The entire time they were walking towards the Dragon Stairs, Giền said nothing. She merely changed shape in Thanh Lan’s arms—not growing heavier and heavier, which Thanh Lan could have understood, but by turns lighter and heavier, her shape shimmering between ten thousand different ones: a dragon, a Maw soldier—a faceless, helmed countenance with the Maw’s spiral emblem on their forehead—, an elderly woman who could have been Thanh Lan’s mother. Every one of them kept only the three dots on the nape: the connection ports, once faintly visible, now more and more distinct as Giền grew weaker and weaker.
“How—far?” Giền asked, and her voice, too, started to echo and change as she did—making the beach tremble and shake beneath Thanh Lan’s feet.
Thanh Lan didn’t know how far they had to go, but she wasn’t about to admit it. Her knowledge and self-assurance was the only reason Giền let Thanh Lan carry her—because Giền, even wounded, was as single-minded a child as she had ever been in the monasteries. “Not far now,” Thanh Lan said.
The monasteries would be dust now, lost to the Maw’s forces—Abbess Linh, Diễm Thư, Mei, all of them burning ashes, for the Maw burnt everything they captured, a slow advance that left the mountains and the seas of the Ngân lands coated in a fine layer of grey, the rice paddies smelling only of their fires.
There was more beach ahead, and at the end of the beach, a simple stone jetty advancing into the sea. The air was crisp and clear, and Thanh Lan could hear the historians’ mantras as she walked towards it.
Record no untruth. Follow no bias. Bring clarity without judgment.
Record no untruth...
What good were histories and viewing machines, if they could not prevent the Maw?
“How—far?” Giền asked again.
“Soon,” Thanh Lan said. She climbed towards the jetty, shaking with the pain in her legs.
She didn’t know how far. She’d never known. When she’d first arrived in the monasteries—running from Anh, the lecher her parents had sold her to, the one she’d stabbed in the chest after a year of a marriage with no space for her own desires or even freedom to go where she wanted—Giền had already been there, the same age as she was now. Had always been there, a preternaturally serious child that everyone learnt to give a wide berth. Abbess Linh had said Giền was the future of the monasteries—that one day, when everything fell, Giền would get to the Dragon Stairs, go down, and do what was necessary to ensure the survival of the order.
Well, everything had fallen, and Giền was weak—shot in the chest by one of the Maw’s laser pistols—and Thanh Lan herself wasn’t doing terribly well either, lungs clogged with smoke and leg muscles turned thin and brittle by ultrasound projectiles. They were trudging at the end of the world, and there wasn’t anything here, just more Maw low-atmosphere fliers and raiding parties—nothing left, not Mei’s soft laughter and fondness for cooking, not Abbess Linh’s multiple cats keeping her Thanh Lan company as she painted into the evening, not the smell of tea and dumplings as Thanh Lan and the other nuns returned from yet another dive into the past, tearing the electrodes of the viewing machines from the napes of their necks, fighting the deep weariness that always came with returning to the present—everything lost and burnt, the Maw merciless and ever advancing—
Thanh Lan’s foot connected with the smoothness of the jetty, sending a jolt of pain through her leg. The jetty shook: cracks appeared along its surface, spreading from the end deepest into the sea. Then it reared up like a huge glistening flag lifting itself from the water’s surface and unstreaming towards the heavens, droplets of water scattering in its wake. Thanh Lan almost lost her footing, but then Giền shifted in her arms and became heavier, anchoring her to something—something that pulsed undersea, like a huge root system.
“They’re coming,” Giền whispered. “We have to hurry.”
Thanh Lan checked. Behind them, in the sky, was one speck: a Maw flier, come to finish what the soldiers had started.
Ahead... ahead, the stone of the jetty was melting, cracks spreading wider and wider, until it solidified into a huge stone dragon looking down on them, with narrow and sharp antlers and a mouth large enough to swallow them whole, the network of cracked stones becoming its scales. An old spirit of the sea, serpentine and deadly. The stone dragon opened their mouth, and Giền stretched in Thanh Lan’s arms—she’d have sent Thanh Lan off balance if she hadn’t been so heavy.
