Invisible Paint Brushes rock Circulation: 184,543,350 Issue: 485 | 11th day of Running, Y13
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Aria of the Aeons: Part Two

by kittengriffin


Arc I: Sun and Stars

Part III: Revel

Az watched Keben and Invi leave, more than a little irritated. Invi could’ve explained about Father to all of them at the same time instead of running off with that blasted Zafara. It would’ve made it more fun. He suspected that they had other reasons for leaving everyone else behind, but he couldn’t know for sure. And that bothered him more than anything else.

     Set’s voice broke him out of his thoughts. “Guess where Sayang is.”

     “With the army.” Az looked at the blue Xweetok, grinning. “Where’s the army?”

     “Check that area where you kept being swarmed last year.” Set turned to Coru. “I’ll take you to Proteus now, Coru. C’mon.” Set darted off, and the brown Kougra followed her at a more reasonable speed, after rolling his eyes and muttering something Az didn’t quite catch.

     Az shook his head and launched himself into the air. At least she’d chosen a landmark he recognized. He’d memorized where that plaza was relative to the palace last year, after it’d become the unofficial meeting point for the army. While he was there, he’d gotten swarmed and asked about how he’d transformed in the battle. And they had never given up asking him, even after he’d told them a hundred times that he had no idea. It had amused Sayang and irritated him to no end.

     Even now, flying over the pastel buildings of Faerieland a year later, he found his way to the plaza without really trying; his body remembered the way. The plaza lay below him now, and he could see the troops there training. Finding Sayang was a bit of a challenge, as she dressed like many of the other troops did, and was a ‘simple’ red Kyrii. There were several red Kyrii in the squads training. But when he found her, standing in the middle of the four squads, directing them, he grinned.

     He dove down, landed nearby, and walked towards the plaza. When he reached the plaza’s edge, a green Eyrie saw him and stared in shock. Az raised a hand to Damian with a smile and put a finger to his lips. Damian nodded. He wouldn’t warn Sayang. Az walked quietly up behind Sayang, studying her. She didn’t look much different. Her red hair, kept out of her face with a ponytail and some goggles of her own, traced her every move, and she wore a leather coat with brass buckles fastening it close to her body. And when he stepped up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, she started whirling, trying to punch him.

     Before she could see him, he spoke, grinning like an idiot. “Hey. I’m back.” He released her shoulders and stepped back, letting her finish her turn and pull her punch. The look of shock on her face made everything worth it. Without a word, she hugged him almost too tightly for him to breathe. He returned the hug with a laugh, wheezing a little. He could see, from the shock on their faces, the squads begin to realize who he was – that Azimuth the Drake had returned.

     None of them approached him. In fact, some of the closer soldiers backed away a few paces. Az shook his head. He wouldn’t do anything to them. Sayang might, but he wouldn’t.

     When she finally looked up, she was smiling. “Keben didn’t say anything about you coming back,” she said, accusation in her voice. “Did he bribe you or something?”

     Az hugged her again, grinning. “No, but we had to force Coru to come along. Invi woke me up. That’s how early it was when he got Keben’s message.”

     Sayang laughed, stepping away from him and raising her voice. “What say we demonstrate what real fighting is to this lot?”

     “What’s your idea?” Az asked, matching his tone to her slightly mocking one. “Me unarmed, against you with a weapon? Or would that not be fair?”

     “Only if you stay as you are. I don’t want to fight the Drake.”

     Az nodded. “Melee weapon, please?”

     “Laser and two daggers.” Sayang pulled out her laser, holding it casually. Az stepped back. “I won’t kill you. Might hurt, though. But it’ll be good for them to watch you.” Glancing around, she shook her head. “Clear to the sides, idiots! You don’t want to get in our way!”

     A ripple washed over the squads as everyone scattered to the edges. Az watched, amused. “Any other rules?”

     “Other than the obvious?” Sayang shrugged. “I can’t think of any.”

     “So be it.” Az grinned. “You’re going to lose, you realize.”

     “Of course. But it’ll be a good fight.” Sayang checked the plaza. “Now move off. We’ll start on opposite sides.”

     “Leo will call the start?” Az asked, backing up.

     Sayang nodded, retreating. At the edge, Az closed his eyes and breathed slowly, calming himself. Even if it was just a demonstration, they’d be going after each other with everything they had. Except that he wouldn’t be the Drake. He didn’t want to transform, or even really know how to transform, anyway, so that worked out. He opened his eyes and nodded his readiness to Leo and Sayang.

     The green Pteri took a breath to look between them, and then he said, very quietly, “Begin.”

