruteling, scratching at the newest star on his hand. Three suns and three stars spiraling outward and toward his wrist, he peeled away his skin and found only light leaking silver onto stone. As soon as his skin was solid it was patterned black again.

“No luck?” Sid asked.

Karzarul’s hand became incorporeal, reformed without light or blood or broken skin, covered by a glove.

“I think,” he began, his voice trembling. He swallowed, and his voice broke. “I think Vaelon is gone.” He drew his knees up to his chest, clutched at his head. “He’s—I didn’t—I didn’t even say goodbye, Vaelon’s been dead for a hundred years and I, I never said goodbye. He was supposed to come back.” Karzarul rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I waited, and I waited, but it’s forever. We could have had forever, and instead she—” He made a choked sound, sobbed until the sob turned into a roar.

He took off from the castle, too many legs and eyes and wings. Black Drakonis saw him go, and took off after him. They screamed their fury into the sky, and headed in the direction of Aekherium.

The fact that they came to the castle together gave Karzarul a brief moment of hope. That, and their ages, about what they should have been. Karzarul had the monsters give them a clear path to the castle, but to his surprise they broke into the Tomb instead, stole back the weapons and killed any monsters that tried to stop them. As soon as they had them it was clear the dynamic was wrong, a daring swordsman protected by a shieldbearer casting barriers from behind. Vaelon would never take the lead, and Lynette would never let him.

“And what do they call you,” Karzarul asked with more than a little disdain when they entered the throne room.

“Nabeth, Shrinemaiden of the Sun,” the man introduced on her behalf. He wore a tunic and leggings and his hair too short, too thin and too pale to ever be Vaelon. “And Needle.”

“That’s not a name,” Karzarul said.

“It lets people know,” he said with a twirl of the Starsword, “that I’m kind of a prick.”

“Oh, I’m definitely killing you,” Karzarul said.

Except that with both of them armed, working in tandem, it was harder. He’d taken to using a meteor hammer when the distance was too short for a bow, a great heavy ball at the end of a long chain. He didn’t like sparring up close, not with them, not like this. But she blocked his arrows and his hammer with the Sunshield, and if he tried to strike at her Needle would use the distraction to cut at his legs. It was more than he was used to dealing with, unused to anything that could block either of his weapons.

Karzarul tried leading them out of the throne room so that he could take Drakonis form, but Needle found a trick that Vaelon never had. He could swing the Starsword just-so, and release a wave of sparkling purple light.

When Karzarul hit the ground, reforming into something smaller and more manageable, he landed too close to where Needle had already been. As soon as he was standing as an Impyr, Needle was driving the Starsword into his chest. He could feel the blade of it all the way through him, the hot and cold burn of it as the essence of it repelled the essence of himself.

Karzarul looked down at the sword in his chest with more than a little surprise. Light was pouring out of him, and he was already losing his shape.

“Can I… die?” he asked, surprised. “I can die?”

Maybe it would be better this way. He could die, the way Vaelon had died, and come back as someone new. Someone who didn’t remember, the way no one else seemed to remember.

He fell apart. He found himself in ponds and lakes and mirrors and windows. Puddles and wide-open eyes. He dreamed, eventually. Snippets of memories and shapes and voices, it was a long time before he realized he was dreaming. He struggled to reform as soon he realized, fell back into dreaming when he couldn’t. An endless cycle where every moment of lucidity became a struggle to Be.

Until it worked, and he Was.

He was a Bruteling only briefly, turned into a Tauril as soon as there was enough of him. He was standing in his throne room, or what his throne room had been. The walls were collapsing, the marble half-missing.

Karzarul looked down at his hands. A moon on his right, and nothing on the left. “Why do I remember?”

He barely summoned an arrow in time to block the Starsword.

“You again?” Karzarul asked, surprised.

The same terrible man, though not quite the same face, hair gone white and wrinkled skin. A moon on his left hand.

“Why are you old?” Karzarul demanded.

“I’m well-preserved,” Needle said with a grin.

