Afterwards, Miro curled on top of Ardent, feeling better than he had in weeks – or ever, perhaps. He pulled a blanket over them and all but purred as Ardent stroked his hair. He raised his head enough to look into her face and smiled, absurdly happy. Even the sobering thought of the Path that lay before him could not dim his joy in the moment. “Thank you.”
Ardent laughed and kissed his nose. “You’re welcome. Silly man. Thank you.”
He snuggled down with his head beneath her chin, resting a hand over one of her delightful breasts. He loved the way they felt; that unfashionable droop left them much softer and squishier than the more popular high, firm ones. Then again, they’re part of Ardent. I would find a reason to adore any shape she wore, he thought, wryly. Miro gave a contented sigh, then said. “We should return to the Moon Etherium.”
Ardent wrapped her arms about him. “Oh, sugar. If this was supposed to make me feel better about taking you back into that pustulent blighthole, I have bad news for you. How about I go back alone and nose around? I can see what Play came up with.”
“We know Fallen can break the wards on your apartment. That must be an ability she powered with the phoenix rose. It’s only a matter of time before she unlocks its capability to bypass other defenses we take for granted. Like fey evasion. Which you’ve already proven can be bypassed with channeled power. I know you don’t like it, Ardent. But you need a channel of your own,” Miro said, softly.
She grimaced and sat up, still snuggling him. She pulled over some pillows to lean back against. “Tell me what exactly happened to you last night.”
Miro hesitated. “Promise me we will still go back to the Etherium after I do?”
Ardent made a face at him. She laid her fingers against his cheek. The furrows were gone now, the flesh healed as if it had never been injured, but Miro realized she was tracing where Cat had clawed him. He shivered, and she stopped, curling her legs and arms around him to cradle him closer. “I don’t want to see you hurt again. I need to know what went wrong. How to keep you safe next time. If there is a next time.”
“Safer,” Miro said, voice low. “Perfect safety is not an option available to me – or you, even, given the phoenix rose. But we still have to go back.”
She sighed, closing her eyes. “Safer, then. Sorry, Miro. I’m not as good at being insanely brave as you are.”
He looked into the radiance of her soul, bonfire-strong, unscarred by fear. Not because she’d never been afraid, but because she’d never allowed fear to compel her to do something she knew was wrong. You are much better at bravery than I am, my lady, he thought, but he didn’t try to tell her that. Instead, he took a deep breath and explained, as dispassionately as he could, the events of the attack.
She swore when he described his inability to contact her. “I never should have stopped messages. And we need to give you a way to contact me despite a stop, too.”
“You thought the apartment was secure. So did I. There’s no reason to blame yourself, my lady.”
Ardent compressed her full lips in a grim expression. “Go on.”
He went through each event in order, including that the assailants had not believed him when he said she’d sent the message he received from Play. Miro did not speculate on Whispers Rain’s involvement. Ardent didn’t remark on the timing either, except to snarl at it as unfortunate.
When he finished, she sat in silence for a moment, still snuggling him in her lap and stroking his back. The fur on her legs was pleasantly soft against his skin, not at all like a goat’s. “I’m wondering if we can use Sun aether to ward you, like an object,” she said at last. “It works on golems, but not on mortals. I’ve never tried it on a fey. And it might not help, since they still hurt Sessile. But it’d be better than nothing.”
“I am certainly amenable to the attempt,” Miro said. Ardent sighed again, and Miro turned to straddle her legs and hug her. “I am open to alternatives, if you’ve come up with any. But in their absence…”
“We should get back. I know, honey.” Ardent kissed him, gently at first, and then passionately. “I suppose I can’t distract you again.”
Miro smiled, and nuzzled her neck, then breathed into one of her long, elegant ears. “Oh, you could, at least once more.” He chuckled. “Probably several times. I’d hoped to be a trifle more focused on our central problem – locating the phoenix rose. But apparently the emphasis there is on ‘a trifle’.” Moments from the investigation of the previous days flashed through his mind: talking to the farmers; tracing Ocean Discourse; dancing with his father. He straightened in Ardent’s lap. “Is my father’s journal with you, or is it at the apartment?”
Ardent gestured to the pile of things on one of the chairs. “It’s in there.”
Miro gave her a quick kiss, then scrambled out of bed to find it. “My father was able to give me some clues while we were dancing last night, which promptly dropped from my worthless mind until just now. I need to look them up before I forget again.” He pulled the notebook from the heap, and sat in the opposite chair to flip through it.
Ardent walked over to him, still nude, and folded her arms on the back of his chair as she leaned down to look over his shoulder with him. “What did he tell you?”
“One uses a phoenix rose via extractors. It’s kind of a way of filtering the creature’s power so that it can be used by a fey. The little cage we saw in the immersion last night was one such extractor. They require specialized components, varying based on what one can do with them. I know which ones Fallen is and isn’t gathering, but I can’t remember exactly which ones are for what. Here.” He stopped on the section about extractors, and scanned down. He conjured a pen to his hand to put an X beside all the extractors that required one of the items Jino had said Fallen wasn’t gathering. Then he went back through and put a tick mark beside any that used ivory or alabaster.
Only one extractor needed both. “What does that one do?” Ardent asked.
Miro recognized the name his father had given the device: The Harbinger. It also required some of the things his father had specified Fallen wasn’t gathering, but that meant nothing. She might not have been gathering those because she already had them in sufficient quantities. He turned the page to look at the description again anyway. “It’s…transformative force. You use it to take an existing kind of power and change it into a smaller amount of a different kind of power. At the weak level, you could siphon the aether out of an enchantment, or a ward, or a golem, and turn it into something else. Since it’s acting directly upon aether, aether is not an effective defense against it. A good ward or a powerful enchantment would take longer to destroy, but it wouldn’t be proof against it.”
“So…what would the something-else that it gets turned into be?”
“A new form of aether. It might have the properties of Sun aether in the Moon Etherium, or it might just be less of a different sort of aether. Dad wasn’t sure on that part of the theory.” Miro stared down at the notebook.
“If he’s never been able to do any of these things, how does he have such precise theories about them?”
“They’re mathematical permutations. It all follows logically from the things that can be done with firebuds, albeit on a scale so small that it’s only perceptible via aether.” He closed the notebook and stood.
Ardent braced her hands on the chair back to prop her torso just high enough to put her head level with his. “And at the strong level?”
“Mm?” Miro met her eyes, wishing he’d taken her up on her half-joking suggestion of distracting him. That it wasn’t too late. Once was not nearly enough.
“Of that extractor. You said the weak level could do what we saw your attackers do, to my wards and to Sessile. What could it do at a powerful level?”
“Ah. Right. It could destroy an Etherium, and create a new, weaker one.”
Ardent straightened so fast she cracked her head against the ceiling. She blinked at him. “Oh. Well. That’s not ominous at all.”
Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.