The God of Ash met the youngest Champion in a field of bloody flowers.
The glass asters were stained crimson that day, nestled against the bodies of the Pearl Guard. They should’ve been the palest blue, petals nearly transparent in full bloom.
The Champion turned, blood dripping from his blades to pool around his boots. He was young, so young, barely past his twentieth year. The God of Ash couldn’t decide which shone brighter: the cheery sun above or the young man’s blue eyes.
The man’s lips stretched into a smile. “Caenlux,” he said, his voice filled with wonder, “the God of Ash. Finally.”
The god wore his mortal guise: brown robe, folded fan, the unlined face of a young man. The guise of an artisan who also indulged in amateur scholarly pursuits. His appearance hadn’t fooled the boy, it seemed.
The God of Ash stepped onto the field, weaving around the bodies. “I am called Shun now. What quarrel do you have with my Pearl Guard?”
“None.” He spun his blades around, whipping off the blood. “I would’ve left them alone if you’d shown up sooner.”
Shun closed his eyes. He thought back to the Endless War, the gods he’d slain. He thought of Mika, her body melting away as he set her down in the Lieri River. He thought back to the guises he’d worn, human and beast. He wished to tell this foolish young warrior that he didn’t much like being the God of Ash at that moment, hence why he’d arrived so late. But this stranger wouldn’t care.
He expected an attack. None came.
When he opened his eyes, the boy was standing in the same spot, like a stubborn dream that refused to drift away. “My name is Armind,” he said. “I am a Champion of Kohanna, the Goddess of Clay. She wants me to deliver this message: surrender this world or perish.”
If only I could. “The mountains of this land are my bones, and the rivers my blood. So long as I exist, this world shall belong to no other.”
Armind’s eyes gleamed. He resembled a hawk ready to dive for prey. “That,” he said, “was the message from the Goddess of Clay. My message is this: I’ve waited too long to let you surrender without a fight.”
Before Shun could ask what he’d meant, Armind rushed at him in a blur of silvery blades. The God of Ash sighed and unfurled his fan.
In the end, Caenlux rained fire from the skies to stop the young man.
He was impressed. The last time he’d called fire had been against Alizah, the original patron goddess of Kuenri. Not a human. Maybe he could’ve turned his fan into a blade, fought Armind that way. But Armind was no ordinary warrior, and he had demanded to see Caenlux’s power as a god.
Perhaps the gate walkers in his Pearl Guard were right: Kohanna’s Champions really had defeated gods and stolen worlds. Shun had expected deception and subterfuge, however. Not for a Champion to come hacking at him with a pair of blades.
The field resembled the aftermath of a wildfire: the grass blackened, the glass asters scorched, the bodies filling the air with the stench of singed flesh. Armind lay in the wreckage, patches of burned skin visible through his crisped clothes, his breath hissing through his lips.
He still moved, hands pawing at the grass. Shun had flung his blades to the other side of the field, so Armind’s hand came up holding... a stick. Probably blown over from the trees during the last storm.
Armind twisted onto his side, tried to push himself to his feet. He managed to rise to all fours before collapsing, hacking out a torrent of coughs. He examined the stick, then tossed it away with a laugh. “Look at me, trying to kill the God of Ash with a twig. Guess I still have a long way to go.”
“You shouldn’t move around, in your current state,” Shun said.
Armind looked up with a faint smile. “Thank you.”
Shun stared at him, uncomprehending
“Thank you for indulging me. I grew up... listening to stories about you.” Armind hissed in pain, but continued. “Your world used to have dozens of gods, hundreds of gods. But you defeated them all. Yet after that, you chose not to rule, instead adopting all manner of mortal guises.” He chuckled, then coughed. “I promised I’d find my way through a gate, to meet you someday. That’s why I became Kohanna’s Champion. You don’t know how thrilled I was when she allowed me to come to your world. To cross blades with you, the strongest god.”
Shun closed his fan with a gentle snap. “She sent you to my world despite knowing what I am. She sent you to die.”
Armind closed his eyes. “What better death could there be than being killed by the God of Ash?”
Shun frowned. “Why speak so lightly of death? You are still young.”
“I have delivered two worlds to my goddess. I killed three gods and forced two more to surrender. Why would I need regrets, or more time?”
Kohanna’s world must’ve been a very twisted one, to create one such as this, Shun decided. He turned away.
“Wait,” Armind called. “Aren’t you going to kill me?”
“I kill gods, not men.”
“Don’t you hate me, for killing so many of your Pearl Guard?”
Shun surveyed the burned field, the desecrated flowers, the foul-smelling bodies. “Killing you won’t bring them back. As for what I think of you... You remind me of myself, long ago.”
Six months later, Shun was spinning an urn at the pottery wheel when he received a letter.
“Master Shun!” called a familiar voice. Tan, the son of cobbler Nawen, skipped into Shun’s workshop. As usual, he wandered from bench to shelf, staring with wide eyes.
Shun glanced after the boy even as his hands continued to spin the pottery wheel. “Tan, slow down. You’ll crash into something.”
“Your place isn’t dangerous! I’ve been to Blacksmith Rubin’s—his place is scary.”
Tan stepped up to Shun’s workbench. He held out a letter. In his other hand was a kite shaped like a giant carp, red scales edged with gold.
Shun nodded at the kite. “That is lovely. Where did you get it?”
Tan turned with a quick flourish that sent the kite floating into the air. “A nice man made it for me. Then he asked if I could bring this to you.”
Shun rinsed his hands in the washbasin, dried them, then took the letter.
You’d want me to address you as such, right? Ha. Best potter in town, the kid told me.
I walked by that field the other day. The flowers haven’t grown back, but the memories of our battle still shine like stars.
Join me in front of Bailin House at sunset. Or I’ll burn your precious Kuenri City to the ground.
But I do want to see you again. You were, after all, the best part of my childhood stories. Even if your battles nowadays are just with the pottery wheel.
Shun crumpled the letter. Such disrespect. If any of his own people found out he was Caenlux, they would fall to their knees, not laugh at his chosen profession.
“Is the nice man a friend?” Tan hopped in front of him. “He looks like he’s from Insliv.”
“I’m acquainted with him.” Shun unfurled the letter, smoothing out the creases. “Tan, it’s time you got back to Nawen. She must be worried about you running off on your own.”
Tan frowned. “Mother knows I never leave the artisan district. She’s not expecting me back until—”
“I have a few things I need to finish up here before... before I go to speak with the nice man.”
Tan’s grin faded. “Oh. I’m bothering you, Mister Shun? Mother always says I shouldn’t bother you when you’re working. I—I’m sorry.”
