As you sit surrounded by your mirrors, which reflect your true nature, do you ever wonder what I do as I sit up here watching a world burn?
NORTHERN TOWER – private communication linkage –
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The touch had been gentle, sending Denvy drifting back to a time he could barely recall. A hazy place in his mountains of memories stored on top of each other, weighing each other down until they were so compressed he could no longer bother remembering his youth.
But the touch and the sweet tender voice that accompanied it comforted him more than the pressure of the blankets and the warmth of a bed made for the heavy structure of his body. Denvy drifted in and out of the freedom of sleep, the deepest sleep he had settled into since his capture, and always the presence was behind him, the touch and the voice.
Gradually layers peeled back, fold by fold, and he woke. Precious life flowed through his limbs, and, while it was not the return to his immortality, he could feel his base program gradually beginning to repair itself. That meant the nano-bots in his body had regained function. Denvy sank deeper into the bed. It creaked and he relished the sound. Blankets slid off as he lazily raised an arm and scratched behind an ear.
His lips parted. “Oh no.”
His mane was gone. Denvy felt his head, his still-aching chest heaving in mild panic as he had the horrible thought that his air-gills were also missing, but he finally encountered the frilled gills and relaxed slightly.
So, it was only his matted mane that had been removed, the crown of a prince’s glory. He had never been one for vanity, but deep down he was still a Kattamont prince. He had been a bit proud of his shaggy golden locks.
He stared at the ceiling and the lantern dangling above him, swaying back and forth. The scale of everything surrounding him was designed around something the size of a large Kattamont like himself. Sickly sweet scents lingered in the air and in the blankets. It had seeped into the wooden walls and floors—the aroma of a female Kattamont, and, by the intensity of it, a queen. He was in the quarters and the bed of a queen—with his mane shaved off.
Denvy crinkled his brow at the thought. Considering his size he doubted there had been any other place to put him, but he could not recall a queen ever giving up her quarters for a saggy old prince.
Had Utillian traditions changed in his centuries of self-imposed exile?
And had she—
Had she shaved off his mane?
“That’d be nice,” he grumbled. “Always did hate tradition.”
Still, he shuddered to think of what he looked like without the golden layers of his cascading hair and beard. He ran his paw over his chin. Some relief returned as he felt that whoever had given him a shave had left at least a small sampling for him to fuss over.
Worry not, old one. Mother has good taste. A dreamathic giggle tickled the edges of his mind.
He almost sat up in alarm, but his wasted muscles barely raised him from the pillows. It had been so long since he had felt anything remotely dreamathic. It was almost painful to bear and he rubbed his temples as he rolled himself from the heavy covers. Weakly he cast them aside. No one was in the dimly lit room. Outside the small pot-hole window, the sky-sea was a dull haze. It would never grow as dark in Utillia from the Long Night that fell across the Northlands, for the burning-sea reflected an enormous amount of light and heat into the sky-sea, which reflected light back, like two mirrors facing each other. But the Long Night was approaching. He could feel it in his bones. The Northlands was changing its tilt. The spin was slowing. Would this then be the last time the Northlands spun? Had the patch Nefertem tried to install, joining all the lands of the north together to keep Livila alive for just a little longer, finally run its course? He hated to think so, but it was possible that this was to be the Long Night that ended it all.
The dreamathic giggle caused him to lift his head once more. His eyes sought the door and he frowned. It was open slightly. An invitation for him to leave the cabin, if he could manage it.
Setting his teeth in a snarl, Denvy heaved himself up, wobbling on his legs. Rather more swiftly than he anticipated the nearest wall impacted his shoulder and he supported himself against it. Gradually he made his way out into the corridors beyond, keeping slow and steady on his foot-paws. He was on a sand-ship, that much he could deduce by the swaying, and the rich smell of processed Mist being channelled through powerful thrusters somewhere deep within the engines churning below. It was a distinct scent that reminded him of old, vicious days of warfare, bloodshed, and pride against pride. With a paw upon the rough surface of the timber corridor, he followed the pattern of the mind that was calling him, whispering with soft, fluttering touches. Onward through winding, intersecting passageways he staggered, until he felt the sudden strength of a powerful wind gusting down the corridor.
