Chapter 15: Airy
By Renko Doremi Rodenburg
The cold wind bit into Airy’s face, carrying with it the smell of coal and fire. She folded her wings around her body, to keep herself a little warmer while sitting idly in Ellen’s garden. It was cold in the Lands Lost in general, but here, close to the icy lands of Winter, it could become unpleasantly frigid.
Airy watched as Ellen hammered on a bloom of metal, pieces of slag falling off. She barely understood the process- metal needed to be heated in different furnaces, things needed to be added to it, chunks needed to be removed from it- but it fascinated her.
“Hmmm,” Ellen said, carefully inspecting the rosy chunk of metal. “Yeah,” she then said.
She picked up tongs from her tool rack, and placed the metal inside a brick oven, on a pile of similar bricks.
“Alright,” Ellen then said. “That’ll do nicely.” From there she walked one of her other forges, and started placing several long, rectangular sheets of metal she had been heating on top of each other on her anvil. In between, she placed layers of red and orange leaves. Steam hissed and screeched as the hot metal incinerated the leaves.
“What are you doing that for?” Airy asked.
Ellen shook her head, put away her tongs and bucket of Autumn leaves, and picked up a broad hammer.
With tremendous effort, she started to hammer the sheets together. After a minute, having seemingly barely made any progress, the metal started to cool too much, and she placed it back in the forge.
“You,” Ellen said. “Feathers.”
“What?” Airy asked.
Ellen made a plucking motion with her fingers, and tilted her head. “A blade of yellow and red, and a blade of white and blue. Hand me feathers, daughter of death, so I can impart on one their cold hue.”
Plucking feathers hurt, and they took forever to grow back. She didn’t want to pluck out any of her pinions either, as that would negatively impact her ability to fly. Wanting to see what Ellen would do with them, though, she rifled through her wings to pull out some smaller ones.
Ellen took them, then put out her hand and demanded more.
“Ellen,” Airy said. “I need those, you know.”
It did nothing to dissuade the witch, so Airy caved and pulled out several more feathers, wincing in pain as a few larger ones came loose from the wing. Droplets of blood rolled over a few of her feathers, their hydrophobic nature preventing the blood from settling. Little balls of crimson rolling over her icy wings, before splattering on the ground.
“Good,” Ellen said before stacking up the next pile of metal sheets, this time putting Airy’s feathers between them.
“No idea if they contain much carbon, but this isn’t so much chemistry as it is alchemy,” Ellen explained. “So it should be fine.”
Airy looked on in pain as her feathers got incinerated between sheets of glowing metal.
Again, Ellen started to hammer the sheets into a single slab, and again she had to take a break when the metal cooled too much.
The rest of the afternoon, she alternated between the two, eventually forging the sheets into two elongated, rectangular slabs of metal.
“That’s that, they need to rest, and then tomorrow I’ll start hammering them into the basic shapes of blades,” Ellen explained, covered in a grimy mix of sweat and soot.
“It’s so much work,” Airy said. “Are you making them for anyone?”
“Who knows,” Ellen said, staring blankly into the distance. “You should go home in a bit, there’s normal people coming over.”
Airy scowled at her friend.
“Don’t be like that. Go see if the barbarian is back yet, go hunting with Nevena. Just don’t hang around my house all day.”
She shook her head, but conceded nonetheless. The townsfolk would rout Ellen out of town if they caught her hanging out with an angel. She unfurled her wings, and started doing stretches. And as she did, she felt her first heart accelerate, already anxious to take to the skies. Taking in large breaths of air, she felt her second heart stir from its torpor.
The amount of energy required to propel a humanoid body through the skies was tremendous, and its source was not entirely natural. Her second heart stung as it woke up, and her muscles tensed. It was a hassle, switching between idle state and the frenzied state required for flight, but it was safer for everyone if her mind wasn’t ablaze with the icy glow of Winter all of the time.
Now it overtook her, human sensibilities washed away in an avalanche of cold passion. With a beat of her tremendously powerful wings, she took flight.
