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Ava at the Gate

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Ava was the last shard of the Laetha. After his fires had burned the valleys and the god had sundered the world, all that was left was a seed.

the Clarene took the seed - bright as a ruby, round as a heart - and kept it in a box. The Holy Mother had thousands of boxes, packed to the brim with seeds or bones or the essence of ideas, but she stowed Ava's box closest to her, just inside her coat pocket. For a century, or a decade, or an age, the seed lay, quiet and dark.

And for a century, or a decade, or an age, the West was silent and sundered. The spirits kept their prayers, but each day they felt the world grow quieter. The River was slowing to standstill. The fields were not blooming as before.

Still, the seed waited. When the raids came to her stores, the Clarene swallowed her whole - her and a thousand other seeds and plants and dreams. Her harvests may have been destroyed and her plants mangled, but she would cough up the ruby seed and everything else, nursing a new orchard again.

No matter how many times the fires came, she would build her rebellion - seed by seed.

But holy seeds devoured by holy gods could not stay dormant forever, and one day after the raid had passed through her home, the Clarene spat out not a cold ruby heart but a piping hot gem.

"I have no place to bury you," the Clarene said to the seed in her hands. She only glowed in reply.

So the Clarene thought of her graveyards and she thought of her farms. She thought of her cities and towers, but still no burial home came to mind.

With a lion's roar, she took the blazing hot kernel and shoved it in her chest. She fell, the pain as the shard exploded in her heart too much, and as the spirit grew in her ribcage, eating her heartstrings with hungry red teeth, the Clarene sobbed. For it had been a century, or a decade, or an age, and she had still not mourned the son that she had crafted. How could she mourn when his fires devastated her forests and he laid waste to the land, his very own self?

She sobbed through the pain, and even after the pain, until her tears had run out and she felt more like a river than a mountain.

Four hands brushed against her arms, curled up as she was on the floor. "Hello, Holy Mother," two distinct voices called. the Clarene opened her eyes, looked up and saw before her two glowing girls with wings of red and cheeks full of shimmering tears.

"I am Ava," said the first, with hair like gold down to her waist.

"I am Alma," said the other, with hair like an inky halo around her head.

Before her stood the two girls who had torn her chest open, left her hollow, and they stood no taller than young children. She had created skyscrapers from her pinkie, griffins and monstrous lions from mud and muck, but when her pain had shattered into the last shard she possessed of her son, that great bird of fire, she had created not monsters but girls.

(Girls were, of course, monsters, but in their own way, in their own time.)

"We ate your heart," Ava apologized, helping lift the Clarene up to standing. Great globs of blood flowed from the gaping hole in the god's chest, and she swooned.

"We'll pick you a new one," Alma promised, rushing to hold the Clarene up as well.

And so they did. They took her to her bed and wrapped her in her quilts, and they lit the lanterns and closed the curtains. Alma stayed beside the god as she recovered, sewing up each wound and rebuilding every body with mud and spit. Ava returned every day with herbs and fruits and flesh, and she stirred together soups and stews of every flavor. They placed in the Clarene's hands a home-grown heart, and with the help of their small hands she sewed herself right again.

Her heart, when it beat once again, was like fire. She blamed the girls - Ava for picking a heart from the pepper fields, really now, child? and Alma, for sewing her together with spit like lava - but this fire was a gift. All her calm rebellion, all her slow plots, tended like her orchards, cultivated like her fields -

They would not do.

"Ava, Alma," the Clarene cried, rising from the bed with long strides, her scars still bubbling and healing across her chest, gold and thorns flowing from her feet.

"Yes, Holy Mother?" the girls answered, following behind, hands still bloody from the work they had done.

"You are Laethas, yes?" the god asked, hurrying still through her farms and fields, desperate seeds sprouting from the earth while other places lay covered in ash. She waved her great hands at them, and the once tiny saplings shuddered and grew, creaking and groaning as they expanded into trees, into towering giants. Vines and grasses sprouted from her as she walked, and she tossed to the ground a thousand seeds that shot up and away, and the world rose like a bright flower around her.

"We are Laethas, yes," the girls replied, running to catch up with the Clarene's long strides. The grass stuck to their bare feet, but from their soles came mushrooms and poppies, and the world breathed a better kind of fire as they walked upon it.

"Good," was all the Clarene said. She stopped, so abruptly the girls toppled right into her legs, and with stiff movements snapped a sharp branch from the nearest tree. She shoved the branch into the earth, and from the wound the soil split in two. The girls, curious as all Laethas are, peered into the chasm, and their eyes widened as they beheld the endless bones within.

"Bring down the lightning and rain," the Clarene called, "bring down the horse of flame and fury. His riders are here; he must hurry!"