Denvy’s air-gills spread in surprise. He hissed, releasing the thick feathers down the spine of his tail and he turned to encounter the familiar head of a burning wind far more ancient than even he was. Only he did not meet the shifty shape of something out of his past, coming to haunt him in jest to test his sanity. Instead a youthful prince was slumped against the wall, studying him with thoughtful azure eyes.
Teal-coloured air-gills and fan-tail feathers lay flat in submission to his superior age. Despite his strangely limp posture, the youth was showing subservience—apart from his hard, clear eyes. The pure ebony pelt, glossed with a silver lining, revealed a true descendent of the Silvertide Pride. Denvy straightened as best he was able, trying to overcome the pressure within the passageway as it continued to build.
“Denvy Maz, Dream Master of the Northlands of Livila, it really has been a while. So perhaps I should call you Maahes, yes?”
Denvy frowned. “Do I know you?”
“Oh, yes.” The prince gave an awkward bow. “Forgive me for not introducing myself. You would not recognize me. I blended myself into this child’s body. You would remember me as Khamsin, Titan of the North Wind.”
“By the Almighty Sun.” Denvy landed against the nearest wall. “Impossible. You perished. The Dragon threw all the Titans into the Unknown Realm and sealed you therein.”
Khamsin shook his head. “It was a frightening battle of Elemental forces, indeed. I daresay it took out half this world with it, but I ran away before it truly began. I admit I was a coward, but I lived to fight another day.”
Denvy scrubbed at his stubble beard, studying the young Kattamont. “So you will fight?’
“This child I inhabit has a strong will of his own. If he desires to do something then I will follow him and act accordingly. It was our pact. He provides me with energy to exist in this Realm, and I sustain his existence. He was born dead, Denvy. This land is tainted by the Zaprex waste.” Khamsin sounded weary. “Something terrible has befallen Utillia—”
“The Zaprex crystals are growing out of their containment fields, aren’t they?”
Khamsin snapped his head up, a momentary delay before surprise graced the young features of his host. “Yes. They are. How did you guess that? It took my children so long to figure that out, and they have been here for centuries.”
Denvy shrugged. “I was raised amongst Zaprexes. Their technology is not unknown to me. You mentioned your children. Am I to presume then that the Simoon have entered the Primary Realm, like the Thyrrhos of Prometheus?”
Khamsin clicked his tongue. “They followed the Thyrrhos, yes, but I have not been leading them as my sibling leads her people. Until recently I did not know of my children’s suffering here in Utillia.”
“Suffering?” Denvy stepped back a pace.
“Yes.” Khamsin hissed. “I desire to discover why my children are being enslaved by the Kattamonts, and, in repayment for saving her precious son, Zafiashid, Outcast of the Silvertide Pride, will save my children.” Khamsin chuckled. “She does not believe in curses.” His arm jerked outwards and he roughly bumped open the door beside him. “What better queen to have on your side than a queen brave enough to spit in the face of an Elemental Titan?”
“I suppose so,” Denvy muttered as he followed Khamsin through the entrance, pausing on the threshold of a homely cabin that reminded him more of the interior of a small home than anything aboard a sand-ship. Warmth emanated from a stove beside a bench covered in cooking utensils and healing kits. Pots and pans hung from the ceiling, along with dangling lanterns.
A table was bolted tightly to the floor, along with the bookshelves, closed in to keep the books stored therein secure against the rocking and tossing of the sand-ship. The large bed was fit for a small pride, as wide as it was long. Denvy studied Khamsin’s host. The young Kattamont prince looked as though he had reached his mature height, and barely touched Denvy’s shoulders, therefore it was the startlingly pale, albino prince whom everything in the cabin was heighted for. Denvy smiled at the tall and graceful male who matched his own towering figure and rarity in fur tone. He sat on the bed’s side, tending to a sight that made his hearts beat lightly in relief. Jarvis. Dear sweet little Jarvis was bundled under the blankets.
