1: The Girl from the Sky
A gleam of sunlight caught the polished armour of a Sophist peacekeeper, who stood watch over the Scar from atop the wall that separated Torsten from the Fourth Circle and its expansive wilderness. Despite their public disdain for technology, Dante believed the Sophist Aristocracy the most likely culprits for the Scar’s creation. What better way to secure domination over an isolated town like Torsten than by taking advantage of local superstitions? That so many people accepted their rule, despite their lies and deceit — Dante knew them responsible for burning the forest six years ago, even though they denied it — said everything there was to say about society outside of the Cities. His acceptance into Malkuth could not come soon enough.
He just had to prove himself worthy. The Tablet, with its words inscribed by the Seven Mothers themselves, was his guide, and his one and only voice of reason in a world drowning in its own ignorance. And, right now, he needed its wisdom.
He needed to be sure.
The history of modern fairy-worship, it read, can be traced back to a loose-knit alliance of matriarchal tribes known as the Vanir. These tribes worship a supposed supernatural race they call the ‘Sidhe’ (shee), or ‘Fair Folk’, who they believe live in an alternative realm formed from a immaterial substance called ‘aether’ (e-fer). For at least three hundred years, the Vanir have slowly spread their forests across the west Eurasian continent, bringing with them their stories of these mystical queens and their overworldly courts.
Stories Dante had grown up with. Stories that had shaped his childhood imagination. Stories that still lingered deep in the recesses of his memory. Were it not for the Tablet, he would surely have believed the girl he saw one of the so-called ‘Sidhe’. No doubt others would believe it. The Sophists wouldn’t be happy.
The Tablet continued to tear apart the delusional belief in fairies by revealing how the tribes of the Vanir — whose influence had reached as far as Torsten in the form of the Donara, a people who had once lived in the eastern forest until the Sophists drove them to near extinction — worshipped their dead. Over time, the stories of their various chieftains and heroes had metamorphosed as they passed from ear to ear, generation to generation, until a great queen of her people became a Queen of the Fairies, immortal and unforgotten in her immaterial dreamworld. Such was, the Tablet said, the fear death held over people — a fear so powerful it gave rise to stories of supernatural spirits and falling moons.
A fear others had learned to abuse.
It is no coincidence that Aethex is named so, for it emulates the mythical ‘aether’, but unscrupulous individuals have been known to abuse its gift to convince the unaware and the indoctrinated that ‘aether’ is real.
As Dante continued to read, and to reaffirm his suspicions, his chest filled with a heady mixture of both pride and fear.
The Saptamatrikas have also been known to utilise this confusion when testing immigration applicants: those who cannot distinguish the illusionary from the fictional are ill equipped for life within the Cities and fit only for the wilderness, where their delusions cannot harm a civilised society.
He was right; the girl was an agent of the City, here to test him. After six years of struggle, six years of study, six years of training, Malkuth was ready to open its doors to him — so long as he could prove he had thrown away his childish fantasies and accepted the truth.
The truth about Theia, and that there was no such thing as fairies.
Dante’s stomach growled, but there was no place for hunger on the training course. He pulled himself to the top of the climbing net and rolled one leg over the other side. It was his sixth lap of the morning, but six laps were nothing compared to the hundred-kilometre journey from Torsten to Malkuth. Straddling the net’s wooden frame, he gazed south towards the wilderness that lay between him and the distant City. It would be a long journey, and another person might have bartered passage on a ship of some kind, but Dante would prove his worth. His mother would be watching him.
Dante snapped out of his daydreaming with such force that he almost tumbled off the wooden beam and into the net below.
Below him, Emily Fomalhaut lifted a thin blue eyebrow at his predicament. “I only brought you coffee,” she said, lifting a steaming mug, “there’s no need to get excited.”
A minute later, Dante stood on solid ground, flushed with embarrassment as Emily handed him his drink. He chanced a look at her bronze face and met her pale-winter eyes. She smiled her crescent-moon smile.
“We all have our off days,” she said. “How’s your time?”
“Not good enough.”
“Is it ever?”
My editor suggested I clarify how ‘Sidhe’ is pronounced ‘shee’, in case people started to confuse it with Seelie. Given how people still think ‘Cait Sith’ is ‘Kate Sif’, rather than ‘Ket Shee’, it was probably a good call!