Karzarul looked at the woman who carried the Sunshield, black-haired and smooth-skinned. “She’s not old,” Karzarul said.

“That’s Kalynn,” Needle said. “She’s new. Nabeth couldn’t hack it.”

“What?” Karzarul said, but he couldn’t seem to move fast enough. He’d been formless and dreaming too long, too recent.

Needle ran him through again.

“Seriously?” Karzarul asked.

He fell apart. He dreamed. He had a better sense, this time, of when the time wasn’t right. When it wasn’t enough.

When he might as well make himself at home in his dreamscape.

Karzarul stalked through the forest around their camp. There weren’t many beast monsters to be found, but those he did find, he drew back into himself. He never wanted Jonys to see another monster, not if he could help it. The faced monsters knew to keep their distance by now, since he’d only take them back to the mountain at the next full moon.

Brutelings kept trying to rebuild the ropeway, but Karzarul had told Sid not to let them.

He was something akin to happy. It would strike him at odd moments, the memories of Vaelon and terrible yearning. He would remember all at once that Vaelon was gone and would never come back, and he wanted nothing more than to scream so loud the whole world would hear it.

But there was Jonys. The first time Karzarul thought it might be something like okay without Vaelon. Jonys who watched him with hungry eyes, rough hands and a soft touch and music in his heart. Jonys who always wanted to help, who always paid his debts.

Jonys, who couldn’t have lived if Vaelon hadn’t died.

It felt greedy to think that could make it okay. To be loved and touched and wanted, to be claimed by another man’s hunger almost every night. It felt like a betrayal, as if Vaelon hadn’t been enough. He’d know it was fine if it was anyone else, if it were some other person making him feel this way. Instead it was Jonys, who had the same soul in the body that pressed kisses down his spine. Who covered him in bells and made an instrument of him.

Karzarul could tell when Jonys returned because he could see the glow of the Starsword through the forest. He’d never managed to cut a new Door, but in every other respect Jonys had been a prodigy. Almost as soon as he’d acquired the Starsword, he’d figured out how to form starbursts, how to make it glow in blues and purples without letting it go supernova.

Sometimes the starbursts went off a little too close to his hair, but dancers at festivals were always impressed.

“Did you eat already,” Karzarul called, “or should I make you something?”

It was instinct more than anything that made him jump. He hadn’t consciously realized that the glow had swung loose from the Starsword, a great band of energy flying outward in a blue arc. He only narrowly avoided it striking his hooves as it swept through the forest, knocking down trees long after it had missed him, a great swathe of devastation. Starbursts had followed behind the supernova, exploded as Karzarul hit the ground.

“Jonys?” Karzarul asked, the crash of falling trees all around him, birds taking to the sky and deer falling dead.

Jonys spun the Starsword in figure-eights, accumulating more starbursts along the blade, glowing brighter with every turn. It was a trick Karzarul had watched him do before, but never in silence. The hazelquartz seeds on his bracers rattled without rhythm.

His eyes glowed like sunlight.

“Jonys,” Karzarul called with a rising sense of confusion and dread.

Magic was the Void Goddess’ domain; it wasn’t meant to glow. Aimon the Enchanter was a witch, but with his soul bound to the sun, his witchmarks shone. There was an inherent wrongness to him, a thing which should not have been. Magic was meant to be a cold, dark thing, inviting and empty. It was not meant to burn.

It had not been the only reason Karzarul did not trust Aimon, but it had been enough.

Jonys swung a supernova at him again, and Karzarul barely dodged again, though this time starbursts caught him close enough to tear into his skin. Karzarul managed to get closer, summoning a dull practice blade to block the Starsword when Jonys moved to strike.

“Jonys, you need to wake up,” Karzarul urged. “Whatever he’s doing, you need to resist it.”

Jonys continued to advance, constant attacks with all of his power and none of his grace. Karzarul kept having to push more moonlight into his dummy sword to keep it from breaking, couldn’t take the time to patch the holes in his legs, throbbing pain where the light inside him was exposed to the night air. The ringing of bells and the rattling of hazelquartz clashed with the sound of blades, no rhyme or reason to it.