Tan dipped his head and walked out. Shun stretched out a hand, wanting to explain that Tan had done nothing wrong. But he couldn’t find the words. Thousands of years on this earth, and he couldn’t even win over a disappointed child. Yet this Armind, who happily wrote about burning Kuenri City to the ground, had managed to befriend Tan at their first meeting. Would Tan describe Shun as a nice man? Doubtful.
Shun tried to work through the afternoon, but every bowl and urn turned out crooked. Not enough that mortal eyes could tell, but he could see the imperfections. He had half a mind to rush off to Bailin House long before the appointed time—but he did not want to appear as if he feared the threat. Another part of him wanted to not show up at all. He was the last god of this world, not some trained dog that raced over at a human’s call. Still, Armind was a danger to Kuenri City, joking or not.
So as the sun hung low in the sky, Shun found himself striding toward Bailin House. He waved a greeting to Blacksmith Rubin as he passed. He slipped past the west market, where several older ladies murmured about the cult of Alizah and how her followers still held séances in the Senruu Forest, swearing revenge on Caenlux. Shun paused at this bit of gossip, then forced himself to keep walking. Alizah was three hundred years dead and her followers only human, even if they had good cause to hate him.
Armind was not there when he arrived at Bailin House. Shun did not have to wait long, however. Soon he spotted the young man: climbing down the steps of swordmaster Naoko’s training hall. He wore sea-green robes and had grown his hair long, like the locals, except no one in Kuenri City had those blue eyes.
He was really here. Kohanna’s Champion. In the middle of Kuenri City.
“You,” Shun said. “What are you doing here?”
Armind glanced around—at the wide stone steps, the red-and-gold columns. “So Tan found you. Smart kid.”
“Why do I, a Champion of Kohanna, know how to make a kite? Is this any stranger than you taking up pottery?” He winked. “Maybe that’s why Kohanna hates you so much. Pottery is her domain.”
Shun wished they weren’t here. At Bailin House, in a city of civilians he’d sworn to protect. “Why are you here? What business do you have with Naoko?”
“Only that she is the foremost swordmaster of this city. I wish to exchange wisdom with one so skilled.”
“Why? You’re a better warrior than she is.”
Armind’s eyelids fluttered, long lashes fanning over fair skin. “I know. But that doesn’t mean I have nothing to learn from her. I always strive to improve.”
Shun’s voice dropped to a whisper. “So you can kill me someday?”
“Maybe. Or maybe you’ll remain a mountain I can never hope to scale—but half the fun lies in trying.”
“If you want to fight, let’s leave the city.” Shun’s gaze flickered to the main road. “You said you have no quarrel with my people.”
“Hmm? Oh no. I’m not here to fight. Not today.”
“Then why call me here?”
“I wanted to see you again. And invite you to Bailin House. Getting the reservation, I’ll have you know, was even harder than finding you.” Armind gestured at the gold-painted doors. The sleeve of his robe slipped back, revealing a silvery scar on the underside of his forearm.
A pause. Armind’s eyes followed Shun’s gaze. He let the sleeve fall and said, “I am my goddess’ Champion. I carry the scars of her battles. If you join me this evening, I can tell you about them.”
Shun’s hands clenched. He had no interest in a human’s tales, but if he could learn more about the Goddess of Clay and how to protect his world from her... Shun felt the weight of his promises, of Mika’s last moments.
The Champion waited, with his fancy local robes and long unbound hair.
“I will go with you,” Shun said, “to ensure you cause no further mischief this evening.”
Armind clapped his hands together. “Excellent! I’m dying to try the moon eel stew.”
He closed a hand around the door handle, then glanced back at Shun, head tilted. “As a special favour, I’ll even call you Shun tonight. I promise I won’t let the fine people of Kuenri know you’re actually their god.”
Shun let out a seething breath but swallowed a retort. He was Caenlux, the last god of this world. He refused to engage in petty verbal spars with a mortal, not even one as baffling as Armind.
The damned Champion refused to leave.
Shun thought Armind would become bored. That he would challenge Shun again, be defeated, and move on to another world. But the months passed, and the Champion remained. He spent his mornings in the marketplace of Kahin’s Square, selling his kites and wood carvings and the occasional piece of cut stone. In the afternoons he visited Naoko or another swordmaster, trading knowledge or sparring or even helping to train their younger students. Word spread through Kuenri City about a young man with smiling eyes, deft hands, and unusual skill with both the blade and the arts, but as Armind never left his sparring partners with anything worse than bruises, no one considered him much odder than most visitors from the west or north.
Sometimes Armind departed for days or weeks, his rooms in the artisan district left empty and silent. He would scale the peaks of the Abasha Mountains and dive into the lightless caverns, harvesting pale pink heartpearls and periwinkle amarlines. These he sold to the foremost jewellers of the city, earning enough to pay for twenty meals at Bailin House. He would venture into the Senruu Forest and return covered in the prune-coloured blood of halshas and carrying the pale length of a ghosthound femur. And, echoing the rumours that had been circulating since summer, he spied the followers of Alizah gathering in the hollows below the forest, the small crowd conducting some kind of rite beside the gigantic form of the Metalwalker.
Shun knew all this because Armind continued inviting him to the dining establishments of Kuenri City. On that occasion, Armind had asked, “Why do those people still worship this Alizah? You’re the only god left.”
They were in a private room, so Shun answered, “Alizah was the original goddess of Kuenri. And she was much loved by her people, for she had the power to make the soil rich and bountiful.”
“What happened to her?”
“I killed her. And the fields of Kuenri have never been the same since. Those descended from Alizah’s priests worship her still.” And resent me.
They had been the last two gods of this world. They’d had no quarrel with each other, but the same could not be said about their people. So Caenlux had gone to war and slayed the Goddess of Harvests—in the name of protecting his people, though he could not say whose followers had struck the first blow.
“And that Metalwalker?” Armind asked.
The lie slipped out, light and conversational. “A replica of Alizah’s divine form, created by one of her priests long after her death. Meant to attack Kuenri City, as retribution for its inhabitants forgetting their original goddess.” Shun shrugged. “I disabled it a century ago.”
“Too bad. Would’ve been a hell of a thing to fight.” Armin set his empty wine cup aside. “Not as enjoyable as fighting you, of course.”
During these meetings, Shun learned the outlines of Armind’s life and world in return. Armind’s father had been a respected craftsman. Armind had killed a karansur—a massive, armoured beast—at the age of eleven, by shooting it in the eye with a slingshot. Armind’s favourite food was starfin fish, which had no equivalent in this world.
