The Days Grow Still
The lone figure made steady, trudging progress along the winding crest of the snow dune. More long drifts extended for miles on either side, a stark and isolate view in the dead of night. It was a wasteland: gleaming crystal ridges under a huge, open void. The moon hung as an immense and hollow monument in the ink-bathed sky, eerily underlit by the luminous landscape.
The snow had gotten into her boots, shifts of it falling in through the tops despite them being calf height. Their sturdy all-weather build did nothing against a breach from the inside, and her feet were long since numb, cold, and foreign like dead things. Thankfully, her heavy wool greatcoat was doing a decent job against the wind. Great, silent gusts swept waves of frozen powder off the topcoat of the drifts, sent it singing through the air in quiet hisses of tiny, scathing diamonds. Her cheeks burned from the razors, even as they froze. Her hair whipped across her vision, ends sharp with hoarfrost caught from the air. But she never faltered as she traced her way, and the wind filled in her footprints, crystalline behind her.
Inside the cabin, he looked up. Not at anything in particular, but his eyes came to rest several inches over the top of his book, unfocused. He had heard nothing out of the ordinary – there was still just the same intermittent pop and crackle of the fire, and beyond the walls, the hiss of snow sliding over snow. Presently, he set the tome aside, flexed lean legs in dark grey slacks, and carried himself over to the small kitchen. He wore a thin linen shirt in pale cream, the color of parchment. It had a slim cut suited to his lean build, with long lapels, pointed hems, untucked, and french cuffs, unbuttoned. He lifted the decanter delicately, pouring the very old, rather exceptional red into a fishbowl glass. Walking back to the fire, he placed the glass across from its twin, near the second wingback chair adjacent his own. Crossing his feet towards the fire, he could feel the warmth through heavy, black boots.
He picked up his book, and silently resumed reading.
Some time later, the front door slammed open, wind yawning across the mouth of the entryway, and then suctioned shut again, loudly. He did not look up.
Just inside, she was not yet in his line of sight. As soon as she entered the warm, dry air, she was aware of the cold, wet strings of hair plastered around her face. She wore it long, still: bright chestnut red as ever and down past her waist, tangled now around slender thighs: a great mane of fire. She slid the frozen tobacco-colored leather boots off where she stood, not even bothering to kick them aside. Socks and gloves followed, as she stepped past the puddle of wet with toes that couldn’t yet feel the floorboards. Shrugging out of the weather-heavy greatcoat, she hefted it onto the wall hook, a bulk of slate grey wool with striking crimson epaulets. She brushed the loose ice dust off of her hair and legs, and was somewhat relieved to find that without the boots and coat, she was actually pretty dry. Just cold.
When she turned the corner, he continued to read without stirring. She crossed to the chair next to his in silence and sat to his left, both facing the fire. She pulled over an ottoman, stretched her bare feet out on it towards the flames, ruching her black leggings up, away from her ankles a little bit. Leaning forward, she unbuckled a low-slung sword belt from over her simple moss-colored tunic, placing it and the narrow, sheathed dagger on the table between them.
While her hand was there, she picked up the wine glass. Reclining into her chair, she stretched her legs toward the fire, curled her toes, took a sip. She rolled the viscous fluid back and forth over her tongue. It was warm, musky, old. A living thing, curling into the cup of her cheeks, breathing shallowly into her bloodstream. When she swallowed, it rose up behind her eyes in a whisper. Exceptional vintage, indeed.
Moments passed. The fire crackled in the stillness. He turned a page.
It had been so long, since they had both occupied the cabin at once. At first they had built it as a place to conceal their identities from the changing world around them. Renew their leases, as it were. Reset. Some time after their circumstances had become clear, they realized the need to disappear from the world at intervals. Travelling would not always be enough, had not always been enough, on a long enough timeline. And so they made their place, in seclusion.
