The soldier’s boot crushed the hard frozen blades of grass as he marched on. The wind whipped fiercely, biting his nose and cheeks like tiny razors. He pulled his scarf up around his face, and marched on. It was the most and the least he, or any of the others marching with him, could do.
“We’re getting close.” Those words passed through the march, echoed in hundreds of voices. But the one soldier didn’t need to hear it. He knew better than most how close they were. He could feel it. The wind came hard from the east, as if it were trying to push the army back. Or warn them.
A metal leg appeared from behind, slamming hard into the permafrost, sending up a layer of ice and snow into the air. The mechanical monster lumbered forward in large strides, gaining ground and moving ahead of the men on foot. The soldier took hold of the ladder on the machine’s side, and clambered up to the top, through the mess of pistons and cannons that were mounted along the machine’s sides. At the top, the pilot was reclining in his seat, a cup of fresh tea in his hand, enjoying the warmth from the aetheric engine’s exhaust, and not at all bothered by the wind.
“Mornin’, Cyrus,” said the pilot, offering a tip of his cup. “Or is it afternoon, yet?”
“Morning, afternoon, what’s the difference?” said the soldier. He took an awkward perch on the machine for himself, and pulled his greatcoat tightly around his body. “Sky’s been dark since we started the march.”
“True enough,” said the pilot. “Want some tea?”
“Why not?” said Cyrus. “As long as you’re offering.”
The pilot reached below deck, and retrieved a tiny kettle and tinier cup. Not bothered a bit by the swaying of his machine, he poured a fresh cup to the brim without spilling a drop. He passed it Cyrus, who immediately spilled some of it on himself.
Cyrus took the opportunity to look around from a higher vantage point. For almost as far as he could see, the field moved and rumbled with the step of men and machines, all of them going east. The steam of hundreds of exhaust pipes rose up to collect as one, forming a cloud that followed the army and blocked out the sun. It was everything the Empire could muster. If they failed today, there would be no second chance.
They sat together, sipping tea and listening to the hum and spin of hundreds of aether engines. They’d been on the move for over two weeks now; everything that was worth saying had already been said. Cyrus knew everything there was to know about this pilot, Obadiah. He knew that he had been a tailor before joining the army two years ago. He had two children, one boy and one girl, and a wife that, to hear Obadiah talk about her, was the most beautiful woman and the greatest cook who had ever lived. He also hated chestnuts, rainy weather, and small dogs. And so, with all the important information well-known and discussed, Cyrus and Obadiah said nothing to each other for the next hour.
Eventually the sky began to change, and the weather with it. The wind became more still, not completely, but enough to make the air feel warmer. And up ahead, where the steam cloud had not yet reached, the soldiers could see the stars for the first time since they’d left home. Except that they were not stars.
At the very edge of the horizon, the great city of Alfheim. Their destination and their enemy, had begun to crawl into view. Alfheim was a tree, so grand in nature and so vast in scale that to use the word “tree” to describe it at all seemed almost an insult. No one knew where it had come from, or when. It had always been here on this plain, since anyone had the means to record such things. Cyrus had heard that it fell from the sky as a seed, and taken root in this cold ground against all odds to become the thing it was now. He’d heard other explanations as well, but that was the one that stuck most firmly in his mind, for whatever reason.
Not even the howling of the wind could stifle the collective gasps of the soldiers as Alfheim rose into view. The tree city’s trunk was broader than a mountain and darker than night. Its branches stabbed miles upward into the sky, as if threatening to take hold of the moon and drag it down from its place to the ground. And all across, from base to the tallest branches, Alfheim was covered in lights, twinkling light stars, running like rivers, glowing and fading. On a cold and moonless night, when the air is clear and dry, those lights could be seen from as far away as the capital.
Cyrus had used to watch them, when he was a younger man, though he was still young now. There had been a favorite spot, a hill at the edge of the city that faced east. How many girls had he taken to that hill, to whisper silly nonsense that made them smile as they watched the shifting glow of Alfheim? Not enough, he thought. A few more wouldn’t have hurt.
He realized that he had been staring with his mouth open when Obadiah spoke to him again.
“Do you think it’s true what they say about the linnorms? About being immortal, I mean.”
Cyrus thought he heard a quiver of fear in Obadiah’s voice as he said it.
“Nothing is immortal,” Cyrus told him in an unfamiliar voice. “Not us. Not them.”
Obadiah nodded, and his teacup shook a little less. “Do you think they’re ready for us?”
Cyrus’ fingers played on the pommel of his sword. “I’m sure of it. They probably knew we were on our way before we did.”
Obadiah finished his tea and filled his cup again. Taking a tin flask from his trouser pocket, he poured a bit of its contents into his cup. “To ward off the chill,” he explained. “Funny, I thought for sure they’d have sent someone to intercept us by now.”
“They’re waiting,” said Cyrus. “Waiting for us to get close enough, then the hornets will all spill out of the nest. It’s the way they do things.”
“You seem to know a lot about the enemy. Or think you do, at least.” Obadiah took a swig, and replaced what he had drank with more from the flask. “You’ve fought them before, haven’t you?”
“A few times,” said Cyrus.