One winter evening, in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with sour wine but exquisite winter melon soup, Armind spoke of the flood that had destroyed his hometown. Kohanna had plucked him from the wreckage, saved him, then thrown him into a mass of caves filled with crystalline monsters, demanding that he prove himself and his will to live. Yet Armind spoke of her with a warmth and reverence that made Shun want to crush his wine cup into dust.
Winters in Kuenri were mild affairs compared to the west. An occasional biting breeze, a mild dusting of snow. Nothing like Insliv or Tarengia. Kuenrian winters passed quickly, too, snow soon melting to reveal daring early flowers.
It was on a mild spring day when word reached Shun of Alizah’s followers waking the Metalwalker.
Shun had been seated on the balcony of Greenstone Teahouse, debating the motifs in Hanri’s Broken Blades, when commotion from below interrupted him and his fellow amateur scholars. People were shouting, running, staring around wild-eyed.
Shun turned to the teahouse proprietor, a silent question passing between them. Just then, footsteps thundered up the stairs, then materialized into one of the servers. Her panicked gaze roved from the proprietor to the patrons.
“The followers of Alizah,” she said breathlessly. “The Metalwalker. It’s... it’s coming toward the city.”
Shun shot to his feet.
He did not remember how he reached the street—whether he’d stormed down the stairs or simply leapt off the balcony. He did not remember how he reached the city outskirts, whether he maintained his potter-and-scholar guise or had transformed into something else. The people of Kuenri City seemed too busy running and yelling and hiding to take much notice of him.
A stretch of meadow separated the city from the Senruu Forest. The early afternoon sun shone down on the sprouting grass and colourful wildflowers, incongruously cheery against the backdrop of panic. Shun found clusters of picnic baskets—and blood. Most of the people were gone, but one group was still there. A small boy with uneven brown hair was dragging the prone figure of a woman. Tan. And Nawen.
Shun started for the boy, but his eyes locked onto the looming form in the centre of the meadow. The Metalwalker. Tall as the highest trees, mechanical eyes flashing gold like twin suns. As terrifying and incomprehensible today as it had been when he’d first set eyes on it, when it had spoken in a familiar voice. “Caenlux. I’m in here. Help me.”
The hooked beak snapped at the air, the three arms slashing at a slender figure in pale blue.
Three? Shun’s eyes fell to a lump of grey in the grass. The fourth arm lay in a leap of severed metal.
And the figure dancing around the Metalwalker wielded twin blades. Armind.
The Metalwalker raised its leg, then slammed it down with such force that the ground tremored. Armind rolled aside, avoiding being crushed. His blade shot out, digging into the Metalwalker’s knee just as one of the arms plunged down, pincers snapping at his body. Armind hauled himself up the Metalwalker’s leg using the sword but was unable to avoid the claws that ripped through his side, leaving a line of crimson blood.
A roar sounded in Shun’s ears, followed by Mika’s voice, though he knew she was long gone, that this was only a memory. “I’m... trapped here. In this thing. Please, get me out.”
Armind ripped his blade free of the Metalwalker’s knee and scaled the monster’s body, stabbing through any piece of metal he could reach. Gold fluid flowed from the cracks in the machine, mingling with the red flecks of Armind’s blood. Shun took a step forward, unsure what he should do, who he should attack. He wanted to protect Armind. He wanted to trust Armind, to believe the reckless young man could somehow defeat this centuries-old killing machine.
He wanted to save this killing machine, for it had once spoken with Mika’s voice.
A haze of red coloured his vision. He remembered ripping Mika out of that machine. Her bloody stump of an arm brushing his cheek, the salt of her tears as he kissed her one final time. Warm sunlight. Cold water.
The Metalwalker groaned, toppled to one knee. Its pincer tore through Armind’s shoulder, then ripped a gash through its own metal torso. As though the machine no longer wanted to live, only to destroy, and cared not where that destruction landed. Something inside Shun twisted at the sight of Armind’s blood, at his cry of pain. He reached out. The fire was there, within reach.
Then a high, clear voice behind him, “Master Shun, stay back! You’ll get hurt!”
Tan. He looked at the child, whose face was smeared with blood.
“But Armind...” Shun barely recognized the croak that was his own voice.
Tan’s lip trembled, but he said, “Mister Armind is strong. He will protect us.”
And through it all he could still hear Mika’s long lost voice. “I’m sorry. I was such a fool...”
Armind clambered onto the Metalwalker’s shoulder. He thrust both blades forward, through those shining yellow eyes.
A high-pitched whine echoed through the clearing, and the humans shrank back, hands covering their ears. Armind flicked his wrists and sent glowing pieces of the Metalwalker’s head flying. The beak plunged into the ground, digging into spring soil.
When a metal arm reached out, Armind leapt through the air and severed it at its base. The Metalwalker seemed to no longer resist Armind’s blows, his blades cutting through as if the machine were made of berry bread. Metal, gears, and yellow fluid flew everywhere, all the while Mika’s voice in Shun’s head screamed and screamed.
It was only his memory. This was not her. Yet still he stood rooted, managing to move only a few feet to shield Tan and Nawen.
When Armind was done, all that remained of the Metalwalker were scattered shards. The head parts no longer glowed, and the beak had been sliced in half. Armind stood in the wreckage, covered in blood—his own, the machine’s. He tilted his head back, and their eyes met across the meadow. Despite the exhaustion in Armind’s gaze, his lips spread into a smile.
Shun’s legs finally decided to work, and he rushed toward Kohanna’s Champion.
Armind tapped a foot against a metal part, then groaned, pressing a hand to his wounded side. “Now tell me, what is my goddess’s creation doing in the hollows of the Senruu Forest? You said it was made by a priest of Alizah.”
Shun froze. He knows this is Kohanna’s creation. Maybe that’s why he knew how to destroy it. “What were you thinking, going up against that thing? You could’ve been killed.”
“And it would’ve killed half of Kuenri City if I did nothing.”
Shun looked away. Armind was right. The city’s actual guardian—Shun himself—had stood by and watched, lost in the voice of a dead woman, leaving its protection to another god’s Champion.
“Why was it here?” Shun asked. “Why was it awake?”
Armind shrugged. “You’re asking me? Far as I can tell, the followers of Alizah awakened it. Mistake on their part. Found a whole bunch of their bodies in the hollows.”
Shun drew a deep breath. “You are the warrior of an enemy goddess. But for your actions today, I owe you my gratitude. I don’t know why you protected this place, but I know that you have. And I can only thank you.”
Armind’s chuckle cut off as he winced. “I rather like the teahouses and marketplace and moon eel stew. Besides, I promised I’d help keep your secret, and that means fighting this monster so you don’t have to. The only one allowed to destroy Kuenri City is me.”
Shun frowned. Mika’s voice rang again, at the word monster. “So you remain my enemy?”