They had, each of them, other places, both currently and over the years. They had many places, for many things. Some were homes, lived in for a time and abandoned, returned to in the guise of a descendant or a stranger. Some were secret hideaways, troves of knowledge and study. Some were places which tended themselves, and they took only to visiting. Some were places which required maintenance, and they kept rough schedules, or outsourced.
She, for instance, had maintained a modest chain of magical antique resellers for quite some time. She didn’t run it often, but occasionally pretended to be a local manager in one of the locations. It afforded her some novelty from time to time. It let her share some part of her remarkable expertise and enthusiasm.
They didn’t just stay in this or that place, though. There had always been a lot of travelling in both their lifestyles, but, increasingly, there was very much wandering. It was a subtle but appreciable difference, between travelling and wandering. More and more, they had each come to find themselves moving not between cities, but around them. And so, gradually, this was the capacity in which they had come to use the cabin.
It was what they hadn’t really counted on, after everything that happened.
They had strong minds. Intelligent minds. But, ultimately, human minds. And human minds are not constructed to feel the creep of centuries. There are various races of both the Gods and the Mazoku with incredible, nigh limitless lifespans, and they cross the millennia with dispositions suited for the purpose. It is simply not so for humans.
They both sat in slow silence for another half hour. She, looking at the fire; he, reading. They each sipped wine. Her feet warmed.
At length, he sat up a little and placed his book on the arm of the chair, against which his sword was propped. He stood quietly, sweeping up their two empty glasses in a fluid movement and disappearing into the kitchen. Returning momentarily and replacing them, now refilled, he resumed his book.
During this exchange she had continued to gaze in the unfocused direction of the fire. Her fingers moved over to the glass, swirled the brick-black liquid gently. She lifted her eyes and let them wander across his features. It had been some time since she really looked at them, individually. Or at him, for that matter.
His skin was not the powder blue it had once been. It had a warmth to it, a fleshy quality. It seemed more supple. Where his finger bent on the lip of a page, she saw creases around the joint. The prominent ridges of stone along his face were still present, but much diminished. Where they had started to pale and wear when last they’d met, they now resembled darkened calcifications against the rest of his complexion. Though he was still entirely missing both eyebrows, where the protrusions were most pronounced along his brow and eye sockets, his profile was indeed much less jagged.
His hair, still periwinkle, was markedly dense, although much of its metallic lustre and silvery sheen had faded. The tips appeared coarse, but perhaps no longer piercing. She could not glimpse the elongated ridge of his ear, protruding.
He could feel her watching him, but was unconcerned. Silence was amenable to both. They had each, separately, developed their own private nomenclature of stillnesses. It was a lexicon of interaction they could share only with each other.
It had come to them slowly, these stillnesses. At first, everything had been normal. She had journeyed with Gourry for some years, sharing adventures big and small. And he had crossed their path from time to time, at the dictates of both whims and fate.
In time, he attended their wedding. She looked so small, so young, beside the large swordsman. She always had, for that matter, but her fierceness had always been more than enough compensation for lack of stature. But this, a new difference, was starting to show. Privately, she had begun to speculate to herself about the possibilities. To everyone else, she brushed it off loudly, in her usual boastful manner.
As for him, it was much longer in the realization. His curse, it’s effects, and the resulting particulars of his physiology made the entire thing considerably less straightforward. It would take much longer, for him, before it moved beyond the ability to ignore.
She and Gourry continued their mercenary lives, looping back and forth across the continents. They crossed paths with old friends frequently, met new ones, traveled together for long spans more than once.
Eventually, their travelling became harder on Gourry. Together, the sorceress and swordsman purchased a spacious cottage on the outskirts of a quiet mountain town. They kept a few goats for milk. He liked to spend his days walking in the fields, much as he had spent the bulk of his life. When she went to town for supplies, the shopkeepers were kind. They asked after her, and after her grandfather. How was his health? Was he still getting around okay? How were the goats?
