Between the Firmaments by JY Yang (Part Two)
Last year, we Book Smugglers ran our very first Kickstarter–and beyond our wildest expectations, we not only funded but hit our stretch goals. One of those goals was a new serialized story from JY Yang, which we are delighted to bring to you this week in three different installments.
In an occupied city controlled by oppressive off-worlders, Bariegh of the Jungle is a god living in hiding—toiling away day after monotonous day, hoping his godliness will go unnoticed by those who would harness it.
But then a beautiful, daring, godling man walks into his life without a care in the world, his divinity uncloaked, and Bariegh is utterly undone.
JY Yang’s Between the Firmaments is a secondary-world fantasy about a romance between two gods, set in an occupied city where being a god is illegal. It is beautiful, challenging, queer, slightly experimental, and 100% awesome.
Sisu shot up as if lightning-struck. I grabbed her arms and held her as she tried to fight me off. “Don’t,” I hissed. “Sisu!”
Her breath came in angry gasps. “Bari, they’ve got him.”
It was a struggle, keeping my voice low and calm. Except it wasn’t calm. “I know. Sisu, I know. Please, don’t draw their attention.”
The blasphemers’ collar looked heavy and ugly clamped around Sunyol’s neck. They had taken his clothes and put him in a coarse brown tunic that barely reached his knees. A host of injuries garlanded the exposed swathes of his skin: bruises around his cheeks and lips, bloody scabs ringing his wrists, purple lash-marks striping his calves and feet. Stamped on his neck, just below the jawline, was a round set of toothmarks, open and ruddy as a flower. I knew that if I seized Inette by the jaws and held her there, I would find a perfect match.
Sunyol shuffled to a stop behind Inette. I looked at how swollen his feet were and my toes curled. His obedience towards his tormentor bothered me. No, bothered was the wrong word to use—it terrified me. How had he come to be captured? Worse still, had he been captured at all? In vain I tried to capture his attention. Look here, beloved! Look at me.
But Sunyol kept his eyes averted, moving with such caution I knew it was deliberate. Damn him. Damn him to the bottom of the cursed realms. Was this his plan? Did he leave me to do this? This stupid, stupid foolish boy—
Sisu shook in my arms, perhaps in sadness, perhaps in anger. Perhaps both. I forced myself to focus on her.
“Come here, darling,” Inette said, beckoning with a finger. Sunyol complied, his gait tortuously slow. Inette smiled and licked her lips. “Now, sweetest, remember what we’ve discussed?”
Ever a master of dramatics, Inette had positioned herself to give us the best view of the show. She pulled Sunyol close, body to body, the fingers of one hand clawlike on his shoulder. “Show me what you can do, my pretty.”
Sunyol’s expression remained blank as she leaned towards him and nibbled on an earlobe. “Make my city blossom.”
The boy shut his eyes.
Before us the air came to life. The unfinished structure hummed with magic. And in that resonance, the raw edge of the pavilion began unfolding. It started with the bones of foundation, bamboosteel extruding in long ribs. Over it grew flesh of mortar and stone. Sunyol’s handiwork was exquisite: the tiling that he conjured was decorated with scalloped edges and floral motifs. A cacophony of gasps and disbelief wove around me. For the workers, mere mortals, what they were seeing was as unbelievable as a madman’s fever dream, miraculous as the creation of the universe itself. Even the overseers, burning the power of spirits, needed raw material to shape to their will. Here, an entire building was solidifying out of thin air.
But nothing could come from nothing. Sunyol was drawing from his own essence to create bamboosteel and granite. The immensity of his labours bent the world around him. I never knew how deep his reserves of power went. Even I, Bariegh of the Jungle—who had been old when the mountains were pushed out of the sea!—had never witnessed anything like it. This unrestrained demonstration of ability would frighten even one such as I.
And indeed, it was terror that ran through me, sending fire and ice through my veins. But my fear stemmed from an entirely different source. I understood the terrible truth that was unfolding before me. If Sunyol overexerted himself— if he drained himself of power too fast—he would die.
Sisu trembled beside me, gripped in the unforgiving claws of disbelief. “Bari, he’s a god,” she whispered. “Did you know that? Why didn’t you say?”
I could not answer her.