Flying was a complicated affair. Every minute motion of the wings growing out of her shoulder blades changed her trajectory, and after every beat of her wings friction and gravity immediately threatened to overtake her again. Staying aloft was maintaining a careful balance between propelling herself upwards, and maintaining a gliding trajectory in between wing beats.
It was magnificent though. Every human dreamt of flight, and only she had achieved it. The world quickly disappeared underneath her, the cold that would sting her human body fading away and making place for the comfort of the Silver Prince, the Death God, the Father of Angels.
With drawing on this power came a cost though, and she felt a pit of hunger in her stomach.
Underneath her the ragged, bare landscape quickly made way for the smoother grays and whites of the higher peaks. It was barely any effort to make her way back to the shrine, where she spotted Nevena laying down on the roof.
She disrupted her flight with a flick of her wings, then airbraked all the way down, landing next to her friend with a nary a sound save for the rustling of wind and the woosh of air displacement.
“Hey,” she said to the other angel, who was laying down on her side, wings curled around her body.
“Hmmmm,” Nevena answered. “The redhead is awake.”
Guinevere’s friend, whom Ellen had known would arrive weeks in advance. The barbarian woman from the south.
“Oh!” Airy said, barely avoiding falling into animalistic noises. The grip of Winter was strong around her hearts now, clouding her otherwise mostly human mind.
“You should calm down,” Nevena said. “She’s a bit confused, and-” she wanted to say something else, but Airy was moving already.
She leapt off the temple, eager to go look for the barbarian. As she hit the ground and turned around, she looked straight into bright, amber eyes.
The woman standing in the doorway had once been Reinhild, the red-haired barbarian with the incinerated arm.
Now, her hair was quite a bit longer, and completely unkempt. The red had made way for an entire spectrum of reds, oranges and gold. Her eyes had turned a bright amber, almost ochre. The skin on her face, once pale and marred with scars, was now full, rosy, almost peach-coloured and smooth.
Her arms, uncovered by her armor, which had been rugged cables before were now lithe, almost dainty. Still, they radiated power. Her left arm, the one that had been incinerated, was covered in red-gold filigree tattoos.
Captivated by the transformation the woman had undergone, Airy was quite unprepared when Reinhild raised her fists and hit her with a solid hook. Reeling backwards and seeing double from the blow, she barely managed to dodge a second blow.
“Hey,” she yelped. Her heartbeats accelerated, and the world slowed, if only slightly. As she backed off, she saw murderous intent on Reinhild’s face.
The barbarian drew her sword, and aimed it at Airy’s throat.
“Idiot,” Airy spat as she beat her wings and at once sent herself rolling backwards over the ground and knocked Reinhild into the temple and down the stairs with the backdraft.
Her entire body ached from the clumsy maneuver. Groaning, she got up and walked towards the temple.
“What is your fucking problem?” She yelled as she walked through the doorway and down the stairs.
Reinhild was nowhere to be found. There weren’t any hiding spots in the main hall, which was one big empty hallway covered in murals and illuminated by crystal candles.
She turned around, confused, and was promptly attacked by a furry, red creature that had laid in hiding next to the few steps of the stairway that led to the door. Despite its small size, it was ferocious and yelped and screeched as it bit into Airy’s right leg. She attempted to shake it off, but it only clamped down harder on her leg. Pain screaming through her body, she kicked into the creature with her other foot.
This did dislodge it, but it took quite a big chunk of flesh with it in its mouth as she kicked it into the wall.
There, its skin seemed to slouch and melt away and suddenly it was no longer itself but Reinhild, shortsword still in hand, who immediately got up, swallowed a mouthful of Airy’s right leg and charged right at her again.
“Hey,” she yelped as she sidestepped the furious warrior and assumed a battle stance- readying both fists and wings. Her stance was unbalanced as she could put barely any weight on her injured leg, but she was certain she could still deal with the woman if she had to.
“I don’t know why you have it out for me, but back down or I’ll beat you so badly they’ll have to put you right back into that coffin,” she threatened, hoping to defuse the situation.
