This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
There were two clear distinctions with few gray areas between. There were gods and there were men. But that was before, you see. Before the Nothing Man came and made a mess of things…
An impossible hybrid; things like this simply don’t exist.
Couplings of god and mortal were not unheard of, but their union almost always ended in heartache…and certainly no offspring. Astra knew this all too well. For it was true what the legends told, sung with lutes round the hearth-fires of mortals at night: his father died of a broken heart, his untimely death preceded by that of his mortal mistress and the bastard child she died birthing.
What he didn’t know was what this sliver of moonshine was caught against the blue-black veil of night, between the bloodied countryside below and the empty clouds above. He was fairly certain, lithe body launching like a bullet from the cloud bank, the thing in the distance had not yet realized that he had seen it, though he knew it had been watching him.
His hand was on her throat before he knew the thing was woman, knocking her from the large plume upon which she had knelt, the feather from what origin he did not care to imagine drifting downward until caught on the air warmed by the fires below. From there she dangled, clawing in vain at the hand keeping her from falling into the dwindling melee far beneath them. Her black hair flew about her, oddly red-tinged in the white light of the moon, maroon robes catching the wind suddenly whipping up around her. He shook the layers of his own storm cloud-colored hair from his eyes, blinking on the fluctuating rainbow of hers as they squeezed shut, gleaming white teeth gritting between lips dark and red as blood as she continued to struggle.
These may have been dangerous times, but this was no way to interrogate an individual, especially a female. He attempted to alter his grip, but she was flailing too much and fell, Astra watching the unnamed woman plummet until she caught herself atop a newly produced plume. And then she was gone, her plume of snowy white carrying her off into the night. He did not follow.
He allowed his eyes to drift again along the moonlit expanse of the countryside below. Were he accustomed to intervening in the squabbles mortals so often found themselves in, he might have. But with such an unknown quantity as the Nothing Man… He was retreating in his orb of milky gray, but not before surveying the carnage he left behind. A snarl twisted Astra’s mouth, a foul smoke rising from the mortal village over which the realm under his reluctant rule now floated; wooden buildings reduced to splinters, stone ones broken into bits of rubble, the ground littered with the bodies of the dead and the maimed. With a maniacal cackle, the Nothing Man floated away, hair and robes blacker than the night swimming around him in his translucent gray orb. Astra turned, a slight lean in the direction of the cloud kingdom all he needed to glide back, where he alighted on the cloud onto which he had been perched before.
The Nothing Man would leave him alone for now, whether because he hadn’t noticed him or because he didn’t care, Astra did not know. He would give the matter no more attention for now, though he would remain vigilant. It was only a matter of time before a man who now knew he could take out a mortal village in a matter of hours decided to try to kick things up a notch. He did, however, let his mind linger over the mysterious woman, with her olive skin and kaleidoscopic eyes, and why she might have been watching him…and for whom.
He started to run, as one might through the grass of a meadow, picking up speed until the clouds on either side of him were but a blur and he rose upon the wind, his heading the prismatic spires of Thunderhead, gold inlays in his white armor gleaming, smoke-gray cape billowing around him. And off like a bolt of lightning he shot, leaving the same in his trail, slowly circling one crystalline spire before alighting on the ledge of one of its tall, narrow windows. He swung in, hand squeaking on the edge of the cone-shaped roof above. This noise followed by that of his footfalls sent the man whose room he had so elegantly slinked into spinning, robes of periwinkle swaying as the snowy-haired sprite turned around.
“Astra.” His voice was like a bell. A huffy, effeminate bell. “Thought I told you to knock that crap off.” Brow creased with anger, he turned back from Astra’s smirk to the desk at which he inked his musings, sat again on his diminutive stool, thunderbird quill in hand, the opalescent feather too big for an average man to hold trimmed that much further to fit his grasp.
Astra was unfazed, eyes dancing about the room; like something out of the middle of a geode, even the desk appeared cut from cloudy quartz.
“Reinbert, my good fellow.” He paused to adjust the gold circlet on his head, a polished opal in an oval setting at its center, slender fingers lingering briefly along the part shaped like a lightning bolt near his temple. “I wish to revisit the idea of pilgrimage.”