“Do you think we have a chance?” Obadiah asked nakedly.
Cyrus stood up, squinting in the direction of Alfheim. “Did you see that?”
Obadiah stood up as well. “See what? What did you see?”
“There it is again, on the lowest branch. Watch for when the light catches.”
“I think I see it t—“
A shriek sliced through the air, compelling everyone to stop and cover their ears. It lasted over ten seconds, though no one was counting, and the echo lingered for longer.
“What was that?” Obadiah screamed. His ears were ringing, and he thought they might be bleeding.
“It’s them.” Cyrus did not look afraid. “They want us to know.”
Something was approaching from Alfheim. It was serpentine, and its method of flight, like slithering through the sky, left no doubt as to what it was.
Commanders belted the order to fire. Before a cannon could be loaded, the linnorm had covered the distance, landing only a scant few feet from the front line.
It rose up slowly. Its body was over thirty feet long, and thick as an old oak, supported by two muscular arms that ended in sets of black claws. The head was like that of a crocodile, or maybe a wolf, or maybe a dragon. There was not one part of it uncovered by the linnorm’s natural armor, golden plates and scutes and scales that interlocked perfectly.
The linnorm did not move, its gaze wandering through the ranks. No one knew what to do. To fire their weapons at so close a target would be suicide.
“Who is in charge here?” the linnorm said in a voice that sounded like the fracturing of an iceberg. “Step forward.”
One man pushed though the crowd: Commander Arun. He wore his badges of rank across the shoulders of his greatcoat, and a black feather in his tricorn hat. Arun often claimed that it was the tail feather of a black phoenix, but that was impossible—there weren’t any black phoenixes, not anymore. Arun maintained a smooth and steady stride as he approached. He stood before the linnorm with both hands in his pockets. He was wearing his scabbard, but there was no sword in it.
“Are you the one who leads this army?” the linnorm asked.
“I’m one of them,” said Arun. “Have you come to surrender, or threaten?”
“Warn,” answered the linnorm. “Turn back now; there is no sanity in this.” It smiled, or at least curled its lips to reveal its teeth. The stench of its breath was overpowering.
Arun coughed, doing his best to maintain his composure. “We cannot. We’ve come for a fight, and we won’t leave until we’ve had our fill of it, come what may. We’ve fought your army, and we’ve won and lost. Our odds now are as good as they’ve ever been.”
The linnorm’s jaw set tight as it listened to Arun speak, and it made a chewing motion, like a man biting down hard on a piece of gristle too tough to swallow. Its muscles visibly tensed, and its tail wound up like a viper ready to strike.
Cyrus, who could stand by and watch no longer, leapt from his perch on the walking machine, not losing stride as he hit the ground and tumbled into a full sprint. He put himself between the serpent and his commander. “Wait! Linnorm, I know you, and you know me. And before this battle starts there is something I must ask.”
Arun grabbed Cyrus’ shoulder. “Cyrus, you don’t have the authority—get back in formation.”
“I can’t be bothered with a thing like that right now,” said Cyrus. His eyes stayed locked on the linnorm, and Arun’s hand fell away.
The linnorm laughed. It was a cruel sound, like the shattering of priceless glass. “I do remember you, and how could I forget?”
“Then there is someone else you must remember as well, and you must know what I’m about to ask. Where is Lina Gerardi?”
The linnorm laughed again, and it was an even crueler sound than before. “Is that what you’ve come for? Is that truly all? What makes you believe she’s even still alive?”
“Because if she wasn’t, you would have told me just now. Is she safe? Where is she?”
The linnorm made a shrugging motion. “She is beyond your reach now. Turn back, along with the rest of your army. Forget war, and glory, and damsels. Go home.”
“Surrender her to me, and I will.”
“What the behemoth has taken, he will never give back.” As the linnorm said those words, its voice changed, and for the faintest of moments, it sounded almost human. “Go home and grow old. This is your last chance.”
Cyrus could only smile. “Then I suppose I’m out of chances. Whether it makes me mad or sane, I have to press on.”
“Come then. And she will be waiting for you, as will I.”
“Let her know that Cyrus Almassy is on his way.”
The linnorm pushed off into the sky, flying back to Alfheim at terrific speed, leaving the humans behind without a backward glance. Cyrus and Arun stood together, watching until the shine of the linnorm’s scales was no longer visible. Cyrus thought that Arun might have something to say, but all his commander did was give him a gentle pat on the back, and told him to get ready.
The army started moving again, toward Alfheim with a renewed pace. And as they drew closer, more and more lights blinked on among the branches of the tree. Cyrus climbed back onto Obadiah’s machine.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Obadiah said. “I thought you were as good as dead for a second there.” His nervousness from before was gone, replaced by a cool calm. And why shouldn’t he be calm? He’d just seen a mortal man stand against a linnorm and live. Anything was possible.
Now it was Cyrus’ turn to shake. He told himself that it was on account of the cold weather, and rubbed his trembling hands together. “Linnorms aren’t so terrible once you get to know them. Just big lizards, really.” He forced himself to chuckle.
“Well, from my angle, it looked like you scared it off.”
“Maybe I did,” said Cyrus, though he knew better.