Denvy scanned the room, catching what he had missed. Ki’b lay in a small cot by the heat of the stove. He should have known she would not have been far from Jarvis’ side.
A princess seated in a chair waved. “Khamsin, you may go.” Khamsin bowed and Denvy watched in fascination as the body of the young Kattamont shifted its stance, the change in personality shown in the face as it relaxed. He glanced at Denvy with a sheepish smile.
“I apologise, sir. Khamsin wanted to greet you. He said you were old…friends?”
“Friends is a bit of a stretch, but perhaps now that can happen. Time tends to change even Elementals.” Denvy chuckled. As unexpected as it was to find another Titan still in existence, it was not unwelcome. The Thousand Sol-cycle War had changed all Livila, and all those who dwelt upon her, and perhaps even the Elementals had realized their grave and terrible mistake.
The young prince inclined his head. “I am Prince Aaldryn, the first prince of our pride. Allow me to introduce you to my blood-brother, second prince Jythal, and our queen, Nixlye.”
So that explained why their little cabin was set out in such a manner—they were a pride, and the princess was not a neutral waiting to be a queen.
She was already a queen.
A very young queen, who presented herself as a neutral princess to the world outside of their little cabin. He was being honoured, as an elderly prince, to be permitted into their sanctuary.
Nixlye wheeled her chair towards him and he offered his paw for her to scent. Her colours were as beautiful as he remembered them, even distracted and overwhelmed as he had been by the poachers. Soft pink fur, and a tail full of lavender and white feathers. The hues were delicately pastel, alluring a watcher into a false sense of calm. Whatever confined her to the wheelchair lay hidden under layers of homespun blankets.
“I am glad to see you up and about. You had us worried.”
She took his paw, rubbing it to her cheek.
“I do apologise for appearing before you in such a dishevelled state.” He touched his chest. The ache of infection still wrapped itself about his throat, and fatigue was creeping into his limbs. Nixlye motioned him quickly into a nearby chair. She shook her head and clasped his paw tightly.
“Please! Sir, you are the guest amongst us. Even without a mane, you are the proudest looking prince in all Utillia.”
“Hey!” Aaldryn’s air-gills puffed out.
Nixlye waved dismissively at the young prince. “Admit it: you have never seen a Gold Lion either.”
Aaldryn snorted. “Fine, fine. That is new.” He headed for the kitchen bench. Denvy heard him noisily fill a kettle, but his eyes remained firmly fixed upon the hand that held his paw. Once he would have been in awe at how small it was compared to his own, or how strong its grip was due to his weakened state. None of that mattered. It was a Human-shaped hand, with the vice grip of a Kattamont and soft, rosy fur spreading to fingers tipped with slender, bladed nails. The little queen had no air-gills, but her magnificent tail lay across the blanket spread over her lap.
“A half-breed,” Denvy murmured. “That should be impossible.”
The smile he received in return was surprisingly sad and her free hand squeezed against the blanket across her lap that bunched against her hidden legs.
“You are going to find that many things have changed in Utillia.” Nixlye released his paw. “It may take some time for you to understand that.”
He frowned. If the poachers they had encountered were anything to go by, then she was correct about that. But a Kattamont crossed with a Human—that was unimaginable, and yet she sat across from him. He could not deny her existence. What had happened to his land in his absence? His stomach twisted.
Denvy crinkled his brow, turning away. The little queen in the wheelchair had aided in dispatching the poachers, but she was not the one he remembered. She did not smell like the queen who had been in his presence, who had clipped off his mane.
“Who was it who carried me?”
“That would be Mother,” Aaldryn said from his station by the kitchen bench. “Though no doubt she would prefer you call her Zafiashid. She is an exiled queen.”
“I did not think such—”
“They do exist.” Nixlye bit her lip. “Mother has survived this long because she has vengeance in her blood. She desires to take back the Silvertide Pride, and her rightful place as its Queen. If anyone can do it, it is Mother.”