“Oh, won’t your mother be pleased.” He spun back from his work, pushing his rectangular-rimmed spectacles up his narrow nose. “Is what I would have said before the untimely passing of your father. You have his court to tend to, elements to command-”
“All of which Mother is completely capable of handling in my stead.” Astra clasped his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels. “And does most of the time anyway while I’m busy patrolling.”
“Pbfft, patrolling,” Reinbert scoffed, removing his glasses. “More like moping around, looking pensively off into the distance…” The dismissive wave of his hand that accompanied his words wiped the grin straight from Astra’s face, the god’s arms now folded across his chest, boot tapping the floor. Reinbert dropped the offending hand to his side with a sigh, crossing the room to where his lord stood, his other hand lifted to the small of the much taller man’s back rather than the shoulder he could not reach. Not properly, anyhow.
“Now listen, Astra,” he said, guiding him back over toward the window. “No one knows how much your father’s death has pained you better than me. I am your chief attendant after all, but it’s been a year-”
“A mere blink of an eye to an immortal, you know that.”
“Yes. I am quite a bit older than you.”
That smile returned to Astra’s face, only a bit dimmer now. “Funny, Reinbert. You look little more than a child.”
“Maybe, but I’ll have you know I have served this family since before you were even a thought-”
“And what did you look like then, Reinbert? But a cherub?”
It was not that he was ill-proportioned, just that he was much smaller than the god already tall in stature, head reaching only about to his ribs.
Reinbert shook his head, lowering it with a sigh, the hand at his would-be master’s back lifting to brush his shaggy fringe from his eyes.
“Pilgrimage it is.” He sighed again, returning his spectacles to his face. “You’re obviously not mature enough to handle the duties left behind by your father. But what is the purpose of your pilgrimage? You obviously came round to the idea for a reason. Before, I wondered if you’d ever leave the castle.” He paused to look up at him. “Wandering the clouds not good enough for you anymore? Anxious to see the world-?”
“Someone must stop the Nothing Man.” Astra lowered his head, absently thumbing the sheer, glittery curtains flowing by the window. “I don’t see anyone else rising up to take him on.” He closed his eyes a moment, opening them on the sprite. “Do you?”
Reinbert stared at him. Were there a beard on his fair face, he would have been stroking it, icy blue eyes searching the man, both his charge and his friend, for why he would want to take on such a fool’s errand as this.
“No. We’ve seen of what he’s capable. Surely you want to leave him to some other fool hero-”
“No, Reinbert.” Astra flung the curtain shut, moonlight still peeking past the silky material, the sliver on the floor reminding him of a certain something he encountered not half an hour before. “He’s gaining strength and no one is even asking questions. Where did he come from? What does he want—is there a way to stop him?”
It was Reinbert who now clasped his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels. “And you would seek to ask these questions?” His speech was halting, as if he didn’t really want to know.
“More than that.” Astra turned from the window, starting towards the open, pointed-arched door leading out of the room. “I want answers.” He stopped just short of the exit, hand on the elaborate frame, eyes of amber peering back over his shoulder. “I would request an audience with my mother.”
Reinbert nodded in rhythm with a slight bow. “At once, my lord.”
Her cold could be felt from across the great hall; a long, narrow room carved of the same cloudy quartz that made up much of the castle’s aesthetic, chandeliers of clearest crystal casting rainbows in all directions about the court. Eirlys, Lady of the Frost, stood from her throne, Astra at last able to discern the end of one and beginning of the other, little difference between the ice that composed her body and the equally cold, harsh edges of the lone chair at the end of the hall.
“I am told you wanted to see me.” Her voice, the echo of a whisper, came floating across the court, steps chilling the floor where they touched, gown of frosty mist barely doing so to the skin it swirled around, jagged hair sculpted into tall spikes, forming a singular one atop her head. It was no wonder his father was driven to the warmth of a mortal’s embrace, his mother the very embodiment of winter.
“His royal highness requests leave from the palace, milady.” Reinbert offered her the same shaky uncertainty he had Astra in the realization of his intentions, as well as the customary bow expected by his mistress as they stopped before her. It was clear he didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be doing this. The pause that followed as she took stock of the two of them drew the sprite’s azure eyes upwards, although hesitant, to study her angular face; cold, hard eyes focused unblinkingly on her son.