“Here they come.”
One year before the battle of Alfheim
Lina’s bare feet pattered up the stone steps carved into the mountainside. The air was becoming thin as she raced against the rising sun.
“I’m late. I’m late. I’m late.”
There was only one path to Arima Temple—to walk the long stairs that ran from Arima village in the low valley, up the sheer face of the mountain. It was a brutal climb even if taken slow, and Lina was not taking it slow.
“I’m late. I’m late. I’m late.”
She took the steps two and three at a time. Her legs burned, her lungs burned, and she felt as if she might drop dead at any moment. She caught her second wind and pushed herself on. She would just have to find a more convenient time to drop dead.
“I’m late. I’m late. I’m late.”
Today, she wore her priestess’ robes for the first time, consisting of a white inner layer beneath a looser outer robe of light blue, tied at the waist with a yellow sash. Her brown hair was tied in a braid that was swiftly becoming undone. The outfit had looked rather nice when she left the inn half an hour ago, before she’d gone and drenched it all in sweat.
She reached the summit at last, resting her hands on her knees to catch her breath. Still wheezing, she paused to take in the view from up there, where the clouds where so close you felt you could almost touch them if you just reached hard enough. Arima village looked so tiny from the mountain top. Who was she kidding? It was tiny. If Lina had been given a choice for her first assignment, Arima would not have been it. But Lina had to admit, when the sunlight touched it at the right time of day, Arima was beautiful in its own simple way.
It was a village of about a thousand people, though the exact number was always changing. Every now and then, someone might leave for good, to be replaced by the next to wander in, and everyone would treat the new arrival as they had lived there from the very beginning. Arima was that kind of place. The houses were all built from white oak logs, with white marble chimneys that rarely produced smoke, as it rarely got very cold. A river ran lazily through the town, right down the middle. Artificial channels spread and redirected the water through the smaller streets, and there was nowhere in Arima where on couldn’t hear the trickling of a fountain or three.
And overlooking the village was Arima Temple, where Lina now stood. It, like the stairs that led to it, was carved directly out of the mountain face. There was a flat terrace before the temple doors, tiled with polished granite. The temple doors were over twenty feet tall, made from white oak planks that had been stained with black dye and inlaid with silver studs to resemble twinkling stars under the light of the moon. Past those doors were the grand, the priests’ quarters, storerooms, and over two miles of underground passages connected to hundreds of guest rooms, built during a time when the temple still received pilgrims from every corner of the Empire.
Lina froze before slowly turning around.
It was her superior, Thales, the high priest of Arima Temple—an easy title to hold, being the only priest at Arima Temple aside from Lina. He was dressed in the same style of clothing as she was, though he wore his robes looser, and without the yellow sash that normally kept the outer robe closed, leaving the white inner layer exposed. The top of his head was completely bald, and what was left of his hair was connected to his bushy grey mustache.
Lina fell prostrate before him, pressing her forehead into the tile so hard it hurt.
“And on your first day of official duty, too,” Thales continued.
“My sincerest apologies. It will not happen again.”
“I’m sure it won’t,” he said sternly. “Raise your head.”
Lina did as she was told, only for Thales to flick her on the nose. He was smiling.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” he said, wiping a tear of suppressed laughter from the corner of his eye. “Oh, you should have seen the look on your face. Ha!”
“Y—you mean I’m not in trouble?”
“What? No, don’t be ridiculous.”
“But I was late…”
“Were you?” Thales asked. He looked all around as if expecting someone else there to give him the answer. “I don’t keep much track of the time here anymore. But since you’re so eager to start the day, I have something for you. Come on, now, stand up. You’ll get dirty crawling around on the ground like that.”
Lina stood, almost tripping in the attempt. Maybe her legs were more tired than she’d thought. She followed Thales to the temple’s front door.
“Here,” he said, gesturing to the bronze gong. “Why not give it a try?”
A temple’s gong was a sacred object, to be rung only by a high priest to signal the coming of sunrise, midday, and sunset. Those were the exact words Lina had committed to memory during her training. For a lowly priest or priestess such as herself, to even touch the gong could be punished by—
“—Come on,” said Thales. “Give it your best.”
Lina shied away. “I’m not so sure that I should.”
Lina was on to him. This was a test. Thales was testing her knowledge of protocol by asking her to break a rule. No doubt if she touched that gong now, Thales would be writing a letter to the capital tonight, requesting another, less-deviant apprentice. She wasn’t going to fall for such a simple trap. She’d studied too hard, for too long.
“Stop it, Lina,” Thales said.
“You’re staring into space again, and you have that look in your eyes that tells me you’re thinking about something, probably about how I’m trying to trick you right now over some regulation or whatever. Well I’m not, I won’t, and I’m being completely sincere right now.” He picked up the cloth-wrapped hammer resting against the wall, and held it out for Lina to take. “So take this hammer, and hive it a swing.”
Lina’s cheeks were scarlet as she took the hammer. “Are you sure this is okay?”
“Absolutely. Now quit stalling.”
She stepped up to the gong, and shooed Thales away. “I don’t want to hit you.”
Thales stepped back, still grinning.
