You run along the clifftop, trying to keep up. His stupid metal bits let him fly, and he's just so big, but you're not entirely powerless yourself, either. You can't fly, exactly, but you can jump, and when you're really pissed off, you can jump really far, and he really, really annoys you. You want him gone, so you're going to get him gone. Jump and kick him to the sky. Let the gods in the stars take him out.
Are the gods in the stars even real? People talk about them like they are, but the stars are so far. You don't think they quite grasp how far they are.
Far seems like a nice place to put Artos.
You run faster. You work up your irritation, your anger, your pure unadulterated rage, and go faster, faster, faster. You work in all the names you have collected, living and dead, and take what rage you can from them as well. Homes destroyed. Loved ones lost. Ignoble deaths, painful, alone. You channel it all, and jump, hurling yourself into the sky.
He's not expecting this. Why would he? You're a trickster, he is tyranny and war. He turns just enough to get you full in the face, to grab you just as you grab him, and now you're both flying on his stupid metal bits, hurtling through the air. He fights you, trying to get you off, beat you aside, remove you from his person, but you are a god just as much as he is, and you are angry. You cling to him and beat right back, you grab and pin and take everything he throws at you.
The ground drops away. Mountainous forests and rocky cliffs give way to rolling grassland, and the view stretches and stretches and stretches. Up here, the clouds are layers, and wet you as you pass through them.
You're not kicking him, at least not to the sky. He's doing that all himself, his stupid metal bits propelling the both of you upward, and upward and upward. This suits you. It was practically your plan anyway. You just need to get rid of the stupid metal bits so he stays up here. Get rid of him, give him a nice big kick. Isn't that what the librarian said? All they need to go to the stars is enough force. Enough speed. Kick him really, really hard.
He didn't say kicking would do it. People tend to underestimate kicking.
You pry at his stupid metal bits, even as he continues to fight you, pulls at you, punches, harms. The clouds become shards of ice. You are hurt, very, very hurt, but now you have purpose, proper purpose, or at least a plan. Kill the stupid metal bits. Kick him really, really hard. Plan.
The sky grows dark. The sun grows small and piercing. It's cold, up here. A cold star. All the stars are cold, arrayed around, not like distant gods, but just distance all itself.
You pry out the main spurting flaming metal bit, and it half explodes in your hands, burning to the bone, but it sputters out regardless.
And you kick him. You drop down and hang, upside down, and kick him really, really hard.
And then you fall.
The thing that stands out about the town is wood. Or is it a city? A very wooden city, built in layers. Harbour. Posts. Slats. Wooden walkways. Balconies. Buildings. More buildings.
Where are you? It's night. It shouldn't be night. There shouldn't even be night, this time of year. You... know this.
You're not sure how you know this. In fact you're not sure about much of anything. You're sure the town is a fire hazard. You're sure... you don't know how you got here.
There's a reaper next to you, nodding vaguely to itself, all wisps and tatters.
"What's this wooden place?" you ask it.
"Was city," it whispers.
You're not sure what you expected. Reapers are always a bit... off.
You check yourself. Hands. Feet. Head. Body. All... seems to be there. You swap it around a bit. Better hands, smaller body, cuter head. Why not.
There are an awful lot of lanterns and torches lighting up all this wood.
You shake your head. You don't need to set everything on fire. Especially when you're not even sure where you are or how you got here.
"Hey, do you know how I got here?" you ask the reaper.
"Fell," it says.
"Did I?" you ask. You look up, but you don't see anywhere in particular you might have fallen from.
"You were a fireball falling from the night. You rained death on all. The city burned at your passing."
You give the reaper a dubious look. The city seems quite...
Like ash, the entire façade falls away, the wood up in momentary flame, then smoke, then gone, the shape of the city gone, the hills, gone. You are standing in the bottom of a vast crater, the sea trickling in down the side. Beyond, on the other sides, the blaze is much more real, full of smoke and ash and crackling black...
"What..." you say, looking around in horror.
"You fell," it says again.
"But I'm okay?" you ask.
"You do not belong to us," the reaper says. "Thousands and thousands became ours, but not you."
"Huh, okay," you say. Seawater is pooling at your feet. You kick at it, but water is having none of it, and comes right back to lick you.
The eleaikos tree is an oddity, a spiritual center with some very specific taboos around it. You're not sure what its importance is. You're not sure that you care. You do know that the city people have a very specific thing about not breaking it, not putting it on the water, certainly not using it... or something along those lines.
You take off a few branches. Lower ones, a couple of higher ones, pruning it. You know plants, and you ease the branches off carefully, willing the tree to let them go and scar itself around their bases, closing the wounds all in one fluid action.
The leaves wither on the branches as you toss them down, but you whisper to the tree as it seems almost to grow stronger without them. It's warm. What is this thing? What is its power? Suddenly you want to know, you feel it all around you, whispering back, a choir of voices all too soft to make out...
You pull away, tumbling to the ground. Too familiar. Too familiar.