Armind took a step closer. His right hand still pressed against the wound on his side, but he lifted his weapon with his other hand. His face was pale from blood loss, but his eyes danced with child-like excitement. “I like it when you glare at me like that. Care to fight me now?”
Shun snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re barely standing. You need a healer.”
Armind leaned forward. His eyes were a pure shade of blue, filled with a hunger that made Shun’s heartbeat quicken. “I don’t mind you being kind to me either.”
Then Armind’s lips brushed against Shun’s, feather light. Despite the scent of blood that clung to him, his mouth tasted like summer wind and scarlet fern.
Many months later, Shun told Armind about Mika.
Shun traced a finger down Armind’s forearm, over a scar that shimmered silver beneath the moonlight. Sky Loom Temple had been built by the Ronua civilization and possessed all the features of their architecture: the vast dome, the oculus at its zenith, the filigreed archways, the wall paintings that were still being added to as Caenlux’s legend grew. It had been Armind’s idea to sneak into the temple, Armind’s idea to go traipsing around central Zivarea to begin with.
Shun pressed his lips to Armind’s, pushing him onto the cold stones. His hand wandered down Armind’s chest, to another scar, this one a jagged scrawl between his lowest ribs. So many scars, for one so young. The silver scar on his forearm, he’d gotten while slaying the God of Storms. The one between his ribs—its raised edges obvious to the touch, as if it had never healed properly—came from the Goddess of Hoarfrost. The slashes on his left hip were wrought by a wolf created by his goddess, during his trial to become her Champion.
And the mark over his left knee... Armind had laughed when Shun asked him. “That one’s from jumping down a tree as a child. I was pretending to be you, actually. Except it quickly became clear I couldn’t sprout wings like you can. Pity. Wings would’ve been handy against the Metalwalker.”
In those moments, Shun wished he could walk through a world gate, to see the worlds Armind described. But Shun—Caenlux—could not leave this world, not when he was its last god.
Shun had asked Armind once whether he’d taken any of the other gods as lovers—if that had been how he’d defeated them. Armind’s expression had flitted from amused to offended. “I told you, you’re the god I was obsessed with, from as far back as I can remember. Every god I killed, I defeated in battle.”
Shun rested his hand on Armind’s stomach, over the burn mark. This one, he himself had inflicted, that day in the field of glass asters. He’d offered to take the scar away, but Armind had refused. “It comes from you. I want it burned in me forever.”
Armind’s breath was hot against Shun’s neck. “There is something profane about this, making love inside your temple.” With a single, deft motion, he undid the sash of Shun’s robes. “Isn’t that right, Caenlux?”
“It’s Shun now.” He shuddered as Armind pressed a kiss to his collarbone. “And as it is my temple, I get to decide what is profane.”
Armind’s laughter echoed through the hall. “I guess this isn’t as bad as the time you took me behind that lionfish fountain in Remiah. Half the town must’ve seen us.”
Shun’s face burned at the memory, and he leaned in, devouring Armind’s mouth with his and cutting off further conversation. Armind’s tongue flicked against Shun’s, in something close to a battle. Shun sensed a growl deep in his chest as his hands pressed against Armind’s hips, his inner thighs. It was like he’d called fire, not from the heavens but within his own veins, as he lost himself in Armind’s body. Armind’s voice drifted in his ear, an incantation: teasing, pleading, then finally gasping Shun’s name—both his names.
Afterward, they lay beneath the moonlight shining through the oculus, bare skin separated from the stones by their discarded clothing. Shun studied his lover’s face, marvelling at how a human who slayed gods could look so innocent, could be so pliant in his arms.
Armind, however, had eyes only for the paintings on the temple walls. Shun didn’t need to look to know what they were. The Floating Thrones Battle, when he had slain Rorinn, the Hawk of Seven Skies whose wings could block the sun itself. The clash on Mount Tizen, where he’d wrestled a crazed Heaven’s Bull and buried him in the earth. The silhouette of him striding across Moonpearl Lake, facing off against Nasziah’s nine-headed form.
His meeting and parting with Mika, the final panel of her body disintegrating in his arms, the gold-and-blue of her hair ornament drifting away on the water.
Armind propped himself up on his elbows and jerked his head toward the last panel. “Your human lover. Is that story true, or just something your people made up?”
Shun closed his eyes. “Mika existed.”
He felt something prod his shoulder—Armind’s fist. “I’m not jealous or anything. You are, what, thousands of years old? Of course you’ve had plenty of lovers.” A rustle of cloth. “I just want to know the truth behind the stories. You keep asking about me, but my life is short and mortal and boring, and I’ve just about run out of stories.”
Shun opened his eyes to find Armind leaning over him, peering at him with those sky-bright eyes. “I could never get bored of you,” Shun said.
Another prod. “Oh please, now you’re being sappy. Where’s the dignity of the God of Ash?” Armind gestured to the earlier panels, moonlight etching the lines of lean muscle on his arms. “The forms you took in those battles, can you still adopt them?”
Shun forced himself look at his guises in the paintings. The golden gryphon he’d assumed when facing Rorinn. The six-armed titan he’d been at Mount Tizen. “If I must. Perhaps, if your goddess comes after me.”
Armind waved a hand. “She expects me to take a while to subdue you, so she probably doesn’t suspect what’s going on yet. As you always say, our mortal lives are but a blink to you gods. With any luck, she’ll forget to count the years and leave me to live out my life with you.” He traced a hand down Shun’s sternum. “I just wondered if I could get some benefit out of your shifting forms, as your lover.”
Shun slapped his hand away. “You truly are profane.”
Armind laughed, but Shun found himself unable to join in. Unbidden, his gaze slid to the panels with Mika. To the final panel at the Lieri River.
“You wanted to hear more about me?” Shun said.
Armind leaned close, his face washed half in moonlight, half in shadow. “Of course.”
“Haven’t you ever thought it strange, that the temples say Mika died as her mortal life ran out, yet their paintings show her as a young woman in the river?”
“I thought that was... what do they call it, artistic license? They’d rather remember her as the youthful woman you fell in love with, not an old crone. I hope they’ll do the same for me.”
Shun shook his head. “Mika did not die from old age. She was worried I’d be lonely without her, so she sought immortality for herself. She walked through a world gate and searched for your goddess.”
Armind wore an expression of befuddlement. “For Kohanna? She’s my goddess, and I’d have served her faithfully for all my life if I hadn’t met you. But I must say, she’s not a particularly good dinner companion. Can’t imagine anyone leaving you for her.”