Lina tightened her grip, took several deep, focused breaths, and then set the hammer down. “Why are you making me do this?”
“To teach you a lesson, the first lesson taught to me on my first day.”
“That lesson being?”
“That some rules are fine to break, especially the ones that don’t matter.”
“I’m not sure the priestesses at the capital would agree with that.”
“And what do they know?” Thales spat. “They spend their whole lives shut up in their offices, counting septims when they do anything at all.” He stopped himself. “I’m sorry, that was out of line, for now. Pick up that hammer, and hit that gong.”
Lina nodded, picked it up again, and readied a swing. “You know, in hindsight—“
Using every muscle in her body at once, Lina uncoiled, pouring every bit of strength she had into the swing. She attacked that gong as if it were her worst enemy. She showed it no mercy. And at the moment of impact, the gong screamed in pain, echoing its distorted note down into the valley. Lina watched and listened expectantly, and when she saw no reaction from the village, she readied the hammer again.
Thales grabbed the hammer in mid-swing. “Whoa! Easy there! Only swing it once.”
“But I don’t think they heard…”
“Believe me, they heard you.” He put a finger in his ear and wiggled it around, trying to squelch the ringing sound. “Probably heard it all the way to Fafenheir.” He let go of the hammer, and began rubbing his other ear. “Now that’s done, we can get started on some real work. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘you’.”
Lina bowed, said “Yes, sir!” and scampered off.
Thales continued rubbing his ears.
The red bands of morning sunlight crested over the mountain range, laying their fingers across the houses and streets of Arima village. If this had been a morning in the city, the marketplace would have already been bustling. But life in the countryside moved at a slower pace, and no one would be waking up for another hour at least.
But on this morning, a sound like the crack of thunder peeled through the town. Villagers, still asleep, scrambled off beds and under them, images of meteors and the end of all days flashing before their eyes. Children screamed, strong men cried, and wives apologized to their husbands about things that would warrant later explanation. The roar lasted well over a minute, though it felt like forever, eventually fading slowly into echoes in the hills. Everyone waited with held breath for it to return, but it didn’t.
People left their houses cautiously, expecting to see something like the town in ruins, or a sky full of dragons, or the coming of the behemoth, or a comet. Arima village was safe and sound, not a window broken or stone upturned. Neighbors chattered amongst each other. Everyone had their own idea as to the source of the terrible sound. The baker’s wife swore she saw a flash violet light through the window in the seconds before the sound came, while her husband said he saw no such thing. Many of the older, more excitable folk thought it was an omen from the gods. The discussion went on until the village’s normal business hours, and maybe a little while after, with everyone eventually coming to the agreement that the sound had been caused by a fault line somewhere in the hills, and by noon they had mostly forgotten all about it.
Decades ago, Arima had been a well-traveled trading hub, mostly on account of the temple. Foreigners would travel from everywhere to spend a few days at the top of the mountain. That was back when the phoenixes still flew over the mountain tops in the nights of early Spring. Now only the very old remembered those times well, and no one had seen a phoenix anywhere near Arima for at least twenty years. When the phoenixes left, so did the travelers, and so did the travelers’ money. But for the permanent residents of Arima, it was the phoenixes they missed most of all.
It so happened that on this day, most unusually, a stranger walked into town. Everyone who saw him took their time to stare. Whispers and murmured questions passed through the market, but no one knew who he was, and he walked down the street purposefully as he knew quite well where he was going. He wore a black cloak, tattered and patched in at least a dozen places, and each patch was a different shade of black. But it was his backpack that drew the most attention. It was massive, oddly proportioned, larger on the left side than the right, and held on by a pair of flimsy straps. The stranger kept his balance by walking with a sharp forward lean, giving the impression that he was always walking up a very steep hill.
He came to stand at the very center of the market, and took his time to look about until, apparently satisfied with his surroundings, he let go of the straps on his pack, and let his burden drop to the ground with a heavy thud. He pulled back the hood of his cloak, and underneath was the face of a man of indeterminate age, with dark hair pulled back over his shoulders.
“Come, one and all,” he cried out. “Gather ‘round and be amazed.”
Naturally, a crowd quickly formed in a circle around him. “What’s all this about?” someone asked.
“An excellent question, and one with an equally excellent answer, my good man,” said the stranger. “Allow me to introduce myself to you fine people—my name is Phylas, and I am a magician on a journey from the southern territories, and I’ve come to startle and amaze you with my display of—“
“—Excuse me, are you looking for money?” asked the baker’s wife, a sour little grey-haired woman with a peculiar deformity that caused her to look down her nose at everyone she met.
“I suppose so,” answered Phylas. “A traveling magician won’t be traveling long without a septim or ten. Alas, I wish it weren’t so, but money has us all in its grasp these d—"
“—Because we don’t have any money for you.”
“Madam, I understand your concerns, and I assure you and everyone else here that I am no simple street performer. I personally can call upon powers of the aether, and bend to my will—“
“—So can the priest,” she shot back. “And his new apprentice, too. They were educated in the capital, and they’ve plenty enough magic for this village, thank you very much.”
Phylas had experience with tough crowds. Some were tougher than others, but they all broke down eventually. Small town hayseeds thought they knew magic; a little glitz and a little flair could go a long way in a pinch. It was time to lay it on thick.
