Another scene from the same story as the previous Fiction Friday.
The great Alterian Plains lie flat under the moon, neatly split into squares by irrigation ditches and fields of gently waving, tall green corn. Flat, that is, but for the great dimple in the landscape that is Altre. A tall wall surrounds the rim of the valley, a near-perfect circle, and beyond that there is a steep drop of dozens of feet, a maze of ramps and stairs and winding paths carved into the cliff-face, carefully designed so that any army which might breach the wall finds itself exposed to the thousand and more wizards that dwell within the tower at the valley’s bottom.
Beneath the cliffs is the great smooth bowl of Altre itself, greatest city of the world, descending ranks of houses and banks and guildhalls and marketplaces, twelve great concentric rings surrounding the Academy Lake at the center. Just off from the center of that lake is the Academy Island itself, joined by thirteen bridges–some might arcs of stone, some slender and wooden, and one just a train of barges roped together long ago–to the innermost ring of the city. At the center of the island is yet another lake, this one artificial, and in the center of that an outcropping of rock, from which rises the great Tower of the Academy. So it is that, despite being well-known as the tallest building in the world, the top of the tower is just about level with the plains. On the other hand, should one step off the edge of the roof, the drop is quite a few hundred feet.
Hundreds of feet in the other direction, silhouetted against the moon, Aldhea danced. Great leathery wings beat slowly as she looped and dove, claws outstretched, her green and golden scales pale and ghostly in the moonlight. Below, those few citizens out and about at this hour of the night looked up to watch her. It was said that the rare dance of the Archon brought luck to those who saw it, that she wove moonlight into the very threads of magic that permeated and sustained the world, that in her dance were encoded secrets of the distant past and the possible future.
In truth, she mostly did it because sitting atop the Tower of the Academy in quiet contemplation all day, every day made her muscles stiff.
After a half-hour or so, feeling thoroughly stretched out and rejuvenated, she folded her wings and plummeted toward the city. At the last moment before striking the tower, she snapped her enormous wings out, coming to a complete stop barely a man’s height above the tower. She stretched out her claws and settled onto the roof, curling her sinuous length around the perimeter and settling her oddly feline head on her claws.
“Hello again,” said a precise, slightly fussy voice.
The great dragon jerked in surprise, then whipped her head around on its long neck to stare at the little man standing in her shadow. “Who’s there?” she demanded. “How did you get up here?”
“Forty million years ago,” he said by way of answer, “this was the surface of an inland sea. A thousand years from now, it will be a crumbling ruin.” He stepped out into the moonlight, a scruffy man in a worn black jacket, wearing a round black cap with a narrow brim.
“Ah,” said Aldhea. “Albrecht.”
He bowed with the air of one making a joke at the expense of everyone in the room, especially himself. “Archon,” he said. “Or do you prefer ‘Empress’ these days?”
She waved a dismissive claw. “You know perfectly well I care nothing for such human nonsense as titles.”
Albrecht arched an eyebrow. “And yet…” He gestured at the city around them.
“It has to be this way,” she said. “You know that. We’re not like you.”
“No,” he admitted. “No, you’re not.”
“So what brings you?” she asked. “I assume you’re not here to rehash old arguments.”
Albrecht smiled. “Oh, but I do so enjoy doing it!” His smile faded. “But no. I’m here to warn you. War is coming.”
Aldhea laughed. “Is it really?” She partially uncurled herself, rearing up and spreading her wings. “I’ve been watching the humans a long time, Albrecht. War is always coming somewhere. If it comes here, it comes here–it would hardly be the first time, nor the last.”
Albrecht shook his head. “This one is different,” he explained. “Forces building up for centuries are about to move.”
Aldhea snorted. “What forces are there besides us?” she asked. Above her, the full moon winked out, its light extinguished. “So long as we have the humans, nothing can harm us. And so long as the humans have us, some of them will survive.” The moonlight returned.
“Are you quite done?” asked Albrecht, though his tone remained light. “You think you and the other Archons are all powerful. Has the worship of humans gone to your heads?”
“We control the elements of which this world is made,” countered Aldhea. “We are all powerful–and I am the strongest of all.” Albrecht gasped and crumpled to the ground, as if an enormous weight were crushing him–which, in a sense, it was. “You would do well not to forget that.”
“My warning is given,” he choked out. “War is coming, and Archon and human alike will burn. Be ready.”
And then he was gone. Aldhea blinked at the space where he’d been, then gave a shrug with began at her shoulders and then rolled backwards along a good thirty feet of spine. It was his way, after all, and she’d grown more than used to it by now.
Honestly, what nonsense. A war that could threaten her? Not even one of the other Archons could match her power, except maybe the one, and if he came back, well, it wouldn’t be just her he’d have to fight. And even if the unthinkable happened, it wasn’t like she’d be dead for long.
Still, if war was coming it was best to be ready for it. In the morning she’d talk to the Deans about strengthening the military and trying to identify where the war would break out. They’d complain about the timing, of course, and who could blame them–this was going to wreak havoc on the research schedules. She sighed; the life of a scholar-god-empress was full of compromises.