Shun ignored the gibe. This was important, and he would make Armind understand, no matter how Armind tried to laugh everything off. “Mika asked the Goddess of Clay to fashion her a body that would never age. She thought she’d bound her to a deal, but a mortal, no matter how clever, cannot overcome a goddess. She...”
Shun closed his eyes, remembering the images the temples did not illustrate. Mika’s cries, the blood on his hands as he tore her free from the metal.
“The Metalwalker you fought,” he said. “You were right, it had nothing to do with Alizah’s priests. It was the remnant of the form Kohanna gave Mika.”
Armind frowned. “That machine?”
“Clay is your goddess’ domain, as is creation. She built that machine to destroy Kuenri City, and bound Mika to it. Mika’s mind was still there, and she could see all that happened. I can still hear her screams, her pleas for me to destroy her.”
“You don’t mean, that machine is actually...”
Shun shook his head. “No. Mika is long gone. I tore her from its metal carapace.” He did not mention the broken, bloody ends of her limbs, or how she’d screamed in pain the entire time. “But by then, she could not survive outside it. Because it was part of her body, part of her deal for immortality. So I brought her to the Lieri River, and...”
The water hadn’t been clear like in the paintings; it had turned crimson from Mika’s blood.
“The Metalwalker, I stripped of its power,” Shun said. “But I couldn’t bring myself to destroy it.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was...”
“No. Thank you, for destroying it. I was weak. I didn’t think anyone would ever bring it to life again. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself.”
Silence stretched. Armind brushed a hand through Shun’s hair. “Kohanna told me you really, really hate her. So this is why.”
Shun grabbed hold of Armind’s arm. “I wish Mika could’ve stayed with me forever. But her pursuit of immortality only caused me to lose her sooner. And even if she’d succeeded, mortal souls are not meant to sustain immortal bodies. The long years would’ve worn her away. Sometimes, even gods...”
Nasziah’s crazed eyes. Her slippery scales and icy blood, as he’d thrown her severed heads into the sea. “Sometimes, even gods can bear it no longer.”
“Except you. You endure forever.”
“Except me,” Shun said. And sometimes I wish it were not so. “Promise me, don’t go chasing what Mika did. Live without regrets—as a human. I promise I will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Armind barked out a laugh. “You worry about the silliest things. I have no desire to live forever. I was ready to die the day I met you. After all, I’d already accomplished everything I wanted to. I’ve repaid my goddess for making me her Champion by laying two worlds at her feet. I’ve met the god I’ve been seeking since I was a child. All this...” he gestured at the moonlit temple, “is just a bonus.”
Gently, Armind pulled his arm from Shun’s grasp and rested his hand over Shun’s heart.
“Besides, I’m a part of you now. You’ll remember me, won’t you? So I’ll live forever that way.”
Shun could only nod.
Armind tossed his head, letting his hair slip back from his shoulders. “I am Armind, the strongest of the Champions. I’m not so arrogant as to claim supremacy over all gods, but there is no human in the known worlds who can match me as a warrior. You’ll see, I’ll be with you for a long, long time.”
Armind’s gaze flickered to the paintings, as if weighing the gods depicted there—their strength, their worth. “As for my greedy goddess, you need not worry about her. Should she send another Champion to this world, I’ll flay their flesh from their bones and lay their heads at your feet.”
Shun slid a hand over the back of Armind’s neck and brushed their lips together. He breathed in the taste of summer and wished he could voice the thoughts inside him. Yet he dared not, for speaking them would make them true.
I want to believe you.
I don’t believe you.
Mika said the same thing, and we both know how that ended.
One morning, Shun woke to find the other side of the bed empty. A folded letter rested on the nightstand.
For someone so carefree, Armind had surprisingly neat handwriting.
To my heaven and earth, whose true name I am forbidden to speak:
Do you still remember what you said to me, the second time we met?
That it was okay if I wanted to fight you again, just not in the city? Because otherwise people would get hurt.
And I thought: you must really love your people. I knew then that you would never give them up, not for anything.
And that’s what I love about you. Strange as it sounds, I quite like that you’ll always place your world ahead of me.
Unfortunately, Kohanna has less patience and a better memory than I’d hoped. She’s sending another Champion here. Soon. Two, actually. Maybe she thinks I’m dead, or maybe they realized I’ve become yours.
I’m going to dispose of them, like I promised. I know you’ll be able to handle them, but I’d rather not let them pass through the gates, trample your flowers, kill your people like... like I did.
So let me do this one thing. I do have my pride as a warrior, you know? And what else can a mortal do for a god?
I’ll be back soon. Maybe I’ll even bring back a starfin fish from my world—if I can keep it alive long enough in a tank.
Shun crushed the letter in his fist, squeezing his eyes shut. His mouth worked, sounding out the words he couldn’t say.
I don’t want this world.
I want you to stay with me.
If I could, I would live out a mortal life with you, turn to dust together in the end.
But he couldn’t. He’d made too many promises—ancient ones, as old as the mountains of Kuenri and the seas of Insliv. He’d slain too many gods—and for every one he’d killed, he’d taken on their duty, their land, their responsibility, until he’d become the world itself.
Do you know why I am called the God of Ash? Because my legacy is built upon the ashes of other gods.
It was not something he could surrender, not even if he wanted to. Love never factored into it.
Carefully, he smoothed out the letter and read it again. Foolish boy. He leaned back so his tears would not stain the page.
Kohanna, the Goddess of Clay, arrived in her throne room to a bloody spectacle.
The bodies of her Champions were laid out like grotesque statues. Jarrick was trussed up in a suit of armour belonging to the Batiere knights of old, except his head was lopped off and held in his own metal-clad arm. Grennia sat next to the tapestry of the Unicorn Hunt on the right wall, mimicking the pose of the triumphant maiden—except instead of holding the unicorn’s horn, she held her own heart. Merrin hung from the chandelier, strung up by her intestines.
The bodies ranged from fresh to what must have been quarter-moons old. Grennia’s blood looked barely dry, while Hildenn smelled faintly of buttergrass, as if his body had been dipped in it for preservation.
Kohanna did a quick count. Twelve. All of her Champions dead, except...
Saddivon, her first Champion, lay on his back on the dais. Armind, the youngest, sat on Saddivon’s body, one elbow resting on the throne itself. For a moment he was still and silent as the rest of them. Then he turned, the blade she’d given him in one hand.
Kohanna stopped in the middle of the room. “You.”
Armind ran a hand through his hair, which was longer than she remembered. Dark circles surrounded his eyes, and his cheeks were gaunt. But his teeth flashed in a grin. “Like it? I took some inspiration from Vardalis’s sculpture. That’s a country in Caenlux’s world. Not that you’ve bothered to learn about any of the worlds you’ve been stealing.”
