Mirohirokon had expected to walk to the Moon Etherium – he had even brought an extra pair of walking shoes in case Ardent did not have her own – but his companion had other plans. “As long as I’m heading that way, and have the aether for it anyway, I’m bringing in some trade goods. Mostly mortal books and crops from the harvest. So we’ll take Sessile.”
Sessile proved to be a golem in the shape of an earth serpent, some forty feet long and seven feet in diameter at her widest. Miro stared at the golem, startled: she had a soul. It was a simple soul, granted, but nonetheless a pretty one: sleek and rich brown. It didn’t have the brilliant clarity of Ardent’s soul, but it had very little corruption. In his entire life, he’d only known three other golems with souls. To cover his surprise, he asked, “You have enough aether to awaken her?”
“Sure do. She’s more efficient than she looks.” Ardent patted the earth serpent’s bronze nose affectionately. Sessile was beautifully made, with sculpted overlapping scales jointed into cylindrical sections a couple of yards long. Decorative spines arched along her back, while her head had a draconic cast, crested by horns and adorned by an elaborate bridle of riveted leather. The tip of her nose had a round empty socket. Ardent fed aether into her, and the golem stirred. Color raced over her scales, giving the bronze a rainbow sheen. “Good morning, Sessile.”
Sessile lifted her head on three yards of bronze and yawned. “Good morning, Ardent Sojourner. Ooooh, I see I am going on a trip!!” She had an alto voice, higher pitched than her size would suggest, perhaps to reinforce the femininity indicated by her scent. The golem wriggled the lower length of her body, testing the weight of her cargo. Once animated, her entire form had become supple, not just the jointed sections. “Are you coming with me? Who’s your little friend?”
“This is Mirohirokon, and yes, he and I are both coming with you.”
Sessile undulated with pleasure. “Yay! It’s good to meet you, Mirohirokon.”
He bowed to the golem. “Likewise,” he replied. “Thank you for your assistance, madame.”
“Oh, I like this one. Are you going to keep him, Ardent?”
Ardent gave the serpent golem’s bronze side a playful slap that would have staggered Miro. “Behave, Sessile. We’re going to the Moon Etherium. Get your nose down here so I can give you the route.” Ardent stretched up an arm to pull on the reins.
“This is how I behave. And I already know how to get to the Moon Etherium,” Sessile complained, but she dipped her head obediently at the satyress’s tug anyway.
“A little redundancy never hurt anyone.” Ardent socketed a crystal ball into the empty spot on the golem’s nose. “You wanna ride inside or out, kid?”
“I recommend inside,” Sessile said. “Much more comfortable.”
“How would you know?” Ardent asked.
“Because Beauty complains about the ride every time she’s on the saddle. Can we leave the saddle behind if neither of you are riding on top?”
“You just hate that saddle, don’t you?” Ardent grinned.
“I just hate that saddle. It flattens my spines and the straps on the bottom ruin my glide. Please ride inside.”
Miro stifled a smile. “I will be happy to ride inside, madame.”
“We can leave the saddle behind,” Ardent told the golem.
“Yes!” The golem shimmied, rejoicing, and lay her head down to open her jaws. Ardent ducked to step inside, and Miro followed suit.
On the inside, Sessile had a glamour to make her transparent. Several crates had been loaded into her cargo compartment in back, while two chairs were positioned and strapped down in front: one oversized, and one human-sized: clearly equipped with this trip in mind. The center of the serpent had enough headroom for Miro to stand comfortably, but Ardent had to hunch low to fit. The satyress settled into the larger chair and managed to still look cramped. After Miro took the other, Ardent announced, “Ready when you are.”
“And we’re off!” Sessile’s voice echoed oddly inside of her. The landscape slithered past as Sessile moved with a serpentine side-to-side motion.
“Oh, I forgot to say, sweetie, we’re a bit low on aether so no unnecessary earthswimming. Understood?”
“Awwww. All right.”
“You can earthswim all you want on the way back,” Ardent promised, and the golem cheered.
As they slipped from the village at a brisk pace, Miro took a notebook from his jacket pocket. He opened it and folded back the cover before offering it to Ardent. “These are my father’s notes and research on the phoenix rose. I thought you might want to have a look at it. I meant to offer last night, but…”
“I had plenty enough to occupy me last night, trust me.” Ardent took the notebook and began to read.
Miro turned to watch the landscape go by, and to keep himself from gazing in besotted adoration at Ardent’s soul. I wonder if I’ll get used to her eventually? I wonder what it would be like to be used to her? I wonder if she’s noticed already that I am hopelessly in love with her, or if I’ll be safe from that for a day or two longer? Perhaps it’s for the best that I have a harmless secret to keep from her. It will distract from the harmful ones.