“But, yes, lone queens are unusual and unpredictable.” It was Jythal who spoke, his gaze vacant. “A queen needs a pride as much as a prince needs a brotherhood. Kattamonts must have families.” He stroked Jarvis’ hair aside from his sweating temples and reached for a cloth. Denvy watched as the young Kattamont removed a rough stone from a nearby bench and it broke into a scattering of water, wetting the cloth with a sweet-smelling liquid. Jythal settled the cloth across Jarvis’ neck.
“A Rune Wielder.” Denvy touched his chest, feeling the rumbling thrum of the slowly healing infection therein. “Do I have you to thank for my improved health?”
Jythal bobbed his head, causing his white air-gills to spread slightly. “When I joined the crew of the Lawless Child I became their doctor. I much prefer using my skills for healing.”
Denvy narrowed his lips, not wanting to imagine what else the Kattamont prince might have used his skills for. He paused his thoughts as Aaldryn handed him a cup, steaming with tea. He nodded his thanks.
“Runes are barely used in his era. It is hardly even known amongst the Sun Monks of Pennadot. Forgive me, but I find it incredibly difficult to understand how a blind Kattamont could be using the language of the Elementals.”
Jythal turned his head aside. “It is a woeful tale, sir. Maybe I shall tell it to you someday, when my courage returns to me.”
“I hope so.” He could understand the hesitation. It was unlikely the young prince had been born blind, and it was doubtful his story was pleasant if it involved the loss of his sight.
The cup in his paws was warm, its scent of peppermint and lemon calming on his aching bones. He sipped the hot brew. The luxury. It felt like centuries since he had last tasted something so divine.
I am glad we can bring you cheer again. It would seem you have all been through much to stumble your way into Utillia. Lavender and pink coloured his mind, mixed with the touches of cotton wool, soft but just rough enough to itch. Denvy could not stop himself; he chuckled as he graced Nixlye with a fond smile. She mirrored it as her hands picked at the blankets bundled around her lap. No doubt they were all handmade, giving her mind the touch of the homespun mother despite the lioness boiling deep within.
“A dreamathic.” Denvy set his tea down. “I have not heard a dreamathic voice in so many sol-cycles.”
“So you can hear me.” Nixlye beamed. “I told you he could hear me, Jythal.”
Nixlye touched her chest. “I’ve been able to speak to Jythal since I first met him, but we have to be wearing a particular sort of…” She pulled out a necklace from under the thick scarf she wore, holding out the chipped rock that hung off one end. It looked plain from the outside, barely noteworthy as a jewel, but she turned it slowly, revealing the geode, glittering in the lights of the lanterns.
“Ah, I see now.” Denvy nodded. He picked at the yoke still stiff about his neck until the leather strap under it came loose, and with it, a string of similar jewels fell against his chest.
“So that explains how your mental voice can penetrate the yoke’s barrier. You’ve made your own dreamathic network. Very, very clever.”
“We have?” Nixlye blinked rapidly.
Denvy glanced from the young queen to Jythal. They had no idea what they had done. Interesting. They were running entirely off instinct. He wished some Messengers in Coltarian had as much initiative.
“I just thought it might help. I do not know much about dreamathics, other than what I read in the Iposti Archives, but these rocks have always helped Jythal and me. The little Kelib girl, Ki’b, said you were a Dream Master.”
It was the way she said it—Dream Master—that made him chuckle. He had not heard his title said with such reverence in a long time. It made him sound overly important and puffed up.
“I am. Well, I would be, if this—” he tugged at the yoke, “—wasn’t here. Dreamathics come in classes. Those who are of the minor classes can communicate through the Secondary Realm’s network, often using, as you have discovered, gem resonators, to increase their range and kinetic strength. The dreamathic Messengers who are born under the birth elemental gift of diamond have established a nexus of communication across the Plains of Blazing Fire. One could say they hijacked the old Zaprex crystal network and made it their own. It is something rather amazing to use if you ever get the chance.” Denvy sighed wearily. “The mid-level classes can submerge themselves into the Secondary Realm, but cannot affect the Primary Realm through it. It is the high-level class you want if you desire to manipulate dreams into reality.”
“And you’re a high-level class?” Nixlye asked.