     At Leo’s voice, they both moved. Az darted to the side, dodging a blast from Sayang’s laser that instead scored the building behind him. Distantly, he realized that it joined many of its cousins, but he was already rolling under another blast aimed at his chest. As quickly as he could, he moved towards the red Kyrii. He kept his focus on her, tracking every tiny movement she made, guessing where she’d aim and when she’d fire just as she committed to the action so that he could move, be elsewhere when her careful shot reached the point she’d expected him to be.

     He laughed. The laughter bubbled up from deep inside his chest, a ridiculous noise that came from exultation: the joy of movement, the ecstasy of being alive, the simple happiness of being home again.

     As he laughed, he moved just close enough to be able to reach her with a long jump. A risk, because a long jump would allow Sayang time to aim and shoot him out of the air before his momentum would carry him the final distance, but he had to risk it.

     He leapt.

     The moment Sayang realized what he was doing, he could see it in her narrowed eyes, in the way she spread and set her feet, in how both hands rested steadily on her laser, and carefully pulled the trigger. Az recited a litany of mental curses as the laser’s beam struck his right wing. It wasn’t enough to wound him – it just stunned his wing, forced it to fold, and sent Az tumbling out of the air a few feet before he had planned.

     He hit the ground rolling, and came up in a lunge met by Sayang’s daggers. Az bared his teeth in something between a scowl and a laugh, and was rewarded by a quick smile from Sayang. He pulled back, waiting for Sayang to make a move, focused entirely upon the way she moved, the lithe strength hidden by thick leather and auburn fur. Her eyes, black as midnight, met his, and in that connection, they saw the same thing: neither was willing to make the first move.

     The one difference: Az was willing to let her make the first move. Deliberately, he stumbled, creating the illusion of an opening. It was agony, waiting the seconds Sayang took to realize that this wasn’t entirely a fake – she had a shot at scoring him with her daggers.

     She lunged.

     He dropped flat to the ground and reached out with his left wing, snapping it hard into her legs. It hurt – his wing-bones, despite being strong, were sensitive – but it worked.

     Sayang fell on top of him, and, before she could recover, Az grabbed her wrists, thrust them over their heads, and rolled until he was on top of her. “My win,” he said. He was lying fully on her, and in a real battle, he would be able to bite her throat or roast her head before she freed her hands. “Unless you have some secret weapon I don’t know about.”

     Sayang shook her head. “Your win.”

     As he stood, Az pulled the Kyrii up. From the looks of shock on the squads’ faces, most of them hadn’t seen him fight before. Probably they hadn’t seen their wondrous leader defeated so easily before, either. Damian, on the other hand, was just grinning and probably telling everyone around him about how Az had been his squad leader in the battle for Faerieland. They’d probably heard the story before, of course, but it’d probably sound less like an exaggeration now.

     “Do they seriously not understand how that worked?” Az asked softly. The commotion, the buzz of the crowd, the way various warriors were trying to replicate their moves – it was incredible.

     “They’ll understand once the shock wears off.”

     “But. It’s easy to do that.”

     “For you.” Sayang shook her head and grabbed his arm. “C’mon. We’ve given them enough of a show, and there’s something I want to show you.”

     Az nodded. “Are they going to keep training?” he asked, following Sayang.

     “If Damian stops telling stories.” She shrugged. “Leo will help with that. It doesn’t matter too much. We can quiz them about why you won that fight tomorrow.”

     “You haven’t fought winged opponents willing to risk their wings.” Az shoved his hands into pockets, ignoring the withering look Sayang gave him. “I mean, sure, you’ve fought winged opponents, but – I don’t think most of them have wings strong enough to pull off something like that. Could also do it with a tail, but, again, not many with the strength, coordination, and guts to pull it off.” He glanced over her and gave a brief smile. “You could have called it off.”

     “And let them miss seeing the great Drake win against me?” She shook her head. “Not likely.”

     “I’m not—”

     “Shut up about how easy this is for you.”

     Az sighed. “What’re you going to show me, anyway?”

     “It’s a secret.” Sayang smiled. “It relates to you, and to the Drake.”

     Az stopped dead.

     “Yeah, the Drake who they named you after.” Sayang shrugged, continuing to walk. “It’s not that big a deal, once you get over the initial shock. Keben...” Sayang hesitated. “Keben wanted to show it to you. He only realized he had to once you left.”

     “What is it?” Az asked, irritated. He caught up to her easily enough, tail lashing.

     Sayang hunched her shoulders. “I promised Keben he could tell you what it was. He never said I couldn’t give you the gist of it all, though.”

     “So tell me.”

     “You’re always so impatient.” She sighed. “Shouldn’t you have realized that isn’t always the best way to approach the world by now?”