Giền whistled something that had the cadence and accents of a mantra, and the stone dragon’s head lowered, until their chin came to rest on the jetty, their stone eye-sockets—empty and glittering with salt—staring at Giền.
Thanh Lan kept her composure, because she had to. Because she wouldn’t have been surprised if this was the end, but she had the same stubbornness that had kept her alive during her marriage to Anh, the same one that had made her scoop Giền in her arms and walk away from the smouldering ruins of the monasteries.
She’d seen the order fall, and she would see it rise again. It was her duty, and the only thing she could yet do.
Giền spoke again, and the jetty shook. The stone dragon opened their mouth, then froze, some undefinable presence passing from them, from living statue becoming dead and pitted stone. Between the huge fangs were the first steps of a staircase heading downwards.
The Dragon Stairs.
“Let’s go,” Giền said. “We don’t have much time.”
Thanh Lan stared again at the speck in the distance—growing larger and larger. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s go.”
The Dragon Stairs were wet and treacherous: wending down into absolute darkness, every new one feeling more cracked and twisted than the previous one. They were below the water by now, but there was no water anywhere: the Stairs were enclosed in some kind of tunnel.
Every four or five of the steps, the earth rumbled, and whatever lay beneath—the endless pulsing that seemed to fill Thanh Lan and take the place of her heart—grew stronger.
“What’s down there?” Thanh Lan asked.
Giền startled—Thanh Lan hadn’t realised she’d been sleeping. “An ending. A beginning. I don’t really know. Don’t you?”
Thanh Lan opened her mouth to say of course she did, but she was tired. She’d lied, and appeared confident and reassuring, but what was the point? “The Dragon Stairs are a blind zone for the viewing machines. We can’t access their past.”
“Like the Maw?”
How she hated Giền’s perspicacity, that insight that felt like a knife going straight for the most vulnerable part of the body. “Like the Maw,” she said. “Can you see anything?”
Giền laughed, then had to stop as a cough wracked her entire body. “Into the past? I’m not magical.”
“You’ve lived forever.”
“Just longer than the monasteries, but long life doesn’t grant anything save itself.” Her voice was quiet, thoughtful. “And everything has an end, doesn’t it.”
No. Thanh Lan couldn’t accept that. She couldn’t even begin to understand why Giền was so meek and accepting—more like a machine than a human being. No wonder she’d never really fit into the monasteries.
“You’re angry,” Giền said.
“Yes,” Thanh Lan said. “Everything I knew, everyone I loved, is dead. How am I supposed to feel about this?”
“You’re angry at me. Because I’m a burden.”
Thanh Lan almost missed a step, but she caught herself before they both tumbled down. “No.”
“No? As you wish,” Giền said.
They took the next steps in utter, charged silence. Say something, Thanh Lan wanted to say. Something, anything that doesn’t sound like rote mantra or emotional distance. Something that makes me feel you’re human. That you’re worth all of this. That—that I’m not alone.
She wanted to cry, and she couldn’t afford to.
Above them, a soft, unqualifiable whine—and then the clunk of something heavy. And footsteps echoing. The Maw was coming.
There was nothing she could do about that.
Thanh Lan focused on the stairs—on the fissure in the next step, the rubble covering the one after. The fact that the next next one after that was completely crumbled and she’d have to step over it. The softness of Giền’s hair against her chin, becoming rough scales, becoming metal as Giền changed, again and again, in her arms. The rising beat in her chest that now seemed to be a perpetual part of her.
Once, in the past where Abbess Linh was still alive—before she was pierced by a shot from one of the Maw’s fliers, before Thanh Lan tried to move her and couldn’t because she was too heavy, fading too fast—the Abbess and Thanh Lan had talked about the Maw.
“I don’t understand why we can’t see it,” Thanh Lan had said. She’d rubbed the nape of her neck, the three circles where the electrodes had rested, the three dots that flew on the order’s flag over every monastery. Another dive into the past, another scene of empresses arguing with soldiers in the face of the Maw’s inexorable advance, another city falling and burning. They weren’t inquiring into history anymore but witnessing it come to pass. “All those soldiers, all those fliers suddenly appearing one day and laying waste to us all. They’ve got to be coming from somewhere. They’ve got to have a beginning in the past.”
