Also, I've started posting bits of Seven Wishes over at my IJ, which also has a spiffy modified layout!
The last letter Querian Bang had sent her had been three thousand years ago. Then the repeaters had broken, or something of the sort, and she had not been able to reply. She might have sent a messenger, but the things they spoke of she did not care to trust, even in code, to anyone human. So L'llama sat in her ice-cold fortress and thought, and eventually came to the conclusion that it didn't matter; when the time came, they would have time. It would not be a matter of hours, or even years.
L'llama liked to have people around, but not too many. That was no great difficulty. Not many people cared to live where she did. It was up on the Edge, and so high that the air was barely breathable; the fortress was surrounded by ice, and even hunting parties had to go far downhill to find beasts worth eating. Energy was easy enough; her reactor still worked. It had to, or the fortress would freeze. She monitored it constantly, and wished there was the time, or talent, to make a backup.
As the years went on she spoke less, and left her acolytes to themselves.
The sun kept working; she had been afraid, above all, that it would not. But it was made of sturdier stuff than the repeaters. She sat out on the tower rim, where someone with a body could not go for for fear of a fall even if they could have avoided their blood freezing when the shade hit, and watched it for hours. Sometimes she would watch the plains instead, where vast cities even now stood on the edge of the seas and scattered plots of grain spread like the leaves of the vines that were polished roads.
The plots grew closer to the cities as time went by, and eventually she saw the walls going up around isolated villiages, and thought to herself that one of the pieces had been stolen, and wondered who had stolen it. But even this was not what she waited for. The inhabitants of her fortress knew how to hunt beasts with traps, of necessity. She made sure they passed on the skill of using a sword against a human, as well, just in case.
She was in her own lookout room, brushing her hair. Her hair did not need to be brushed, of course; it did what she told it. But she had always, when she had a body, collected her thoughts while she brushed her hair and braided it each morning, and old habits die hard. She never locked the door. She was a goddess, after all; it was her duty to recieve petitioners.
There were two of them; children about five years old. They were dressed in long fur robes cut too large, as children usually were, and they had the white hair and blue eyes of those whose ancestors had lived on the Edge for generations. She dropped the brush into nonexistence and folded her hands on her lap. "Hello."
"'Lo," said the one in front. "Are you the god? They said the god lived in here."
L'llama smiled. "I'm the god of the fortress, yes. My name is L'llama. Who are you?"
"Don't you know? They say the god knows everything."
"Once upon a time, I did. But things change, and even I can't keep up."
They looked at each other for a moment, with the wordless communication of those who knew each other's every heartbeat. Twins, L'llama decided. They must be twins. The one in front nodded. "I'm Bell. And this is Elidi."
"Welcome, then. Did you just want to know if I existed? Or did you have a question for me?"
"Oh, we have lots of questions," breathed Bell, with eyes that were suddenly glowing.
The lookout room was deep down inside the fortress. Hardly anyone knew it was there anymore. Bell and Elidi came almost every day, though, and nobody seemed to mind their vainishing. Bell was learning swordfighting, and was doing well, with obvious pride. Elidi was not; they had, Bell told L'llama calmly when she asked, agreed that only one of them needed to know. Elidi was better with other things; old artifacts, for example, the libraries that L'llama was a little amazed still worked although she knew they had been built to last, and the cameras and scopes and instruments that still ringed the fortress.
"What if you're seperated?" she asked them. "Wouldn't it be good, then, if you both knew how to use a sword?"
Bell's small pale lips thinned. "We will never be seperated." Elidi reached over and they took each other's hand, and L'llama recalled a time when she had been that close to Querian, and wondered what had happened to it. She wished she could reach out and embrace them both, even now, but she had no arms to hold them, only the flickering lights of a trasnperant imitation of humanity. She was a ghost, and for the first time in thousands of years, she resented it.
She said only, "Be sure you keep close, then. Don't even spend a night apart, if you can help it."
"We will," Elidi answered, with downcast eyes. But Elidi always had downcast eyes.
She knew she didn't have long. The signs were subtle, but present. She watched the tower going up on the curve of the distance, and concluded that she had a few years, at best. She thought about sending a letter to Querian, though a human messenger, but there wasn't anything she could say.
"There are more artifacts than the ones you've been taught about," she told them, the day after they turned eight. "There are places in this fortress that no human has walked in for a thousand years."
They frowned; they knew there were more rooms in the fortress than anyone could use, but to be told there was such a mystery was enticing in a new way. "Will you tell us where they are?" Bell said, after a moment. It was generally Bell who spoke for the two of them. L'llama looked them over. They were old enough now to be in pants and cardigans instead of robes, and wore leather boots, almost certainly too big for them and held on with several pairs of socks, the better to keep the warmth in. She could have made the Fortress a tropical paradise all though, had she cared too, but she was afraid of the heat signatures. Only the bedrooms and the baths and the kitchen were warm enough to wander through unclad.
"Better than that. I'll show you, and walk with you."
Elidi blinked. "You can leave this room?"