“Good, hard-working people of Arima, my skill is beyond that of a common conjurer or temple priest. The aether first spoke to me years ago, as I sat meditation on the summit of Mount Osfet.”
The baker’s wife scoffed. “You’re making that up. I can tell truth from lie better than you can tell night from day, and I say you’re a liar.”
Her husband stepped closer to her, in much the same way as a man might creep closer to a scrawny lion with poor impulse control.. “Sweetheart, my dear, sugarlumps, he began, “let the stranger have his show. You don’t want to scare another stranger away, do you?”
“I don’t trust him. Why should I? There are two kinds of strangers: the ones that bring money, and the ones that take it, and he’s made it clear to all of us just what kind he is.”
Phylas was quick to defend himself. “But I bring something more valuable than coins and trinkets. I bring entertainment to lighten the heart and expand the mind.”
“And a loud mouth as well,” she said. “And empty pockets for us to fill.”
“Just give him a chance, honey,” her husband pleaded. The rest of the crowd seemed to agree with him, eager to see of this stranger could keep up with his own words.
“Yes, yes, your husband is a wise man.” Phylas held out both hands, and small sphere of aetheric flame, a roiling mass of purple and black smoke, burst into existence. He passed it to the right hands, and created another in the left which he passed to the right as well, until he was juggling five spheres with no apparent effort. “Come closer, closer now and I’ll tell you a story my father told me, and I’ll tell it in my own way.” He tossed two of the spheres up high, where they shattered, sending a mist of multicolored sparks drifting down. Sparks took seed in the cobblestone, growing trees in miniature, with light for bark, and smoke for leaves. Some sparks took the shapes of animals instead, crude depictions of deer, foxes, as well as other creatures that no one in the audience recognized or remembered.
The crowd gasped and stepped back all at once, unsure if the flamelike apparitions could burn, and not eager to take the chance. The children were less afraid, breaking free of their parents’ grip to dash forward and run amongst the trees of the illusionary forest. They chased down the running deer, and some tried to grab them. But the creatures slipped through like the mist they were, to reform nearby and begin the chases again.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Phylas reassured them. He glanced at the faces in the audience, gauging their reactions. No one appeared willing to call him out now. Not event he baker’s wife, who stood a little farther back than most, chewing her lip.
“A long time ago,” Phylas began, “there were no seasons like what we know today. Every day was neither too hot, nor too cold. Grass was always green, and flowers bloomed year-round. Until the day the first cold wind blew, bringing with it snow, and ice, and frost. And that was when they appeared for the first time: frost giants, come down from the North.”
Phylas tossed another sphere, which turned a pale blue. The sphere stretched itself, warping into a figure not unlike a man, but more hateful and repulsive in its form and proportions. It wore a suit of armor, uneven and covered in covered in curving blades, and beneath its helmet was the most dreadful pair of eyes. In seconds the one figure became two, then four, the twenty-four, all just as terrible as the first. Though by now everyone knew the magician’s illusions to be harmless, no one could bear to be close to these figures. There was something too real about them, as though they’d been pulled into being, grown from a memory or a nightmare.
“The giants came and destroyed,” said Phylas, and his illusions did just that, slashing cruelly through trees, crushing any illusory animals not quick enough to escape. “And everywhere they went, they brought Winter with them. The giants moved south, with the cold wind at their backs.”
Phylas tossed the fourth sphere, which turned every color before splitting apart, each color becoming a representation of the civilized creatures of the North. In seconds, there grew an army of humans, gnolls, centaurs, and minotaurs, of griffons, basilisks, dragons, and even linnorms. “The squabbling tribes of the North saw no other choice but to stand and fight together, and after many hard battles and much sacrifice, the war was finally won.” Within the illusion, the combined races fell upon the giants all at once. “The giants were pushed farther and farther north, back to the lifeless mountains from which they had come, never to be seen again, even to this day. But the Winter they had brought with them did not go away.”
Phylas scanned the crowd again. As he’d expected, not a single eye was turned toward him now, all absorbed in rapt attention at the spectacle he had created. Phylas knew that expression quite well—well enough to know that it meant money.
“Without the threat of giants to unite them, and the Winter winds growing stronger with each dimmer day without cause or end, the peoples once again turned on each other.” The illusory soldiers now fought amongst themselves in a mass of unorganized violence.
At this, Phylas tossed the final sphere, and it hung in the air above. Both the illusions and the people of Arima looked up to it, waiting to see what it might do. “When the fighting was at its worst, that was when the phoenixes chose to appear.”
The last sphere shattered like a ball of shining glass, and the phoenixes burst forth—birds with bodies like fire, wings like stormy thunderclouds, and tails like a starry night sky. Children gazed at them I wonder, and grumpy old men and fussy old women laughed like children again at the sight. Few people in Arima were old enough to remember when phoenixes flew over the village, and they laughed the loudest of all, like one might laugh at seeing a long lost friend. The false phoenixes flew over the market, and people would hold up their hands to touch them, letting their fingers feels the tickle of passing through their incorporeal bodies.