“For what purpose?” She resumed her slow cadence, circling the two. “Certainly not for pilgrimage.” She suppressed a laugh, but just barely, her smile hardly a crack in her icy veneer when she stood in front of them again, every movement and expression carefully calculated to mold the situation as she saw fit. A tactic that may have worked with his father but that Astra had built a kind of resistance to, the Ice Queen resigning herself to her usual frigid stoicism. An affect he often mirrored, whether he wanted to or not.
“His majesty would seek an answer to the riddle that baffles us all.” Reinbert rose from his bow, doing his best to muster some cold indifference of his own. “To put an end to the Nothing Man.”
At this she did laugh, shaking her head as she turned in the direction of her throne, seating herself in it with an unceremonious plop. “Have you learned nothing in the past year? What is a pilgrimage going to teach you your father’s wasted life did not? On such a paltry thing as a few mortal lives-”
“He’ll soon come for a god.” It was all Astra could do not to charge forward, allowing himself only one emphatic step in the direction of his mother. “Maybe not now or even soon, perhaps taking smaller prey in the meantime, but he will grow bolder. Mark my words.”
Legs crossed in front of her, the top one swung idly for a moment, one curious finger tapping at her twisting mouth. She rose again from her throne, assuming a looser stance, air and posture much more malleable as she approached him again, Astra’s hands taken into her icy grasp.
“Astra, my dear boy.” Her eyes, like cut diamonds, held his of golden amber, his hands loosed and hers reaching for his face. “My precious boy—my one and only son—do you not know why he carries the title he does?”
His cheeks red from the cold of her touch, her hands now cupped his armored shoulders, a sincerity in her eyes he could scarcely recall.
He turned his nose up at her. “Unless it aids me in putting a stop to this, I care naught about a silly name.”
“Exactly my point.” She tilted her head almost condescendingly, hand brushing his cheek once more. “It is from naught he came and nowhere, next to nothing known of him…other than that he spits in the face of the gods—blasphemes us with his own abominations, playing with life as though he were one of us. And you would throw yourself at him, to very well become what you fear he may destroy?”
Astra withdrew, as he often did from his mother’s mock-coddling when he was a child, turning his back to her, Reinbert left wide-eyed and befuddled between them.
“No, Mother,” he answered at last, starting slowly back towards the entrance to the royal court.
“Good.” She sighed. “It’s nice to know your mother can still talk some sense into you.”
He stopped, back still turned to her. “Oh, I intend fully to go, with or without your support.”
“Why?” she asked, her voice uncharacteristically desperate. “What do you hope to accomplish out there?”
Much to Reinbert’s short-lived relief, Astra finally returned her gaze over his shoulder, his cape swept back from the sword hanging at his left hip—a simple blade, the most notable part of which its gold-inlaid pommel and scabbard, a nice accent to his light, form-fitting armor—hand dramatically placed at its hilt. “To find out these unknowns, send him back from whence he came. If no one else will...it has to be me.”
She threw her hands up at him, spinning back in the direction of her throne. “You do this without your mother’s blessing.” She stopped short before it, turning her cold gaze on him once again. “But not without the castle’s resources.”
Astra smiled, tight and closed-lipped, beckoning Reinbert to follow him as he turned from her, starting back down the hall. “That is all I ever asked.”
There was no fanfare as Astra left the castle accompanied by one of the legendary million-color mares, the horse saddled with scrolls, weapons and assorted comforts, many stashed away in bags appearing too small for all that they carried, his most trusted friend and advisor holding the reins. A flick of Astra’s wrist and the cloud they stood upon swirled into a veritable spiral staircase all the way to the ground below, which they and their silvery-coated steed descended in silence. The carnage left in the wake of his chosen foe was behind them now, though Astra and now Reinbert could still smell the smoke on the air.
“Astra.” Reinbert ripped the god’s less than idle thoughts from the events preceding their journey…namely the mysterious stranger’s kaleidoscopic eyes…the cloud receding behind them, ahead of them the forest housing the first stop on his quest for information. “We are not heading where I think we are heading…are we?”
