I woke among the stars.
And endless universe spread around me, the night washed with streaks of purple and white. I was at peace. Nothing could hurt me, adrift in the heavens.
I took a step forward. My bare feet splashed in a layer of warm water, sending a gentle ripple towards the endless horizon. The sound echoed like a cavern.
The quartz star glowed in my palm, cold as ice. Some part of me wondered abstractedly how it came to be there.
Wind rushed across the water, breaking the perfect mirror. Distantly, the stars began to extinguish in a wave. Hulking wings, as wide as the world, tore themselves from the sky, sweeping away the universe in a wash of white. A pair of pale eyes—two burning stars—descended from the darkness, capturing me in their gaze.
I beheld a great white raven, its eyes swirling with starlight and the depth of eons. The eyes of a god.
The horizons rushed together like the closing of an eyelid. The eyes faded to stardust.
I reached out. “Wait. Why did you help me? What am I supposed to—”
The horizon snapped closed.
I woke in Andiya’s bedroom, tucked into a nest of white pillows and silk sheets. Her room was much less grand than I’d expected it to be—certainly still fit for nobility, but humbler in decoration. It was done up in pale, rosy colours, decorated with soft throws, lounging rugs, sitting pillows, and alabaster flower pots, with open-air windows that led to a private closet of a courtyard only a few feet square. Tall, sheer curtains wavered gently in the morning air, bright sunlight streaming in between them. Andiya was still asleep beside me, her nose pressed into my shoulder.
My hand was cold. I slipped carefully out of bed, my skin clammy and sweaty. I closed myself in the bathroom and opened my hand.
The quartz star lay on my skin, as dull and inert as the day Death had given it to me. I waited for the shadows, the magic, but it never stirred.
“Rozin?” came Andiya’s sleepy voice after a time. “Come back to bed.”
I sat beside her, stroking her cheek with my thumb. As Andiya’s eyes creaked open, she saw the quartz sitting in my palm. She stiffened.
“Where did you get that?”
“I woke up with it in my hand.”
Gently, Andiya took the quartz and slipped it into her bedside table drawer. While her face remained relaxed, I felt a spike of fear in her chest. The star returning was a sign. No matter what Andiya or I did, I was chosen. Death would not release me so easily.
“How did you sleep?” she asked, forcing the star out of sight, out of mind.
“Well, I think,” I replied. “Andiya … do Creators visit people in their dreams?”
Andiya’s relaxed face twitched. “Did Death visit you?”
“I’m not sure.” I told her of the raven, the stars, the horizon. “Death never appeared in the flesh, but it felt the same as in it did before. I wasn’t afraid, even though I should have been.”
“That was her.” Andiya took a steadying breath. “It’s from an old tale. One of Tyr.” At my confusion, she continued. “The land before Kaelta and Itrera, where the Creators lived.”
“So how does the tale go?”
Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Andiya sat up. I gave her a moment to think, to collect her thoughts. Slowly, she began. “It’s a story they tell to children. Allegorical, you know, meant to teach them a lesson. The will of the Creators is always just, that sort of thing.” Through the bond I felt a sharp twinge of pain in her heart. “The story goes that a man murdered the friend of a Creator, and in the land of Tyr, such a crime was punishable by death. Justice ordered the man’s execution. A grand hunt chased him deep into the woods, where it became so dark that it was difficult to see. Death, scouting the woods in the form of a white raven, saw a figure moving through the trees and raised the alarm. But as Wrath’s arrow shot through the dark at the figure, Death realised her error—the person she’d spotted was not the murderer, but an innocent bystander. And so she threw herself before the arrow, taking it in her breast to spare the innocent’s life.
“People use the story as a justification for their own impending death, for their loved ones dying. It is all meant to be, as nature intended it. Death would rather take the arrow herself than allow nature’s balance to be toppled.” Andiya’s frown deepened. “When Death took my family, I heard that story many times. It was right, just, the courtiers said. Death would never take a life that was not already meant for the grave. It went against her very soul.”
“What do you believe?”
Andiya snorted in derision. “I believe that tale, this faith that people have in the Creators, is all bullshit. They are real, I know that much, but I don’t believe they are any more faultless than you or I. Worshipping them, trusting them, is a fool’s game.”
I took her hand. I felt the turmoil in her mind, and I wished I had some way to calm it. “What would you have me do?”
“I don’t know,” Andiya said quietly. “I would have us run if I thought we had any chance of freeing you from this. But we don’t. I doubt the Creators would be foiled by something as inconsequential as distance.”
“Then whatever we do, we do together. If you don’t want me to engage with Death, then I won’t. To the best of my ability, I will stay away.”
Andiya leaned forward, resting her forehead on my shoulder. “That is all I can ask. And I swear to you, Rozin. Whatever comes, I will be by your side.”
“Do you have a choice?” I teased.
But Andiya only looked up at me, a hardness in her eyes. “I do,” she said with steely resolve. “And I choose to stay.”
That afternoon, we met with the queens of Kaelta.
I once again donned my false Eon’s uniform, and Andiya her resplendent courtier’s gown. But instead of taking us to some courtyard or council chamber, Verahai led us down a handsome path through the jungle beyond the palace. We came to a wide river of nearly still water, winding gently through the humid trees and verdant ferns. Upon the river sat a flat pleasure barge, its front curled upwards in the head of a striking snake. A tent canopy shaded a group of chairs arranged in the centre of the boat, and at both ends, water-skinned Elementals with hair like whip coral waited with setting poles.