Kohanna shuddered with rage, enough that she had trouble speaking. “You are a disgrace. After all the gifts I’ve given you, the trust I’ve placed in you—”
“Oh, on the contrary, I’m immensely grateful for your gifts. They were built to kill gods, so it was no issue to kill a couple of Champions.”
Kohanna shook her head. “How? You did this alone? Or did Caenlux—”
“It was all me.” He turned over the blade in his hand—her blade. “I may have shit for brains, as the other Champions always said, but when it comes to combat, I have no equal.”
Kohanna had to dig her heels in to prevent herself from taking a step back. The empty eyes of her Champions stared at her. This couldn’t be happening. There was no way—
Yet, some part of her wasn’t surprised. That part had made the contingency plan.
“I am your goddess,” she snapped. “You betrayed me, betrayed your companions, over a god from your childhood stories?”
Armind frowned. “I love him. I truly wish it didn’t have to end this way. You will always be second in my heart, Lady Kohanna. You are my goddess. If only you’d left us alone.”
He rose to his feet. His clothes were crusted with blood, like he hadn’t washed or changed them after several kills. His shirt hung open, revealing his scars—from his childhood, from when he’d served her. There was a fresh wound on his chest, still dripping blood. From Saddivon, probably. Her first Champion, who she’d stationed here at the High Seat.
Armind glanced down at the blade again, this time with distaste. “Lost the other one fighting Grennia. But this will do.” When he looked up, his face was blank as a Hoarfrost priest’s. “Kohanna, Goddess of Clay, I challenge you. Normally I’d ask you to choose between surrender and death, but... those are your rules.” His smile made her want to rip the room apart. “And if you choose surrender, you will not be the goddess I remember and respect. So let us fight to the death.”
Kohanna laughed. Her voice rang through the hall, piercing, verging on crazed. Even Armind looked unnerved.
She let the laughter die away. She’d been charmed by the boy’s arrogance, his fearlessness in battle. But he’d gone too far. He’d destroyed much of what she’d worked to build. So it was time to destroy him.
The Goddess of Clay met her Champion’s eyes. “Did you really think I’d let you, an ardent admirer of Caenlux, into his world without any consideration of betrayal? I hoped—I trusted you would remain loyal to me—but I knew I had to be prepared. For the possibility of you turning on me, your rightful goddess.”
Armind shrugged. “And what of the other worlds, and their rightful rulers? You had no issue with stripping them of their territories and installing yourself in their places.” He touched a finger to the flat of his blade. “You can only keep what you’re strong enough to defend. You taught me this, Kohanna. Now that your Champions are gone, the worlds are slipping back into the hands of their former gods, or younger gods, or no gods at all. One god can only rule so much. Even Caenlux. Even you.”
Her eyes flickered to the bodies of her Champions. This she hadn’t anticipated. For Armind to dare challenge all the Champions—and emerge victorious.
She pushed down her grief and loss and let her lips spread into a smile. “Did Caenlux ever tell you how his other human lover died?”
Armind frowned. “He did, but I never asked you for an immortal body. I only asked for the strength to fight. I am still a mortal. I don’t see how... oh.” He finally seemed to catch on. Shit for brains indeed.
Kohanna pointed a finger at him. “Mika was from Caenlux’s world, and I still shaped her into my weapon. But her body was weak. Her soul was never mine. But you, Armind, you are of my world. And you are my Champion, bound to me the moment you accepted my gifts. I am the Goddess of Clay. Your body is mine to reform as I please, and your soul... Ah, how wrong Caenlux was. You are already immortal. And you will serve me.”
Horror flashed behind his eyes for a second, quickly replaced by laughter. “So that’s the price. I should’ve known. My vows as your Champion, pledging my body and soul... I see now.” He pressed a hand to the wound on his chest, smearing the blood. “Pray, remake me into something better than the Metalwalker. I tore that junk to shreds.”
She gazed at his face, memorizing every line for one final time. Her young Champion—ragged and bloody yet still handsome—with his shining eyes and cruel hands, who had betrayed her to some boyhood dream. “I’ll remake you into something more, Armind. You were always my strongest warrior.”
Armind raised his blade—defiant, dauntless, even now. “You win this round, Lady Kohanna. I guess this planning business really isn’t for me. I’ll have to trust Caenlux to deal with the aftermath.”
He rushed at her then. Actually got pretty close, the bastard, before she melted his flesh from his bones.
The next time Caenlux saw Armind, he was a raven whose wings stretched from mountaintop to mountaintop.
By this point, Caenlux was a ship captain named Naveer. On a sea journey to the Insliv harbour, the sun was blocked out. A collective gasp rose from his crew, and he looked up.
His first thought was that Rorinn had come back to life. After all, these seas were once ruled by the Hawk. But two thousand years had passed since then. And Rorinn’s wings had been gold-tipped brown, not pitch black.
This world was not one that birthed young gods. The old promises—and Caenlux himself—had assured that.
Then he caught sight of the raven’s blue eyes, and understood.
The voice in his head was familiar but different, a thunderous roar cloaked in a familiar timbre.
CAENLUX! MUST... KILL...
The God of Ash reached out. Armind, didn’t we say we wouldn’t battle where civilians could be—
The raven flared its wings, releasing a piercing cry that sent the crew to their knees. Black feathers shot from the sky, weighty as spears and their tips every bit as sharp.
Captain Naveer—Caenlux—raised his arms, cloaking the ship in his diamond shield. When was the last time he’d used such a thing? Each arrow hitting the shield felt like something hitting his own skin but lightly, barely more than a tap. Or maybe, after so many battles, he did not know pain anymore.
Not physical pain, at least. Armind, can you hear me? I’m so glad you’re alive.
CAENLUX... ENEMY.... Must kill...
If this is about your pride as a warrior, then let’s go somewhere else. You have no quarrel with my people.
The raven’s head turned, when Caenlux mentioned his pride as a warrior. Perhaps he did remember, a little.
Then the raven descended on the ship, claws outstretched. Caenlux wondered for a moment if his shield would hold, then decided he couldn’t risk it. Behind Armind’s roars, another voice echoed in his head. Rorinn’s.
“So you’ve won... These lands are yours now, Caenlux. Protect them then, will you?”
The promises of a god never expired. Caenlux gritted his teeth. Armind had wanted to see him transform into the guises of old. Now he would have his wish.
The storytellers in Insliv parlours would speak of the God of Ash’s battle with the Storm Raven. Caenlux had been disguised as a ship captain, going so long without a public appearance that many thought he’d finally passed on. Yet that day, the God of Ash had ascended the skies as a golden gryphon, fighting claw and beak with the Storm Raven. It had been a fierce battle, and the Raven’s powers had turned the sunny day into one of torrential rain. The sailors had seen glimpses of the battle, as lightning lit up the sky.