Years passed, and they had visitors from time to time, but never went on the road again. She left her swordsman only once during this span, at a time when her skills were needed. She returned with many stories, a little treasure, and the smirk of their youth. His tearful smile showed more pride than words could have.
The following spring, she sent two letters: to Sairaag, to Saillune. Then she crafted a spell, resourcefully and with care, and released it into the cottage hearth, just beneath a kettle of weak honeyed tea.
Sylphiel came at once, escorted by one of her grandsons. The boy was nineteen, and didn’t look like he could possibly have been a day older than their host.
Amelia was close behind, with minimal Royal retinue. Both guests were indispensible in the final days.
When the end came, finally, she made a space for him in the fields herself. Two matrons, once shrine maidens, blessed the site and said the words.
He arrived days later, and came no farther than the front doorway. It was ajar, sun-fluffy motes from the mountain air drifting into the shadows within. He peered inside and said only, “Lina.”
It was all that was needed. She was ready.
The sorceress joined him at the door, and they turned together to cross the valley inland. Side by side on the road in travelling gear, they looked for all the world like two young adults off to make a life for themselves.
Later that year, over a low fire at dusk, he interrupted her midsentence, reviewing their map of the region.
“It’s my birthday.” He delivered flatly.
She looked up.
Softened eyebrows. “Zel.”
The Lord of Nightmares had once inhabited her body directly: a phenomenon without precedent. The omniscient Creator of all existence – also, the Omniscience belonging to the fabric of Existence – had used her as a vessel.
Truly, she was a sacred relic of the finest order. This particular phrasing, given to her years later by way of a particular Priest in service to a Mazoku Lord, did nothing to impress her despite its aptitude.
For the chimera, the reasons behind his longevity, and even the effects, were less apparent. His curse was not yet showing much sign of wear, and his features were aging, albeit much more slowly than even he had expected.
Early on, he had worked out his aging ratio to be about 1:2. Rezo had told him as much, and the evidence was clear enough at first, besides. That fateful spell had transformed him at sixteen, and yet he seemed only eighteen at best by the time he had met a fifteen-year-old Lina, despite being twenty.
The ratio had dropped off gradually, as his aging decelerated. Simultaneously, the curse which had plagued him for so many decades was fading from his features little by little, even as they became (ironically) more angular, less the last softnesses of youth. In tandem, his brow became weathered, the stony protrusions slightly buffed around the edges, like a castle on a stormy inlet.
It was a complex system, the protracted taper of his aging running opposite the almost imperceptibly slow return of humanity. With much travel and research, they devised that Rezo’s magic, was, in fact, fading after his death. But the Red Priest had been a Great Sage, and the curse very powerful. It was not going easily.
The spell had not been designed with its own dissolution in mind. There was some part of the it, some bit of the loop Rezo had included to boost his subject’s lifespan and resilience, which was feeding back on itself in its decay, and amplifying. As the curse left Zelgadis’ body, it was returning not only his humanity, but also the mortal life that had been attached to that humanity, amplified through the spell’s power. Thus, two forces in conflict: extending the timescale of their power balance in a way neither spellcaster, expert as they were, could truly predict.
The time following Gourry’s death was, perhaps, the most difficult for them both. It marked the passage from their first full lifespan into other ventures. But they survived. In time, she took a new lover, then others. He did the same. They took up with each other for a time, inevitably. Then they parted, but with comfort, and without regrets. The years crisscrossed their lives. They lived so many lives.
When the pace of the world started to feel unrelatable to Lina, she sought out Filia. Older by centuries, the single remaining Golden Dragon was a better companion than most humans, able to understand more readily the perspective that a longer life provides.
They lived together for a few decades, changing locations more than once. Zelgadis visited from time to time, occasionally stayed for a season. Lina left, returned. For the most part, it was enjoyable company.
