Kingdoms & Shadows
Ahn sighed, the sound a slow motion in the dark rippling of the waves. She fluttered, slightly, taking in the depth and breadth of all that swam around her in that dimming light.
Ahn, Delo was calling for her, the sound of her name vibrated deeply, resonantly, like muffled steel struck against ancient brass.
He swam a ring around her, calling her back to the deep waters. She flicked her tail at him impatiently. She would come when she was ready.
Sand brushed against her sleek belly. Ah, the earth...
Ahn, Delo repeated plaintively.
Hush, she whispered singingly. Her voice was many-faceted, gentle, forceful, clear and rasping in one. The rising moon gleamed in her golden eyes. There were moments of liquid starlight in her eyes as she blinked. The brilliance faded as she curved her back to the shore. Her kingdom was waiting.•⁰
Delo swam the dark parapets and the ruined archways, his rounds to ensure the safety of his home. As he stalked, some eight-legged thing approached the cracked causeway. Delo flicked his powerful tail like a whip, his deep golden eyes widening, cat-bright in the ocean black.
The other creature veered away from him fearfully and Delo watched after in hungrily. He watched the tightening and then relaxing of its muscles, the flowing, blooming motion of its swim. Delicious, it looked delicious, but it had fled. He could not eat it, Ahn would not stand for it. She would kill him for it, no matter that they were the only two: she would destroy him.
Delo let the creature go. He turned away, moving on. With his feathery whiskers, curled and sensitive, he listened for the murmurs of the waters, gauging the temperament of the ocean. It was placid, living.
He heard the movement of schools, the chilling lamentations of the drowning warmbloods, the sweet songs of the dragons.•⁰
Delo brought his tribute to the seat of Ahn's power with terrific satisfaction. The young lionfish had trespassed the inner courtyard of their sanctuum and Delo had shown the little creature who held mastery in this place.
The sweet blood on his whiskers was a distraction, but his love for Ahn was stronger than his hunger. The striped carcass would make a fine gift to her. But first he had to find her... He could not hear her in the waters, she was as silent as the black currents, and so he simply searched.
He found Ahn at the lip of the trench she was relaxed against a tilted obelisk that was marked with the writhing squigglings of a thousand years past. Ahn could read the words, she and few others.
As Delo approached he heard one such reading the obelisks poetry.
--And on the lights and in the air
Along the white fish carnivals
Wherein we once rejoiced and sang
To the heights and depths of sadness
We now dance in rings of terror
Along the dark skies in madness--
Utoto was an aged coral mother, her voice was crackling and crazed. Delo did not enjoy her presence, whenever he saw her, she raved her predictions of his untimely demise, of his sad fortune in this world.
He would not shy from her however. He was Ahn's warrior, no matter that she was twice his size and a devastating killer. He was her only companion and he would approach her as he pleased.
Ahn's great golden eyes touched him, he could feel the warmth and affection in her gaze heating his cold black scales.
Delo, she greeted him in her sweet, biting voice. He released the lionfish from his mouth and pressed against her.
Delo-pup, Utoto burbled, her voice high and laughing. It made Delo's eyes hurt, but he did not complain. Ahn would not appreciate such rudeness. So you still live, my little dessert.
Delo bristled, his feathery whiskers stiffening, his eyes widening. Yes, I imagine for longer than you, moldering one.
Delo, his queen rebuked his sharply, her whole body flicking, pushing him away from her.
Let him say what he wants, Ahn, Utoto laughed. Ahn's name vibrated clearly in the waters around them, sent shivers of pleasure running through Delo's muscles. His offenses in this world matter very little.
I brought you food, Delo interrupted, his intimations thoroughly petulant.
Ahn bared her teeth for him, a beautiful anterior ring of crystalline barbs which glittered along with her hungry eyes against the black backdrop of the trench.
Good, Delo, now apologize to the coral mother, she commanded, something in her voice almost convincing Delo to do exactly as she'd said.
I am not going to die, he protested.
Ahn swam forward and snatched the red-striped lionfish up in her maw. She crunched through even its delicate bones.
No, she promised as she left the rest of the tribute for him. You will die. You knew that the day it was just us two.