Abbess Linh coughed, the way she often did when she disagreed. “You haven’t changed so much. Even years of observation haven’t dulled your urge to act.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“We’re historians,” Abbess Linh said.
“Are we? How many dives have gone into the faraway past lately, Holy Mother? Do you think we’re still continuing to discuss what part the Fateful Pearl Empress’s concubines might have played in her downfall? Or how the Three Fisherpeople War started?”
Abbess Linh sighed. “I hear your pain, but I can’t help you.”
And Thanh Lan could hear her pain. Every ideal of the order casually set aside, the strain of the Maw’s advance turning everything awry. The areas of the past they could access had become less and less numerous, because once a time and place had been viewed, it couldn’t be viewed again—a quirk of the machines, that was hotly debated by the nuns around cups of tea. But now... now they weren’t leaving places alone because they couldn’t access them. They were leaving them alone because it felt like the distant past didn’t matter anymore.
“I can’t help you either, can I,” Abbess Linh said. “You want an assurance we’re still present, here and now. Still alive. Still doing what we’re meant to. Why?”
A soft sigh. “You should know this, Thanh Lan. Because we’re the order. Because we make the world a better place. Because understanding the past and sharing that knowledge enables people to make better choices.”
“So it may not come to pass again?”
“Yes. We offer clarity, and the harmony that follows.”
“The world is dying. It doesn’t need clarity. Or harmony.”
“We always need clarity. That’s what the order aims to do: to keep ignorance and chaos at bay.” Abbess Linh sighed, stroking the back of her oldest cat. “I don’t have answers.”
In the present—going down the endlessness of the Dragon Stairs with Giền changing shapes less and less often, her weight growing settled and familiar in Thanh Lan’s arms—Thanh Lan said, “I’m sorry. I’m angry, but it’s not at you.”
Giền was silent for a while. “I see,” she said. Her voice was distant. “Thank you. For the acknowledgement. It’s not easy to lose people.”
“No,” Thanh Lan said, and suddenly realised how many losses there had to have been, in Giền’s past. “Is it easy for you?”
“I remember them,” Giền said. A shrug, that made the three connection ports on the nape of her neck bulge out. “All of them. They’re... alive. Where it matters.”
As if in the viewing machines—where the past was never truly dead? They’d all done it, going to see the ones they’d lost. It was forbidden, of course—no viewings for personal reasons—but most of them never did it twice. In the machines’ vision, the past was oddly detached, distant—as if in a book. Mei had explained to Thanh Lan that the issue wasn’t the past, it was the machines—that there weren’t any hormones produced when they were under, that they couldn’t feel anything that went with those visions. It didn’t matter; diving those moments just made it worse. “I don’t find memory comforting,” Thanh Lan said.
“It’s all right,” Giền said. She shrugged. “I do.”
“What’s the first thing you remember?” Thanh Lan asked.
Giền was silent. Ahead, in the depths, there was a light. An ending to the Dragon Stairs. An answer, or a lack thereof. A closure. “A machine,” she said. “I was plugged into it, and they disconnected me. Where the ports are.”
The ports that looked like the imprint of the three electrodes the nuns would put on to access the machines; like the symbol of the order, the one that had once flown over every monastery. “A viewing machine?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s the machine that gave me life, and made sure that my life never ran out,” Giền said. “I never saw it again. But it felt much like this place.” She shrugged. “It’s a good place to die.”
“You’re not dying,” Thanh Lan said, sharply.
An amused cough from Giền. “What did you think the cost of the order’s rebirth is? Life only comes from death, and death from life. Ultimately, there must some balance. That’s how the universe works.”
“You’re making no sense.”
“Or too much sense?” Giền’s voice was distant again. “I’ve always known, Thanh Lan. Whatever it is I need to do, I won’t survive it.”
“And you’re just happy to sacrifice yourself? For the sake of the order?”
“You’re the one who’s carrying me.” Giền’s voice was sharp again. That knife again: seeing too much, speaking too much. Hurting too much. “Would you have carried me so far if you didn’t want the order to go on?”