In time, though, their disparity grew. Though they remained friends, the companionship became less relatable. Filia was still able to function in the midst of a bustling town, in fact thrived from it. She was still in her youth as a dragon, hardly past her first millennium.
Lina took to the road again, spending more and more time between settlements. Zelgadis had already been living in this way, indeed was acclimated to it after years of both searching for a cure and hiding the reason why. Although he no longer chased down magical artifacts for this purpose, he was a scholar at heart, and both curiosity and habit propelled him.
In intervals, they travelled, or didn’t. Sometimes alone, sometimes with each other. Increasingly less frequently with anyone else. They started to stay at the cabin, on that vast moor. Each, in turn, when they needed to.
It is not that they had grown lonely. It is not that repeated tragedies had burdened them with sorrows. In fact, they had born them quite well, with dignity, and most of them early on.
But as further centuries passed, their isolation grew. They were creatures unlike anything but themselves; the background noise of a populated area started to seem more and more frenetic in contrast to the heavy metronome of the ages.
And, it seemed to work in the other direction as well. They had developed an otherness, indescribable but detectable. They saw it in the faces of those they spoke to. Occasional double glances, a stuttered hurry of words; there was something disconcerting about them, their presence. They could not put a name to it, but they could perceive others perceiving it.
The chimera was aware that she was studying his face. He was content to allow it, waiting for her to adjust to the idea of a conversation. If she had come here, she had come to be away from the world. He knew he was the sole living exception to her exclusion, or she would have gone elsewhere, not chancing that he may be occupying the cabin already. It was because he was the only creature of the same type. He was of her species. And he knew to be silent now -- not because he knew her needs and catered to them, but because he also did not need to speak yet. He was focused on his book, and continued to study the chart of metallurgical properties, translated in the margins (by himself) from the scientific symbols used on the westernmost continent, across the Demon Sea.
As he was fingering the pageturn, she did speak. “Looks like I finally outpaced ya, Zel.”
When he looked up at her, she was smiling with mildly wry but affable amusement. Her eyes, big and sly as they ever were, bore small creases around the edges. There was a subtle pucker, new to his recollection, under her bottom lip. Her mouth had grown slightly thinner, but remained cleverly expressive. And while her cheekbones may have lost their high, full, apple-round youthfulness, her chin remained delicate, her small upturned nose, refined. All in all, she seemed to be in her early forties. She carried it well.
Yes. The look, she carried well. The age, that was another animal entirely. He knew her to be closing in on the final years of her seven hundreds. He had recently passed into the eights.
Her statement was correct, however. Age approximation being difficult as it was, his physiology fighting against itself, he had privately gauged his own appearance to still be somewhat within the mid-thirties spectrum.
He reached for his glass, and took a mouthful of wine, savoring.
“You ended the war on the Southern peninsula.” Forever the pragmatist.
She frowned. “No, they managed that on their own.”
His brow arched in sarcasm. “Someone else’s Dragon Slave, then?”
“Draevuun has a remarkably glassy coast.”
Her eyes widened briefly in recognition. “Oh!” A gesture with her fingertips. “Yes. I did. I thought you meant the other one. In Gha Haskhu.” A pause. “How long have you been out here?”
A single nod.
Zelgadis looked down, thoughtfully, and closed his book. “Am I correct to assume that there has been a lot of conflict on that peninsula in the last century?”
Lina glanced up in thought. “Pretty consistent, yeah.”
“Are the Mazoku making a play against Rangort?”
This gave the sorceress pause. “It’s true there have been many wars, but always among the human nations. I don’t see how that could be a move against the Earthlord.”
“What if it’s a move against the North?”
At this, she looked back at the fire, held her gaze there for several long moments. Zelgadis tilted his glass, examining the black liquid with passive appreciation.
Finally, she said, slowly, “You propose that a Mazoku Lord is moving to unfreeze Lei Magnus.”
