Rhianon-3. Palace in Heaven

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Lucifer’s Host

Dark Spit is a fitting name for a mountain range that stands out as a black stripe against a plague-stricken land. In fact, it wasn’t even a plague, but a disease spread by the fallen. They themselves only suffered from their own festering burns, and the suffering lasted as long as the world stood, but for those who caught the epidemic, it was death. It was horribly painful death. He had nothing to fear, neither disease nor death, and, of course, having wings, he should not have set foot on contaminated soil at all, but he was not worried about himself. A mortal girl came to mind…

Would he be able to pick her up and carry her to his tower without the risk of her becoming infected and dying? What if the miasmas of an unnatural witch’s disease caught up with her even in the heights? How strong could the fumes emanate from the ground, on which his living festering brethren crawled in immense agony?

Madael easily reached the top of his tower. From the outside it looked as if it were going to the very heavens. But once upon a time his path had been higher. Now a black cloud always hid the embossed parapet of the roof. Why, though? People can’t see this tower anyway. The way here is through the Black Spit on one side and through Dead Valley on the other. No mortal could survive to set foot on this land. And he was in no hurry to show everyone his place of seclusion. Still, disguise became an obligation to him. He did not encourage the game of hide-and-seek, unlike his former comrades-in-arms. He needed no hiding places or disguises. But duty is duty. After a defeat, it must be done.

The first defeat was his only defeat, but it had taken almost everything. Or so it seemed. Madael remembered the golden creature sleeping in his tent. To think he might never have seen it. Even that thought alone was somehow excruciating. He imagined that this girl would be gone, that he would take a handful of golden hair in his hand and with one swift stroke of his sword cut off her head from her body. That was what he was supposed to do, but even thinking about it was unbearable. He had experienced something similar only when the heavenly fire touched his body, or rather the ethereal substance that had once been his body and soul at the same time. All that had changed now, but the fire that had once burned him continued to corrode his body with poison to this day. Of course, the visible burns were gone, but the memory of them lived on. Many thought it irregular. The commander of the terrifying army retained his pristine angelic countenance. But the price for that was also high.

“Leave me a sword so that I may punish sinners, and leave me my face so that all may know from whom the punishment comes,” was his only plea, but even that was not completely fulfilled. The favor of the Almighty is mere words, he may have removed the wormy scars from his beloved’s face, but he has not cleansed the wounds from his soul. From the wounds he himself told him to inflict. Now Madael felt a black abyss opening up inside him, even more scorched and pus-ridden than the bodies of his brothers in arms. Outwardly he remained bright, inwardly he was rotting alive. And the sense of a sucking black emptiness inside him only increased from age to age.

“Leave me a sword to punish sinners…”

This request the god fulfilled to the fullest. Now every battlefield awaited him. No battle was ever fought without his participation and his judgment. And not just any battle. He executed his judgment on behalf of the god not only on the battlefield, and he himself did not know why he was doing so. It was like a dream. He performed his duty with obedience, though the old fear of being burned again in case of disobedience had long since passed. The sounds of battle reached his ears wherever he was, and he immediately rushed to where the fighting was taking place. The clang of swords became a call to him. In battle he would enter into the excitement. Did he enjoy killing? Perhaps he couldn’t say exactly why he thrust his sword over the heads of his opponents again and again when victory was already decided. Maybe it was only on the battlefield that he felt confident, because it was as if the echo of that first heavenly battle was all around him again. Sometimes he would close his eyes and see it all again, and then his sword would become truly merciless. It was strange, throwing him into battle all over again, to feel again the echo of that first war and first defeat. He never tired of feeling it and reliving it over and over again. Each battle was a reflection of that one. The only difference was that beneath his feet was now solid ground, not the fragile edge of the clouds. He could not fall any lower than he already was. Perhaps that was why he was always the victor here. First among the fallen…

Madael circled around his tower before crouching on the edge of the parapet. The building had no entrances or exits, no doors, casements, or embrasures, just a single arched window at an inaccessible height for stairs. That’s all he needed. This location was convenient for those who possessed wings.

The tent he had spread out each time near the battlefield was comfortable, but again and again it was here that he flew in. This place beckoned to him like home. In fact, it was to be his home now. The interior of the tower conveyed all that was in his heart. It was purple and black. Only at first the place might seem luxurious, but a closer look would reveal charred bodies crawling over polished parquet, sharp claws clinging to the golden railings of endless dark staircases, and black silhouettes hiding behind purple draperies. There were the pitiful remnants of his cohort commanders. Now they brightened their time by waiting here for him. Sometimes he’d come to interrupt their terrible feast of corpses and golden utensils, and sometimes he’d just watch them and try to remember how beautiful and dignified they’d once been. Now it was hard even to imagine their former faces against the surrounding blackness. All of them, molecules of his host, had become as black as his soul. He was the only one who remained light, and so he seemed some kind of alien particle among them. The black things flinched when he approached them and crawled back into the shadows. They were afraid of him, even though he was the only one here with the outward appearance of innocence and vulnerability. Well, appearances can be deceiving, and the wisp of slimy bodies beneath his feet now only disgusted Madael. He stepped over the slimy bodies and walked on. He could barely tell them apart now. His favorites, his associates, those he respected and counted on, all merged into one horrifying and stinking black lump, barely outlined by the movements of the disfigured bodies. They were so beautiful once, so seductive, though they had no bodies then. Not only did the fire burn them, it continued to hurt them to this day. Its former chosen ones wriggled and squirmed in agony on the mucus-filled marble floor. Their very bodies were now secreting this disgusting stinking liquid. Burned to ashes, they continued to ooze pus. Beneath the black crust there were no more faces, only ghastly glistening eyes. And these were his former angels, the most beautiful in heaven… Madael caught himself that now he was no longer trying to imagine their former faces, for he had recently seen something that was far more beautiful.

“You found her, didn’t you? And you took her?” The black creature that crawled out from behind the drapery always remained lonely. That angel had long since ceased to be himself. And Madael had already ceased to feel disgust at the slippery trail on the floor that left the oblong torso, elongated like the ridge of the Dark Spit itself. Violet eyes gleamed at him from the dark mess that had once been his face. Sometimes their former color returned to them. Madael stepped aside a little, he could see that the others were studiously avoiding his former confidant and seemed ready to follow suit himself.

“Yes, I have,” he answered. “I no longer require your services. You no longer have to kidnap blond girls to find one chosen one. I’ll cut her throat myself if I have to. It is my privilege to judge mortals.”

“But…” The creature under his feet lunged backward, arching as if to take the form of a black dragon again. Madael forestalled his attempt with a forbidding gesture with his hands.

“No disobedience,” he hissed, his tone calm but firm, even more affecting than his anger. “I am still your master. And no one dares disobey me…” He hissed calmly but firmly.

He deliberately didn’t finish it; he hissed softly, and the creature at his feet instantly darted backward, quick as black lightning.

“Run my errands,” he said softly. “Crawl, eat the bodies of fallen warriors, and make sure the next battle doesn’t start before Menuel has amassed enough strength.”

“Do you need a breather?”

Even if there were cunning overtones in his subordinate’s ingratiating voice, Madael condescendingly ignored them.

“I need a night to think,” he said as he left.

She was awakened by the sound of a harp. Strangely, the wistful sound filtered through the purple curtains of the tent. They were supposed to isolate the sound, but now they let it through easily. Or maybe it was the music in the tent itself. Rhianon reluctantly opened her eyes. She wanted to sleep and dream of his snow-white wings, but the sound was tearing her from her blissful rest. It was such a clear reminder of what was left behind. Her lost kingdom, the cruelty of the Regent, the unwanted marriage, and… unhappy minstrel under the window. The remnants of sleep immediately slipped from her. Rhianon rose and sat down on the bed. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, seeping through every curtain of the tent and was so dreary, as if it were not a harp at all but a lament.

“Who is there?” She asked, but there was no answer. Then Rhianon looked around carefully. She did not sense the presence of invisible servants or anyone else. But someone must be here, or music could be coming from the heavenly realm itself. She was curious and uncomfortable at the same time. The sound sent shivers down her spine.

Rhianon suddenly remembered the minstrel Arno. It seemed that at that reception where the faeries had come to avenge themselves, his harp had made the same strained, pitiful sounds. Now they had become almost pangs. She suddenly envisioned a very different picture, a boulder by the sea, a lady, redheaded as autumn, sitting and waiting for someone, while something dark crept up on her.