"My dear," she said, suppresing a smile, "I am the God of this whole fortress, and the lands about it, not just the room. I cannot wander too far, but I can go far enough to greet hunting parties coming back. Sometimes I do, to see what they have brought. Certainly I can guide you through the forgotten wing."
They followed her eagerly, although occasionally they had to stop to open a door while she glided through it. Two pairs of footfalls left marks in the dust. She hadn't thought it would be so dusty here, and she disliked the implications of it; even if she had taken the wing off the air systems, it shouldn't have collected this thickly.
The twins were too busy staring at the things on the walls to notice. She smiled indulgently, and explained as they went past. These were markers, and these were door locks, and this was a map of the Fortress that showed where each person in it was. At one point she stopped in front of a shut door. "I'm going to show you a trick," she said. "Bell, do you have your sword?"
Bell did, and raised it hesitantly. "What kind of a trick?"
"How to open the doors, even if they're locked, if the power goes out. You see that circular depression in the right lintel? Sitck your sword right through it, then twist right and press down. Don't worry about the damage. There are plenty of doors, and this one's not guarding anything important." L'llama kept her voice even, but it was not until she was partway through her explanation that the realization hit her of what she was showing them how to do. So, it would be their responsibilit. So be it. They were young, but capable.
Bell plunged the blade through the circular design, twisted, and pressed down. There was a thunk and the doors opened a crack.
"You can pull them apart now," she said, and nodded to herself as they did, with calm efficiency.
When they finally reached the hanger, Elidi came alive long enough to gasp at what was inside. Certainly neither of them had seen an ornithopter before, although they might have seen pictures. She explained it to them, carefully, proudly. It had no power source now, but it was still in functional condition; only the coating of dust betrayed its age. She let them sit in the pilot seat and try the controls, just in case.
She left messages for their teachers, saying that Bell and Elidi should be taught as much as possible, as quickly as possible. She trusted in them. They were her hope. She knew that if the worst happened and they were killed, there were others she could send out, but she rather thought the twins had the spirit that would be necessary. She only wished that they had been born a few years earler. What was to come would have been hard enough for a full-grown adult.
There was a road being built out from the tower, toward the sea. She wished she had better warning.
They reminded her of herself, when she was far younger, and curious about everything, and eager, and strong. She had not aged well. The millenia had left her exhausted, and she guarded her treasures jealously. She did not want to admit that within a few years, almost everyone here would be dead. She knew they would not mind dying, not for the sake of the secret that she wanted Bell and Elidi to carry to safety. She knew she would die as well.
L'llama was only a little sorry she wouldn't get to see the ending.
When she saw the attack, there were a few hours. She walked into their room to wake them, and told Bell to pack up everything valuable they had. Elidi she knelt down beside, and tried to look reassuring. "You're going to have to take the ornithopter," she said. "It doesn't have a power source now, but the Fortress's reactor core will power it, if you pull it out."
Elidi would have gone paler, if it were possible for one whose skin was already paper-white. "But won't that - "
"Yes. The power will go out in here, and the heat. It doesn't matter anymore. This place will be overrun. I want you two to get out alive, and I want you to take something with you." She stood, and wrapped her robes around herself, and tried to look composed. Elidi looked a litte scared, but she had taught them well; they knew better than to break.
The important things fit in two bulging packs and a duffle bag, and she led them through the maze into the heart of the fortress. The route was dark, disused but not dusty, and covered with panels that hid things she wished she had the time to destroy. The power room had banks of switches and displays on the walls and a simple cover, about the same size as the duffle bag, in the middle of the floor. Nothing else; it was not a place that was supposed to be used often. By the time they got there alarms were already going off.
There was no time for goodbyes, but she took one anyway, bowing to them in the formal manner. They bowed back. It looked strange on two children who were barely nine, and small for their age.
"It's this console," she said. "Undo the seven latches, and pull striaght up. It's heavy, but the two of you can carry it. "When you have this, go back to my lookout room, and take the library that's hidden under the round blue tile, where I used to sit to talk with you. The tile is loose; you can pry it up with your fingernails. It's silver, and it has its own power and will recognize you. It's the most important thing, understand? You have to keep that library safe. For the eighty million ghosts, don't let it be taken from you. You'll understand. I've left a letter in it, to explain things, once you're somewhere far away and out of danger."
Elidi answerd, voice shaking a little, "I understand. We'll look after it for you."
"Then go right to the ornithopter. The reactor fits directly in. The hangar doors are counterweighted; they'll open if you pull." She would have opened them, but it was a storm outside, and she didn't want the snow to keep them from turning the ornithopter on.
"Alright." Bell was crying, small tiny sniffles that left red eyes in their wake, but kept moving anyway. They flipped up the latches, and each took one of the handles, bracing themselves. L'llama smiled. They pulled hard, and it came free.
The lights went out, except for the tiny glow of the backup lantern. L'llama herself was the biggest source of light in the room. The backup power wasn't designed for the strain of supporting her; she had a few seconds. But that was alright. They knew everything they needed to. "Thank you," she said. "And good luck."
If they answered, she didn't hear it.