“The Aqualord is ineffective, if not vanquished.” His statement was meant to indicate that resistance was smallest in that region, while simultaneously having the largest prize: the frozen shard of the Demon King, resting inside the Great Sage since the Kōma War.
She looked back up at him, held his gaze a moment, exhaled. Shaking her head, dropping her eyes, she responded, “The balance of power has been stable too long. They are waiting for more pieces to leave the board.”
At this comment, he looked away. The fire was getting low. He watched it.
She sighed again, slouched farther into her chair. Her arm fell across her belly casually, forefinger and thumb resting against the curve of the single dark talisman slung low across her hips.
She clarified her statement, matter-of-factly. “They are waiting for me to die.”
She had expected a move like this some five centuries ago, when Luna Inverse died. But it had never come.
Her sister, a Knight of Ceipheed, had lived well into her two hundreds, in part due to the holy piece of the Flare Dragon lodged in her soul. Her life had paralled the strategy of all the forces of the Gods: to exist as a balance, and foil to the Mazoku. She had waged no wars, raised no armies, joined no frays. In this she was actually much more passive than Lina. Her part of the fight had been to exist, to occupy a territory, however unofficially, and to let her power act as an obstacle to be worked around.
The time of her death -- that was the time to make a move in the North. Lina had expected it, from the Dynast Grausherra if not from the Greater Beast. And though the intervening centuries had repeatedly brought her into contact with Zelas Mettalium’s Priest, Xellos, they had never yet been on seriously opposing sides.
Xellos. The only truly timeless being Lina had known familiarly. His physical form remained untouched by millennia, unless he willed it. It was jarring. Slightly reassuring, yes, but largely unsettling. Her mind was not equipped as his was. His disposition remained unchanged, while hers acquired the stain of centuries.
In the years following the fall of the Mazoku Barrier, the Outerworld reveled in the sudden increase of magical ability born into new generations. Similarly, the lands insider the Barrier had been starved of the industry with which the Outerworld had compensated their lack. Holy Magic, also locked outside of the Barrier following the Kōma War, had started to be rediscovered and adapted for the first time in an epoch. The Sorcerer’s Guild fell over itself in a flurry of research, invention, expansion. Both regions benefitted enormously, in this initial phase.
But in time, the magical energy previously contained within the Barrier had a chance to even itself out. Yes, once again magical capacity dispersed itself around the world – but at the cost of bucket capacity as well as pool capacity. As the centuries progressed, everyone born was once again able to, mostly, use a light spell. But even the most talented magic user, with the best training and largest innate skill, could do little more than a strong fireball. This was a crowning achievement met few and far between.
And so, the two occupants of the cabin had gradually become the two most powerful humans in the world.
Granted, Lina had already outclassed almost all living sorcerers, even from her youth. There were only a handful whose bucket capacity could come close; when paired with her genius for sorcery, she was in a class all her own.
Following Rezo’s spell, Zelgadis’ pool capacity was larger than his companion’s. While not as technically gifted, he was still far beyond the typical human spectrum in this respect. As the years progressed, those with comparable abilities fell away, and he lapsed into the same position as the redhead with whose life he was forever entwined: singularly powerful among a diminishing crop.
And here they were, then. The last living humans who could challenge either gods or monsters. It made quite a lot of sense for the Mazoku to wait, if indeed they would make a move.
But how long could they last? Lina had figured out a loose timeline, thought she might have another seventeen hundred, possibly two thousand years left. Of course, she frequently dealt in mortal situations. Who knew if she would make it to a death by old age. But she never said die, did she? Every day was hers to win. That had never changed.
Zelgadis’ lifespan, on the other hand, was a more open-ended speculation. The gradual dissemination of the curse seemed to be feeding youth back into him. But when he was finally healed, what then? Would he age rapidly? Normally? At a continually prolonged rate? The mathematics here were entirely speculative.
“The library in Ebrus has very striking lines.”
