They can move moons, but apologies escape them.
“You’re a stranger to this world,” she said, following his gaze somewhere off into the indistinct middle-distance.
“I was a stranger to my own,” he replied, his voice soft, distracted, damped by the canopy overhead and the ochre drifts of pine needles beneath their weary feet.
Curious of their presence, a nearby rise in chatter from a cluster of songbirds caught her attention, and she half-smiled looking upward to the forest canopy. Her love of wildlife, the woodlands, the innocent wilderness, survived long after she herself had not. If anything, to exist untethered from time and the deceitfully self-important bonds of her former earthly existence had only amplified her appreciation of the ephemeral. This was why she found him so intriguing, so crucial, and so terrifying.
The unseen sky above the trees, having been overcast all morning, set loose its first cadences of rain. Her eyes were pulled again to him - she had been told the stories, but never seen for herself. His reaction stayed true to account, utterly reinforced the lovely but fearsome ‘other’ that hung about him quiet as a cloud.
“I’d never felt rain before,” he said, his face and palms held upward to the downpour, his eyes closed. “Not until coming here, you know?”
She knew it wasn’t a question to be answered, turning her own face upward again to join him instead. And all at once it hit her, just how many ages it had been since she’d actually felt the rain on her face as a single thing unhindered. Free of discomfort or inconvenience, not some obstacle between here and now and wherever one had to so desperately be.
“We should be going,” he said, his voice still soft, reverential, but alarmingly close somehow.
Startled, she couldn’t help a sudden step back, and his fallen expression broke her heart. She opened her mouth to apologize but he held up a hand, shaking his head. His gaze was on the forest floor as he turned, heavy boots silent as Death despite the blanket of twigs and dried needles.
“It’s not far now,” she called after him, feebly. “I ... it wasn’t-“
“Thank you for the rain, Alaera,” he said, pausing between steps.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. “Ethan.”
At the sound of his name, his real name, he turned. His eyes had gone a sudden staggering shade of blue, supernaturally bright and almost luminescent in the forest dusk. Another story about him proven true, she studied his face.
“Sadness...” she murmured. “What the blue means.”
His cheeks and eyes flashed a brief shade of red, realizing he was being evaluated.
“Stop it,” he said, turning.
The rest of their journey through the forest was in silence, save the occasional birdsong and the intermittent rain.
Two things were at first apparent upon reaching the forest’s edge. They had climbed higher than Ethan realized, were almost above the clouds themselves. And the moon - the Witness Moon, the smaller blue one, the one he liked - had waxed near to full during their several days spent within the woods. His mind, always grasping, fired a rapid succession of explanations for why it seemed so massive in the sky. The elevation, atmospheric lensing, its position, low on the horizon.
None of them worked. It shouldn’t have been so impossibly big before them, and yet, there it was.
“They hoped it would bring you comfort,” Alaera said, coming up beside him. “We know it’s more like yours than the other.”
“It is,” Ethan said, still staring.
“You’ll see it again,” she reassured him.
Alaera put her hand on his shoulder.
“You’ve lost so many friends here,” she said. “Lost love, as well.”
He looked at her, caught her eyes with his own. They were still blue, but had now been flecked with a deep violet that reminded her somehow of two young galaxies, swirling across space and time in a distant, uncrossable void.
It might well have been the loneliest thing she’d never seen.
“Isn’t that the way of it, everywhere,” he said, and she nodded.
A low, not unpleasant tolling of bells began to drift down the mountainside toward them, and Ethan felt his spine stiffen. The hair on his neck and arms lifted as an unnatural calm fell around them.
Just beneath the moon at the mountain’s peak, a patch of dark clouds danced and coalesced. The shadows within grew substance and form, and as the bells tolled their last, a stone structure materialized out of the gloom and stood, mocking his unbelieving eyes in its glory, testament to the weight of its sudden significance.
“Tell me about Ronan,” she said, catching him off-guard.
“He’s a friend,” Ethan mused. “I trust him.”
They stood at the main entryway to the Cloud Cathedral, her hand resting on one of the large, cast-iron door latches.
“And how you met?”
He smiled, looking down as he traced along the carved marble floor with the sole of his boot.
“It was dark,” he remembered. “Late, and cold, damp like it often was back ... back home.”
“You were injured?” she asked.
“My pride, more than anything.”
They’d been waiting, knew his routine apparently. He’d been drinking, felt more sorry for himself than most nights, missed the telltale signs all along the path from there to where he’d parked.
There were four of them, brigands, thieves, killers, drunks like him, as well. Three he’d seen, the fourth he’d shot by ear, ten meters off the path and halfway up a stout oak, or whatever they called an oak tree here. Even deep in his cups as he was, he heard the nock and draw of a recurve bow ages before they’d stepped out in front of him, blades drawn.
Their bones might still be where he left them, but honestly he hadn’t given it a lot of thought since. Things quickly became ... complicated, after that night.