Thanh Lan wanted the order back. She wanted her home back. She wanted to be sitting in the kitchens again, listening to Mei go on and on about their latest find about the era of the Eastern Pirates, and how imperial courts everywhere were using that to remind their scholars about the cost of nepotism over country. She wanted to have those barbed, frustrating conversations with Abbess Linh about the order’s mission, arguing deep into the night that they should be doing more to stop the Maw. And she knew she wasn’t ever going to get any of that, but she could get something else: the satisfaction of saving the life of the order who had saved her own life.
Above them, footsteps, coming faster and faster. With the flier landed, its occupant was on their way to find them. “Hurry,” Giền said.
Thanh Lan snorted. “Much good it’ll do us if I just fall down the stairs.”
And then there were no more steps; just a wide, ruined platform and a metal door. On the door, three dots—then a last dot blinked into existence—and Thanh Lan realised that the last one wasn’t a dot but the Maw’s spiral emblem.
“Giền,” she said, chilled. “Wake up. Wake up.”
Giền stirred in Thanh Lan’s arms. “What is it?”
“The Maw,” Thanh Lan said. “They’re here ahead of us.”
Giền stared at the door, where the spiral emblem was becoming surrounded by three dots again. “I don’t think so,” she said. “This is the first, isn’t it? The first monastery.”
“Then why does it have the Maw on its front door?”
Giền made a sound that was half-laughter, half-cough. “Life from death. Births are always strange.”
Thanh Lan fought the rumble of unease in her belly. The footsteps were still following them. How long did they have? Much less time than she thought.
“You need to bring me to the door,” Giền said.
Thanh Lan walked to it, legs shaking. There was nothing left but adrenaline now. Giền raised her hand, put it against the door’s panelling. Her arm shimmered, becoming the same metal at the door—and as she laid her hand on the spiral of the Maw at the centre of the door, for a bare moment she was one with the metal, and the door split open into halves under her fingers.
Behind it, there was a tunnel and a faint, flickering light—and she’d have known that light anywhere: it was the mainframe room of the viewing machines, the heart and soul of the monasteries, the slow pulsing that accompanied their dives into the past. The way they slowly helped make sense of what had happened, understanding imposed on an ever-shifting world; the mission they had all believed in until the Maw’s emergence had made it impossible.
“You said you remembered a machine,” Thanh Lan said. “This machine?”
Giền shrugged. “This, or another. Let’s go.”
It wasn’t like they were being given much choice.
As they continued, the pain in Thanh Lan’s legs grew greater and greater, and so did the pulsing—the one she now recognised as a much stronger version of the one in the monasteries. A machine. Something that had been there at the founding of the order. The Maw. The blindness of the machines when it came to the Maw’s source.
Life from death. Death from life.
Babies didn’t remember their own birth, did they? Just like Giền had so few memories of what she had come from.
Thanh Lan didn’t know where she was going to find there—other than Giền’s death, which she wasn’t sure how to feel about, halfway between a relief and a source of anger—but there was a slow rising within her, a growing dread that whatever it was was going to be ugly and as wounding as Giền’s perspicacity and detachment.
As she walked, the voices started again the historians’ mantra, repeated over and over again until it devolved into meaninglessness.
Record no untruth. Follow no bias. Bring clarity without judgment.
Untruth. Bias. Clarity. Judgment.
The truth was that she’d never really believed in any of what drove the others, the loss of which had made the Abbess so heartbroken. Not in making the world a better place, not in clarity and the harmony it brought. The truth was... when she’d run, bloody-handed, shaking, the historians had taken her in, and had left her space to heal and decide what she wanted to do.
They’d brewed tea and made noodle soup, and—in the spice-filled kitchen where Mei so enjoyed chopping carrots and pak choy, in the dormitories where Diễm Thư and Vutthi had forever been looking for two more partners to play mạt chược—they’d simply let her be, without once pressuring her into doing more than what she felt comfortable with.
The truth was that they had given her what was most precious: a space to share, a space to be. Friendship, companionship, the freedom she hadn’t had with her parents or Anh.
Another door ahead, with the light flickering around it, except this one opened all by itself, and then...
There was a circle there. It was surrounded by instructions carved into the floor, a series of columns of old characters spreading outwards from the circle, making it seem like a sun with its radiant rays. Thanh Lan recognised them: the same ones she’d learnt by heart in the monasteries—how to build and maintain a viewing machine. And something else too, a second purpose to the machine: a diagram showing a child like Giền hooked to some kind of cloud of shimmering energy, labelled “a long life, to trade for death”, and more instructions, presumably on how to start the process of making someone like Giền.