“Phoenixes, as everyone knows, are the oldest wisest creatures in all the world. They proposed a solution: that they would ward off the eternal Winter themselves, each year flying together in a great migration, blanketing the world in their warmth.”
The forest, destroyed by the actions of the giants, began to sprout anew. “This is why we have Spring, and Summer too,” Phylas said matter-of-factly. “And when the nights grow longer and the days colder, the phoenixes make their journey across the sky all over again, to reset the cycle of nature.
At that, the entire illusion collapsed all at once like a stage curtain was being drawn down, leaving Phylas standing alone in the middle of the crowd again. It was the baker’s wife who clapped first, and then everyone else. But for Phylas, just as pleasant as applause was the sound of coins spilling into the jar on the ground before him.
“Thank you. Thanks, you’re all too kind,” he said.
“Can you do another?” a young woman asked.
“Of course, but not today. The well-fed magician never shows too much at once.”
“But don’t anyone fret,” he said, “for I’ll be back tomorrow, and the day after, for as long as the fine people of Arima will keep me in their company.” The proclamation was answered by even more applause.
“Wait, though,” said a small boy. He had a mop of curly hair, and a sharp look in his eye that few children his age possessed. “In your story, you said the phoenixes are the ones who bring the Springtime.”
“Yes, that’s how the story goes.
“Well,” said the boy, “no one has seen a phoenix in a very long time, but Spring still comes every year. Why is that?”
Phylas’ constant smile grew smaller, though it didn’t disappear entirely. “Then I guess,” he said, a little sadly, “there must still be at least one phoenix left out there.” He gave the boy a wink, and took his money jar under his arm, now full to the brim, and lifted his enormous pack onto his shoulders. “I wish all of you a very good today, and an even better tomorrow.” And with that said, he cut through the crowd, headed toward the great staircase that led to Arima Temple.
“Faster, faster! Put your legs into it! There’s plenty more after this.” Thales was leaning against a wall, cooling himself with a large fan. “Up, now back again. Get a rhythm going!”
Lina was down on all fours with a heavy rag in her hands, running and back and forth across the great hall, to clean it one lap at a time. After every six laps or so, she would stop to rinse the rag in a bucket of suds; those few seconds were all the rest she was allowed before Thales started barking orders again. He laughed as he did it, too, and that was the worst thing.
“Sir, I believe it may be time for a break.”
“A break? But you—we’ve barely started. I had the whole day planned out and everything.”
Lina had to come up with something fast. She couldn’t take much more of this. “The gong! It’s almost noon, shouldn’t I stop to ring it?”
Of course Thales knew what she was trying to do, but he played along. “Really, noon already? All right then, join me outside. Come on, hurry.”
Lina stood up very, very slowly, feeling every creak and every pop in her joints as she did. It took several seconds before she could stand fully upright. She looked out across the great hall; she had washed only about a third of it.
Thales had taken it easy on her during her earlier visit to Arima. He had caught her polishing statues one morning without being told. “Don’t worry about it,” he’d told her. “The temple’s old, and blemishes add character, anyway.”
Lina now understood his plan. Thales had saved up months worth of work for her so that today—her first day of official duty—he could work her into the ground, chuckling to himself the whole time. Her legs ached, her arms ached, her back ached; even her collarbone ached, and she wouldn’t have believed that was even possible before today. She had polished the statues beside the front doors, re-arranged furniture, pulled weeds on the terrace, busted up cobwebs from every corner of the upper floor of the temple while balancing on a rickety ladder, and begun the exhausting process of sweeping, mopping, and waxing the temple’s floors. Her clothes that she had spent so effort and fuss over that morning were covered in a layer of combined sweat, mud, dust, and oil. Getting the stains out was going to be a chore in itself.
She stretched, winced, and then stretched some more before she followed Thales out, where he tossed her the hammer and stepped back to give her the space to swing.
Lina brought the hammer behind her head in the same way she’d done earlier. And once again, she swung with it all her might, as hard as she could. But after hours of back-breaking labor, her tired body could produce only a pale shadow of her strength from that morning. As a result, she ended up striking it with just the right amount of force, and the gong, rather than screaming in pain, sang a clear and steady note that rolled down the mountain and through the village.
“That’s how it’s done,” Thales said approvingly.
Lina smiled back at him as the hammer slipped from her fingers and struck the ground, barely missing her foot.
“Come on, let’s get you something to eat.”
“Yes!” Lina pumped her fist in the air, then caught herself and bowed. “I mean: yes sir!”
Thales tried not to laugh at her, but it got away from him anyway, slipping out at the corner of his mouth.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No, no. It’s just…” he paused. “Do you hear that?”
It was the slow, steady sound of heavy footsteps. It was followed by the sight of a shapeless mass cresting over the terrace steps, and a moment later, by the man who carried it.
“Hello!” said the man, waving, though he was still a good distance away.
Thales just waved back. He didn’t know which was more amazing: that the temple had received a surprise visitor in the middle of the day, or that this man had survived climbing the mountain steps while carrying such an absurd burden on his shoulders. “Hello to you. Do you need any help?”