Delo did not eat. He reached out with one scraggly whisker to touch her, knowing her words to be entirely too true.•⁰
Ahn left him behind so that she could venture down into the trench. The day after her departure, the seas turned stormy and Delo was afraid. The sunken city Ahn and Delo had claimed as their own was unbearably lonely without her.
Every break in the huge tempestuous waves above cast flickering shadows, liquid nightmares. Reminders of all the brothers and sisters Delo had lost. They were black, eyeless phantoms who reached out with their ragged whiskers to taste him, hungry for the lives they lost.
Delo flailed and snapped at these fleeting ghosts, bruising himself against the jagged stones on which the shadows fell. As the storm raged in the upperworld, Delo slunk in to hiding, leaving a trail of blood and the scent of fear in his wake.
Ahn, he whispered plaintively. Her name rang coldly in their forgotten city.•⁰
--The green faces of the falser gods
Dark subtleties in their laughing hearts
Wings and desires made to perfection
The aether we wash with hands unbound
To shape the blasted souls of sorrow
Dark salvation in the twilight always to be found--
Ahn sang the obelisk's poetry as she returned to the ruins of her monarchy. Delo was not keeping the grounds and she felt a sting. She should not have left him behind... but he was so young.
He would never be as big as she, but he had much growing left to do. And in so little time...
Ahn remembered when they were each promised eternity, when they lived in the cradle of the ocean. Always in the deep shadows, they were elegant hunters, sensitive gatherers; their feathered whiskers seeing and hearing for them.
The world had been different and beautiful then. It had been comprised of neon vibrations painted over the black canvas of their reality. Every moment had been song and pulsation, color and sensation.
Perhaps it had been their joy and hedonism that had doomed them. Ahn did not care to dwell on the idea, she wanted to find Delo.
She could feel his fear and pain, smell his blood. She would have to chastise him for this, he was a hunter not prey. She followed his trail, found him curled beneath a crumbled ceiling.
Delo, she prompted in the sweet singing voice she rarely used. His name was short and sharp, the last syllable bursting into chiming brightness like a crystalline bubble. It soothed him, touched him like a whisper, like the caress of silken fins.
He came to hear wearily, his bruised body moving hesitantly, painfully. His golden eyes were dull, blinking sluggishly.
Ahn. he greeted, The name surrounded them like a pliant armor, protecting them from the turbulence of the ocean. He pressed to her to the cold scales of her belly. I felt dead without you. How will you live alone?
Her gills fluttered as she breathed deeply.
Sadly, quietly she replied.•⁰
Shining Star came to report rotting death in the waters.
"The-small-ones are dying," he sang in his roaring Nine-Harped-Tenor.
He bore the news on behalf of the Silence-Born-Bastion, a Dragon-Cloister to the West. On his chest was clearly burned the mark of a Sea-And-Sky-Bird, an order of official messengers to the Twelve-Keyed-Master-Of-The-Steppe-Of-Tune-And-Color: Spring Ashes, whose seat of power was respect in the realms of Heaven-Earth-And-Ocean.
Ahn heard his message in silence, Delo could read nothing from her. Shining Star writhed in the water impatiently, notes ringing from his throat as he breathed.
How quickly does it breed? she questioned, her voice strong and yet nearly a whisper.
"With The-Fury-Of-An-Autumn-Flame," the dragon exclaimed, his white scales giving blinding sparkles of light as he wound his twining, whistling, patterns in the water.
Autumn flame? Delo wondered, Ahn did not reply, only flicked her elegant tail irritably.
Thank you, messenger, Ahn said, at last. Her tone was distant and nothing more.
"Queen-With-Kingdom-Within, Shadow Ahn, my Twelve-Keyed-Master-Of-The-Steppe-Of-Tune-And-Color, gracious Spring Ashes invites You-And-Your-Own to take refuge in The-Farthest-Azure-Citadel," Shining Star trilled. Ahn's name hung, vibrating within his song, plucked cleanly from his many vocal chords.
His aria to his queen made a deep euphoria swell inside of Delo's body. He did not care for the dragons' overly formal mode of speech, but he could not deny how wonderfully the movements of their songs seemed inside of him. Ahn was not so well pleased. She did not watch as Shining Star slithered into the dark distance, she began to swim loops around their grounds.
Ahn? Delo called after her curiously, her ringing name shuddering with his inflection. Ahn, what is autumn?
She paused, turned to face him and nudge him gently. The time before the cold, little one.