“Jonys, please,” Karzarul begged. “I won’t leave you here like this, you know I won’t.” What else might Aimon have him do, if he could make Jonys do this? Karzarul tried whistling a few notes of one of Jonys’ favorite songs, one he could never resist playing along to. A fragile hope, that it might be enough to call him back.

Karzarul noticed, when Jonys turned his head, a seam of light over his throat.

“Are—are you okay?” Karzarul asked, suddenly fearing he knew the answer. “You have to resist, you have to be okay.” But now that Karzarul had seen it he couldn’t not, the jagged line of light that didn’t quite close, the stiffness in Jonys’ limbs and the lack of expression on his face. “If you’re—if you can get better, you have to give me a sign.”

Karzarul faltered enough that the Starsword sliced through his left forearm, his hand dissolving into nothing as it came away from his body.

Jonys wouldn’t want to be used like this. It was not a kindness, to let his body persist like this. Full of light, enough to animate his limbs.

But could he wield the Starsword, without a soul inside him?

“I can’t do this,” Karzarul said, his vision getting blurred. “Jonys, I can’t. I’m sorry. If it’s temporary you have to—don’t be mad. You have to kill him for me, I know I should but I, I can’t do it. I don’t want you to be gone. I know it isn’t fair, if it has to be you. I’m sorry. Try to remember better next time. Remember that I love you.”

He let his sword disappear to kiss Jonys’ forehead, the Starsword sinking into his stomach.

He dreamt of drums and firelight.

Annah was well-practiced at making her way down the garden path with her cane, but it was always good to have Helper with her. He would nudge her in different directions, coaxing her away from things that might trip her up, misplaced stones or snails with bad timing. “Good boy,” she said as she touched the edge of the rail on her porch ramp, moving to unlock her front door.

Jerome had built this house for her when they were young. Railings all around, tidy paths and fences, posts to orient herself. She still ought to have moved, after he’d died, but she couldn’t bear the thought. This was her house, and she knew the touch of every wall and chair, the creak of every floorboard. She liked the protection it offered, living in the shadow of Monster Mountain.

Jerome had grown up near the Faewild, and he’d taught her the old ways, how to speak respectful and leave gifts. Monsters weren’t so different, in his estimation. Since they’d built this house, they’d left offerings at the edges of the fences, bowls of beer and slaughtered chickens when they could afford it. She’d kept it up even as a widow, and there’d never been any trouble. Never a bandit, never even a salesman.

A hero, once. A Starlight Hero, real and true, with a Sunlight Heir right beside him. Jerome had seen the symbols on their hands, though she couldn’t. Young and eager, like runaway lovers. Jerome had warned them off the mountain, told them not to make trouble where there was none.

They hadn’t listened, and they hadn’t come back. There had been no trouble since, though Annah was alone and Jerome long gone.

Not quite alone. There was Helper. A stray turned up in a moment of need, when she’d found herself turned around after old fenceposts had fallen. Happy to nudge her in the right direction, to help pull her up, to find things she’d lost. Listening when she found herself rambling, keeping her feet warm while she knit. She’d been trying to knit herself a map of the world using only what she remembered from traveling with Jerome. It wasn’t a good map, but that wasn’t the point. She liked remembering where she’d been, what it had been like to be a runaway lover, young and eager. Helper always barked at the right parts in her stories, and she appreciated that about him.

She sat back in her favorite chair, held out her hand until a familiar furry head pressed itself against her palm. She scritched him behind the ears, and his tail thumped against the floor.

Annah wasn’t a fool. She lived in the shadow of Monster Mountain, and Helper was bigger than any ordinary dog. Too gentle, too clever. Mysterious visitors fixing her fenceposts, repairing her floors while she slept, leaving baskets harvested from her garden on the porch when her arthritis flared up. She left her gifts at the fences, said her thanks to no one in particular, and didn’t question it.

She hadn’t made it to her age by feeling for a good dog’s teeth.