This did not have the intended effect, as Reinhild howled, and came at her with a thrust of her shortsword.
Airy grinned, and brought her right wing down on Reinhild’s sword arm while stepping forward. She thought she’d break Reinhild’s arm, but the woman was quite a bit more durable than she looked. Still- she yelped in pain and dropped her sword- right as Airy punched her in the face.
Reinhild backed off, but Airy wasn’t about to let her pull another trick. She stepped in, and threw another punch. Reinhild raised her arms to block it, and Airy immediately hit her in the side with her wings, hard enough to knock the breath out of her opponent. As Reinhild gasped for breath and hunched over, Airy kicked upwards. Jolts of pain from using her injured leg like this almost made it far enough through the cloud of icy mist enveloping her brain, but not quite, as her foot connected with Reinhild’s face.
The barbarian woman fell on her knees, crumpled up and fell on her side.
“First time having a lass with wings?” Airy said, triumphant, kicking the woman’s sword out of her way.
Reinhild didn’t answer, having passed out. Airy made a mental note to repeat her one-liner when she woke up. She looked pretty roughed up, and Airy felt a tinge of guilt. Carefully, she dragged the unconscious woman to the edge of the great hall, and rested her upright against the wall.
The results of Reinhild’s rebirth were remarkable. She seemed clearer than she had been, somehow. Sharper. More here. Being conferred some kind of shape-shifting ability was a first time as well. Perhaps the barbarian was or contained a duality of some sorts, something the coffin- or it’s otherworldly patron- had been unable or unwilling to resolve.
Airy herself had meditated for weeks to be reborn in the shape of one of Death’s daughters. Yet the result was, of course, that she outwardly now resembled what she had spent years to achieve internally as part of a cult that worshiped the lands of Forever Winter, the Angels and the End of All Things.
She was beautiful now, Reinhild. She had a rugged kind of beauty before, the kind of beauty you would ascribe a wolf or a weapon of war. Now she was abstractly beautiful no longer, but instead attractive. Slender. Soft. The colours of her skin resembled a painting more than any real human. The gold filigree running through her left arm created a sharp contrast, making that part of her look more artificial than organic. Artifice blended with the organic form. Metal spun into soft flesh to lend it strength.
Reinhild came to, and opened her eyes wide.
“Angel,” she snarled, hoarse. More angry than frightened.
Airy realized she was salivating, and quickly stepped back from the woman while muttering an apology.
Reinhild’s demeanor changed. “Airy?”
“Yeah,” Airy said. “You’re awake again. How are you feeling?”
The red-haired barbarian shook her head. “Lost.”
“Say,” Airy asked. “Was that you that attacked me just now?”
“I don’t know,” Reinhild whispered.
“Well,” Airy said. “You can stay here as long as you want to figure it all out. It’s kinda quiet these days so it’d be nice to have you around.”
Reinhild shook her head. “No. I have to go back down south. There’s things I have to do.”
“Ah,” Airy said. “That’s a shame. Are you sure? Life is good here up north. And right now it’s only Nevena, Ellen and me around here. I can teach you to paint a mural, so you can leave your mark on this place forever. An inspiration to those who will come after you, surely. In the process you might figure out the truth behind your rebirth, it’s very introspective.”
“The murals,” Reinhild said. “There’s something up with them.”
Not fully understanding what Reinhild was on about, Airy cocked her head and tried her best to form a human expression of ‘what do you mean by that’.
“You knew,” Reinhild said, in a stern voice. “You knew I would come here. You made a bet with Ellen. And the incessant hammering about the murals. Why couldn’t I see that before?”
“What?” Airy asked.
Reinhild got up, and looked around. Searching. Scanning.
“Looking for your sword?” Airy asked. “I kicked it away so you wouldn’t gut me on impulse when you woke up.”
“No,” Reinhild said. “There’s something I missed. Something I’ve been overlooking from the beginning. I’m surrounded by some filigree web, a million details adding up to a-”
She almost choked on whatever it was she realized.
“Adding up to a full picture. To a painting,” she spat.
“Like a mural?” Airy asked, trying to keep up with the woman.