And it was only as the storm whirled around them and lightning streaked across the sky that the Clarene turned to her granddaughters born from her own heart and asked, "You can speak to the Thunderhorse, right?"

"Yes, Holy Mother," Ava and Alma replied, and it was not a moment too late. Lightning swirled and struck the bones in the ground, and a great whinny was heard throughout the newborn forest. the Clarene shielded her eyes to the light, but as the horse of black and white was crawling up from his grave, Ava and Alma watched calmly. He stamped at them, far larger than either of them could ever be, but they only had to hold up one bloodied gold-fingered hand for him to calm and bow.

And the Clarene had seen her son calm the beast born from storm and sand, but even the Laetha as a young man had not been able to quell the Thunder so easily.

"He must go," the Clarene said, watching her granddaughters, "to the Dierne. He must leave this world, no matter the cost, no matter the trial."

Alma leaned close to the horse and whispered her commands, and the horse huffed and stomped and, with the sound of thunder on his hooves, ran for the edge of the world.

It was a century, or a decade, or an age before she heard those footsteps again, and her fields had felt the fires of her son-now-oppressor badly. She had grown and grown, planted and sown, but even with the help of the girls they could not keep up. The land was dying. Her son was dying. He shrieked every night in the mountains, his great fires and beak reaching up to the sky in search of something he had lost, and she could do nothing. (And she kept the girls away, for they wore their divinity plainly with three gold tears staining each cheek. She had lost enough to the fires and rage. She would lose no more than she must.)

But she heard them again, her body tucked around an apple seedling that she prayed would survive. The loud boom of thunder, just outside the world. And then, deep in her bones, a great shudder, and then another - louder and louder, as if someone were knocking with a great hammer.

She rushed to her home, crying, "Alma! Ava!" But the girls of gold and ink were already upon her, their eyes alight with holy fires of hope, and with crackles of flame and light they flew on horseback to the Gate - long-locked, long-closed.

The great black steel creaked and boomed, and each crack brought a greater shake to the Clarene's bones. She would not be able to stand if it went on for longer, but the girls beside her remained calm, their fiery eyes watching as the metal contorted and screamed.

It was with one last crash that the Gate gave, and the once melded steel split apart.

(And a great cry, a sob, a name, "Asier!")

It was as if the Clarene could breathe again. It was as if the entire world of the West could breathe again, and with each breath the fires of pain and hate dimmed.

But the solution is never so simple.

The Thunderhorse stood there, yes, the Dierne - Pallis, that boy of stars, beloved among men - holding onto his reigns. But his face was stricken, and he was older in the way of one that does not age. the Clarene saw his gaze, those blue-sky eyes as they rested into the world of the West. Where was his joy at his return home? Where was his ecstasy?

And then her eyes fell to the yellow-haired boy laying on the ground, glowing faintly with light, his back bent at a horrifying angle.

the Clarene did not have to see more than the three gold tears on his cheeks to know him. Oh, she knew him. She had known him always, and she knew now that death was not fixable, this was not a wound she could mend.

Pallis's cry was unlike one she had ever heard him give, and she realized too she was calling out - calling to the son she had lost before knowing, calling out to a part of her, a part of her world that had broken himself so completely in order to right the world back into place.  For who could right the West into place?

Only the one who had ripped it apart.

She was ready to mourn as well as the Ophelia did when Ava jumped from her horse, her gold tresses and white dress whirling about her into light and wings.

"Big brother!" she cried, and perhaps it was her high voice or her call, but the spirits gathered looked to her as she ran to the body of Asier. Her great wings dwarfed her body, and she wrapped them around the body of the boy as gently as she could.

"Big brother," she repeated, lifting him with her wings and turning his face to hers. His eyes were closed, but blood had trickled from his head and his body was contorted, every bone but his skull broken. "Don't cry," she said, leaning toward him.

"Don't cry," Alma repeated, a prayer caught on the wind.

"He's dead, don't you get it?" Pallis sobbed, still rooted outside the West, not captivated by Ava any longer as she held Asier in her arms and wings. "This place and your fairy tales - he's dead!"

But Ava did not pay heed to his words, and she dipped her head again, her words whispered to the heart of the dead boy under her.

(They will say the Laethas don't have hearts, but this is just untrue. They are golden or steel or code, yes - but they are hearts all the same.)

Her words were soft, almost no more than moving of her lips. Nothing more than a prayer, whispered straight to the god she was and held in her arms.

"Fires of the world, wake up again."

And speaking to him, her gold and white draping over his body, Asier opened his eyes to a body that stitched itself together again and found himself in a world too bright to be real.