“No.” Denvy shook his head. “I am a Dream Master. I accept that dreams are reality. There is a difference.” He held up his tea cup. “Some folk never figure out what it is.”
“So…” Jythal leant forward curiously, “did Nixlye and I accidently discover a dreamathic nexus then?”
“Most dreamathics are naturally drawn to things that will boost their projection fields. You were simply doing what was inbuilt into you, and by providing me with these gems you have widened my field a little, at least enough to join your nexus.” He motioned to Aaldryn. “I take it you are not dreamathic?”
The prince grunted, though it was neither out of spite nor disgust. It held an air of fondness as he touched a paw to Nixlye’s shoulder. “One voice in my head is enough for me. I am but a humble warrior-scribe who seeks the treasures they dream of.”
“And we love you for it.” Jythal offered from the bedside.
“You’d better,” Aaldryn retorted, marching to his blood-brother’s side and lounging lazily over his shoulder. His tail twirled anxiously as his gaze settled on Jarvis.
“He looks worse than when I brought him to you.”
“That is just the fever of his remaining Human side. It must be discolouring his skin.”
Aaldryn leapt back in surprise as Jarvis sat up with a shout. Denvy contained his alarm as Jythal lost his balance, ending up on the floor. Aaldryn ignored his blood-brother, bouncing over him elegantly and landing beside the distraught Jarvis to hold him down firmly. The young alpha’s air-gills were flat against his back and neck, usually a sign of yielding. Yet, in his case, Denvy was sure it was to hide them away, to try and appear as kindly and unthreatening as possible. The alpha, it seemed, was dealing with Jarvis as though he were simply another blood-brother prince.
Denvy rose, aiding Jythal to stand. He noticed the strain in Aaldryn’s arms as he held Jarvis back against the bed, as if Jarvis’ strength was uncontrollable in his panicked state.
“Whoa, whoa, it is all right, Jarvis. You are safe.”
“Master Titus?” Jarvis choked.
“He’s fine. He’s resting with your brother Clive and sister Penny. Or…brooding. Maybe brooding is a better word. I think he is rather sore about losing that monster.”
“Yes. Yes. He would be.” The boy groaned, sinking back into the bed. “My head hurts.”
“That is not surprising,” Jythal said. “You are very dehydrated. Here, drink this. See if you can keep the tonic down now. You kept throwing it up before.” Jythal carefully lifted Jarvis’ head and gradually fed the liquid to the young lad.
Jarvis sighed deeply in relief.
“Thanks,” he whispered.
Aaldryn slowly released him, crouching back on his heels. He motioned to Jythal.
“This is Jythal.”
“Your mate?” Jarvis squinted.
Aaldryn tipped his head back and laughed.
“No, No. This is my blood-brother from my brotherhood. He is a prince.”
“Oh…” Jarvis frowned. “Sorry, you all look the same.”
Aaldryn waved a paw. “You will not think that when you meet Mother. She is very obviously a queen. This is our mate, Nixlye.” Aaldryn unfurled his tail, allowing Nixlye to wheel forward. Jarvis’ eyes shone as they scanned the young queen, assessing the difference. It was a relief, at least, that the machine within the boy was still functioning. Denvy released the tension in his shoulder muscles. Whatever had happened to the young Human had badly damaged his Human flesh, but it did seem that the philepcon liquid of the protector bot that had infected him was recovering swiftly.
Aaldryn slowly continued, his voice sturdy and comforting. “Nixlye is also a queen, but outside of this cabin she pretends to be a neutral princess. It is so that Mother is not caught out as being a prideless queen.”
Nixlye inclined her head in greeting. “Your family is safe, Jarvis. The little Kelib girl refused to leave your side, so we managed to convince her to sleep in here. She was very tired.”
“Probably because I gave her a little something to help with the sleep,” Jythal said.
Nixlye gasped and swatted the doctor’s arm. “You didn’t!”
Jythal shook his head. “She knew I did. She’s very good with herbs.”
Tears had gathered in Jarvis’ eyes, his attention upon Ki’b, sleeping in the cot by the warmth of the stove. Gradually he turned toward Denvy. Denvy smiled. It was worth torture at the hands of Twizels—the happiness of a single child.
