Copyright © T.A. Miles
A circle of figures stood upon the immaculate floor. Five individuals as different from one another as the realms they governed.
A butterfly, beautiful beyond compare with silken black hair, opalescent skin, and delicate wings painted in a mosaic of lavender, gold, and blue;
A wasp whose upper body resembled a man's torso, leanly muscular but with transparent wings at his back and glossy obsidian skin from head to torso to the narrowing bulb made complete with a swordlike stinger that shaped his lower body;
A dragonfly who appeared as a well-dressed, flaxen-haired elf with two sets of fragile wings held horizontally at his back and eyes which reflected the morning sky;
A bat, reticent in expression, but with eyes afire and his dark wings a leathery mantle about his broad shoulders;
And an owl, stoic and observant with large orange eyes and hair the same silver-white as the plumage held in careful folds behind him and forming a delicate 'V' pattern down the center of his forehead and midway down the bridge of his straight nose.
They were unique even among the Fae, outcasts charged by a higher power to be the lords of Amethystia, the caretakers of the fragmented land, of which there was one shard for each of them.
To the Owl went the vast forest of Winterwood, where of all things patience was paramount. Patience tolerated the brisk winds, suffered the bite of an everlasting chill, and brooked the quiet loneliness of a fresh snow falling upon the ivory blanket which incessantly covered the forest floor. Patience allowed for death to be observed rather than dreaded, to be seen for what it truly was; a state of slumber from which came rebirth. And the Owl was nothing, if not patient.
In contrast to the grimness of a perpetuated winter, there existed the Vernal Sky. A realm where the ground appeared featureless and important only in that it served as the bed for pillars of living, budding, greening wood which supported a kingdom of hives-vast networks of hexagonal wax corridors and chambers through which flowed golden rivers that cascaded earthward, nurturing the roots and soil that formed the realm's foundation. It required strength, perseverance, and an imperturbably task-oriented mind to maintain such an exacting system and to protect it. And there could be none more qualified than the Wasp for such a responsibility, for he would sooner perish than forsake his duty.
Summerland welcomed the Odonate, a tapestry of meadows striated with crystalline flows of cool water. They were the veins of life and the inhabitants of the green and gold land who relied on them looked to the Dragonfly to maintain the perfect balance between flood and drought, to monitor summer's erratic moods, to compensate for the changes brought on by rain, from gentle shower to torrential downpour, and to know when there has been one day of perfect sunshine too many. He did, and he did so most often with a gentle smile. For it was not Summer's temperament that the Dragonfly feared, but the Convergence, the irrefutable and inevitable...the unavoidable devastation war would bring to the shattered realms if the discord between their realms was permitted to carry on.
War. Fire. Destruction. Such was the wont of the Bat, who ruled the Autumn Hills, an uneven terrain carpeted with leaf litter cast down once and long ago from the limbs of gnarled trees that would never again turn a new leaf. The over-bright sun of a clear day or the errant lightning of a sudden storm set random fires to dried bedding, creating black smudges on the landscape that were only slightly less abysmal at a glance than the mouths of the caves set deep into the undulating land. The Bat craved the burning, desired the chaotic essence of the flame, and also despised it. For in the wake of the burning, there came damage, rot; a slow death. He would fight mercilessly to alter that fate, to escape the withering of his Autumn realm.
And in the accounting of seasons-of the aspects of life and death and living and dying-there was one left without; The Vale of Shadow. It was a realm that knew no season and yet was intimate with all seasons. Set at the center, it was surrounded by the other fragments. It was graced with Summer, provided long days that cast long shadows over oblique horizons. It was touched by Autumn, death's prelude, which sapped the vigor from all forms of life in the Vale. It was cursed with Winter, a period of cold unlife when deep shadows opened like starving mouths to swallow whatever light or warmth they touched. And it was blessed with Spring, with rejuvenation.
It was unstable, detestable. For in the Vale existed a sampling of the Convergence and it was only the Butterfly's adaptability that enabled him to survive it.