The man nodded to his pack. “With this thing? No, I’m quite used to it by now.” As if to make his point, he jogged the remaining distance easily, stopping in front of the temple doors. “Wooo! Beautiful! Just as I thought they’d be!” He examined the grain of the wood closely, seeming to forget that Thales and Lina were still present, trading glances with each other.
Thales cleared his throat. “Can I help you, son?”
The man jumped as if the priest had caught him off guard. “Ah yes! Allow me to introduce myself.” He dropped his pack to the ground and took hold of his dark cloak with a dramatic flourish. “My name is Phylas the magician, and I am on a journey from the southern territories, and I would like to stay here at your temple, for as long as you will have me—till the first of Spring at least. Are you the head priest?”
“Well, yes I am. My name is Thales, and this young woman is Lina, our new priestess.”
“Then I’m in luck. I’m sure you don’t have many rooms available this time, but I’ve brought tribute for any inconvenience I might cause.” He opened one of the pockets on his pack, and pulled out his money jar to set it on the ground before the priest.
“I don’t think you understand,” Thales said.
“Please, don’t tell me there are no rooms left,” said Phylas.
“That’s not… exactly the problem. Our temple hasn’t received any guests in years. Our rooms are all closed these days.”
“What?” Phylas said, aghast. “No, that can’t be right. Not right at all.” He took a small pamphlet from another one of the pockets on his pack, and read it from it silently. “This book says that you have hundreds of rooms.”
“Let me see that, please.”
Phylas passed it to him hesitantly.
The book was a travel guide, and very, very old from the looks of it. Thales flipped through the pages, and almost gasped out loud. The subject matter was like a history book: behemoths, the war of the gods, the building of temples now very old. But the tone of its writing, though in outdated linguistics and difficult to read, was in every way contemporary. It spoke of past events with a clarity and certainty as if they had happened yesterday, or were still happening. He flipped toward the back, where the line of events simply stopped in the middle of the last Behemoth War, approximately three hundred years ago.
He turned to a glossary at the very end, where there was a list of all active temples in the empire. Arima was listed among them, along with a short description of the yearly phoenix flight over the mountain, and of the generous lodgings the temple provided to pilgrims who made the climb up the mountain.
Thales’ first instinct was to call the whole thing a fake, just a magician’s trick. But the cover felt worn, and the pages were yellowed, and the spine had been stitched together in three places, and at three different times, judging from the aging of the thread. If it was a forgery, it was a very good one, though the possibility of the alternative was just as unreal.
“Where did you get this?” Thales asked.
“From my father—he never told me how he found it. Can I have it back?”
“Yes, of course.” Thales gave it back, and Phylas stashed it away. “But I’m afraid your book is a bit out of date. When the phoenixes stopped coming, the travelers stopped coming. With no travelers, the government cut our funding, and we closed most of the guest rooms.”
Words could never have described the expression of disappointment that Phylas wore when he heard that news. “None at all? But what about the rooms?”
“They’re still there. But even I haven’t been in them in a very long time. I locked the main corridor door years ago, and haven’t opened it once since then.”
Phylas took one long, deep breath. “What would happen if the phoenixes came back?” he asked.
“If the phoenixes came back,” said Phylas, “would you have reason to open those rooms again?”
“I don’ think that’s ever going to happen,” Thales said. “Not in my lifetime, anyway.”
“Anything is possible,” said Phylas. “If there’s something traveling has taught me, it's that. The phoenixes all left, and so did the travelers. And now I’m here, so who’s to say that the phoenixes won’t come back as well?”
Thales wanted to tell the magician that those two events weren’t the same thing at all, but that jar of coins held his tongue for him. The temple’s coffers were always low. His answer surprised both Lina and himself. “Very well, I’ll prepare a room for you. Your tribute is appreciated.”
“Truly? Thank you, sir, you won’t regret this, I promise you.” He took Thales’ hand in both of his and shook it excitedly before Thales pulled free. “And there’ll be more money where that came from, as well.”
Thales nodded. “Come, then. I’ll show you the way.”
Thales brought Lina and Phylas to the heavy iron door at the back of the temple’s great hall. It was built flush against the wall, and hidden out of sight by a purple curtain. Thales pulled the curtain aside, and took a very old, and very worn key from his robe. He had to force it into the door’s dust-filled keyhole, and twist a bit before the latch took. On another part of the door was a metal wheel with several grooves cut into it; Thales spun it around, and the door opened a bit more with each revolution.
On the other side was a hallway of dark rock, with no source of light at all, so that Lina couldn’t see more than a few feet past the entryway.
Thales took a big whiff of the air inside. It didn’t smell as musty as he’d thought it would. In fact, it didn’t smell musty at all. “Watch your step, you two. I doubt the lights down here still work.”
“That’s not much of a problem,” said Phylas. He held up two fingers, and bolts of aether arced between them, brightly enough to act as a serviceable lantern.
Thales and Lina looked at him, and then at each other before both did the same thing, and the three of them walked down the wide corridor together. Along the sides were doors like the first one, only smaller, each with a number.
They didn’t go very far. At one of the first doors, just before the first corner, Thales stopped. “This is your room,” he said. He used the key again, and the sound of the latch disengaging echoed through the hallway.