     He grabbed her shoulder. “Tell me.”

     She stopped dead and faced him, eyes stark and bright. “There’s only so much I know and can say.”

     Az met her eyes, desperate for no reason he could articulate. “Please, Sayang. I need to know now.”

     “You have a right to the knowledge, too.” Sayang closed her eyes. “More of a right than we have, at least.”

     “You aren’t telling me.” Az grabbed her other shoulder and shook her, grip hard enough to bruise, even through her leather coat. “Stop avoiding it. Tell me if you aren’t going to tell me. I’ll accept that. But, please – tell me.”

     “It’s a log from when Sloth first invaded.” Sayang clipped the words, speaking quickly. “Vesper’s journal.”

     “He survived?”

Arc I: Sun and Stars

Part IV: Reversing

     Sayang’s eyes snapped open in surprise. Those weren’t Az’s words, or his voice.

     Az, however, seemed oblivious to that fact. “Cassie saved me, though I still don’t understand how that worked, but I thought that Vesper was still there. I thought that the spaceships destroyed all of Shenkuu.”

     Sayang stared at him, shaken. “What are you saying?”

     “What are you talking about?” Az looked at her, confused. “I didn’t say anything.”

     “It’s nothing.” Sayang turned and started walking towards the palace before he could see the fear and worry in her face. “Nothing at all.”

     Az didn’t reply. She was grateful for that. She’d tell Keben about this, and if he wasn’t shaken, then he’d better explain to her why. This wasn’t right. It wasn’t right at all. But what would Az do once he’d heard Vesper’s story himself? What would he become then, if only mentioning it brought about this sort of change? Sayang shivered, hiding the motion as best she could. He really wouldn’t be himself, then.

     The palace was close, but even so, why wasn’t Az speaking? Before, he’d spoken near-constantly, asking questions about changes from the world he came from, about what the Republic was like, what Pariel-Sloth was like – about anything and everything, up to her avoidance of his questions. Now, he was silent. Some of that was probably from the year that had passed, but the rest? He had reasons to ask questions, and plenty of them, and he couldn’t have changed that fundamentally, not unless whatever – whoever – had taken over his mind was still there.

     Sayang tried to shake the thought off, but it wouldn’t leave. It stayed there, haunting her, as the palace gates came into sight, and the black and white forms standing there became visible. Keben and Invi, waiting for them as Keben had said they would. She quietly sighed in relief. Something, at least, was going normally.

     Az perked up. “C’mon, won’t you tell me?”

     “Shut up,” Sayang said absently. “We’re almost there, and you can wait for Keb to explain.”

     He sighed, but fell silent. There were still questions in him, of course, and now Sayang could feel them sitting there, just under the surface. That was good. It was normal. They approached Keben, and as soon as they were within a reasonable distance, Keben turned, sending his midnight blue cloak swirling. “Come,” he said, without looking at them, as he entered the palace. Sayang suppressed a smile; he loved his dramatics, when he could have them.

     They followed him silently through the twists and turns of the palace that led to his room. Sayang knew the path as well as Keben himself did; she spent enough time walking to and from his room. The few people they encountered in the pastel halls saw them, bowed, and then left them alone. Again, normal. All of it was. Sayang could almost forget her worries about Az, surrounded by all of this. Almost, but not quite.

     Keben opened the door to his room and let them in. Sayang breathed more easily, in this room she could call home. She stayed here often, due to all the meetings Keben gathered in his room, as well as just talking to Keben about everything from how magic worked, to what they would do after the war, to whatever silly topic that came to mind.

     With a quick glance around, she found the journal. It sat on Keben’s table, surrounded by other books that she didn’t recognize. She doubted Az would notice it until Keben pointed it out. But no, he was looking straight at it.

     “That’s what you’re showing me,” he said.

     It wasn’t a question. That bothered her.

     Keben raised an eyebrow, looking at her. Sayang shook her head. It wasn’t her fault, as far as she could tell. “Yes,” she said. “It is.”

     “I don’t need that to know the story.” Az turned away from them, his voice bitter. “It’s already inside me.”

     “Val.” Invi moved closer and touched Az with a gentle hand. “Leave him alone. Let him understand for himself what is happening.”

     Sayang looked at Keben, not understanding anything that was going on and not wanting to break the spell to ask. The Zafara was smiling. It wasn’t comforting.

     “Oh, so you’re here too?” Az jerked away from Invi’s touch, though his hand quickly made its way to Invi in return. “What if I want a body again, Cassie? Ever thought of that? Ever thought about if our minds really would die if we gave up control of a body that we now have?”