The death made itself apparent in the corpses which were washed into their kingdom on the tide. Delo found them first, saw them caught in the underwater eddies, gruesome and decayed, eyes bulging and bones visible.
He kept his distance from them, did not like the way they 'smelled', the way they felt in the water. Like ink, but thick and tacky and cloying.
Ahn examined the tide, whiskers twitching in the open water. She swam a strange pattern in the water as she sang. The song made Delo's heart beat inside him, too fast and then too slow until he was dizzy.
That will keep them away, for now, Ahn said as she finished. Her voice was dull and heavy, did not carry out into the ruins as it usually would. Delo pressed to her side in concern.
Ahn was silent, leading him from their kingdom to edge of the black reef. Her bright eyes gazed down into the trench fitfully.
The beasts that drove us from the cradle.
Delo said nothing, only stared into the darkness and resisted the urge to flee. His queen dove fearlessly into the pitch and so he followed, felt her vibrations against his whiskers and always knew she was there. He listened intently for sounds of other life, but heard none. He wondered if they were all dead like his kin or if they hid.
Ahn... Her name thrummed softly, inquistively.
Hush, Delo, we have a long way yet to go.
He fell silent. Continued on after her even as the water became cold and the fear that had started to beat in his heart at the lip grew stronger. What creatures stalked them in the black? He could not see them, how would he protect her?
Ahn. The fear of a child, tremulous and high pitched even as the sound of it rung deep.
He felt her turn in the water to curl around him, scales against scales, fins against fins, whiskers twining. He drank deeply of her affection.
Be brave, my little soldier.
Delo did not know how many days they traveled. It seemed endless and he was afraid always, calling out to her when he became too afraid to follow her any longer. She would turn and float with him, never afraid, never lost. He loved her, always, but her strength was beautiful, even if he could not see it.
The place they stopped seemed as arbitrary as every direction they had swum, but when he let his fear settle back from his mind he knew the reef had widened, that they were in an open space where the water almost made music in its breathless currents across the rocks. He felt Ahn circle him quietly.
Delo, are you prepared? His name was a sad musical chime in her usually strong voice.
He knew what she was asking of him.
Will you sing to me first?
He heard her soft bubbling laughter though he could not see it and before he could repeat the request, her voice vibrated out against him. When she sand he could see such beautiful things. Whole schools of their brothers and sisters, their kingdom before the death touched it, bright beautiful colors and endless songs.
Once they had all sung so beautifully together.
He was lulled by it, his heart made full by it.
And when Ahn asked him again if he was ready, he said yes. He saw her great crystalline teeth flash in the darkness and thought they were beautiful before he was gone.
Shining Star the Nine-Harped-Tenor returned with word from the Silence-Born-Bastion and the Twelve-Keyed-Master-Of-The-Steppe-Of-Tune-And-Color.
"Shadow Ahn," he voice moved and dipped as did his twisting serpentine body. "My Twelve-Keyed-Master-Of-The-Steppe-Of-Tune-And-Color, gracious Spring Ashes, sends me to invite the Queen-With-Kingdom-Within-And-No-Servants to join him in his The-Farthest-Azure-Citadel. Most-August-And-Revered Spring Ashes would not see She-Who-Banishes-Sable-Death live isolated."
The lonely queen looked at the dragon with large golden eyes, black whiskers writhing like shadow, like smoke.
Thank you, messenger, her vibrations were strong still from the power her sweet soldier had gifted to her. But I will stay and keep my sad shadows company until it is time to move on.
The dragon stilled a moment, so unnatural for the jubilant things. Shining Star's great eyes were sad and a dirge of mourning erupted from his many vocal chords, draping itself over the ruins of her kingdom and the bones of her fellows wherever in the great ocean that they rested.
When the sadness released the poor beast, his head sagged close to her.
"Sad-Queen-Who-Lives-With-Nothing, I will relay your message to the Twelve-Keyed-Master-Of-Heaven-And-Sky."
They parted without another word wasted and Ahn turned slowly in the water, surveying what was left to her.
She began the rounds, sadly, and quietly she sang the obelisk's poetry:
--Lo there was the black
And far there was a sign
A passing garnet melody for
Which birds and beasts did
Writhe in perfect harmony
While all sorrow passed them by.
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