The side-to-side motion of the golem made watching the landscape peculiar, as with each slither he switched between seeing what was ahead, to the side, or behind them. In a few minutes, they were out of the farms of Try Again, and going underneath a fey hill. Sessile wasn’t earthswimming: she’d shifted to the mortal lands. Her passengers instinctively switched to the mortal lands along with her. In her wake, she left tall grass and small bushes crushed flat. When they reached a dense mortal forest, she slithered up one of the trees, then shifted back to the fey lands and earthswam to the surface of the hill. She crested out, shook off loose dirt like water droplets, and slid down the slope of the hill. She was making good time: the Moon Etherium was a hundred miles or so from Try Again, and Miro estimated they’d arrive in an hour or perhaps ninety minutes. “Why are you named Sessile?” he asked the golem. “That’s an odd name for a fast serpent.”
“I was intended for Try Again, and my maker figured it was fitting. Since I expected to spend a lot of time inanimate.”
“Does that bother you?”
An echo of a giggle. “No. Maybe it would, if I hadn’t been built for Try Again. But I think running out of aether for me feels like falling asleep does for you. I get tired, and then my body doesn’t want to move any more, and then I rest until someone needs me. I like working, but I like resting too. When I’m at an Etherium for very long and no one needs me for anything in particular, I always end up spending some time lying still and pretending I’m out of aether and asleep. I feel sorry for the golems in an Etherium who never stop working. And then I talk to them and it’s all ‘You poor thing, how can you stand spending your life aether-starved’. It all depends on what you’re used to. Or what you were meant to do. What’s it like for you, not knowing what you were made for?”
“Confusing,” Miro said, and then added, “Liberating. I don’t know what I was made for, but I have some ideas.”
“You do? What do you think you were made to do?”
He considered the question, and how he could answer it safely, and whether he should be answering it at all in front of Ardent. “It’s complicated. But the simplest version would be that we are made to love one another, and to make our world – all the worlds – a better place to live.”
“Even the simple version sounds complicated,” Sessile said, and he laughed. “What makes the world a better place to live? Aether?”
“Perhaps. I think it had the potential to, in any case, but that we – all the fey – have gone astray with it. With aether, we ended hunger, disease, exposure, and aging. The fey as a species are now all but invulnerable, able to evade so that we cannot even be touched against our will, and able to escape if we are confined. In the Etheriums, there’s so much aether that every fey can spend it wildly on the most frivolous of whims. And yet…”
“…we still don’t get it right,” Ardent finished for him, quietly.
“We still don’t get it right.” Miro didn’t turn to her. It was easier to pretend he was talking to Sessile. “We ought to have everything we need to be happy, but we’re not. And yes, some people look for meaning by bringing joy to others, but there’s this…I don’t know how to explain it. Divisiveness? Cruelty? In the absence of the power to do physical damage, some specialize in wreaking social or emotional havoc. Maybe it’s because life is too easy. Without a common enemy in death, it’s too easy to squabble with each other.”
“I guess it is just as bad in Sun Etherium,” Ardent said.
“I knew more aether wasn’t always better,” Sessile crowed. “I’m gonna tell Whistler what you said as soon as I unload.”
Miro laughed at Sessile’s triumphant tone. “I would not swear that aether isn’t the solution. I am just…not sure that it is the solution, either. Is it better in the Broken Lands?” he asked Ardent. “It looks so difficult. All that work, just to stay fed and sheltered.”
“It’s better. I mean, it is a lot of work, but I like that about it. It gives me a purpose. And it gives Try Again unity. Not that it’s perfect. We still squabble and snap at each other. But when one of us really needs something done, we can count on each other to help. Why do you stay with Sun Host, sugar?”
“I don’t know. Because it’s what I’m used to. Because I don’t feel I can meet my existing obligations and I fear that the work of the barbarian life will be an impossible obligation added to it. Because I am too lazy to live without aether.” He turned to her, hesitated, and went on. “Because too many people are scared to leave, and I don’t want to leave them behind. Because if everyone who wants to do the right thing walks away, all that will be left are the frightened and the abusive.”
Ardent cast her eyes down to the notebook in her lap. “And here I thought your dad’s notes on the phoenix rose were terrifying.”
“I don’t – I am not criticizing your decision to leave, my lady.” I know you made the right choice for you. I can see it in your soul. “You are far braver than I.”
She reached out and looped her fingers lightly around his wrist. “Kid. That is one mountain of a lie. What you’re doing? Where we’re going? Don’t tell me you’re a coward.”
“Different kinds of courage,” Miro said, then changed the topic before he said something he’d truly regret. “Why do you say Dad’s notes are frightening?”