You grab the branches, drag them to the lakeshore. The city's lights glitter in the dusk, across the waves. It's still so flammable. The currents look right. Put the branches here, they should wash up right in the slums, and they'd have use for lumber, yes they would. Sacrilege, to use the wood of the eleaikos tree. Sacrilege to carve it, to break it, to place it on the waters...
You break off a few twigs and toss them into the lake.
You cut the branches into logs, running a finger around their circumference as the wood cuts effortlessly beneath.
You're tossing the first of the logs into the lake when the kid appears. Young, small, of that age of boundless curiosity and odd helpfulness that always seems to cease shortly after. Dressed in country clothes. Descended of the Aldan tribe, from the look of it.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
"Putting the wood in the water," you tell him. "Want to help?"
"Sure," he says. He has no idea the significance of this, of course, and that's the beauty of it - to him, there is no significance. Everything you break in people, that you take apart, is learned.
He drags logs, carries twigs, to the water. You carry the rest, toss them in. It's done quickly, even as the long twilight stretches overhead. Dusk never ends in night. Dawn never ends in day. Not anymore.
The kid crouches at the water's edge, still holding a eleaikos twig, poking at the water, watching as the mud dances around it. He wades in a bit, to poke at the deeper bits, and you watch, curiously. You know the shore shelfs off a bit here, propped up by bigger rocks. Even if he knows how to swim, the water is cold and dark...
"Brother, what are you doing?"
You turn, regard another child. This one's older, a girl, dressed much as the boy. She largely ignores you as she marches forward, and then stops right next to you, not even giving you the slightest look. She puts her hands on her hips and glares at the boy, her brother.
This age you know well - little honesty, littler innocence left, but so very much to manipulate.
"It moves," he says. "Look, look."
"I'm not going in the lake," she tells him. "Get back here!"
"You might want to listen," you tell him, as the smile tickles across your lips. "You're right near the edge, where the water gets deep."
"Mmm, mmm," he says. He's not listening. You watch his feet. He's right on the edge.
"Tsh," the girl child says, and half turns away.
He plays, and you watch with interest as he sloshes around, not quite to the edge, until...
All things slip. All surfaces, all structures, all façades. Sometimes you push them, but with a little patience they all do even without help. This you know well. You are the slip, the slither, the seeping into cracks and crannies.
The boy slips. There's a splash as he falls in. You eye him in almost real surprise, or rather, the place where he had been.
His sister reacts more, rushing forward to go after him, but you stop her, pulling her back. "Wait," you tell her. "I'll get him."
For whatever reason, she does, and you stride forward, into the water, and dive down into the deeper bit. The water parts perfectly, embracing you into its shadows. You can hardly see, but it doesn't matter. A hand grabs your arm. He's trying to swim, but lacking the know how, he'll also grab, it seems.
You pull him up. You hoist him out of the water, and he gasps for breath as you emerge a moment later, propping yourself up on the shallow shelf.
His sister runs forward and takes him back to shore. "Adjai," she sobs. "Oh, Adjai!"
He's shivering. Violently. You're not even cold. The water is soft and smooth. The air is crisp and pleasant. They are so fragile.
You pull yourself out of the water and go to them as well, and tug a bit on the boy, motioning for his sister to let him go. She does, and you crouch down and embrace him, warming him. The shivers diminish, and then stop.
"Your name is Adjai?" you ask him, after.
How silly. He is yours now. He's given you his name, his willing help, his life... how much the tribes have forgotten of the old gods...
"Adjai," you whisper.
"And what is your name?" his sister asks.
You stop. You don't know. Blooming, gusting, creeping. The unexpected freeze, the reticent thaw, day and night together all at once. You are all these things, you know, and more. But they are not a name.
"I don't know," you tell her. Sometimes honesty is the most dishonest you can be. It suits you.
"Riiiight," she says. She doesn't believe you. Perfect. "I know the old stories are all about names being important and guarding them and all that," she goes on, "but I gotta introduce you somehow."
Adjai is watching you too, next to her, staring with his strange boy eyes.
He takes the crown with such grandeur. The hushed silence of the crowd, the solemn certainty of the ritual... it all plays into it. You're off to the side. You don't need to be here. But there's a sort of captivation about the whole scene - it has to play out, you have to watch.
He rises, his bulk towering over the priests as they step back in fear. He turns to the crowd, scanning the myriad peoples. His gaze passes over you - is that hesitation? - before continuing on. His smile is small, but full of intent. Destroyer. You know him. The people here, they know him well enough to be concerned, but not well enough to be terrified. They're still waiting for some hero to step up and challenge him.
If only they knew, they would turn and flee now.
"It is done," he says, his voice booming through the caverns. "I am your King, now. We will march upon the enemy!"
You roll your eyes. You can't help it. The only meaningful enemy in all these lands, to anyone, is him. All others come and go, their antipathy as fleeting as the seasons change, sun comes up, skies go dark. Stupid reasons for their wars, your reasons. He's the only one who remains consistent. War in the flesh. Tyranny made real. The rule, and the power.
He's looking at you. He sees you.
You look away.
