Ventus – Day 121 of 135


Armiger had been eating stones for some time now. He wasn’t random about it. He had definite preferences, and seemed to be trying to balance his diet according to some inner knowledge. They didn’t talk about it, and Galas was grateful for that, as she was grateful not to talk about the mirrored seeds that he occasionally tossed behind himself as they walked. He didn’t pull those seeds from any pocket or pouch. They appeared in his hand as he walked, and he dropped them.

She had thought they might be alive and fertile, and was proven right when the first transparent, silvery oval appeared out of the woods, and came to hover over Armiger’s head. He ignored it, and the six that followed it. They shimmered and occasionally tinkled like tiny bells. If she looked back, she could see bright spots on the path far behind them–things like silver cacti were growing there. Way back, three kilometers ago, she thought she glimpsed something glinting through the branches of one of the tallest trees on the hillside.

When Armiger did talk, it was often not to her, but to Jordan Mason. “Jordan, we are at the foot of the long slope that leads to the Penitent’s Stairs,” he might say. Or, “Jordan, meet us at the Titan’s Gate Monastery. You must go there now. There is no time to lose.”

“Why are you talking to him?” she had asked. Armiger had grimaced, and not replied for a while.

“I need him,” was all he eventually said.

The trail had become too steep for the horses, and they dismounted. Now travel became a true misery for Galas, because the muscles of her inner thighs screamed loud protest with every step, and climbing was even worse. She knew there were thousands of steps ahead of them. The first hundred meters, from the trail to the foot of the first of the stairways carved in the nearly-vertical stone of the North Tower, nearly did her in.

If she looked back the vagabond moons dominated her view of the foothills. The moons were waiting on some signal to pounce, and she was terrified of being caught by them. Nonetheless, she had gone only thirty meters or so up the first stair before she sat down with a thump, and gasped, “I can’t go on. All this riding has ruined my legs.”

Armiger frowned at her. He hadn’t even broken a sweat; there was no reason why he should, she supposed. He chewed and swallowed the red quartz pebble he’d been crunching for the past few minutes, and said, “We’re almost there.”

“I know that. Have you got any idea how much riding takes out of you? I’m not used to it, Armiger.”

He tilted his head to one side. “I could carry you, I suppose.” He extended a hand.

“I’d rather you didn’t.” Truth to tell, she didn’t want him touching her. That hand had been burned off, and regrown; his skin had taken on a greyish tinge and she had been half sure before that he had stopped breathing. Now she was sure of it, as she saw him deliberately draw in air to speak.

“We cannot afford to lose any time,” he said. She shrugged wearily. Armiger scowled, but said, “I’ll prepare you a pill that should help.”

Her smile was ironic. “Thank you.”

They sat in silence for a while. Armiger was abstracted; she had the distinct impression that he was listening to something. “Jordan Mason,” he said abruptly, “we are at the base of the stairs. We will rest here for a few minutes then make for the top. You can meet us there.”

“You think he’s that close?” she said.

Armiger shrugged. “My creatures have seen him. He’s down there.” He pointed. “But we can’t go back for him. Not with the Winds about to move on us.”

“I know you had a plan,” she said. “It failed somehow, didn’t it? You didn’t get what you wanted from Jordan. You can’t really command the Winds, can you?”

He stared off into the distance. “I’ve been on Ventus for nearly four years. In that time I’ve investigated hundreds of possible ways of overthrowing them. The best and purest is to learn their languages and codes, and simply command them. There are other ways, though–not as efficient, more destructive–but they will do.”

She pointed above his head. “Those things?”

He nodded. “They are part of it. If you can’t tame the plants in a garden, the best you can do is replace them. Rather than command the Ventus mecha, I can replace it with mecha of my own. These mecha are more efficient; they’ll choke out the Ventus mecha in no time.”

“But you’ll have to cover the world with them. How will you do that?”