And in the centre of the circle, a single machine, from which protruded cables splitting into three at their tips—not electrodes but connectors, and enough of them for three people to be hooked to the machine at the same time. The machine’s screen flickered; instead of a selection of a time and place, like at the monasteries, there was nothing but the Maw’s spiral.
Giền reached out towards it—but Thanh Lan stopped her.
She’d gone along so far, and she wasn’t going to take cryptic half-answers instead of the truth.
She laid Giền down against the wall, then walked—slowly, shakily—towards the screen. She grabbed one set of cables, and as she did so, the screen finally changed. It became the three dots of the order placed around the spiral of the Maw, and a sentence blinked into existence. “For every speck of clarity, a speck of unknowing. For every measure of understanding, a measure of oblivion. For every moment of order, a moment of chaos.”
Life comes from death, death comes from life.
The dread within her coalesced to something else—some awful impending sense of a revelation; one that would break her.
Thanh Lan put the cables against the nape of her neck, just as Giền screamed “no!”—and the world shattered and blacked out, and she was watching historians plug themselves into machines and diving into the past—the Three Fisherpeople War, the Silver Trades era, the annexation of the Northern Kingdom on the Ngân. Except that every single time the historians did that, every single time they went back, a Maw soldier emerged, shimmering, in the exact time and place they had left. Every time they used the machines, the Maw grew stronger—the soldiers mustering, building war machines and ships and biding their time.
That was why. It wasn’t a quirk of the machines that prevented them from accessing the same area of the past twice. It wasn’t that at all. It was the Maw soldier that had appeared there.
It was the Maw. The Maw that was the machines’ blind spot. The Maw that was created by the machines.
For every measure of understanding, a measure of oblivion.
No. No no.
When she came to, screaming, Giền was still where Thanh Lan had left her, flickering between the horned countenance of a ky lan and the human child’s shape, her burning eyes on Thanh Lan. And so was the Maw soldier who’d just entered the room, weapon aimed squarely at Thanh Lan’s chest.
“Did you know?” Thanh Lan asked. Her voice echoed under the ceiling. “What we came down here to find?”
It was the Maw soldier who answered, voice male and toneless. “Something more than a viewing machine. With the child linked to it and fueling it, this has the power to change the past. It undoes your previous viewings, and undoes us, too, in every past place and time where we ever emerged. Death from life.”
Giền’s life. But that wasn’t what she’d meant, or even who she’d asked. Because she’d wanted an answer from the dead, from Abbess Linh, from the long-gone founders of the order. Surely. Surely they had known, in the monasteries. Surely, in this place—in the very first of them, in the very first of the monasteries, the very first of the machines—they had known how the technology worked, what the price was to pay for viewing the past. That every dive into the past made the Maw. That with every one of their actions, they were planting the seeds, not just of their own destruction but of the destruction of the Ngân lands, of the entire world.
How could they?
The Maw soldier unclipped his helmet—and beneath it was nothing, no eyes, no mouth, no face, just a sphere deep emptiness, like shadows on a grave or the salted earth at the end of the world.
Giền was laughing, and it was—for the first time—bitter and unamused. “Life. Hundreds of years of life. Hoarding it all up as fuel. How fitting.” She pulled herself up, tottering—the Maw soldier’s gun shivered in her direction, the gloved fingers tensing on the trigger.
“No,” Thanh Lan said. “No!!!” She threw herself forward on shaking legs, screaming at Giền, “Change!”—and just as Giền shifted, became a rearing dragon, the Maw soldier recoiling, Thanh Lan landed on top of him, toppling him and reaching for the gun—a tangle of metal and leather and that emptiness that he was, every brush of it bringing up Thanh Lan’s nausea, reminding her of how powerless she’d been against Anh, how he had kept her imprisoned, how he had reminded her, time and time again, that she only existed at his bidding—
Her hand closed over the Maw soldier’s gun, and all she saw was endings—Abbess Linh dying, the monasteries torched—the ending they all deserved, for everything they’d done, the thoughtless way they’d courted their own destruction—
Beneath it all, beneath the nausea and the sense of hopelessness, was only the core of who she was—and it was rage and anger and the will to survive and make her own choices—and the way the hilt of the knife had seemed to fit perfectly into her hand as she’d stabbed Anh.