For Commoners it would not be such a trial. For ordinary folk such a chaotic environment would be expected, welcomed even. For the Fae it was a taste of the Underworld, a glimpse into the forsaken realm which they had always condemned the Banal to, or thought the mortals were condemned to just in being mortal. What the Fae needed, what they were tortured and threatened without was Harmony, Elysian concordance, Paradise, Spring Eternal...Arcadia...home. Amethystia was not home. The nearest to it was the Vernal Sky and it was not enough. It was only a fragment, a remnant of memory drowned beneath the violet cast of a foreign sky. Amethystia was nothing...and yet, it was everything. It was all the five lords had and would ever have, so long as they remained in exile. And it is for that reason that they have gathered on the morn of the first day of a new millennium-
The first day of a renewed sentence.
There had been a scream somewhere, a howl of anguish that ripped through the veil of dawn's mist and resonated deep into each of Amethystia's realms. It was not only heard, but felt exquisitely by each of the realm's lords. It was the sound of return, of condemnation, of isolation, and of a despair so pure it was almost tangible. Silence reigned afterward beneath the leafy dome of the Meeting Hall.
At some length there came a delicate sound of contemplation from the Butterfly. With a sigh as impossible to read as the serenity of his expression, he said, "Restraint is an interesting thing. One can exercise it on himself, or he can allow others to employ it against him."
The others allowed him his observation, uttering not a single word amongst themselves as they faced one another in a collected state of confusion, dismay, anger, and ultimately resignation. Resignation had come first and easily to the Butterfly, as he'd been expecting the continuation of their exile. He had been braced for it for centuries, for so long in fact that he had almost come to want it. What would he have done now in Arcadia? What would any of them have done? It was no more home to them than Amethystia ever had been. In fact, Amethystia was more home to them now and if taken from it, if thrust into a unified world from a broken one, into peace and harmony from chaos and struggle...what would happen to them? What, the Butterfly wondered, indeed?
The Butterfly bowed his head thoughtfully. Long silken strands of raven dark hair slipped past his shoulders and almost brushed the floor at his feet. He saw himself reflected in that floor and looked with a sense of pride and fascination at what he had become, how he'd changed over the centuries. Amethystia had changed him, made him more beautiful. His hair had gone blacker than night, cloaking his slim physique that was otherwise draped in a cassock predominately white with a geometric pattern to match his wings in color as well as design embroidered down the front of it. His dark hair accentuated the soft pale of his skin, which in turn accentuated the natural dark of his lips that were exquisitely shaped and drew attention to the brilliant gold and gray-flecked green of his eyes as well as the black diamond-shaped mark at the center of his brow. What would become of him if he should be taken from the realm that had shaped him as much as he had shaped it?
"So it is decided, then," said the Wasp, whose constantly humming wings added voice to the hall even without words from his lips. "We remain here."
The Butterfly justified taking his gaze from his own reflection as his eyes settled on the bold and strange beauty that was the Wasp. His arms were a man's pair but his legs were six in number and the frail-looking appendages of an insect. He elected not to stand upon them but to utilize his invisibly quick wings to hover above the floor, eager as he ever was to return to the Vernal Sky. Everything about him seemed to illustrate an orderly rush, including the straight, almost cut angles of his face as well as his extremely short-cropped hair that was the same shade of pitch as his shining skin. Were it not for the erratic hints of color-green, blue, and violet-that glistened in his eyes, it would be difficult to descry any detail from his features at all other than sculpted black.
"The Autumn Hills cannot withstand another thousand years," the Bat announced and the Butterfly's kaleidoscopic eyes narrowed with automatic contempt as he suffered himself to look upon the rakish form of his fellow lord. The leathery brown wings wrapped the Bat's lean body like a cloak, leaving only black boots and a russet-crowned head to view. The face flaunted a certain aquiline grace, but it happened to be skewed by the gaunt length. His lack of expression posed an air of dignity and composure that was belied by the fire in his amber eyes. "The land is scarred," he continued. "The trees are barren, the sky unforgiving. There is no relief, no healing. Only gradual ruination. It is the Dwindling."
"You may be right," said the Owl, whose voice was one of calm and reason, an intangible hand of paternal guidance that had without doubt earned the respect of all within the Meeting Hall-including the Butterfly, whose features softened almost with deference when he transferred his gaze to the Lord of Winterwood. "My own realm feels colder recently. Colder even than the animals with the thickest pelts care to suffer."
"It seems we have but one alternative to a slow demise," the Bat decided.