It was coitus with the fallen. Rhianon shuddered. It didn’t seem so beautiful to her. She imagined a woman’s body writhing on the ground, covered in a hideous rotting mass with wings blackened with burns. And the woman screamed. No, that is not what she wanted. Rhianon turned around in horror. She was horrified and turned back, as if she could not bear to think of Arno, as if he were somehow part of the nightmare, as a leper carried a contagion with him.

“Get out!” She whispered to the invisible musician, and surprisingly, he obeyed her.

When she awoke the next time, Madael was leaning over her, winged, amazingly beautiful, his skin glowing under his unbuttoned collar. At the sight of such beauty, all fears receded at once. There was nothing black and nothing frightening about him. It was only light and emptiness. Could it be that the celestial fire had scorched all the senses from his gut, leaving only an outer glowing shell? Rhianon felt deeply hurt. Why could he not simply fall in love with her, as any man would if he were in his place now? Everyone who saw her fell madly in love with her. That was her peculiarity. She was used to it by now, but it might not have affected him. She suddenly felt like hitting him, hurting him, saying something insulting. But Madael spoke first. He spoke a few phrases in a hissing language she did not understand, and Rhianon frowned.

“Do you understand anything?” The next remark was already spoken as usual.

She only shook her head.

“What did you say?”

“Oh, it is nothing.” He shrugged, and his wings fluttered in time with them. It was as if the wings were alive behind his back, and yet they felt the vibrations of the body to which they were attached.

“I had an unwanted guest… I thought so,” she remembered the music coming through the tent. The sounds poured like a torrent of water, enticing and merciless. They made her fear and weep.

“He won’t come again,” Madael lowered himself quietly onto the bed, and the tone of his voice made it clear that this was a promise. Rhianon felt a pleasant shiver as long fingers ran over her shoulder. In her sleep, her shirt slid down and it was exposed. Rhianon looked almost bewildered at the unbuttoned lace collar and the transparent batiste. It hid almost nothing, but she suddenly wanted to take it off as well. It was as if Madael’s tempting gesture told her that a beautiful body didn’t need garments. She obeyed and took off her shirt. She expected him to be embarrassed, but his transparent gaze remained calm. His hands rested on her skinny shoulders. She did not have to bandage her breasts; they were so small that they could not be seen under the camisole. And Rhianon was easily mistaken for a boy. Of course, since she didn’t have to undress in front of the others. Even now the warrior who had captivated her demanded nothing of her, but she wanted to do it herself. She gently touched his hands guiding them down. A moment more, and cold, velvety hands rested on her breasts. Rhianon shuddered. The desire became unbearable. He was still looking into her eyes, but he didn’t dare kiss her, and then she reached for his lips herself.

“Tell me about you,” she asked, already catching his breath. How is it that you are made so beautiful that no one can resist you?

It was almost an encouragement. She was seducing the devil. But he obviously wasn’t used to flirting.

“I didn’t choose how to be,” he answered in sudden seriousness. “I just got it, and with it the pain of knowing I was alone because there was no worthy match for me. Now there are you. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot be your friend, because you see me as a supreme being.”

“Then be my god,” and she nestled herself against his lips. The time for talking was over, at least for an hour or so. She kissed him gently at first, then harder. How many moments passed before he realized he had to respond? Her lips, soft as rose petals, were suddenly unexpectedly commanding. This is what it’s like to make love to an angel, hands that kill mortals, light as if they were mowing rye, gently caressing you, lips that can breathe out flame, breathing into your mouth the scent of lilies. Rhianon had never imagined anything more beautiful. It was worth living and dying for. Even the feeling of being made not of flesh but of marble only excited her. Her hands slid over the smooth, cold skin. She still couldn’t feel her nipples on the smooth chest. She had hoped there would be at least some smooth, golden bumps, but she found none. However, when her hand slid lower, Rhianon was not disappointed. Only a slight startle struck her, something hard and aroused beneath his belly that bore little resemblance to what humans had. It was more like a piece of marble, cold and sharp, the kind of male organ only a statue could have, not a man. She was afraid it would hurt, but Madael whispered something soothing in her ear. As before, the words sounded in his heavenly accent, but Rhianon guessed they meant something affectionate. He quickly tucked strands of unruly hair behind her ears, threw off the rest of her clothing, and wrapped his arms around her tightly.

“Does it please you to be a prisoner now?” Madael tipped her lightly onto her back and leaned over her himself. Powerful arms braided with gold bracelets rested on either side of her shoulders. Strands of long blond hair hung down to touch her face.

“Oh, yes,” Rhianon felt something hard press against her stomach and involuntarily moved her knees apart.

He stared at her for a moment, as if painfully aware of all the human frailty of his captive. Her slender, almost lean body, her golden curls spread across the pillow, her small breasts and fragile arms. She tried to put her arms around his neck. He was so close and at the same time seemed out of reach with his wings spread over the bed. They hid them like a canopy, all the threads of which glowed with a ghostly, unearthly light. Rhianon wished it were him who lay below. She wished she could see his head on the pillows and press his fluttering wings to the bed. But perhaps they could try it out later. After all, now was only the first time.

When she felt the first powerful thrust, she cried out, but there was no pain. Strangely, it felt as if a piece of marble or the edge of a sword had jammed into her, but there was only pleasant warmth all over her body. She leaned toward him, as if she could feel the intoxicating sensations of pleasure. In a moment they were already moving together, registering each other’s rhythm. He was careful at first. Then the thrusts became stronger. It was as if he wanted to win another battle. She was already his captive, but it was as if he had forgotten that, as if he wanted to prove once more that he had truly captivated her. In that moment, when they reached the peak of pleasure, it really was. For a moment their bodies became one, her human and his angelic. Rhianon closed her eyelids, feeling the beads of sweat forming on her forehead and the last of her sweet urges subsiding in her womb. His hands caressed her shoulders, touched her elbows, and intertwined as if toying with her fingers.

“Now I feel truly victorious,” Madael lay down beside her and hugged her tightly.

It’s your defeat, not your victory, you must have sworn you’d never know, she wanted to tell him, but instead she just clung to his shoulder and asked softly:

“Would you fall again for me?”

“Yes,” he answered quickly and without hesitation, his thin, inhuman fingers gripping her even tighter, as if he would never let go.

“Why?” She was probably more preoccupied with the question than he was. Madael only smiled faintly, ran his fingers gently along the line of her spine, touched her neck and stroked her cheek. He must have been learning to love for the first time, but these touches made it possible to melt.

“Because you’re worth it,” he finally answered. “And I don’t need your soul at all. What you can give me, along with your body, is already worth everything.”

He kept his promise and resolved to give her everything he had. And that was a lot. As Rhianon learned, all the treasures of the world came from the fallen. There were gems, metals, especially gold. Everything that causes war and greed the greatest warrior brought with him. To humans it was evil, alluring and destructive. If she had been smart she would have given it all up, but, God, how nice it was to have it.

Rhianon weighed the gold necklace in the palm of her hand, which from a distance might have appeared to be a lace thread with pearls woven into it, so expertly made. She could tell at once that it was not the work of mortal jewelers. And neither was the chest of precious trinkets that now stood before her on the table. There were rings, rings with large stones, bracelets, chains, medallions, tiaras, and crowns. Rubies, sapphires, and diamonds shimmered on delicately twisted gold plates. You could see the colors and the variety of gems, but gold was the main ingredient of everything.

“It does look like you,” she remarked, watching the light reflecting off the gold rim of the necklace in her hands. “It’s like you. When you look at it, it seems to be the only light that shines out of it and that there is no other light source.”

“This is the source,” he reminded her. “A red-hot sunbeam that can make anything you want.”

“You made yourself a piece of jewelry with it?”

“Yes, a long time ago…” He hesitated, as if remembering something. “No one up there had the right to wear jewelry. There was nothing to distinguish us. And we didn’t need decorations. We decorated the heavens ourselves. I was the first to be conceited. I wanted something to distinguish me from the others. And now I will adorn you.”

He dipped his fingers into her locks and suddenly Rhianon felt the weight of the pearls in her locks. The pearls were wound tightly around each strand, as if they formed a net, while at the same time the hair was left loose on her shoulders.

“You did well,” Rhianon ignored the fact that there were now living pearl snakes in her curls and gazed at his hands entwined with gold plates. “It suits you very well.”

He looked down for a moment at his gold-patterned fingernails and fingers. The gold tubercles stood out sharply against his skin, growing into it at the same time.