“There,” she said. “You did it again. Why do you want me to see that mural so badly? Why didn’t I realize that before? Fuck. It was the same with that woman. Had I not seen that painting in the tower of the mad artist, would I have met her? If I had not met her, would I not have seen that painting? Cause and effect, they’re all-”
She fell silent again, wide eyed.
“A conclusion from the future working its way into the past. I’ve got everything reversed. Fuck me,” she whispered.
“Did the coffin give you future-sight or something?” Airy asked. “Ellen has that, and she speaks in riddles the way you do.”
“No,” Reinhild said resolutely. “Ellen can see into the past. Not the future.”
Reinhild started pacing back and forth along the murals in the great hall, erratically looking around.
“Your brain has been fried,” Airy said. “You’ve gone stark raving mad.”
“Mad?” Reinhild screamed. “I will not be lectured about madness by an angel. Ate any children lately? Tricked poets into performing stage-plays that can bring about the end of all things perhaps?”
Airy backed off. “Hey, calm down okay? I haven’t done anything to you.”
Reinhild growled at her, hunching over. For a second Airy thought she would come at her again.
“Sorry,” Reinhild whispered, still hunched over, as if preparing to fall on all fours. “That isn’t me speaking. That’s her.”
It took Airy a titanic effort to not make another comment about madness. “Who is that, Reinhild? Can you tell me?” She asked, doing her best to sound what she assumed was diplomatic.
“The Red Fox,” Reinhild said. “She’s me. I’m her. It’s confusing.”
“A duality,” Airy said. “Two beings who have become one. Not dissimilar from the Starlight, I think.”
“The Starlight,” Reinhild muttered. “I haven’t heard that before. Should I have? It feels, it feels, it feels,” she repeated as she trailed off into thought.
“They’ve got a mural here, is that important to you?” Airy asked.
Reinhild growled, a maniacal grin forming on her face. “Show me,” she said. It was a rasping, guttural demand.
“It’s right over there,” Airy said as she took Reinhild to a mural of the Three-Headed God.
“They were three, almost identical to each other. Embraced each other in the coffin and emerged as one. They spend almost a year here, quite pleasant company if a little difficult to have a real heart-to-heart to.”
The mural was one of the older ones, and a little faded. Airy hadn’t felt the need to touch it up yet, but should sometime soon- it was starting to look a little worn.
Starlight looked vaguely reminiscent of Guinevere, Airy had always thought. The angry glares she had gotten from Guinevere when she mentioned this all but confirmed something was up there, but she hadn’t gotten anything out of it. Ellen wasn’t helpful either, but when was she? The girl spoke entirely in riddles.
In the mural, they freed themselves from a dark pool with little lights at the bottom. A naked body with masculine and feminine features, sprouting a wheel of arms reaching for the moon above.
She always thought they had done a terrible job portraying their facial features, the only recognizable trait in the mural being their long, slender ears, sharp as knives.
Reindhild, meanwhile, had fallen to her knees and was crying. Stark raving mad, Airy thought.
“I don’t understand it,” Reinhild said. “I don’t understand the meaning of this picture.”
“It’s a mural someone painted to give a place to their feelings after going through the ritual of rebirth. I think it’s beautiful. Shows them, now conjoined into a single entity, reaching for ever greater heights.”
“No,” Reinhild said. “You don’t understand it. You don’t get it. This is supposed to mean something to me. This was supposed to make it all make sense.”
Airy shook her head.
“I have to go south,” Reinhild then said, looking at Airy. Amber tears were running down her cheeks. She couldn’t help but think them unfathomably beautiful.
“I see,” Airy said.
“It’s almost that time again, Airy. I can’t let Hyacinth down.”
“Hmhm,” Airy said, nodding along. “Ellen or Guinevere will give you supplies for the journey, I’m sure. If you ever feel like visiting again-”
“No,” Reinhild said, shaking her head. “Something is fast approaching. A conclusion. An ending.”
Airy smiled. Finally, something sensible from the barbarian. “Yes,” she replied. “The End of All Things.”