"Yes, and that is a quick end," the Butterfly reminded, the satin of his tone undisturbed by the disturbing words and the distressing thoughts that inspired them. "I know of what you would speak, and I should remind you that I do not favor that path."
Fire came to already burning eyes as the Bat said, "I welcome it. We all should."
Calmly, almost sweetly, "You would welcome what you cannot possibly understand. Perhaps had you witnessed dying, as I have."
The Owl interjected with his temperate voice. "There is chaos and death in the Vale, but is there not also a period of rejuvenation to ameliorate for the losses your realm suffers?"
"There is rejuvenation," the Butterfly admitted, looking at the Owl. "Rebirth of life from the frigid nothing of Winter. It thrives for a time in Spring, flounders through Summer if it does not drown first in the flood of sudden storm, or wither in the heat of drought. If it lasts to Autumn it will fade and in Winter returned, fall again into the piteous throes of life ending." The Butterfly cast multicolored eyes at the sleek brute that was the Bat. "So, you see it means very little that more life will be birthed. In the end, the new life faces the same pointless, grievous end as the old."
"Do not attempt to allay my point with your tenebrous speeches," snarled the Bat. "You are vain and selfish, and for that it is your realm, the Vale of Shadow, that I shall take first. When your wings are thoroughly detached from your body, left but tattered banners of defeat flapping in the winds of change, I will offer allegiance to the others and pray they accept. While it would only please me to see you suffer, I would not relish causing pain to the others."
Pearlescent teeth peeked through the Butterfly's dark lips. "As ever, you are as ignorant as you are unsightly. I see we shall remain enemies for another millennium"-the delicate visage formed a rare and almost frightening scowl-"because I would sooner see to my own disfigurement than allow the Convergence to take place."
"Come now, my friends." At last, the gentle Dragonfly. He actually stepped toward the center of the grand floor to put himself between the two longtime opponents. "Surely, there is no need for mutilation, self-inflicted or otherwise. Surely, there must be something we can do to achieve a unity between our realms." He was like a child among them. So innocent, so mercifully and yet dangerously naïve.
"Unity bespeaks the Convergence," the Butterfly reminded. Although he was touched by this one's guileless nature, he never spared the comely Odonate his naïveté. The tragedy his chain of thought would evolve to if woven with lies-even the smallest of them-could not be afforded.
"What do you suggest?" asked the Owl, whose proclivity happened to be patience-with all of them. Honest, caring, and at times utterly intolerable, thought the Butterfly, whose tiny frown went unnoticed by his peers.
The Dragonfly ran a hand through his crown of golden curls, blinking lavender eyes in contemplation. He wanted to suggest something. The truth of the matter was that he had nothing to suggest, and eventually, he admitted that. "I don't know. I just..." He sighed and shrugged. A helpless gesture. "There must be something we can do other than fight one another."
"Must there?" said the Butterfly, gemstone eyes finding the Bat, who glared in return.
"We can keep to ourselves," the Wasp decided and the Butterfly watched him raise himself further from the floor with his restless wings. "If we do not, it seems we must combat each other and I do not desire that. I do not desire it, but I will do what I must to protect the Vernal Sky."
"Yes," purred the Butterfly in a tone that suggested admiration. "You would destroy us all, wouldn't you?"
The Wasp's iridescent eyes flashed, perhaps in shifting their focus to the Butterfly, but one could not be certain. He said nothing. Nor, for that matter, did anyone else.
Something akin to laughter, but that was actually far from it, carried on the Butterfly's next breath. "Well, since it seems that none of us are any the wiser, but all the more condemned, I'll be leaving." He turned, dark lips curled into a smile that meant something different for each of the others, and walked away. Particles of argentine light stirred in his wake, building with each step he took and soon rising, spiraling upward, coalescing about him and appearing to swallow him in a sudden cyclonic surge of light. The faery-sized funnel closed in on itself and was gone, the Butterfly with it.
"I shall take my leave as well," announced the Wasp and he vanished in a similar fashion, having flown toward the archway of his choice, rather than walked.
There came a long silence after the departure of the lords of the Vernal Sky and of the Vale of Shadow.
