In November 2018 I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but knew I wouldn’t be able to manage 50,000 words of coherent narrative at that time. So instead I took the prompt list for World Anvil’s Inktober Challenge, and wrote a prompt a day. I posted them day by day on tumblr, but I’ve reordered them here to make things flow.
The world of Kestrien has three moons, one continent, a hurricane that never stops, and magic coming out of its hypothetical ears. The main narrative takes place in its modern age, nearly 1500 years after a worldwide apocalypse during which one of the moons, Demira, was shattered, and now hangs broken in the sky.
Part 4: Before the Fall
Three snippets set on Demira, which was once home to a powerful kingdom (before it, you know, broke). I didn’t write as much for this as the others, partly because it’s full of spoilers for the main narrative. I recommend reading these stories last even though they chronologically take place before everything else. The first (“Poison”) is deep backstory for Zephony, set hundreds of years before the Fall. The other two (“World” and “Treasure”) are set in the Last Days of Demira, which will someday get its own prequel story.
“What is it? I am very busy…”
“I know, my lady…” The boy shifted his feet, clearly terrified though Zephony had barely glanced up at his knock. “But it is urgent. She is dying.”
She? Zephony looked at him again, finally took in the livery he wore. She stifled a sigh and managed to keep her irritation off her face. Better not to throw any more fuel on that particular fire.
“There is nothing I can do for Lady Isri,” she said, with a kindness she did not feel. “She has reached the limit of her natural life. I cannot pull her back from that brink.”
“She does not ask for your aid,” the boy said, the words rapid and well-rehearsed. “She asks that you bear witness.”
Zephony couldn’t quite keep her expression from darkening. Even now, at the bitter end, she tries to sink her claws into me. Either I refuse the request and break my own vow, or I attend at her deathbed and have them whisper for centuries about what took place there.
The boy drew back at what he saw in her face. Zephony put aside her pen, closed the book she had been writing in, and pushed back her chair.
“I will bear witness,” she said, the familiar words ashen on her tongue. “Take me to your lady.”
Isri lay in a twilight-shrouded room within a mansion of empty rooms and forlorn echoes under Demira’s ever-starry sky. Zephony had known this place when it was full of life, and knew that there had been no need for its decline. If Isri had chosen to live instead of fruitlessly pursuing what she could never achieve; if she had not driven away everyone who’d once loved her in the depths of her obsession…
Now she lay all but still with no company but the moonlight and the boy who led Zephony to her side. Her hands lay withered on the sheets; her eyes were closed, the viciousness and determination of her face finally softened amid the thousands of wrinkles. Softened, but not lost: no-one looking at her could think her a kindly grandmother, even now in her last extremity.
Her eyes opened, and her gaze was sharper than Zephony had expected.
“I am hear to bear witness,” Zephony said quietly. “As you have asked.”
“Spare me the posturing,” Isri managed, her voice as dry as dust. “I know you relish the chance to watch me die.”
“No,” she said. “That is something you have never understood. I take no pleasure in this. Nor did I in casting you from the Order. To become Aetheri requires a lifetime of dedication and study–“
“– which I have endured–“
“– and also something in the self, the soul. Something that you lack, Isri. If I’d let you remain in the Order, you would have wasted your life striving for a goal you could never reach. I tried to save you from that fate. It brings me no satisfaction that I failed.”
“You underestimated me.” Isri rose suddenly on her elbow, her whole frame shaking with the effort. Her servant rushed to her side to steady her. “You have always underestimated me, Zephony of Cevelas, just as you have always feared me.”
“I do not fear you,” Zephony said, quiet and cold and certain enough that Isri’s eyes widened just a fraction. “I never have.”
The old woman’s face twisted into an ugly snarl. She hissed something at the servant, who swallowed hard, then reached for a medicine bottle by the bed. He poured a measure of colourless liquid into a small glass, and handed it to Isri without looking at her face. Zephony frowned, suddenly uneasy. Before she could step closer, Isri raised the glass and drank it in one. She choked and spluttered, but there was triumph in her face as she thrust the empty glass back into the boy’s hand and sank down onto the pillows.
“You will,” she said.
Zephony strode across the room and snatched the glass from the trembling servant. The bitter smell burned the back of her nose. For an instant she turned towards the door, thinking to run for a doctor… but the glass had been almost full. The dose was too high and would do its work too quickly. She set the glass down and looked down at Isri with pity.