“Because, all right, I knew that a phoenix rose was one of key tools involved in breaking the fey world four hundred and fifty years ago. But that was a complicated process: you had, what, two Sun Host folks channeling for Moon Host sorcerers, and two Moon Host channeling for Sun Host, and they’re all working together with a phoenix rose and a hundred other fey accomplices to make a world gate, etc. And then: oops, that didn’t work out like we planned, sorry for all you folks who ended up dead and also for the gigantic hole we ripped in the mortal world and also reality but hey, at least we all get to drift erratically together through the layers of the universe experiencing entirely different worlds. So that was a mistake, and it’s a mistake you could only make with a phoenix rose. But I thought, well, that took a lot of people acting like idiots and if nothing else it takes time to coordinate a whole lot of idiots to do one giant stupid thing. But if your dad’s right, there is a whole lot of horrible just one fey could do with a phoenix rose alone.”
“Ah. Yes. If it helps any, all uses of a phoenix rose do require the construction of an extractor of one sort or another, and those range from ‘finicky’ to ‘extraordinarily finicky’. And some of the worst ones, I can’t imagine Fallen would want to use. I don’t think she’d have a lot of interest in sucking all the aether in an Etherium into one place in order to cause a massive explosion that would destroy the entire fey shard and likely all the fey with it. Especially since she would need to be at the center of the explosion to cause the effect and would definitely be destroyed with it,” Miro said. Ardent stared at him, her expression aghast. “…I gather you hadn’t gotten to that part yet. My apologies.”
“That is a real possibility? That can happen? Please tell me you’re teasing me.”
“Um. It’s hard to do!” Miro offered, by way of consolation. “It will not happen by accident. One must expend a great deal of effort and resources towards achieving that end, and Dad stopped working out the details once he was sure that there was no possible way for this sequence of events either to occur by mistake or to turn out well.” She didn’t look consoled. “And it’s all theoretical! He never had an actual phoenix rose to verify things with, so his analysis is based on the behavior of firebuds, which are many orders of magnitude less impressive, and regression studies on various historical events. The theory is sound, though.”
Ardent put her face in her hands. “Why was your father even looking for this thing? What was he going to do with it?”
“Well. He did think it would impress my mother.” That was true, more or less. “And not all the effects are so gruesome.” Miro held out his hand, and Ardent returned the notebook.to him. He paged through it. “Here, this one.” He handed it back to her, showing the diagram for the teleport extractor. This wasn’t one of the complex cages on other pages: it was a simple collar of white gold and rubies that fitted around the animal’s neck. “It lets one use the phoenix rose to teleport even when not in an Etherium. For several miles at a time.”
“Oh!” The satyress looked the description over. “I admit, that would be useful. Though with only one phoenix rose, impact would be rather limited.”
“There’s one for reshaping the landscape, too. Outside of an Etherium. You could level hills, or raise them, or turn the Stone Forest into arable land.”
“That’d be something, all right. Wonder if you could use it to build good roads?”
“I am sure that you could.” Miro tried to remember other beneficial applications. “The phoenix rose might enable a fey to generate their own supply of aether, outside of an Etherium. So one could explore a mortal world with a renewable source of aether, instead of just what one had stored when one left. That one didn’t work in tests correctly, though. Apparently.”
“All right, some of those sound pretty convenient, I’ll give you that.” Ardent turned the page on the notebook. “Aaand then there’s one that lets the phoenix rose remove fey invulnerability. And elusiveness. And evasion. That wouldn’t be horrifying in Fallen’s hands at all. Why was your dad researching these awful applications?”
“He believes in being thorough. And the most interesting aspect of a phoenix rose is its ability to do things that cannot be done with aether, and a lot of those things turn out to be…not good. In themselves. But sometimes exploring things you wouldn’t want to do leads to discoveries of things you would. He was working on a design for farspeaking across the whole of the fey shard, though that one isn’t complete. Anyway, Dad didn’t think Fallen was as far along in learning how to use the phoenix rose as he was, which will also work in our favor. She’s unlikely to be able to use it yet in any capacity.”
“If your father had been right about what Fallen knew, he wouldn’t be in this predicament,” Ardent pointed out. “Besides, she has him now.”
“But she doesn’t have his notes. We do.”
“How much difference will that make? Surely he remembers his own research.”
“Oh, the essence of it, perhaps. Ratios and precise rituals and architecture?” Miro waggled one hand. “And my father’s memory is notoriously bad. Fallen will know better than to rely on it. May I see that again?” She handed the notebook back to him, and he flipped forward through some sections, then returned it to her. It was on the first page of the notebook again. “This is the ‘care and feeding’ section. A phoenix rose is quite delicate, so I suspect this is what will help us most in determining where she’s keeping it.”
“Mm hm.” She frowned at the page. “This notebook is enchanted? How long is it?”
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad. If it runs out of aether, is everything on the extra pages going to vanish?”
“No, the additional pages will return when it’s restored to aether. But you won’t be able to read the pages beyond whatever is currently on its physical ones, if it’s out of aether or deactivated.”
“Mmm.” Ardent pursed her full lips, and sat back to read again.
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