That tight, closed-lipped smile tugged at Astra’s lips again. He had not ventured outside their realm very much, but when he had it had been mainly because of one person. “So you are not so old that you have forgotten.”
“Oh please, Astra.” Reinbert groaned, head thrown from side to side as if his neck had suddenly lost all ability to support it. “Not her. Must we open this jar of mudgrubs again?” He struggled to catch up to him, Astra’s strides greater than the much smaller sprite’s. “You know this never ends well—is it really worth whatever information you might get out of her?”
“Would I really be going to her if it weren’t?” Astra sighed, brushing his shaggy fringe from his eyes. “If anyone knows the Nothing Man’s movements, at least during the course of the night when it seems he is most active, it is her.”
“I don’t know.” Reinbert scoffed, one pointy elbow offering quite the literal friendly jab, and, perhaps, not so friendly after all. “Would you? We can’t pretend you don’t have…hmm, how shall I put this delicately? A colorful history?” His blue eyes accused Astra, the flutter of his tiny fingers on the word ‘colorful’ broadening the smile on his master’s lips.
“Please, Reinbert.” He shook the smile from his face, taking a moment to clear a branch from their path. “Have a little faith. Besides, what would the world be without a little color?”
Reinbert rolled his eyes, guiding the horse past him, Astra allowing the branch to fall behind him as he followed.
They continued through the dark wood, shadows seeming to close in around them like the silence now filling the space between them, Reinbert and the horse he led beginning to lag behind Astra’s confident strides. But of course he was confident. What did a god have to fear, even in this dark wood at night, but maybe the Nothing Man, and he had moved on. The story was quite different for a mere sprite, who was clearly growing to feel more and more like he had no Oruly business being out there in the woods. No business being on Oru at all.
“Astra.” His voice quavered despite his best efforts. “Did we not bring a torch?”
“No need, the moon is bright enough. You know magic, brought a tome or two. If it makes you feel better, knock yourself out.”
Reinbert no sooner began to reach for his pack when Astra stopped short ahead of him, the sprite quick to halt the animal lest she run smack-dab into his master. There was something in the path ahead of them, something white.
“It’s…a child,” Reinbert gasped.
The one source of light save the moon, its radiance reflecting from the child not much bigger than a toddler in the middle of their path. Doll’s curls cropped to her jaw and her ruffled dress—even her skin—of palest white. All except for her eyes, a seeming deepened shadow there, making them appear black as they stared, wide and glittering, up at them. And then the shadows really were closing in on them, both the moon and the child blotted out by the oily mass surrounding them on all sides.
“Reinbert,” Astra said, hand on the hilt of his sword. “The mare.”
As commanded, Reinbert and the mare disappeared, leaving Astra, at least visibly, alone in the center of the blackness, its roiling mass forming shapes now, snarling dog-like faces and clawed hands reaching.
Astra let out a chuckle. “You obviously know not with whom you’re dealing.” He left the sword in its scabbard, a twirl of his index finger all he needed to create a blustering whirlwind, the faces in the blackness growling in defiance of their eventual dissipation. Both hands extended on either side of him, he gave them a great jolt of electricity, jagged gold chasing up and around, crippling the clawed hands, a clap of thunder sending the cloud around him up like a puff of smoke. And then around him there was nothing; no white child, no monstrous beings. Nothing now but the softly blowing breeze, the rustle of the canopy, Reinbert and the magical mare materializing beside him.
A long silence hung between them before Reinbert could gather his faculties enough to even stammer out his master’s name, the same finger that swirled the wind standing in rigid protest to him.
Foolishly fiendish spirits in the night venturing some fun? Maybe. Some abomination the Nothing Man had sent out to terrorize unwary travelers? Possible. But, considering the woman they sought, he wouldn’t put it past her vindictive nature to create such a disturbance in their path. As Reinbert had alluded to, they had not exactly left things on the best of terms last they saw one another.
“Reinbert,” he answered at last. “Let’s go.”
The sprite remained where he stood a moment beside the mare, white-knuckled hands pulling on her reins before Astra could get too far ahead.
“As you command, my lord.”