“You think to convince them I poisoned you? As you were lying here moments from natural death? The court is hardly so naive–“
Isri barked out a laugh that turned into a gasp. Her body contracted sharply in the first of the lethal spasms to come.
“Nothing so clumsy,” she rasped. Her hands clenched tightly on the sheets; the servant backed away, his face white. “Merely a courtesy. Didn’t want… to keep you… waiting…”
It took mere minutes. Zephony tried to reach inside herself, to find some compassion or comfort, to find some way to ease the bitterness that filled this death, but as Isri’s breath ceased, all she felt was anger and frustration and, if she were honest, relief. It was her burden to judge all those who would join the Order of Twilight, to assess whether they would succeed in walking the long, difficult road to becoming Aetheri. To try to forsee whether they would be sacrificing their lives in vain. After so many centuries, her failures were rare. Rare, but all the more painful. She should never have accepted Isri into the Order in the first place. Perhaps if she had not been given that false hope…
Or perhaps it would have made no difference. Perhaps nothing would have. No, she had never feared Isri. But in this moment, she could acknowledge, once and only once, that she had feared what the woman might become, given access to the full power of the Aetheri. That perhaps she had not been as certain as she’d claimed that Isri would not succeed in the ordeal…
“It’s over,” Zephony said aloud. She turned to the boy quailing by the door. “Call the doctor. If you like, I will tell him that she took the poison without your assistance, though I doubt any will fault you for your loyalty–“
But he wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were still fixed on the bed behind her, and now she saw them widen. The aether twisted, suddenly, painfully, and Zephony whirled with a gasp of disbelief just as the final veil tore open.
Isri stood beside the bed, no longer an old woman, but decades younger. Like so many of the Aetheri, her features were a blend of the ways she’d seen herself in her lifetime, and so carried an ageless, disquieting quality. Her eyes were as dark and vicious as they had been in her youth. And she was smiling, and the smile was like a knife, brilliant and deadly.
“I should have done it years ago,” she said, glancing at the bottle of poison by the bed. “More fool me, letting your doubts become my own. Clinging to a few more years of study and preparation. But I know now I needn’t have troubled myself. It was easy, in the end.”
She crossed the room to where Zephony stood frozen.
“You were wrong,” Isri said softly, spitefully, triumphantly.
“Yes,” Zephony replied, her own voice distant in her ears. “It seems that I was.”
They’d said that looking back at Kestrien from the surface of Demira would shake her to her very core. Zoreste was a little disappointed to find that they were wrong.
It was certainly a striking sight. Kestrien glowed blue and white against the darkness of space, while Dyne smoldered nearby with its unearthly crimson hue. In another part of the sky Alvos floated serenely, pale and dull by comparison. Yet was it so very different from the night sky at home? She’d spent her childhood watching Demira and Alvos rise and set through the seasons. Of course, Kestrien and Dyne were larger, brighter, and closer together, but even their closeness was less than she’d expected. She supposed her schoolbooks were to blame: she had always imagined that Dyne would be so near to Kestrien that it would almost touch, and that both would loom enormously over Demira’s horizon. But she hadn’t allowed for the immense distances involved, too great for her mind to grasp, or for how her own home and its dark companion would appear as flat discs against the black, the complexities of their sibling relationship lost to the casual observer.
Perhaps she was shaken, a little, by consciousness of that incredible distance, if nothing else. How could she be standing on the surface of one of the moons, so impossibly far from home, yet able to return in the blink of an eye if she stepped through the Gate?
A soft step alerted her to someone else’s arrival, but she saw that it was Zephony almost as soon as she registered the sound. No need to stand on ceremony, then. She waited as the other woman crossed the wide white terrace.
Zoreste half-expected her to say something trite, like, I never grow tired of this view, but of course Zephony did no such thing.
“Strange how white and peaceful the storm looks, isn’t it?”
Zoreste looked back at Kestrien. The planet was only partly lit by the distant sun, but Zephony was right; she could see the curving, churning edge of Dyne’s Storm. The clouds of the neverending hurricane were robbed of their immensity by distance. Apart from the dark spot that was Dyne’s shadow, they shone bright and brilliant with reflected sunlight, belying the deep and terrible darkness on the surface below.
“I feel as though there’s a metaphor in that,” Zoreste said as she considered the contrast.
“You and every poet since the Fall,” Zephony muttered.
“Nothing new under the sun?”