Thanh Lan fired the gun with a sound like glass breaking, the recoil driving the handle, nauseously burning-hot, into the palm of her hand. A second time, and a third time—and then the soldier beneath her stopped kicking and thrashing and slumped unmoving, and she was rising, screaming at the pain in her legs and in her lungs.
Giền was up, staring at her—not a dragon anymore but her child form—and Thanh Lan dropped the gun and ran forward, catching her as she fell, arms rising with the familiar weight of her against Thanh Lan’s chest. “I’m sorry.”
“There’ll be more coming,” Giền said. She coughed. “What now?”
“Did you know?” Thanh Lan said.
“Of course not,” Giền said. She sounded amused again, distant.
Thanh Lan thought of Abbess Linh’s evasiveness when she’d asked about the Maw. And she’d wanted to send Giền to the Dragon Stairs. They’d known, and thought the price to pay for clarity and harmony was worth it. That the order made the world a better place, and what did it matter if they made the Maw stronger? They could always rebuild. “They knew,” she said, and she felt the words like a tearing apart in her own belly.
“Does it matter?” Giền asked. “What are you going to do? There aren’t any other choices, Thanh Lan. This is what I was made for.”
And she wasn’t even angry about it, was she? Of course she wouldn’t be.
Thanh Lan saw it all, mercilessly clear: Giền dying, the Maw vanishing, Thanh Lan founding an order from the ruins of the first—another child, another series of viewing machines, another series of monasteries; a slow cycle of entwined order and chaos, until it all started again.
It was Giền’s choice and all she’d ever wanted—and all Thanh Lan had ever wanted, to find again those golden hours of belonging somewhere, anywhere—and it wasn’t as though Giền was even human, it wasn’t even as though Thanh Lan liked her. It wasn’t even as though it would cost anything.
And then Thanh Lan remembered how Giền had dodged the first question on what dying meant to her—and her bitterness at finding out how it had all started, what her purpose was. “That’s what you were made for, but that’s not what you want, is it?”
“Does it matter?” she asked again. “You didn’t come here because of what I want, Thanh Lan.”
No, she hadn’t. Thanh Lan stared at the machine again, breathing in the burning air tainted by the Maw. “What do you want?”
“To live,” Giền said. “An impossible thing, Thanh Lan.”
It would be so easy, to do what she was meant to do—to start up that cycle again, to prolong the order. To do what Abbess Linh and the rest of her benefactors would have wanted her to do.
All she had to do was take away the choice of a child.
“You’re right,” Thanh Lan said, finally. “When I took you from the monasteries, it wasn’t to do what you wanted. It was to do what they wanted.”
“Then—” Giền’s breath shook. She closed her eyes. “Do it, Thanh Lan. Before I lose my nerve. Now.”
Thanh Lan breathed in, slowly, carefully, thinking of the monasteries. Of Abbess Linh, of Mei, of all the others. Of what wouldn’t come back. Of what couldn’t come back, what didn’t deserve to come back.
The Maw would spend itself out if the monasteries were gone. It would destroy most of the world, but not all. There would be... something, flowering in the ruins. Something small, unknown, fragile.
“You’re wrong,” she said. “There is always a choice.”
A silence. Giền cocked her head, considering. “Turning away from this? We can’t last against the Maw. You know we can’t.”
“No,” Thanh Lan said. “But maybe it’s not about lasting.”
Giền laughed. “A time to die. A time to live. Lead on, then.”
Life from death. Death from life. A world burning to cinders, but she had no regrets.
Slowly, carefully, Thanh Lan turned away from the machine, Giền still in her arms; away from the cycle of endless destruction she was meant to perpetuate, and slowly, shakingly walked down the corridor and back towards the Dragon Stairs and the beach, and the rest of the burning world.
Of course it couldn’t last. Of course it would end, one way or another—perhaps on the steps of the Dragon Stairs, perhaps on the beach, perhaps later.
But in the meantime and however long it lasted, they had each other for company, and they were free.