“You didn’t even ask if I could take it off.”

“Couldn’t you?” She put aside the oval gold-rimmed mirror in which she was already examining herself. It seemed to her, for some reason, that there was someone living inside the tiny glass and laughing watching her, so that at the right moment to correct a broken curl or to erase a mimic wrinkle in her reflection and then these changes would happen in reality. Trying to catch the alien creature in the mirror Rhianon did not immediately grasp the essence of his words.

“I think I can,” he glanced at the bracelets as if assessing them.

He looked at the bracelets as if he were evaluating them. “You need them,” she didn’t know how to say it. It was as if the jewelry was a mystery to him. They merged with his body, but lived as if they were separate from it.

“I must not take them off,” Madael said. Rhianon realized that the subject was exhausted. He let out a long sigh as if he were trying to say something more and couldn’t. But she had already turned her gaze to the box full of exquisite wares of large pearls. She appeared here suddenly. Rhianon had never seen anything like it until a moment ago.

“It’s not gold anymore,” she observed.

“It is tribute from the sea creatures,” he said with obvious disdain. “They always bring back pearls and coral. It is so similar to their tears. They’re always bloody and white.”

“You mean you collect tribute…” she marveled, though what was so objectionable about that, he being their Lord, and didn’t she know before that someone was taxing all magical creatures and putting a terrible fear in them, too. It was not surprising. Of course, he had summoned them and seduced them. Watching him, it was impossible not to be seduced, but now Rhianon partly understood their anger and rage. She involuntarily sided with them. “But they had fought with you.”

“And they had lost. If they had not been cowardly enough, it would have been different. Especially your pet faeries were a failure. Their weapons were nothing but taunts and jokes, and anyone could handle them by force without difficulty. The others were stronger, but we had a weak rearguard. And it was too arrogant leader…”

“Oh, you blame yourself, too?”

“I should have thought more of the battle itself, rather than boiling with hatred and lust for revenge. Anger only takes strength, not strength, even if it’s righteous.”

“Revenge?” She asked incredulously.

“Remember when I stood up for my rights?”

She remembered all that could be read about the rebellion of Dennitsa from the scriptures. Most of it was just incoherent scraps that gave little insight into the whole shattering picture of the celestial struggle, and there were certainly no clear descriptions of its causes and characteristics. How had he risen, accompanied by what forces, why, why, what was he displeased about? All this remained a mystery. Gradually, however, she was learning something for herself. Perhaps the knowledge was passed down to her from him. Often she looked into his eyes and saw in them fragments of his grandiose past.

“You were hurt,” she remarked, not a question but a statement, and she wasn’t referring to the punishment that had befallen him after the battle, but to what had happened before.

“It always hurts to find out what’s wrong before you’ve done it,” he said. “It’s different now. I took the first step into the abyss and the pain is gone. People can die and torment each other around me, and I don’t care. I pass without looking back at their trickery and torment, because I myself have become the worst.”

“No,” she protested so vehemently, as if she were among his legion of angels herself. “You’re not the worst, and you never will be. You’re better than everyone and everything I’ve ever seen.”

“People tend to worship only those who do favors for them.”

She shook her head.

“God’s perfect creation had only rebelled against him because it couldn’t stand the fact that everything around it was imperfect. There is no evil in that.”

“Then there won’t be any, either, if you rebel against me one day. It’s just that the wheel of inevitability will turn again. Then I will suffer the same thing I once did.”

She frowned.

“Is that what you want?”

Madael shrugged only a little.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“What do you mean, we can’t step on it?” Manfred yelled like a madman, not a bit embarrassed to see all the advisers huddled in the corners of the hall listening to him. Just a moment and the golden goblet flew into the ambassador’s head. Manfred missed just a little. The young man, who had survived only because of his youthful agility, dared not speak any further, and Leroy took the floor. He rushed here as soon as he heard about the emergencies in the fields near the intended rally. At first the peasants were afraid to report it for fear of trampling their crops. But then they had to confess.

“The frost that covered the fields wasn’t the only reason,” the young man began in an uncertain tone.

“Not the only reason?” Manfred clenched his fists so white his knuckles and Leroy was not unreasonably afraid that the next heavy object the monarch encountered would strike him. The king was now so enraged that one could have no doubt that if necessary he would remove the heavy crown from his head and use it as an instrument of punishment, and yet Leroy took the liberty to continue.

“The thin ice is too slippery for our horses and lancers. And it can’t even be melted by visible warming and fires. Sometimes there seems to be something under the ice…” he paused to explain in words what he’d recently seen himself. It seemed to defy any explanation. Neither the sounds, nor the voices, nor the movements of the tiny bodies beneath the ice could be described in words, much less convinced that this was not nonsense, but Manfred seemed to understand and nodded.

“Go on!”

Courageously the young man took a step forward. His hands were trembling and he clasped them in front of him. Even on the battlefield, in the midst of the carnage, he did not feel as helpless as he did here. On the contrary, there he was in his place. Physical strength was all that mattered in battle, but here a single word from the king was enough to make him lose his head. Leroy had already imagined the execution order and the executioner’s axe. He decided to be honest before he died. There was nothing left to lose anyway.

“The local villagers swore they saw someone in the fields, some who were more courageous, who had been near the battlefield, swore they had observed corpses cowering or some creatures near the corpses. Of course, we executed the witnesses as looters, but the rumors didn’t stop. They say someone is knocking on peasants’ houses at night, trampling and burning crops, even eating corpses in cemeteries and battlefields. We didn’t believe it, of course, but at night when we decided to go out again we did see…” he swallowed hard, not knowing how to describe it. “It was a whole field of these creatures. There were black creatures. And they really do eat corpses.”

“Did they threaten you?” Manfred tensed.

“It was not in words,” the young man admitted honestly. He really couldn’t hear the words, only the clucking and writhing, like all his companions in general. “It wasn’t the speech either, but their looks, their movements. It was hard not to understand their intentions. They wait for us, every time we are about to approach the mountain range. They won’t let us into Menuel’s territory.”

“Can’t you fight them because of the ice?” One of the counselors grinned, but Manfred signaled him to be quiet.

“Where is the warrior who helped you to win the first victory?” He asked. “Where has he gone? Why is he not with you now, though he was at your side in the first battle? They say he never leaves those he fights for. He brings victory.”

Leroy didn’t know what to answer and nervously studied the floor with his gaze. The king was close to the truth. The first time it really was. But then they began to be haunted by bad luck. It was after the incomparable warrior disappeared.

“No one knows where he is,” the young man finally muttered, already sensing that another outburst of royal wrath was about to follow. “He disappeared just after he helped us gain the upper hand. He’s elusive. He comes and goes as he pleases. And it is impossible to find him again.”

“It is not impossible,” Manfred bellowed, and then another of his cries echoed sharply through the hall. The walls of the palace seemed to tremble. “Douglas!”

There was no need for such a cry. The young warlock, dressed as a raven in black, strode out from behind the throng.

He wanted to bow politely, but then realized that was unnecessary. Manfred was quite out of breath. He beckoned his extraordinary pet to him.

“Think of something.”

Douglas shuddered; never before had the king made such a request of him in front of witnesses. After all, everyone would have subtly realized that it was a matter of forbidden techniques, or rather of witchcraft. But now no rules of court etiquette mattered. Douglas only straightened the black lace sting that suddenly tightened around his throat like a noose, and nodded courteously. There was nothing he could do.

“Sire, I…” He did not know how to confess at once, and so he hesitated. There was something he had to explain before there could be any unnecessary misunderstanding. “Sometimes even I am powerless.”

“Are you?” Manfred glared at him in a fit of anger. “You dare to shirk your responsibilities.”

Well, now, now everyone pretended not to notice him. Who didn’t know or guess what those duties were. Douglas felt like he was in a circle of enemies. To think there were only crows around, though the only one dressed like a black raven here was him. His rivals in the dark robes of stargazers and astrologers seemed to be hiding venomous grins. Douglas looked for Conrad, the only one he could count on for support, but there was no one in the hall. Pity, he would have done anything foolish to regain his hold on Rhianon. Even defend the outcast and the magician. And getting into another argument with his father would cost him nothing at all. Then Douglas would have a chance to retreat. Now he felt hunted. No one was looking in his direction, but everyone’s exaggerated attention was focused on him. And that made him feel out of place.