They proceeded through the dark wood, where what used to open on the small clearing leading to a building—barely perceivable, save for the glisten of moonlight off its black buttresses and spires, shorter and stouter than the ones they left behind them in Thunderhead—now lay strewn with fallen trees and branches littering the grounds. A building—a temple built by mortals to please a goddess—Astra knew well, as did he the goddess for which it was to pay tribute and in which she often resided. All too well, some might say…and Reinbert was never shy of saying so. Astra stopped just ahead of the broken-down stairs that led to the main chamber, Reinbert halting the mare behind him.
“What became of this place?” His voice came barely above a whisper, his breath stolen, gilded eyes searching what was once a magnificent structure of shining obsidian, now appearing on the brink of ruin. The hanging gardens supported by large archways on either side of the temple had fallen in many places, some of the decorative midnight ivy, named for its color and leaves speckled with light like a starry sky, ripped from the pillars and walls it had climbed.
An owl stirred on one of the branches behind them, startling Reinbert so that he yelped, his cry of surprise going ignored by his lord as he pressed forward, ascending the crumbling stairs to the archway leading inside. He placed his hand on one of the obelisks framing the door, tracing cracks in its once perfectly polished surface. If this was what had become of her temple…
“She’s not here.” His head fell forward, circlet digging into his forehead where it leaned on the obelisk; palm pressed flat now over the surface whose cracks his fingers had traced. Something stirred again in the wood behind them, Reinbert backing himself and the mare away from something in Astra’s peripheral vision.
“Wasn’t,” the swarm closing in on his steed and companion corrected him. The flurry of flying creatures took shape, the form of a woman, and not a woman unfamiliar to him.
He whirled in her direction, breath stolen again. It was unmistakable: pale moonstone skin, starlight eyes peering from the signature owl mask of iridescent feathers that seemed to show indigo, black and blue all at once. Her long, flowing hair shone with the same highlights, only darker, blending with the cape of larger feathers that hung behind her, body naked to the moonlight except for where her long hair no doubt tickled her bare breasts, the elegant gold chain and clasp that secured the cape around her shoulders and the long, dark sweeps of cloth that hung in front and back fastened in the same fashion on either hip.
“Nocturne,” he choked, the narrowing of her starlight eyes the only thing stopping him from running up and spinning her in joyous circles in his arms. “I thought-”
“You thought I’d gone.” He could tell she’d cocked a brow, though it could not be seen beyond her mask. “Perhaps the work of the Nothing Man. The man you seek to make just that.” Her hips swayed as she passed his companions, marching up the steps to where he stood. “To remove him and his mockery of us from this world.”
Astra’s brow furrowed, a quick shake given of his head. “How did you-”
“Know?” She spoke into his face, standing on the tips of her bare toes so that hers could be so close. Just close enough to almost kiss, but a safe enough distance not to. “You forget.” She spun from him, her face turned upside down a moment beneath his as one pale finger ran along his cheek, her figure retreating against the opposite obelisk. “The owls are my eyes, the foxes my ears—this whole forest gives away all your secrets.” She paused a moment, starlight eyes looking him up and down. “And your lies. They tell me everything—betray everyone.” The way her teeth gleamed between her dark lips, it seemed she snapped at him on every razor-sharp syllable. “Even a god.”
Astra nodded in knowing confession. “And you wonder why we broke up.”
If he was at all sorry, it didn’t matter; she slapped that apology clean off his face.
“Bastard,” she hissed, her softness betrayed by the strength in the hand squeezing his chin. “Why should I help you?”
“Because.” He gently grasped the hand on his face, coaxing her to relent her violent grip and it into his own, if grudgingly. “It’s not just for me. You’ve no doubt seen what he can do.” He looked around at what appeared a cyclone had hit, knowing well one had not. “And has done.”
She yanked her hand from his, shaking it at her side as if in disgust. “See my temple?” She gave it a nod with a slight tilt of her head.
He gave a single silent nod of his own.
She turned from him, her steps slow, halting even, as she descended the stairs. She lowered her head when she finally reached the bottom, the fingers of one hand pinching the bridge of her nose through her mask.
“I know why you’re here, Astra.” She faced him again, dropping her hand to her side. “It’s nice that someone finally took some notice…not to say no one has. And it’s not fear that has stopped them—it’s laziness. Everyone—every last one of them—far too self-involved, too self-important to care. But their tune will soon change when he comes for them, oh yes.” She nodded at Astra’s widening eyes. “He’s already begun.”