The door swung open, and inside was a room with accommodations not too unlike what one might expect from a typical inn. There was a bed in the corner, consisting of a base of smooth brick, on top of which was a mattress with a stack of folded blankets on top, and a few pillows. On the other side was an empty bookshelf and desk. Cables ran along the ceiling and walls.
Thales was surprised to see how well-kept it still appeared, even after all these years. He’d half-expected to see a mattress and pillows covered in dust and eaten by moths, and cracks in the walls from fault line shifts. But none of that was present at all.
“Nice,” said Phylas, stepping inside and extinguishing the flame from his fingers. He fell back onto the mattress and flopped up and down. Thales held his breath, worried that Phylas would send up a cloud of dust, but that didn’t happen. “I understand now why people were willing to risk the climb.”
“We’re glad our guest approves,” said Thales.
Phylas sat up and examined the wires on the walls. “What are these?”
“Aether cables, but they run on their own generator a few levels down from where we are right now. I’m not sure if that generator still runs.”
“Not a problem,” said Phylas. “I brought my own lights.” He snapped his fingers, and a glowing sphere appeared and drifted up to the ceiling.
Thales nodded. “Good to know. The washroom is down the hall, down the way we came. It’s the un-numbered door. You can’t miss it. Do you need any help bringing your things down? I can have Lina carry that bag of yours.”
Please say no. Please say no, Lina begged silently.
“No, I’ll carry my own things,” Phylas said.
Phylas had gone about the business of moving in unassisted. As it turned out, his pack consisted of several separate bags all lashed together. He deconstructed it outside, bringing each piece in one by one in a few short trips, while Lina went back to her mopping. By the time she’d finished that job, Phylas had finished unpacking and retired to his room, and neither she nor Thales had seen him since.
There was something conspicuous about the way Thales didn’t talk about their visitor. In fact, he seemed barely to notice him at all, except to step out of the way when the magician came walking past with one of his bags. Lina didn’t think the two had made eye contact once since showing Phylas to his room.
Thales knelt down and swept the floor with a white cloth. “Not bad,” he said when it came up clean.
Lina, for her part, felt terrible. She had surpassed sore. Now she was numb all over, which was either a good or very bad thing. It was hard to tell. She seriously considered pretending to faint. That would teach Thales to push her so hard.
“…but I think it could use one more pass,” said Thales.
As thoughts of resignation papers flashed through Lina’s mind, the old priest started laughing. “Just kidding! You should have seen the look on your face that time!”
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” Lina forced out.
“To tell the truth, I’m kind of impressed. The last apprentice they sent me didn’t last this long.”
Last apprentice? Lina just told herself that Thales was making another one of his jokes. Yes, that had to be it. She was choosing to believe just that.
“Anyway.” He scratched his bald head and looked at the sun, which was just now starting to take on a red evening hue. “I think you’ve done enough work for today. Why don’t you check on our guest?”
She bowed, said “yes sir,” and limped off down the corridor. She barely had the strength to light her way, her aether flickering and sparking and threatening to go out.
She found the door easily enough. She knocked twice before she got an answer.
“Come in, come in,” Phylas called. “Mind your step, though.”
In only a few hours, Phylas had turned his bare room into something of a workshop. The desk was now covered in small mechanical devices that Lina had never seen before and couldn’t identify. There was a fan in the corner beside the bed, running without an apparent power source. The bookshelf now held books, of course, but also jars filled with liquids of various colors, and what Lina thought looked like navigational instruments and charts. Phylas himself was sitting cross-legged on the bed, hunched over a mess of papers that he quickly folded and put away as Lina entered, taking much extra care to be as un-suspicious as possible in doing so.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “Or is it good night? I’ve lost track of time, myself.”
“It’s still afternoon,” said Lina.
“Sorry about the clutter. I haven’t had time to organize yet.”
Lina stepped over a broken motor. “It’s no problem at all. What are these things, anyway?”
“All of them?” he asked. “That would take quite a while to explain, what each is and does. But in general: they’re measuring devices, plus a few odds and ends. They aren’t a problem, are they?”
“Oh no, not at all. It’s just hard to believe you fit all of this inside that backpack, is all.”
Phylas didn’t comment, instead taking some sort of tool and attaching it to one of the small machines. After a few seemingly random turns and clacking sounds, he appeared rather proud of himself with whatever he had done.
“So is it true what the priest said, about not receiving any visitors?”
Lina sighed. “It’s true. The government assigns funds based on pilgrimage. So a temple with no pilgrims receives almost no funding. And without funding, Arima can’t attract any pilgrims.”
Phylas’ expression turned grim, and he turned his attention to another device as he spoke. “I’m sorry to hear that. I was worried that things might be this way.”
“What do you mean? You knew about it from the beginning?”
“Bad news travels faster than good,” he said. “And it takes more than money to fix a broken temple. And what about you? What brought you here? I can tell from your accent that you’re not local.”
Lina shrugged. “I don’t know. After my training, I requested to be sent to one of the coastal temples. My request was declined, and the elder priestess sent me here instead. I admit it isn’t the most interesting story to tell.”
“Any story can be interesting, once you learn how to tell it.” Phylas gave her a wink.