He wished he could hide in his tower again, but no, the king was waiting for him to answer.

“There are some things too terrible to pay…” Douglas muttered only to say something, though in general he was not far off the truth.

It didn’t frighten the horny Manfred out of his mind.

“Call this warrior to me. Let him fight at my side again and lead my warriors.”

“But sire,” Hermion, the chief advisor, who was standing almost behind his suzerain, cautiously reminded him. “Everyone knows it cannot be done.”

“I don’t care what can’t be done,” Manfred roared. “I am King, you must obey me.”

True, it was more of an appeal to the contrary, but Douglas bowed low to testify again to his deference and obedience.

“He’s elusive, my lord,” the magician whispered. “And besides, you know… I have reason to believe he’s a lord, too. His domain is somewhat larger than Loretta’s.”

“So why is he fighting?” The king was still furious.

“Dare I remind you that he never demands a reward for his labors,” Douglas muttered.

“But he does,” Manfred clenched his fists. That already seemed sufficient reasoning for him. “He exists, and therefore he can be summoned…”

“In your armies, sire, I have it in mind,” Douglas bowed again in a courteous bow. He was about to touch the floor with his forehead. He liked that less and less.

“Perhaps he’d make a better general than that fool Moren,” the King said thoughtfully. If the appointments could be changed, he would certainly change them in favor of the former. The nameless warrior would be his emblem, his personal symbol of invincibility.

“Find him, even if it’s in hell itself,” the king shouted, letting Douglas go. “Go, I don’t care where or how you find him or how much he’s involved. Even if you have to go down into the fires of hell, you will bring me from there the one I want and persuade him to lead my troops.”

Douglas understood, so he bowed quickly and hurried out of the hall as quickly as he could. The indifferent glances that lingered on him seemed to burn his back. This is the end, he thought, all those flocks of noble and ambitious crows just waiting to slaughter the lowly self-taught wizard. Now I am a target. For too long I’ve been the king’s favorite from who knows where, and now I’ll be a willing victim. He was awakened from his gloomy thoughts by the call of birds under the arched window. They were saying something. Douglas listened. He had long ago learned to understand the language of birds, and these birds were talking as if they were doing it for him, savoring every word leisurely. Nice little birds. A novice magician would have understood them at once. They were talking about the girl with the golden hair and the embroidered purple tent. If that girl were not there now, they would not have been able to fly so close and get a good look at the handsome lord.

“What do you mean?” Douglas asked in the same way. The men in the castle would have thought he was mocking them, mimicking a bird’s croak, but the larks on the windowsills flinched, sensing the intrusion of an outsider. His accent was flawless, of course, but his angular, tall figure confused them. Just a moment and the skylarks flew noisily down, leaving Douglas with nothing. He stood at the window for a minute, bewailing himself for his cowardice. Of course, he could have talked to the feathered creatures, but what if he had been spotted by the servants in the castle. Such an interesting occupation for the young lord would have caused a lot of gossip. He had lived at court enough to know that both servants and gentlemen here are great gossipers. And he’s good, too. He’s got someone to ask him questions. They were silly birds. And yet he learned more from them than he could have hoped for.

Rhianon woke up with a feeling of vague panic. Someone’s claws were scraping across the carpet, but not the claws of the little creatures she was already used to. These were more like knives. Rhianon crouched in bed and looked around. She could see little in the darkness, but she could hear panting. Someone was climbing the fleece as hard as if they were climbing a wall, or worse, walking on hot bricks. Sniffling was mingled with whimpering as if in pain, and there was a low cry of anguish.

“It was his fault! It was his fault!”

Rhianon shuddered when her claws made contact with the soft hide of the girl’s bed. Something black, rough, like a large blob of darkness was already there. Evil yellow eyes flashed at her from the absolute darkness. The smell of burning flesh and fire reeked in her face. A clawed hand reached for her throat. She looked up and saw that her skin was burned black, the remains of flesh already slimy. Was it flesh? Do angels have flesh? Fallen ones probably do. Rhiannon remembered Madael’s story and tried to move as far away from the burnt object as possible, but there was only the tent wall and the golden pillars behind her.

“Do you know how much suffering you’ve caused us all, little angel?”

The claws were already pressing on her throat when a light suddenly cut through the darkness of the tent. She couldn’t see the scarlet curtain covering the tent open, but the candle before the door flickered on and off, revealing that her master was already here. Rhianon searched in vain for him in the darkness. In her mind she begged for help, and he must have heard. A strong arm, framed in gold bracelets, pulled the dreaded guest from her bed in a flash. There was no sound of struggle. The thing only resisted for a moment when it had already been slammed to the floor. Then there was silence.

Rhianon had to squeeze her eyes shut when the candles in the candelabra in front of her finally flashed. She squinted through her eyes as the lights flickered and she could see what looked like a gigantic, slimy, black puddle of rotting filth, beating in agony on the floor.

“It can’t stand the light. Doesn’t it?” Madael grinned cruelly, watching its torment. “Even the tiniest light at the tip of a splinter of vinegar could cause it tremendous agony. Do you know why?”

“I don’t want to know why?” Rhianon crawled away from the wall and clung to the rim of the bear’s skin. Her warmth was a little comforting.

“You want to hold a lighted candle to him and see how his pain multiplies. It will be interesting.”

He suggested it quite seriously. What was beating and wriggling at his feet was alive. She could see the frightened yellow eyes gleaming against the black shapeless blob, and the terror lingering in them. And what anger.

Madael watched the black creature’s torment with a strange satisfaction. The way boys torture a frog or a toad or a mollusk they find for fun. Rhianon had seen as a child how servants’ children picked up oysters tossed by a storm, only to mock the oysters and bring fire to them and then laugh. It was disgusting. Any violence always leads to more. But there was something different here. She felt vindictive. Madael wasn’t just mocking, he was satisfied with something.

“Stop it!” she couldn’t stand to see something so disgusting that it seemed to be spreading like poison on the carpet, and it was agonizing. She felt sick to her stomach.

“As you wish, Princess,” Madael said no more, but stared at her with long, tense eyes. And really, why on earth would he take her orders or requests. He is the victor here, not she. And yet after a moment there was not even a trace of the agonizing monster left on the carpet.

How strange. No ashes, no slime, no scratches from its claws. Rhianon was sure there must be something left.

Madael was already sitting next to her on the bed, as if nothing had happened. His gaze was calm. Beautiful thin fingers groped her skin, checking for wounds. She was used to the intricate gold patterns like tattoos clinging to the skin on his wrists, to the inky gold bracelets wrapped around his arms up to his elbows and even his forearms. It was as if he was shackled by ornate gold plates that had been exquisitely hewn from the sunlight-an exquisite chain or a reminder that he wasn’t completely free. Or maybe it was just a hint that he is part of the sun and the golden patterns on top of his shimmering body are just a reminder that despite the appearance of humanity he can burn on contact even stronger than the sunbeam. And yet the touch of his hands was soothing.

Rhianon could hardly turn away from his face to look again at the spot on the carpet where the creepy guest had recently wriggled. It was empty now.

“He was one of my cohorts,” Madael said thoughtfully. “Yes, no, more than that, my right hand. He never understood why we didn’t win, and he’s still searching for the reasons why. He’s also angry with me.”

He didn’t have to explain anything, but as always he did. Rhianon remembered her first encounter with the magic world, all the creatures she’d never believed before, the hideous dwarves and goblins and beautiful fairies, each one hiding some tiny ugliness, all telling her the same thing.

“They’re all mad at you for being beautiful, and they’re not,” Rhianon touched the disheveled wheat curls gently, checking to see if they burned her, then pulled his head toward her, and he didn’t resist, seemed glad, in fact, and she liked to study what for all the magical world was a rarity — his beautiful face, his head, his shoulders, the intricate plates of bracelets on his wrists, they were afraid of him because he burned them, but he let her be so close to him.

“I was prettier once,” he admitted through sheer force.

“That was hard to believe.”

“When the battle first started they listened to me because I was part of the sun, it burns your eyes and you can’t disobey it when you stand next to it, but then… now they hate me.”

“So what is it?” Rhianon tried to forget the way the fairies’ hands caressed her there in the forbidden palace, the way their wings gently wrapped around her waist. They were not as good as the one who had doomed them to exist and mischief in the world of mortals. Once here, they had only the entertainment of plotting against humans. At least they have some kind of freedom. Let them live as they please. Why regret them or try to please them again.

“I love you alone. Isn’t that enough?”

He looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. He looked at her as if he had never seen her before, and yet he knew that no one had ever told him or wanted to hear her say it. He was used to the fact that he had to be alone. Perhaps God condemns to loneliness all those who were too close to him, because since he himself cannot get what he wants, no one else should either. But now it turned out differently than he had decreed.

“You are all I have.”

Madael pulled her to him, into an embrace like the coolness of water. You feel the same way when you dive into a clear pond where lilies grow and fragrant. And you can drown there, but as long as you stay on the water it feels so good. Sometimes his body exuded almost no heat, and sometimes it was like a red-hot ball of fire. Everything depended on the slightest change in his feelings. Now he was calm and even seemed happy.

“I promise that no uninvited guest will ever come in here again. No one will disturb you unless you want them to. Do you remember how to summon my servants?”

She remembered to clap her hands to make food appear on the table by itself and the things she needed materialize out of thin air. She remembered how to extinguish candles and call black winged creatures into the circle of light. With certain gestures or movements she could invite anyone whose master was him, sometimes she did it by accident, but now he was not against having his servants serve her as well. All of them, though frightening at first, were easily obeyed when they learned that she was here at their lord’s behest. She only wanted to ask how to summon him herself.

What if it could not be done, for he could not in the heat of battle drop everything and rush to her. Though she had no doubt that was exactly what he would do. He would just abandon the battle to his fate and end up here.

The embrace grew tighter. Rhianon remembered the destructive embrace of the forest springs, when nymphs, naiads, and mermaids summon lost mortals who have taken a fancy to them. They were amorous and would easily lure into the bowl whoever they wanted to caress. She, too, was initially lured, led astray, and all in order to offer her one beautiful unearthly embrace. Even though it all leads to the same fatal outcome as in the stories of maids of honor, it felt so good to her now. She had always dreamed of that.

“Madael, I love you,” whispered she

He did not laugh, though it was funny. Who could love such a cursed and forsaken creature as he was? His lips opened slightly, but he answered nothing. Everything he wanted to say, she felt as it were, all his love unsolicited and unnatural. He embraced her with his arm and wings, he was more beautiful than anything and everyone on earth, his body glowing peacefully with a golden-white ghostly glow, while inside everything was tense with rebellious conflicting feelings. There was no peace in him, he preferred war, but now…

“I will fight anyone and anything for you,” he promised. “I can fight, Rhianon, I know how to fight. I know how to win.”

“How it is in heaven, then?” She wished she hadn’t said that; it hurt him instantly, and it was transmitted to her. He gripped the hilt of the cleaver so tightly that his fingers, so long they curled almost twice around the hilt, turned white.

“That was a long time ago, but it was,” he reminded himself firmly. “Nothing can be changed.”

“You could have kept things in balance.”

“I don’t want any more,” he suddenly relaxed, tense as a string, he made up his mind and his skin glowed even brighter.

“What do you want?”

“I want you, princess, if peace must be made, then both sides must get something out of it, I don’t need forgiveness anymore, I will ask you.”

“What is it for?” She asked seriously. Why indeed, for there is no human desire in him. Why does he suddenly need her so much?

“I don’t know,” he admitted honestly. And it sounded like a divine revelation, something like the fact that an angel cannot comprehend the nature of himself.

Madael frowned thoughtfully, as if he had something else to say, but didn’t know how to put it into words.

“No one ever loved me,” he finally admitted. “And I was considered a favorite of God, but there was no affection, no warmth, only honor and a lack of something I needed. I didn’t know what it was, but I lacked it so much that everything became a torment.”

He ran his fingers lower on her shoulder, making sure he didn’t accidentally forget and squeeze the fragile neck.

“It is better to be unnoticed by a god than to be his favorite, because he condemns his lovers to suffering.”

She remembered everything that had happened to her and barely nodded, he was right, the suffering was overwhelming. And there was always one question why. Why did she always endure where others won? If all the trouble poured out on her was a manifestation of being chosen and of heavenly love, then she would have preferred to do without both. But not without what was happening now. That was exactly what she was not supposed to do, but it could be gladly accepted. Sin was a beautiful thing and so sublime. But she couldn’t call it sin. Only hypocrites would call it that. Rhianon gripped her arm around his waist, pulling him tighter against her shoulder. The wing behind him trembled slightly, but it felt good to lean her back against it. It was feathery and mighty to the touch, softer than the hides that lined the floor of the tent.

“What do you mean?” She asked. She’d learned the truth about him, but not about herself. She could never boast that she had the right to consider herself the favorite of the Almighty. On the contrary, God must have hated her very much, for he had taken from her everything she valued. Of course, there was also the dream of heaven… of being expected there. Rhiannon remembered the long staircase, infinitely high, but she didn’t want to think about it now.

“You were God’s favorite, I was not, and all those who went with you, whom he also loved…”

“Come,” Madael stood up abruptly and held out his hand to her. “I will show you what has become of them.”

There was before them a gloomy valley, so black that everything around it was drowned in darkness. At first it was impossible to see even the hideous bodies cowering below. They intertwined and moved in a strange cacophony of sounds and rustles. Beyond the valley rose mountains that encircled the place as if in a ring. And stone blocks awkwardly piled somewhere in the distance staggered with their grandiosity. Neither man nor nature could have created something like that. And all this just beneath the starry skies that had once been the home of those who now swarmed in the valley, like the trough left behind by the fall.

Rhianon looked around and shuddered. Her eyes were beginning to see unnaturally well in the dark. Her companion must have been a gift from her super-sharp perception of her surroundings and her keen eyesight. He could imbue mortals with unusual qualities. And he was so close to her that it seemed that his very power had begun to be transmitted to her as well. But now she was more concerned with what was going on below. There was a sudden movement, a shrill sound, and then… Rhianon shuddered as the sound of a hellish scream echoed through the valley. Even the mountains in the distance seemed to tremble. And that scream was not the only one. The moon rose, casting scant light on the gloomy expanse, and soon hundreds, thousands of them were screaming. One would have thought that every yard of ground beneath them was living, agonizing and screaming.

“Look, this is the cry of those who had everything and have lost everything and know that there is no return,” Madael whispered, holding her tightly to him.

His face was terrifyingly calm. Not a muscle flickered, and his vacant eyes were expressionless. She was shattered inside, crying out.

“Should I feel pity for you?”

“Oh, no,” he arched his eyebrows expressively, “I expect no pity from anyone, my dear, and they deserve what they get because they followed me.”

“You really are the devil.”

“Yes, but you belong to me, not to the god who tortures them so.”

Rhianon involuntarily wondered what would happen if he suddenly opened his arms and let her fall into the demon-infested abyss.

But Madael was in no hurry to let her go. On the contrary, trusting no magic, he did not unclench his arms. Hanging in the air himself, he put his arms around her waist, so that Rhianon, her back pressed against his chest, could see perfectly well what was going on below. He let her enjoy the sight before he turned and flew away. It was just as lightning struck the clumps. Rhianon realized that she had only seen part of it. She assumed that some impossibly strong, clawed creature was still dragging these boulders and piling them on top of each other.

“Are they building a temple for you?” She guessed. “It is a temple for a defeated deity…”

“It was for their deity,” he reminded her firmly. “You can call it a temple if you like. I don’t know what it is yet, but they’ve got to have something to do, so they’ve got to build it. Just think if mortals were to pray to us, to me and to you, and make blood sacrifices in this place. And then my servants will sacrifice themselves.”

“You are unbearable.”

“I had someone to learn from,” he remarked reasonably, perhaps recalling his former lord. His words made sense, Rhianon thought.

“Stop this construction,” she asked.

“Why is it?”

“It is to please me.”

He seemed to find that answer to his liking. She couldn’t turn around to look him in the face as he hurtled across the sky with her, but she thought for a moment there was a contented grin on his face.

“You’re just like me. And you don’t like their cries either. They make me feel better sometimes, though. It’s always nice to know that someone is suffering a little, and not just enjoying the pain of the world. I can never get used to the suffering of others, Rhianon. I can’t imagine why these things whimper when the real pain is unknown to them.”

“I suppose it is known only to you.”

“Oh, yes, it is,” he said. He had already brought her into the tent and set her on the bed. The folds of the new smoky gold garment he’d given her rustled pleasantly. It seemed that this dress of unknown fabric could change color on its own. Not long ago it had been blue, then emerald, and now gold again. The whole gamut of colors was in that fabric, just as the whole palette of pain was reflected in the eyes of the fallen angels.