Slowly, the Dragonfly lowered his arms that had been hovering in a display of helpless
entreaty. One hand fell to his hip and the other lifted to scratch his blond head.
"Well, they handled that just swimmingly, didn't they?"
"X'ryx has always had his mind preoccupied with the overwhelming duties he has placed upon himself as the custodian of the Vernal Sky," explained the Owl, electing now to use names.
"And Maal has never been easily upset."
"There is fear in him," assured the Bat.
The Dragonfly allowed the words to settle, having nothing to add to them directly. In a moment, he asked, "What will we do then?"
"What we have always done," answered the Bat. "Protect our realms from one another as we fight for and against the Convergence."
The Dragonfly observed his fellow lord thoughtfully. "You would attempt to force it? You are so sure the Convergence is salvation for Amethystia?"
The Bat answered without answering. "If you are my ally, I bid you farewell. If you are my enemy, then beware." On those words, he opened his wings in an impressive and sudden display of dark, leathery skin with prominent angles and black claws protruding from the joints. The mantle spanned easily twice his height, giving a glimpse of a man dressed mostly in black before wrapping him again and stealing him away in the blink of an eye.
"Mmh," sighed the Dragonfly somewhat miserably. "Good day to you as well, then."
He didn't notice the Owl's approach until the other's hand was on his shoulder. The Dragonfly looked up at the fair man with feather wings, mildly startled by the contact and warmed by the kindly smile.
"You shouldn't let Ffelyl trouble you, Arisade," the Owl said. "His abrasive nature stems of his own fear. We all handle it differently."
The Dragonfly nodded. "Yes, but perhaps none so well as you, Odaron."
The Owl's smile faded and his hand fell away.
This troubled Arisade. "Odaron? What's the matter?"
"I am not proud of my complaisance," the Owl replied. "I have come simply to accept what seems beyond my control. I fear the Convergence because I know it will bring more than the instability Maal experiences in the Vale of Shadow. I know that it will be a time of tremendous, possibly disastrous change for all our realms. But I also fear the Dwindling, the waning of Amethystia's very essence since its fragmentation. How long before all of it becomes dust, either through fading or with the shattering forces of the Convergence? I am torn, Arisade, as you are. I don't know what to do and so I have chosen to do nothing."
The Dragonfly looked into a bleakness he had not previously known in the Owl's stoic features and he was affected. He reached out to touch the Owl's arm and offered his own smile this time. "Cheer up now, Odaron. It can't be the end of our world yet. We've just been given another thousand years sentence. Perhaps we ought to use it to think things through."
Light returned to the Owl's orange eyes, but dimly. He stepped back and fanned his feathered wings that were larger even than the Bat's, and so magnificent. Down escaped the silvery mantle with the action and drifted like snowflakes delivered from his realm to the ornate marble underfoot. "You are gentle and compassionate, Arisade," the Owl said as the down became light and spread like liquid on the floor, painting a broadening circle about his feet. When it was fully drawn, the luminescence sprayed upward, forming a cylinder of shimmering energy. The Owl-looking as a trapped spirit within his magic-concluded, "If there is an answer to our dilemma, I have no doubt that you will discover it, if you think hard enough."
In the next moment, he was gone and the Dragonfly stood alone beneath the verdant canopy of the Meeting Hall. Several moments drifted by in utter silence. A long enough time for a leaf to drift down from the dome overhead and for Arisade to notice it. He reached out his hand and caught it by the stem, slowly twirling the specimen between finger and thumb. It was green, healthy he would have thought, except that the veins had suddenly gone dark. They were black in an instant, and the blackness was spreading. Arisade watched with morbid fascination as the infection bled from every thread within seconds and in the next instant, the leaf shriveled...withered and died in his hand. Was this what Maal witnessed when he looked upon-upon dying?
Arisade dropped the leaf and watched it spiral to the floor, where-as if it had been blown glass-it shattered instantly upon contact and crumbled to dust. A small wind stirred in the Meeting Hall and carried the powder away, leaving only a sooty smudge where the blackened leaf had struck the marble.
No, this was not what Maal had seen. Somehow the Dragonfly knew that this was something quite different.
He lifted his gaze to the canopy, which yet remained green. And although another leaf did not fall from the entangled boughs, he thought, "Perhaps we don't have a thousand years after all."