He could see, even from the distance at which he stood, her lip quiver as though she might be sick.
“My followers?” She went on, stepping further out onto the grounds. “Very loyal, those people, particularly the ones that tended the temple.” She turned her head from side to side, as if she were looking for something. “A few of them might still be here, in spirit…and pieces. The ones that survived?” She turned to face him again. “He chased them back to the village. And then he…well…I’m sure you saw.”
She stood like stone, fists balled at her sides as Astra himself descended the stairs, her determination dwindling as he drew nearer. Softening further yet when he slipped his arms around her, though her hands remained at her sides, his in her silk-spun hair. He hugged her tightly, the embrace not reciprocated but not denied either, nor the eye contact they shared when he drew back. And then his mouth covered hers, and she allowed it, moonstone hands gliding up the chestpiece to his armor before finally pushing him away.
“Astra.” She turned, a sob choked backward like rising bile. “Don’t make me say no.”
He gripped her just below the shoulders, gently spinning her back towards him, eyes searching hers. Pleading.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Both looked in the direction of the glimmer of white caught in the periphery of their vision, the mare beside Reinbert reflecting the moon’s light, straightening themselves upon remembering they were not alone, or without greater purpose than…whatever it was besides the Nothing Man Astra needed sorting out.
He ran his tongue between his lips, hands cupping her shoulders gently, eyes struggling to capture hers. “Come with me.”
She shook her head, eyes brimming with luminescent tears, one twinkling down her cheek despite her best efforts. “I told you.” She sniffed. “Don’t make me say it.”
His brow furrowed, a noise coming from his throat, like a scoff. “But you can’t stay here-”
“If he’d wanted to raze the temple, he’d have done just that.”
Astra shook his head, scratching above his circlet as he loosed her from his grip, pacing. “Then what does he want? Followers—worshipers? And, if he can’t gain the mortals’ favor, to bully them into it, to scare them-?”
“That’s not all he wants.” Her words stopped him dead in his tracks, Astra facing her, her own attention drawn elsewhere. She gazed past him, upon her broken temple, starlight eyes lingering long on the sullied structure, pink rays of the approaching dawn creeping around its edges through the trees.
No more tears would be shed. Not for it; not for him. At least not while he was watching.
They stood silent while the sky continued to lighten from the east, Nocturne growing antsy.
“My sister will be here soon,” she seemed to lament, looking down at the ground between them, dark patches in the grass revealing themselves to be blood in the growing light. “I have to go.”
“Nocturne.” He caught her hands in his, holding them between them, the thumb of his right sweeping back and forth over her left, starlight finally flowing to golden amber. “I still think you should come with us.”
“Maybe.” She looked back again, over her shoulder, at the slowly dissipating darkness, slow to return him her gaze. “But I don’t think I will. I will go my own way.”
His grip of her loosened, a reluctant nod bobbing his head as she slipped through his fingers.
A jolt went through the sprite’s whole body as his eyes darted up from the horse’s reins, which he had been braiding to pass the time.
“Time to go,” Astra told him. He turned one last time to his lost lover. “I wish you would reconsider.”
“Heh.” She chuckled, smiling despite the tears in her eyes. A kind of sickly smile. “I wish a lot of things. Astra-”
She caught him by the arm before he could turn fully away.
A pause followed, rather uncomfortably, as their eyes met again.
“You’ve seen the white child. Be wary of things in the dark. Not all of them are my doing.”
The touch of her hand drifted, like a shadow. All that remained now, as she receded with the dark.
It was a long time, and a fair ways from the temple of the night goddess, before either spoke, Reinbert the first to break the silence at the full break of day.
“Well, that wasn’t very much help. You didn’t even ask her from where he came.”
He wanted to smack him but restrained himself, watching the ground as they trod over it.
“Believe me, Reinbert.” He raised his eyes, squinting at the orange ball glaring back over the trees. “I asked enough of her.”
Of the many thoughts racing through Astra’s head at that moment, one stood out now. Maybe there were some things her spies didn’t tell her. She never warned of any women on white plumes.
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