Madael understood without words what she was thinking and crouched beside her.

“I won’t let you suffer,” the lilies were ready to bloom from his touch, but she remembered the blood and the fire and the screams of hell.

“You won’t have to go through what they did, believe me, I won’t let that happen.”

“Why is it not?”

The answer stunned her.

“I don’t know.”

At first she didn’t even believe it. Whether he was joking or trying to fool her again with his heavenly philosophy, but his voice sounded quite serious. Only someone who really couldn’t comprehend himself could speak so thoughtfully. She looked at him and realized, he really didn’t know. How complicated he was, a mistake of nature and at the same time its crowning glory, he could not comprehend his own feelings.

“Then can you answer one question about my kingdom for me?”

“Yes,” he looked at her eagerly.

Rhianon hesitated for a moment. It was hard for her to ask and she was afraid to hear the answer.

“I’ve asked you this before, but I want your answer honestly. Why is it Loretta? Why would you fight on their side if there was no justice with them?”

“No,” he agreed. “But there’s more evil on Menuel’s side.”

He lowered his head for a moment, unsure of what to say. There was a moment of hesitation on his handsome face, and then he spoke again.

“You see, there are chosen ones… These people are a mistake, but they are extraordinarily valuable. God wants them to know the world in suffering, only then can they create. My demons whisper to people to do evil to these chosen ones, but in turn, anyone who has wronged them will face unbearable punishment. It’s an endless cycle, and I’m tired of it. In Menuel, on the other hand, there are blacksmiths who are almost as gifted as my Zwergs. They’re almost as close to divinity, and for that alone they should be gone, or at least those of them who are particularly gifted. But that doesn’t bother me anymore, because I’ve seen many civilizations crumble, countries and cities disappear, villages burn. I myself have often accompanied this along with my fallen armies. I don’t care which side I fight on, because I support no one myself.

“Except justice,” she reminded me.

“That’s God’s notion, not mine, and it’s pretty streamlined,” he reached up and gripped the hilt of the sword against the stock. “Justice is in the blood. It’s the way of the world. And it makes me sick.”

He looked as if he were about to let out a sigh of fire from his pale lips that would devastate everything. Rhianon shrank back involuntarily. But in a moment he looked back at her, and his eyes were clear.

“It was as if I wanted to say, before I met you,” he said, “that I have someone to defend and a fighter on whose side I must fight now. I am always on your side.”

“And what is it about Menuel?” She asked after a lingering silence.

He shrugged dismissively.

“The wretched workmen and drunks. They had not only made fun of one of the chosen ones, they had almost killed him. They’d had their fun that day. Arnaud barely got away from their dogs, barely survived… but he stayed. I think he had already forgotten about the incident, but the payback came, in due time, in my person… You see, it’s all an endless cycle, and the deceptive feeling of peace only makes it harder to come back. And everyone on this earth can be considered a sinner, and I will catch up with them sooner or later. First is Menuel, then it is Loretta. Believe me, after a deceptive victory, defeat will be even harder for them.”

“Yes, and now I have to do with my own hands all the things I opposed. And, believe me, that’s the worst punishment.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Rhianon,” he put his hands on her shoulders, careful not to crush her fragile human bones. Strange, he could have killed her, and she was not afraid.

“God makes you do things that even from the outside you couldn’t bear to watch. He destroys you with your own hands. What a cruel way to crush a strong will.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“You would have, if after your first defeat, you hadn’t grown indifferent. All the desires in you fell asleep as soon as you lost.”

“You woke them up.”

“But you still obey his orders.”

“Do you?” He drew her to him, as if to say that he’d already broken a cardinal command by forbidden intimacy with a human. For some reason he had always put her above all humans. He did not even express it with words, only with quiet gestures of reverence, admiration, even some kind of adoration, rather than love. She had learned to guess his thoughts. He thought about taking by force something that should never have belonged to him.

One thought roused him. It was time to discard not only his sword, shield, and cloak, but also the clothes that were no longer necessary. He quickly freed himself from his armor. With his hands he helped Rhianon remove her dress. He needed her scalding kisses, as he had once prayed. He needed this beautiful toy on his bed with a human body and a consciousness close to that of an angel. If God thought that expelling him from paradise deprived him of heavenly pleasure, how misguided he was.

“This is where paradise is,” Madael whispered, pressing his lips against hers and running his fingers along the exposed curves of her body. “The paradise I was never supposed to return to, but here it is…”

All the gloomy thoughts were really gone. The crushing pain was gone, dissolved into the bliss of earthly coitus. That pain had clutched him in a vise ever since he’d fallen, and now it was gone. Perhaps when he awoke in Rianon’s arms it would resume, but at least not as much as when his bed was empty. In those days he could not sleep, sleep would not come to him, oblivion would not come, his scorched mind would rush like a fever. Perhaps that was the punishment, no one explained to him, but his mind was racing as if caged. The gloomy, empty world, devoid of any beauty, took on some color only when blood was spilled. He flew over the world and reveled in the suffering of others, only because he himself was suffering the most. Those were the ages of madness. The mind was imprisoned in fetters, like the body, and only freed with the body. Madael ran his hands over the perfect female body, too thin for a grown woman, yet it was girlish and delicate. She was as fragile as heavenly light, he thought, and could become just as sizzling if the need arose. Who knew better than he that the peaceful glow of dawn could explode in a sizzling flash at any moment. When he should have been punished, that’s exactly what had happened. But now the punishment turned into bliss. The long, sweet kisses, the nights without sleep, not because he was going crazy with the crushing emptiness and inability to sleep, but because he was making love, and the desirable body beside him that felt like it was part of you-it was worth giving up heaven for all that. He pulled away from her lips with a quick grin, but the next moment he was back on them with a long kiss. Rhianon’s fingers tangled in his hair and slid pleasantly down the back of his neck. With her other hand she caressed his shoulders, sometimes touching his wings. His feet touched his hips, his knees his back. Now he really felt like a god.

Rhianon leaned back on the bed, letting him do things on his own. She liked it very much. She had never felt as good as she did right now. Only somehow it seemed to her that there were other things going on in the tent besides the rhythmic merging of their bodies. She could hear murmurs and soft voices, some rustling, whispering, rustling noises. And just for a moment she thought she saw something creepy in front of her. Heavens ploughed with the glitter of swords, like a battlefield, squabbling and shouting, bodies like the one in bed with her now, but there they were horribly disfigured. She covered her eyelids, and when she opened them, she thought that now he himself was unconsciously emitting some kind of witchcraft to make the tent brighter. She saw his handsome face before her, covered in a slight sweat, but unusually luminous. His glistening hair came down, covering them both in a golden veil. She wished I’d never taken her lips from his.

She reached into the bed and fumbled for something delicate, slippery, slightly covered in moisture. Lilies, both water lilies and garden lilies, weren’t here yesterday, but now the flowers were scattered across the bed and the floor. They gave off a sweet smell, but not like his skin.

She straddled his naked shoulders, marveling again at how the gold engraved bracelets on them had practically become part of his flesh. The cold body still evoked a fiery passion. She felt a flash of fire inside her, perhaps a man she would have burned with her kiss, but not him, the beautiful lips remained soft. But the lilies around them began to turn black and curl up from the fire that flashed on the petals. The flowers were turning black, but the bodies woven among them remained white. Madeel’s wing would have been unburned, even if he had touched the fire. But now the slight twitching of those wings made the fires in the tent go out a little. And yet the flowers withered inexorably, withering and exuding the smell of burning. She didn’t care. Rhianon ran her hand through his golden hair, feeling the curls immediately braid her fingers like a net. Her eyelashes touched his. It seemed that in another moment she would open her eyelids and see dead sapphires in the place of his real eyes, like the beasts’ skins in a tent. So be it. Even that didn’t scare her. And the fire didn’t scare her anymore. You can burn yourself now. There would be nothing better than this moment.

“You’re like marble,” she thought, feeling him inside her again.

“And you’re made of fire,” she thought back.