Ritual continues. Noise and music. War drums as he forms a procession through the crowd, and the people fall in. They're marching. Now? Don't humans need to rest? Time between things? Preparation?
You go the other way. You're not following this madness. It's not you. Not your way. Not your fight.
Not how you fight.
Your escort goes with you, and you mostly ignore them. You need to make an exit. You head through the tunnels and listen as the water trickles down the walls. You come out into the light, and the wide road stretches before you, but you head for the trees. An exit.
Dead is an exit.
What was it that the Holdat did? They had a cliff where they would execute their criminals. A few of them were yours, but most of them... weren't. Even you wouldn't touch those.
You follow the path along, and then the path ends. You move through the underbrush instead, willing it aside. Your escort follows, still silent. Do they speak?
The cliff is much as you remember it, windswept and long, tall, jutting. Broken rocks crack and crumble at the edge, an edge all threatening to come out under those who stand there. Judgement of the gods, to not even be able to jump. To simply fall as the ground gives way beneath.
You turn around, gesture for your escort to stay put, stay back.
"No," one of them says. They know this, then. Have they used it? You don't recall anything recent.
You back toward the edge, but they come with you.
"I failed," you tell them. "Let the gods take me." Theatre. Apt end for a character they think is good. Do they think she's good? You assume they do.
"You can still help!" the other says.
You shake your head, step back further, reaching the edge.
The guards exchange glances, and then give up. They give you a sort of salute, instead, arms crossed.
You step back again, and fall.
They step to the edge as well, and watch, and go.
You can't die. You're immortal. All this means is that some things don't affect you. You don't die. You don't need to breathe. You don't need to eat. Your body still breaks.
You still feel pain.
A reaper coalesces next to you as you lie, broken and bloody, at the base of the cliff, amidst rocks and bones and sand. They can't collect you, but whenever this happens, they like to... say hi? Make conversation. At least be with you until you get better. About an hour for this sort of thing, before you'll be good to go.
"The weather is," the reaper whispers.
You give it a slight groan in response.
"Stars," it adds.
They're not very good at making conversation.
"We have heard whispers," it says, after a long silence. "You tried once, you will try again."
"There are easier ways to speak."
Was this your plan? Were you trying to summon a reaper, as much as kill off your character? You're not sure. Sometimes they had things to say, though... guidance for the nearly dead, tips, purpose, insight. Information.
"The tyrant is undying like the trickster," it says. "And yet we know the trickster. The tyrant never comes to our door, not even to knock. The trickster must find another way. She must trick."
Another reaper coalesces on your other side. You can't so much see it as you are simply... aware of its presence, cold but not, there but not. A bleeding of worlds.
"Knock," it whispers, its voice like dry leaves, blowing in the wind.
It touches your chest, a deep, piercing cold that fills you from the inside out. You try to scream, but you can't. It's worse than the pain, deeper, deeper...
Behind the worlds is darkness, cold, emptiness. Behind the emptiness is weight, deeper than anything. In the void is light, stars gleaming, piercing. For a moment, they are all around, in the cold. For a moment, they are you, and then the weight presses in, crushing, crushing...
When you awaken, you are alone. The cold is gone, the only chill remaining the soft wet of the evening breeze. You are whole again, recovered.
You get up. Look around. You're alone. Bones crack and crunch underfoot. Sand also crunches. You go to the water, further down, the small waves lapping. They lap at your feet. You laugh at them, and they part around your feet instead. You step atop them and they bear your weight unhappily, and you dance over humps and breakers as they give a bit below you. You make ripples, and the ripples make ripples. Waves in the waves.
This amuses you for a bit.
Most things amuse you for a bit.
The first time you tried, you sent him into orbit. He came down, eventually. But it took awhile. Space kills most things, but not the likes of you...
That was something the librarian had mentioned. Orbit is not terminal. You need terminal velocity.
(it's actually 'escape velocity', sort that out later)
Why are you the one fighting him? He is an evil god, a god of strife and tyranny, who takes control and lords over and destroys all that he can all in the name of fear and power... where are the good gods to counter him? You, you're a trickster. You sow chaos and confusion, break things apart, cause riots and uprising. You break things because they're important to people, play on taboos, make personal fear real. But you stick to the edges of society. You don't take it over.
Is it because he threatens even you? If he destroys society, after all, how will you poke holes in it? Large groups, structured groups, are so much more interesting to plant your seeds in...
And they don't even know you're here. The people only see the Artos, large and unstoppable and horrible, having taken his prominent position in the center of everything. You're just a wanderer who showed up one day. Almost a hero, but not even that. Hung around a bit. And with Artos here, you're just... leaving.
But you do need to stop him. You know he's unkillable; this has been established. He's like you, but stronger, so, so much stronger...
Launching him into space when he could just get back didn't work. He didn't die. But launching him out entirely, take away anything he could use to propel himself... you're familiar with swimming. Take away his limbs. As long as he's not dead...
(Alternately: seriously what happened to the good gods? Is this why she doesn't remember, why she isn't the constant presence she... probably should be? She's way dumber than a proper trickster would be...)