He gestured at the mountains that rose above them. “This is the nexus of the desal highways. Those highways even go under the sea–you told me so yourself. If I flood the highways with my own mecha seeds they will sprout everywhere. They’re hard for the Winds to detect, and as long as we have the highway system intact we can continue to disseminate them. We could have a global infestation underway within days.”

“Infestation… Armiger, what will these mecha do to the other life here–the flora and fauna?”

“Ah.” He looked down. “Well, part of the problem with this plan is that my mecha won’t have access to the Winds’ network. They won’t be able to coordinate resource usage with the Winds, so they’ll probably throw the Ventus ecosystem out of whack.”

She thought about it. “…How far out of whack?”

“Well, the idea is to threaten the Winds with disaster, so that they surrender. Once they do that, we can scale my mecha back, keep it dormant even.”

“What if they don’t surrender?”

“My lady,” he said, “you never ask that question after you’ve gone to war.”

She nodded, but in her heart Galas was reconciling herself to a grim possibility: once they reached the familiar plateau of the Titans’ Gates, she would need to look for ways to dispose of Armiger himself, should things get out of hand. He might not believe in surrender–and she never had as queen–but if the choice were between a world ruled by the Winds, or no world at all, Galas knew how she would choose.


It seemed like years since Lavin had stood on solid ground. He felt the vertigo recede a bit–enough for him to walk unaided. There was no joy in the recession of this misery though; it just made more room for misery of another kind to infect him.

He stood as still as he could and watched men and horses pour out the doors of the vagabond moon. Kilometers away, close enough that their flanks nearly touched, another moon disgorged its cargo. Together they and the several behind them blotted out the sun over ten or twelve foothills and valleys.

Not everyone would be disembarking; he had convinced the Winds to use the moons as their baggage camp. In moments he would return there as well, ostensibly to give his authority to orders coming from the Winds. In reality, he had kept his most trusted men aboard the moons, and had also set up a clandestine semaphore system. He would be relaying the commands of the swans through the medium of the basts–giving his official words to their directives–but he would also be sending commands directly to his men through the semaphore.

It was windy here in the foothills. The moons were depositing the army here partly because the air was so treacherous nearer the Gates. Of course, a two-kilometer sphere made its own weather to a degree, and a dozen of them were an entire weather system; the White Wind had confided in him that this just made things worse, because weather was inherently unpredictable. The skins of the moons rippled under sudden gusts, and lightning played around their crowns almost continuously. They electrified the air and then pulled it around themselves with invisible fins, the bast had said. With so many of them all together, their electric fields interfered. Add steep mountain peaks into the equation and things became frankly dangerous.

He was counting on that.

A bast stepped up to him. It wasn’t the White Wind–that one was away investigating the burning thing that had landed. “We have found them,” said the bast. “They are making for the monastery, as we suspected. Your men will take the trails directly there and capture them. We will accompany you.”

“They’re going to get there first,” he said. “And that place is highly defensible. Why don’t the swans go in and get them?”

“Not an option,” said the bast. “You will go.”

Lavin shrugged. “I guess you’re right. The desals would cut the swans to pieces.”

The bast bridled. “You will not question our orders.”

“I will where it concerns my men. Listen, we are too far back here for me to command them. We need to get this moon over the valley–or better yet, over the peaks themselves. We could lower a battalion using the Heaven hooks, come on them from above. They have no way to defend against that.”

The bast bared its teeth. “You are saying you will fail to take the monastery from below?”

“We won’t fail. It could take weeks, months, even. You could keep us supplied that long, but–“

“Unacceptable. This abomination is too dangerous. We must destroy it now.”

“So why don’t you use nature itself, like you did against Armiger’s army in Ravenon? Send in all the animals, uproot the plants.”

The bast’s tail twitched. “We have tried. They will not respond. Permanence is controlling this valley. We do not have enough morphs to convert these life forms. That is why you must go in.”

“Then we have to go in from above,” he said. “There is no other way.”

The bast turned away. Then it said, “I will ask the swans.”

Yes, bring us in close, Lavin thought as he watched it walk away. Get us high, and close together in the mountains. Then we’ll learn if you can fly.

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