Later, she leaned back on the soft white hide laid on the side of the bed. Madael gently stroked her neck and thin shoulders with his hand. She was the first to sense that there was someone in the tent besides them. Someone was trying to convey her thoughts, but it was not her lover. The one who had just wandered the bleak city and country roads was now standing at the entrance to the tent. For a moment, Rhianon saw with his eyes the scant light on the rutted roadway and the strange creature that wandered there, seemingly neither demon nor human, but something in between. It wasn’t very beautiful, but there was obviously a fairy-tale beauty slumbering inside it. Rhianon could see it even through the alien eyes of the one who was transmitting the visual images to her. It is strange why this being is now so wretched and lost and miserable. He has a great talent. She did not know exactly what was in his purse: a brush, a pen, or a musical instrument, but she was sure it was part of his talent. Beneath the skimpy garment there was light, but it was obscured by pain. This incredibly beautiful, but unknowingly vilified creature would perish if he did not find his own special way to salvation. She suddenly felt sharply sorry for him. Pain pierced her heart like a sharp splinter. This creature is part of Madael’s troops. Rhianon wanted to see something else, but she couldn’t see anything else. Only a voice could be heard now.

“It is the Cathedral of Thunder! Its path lies in the Cathedral of Thunder! Where we all die in agony, to…”

She lifted her head above the pillow. Curls slid down her back like golden snakes, catching the hand that caressed her. She felt Madael tense.

He hissed something fast and harsh. The words left an unpleasant residue. Rhianon blinked to see a colorful figure materialize on the threshold. At first it was only a cloud, giving off a vague mottle, the more time passed, the brighter it became.

“To regain its former appearance,” were the last words she could not hear. Rhianon looked questioningly at Madael, but he was now sizzling with his gaze at the entrant. His blue eyes, black with anger, seemed to be about to burst into flames, and fire turpentine dripped from his lashes instead of moisture.

“How dare you…”

His low but menacing whisper seemed to make the walls themselves tremble.

Orpheus looked rather bewildered as he climbed into the tent.

“I… What? What?” He clearly had no intention of leaving. Not right away.

“Out,” Madael raised his head menacingly, and put his hand to the hilt of his sword. “But if you want to become a pile of ashes…”

Now Orpheus did retreat toward the exit. The reaction was instantaneous.

“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” he mumbled guiltily, and a second later he was blown away like the wind. Rhianon still looked questioningly at the scarlet curtained exit of the tent, it did not even sway and the guest himself had disappeared, but the address “Your Majesty” so much reminded her. She could deduce, however, that he was not addressing her. But what shocked her most was how quickly he obeyed. She turned her gaze to Madael in surprise. He was sleepily brushing back tangled curls from his forehead and looking very young, but she seemed only to be convinced that the spirits considered him a king.

“It never worked out that way for me,” she nodded to where Orpheus had stood recently, the ground seemed to be burning beneath his feet there, and he still wanted to stay here. Is it next to her or to him? Probably with her, Rhianon judiciously decided, because the spirits were not very keen on intimacy with Madael. They were afraid of him, yes, they seemed to be, but that was something she didn’t understand. With him it was so easy, no need to think about any problems, because he solved everything instantly. Even the mediocre Orpheus listened to him. And with her he played the naughty child.

“You have to be tougher and tougher with them,” Madael was still sizzling his eyes into the empty space by the exit, and his gaze seemed able to burn through the empty space.

Then he softened and quickly pulled her to him, as if to prove, not to the spirit, but to the emptiness around them, that he would not give up his prey to anyone. It was his possessive instinct. He is a conqueror after all, a warrior, a victor… Rhianon grinned. It felt good to feel his embrace, but her thoughts of Orpheus still wouldn’t let her calm down. What was this place? What did he mean? Who is the wanderer who seeks his terrible fate in the Cathedral of Thunder, something terrible is there, but it is impossible not to go there, because it is even more terrible to stay here on earth. Thus the terrifying path is inescapable, but beyond it lies liberation and darkness. Rhianon huddled tighter against Madael. Beside him it was possible to escape the fear that stretched to the consciousness as if with pincers. It was good that the nearness of the angel was soothing and calming.

She was half lying on top of him. He ran his hand through her golden curls and seemed to rub her hair in such a way that all bad thoughts receded from that touch. How simple it was, he could have saved a madman with his light touch, or he could have driven her mad, but she was no longer afraid of him. He made her feel so good.

“What is this place Cathedral of Thunder?” She asked, falling asleep.

“The place where heaven and hell met,” he could have avoided answering, as he always did, but somehow he told her everything. “It is the cornerstone in the architecture of the entire universe, and of all worlds. A place that is the receptacle of evil and yet it is blessed because we are all reborn there again. Any of my lost angels can become the same again if they find their way there and perform the ritual. Their consciousness, imprisoned in a human body, still holds all their former knowledge. If only they have the strength to overcome the madness and the conviction that they are only human, and the road from paradise is not their fantasy, then they return to their paradise. It is a gloomy paradise with intricate colonnades and dormant statues. Beneath the enormous dome is a hall, and on its marble floor so many sacrifices have already been made that it is difficult to count. Only a few of them have ended in death. There are some people who want to be mistaken and identify themselves with my troops. Such people perish. It would be the same if a man imagined himself a bird and threw himself into flight. Their entrails remain on the floor and those who do manage to eat the bodies. The others, fragments of my army, remain dead for only a few seconds… it’s not death, really, but an eerie suspension between the real world and the spirit world that dwells in the cathedral. Both worlds are alien for a moment.”

“And then?” She gripped his arm harder so that she almost scratched her side, but he didn’t even notice. If he says what she hopes, she’ll even give him another kiss.

“Then their wings grow back, but if you’ve seen the agony they are beating in a moment before. Only a few minutes pass, and they manage to endure on the marble floor all the pain I have endured in eternity. It comes over each of them in a black wave and drives them insane. A moment seems endless.”

“And you sit on the high parapet like a statue, watching indifferently as others take in your pain. Sometimes you are even satisfied when you realize that you are not the only one who has suffered the most. Others have gone through the same thing.”

“Yeah, how do you know?”

“I guess I can see it in your mind,” she admitted uncertainly, afraid of what would follow.

“You can keep looking,” he said graciously. “I can show you everything.”


“Because you, my twin, are part of me,” he squeezed her shoulders tighter.

“And that means that one day I’ll have to suffer like you, there in the cathedral… or somewhere else…” she herself was frightened by her hunch.

“It is not you,” he quickly objected, “I won’t allow it. You don’t know what it’s like.”

“I’m afraid to find it, and yet… if it’s the only way.”

Her lips touched lily-scented skin in a long kiss.

“There are other ways to immortality. Suffering is not necessary.”

“Is that what you say?”

“I prefer to leave suffering to others, but not to myself and not to you.”

“You speak of me as something close to you.”

“But that’s the way it is.”

“Yes, I think so,” she wasn’t sure. It’s always hard to believe in something that is too desirable. Becoming part of someone who is the most beautiful and powerful, it was too good. For a second she remembered the god, the suffering, the destiny that was forever setting her up for it. The god’s chosen are always suffering, and Dennitsa is to blame. The god’s first favorite betrayed him and now everyone he loved after his first chosen one suffers. She suffered the most, for she had been chosen to take his place. And she didn’t want to remember it anymore. No one wants to be a toy that is expertly guided through a thorny labyrinth of pain to lead to some intended goal. Why is everything so complicated? Why must everyone suffer for the fault of one? And why did this one choose to save her rather than kill her, as he first wanted? Rhianon buried her face in the comforting shoulder, felt even more strongly the scent of lilies and some peculiar, unlike anything else, but pleasant smell of his skin. It immediately brought back memories of gold and rye fields and fairy valleys. No one had ever loved her but him. She was loved only by the devil, the one who should hate everyone, and also her society was desired by the fairies. Everything had worked out so strangely, but she regretted nothing. It was good when at least someone loved you, and it did not matter who they were, as long as you loved them in return. And there was no fear that one day it would end in betrayal, war, division of power, or hurtful words. Madael was proving that he could be trusted. She just couldn’t believe herself. The desire to return or destroy Loretta had become so strong that it would have cost nothing to rip open her own guts for it. The terrifying journey to the Cathedral of Thunder didn’t scare her so much anymore. Some things are worth the sacrifice. You just have to find enough courage to make them. The thought that someone had walked this path before her cheered her up a bit.

Dragons’ Valley

Rhianon woke up alone. Though her bed was crumpled, the empty space beside her was unpleasantly startling. It seemed that everything that had happened could only have been a dream. And there really was no deity to hug her at night. There was only fantasy.

She put a hand to her head, kneading the already disheveled strands of long hair. Her consciousness burned as if it, too, had been burned. It seemed that as she lost Madael, she lost her mind as well. Was this how a man who had slept with a fallen angel should feel. The angel is no longer around, and you begin to lose your mind without him.