This comment turned his face back towards her, brought a smile to his eyes. An imperceptible nod and a curl of his mouth showed his appreciation, and asked the question, How did you know?
“It has a certain sensibility.” She shrugged, grinned. “And, clerestory isn’t typical of the western isles. I seem to recall it used to be very fashionable in Saillune though.”
A small snort of amusement.
She continued, “Master architect named Grey, stayed for the entire construction.”
“Twenty-three years.” He nodded.
“It suits you.” Her smile was warm, knowing.
He had been living with a man, Ryle, for more than half of those. But with the years wearing on, it had eventually been time to find both a new home and a new name. The chimera did tend to gravitate back towards the Northeastern continent, his journeys creating strange concentric loops, always crisscrossing back over to Saillune and adjacent regions. He supposed those areas which had been within the Mazoku Barrier so long ago would forever seem like a home base, regardless of how far he wandered, or how often he heeded the call to do so.
As far as Saillune was concerned, Amelia had grown out of her childhood crush rather quickly, which he had always expected she would. She had married a Duke, and lived out the majority of her life as Princess Regent of Saillune, until her first son took over.
Gracia returned periodically in the intervening years, but never to rule, and never by that name.
Zelgadis and Amelia had kept in touch, remained friends, throughout the years. Lina’s connection to the royal family had extended longer than his own, though after enough generations, she did stop visiting the palace. She had met and befriended children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, but although a handsome suite in the palace was available at any time for either of the sorcerers – a provision handed down through generations by royal decree – neither had made use of the privilege in long years. There comes a time when it is perhaps wiser to allow them to forget why such a provision exists, and for whom it is meant.
Lina stretched. Yawned. Drained the last of her glass appreciatively.
Had it not been the dead of winter, but rather the expansive days of summer, the current hour may quite possibly have heralded a dawn. Wind swooped heavily, crooned outside in the dark and ice.
She nodded decisively, as if to say: bedtime. Then, hooking her dagger casually by the crossguard, she padded down the corridor. Her room was spacious and unlit, but full of blue glow from the reflected crystal wasteland outside. She did not use a lighting spell, but passed through into an adjoining dressing room and changed into a simple yellow nightgown from the closet. She removed her bandana, folded it carefully with her talisman and dagger, carried them back into the bedroom and placed them on the bedside table.
A black shadow silently splintered the yellow glow spilling from the hallway, changing the balance even further in favor of the ice blue from outside. She turned. In charcoal flannel, he stood comfortably, unassuming in her doorway. His presence was a silent question. She nodded an acknowledgement, continued to pull her hair back loosely to sleep.
He strode forward, to the dresser, pulling out the top drawer and retrieving a large patchwork quilt. A crisp snap divided the silence as he opened it with a flourish over the right side of the bed. From the left side, she slipped under a coral-colored quilt, the bedsheet below cool against her skin. She pulled the edges of the quilt over to her side, bunching the faded floral print about her small knees.
A few stray hairs around her temple escaped the casual ponytail she had fashioned, curled near her ear and around her shoulder. As he slid into the other side of the bed, under the second quilt, he could see the reflected snowlight silvering them. Perhaps they were a little silver in their own right, just a few.
The mattress was huge, almost wider than it was long. They faced towards each other across an expanse of exposed sheet, each on their side. She curled her knees in slightly; his stretch was more languid. His face rested against the cool side of a pillow; she burrowed her nose into the crook of her own elbow.
Eyes closed, without looking, he moved his hand out into the space between them. Rough fingertips, not quite stone, found her hand extended, with the palm upturned, and came to rest unlustfully just inside the curl of her own fingertips. It was a connection made across the distance of the mattress, of continents; an understanding through silences, through ages. Here were two anonymous sovereigns, sentinels of the world: born of it, but outside of its ebb, connecting only to each other.
Outside, the wind picked up a fresh spray of ice, gave it flight, sparkled diamonds and chill. Inside, two creatures slept: separately, together, silent.