From one of the chairs, Queen Xanthe nodded her head pleasantly at us. Beside her, Queen Mathaszai scowled. They were both dressed in light, airy silks of their respective scarlet and the palest blue, appropriate for a day in the summer heat.
We took our seats before the queens, and Verahai stood guard behind them. The Elementals began to push us through the water.
“We’d like to speak with you about your home lands, Rozin Kain,” said Queen Xanthe. “It has been many years since either of us set foot outside the malikh territories.”
“What did you want to know?”
“Tell us about your princess,” said Queen Mathaszai. “What sort of tyrant should we be expecting, when we reach the Canavar?”
“Irina Volkov is no tyrant,” I replied. I paused, thinking on that a moment. “Though … I would not say she is particularly benevolent, nor particularly warm. She demands obedience from her subjects, and total loyalty, but returns that loyalty with a wise, decisive leadership. I would rather be led by an archon with a shrewd mind and a sharp tongue than a fool with a gentle heart.”
Queen Mathaszai nodded. “And do you believe that the offer of alliance from your princess is genuine?”
“I do. Princess Irina desires a world where human and daemon are no longer enemies. She wishes to end the bloodshed that has plagued us for centuries.”
“You can understand, dear Kain,” said Queen Xanthe, “that this alliances places our trust in you. We have no knowledge of, nor loyalty to, your princess. This alliance, and both the peace and destruction it may wrought, is yours to bear.”
“I accept that burden.”
Queen Mathaszai tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I will be frank, Kain. You have captured and enslaved a malikhaten, a feat no human has managed before. Now that humanity has such an ability, what prevents your princess from bonding the soldiers we send to your aid, or bonding myself and Queen Xanthe? If this alliance is some ploy, would it not make sense that this ploy is to capture further malikhaten and use them for your own gain?”
I blinked in shock, and Queen Xanthe’s head cocked curiously. “This did not occur to you, Kain?” she asked.
“It … may have, at first. When I first bonded Andiya—I knew that the archon would want to know how. The power that the High Orders hold is no small thing, to us.”
“And now?” pushed Queen Xanthe.
“Your Majesties … humanity does not know how to bond a High Order. My people are just as in the dark as they have always been. My bonding of Andiya is a fluke—I don’t know why it worked, or how it happened.”
“I was weakened,” Andiya interrupted. “Rozin had just bonded Khalid. In my anger, I burned away too much of my magic. When she bonded me, I was powerless to fight back.”
“And that is the only change in circumstance?” asked Queen Mathaszai.
“That I know of, yes,” I replied.
Both queens frowned. “And your princess knows this?” asked Queen Mathaszai.
I stared at my lap. “No,” I replied quietly. “I never told her anything about Andiya’s bonding.”
My eyes fell to Andiya. Her eyes softened, ever so slightly. “Because she knew her people were wrong,” said Andiya. “She kept her knowledge of the bonding a secret, to protect the malikh.”
Queen Xanthe glanced at Queen Mathaszai. “They tell the truth, my love. Rozin Kain has not given her princess any information that could endanger us. Her regent has no knowledge of Andiya’s bonding, or how it may have transpired.”
The river widened, and the tree line opened to a wide valley. The water carved lazily between rounded, high mountains covered in thick jungle, mist swirling amongst the treetops. I sat up higher in my chair. Along the riverbank, I caught my first glimpse of the true Kaelta—not a palace, but a nation.
Against the water was a city of pale stone and rounded, green copper roofs. The buildings rose in tiers, the walls along the roads and wooden lampposts dripping with flowering vines. And milling about, shopping at an open air market, fishing lazily by the docks, and chatting on the sidewalks, all manner of daemon filled the streets. For the first time in my life, I saw daemon children. Not Bestial cubs, or newly hatched wyverns, but Elementals with leafy hair and watery skin and golden eyes and the bright, carefree smiles of youth. They played against the water, splashing and giggling as they tossed a big rubber ball between them. Apart from their otherworldly appearance, they struck me in the same way that the daemons at the inn had—they were no different than us. Not at all.
“Ir Ihaba,” said Andiya. “Capitol of Kaelta.”
“We have brought you here, Rozin Kain,” said Queen Mathaszai, “to show you what we protect. What we risk, involving ourselves in human affairs. Are you so sure of your regent, that you would ask us to trust you with all of this?”
I stood and faced the city. The fading sun cast a soft glow, outlining it in gold. My heart swelled.
“I am,” I replied, and I saw Queen Xanthe’s face lighten in a gentle smile. “The people of Ir Ihaba have nothing to fear from us. We will bring peace to Itrera, and we shall quell the hatred that has separated our nations for so long.”
Queen Mathaszai walked slowly to my side, gazing over at her people. “Then so be it. Kaelta accepts the Canavar’s offer of alliance. In the morning, we ride for the Creator’s Eye.”
Hello there! I'm Carlyn, an amateur writer currently publishing free-to-read fantasy stories. I write diverse worlds featuring LGBT+ characters and romances, because I believe that we need those stories too (even if they are about magic and demons and brave sword-lesbians). I want to create worlds that are free of homophobia and sexism, so that everyone can enjoy the ride without feeling like they don't belong.
Thanks for reading, and have a great day!