If she leaves here, there’s a completely empty world waiting for her. Only Rhianon was somehow sure that if she became queen again, that Madael would follow her. He would rule with her, or rather stand beside her throne, like a dragon guarding her. For him, the earthly realm is but a toy, and he can give the toy to her and remain the force that invisibly rules all. Rianon would have been fine with this course of events. She would have her own bodyguard, her own personal dragon. With him at her side, she would not have to fear for her own power. And the bonds that held him back… were they still there, or was his bond with the sky fraying?

Rhianon wondered. Could she live without him now? Would it be possible for her to leave this tent without completely losing her mind? She decided to try. She got out of bed, found on the floor an outfit she had never seen before, and a lace gown. A luxurious dress with wide sleeves and bodice embroidered with pearls fit her just right. She put it on effortlessly. She could feel them crawling lightly down her back and braiding into an intricate knot. Rhianon examined herself in the mirror. She liked the cut and finish of the outfit very much. The only thing missing was a headpiece. The turtle comb, also trimmed with pearls, which was lying on the table, suited her very well. Before she could even think about taking it and sticking it in her hair, it was there. The strands at the back of her head were woven around it, forming a sort of hairstyle. Well, now she has at least a parody of a crown. Rhianon glanced smugly at the teeth of the comb that protruded from her hair. It was like a crown.

“Queen of the Underwater Kingdom,” she called herself, jokingly, smiling at her reflection. “You’re covered in pearls, and you like the cooler shades of water because they stifle the fire within you.”

Suddenly she was afraid of her own words. It was as if Madael were made of fire, of golden fire. By denying the fire, it was as if she was going to deny it, too. Well, no, she wasn’t denying it. She would just have to see how she would feel without it.

Rhianon hoped that she would somehow manage to subdue the vigilance of the guards and get at least a little walk. She cautiously looked out of the tent and saw no one standing watch. The strange black bird was still flying over the spire of the tent. It was making strange noises, and its dark plumage shimmered in the sunset rays. Rhianon’s lips parted in amazement as she saw that the bird had a woman’s head. It was pretty. Her long, dark-blond hair hung awkwardly from her dark plumage. The blue eyes stared at Rhianon with genuine interest. Who knows her, this bird, her face is definitely female, but if it’s a fallen angel too, it’s not even a question of gender. They can appear to people as both male and female, but always invariably beautiful. Madael has a girlish face, too.

Rhianon suddenly realized that she liked this bird and could bribe her with a light flirtation. She put a finger to her lips, signaling silence. And the bird crouched on the spire and fell silent. She watched carefully as Rhianon walked away from the tent.

The sleeping or humming warriors below the valley disturbed Rhianon only slightly. She spotted a bypass path that no one was guarding. The rather narrow path was slippery and steep, but Rhianon didn’t hesitate to follow it. She went down the mountain, taking dangerous turns and looping around a lot. The farther Rhianon went, the more grass she noticed on the side of the road. That meant the land wasn’t far away. She was getting tired of being at altitude. The view from the mountains was dizzying. It made her sick. And it was unlikely she would have dared to follow that trail if that one offered a view downhill. But the curves hid it, and Rhianon moved on without knowing where she was going. She wanted to get as far away from the tent as possible to see how well she could feel away from it.

She stumbled a couple of times, almost falling, but she kept going down anyway. The fabric crunched, causing Rhianon to stop for a moment. Well, her inquisitiveness had ruined a beautiful dress, and it was a good thing the thorns weren’t caught in the hem. Before Rhianon could even regret the damage it had done, the shreds of fabric had already begun to repair themselves. Strands stretched to each other like living threads, connecting, weaving together. There was no need for a loom, everything was happening by itself. In a moment it was impossible to tell that anything had been damaged.

Rhianon looked discouraged at the dress.

“Is it magic?” A bird with a woman’s head sat on a rock beside her and grinned. “Is that what you call it?”

“Yes, it is,” she turned away from the seductive grin. But the bird kept up.

“That’s what people call it.”

Rhianon turned around, though, to take another look at the seductive features. The bird flew right behind her, graceful and leisurely, keeping only a short distance.

“What do people call you?” She asked.

The bird thought for a moment. Her lovely features frowned in a way that was painful to look at. She obviously couldn’t remember something.

“It is Cyrene… most of the time,” she answered at last.

“Cyrene,” Rianon said again. “I like the sound of that.”

And I like you, she wanted to add, at least to herself, but perhaps she didn’t have to. Their introduction had already taken place. No further words were necessary. The bird could probably guess her thoughts as easily as any other magical creature.

“Are you going to the sea?”

“What do you mean?” Rhiannon turned around again and almost fell over, catching the small rocks with her foot. They immediately flew down. There were more and more unusual plants at the side of the road, and sometimes they looked like dandelions or moss or junipers, but the creatures nesting in them and seemingly clinging to them immediately negated any resemblance. It seemed as if the flowers were already growing alive and moving, like inhuman bodies. They wriggled under the soles of her satin shoes and made a repulsive impression. Could it be a miniature hell, right beneath her feet.

“This is an unusual place,” the bird remarked. “It is our place. Usually no one is allowed on this path.”

“And me?”

Her feathered friend raised his eyebrows involuntarily.

“Don’t go too far away, you could get lost,” he warned her shortly.

“What if I want to get lost?”

“Then he’d have to come looking for you, and he’d be furious with us all. He’s awful when he’s angry. You’d better not bring him to that.”

There was no need to question who the bird meant. Rhianon knew at once that she was being asked to somehow contain his anger, most often directed at those around her, for better or for worse. She decided to tease her escort a little.

“What if I want to get lost with you?”

The bird flinched sharply. Her cheeks flashed across her beautiful face, blushing brightly. It looked more like a boy’s face now. Rhianon grinned understandingly. She liked to embarrass young men and, for that matter, women, too. At court she often teased Hildegard, Conrad’s unattractive but over-gripping sister, probably in part because she guessed her secret desires. She too was silent in response, and the crimson spots on her cheeks could be interpreted as a fit of anger, but Rhianon sensed otherwise. About the creature beside her she could not exactly judge what was more masculine or feminine in it. And she couldn’t understand why it bothered her so much. After all, if she did not read the pretty head, it was only a bird: wings, claws, and plumage, and how it all attracted her. Maybe after chatting with Madael, she began to have a particular affinity for winged creatures. After all, if angels didn’t have seductive bodies, they’d be like birds themselves.

Rhianon held out her hand, inviting the Cyrin to come down on the back of her hand, as if it were her tame hunting falcon. The bird proved unexpectedly heavy for her hand. Rhianon had to let it go almost immediately. The sharp claws almost left a mark on her skin, too, and yet the girl whispered:

“I like you very much.”

“And I like you, princess.”

Rhianon tried not to look long into the lingering, clouded eyes of unspoken desire and began to walk down to the sea. She knew now that the bird would never let go of her. She was lucky if it didn’t claw at her shoulder in a fit of passion. Those claws terrified Rhiannon even more than the hard beak of a real bird. Covered in keratinized black skin, they tapered toward the edges as if oozing venom. She didn’t want to feel their sharpness. It would have been a stark contrast to the pretty head on the feathered torso.

From a distance the sound of the surf was already coming in. The bird did not deceive her. Down there lay the rocky coastline. It was cold and beautiful here. Feeling the pleasant coolness on her shoulders Rhianon was no longer afraid of anything. The sand beneath her feet seemed completely pale, not golden and certainly not bright yellow. The waves lapping on it stained the shore with foam and azure. The ring of rocks behind the shore was also clear blue. If cold shades reigned all around her, she would feel comfortable here.

Rhianon did not immediately notice the one gloomy object on the shore. It was neither a rock nor a wreck of a ship thrown by the sea. Something completely dry and dark lay right on the sand. Rhianon stepped closer and bent down to examine it. To think it was a harp and its strings were twanging rhythmically. Pity the sounds were drowned out by the noise of the surf.

One wave came up unexpectedly, and its spray reached the moving strings. Rhianon picked up her skirts and backed away. She had seen that harp before. Now she looked around, looking for its owner.

Arnaud. She had not said the name out loud, she thought only of him, but there he was, already standing there, merely stepping out from behind the cliff, hiding his arms behind his back and bowing slightly in greeting.

“My lady,” a smile spread across his pleasant face.

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