They saw Caenlux slash his claws through the Storm Raven’s neck, and the Raven’s body falling to the sea.
What the storytellers would not know: how Caenlux had picked up the Raven’s body in his claws and flown off to the Valley of Ersgend. How the gryphon had dug burrows in the soil and buried the broken pieces of his foe. How the gryphon had shed tears like raindrops before curling over the mound in a deep slumber.
In the coming decades, the gods returned.
After the Storm Raven came the Three-Headed Serpent, a blue-scaled beast that rose from the sea and had to be cut into twenty-something segments before it finally sank down into the depths, silver blood etching the water like mercury. The one who made the biggest impression was the Rampant Lion, whose body was made of flame, who’d burned through four villages before Caenlux finally subdued him.
Storytellers, ministers, scholars, and priests were all baffled by the reappearance of the gods. Caenlux had killed all the pretenders centuries ago. In parlours, teahouses, and pavilions, stories began circulating about the mysterious world gates that had been mentioned by travellers. These gods, the storytellers said, had come from other worlds.
The priests scoffed at this suggestion. Caenlux was the last true god, who ruled over all. There could not be other worlds where he was not supreme. These gods, they said, were merely the old gods Caenlux had once fought. Perhaps the God of Ash, merciful as he was, had sealed his foes away rather than killing them. The Storm Raven was simply Rorinn, the Hawk of Seven Skies, and the Serpent was merely Nasziah, the Slumbering Leviathan. Any discrepancy in appearance—the colour of the bird, the number of heads on the sea monster—could be explained by centuries of lost records and memory.
Pray these gods never thought to band together, the scholars whispered. If they did, perhaps they could actually defeat the God of Ash.
Caenlux killed, over and over.
He called fire, threw diamond-tipped blades, spun guises he hadn’t used since the Endless War. He ripped the bodies to pieces, buried them, burned them, hurled them to the bottom of the sea. Somehow, these pseudo-gods always returned, always with sky-blue eyes.
CAENLUX. I’LL KILL YOU.
MY DUTY. MY GODDESS. FOREVER.
Caenlux did not understand why Armind would not stay dead. After thirty-seven years of this, he finally sent the most trusted members of his Pearl Guard through a world gate to Armind’s home world.
The Pearl Guard returned with half-answers. Something about Armind’s blade, given to him by Kohanna and meant to sever life from even gods. Something about how Armind had used that blade to kill each of his fellow Champions, gathering all their gifts for himself, perhaps unknowingly. Something about Armind’s soul being bound to the Goddess of Clay, who would keep crafting new forms for him no matter what Caenlux did to his current body.
Caenlux had considered himself as a thinking man, once. By now, he’d probably lost the right to see himself as anything but a killer.
He no longer walked among his people. He huddled in the mountains, in old ruins, in the hollows of ancient forests. He refused to grow attached to anyone. Not after what had happened to Armind. Not when Armind was still here.
Some nights, as the moon washed the rocks silver and his only companion was the hoot of a nightbird, Caenlux found a small, twisted part of him rejoicing. At least Armind was still alive. At least he kept returning, no matter how many times Caenlux was forced to kill him. At least he existed somewhere in the intersection of worlds, even if the only way they could know each other now was through battle. That was who Armind was anyway, right?
Then he would remember the death throes every time he killed his lover and immediately banish such thoughts.
FACE ME. FIGHT ME. KILL ME.
THIS LAND. I LOVE IT. I WILL DESTROY IT.
Vardalis. This is where...
And: Caenlux... I think I remember...
The screams haunted him. Caenlux wished he could dig himself into the mountainside and disappear into the earth, buried like the pieces of the Storm Raven’s body.
A human soul could not carry on forever, no matter how many bodies a goddess crafted.
Caenlux knew this. Kohanna must have known this. Armind...
It was hard to say whether he knew anything by then.
What can a soul remember or love, Kohanna once said, when you twist its body beyond recognition?
Caenlux strode into Kuenri City, wearing what he thought was the face of an Insliv nobleman. Twenty-six years had passed since the last visit by a returned god, as the priests called them. He was starting to hope perhaps Armind’s soul had finally burned away.
He walked up the steps of Bailin House. Somehow, the restaurant had survived these one hundred and twenty years, though the building had been painted over and added to and reconstructed. It was not quite the unrivalled attraction it once was, and Mareus the Insliv nobleman landed himself a private room without a reservation.
Moon eel stew was no longer on the menu. Mareus ordered a different dish with eel. He dined alone, watched by the paper lions hanging from the ceiling. They reminded him of those kites Armind had made for Tan. Strange to think that Tan had been the final push for him drop the Shun guise. He couldn’t think of what to tell Tan if he’d asked where Armind went.
Mareus had almost finished the eel hot plate and chili tofu with prawn when the door opened to reveal his server, a woman in a peony-embroidered jacket—the current uniform of Bailin House. Once, Caenlux would’ve made a point to remember her name. Mareus didn’t bother.
“Lord Mareus.” She glanced hesitantly over her shoulder. “There is a gentleman here who wants to see you. He... looks a lot like you.”
She stepped aside. A young man with a travelling bag strode through the doorway, his eyes like shards cut from the sky.
Caenlux sat there, frozen. Only then did he realize he’d taken on a guise very similar to Armind.
Armind bowed and smiled, as if he found everything—his departure, his many ill-fated returns, Caenlux now wearing his form—all very amusing. “Lord Mareus? Is that what I should call you?”
Caenlux rose to his feet, dropping a scattering of coins on the table. “Let’s walk.”
Whatever else, Armind made good on their agreement to not involve the citizens of Kuenri.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, walking close so that only Caenlux could hear, “I’m different this time.”
“I can tell.”
“But Kohanna is still here. More than ever, in fact.”
“Let’s get out of here first.”
The field where they’d first met was a stretch of empty grass. The glass asters had never grown back since that day. Still, when Caenlux inhaled, he could smell flowers, smoke, and burning flesh.
Gods, after all, had to be gifted with imagination.
Caenlux crossed his arms. His hair darkened, his face reshaped itself, and a folded fan appeared in his hand. Shun—the potter who’d dabbled in scholarly pursuits—was back.
Armind bowed, laying a hand over his heart. “Thank you. I’ve always wanted to see you transform. And to be honest, the form you wore earlier was a little embarrassing.”
“Is that the first thing you think of? Do you know what I’ve gone through—what you’ve gone through?”