He’d reached the clearing where he left his ship, but his hackles had never quite gone down, even though the threat had long since passed. Something else was out there, something cunning. But then everything here was cunning, he knew. What kept his alarm bells ringing, whatever it was, was just how quiet it had to be for him not to hear, and how fast just to keep up.
It wasn’t a man, bigger by far, instinctive but, he couldn’t be sure - curious? - about him perhaps, but perhaps just as curious what his insides looked like scattered about on the outside.
“Commander,” his ship said softly in his ear.
“I know, Seraph,” he whispered back. “Be ready.”
“On your call,” she confirmed.
A faint hum began to emanate from the ship, powering herself up quietly as she could. Had he time, he would’ve remarked again on the brilliance of Seraph’s AI, but he’d settle for letting her save his ass for the thousandth time.
As he closed the distance to the ship, Ethan saw it quick flit past the shadows in his peripheral vision. The urge to stop dead or run screaming in the opposite direction was almost overwhelming. It was huge, some great cat of some kind, easily his height just at the shoulder alone, and it’d somehow flanked him in a wide open field. Something tugged at the deep reaches of his memory but his basic survival instinct overrode it.
“Seraph,” he said, slowly reaching back and gripping his guns. “Do it.”
A fast, high-pitched whine erupted from the ship, half a million lumen flooding out into the pitch black clearing. Two gauss cannon chain-guns burst from their recesses in the hull and honed in on their interloping guest. Ethan turned and drew down as well, searching the tall grass for any movement. Something tugged again at his memory, but he pushed it aside.
“Show yourself,” he said, calm and cold.
A low, threatening growl was the immediate response. Seraph answered.
All around them, great divots of earth and grass leapt fifteen meters into the air, which itself almost shimmered in the sheer assault of sound from the ship’s guns. After a moment, Ethan held up a hand and the guns fell silent, the clearing calm.
Two eyes, glowing golden in the floodlights’ glare, slowly rose above the tall grass, and rose, and rose some more. The great cat - something like a jaguar, he could see now - looked slowly to the ship, then to the guns in Ethan’s hands, then it met his gaze and held it. The memory he’d pushed aside before returned, and he dropped his weapons without another thought.
“Stand down,” he whispered. “Just—“
Seraph had already reholstered her cannons and dropped all but a single floodlight. The great cat, still entirely silent, plodded its way across the newly war-torn ground between them. It was the size of a Clydesdale, its eyes looking straight through him, straight into his soul.
“You’re actually ... real,” Ethan said. “You’re him.”
He couldn’t help reaching upward with his hand, but the cat jerked its head away, growling.
“I’m sorry,” Ethan said, chuckling. “I never thought for a day you were really here.”
They locked eyes again, and Ethan felt a quick twinge of sadness on realizing what the great cat’s appearance meant.
“I know you’re alone,” he murmured. “I know you’re lost, and heart-broken, and scared.”
The cat narrowed its eyes, turning its head to one side out of curiosity.
“But I know it doesn’t last forever,” Ethan said. “I can help you...”
After a moment, the great beast took several steps toward him, then paused to match his gaze one last time. Then it brushed past him, nearly knocking him over, flicking him lightly in the face with its tail. Ethan laughed, watching it bound away into the darkness.
“How did you know?” Alaera asked.
“That he’d fallen?” Ethan confirmed quickly.
She could only nod.
He was silent for a while, and she could tell he was mustering up the nerve to trust her with something bigger than the both of them.
“The one who ... sent me here,” he began. “He told me a story from his childhood, about his gods and their capriciousness, their cruelty. To his kind, and their own.”
She waited for him to continue.
“His favorite god, from the stories at least, once defended their kind from the others. And for it, he fell.”
“And he forgot what he was, walked as a beast among the mortals for a thousand years,” Alaera said. “Until a strange knight in black armor found him, saved him, and brought him home.”
Ethan shook his head. “He never told me that part.”
“It wasn’t written yet,” she said, thinking.
“If it’s true,” Ethan began. “What happened to turn a god against his own kind?”
Alaera sighed. Her hand slipped off the door latch, and she knelt to sit on one of the stairs leading up to the cathedral doors.
“Which god?” she asked sadly. “And which time?”
Ethan sat poking at a small fire with a stick, watching the sparks billow upward toward the forest canopy above. The color of his eyes matched the flickering tips of flame dancing before them. He cast a deep sigh into the night air, rubbing his face with his free hand.
When he looked up again, Ronan was sitting beside him, sharing his log.
“You turned them down,” he said.
“They aren’t gods,” he said. “They’re all just ... off-worlders, same as me.”
“And me?” Ronan asked.
“Still figuring that out,” Ethan said, looking back to his fire. “But it should have been you to hear the Call.”
Ronan pushed him gently.
“I will again someday,” he said. “They can help you get home, you know.”
Ethan was quiet for a moment, eventually shaking his head.
“I am home, Ronan.”
The young god smiled, putting an arm around Ethan, pulling him tight against him briefly.
“I liked you better as a cat, though,” Ethan said, elbowing him.