Zephony smiled, but her dark eyes were serious.
“You’re here. That’s new.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“How is the princess settling in?”
“Oh, Sena is Sena, no matter how hard her father tries to turn her into another copy of her sister. She’s already exhausted our attendants with her questions about the farm quarter and the structure of the city. I should send her to you.”
“She’d find me ignorant on those topics,” Zephony replied with just a touch of hauteur. “Mallor might oblige her.”
Zoreste shot her an exasperated look.
“Because letting my princess badger the High Chancellor with endless technical questions about Demiran civilisation will do so much for the delicate relationship between Demira and Verthorn.”
“You might be surprised.”
“Hmph. We’ll see. For now I’ve arranged a tour of the city. Hopefully that will sate some of her curiosity.” Zoreste drummed her fingers on the railing. “She wants to know about the crystal, of course, but she at least has the sense not to ask too many questions about that.”
Zephony gave a short, self-mocking laugh.
“Unlike some people?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Zoreste replied with no attempt at sincerity. “At any rate, Sena is happy enough for now, though like the rest of us, she’ll be glad to go home.”
“Yes.” Zephony’s eyes went back to the gleaming planet with a flash of longing that left Zoreste breathless. “I imagine she will.”
The doors that Arellia led her to were toweringly tall and seemed, impossibly, to be made of glass, and yet to show nothing beyond them. Light glimmered in their depths like captured stars, and they seemed to glow with their own opalescent light. Sena had never seen anything so beautiful. She made no effort to hide her wonder, and was rewarded when Arellia glanced at her, and Sena caught that almost-smile, the curve of her lips she straightened so quickly.
“And the Crystal is in there?” Sena asked.
“Yes, though not immediately beyond the doors.”
“How big is it?”
The question seemed to catch Arellia off-guard. She frowned, and Sena’s heart leapt to her throat. These last few weeks, she’d begun to feel that they were all wrong, the people who’d told her so sternly that she must be careful at all times to give no offence to the young Queen of Demira, that she must expect only cool formality, and that she was to return the same. Every misstep she’d thought she’d made, Arellia had brushed aside with a warmth that no amount of guarded language could hide. To Sena’s curiosity about the strange world she ruled, she’d responded with interest and something like delight, as eager to share Demira’s mysteries as Sena was to learn them. Sena had long since forgotten to be careful, forgotten that there had been one subject she had been strictly forbidden from enquiring about too closely…
But it was Arellia who’d brought her here, unprompted, Arellia who’d begun to talk of the Crystal… Sena felt a dizzying, clawing fear that had far less to do with political concerns and everything to do with the thought that Arellia might be annoyed or even angry with her…
Arellia blinked, and for a second Sena saw dismay in her eyes, and if it weren’t so ludicrous to imagine Arellia falling prey to such things, she might have thought that she wasn’t the only one afraid of saying the wrong thing and shattering this small warm glowing thing that seemed to hover between them.
“No, no need to apologise,” Arellia said quickly, and she did smile then, leaving Sena momentarily breathless in her brilliance. “It’s… I suppose it is about this big.”
She held out her hands, spaced as wide as her shoulders, and sketched a sphere in the air.
“But it’s… a part of the chamber it’s in,” Arellia went on. “Mounted, you could say… there are crystal projections from the walls and floor, holding it in place… so it’s hard to say for sure.”
Sena tried to picture it.
“Does it look like the doors?”
“No, though the walls of the tunnels are carved from the same mineral, so they also have that glow–“
Arellia’s face tightened and Sena’s stomach dropped. This time Arellia turned away quickly and gestured for Sena to follow her.
“Spaces for storage, places for the Crystal Mages to rest,” she said briskly. “Things like that. Would you like to visit the Frozen Garden? I remember you asked the other day…”
“Yes,” Sena replied, keeping a wobble out of her voice only with effort. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, forget I said anything, I won’t ask any more questions, just please don’t look at me like that again…“If– if you’re not too busy, I don’t want to be a burden–“
Arellia turned to her with a look on her face like Sena had spouted a nonsense rhyme, words she could barely comprehend.
“You could never be a burden,” she said, and she smiled again, as if she couldn’t help herself. She reached out tentatively and laid her hand on Sena’s arm, and Sena felt the colour rush to her cheeks. “Let me show you the ice trees and the frost flowers. It’s the best time of day. There will be a thousand rainbows frozen in every droplet, and the grass will look like diamonds.”