Avia fled through the ash-smothered streets of Aradabar, and the Rot’s fiery black tongue swept close behind.
Moths and Butterflies thudded to ground around her, bursting on cobbled stone, their broad wings seared away by the Rot’s ashen touch. Through breaks in the city’s skyline of library towers she glimpsed the column of flame rising from the horizon, like a brilliant orange flower painted on the sky. The mountain was erupting; one last defense against the Rot, and soon the great city of Aradabar would be gone. Screams rang out from behind her, but there was nothing she could do.
They were all going to die.
She sped down the narrow alleys of the outer bookyards, striding over bodies already half-buried in volcanic dust, holding her newborn son close. The wounds in his face were scabbing now, lines she had carved with her own hand, that would save or damn them all.
“Help us, please!” voices called from a burning hut.
She glimpsed children trapped inside, hay-stuffed pillows tamped over their heads against falling rock. She ran on.
At a canal she came upon a thronging exodus of carriages and barges, filled with frantic denizens shouting to one another through the scalding ash. She slipped between their carriage wheels and ran across their jumbled barge decks.
“Lady Avia!” a Man of Quartz called out, but she only pulled her hood tight about her head and continued, leaving them behind.
“Where is King Seem?” he called after her. “Where is our King?”
Moments later, his cries joined the eruption’s cacophony, as the Rot found him.
In fevered glances she saw it above, a yawning black mouth in the sky, spreading across the city like a second heaven. Fat black tongues spat out of it like dark lightning, pummeling the grand city King Seem had built from the dust. This was the Rot, and it was coming for her son.
The boy was paling in her arms now, barely breathing in the dust-thick air, but she could not stop. She held his wounded face close and sped on, into the Hallows. A fiery boulder arced above her, exploding a bookyard at the quarter’s edge. She fell into shelter behind an upturned brunifer hut, amongst the ragged few possessions of some scholar come to Aradabar, seeking knowledge.
That era was over now.
The rubble fall pattered off the hut, and she started away again, picking through the splintered wreckage, over out-flung books like stepping stones in the ash drifts, along blackened streets littered with bodies. Through the winding Hallows she ran until at last the Saint’s cathedral rose before her, tall and ghostly through the fog of falling ash.
She raced in, and up porticoes lined with figures carved from her dreams. The earth bucked and a column cracked, crashing a lintel to the flagstones before her. She darted round it and barged through the heavy double door to the cathedral.
Inside the air was cool and dry, but spidering cracks were spreading up the high walls and over the vaulted arch-ceiling, dropping a fine rain of plaster dust. The stained-glass window high in the end wall cast a bloody orange light over the disheveled lines of pews, an image straight out of the nightmare growing around her.
She ran down the aisle, her footsteps clacking like panicked knocks on a far-off door. At the end wall she pushed through a small postern, and out again into the hot air.
The revenant arch stood in blood-red shadow behind the cathedral, and she ran to it. This was the first revenant arch she’d ordered carved, where so may lines of strength converged. Its inner side was wholly carved with all the stories of Saint Ignifer drawn from her mad dreams. As she drew near, it began to glow with the Saint’s faint blue light and, signaling the start of a fire she’d spent so many years nurturing to life. She held up her son and felt the Saint’s fledgling power move within him too, lighting a blue fire across the story carved in his face.
So the Saint would rise.
The Rot felt the movement too; a deep change in the fabric of the world. Its roar shook the ground, swaying Avia where she stood. She staggered closer to the arch, even as the Rot’s fat black tongues shot down from the sky, smashing through the cathedral roof like wet vellum, crushing the walls in a plume of swirling mortar-smoke and fire. Slabs of cut stone shot outward like cannonfire, plowing furrows in the grave beds.
Avia kissed her son’s forehead, as the Rot’s tongues slathered near. She could feel its aching need like a sick pulse in her belly, could see within its massive black jaws a thousand worlds churned to nothing, and a thousand more to come. So would Aradabar fall, so would her world be consumed, continuing an endless pattern until someone rose to stop it.
She kissed her son’s forehead. His pale skin was hot as though fevered, the patterned wounds in his forehead rough with scabs coagulating with ash. So he would grow strong, born out of blood and fire and the end of an empire.
“Soon,” she whispered to him, as his wounds began to pulse in time with the heartbeat of the Saint, running through the revenant arch. “Everything will come, in time.”
In the far-off distance, above the King’s palace, her lover King Seem rose into the air and attacked the Rot. So he would die, and they all would die, but the world would survive.
The Rot bellowed a tremendous roar, sensing what was coming. It long for her son, but it would not have him. It lashed out at Avia and her son, spitting one vast tongue down like a hammer from the sky, but seconds before it struck Avia stepped backward through the glowing revenant archway, into darkness.
For long moments there was nothing. Then a new world unfurled.
Avia roused on a stone floor, swaying. Around her were the faint outlines of structures, lapped by tides of frothy white mist that soothed her ash-stung skin.
Rising, she made out the remnants of the cathedral wall she had passed through only moments ago, though it was different now, and lumpish in the thick fog. Its stained glass window was still resplendent, though the colors had faded with time. The jagged edges where the Rot’s tongue had torn away walls and roof had been leveled smooth by rain, the mounds of rubble were gone, leaving only brown vines creeping over mottled gray flags.
Three thousand years had passed.
Through gaps in the drifting fog she glimpsed the night sky, and the rippling black hole that was the mouth of the Rot. It was growing again already, hunting her and her son across time. It would never stop, and there was so little time before it came again. This time it would take everything. She’d seen her world churned to nothing a thousand times in dreams.
Her son was breathing in faint little pants now as the blue light faded from his scars. She tried not to think of the path that lay ahead of him, that she’d seen play out so many times. There was so much worse to come.
She breathed warmth on his face, kissed his tiny cheek, then hurried over the uneven cathedral flags, holding him close. Round the open cathedral wall where the postern had been, she went, entering the long-gone cathedral through a space where a buttressing wall had stood only moments ago. In the center of that barren, roofless space, she saw the Butterfly. She was knelt in prayer before the glowing stained glass, where the altar had stood, beatific in the window’s colored light. Her long Sectile body swayed hypnotically in the fog, her brilliant Butterfly wings twitching with whispered prayer.
Avia knew her, had seen her in dreams so many times, the lone abbess of that sad, lost cathedral, a waypoint on her son’s path. It was here that he would begin to see, and she could not help him. It was here that he wold return and everything would change. So much would be lost, and so much would be found. The thought stung her, yet the future was built of single steps, and she could only take the step that lay before her, in a plan she had designed three thosands years ago.
She?strode out into the glowing colored light, feeling it play down her face and across the lines in her son’s skin. She strode before the Butterfly, breaking the light from the window behind, and spoke clearly in the orator’s tones King Seem had taught her.
“I have returned.”
The Butterfly twitched at the sound. Her compound eyes widened and refocused, falling on the dark ash coating Avia’s clothes, on the bloody face of her child. For long moments she looked from Avia to the figure picked out in the window and back. Then she rose on long Sectile legs, beating her wings gently at the fog as though for purchase.
“Avia?” she whispered.
“Of Aradabar,” Avia answered, her voice ringing sharply through the chill white air, “and you must help my son.”