“Khwaja Denvy, you’re all right.” Jarvis clasped hands to his mouth.
Denvy approached carefully, trying not to let his aching bones and muscles reveal too much of his condition. He knelt beside the bed and reached out, brushing tears from the boy’s hot cheeks. Dry skin cracked as Jarvis beamed at him. It lit Denvy’s hearts with a beat of cheer, gratefulness, and relief to be alive.
“Oh, I will be, laddie. I will be. You rest now.”
“But, sir, I have to go! I met the Key! And I need to—”
Denvy shook his head.
“It will be all right, Jarvis.” He sent a gentle, dreamathic pulse forward, through the paw against the Human’s cheek. “However important things seem right now, they will still be here on the morrow.”
Jarvis’ eyelids drooped, his body easing into the relief of sleep. Denvy bent forward, pressing a soft kiss to his forehead.
“You brave little soldier,” he murmured.
As he rose, Denvy felt Nixlye’s hand on his paw. She pulled him back to his chair, settling him down again.
“You shouldn’t walk around so much. Trust me. I know all about that.” Her cheeks crinkled with silent mirth.
Aaldryn clambered onto the bed, making a nest as he curled up beside Jarvis, his tail uncoiling into a thick blanket. Jythal slipped under it, his paw searching for a book that he threw at his blood-brother. “Read it to me. It’s about Human anatomy.”
“I thought we already knew everything about Nixlye’s anatomy.”
“I hear Human males are different.”
“Really? Such a strange race. So tiny. Squishy. Ugly."
"Ugly?" Jythal laughed.
"They have no pelt."
"That is just rude, Al. Now, read me the book. I don't want to make a mistake in the future."
Their voices settled into the background, like the crackle of the flames in the stove that Nixlye stoked into life as she threw more compressed patties onto the coals. Denvy played his paws over the cracks in the table’s wood. He felt an odd pang in his chest. Jealousy, was it? Surely not. Surely, when he looked upon the two princes, he was not jealous? Yet he had never joined a brotherhood in his youth. He had lived among Zaprexes, in their crystal fairy-castles, learning how to use his dreamathic mind, how to control machines and fly sky-ships. He had been surrounded by Zaprexes, but never truly had he been a part of their ethereal world either. He had loved them, and they had loved him—but his own people had come to fear him and he, in the end, had turned away from them because of that fear.
Denvy leant on his paw.
It was odd that he saw none of that fear now, in the two young Kattamonts nursing his hybrid cub.
They did not fear the Zaprex machine he was becoming.
Denvy stirred as a hand touched his arm and he looked at Nixlye.
“We have a legend here in Utillia about the Gold Lion who once flew the Rainbow City. It is said that the prince could make things vanish with a wave of his paw, and call them back again without a word. He had no brotherhood, no queen, he was alone…among the Angels.”
Denvy raised an eyebrow.
Angels. The word was not Common Basic. It was not even Kattamont—it was Zaprex, a word from the little blue planet of his creators. How strange to hear it slipping from the lips of the beautiful young queen.
“Angels. Wherever did you hear such a word, my dear?”
She frowned. “Like I said, it is just a legend we tell. Why?”
Denvy swirled the tea-leaves in the bottom of his cup. “It is not a very Kattamont word. To hear it spoken aloud now is rather strange, that is all.”
Nixlye shrugged. “Utillia is built upon the skeletons of Zaprexes. Our whole land is strange.”
He chuckled. “True enough.”
“You’re him, aren’t you, though? That Gold Lion?”
Denvy raised his brow. He let his silence be the confirmation she desired.
“Why did you never come back?”
He studied his paws. “When all you know is how to run, my dear, you simply keep running.”
Small fingers touched under his chin, startling him as they lifted his head, causing him to gaze into blue Human eyes, so much like Zinkx’s. “Well, you are needed here. As the Long Night comes, we will need a Gold Lion to light our way.”
He had never thought it possible, in all his long sol-cycles of living, to be so counselled by one so young.