“I know. Kohanna couldn’t keep my memory locked away forever, no matter how many times she reshaped my body.” Armind suddenly bit his lip, digging fingers into his own shoulder. “It’s good we got away from Kuenri City when we did. I don’t think I can hold her off any longer.”
Shun frowned. “Didn’t you say you were different this time?”
“I am. But she’s not far. The opposite, rather. She’s here.”
Shun took a step back. “She’s here?”
Suddenly Armind doubled over, hands pressed to his chest. He released a scream that was not his, that belonged to no creature from this world. When he looked up again, his eyes were black as the Storm Raven’s wings.
“Caenlux!” Kohanna’s voice called. “This time, you won’t—”
A blink, and the eyes were blue once more. Armind staggered to his feet. “Sorry about that. I do my best to keep her in check, but she is a goddess.”
Shun could not believe what he was hearing. “She’s... inside you?”
“I absorbed her, or something like that. Seems like the bond she made worked both ways.”
Shun shook his head. “How?”
“I’m not sure. I was starting to burn away, honestly.” He smiled. “It’s like you said, mortal souls are not meant to handle immortal bodies. Or an endless series of bodies.”
Armind clasped his hands behind his back and began pacing, his boots rustling against the grass. “Kohanna refused to let me disappear. She tried to strengthen the hold she had over my soul, to chain me so that I couldn’t even die like a good little human is supposed to.” He chuckled. “Her mistake, binding us so tightly together. That’s what allowed me to do this. I may be no good at scheming, but pull me close enough to strike, and I’ll never miss.”
He stopped pacing and met Shun’s eyes. Behind Armind’s gaze, the dark shadow of Kohanna flashed again before quickly disappearing.
“Kill me now, and you kill Kohanna too.”
Shun took another step back. “What are you saying? You’re here. As yourself. You’re not attacking anyone. I can’t kill you like before.”
Armind waved a hand. “My soul is nearly gone. You know this, I know this. If you don’t kill me, I’ll just fade away on my own. Problem is, I don’t know if I can keep this angry goddess imprisoned for that long.”
“You think that matters to me? What would killing Kohanna do?”
Armind’s face twisted again, dark irises alight with rage. “You dare mock me, Caenlux? You call me unimportant?”
Armind pressed his knuckles to his head. “Kindly shut up, Lady Kohanna. Now then.” He turned back to Shun. “Don’t you want revenge? For Mika? Or for me?”
“That is a human concept. What would killing Kohanna do for Mika?”
“Interesting. So now the slayer of gods is hesitant to kill the goddess who deserves it most.” He tapped a hand against his head again. “Then let me put it this way. In a way a god can understand. This goddess is a danger not only to your world, but to all worlds. Killing her is your way of saving them. That’s why you killed all the others, right? Because they forgot themselves and turned into tyrants, or threatened people you swore to protect, or turned into machines of destruction after their souls could not handle the weight of millennia.”
Shun looked away. He could not refute anything Armind had said, and he hated it.
“To be honest,” Armind said, “those are your reasons. Mine are a lot simpler.” He spread his arms, staring out at the field. “Like I told you back then, I can imagine no better death than at the hands of the God of Ash.”
Shun brushed a hand against his pocket, where he kept Armind’s letter from that day. The words that had rushed through his head then, he spoke now.
“I’m just so... tired. You think I’m here because I love this world, its people? I’m tied here by old promises, by the wishes of long-dead gods. If I had a choice, I would choose to burn away beside you.”
Armind shook his head. “You don’t get to say that, Caenlux. You are the God of Ash. The mountains may bow and the seas may dry, but you must carry on. That is who you are.”
Who I am, and who I want to be. Sometimes, the road between the two stretches a thousand leagues.
Armind reached into the bag he’d been carrying. He unwrapped a blade of shimmering silver—one of the two blades he’d carried, that gift from his goddess. “But you better be careful. Remember, I am also the Goddess of Clay, who wants to see you dead. I won’t hold back.”
Shun lifted the fan. After a moment’s pause, he let it stretch into a sword, its metal inky black. “All right. I would expect nothing less from you, Armind. But I won’t call down fire this time.”
Their battle was watched by the sun, then the moon and stars.
Armind was quick, graceful, relentless. He wore his human form, but he wasn’t human anymore, not quite. This body did not tire as a human’s did and had no trouble seeing Caenlux’s smoky grey figure even as the sun dipped below the horizon.
Caenlux—who called himself Shun again—was firm, unerring, unyielding. He fought like he knew the very earth at their feet belonged to him. Unlike Armind, he took no pleasure in the fight. To him, it was just one more ending, one more chapter he needed to pen and conclude.
The red rays of dawn had just begun to creep through the sky when Caenlux’s blade finally slipped past Armind’s, driving through the Champion’s ribs.
Armind fell back onto the grass, staring up at the orange-grey sky. Shun knelt beside him, still holding the hilt of the sword. For a moment Armind’s eyes turned black, and he released a scream that tore the leaves from the trees and deafened all mortal creatures that heard.
Then Armind’s eyes fluttered open again, vivid blue. “Thank you,” he said. “This was what I dreamed of, dying in a final dance with you.”
“I’d rather you lived.” Shun’s eyes filled with tears, but he burned them away. He needed to see Armind’s face clearly, in the end. “I’d rather die beside you.”
“You only have to do one thing. Live, so that we both live.” Armind reached up, fingers grasping the back of Shun’s neck. With surprising strength, he pulled Shun’s head to his, and their lips met.
Armind tasted like he remembered: summer wind and scarlet fern, with a hint of blood.
“Someday, you’ll love again,” Armind said. “Maybe you’ll even find someone who doesn’t go crazy or die.” His laughter was airy and bright, as if he barely noticed the blade in his chest. “But to me, you are the only one. And that’s enough.”
“I won’t forget you,” Shun said. Every word tasted like sharpened rock, but they were the truth. “Even when the mountains are worn to plains, when every lake and river runs dry, I’ll be here. And I’ll remember you.”
Armind’s eyes fluttered closed. He wore a smile, like he always did.
Shun sat there for a long time. Even as Armind’s body grew cold. Even as his fingers grew rigid around the hilt of the sword, crusted over with Armind’s blood. Then, as the sun crept toward its zenith, Shun finally moved.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out Armind’s letter. The paper was yellowing, crumbling around the folds, and frail. He held it by a corner, and a breeze immediately tore it to pieces and scattered it.
Shun had needed the letter. Caenlux did not, just like he’d never chased Mika’s hair ornament down the river. Every word of the letter, like every bit of Armind himself, was engraved in his memories.
Caenlux rose to his feet. The mountains my bones, the rivers my blood. He was the God of Ash, the one who remained when everything else burned away. Armind was right. He could only live, and remember.