     “You have a body. But you need to share it with the Draik who was born into it.” Invi’s voice was quiet, almost pleading to Sayang’s ears. “We need him, Val. Why would you die if you just let him have control again?”

     “Why wouldn’t I?”

     “Because I’m still here, and I share this body with the Eyrie to whom it was first given.”

     Az hesitated, eyes flicking around the room until they settled on Invi with a short nod. “I’ll explain to him what happened here.”

     A few seconds passed, and nothing happened. Sayang raised her eyebrows. “Keben, what just happened, and why didn’t you do anything?”

     “I had no need.” Keben picked up the journal and began leafing through it. Three page-turns later, he looked up at her. “I suspected something like this might happen,” he admitted. “It fits with what Cassie said.”

     “Of course it does,” Invi said, almost irritably. He was still looking at Az. “It explains a lot. Like how I knew that chant. Why Azimuth is the Drake. So many things.”

     Keben sat, curling up in an armchair. “It’s simpler now, yeah, but...” he waved one white hand, looking up at the ceiling.

     Sayang crossed her arms. They would, she knew, eventually get to explaining to her what was going on. That didn’t make waiting any less annoying.

     “But it’s still complicated.” Invi shook his head, turning to face them. “I didn’t even know what I was doing. How could it be simple, then?”

     “Does it need to be simple?” Az’s quiet question, spoken in his own voice, made them all look at him. The Draik gave a half-hearted grin. “Well, does it?”

     “Not necessarily,” Invi said slowly. “Anything involving time-travel is automatically complicated. And then you add in that we’re the hosts for people from the past, and it gets even more complex. In all rights, this shouldn’t be easy at all. But it’d be nice if it were.”

     “Why’re you using contractions?” Az asked, his tone so aggrieved it startled Sayang. “You didn’t used to do that.”

     Invi shrugged. “Is there any reason I shouldn’t use them?”

     “No. It’s just...”

     “I was avoiding them around you, yes. I see no reason to continue doing so now, however. It slows this down.” Invi flicked his wings, resettling them. “And this is something that should get resolved soon.”

     Az sighed and ran a hand through his thick black hair. “I’ll help you guys with the Drake stuff. He’s in my head even now, y’know. He’s just not taking control like he did before. And he’s talking to me. It’s annoying.”

     “You’ll need to put up with it,” Keben said. “We’ll need his power, once we begin the attack.”

     Az nodded. “I know. I can ignore it, most of the time. He’ll help you guys as best he can.” Az looked at the journal, still in Keben’s hand. “Show me that. I want to see what exactly Vesper put in there, so that I know what you know.”

     Keben offered it to him wordlessly, and Az took it from his white fingers, already opening it. He read quickly, eyes skimming over the pages without pause.

     Sayang watched him, a slight frown on her face. She hadn’t wanted to read all of the journal. She’d given up after she knew how it would go. But Az was just standing there, nodding. He already knew all this. Why did he need to read another’s recollection? As he read, he stood still enough to be a statue carved of onyx or black marble. Nobody spoke. Nobody even moved. Sayang breathed, slow and even, keeping herself from jumping on Keben and shaking an explanation out of him.

     When at last Az finished reading, he looked up, dark eyes haunted. “I remember it,” he whispered. “I remember all of it.” He threw the journal to Keben, who caught it automatically, wide-eyed. “I remember the ending to that blasted story.” His eyes and mouth tightened, almost into a grimace. “And now it’s going to happen again, isn’t it?”

     He turned, yanking the door open hard enough for it to slam on the wall. He disappeared, and then there were a few seconds of silence before Keben spoke, voice airy, light, hardly more than a whisper. “Well. That was certainly interesting.” A pause. “Now what?”

     Sayang laughed harshly. “He knows more than we ever did. Now what? We use his knowledge of war.”

     “And what of mine?” Invi said quietly. “I am Cassiel now, just as much as I am myself.”

     “You’re going to help too,” Sayang said instantly. “If you look at the histories, Cassie was talked of as one of the best strategists of her time.”

     Keben frowned. “And what if Az runs again?”

     “Then we’ll chase him,” she said. “He can’t run forever.”

     “I wish we had another plan,” Keben said ruefully. “But we don’t, do we?”

     “We do,” Invi said. “We can let him go, and hope that he comes back and tells us. Hope that he comes back and leads us. He knows he needs to.” Invi smiled wryly. “Besides, we can just invade his dreams and lead him back to us.”

     Keben laughed darkly. “If it comes to that, this is worse than I think.”

     “Isn’t everything?”

     “True enough. But now, at least, I have hope.”

     “You always have hope,” Sayang said softly. “Always.”

To be continued...

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» Aria of the Aeons: Part One
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