Sunyol had extended the new wing by a hundred feet, six storeys of sheltered walkways and market halls. A whole week’s worth of work had been brought into existence in a mere handful of minutes. But the inexorable tide of exhaustion was pulling at him, threatening to drag him under. The progress of the building’s border slowed. Tile came into being with increasing difficulty, and the precise patterns that had decorated them turned muddy and ill-defined. Sunyol’s face had blanched to a shade paler than Inette’s, and breath escaped him in brittle gusts.
Sisu hissed through her teeth: “No, no, no, no.” Even she could see what was clear to me. Inette was killing him. The fury and frustration that rushed through the girl had started to wake things that I had tried to keep slumbering.
Sunyol collapsed onto his hands and knees, and a symphonic gasp burst from the garrison of workers. Inette looked down at him and her lips pursed. My breath stalled in my chest. That was enough for today, wasn’t it? She wouldn’t ask for more. She wasn’t so witless as to push him beyond his limits—
Inette jerked him upright by the chain. Sunyol staggered and gagged, barely able to stand. “Did I say you could stop?”
The boy’s lips moved, mouthing words I could not hear. Inette barked in laughter. “Stop complaining. You know what you signed up for.”
Accursed white devil! Sunyol swayed where he stood, blood trickling from his nose. “If you won’t continue building,” Inette said, “I’ll do it myself.”
She raised her hand bearing the control bracelet and thrust it outwards, like the claw of a vulture seeking to consume the world. The shining sunmetal of her bracelet lit up. The collar around Sunyol’s neck lit up. Power poured from one to the other. The floor shuddered as construction began again, tile by agonising tile.
Overseer Arquois ran towards her, a cooler head prevailing. At least someone among these worthless blasphemers understood the consequence of this terrible idea! But Inette was too far gone, hazed with power. Her face was frozen in a rictus of concentration: half a mad laugh, half a grimace. I wanted the divinity that rushed through her to kill her, to incinerate her to a pile of twisted bones and ash. I wanted to rip her to pieces. My muscles hurt from staying still.
I thought: She’ll stop before she kills him.
I thought: I’ll kill her before it comes to that.
I thought: No. No. I won’t risk Sisu’s life for his. I have sworn to my sister. An oath is an oath, no matter what the cost.
Sunyol groaned and slumped, his knees folding and arms going limp, held up only by Inette’s chain. Blood spattered the front of his tunic.
Sisu blurted: “You’re killing him!”
I was on her immediately, clamping her mouth shut, holding her down, muffling her shout after the second syllable. But I moved too slow. Inette had heard. She let go of Sunyol and he dropped to the ground. Dead. No, I couldn’t tell. I clutched Sisu in a vise as Inette’s furious gaze swept our ranks, searching for the one who had the temerity to shout at her. Sisu’s cheeks, wet with tears, trembled under my hand.
Thank the earth and sky for Overseer Arquois’s timely interruption. Seeing a chance, he seized his superior’s sleeves while her attention was fractured. “Great overseer!”
Inette turned livid at his daring, but he continued in their offworlders’ language, one denied even my godly knowledge. He gesticulated and pointed, alternating between the yawning scope of their unfinished project, and the divinity crumpled at their feet.
A terrible stillness had blanketed Sunyol’s collapsed form. Pink froth spilled from his nose and mouth, the sort that comes from those who will never get up again. I willed his chest to move, his eyes to open: please, not like this. The heavy ache in my inflamed chest burst into a torrent of sorrow.
Inette, still listening to Arquois’ pleading spiel, seemed to register Sunyol’s condition for the first time. But it wasn’t pity and regret that came out of her: no, what came bubbling up in thick stutters was a laugh. She kicked his inert form. “Some kind of god you are.”
Sunyol remained unresponsive. I hoped that, dead or alive, my quiet boy was at least beyond pain.
But then he moved, breath shuddering through him, eyes opening a crack. Oh, Sunyol. Sisu wheezed beside me, mirroring my relief and agony.
Arquois nodded hopefully at Inette, pleading for her to think of the bigger picture, the greater good.
Inette spat in Sunyol’s direction. “Don’t think we’ve gotten our money’s worth from you yet, dog.” She gestured roughly at Arquois. “Very well. You have a point. Take him back to the Axis.”
Sunyol’s eyes flickered and he looked at me, deliberate and lucid and calm. There was neither fear nor sorrow in his expression, as though he had wholly accepted his fate. Stupid, stupid, foolish boy. He was still wearing the necklace I’d given him—somehow, he’d convinced Inette to let him keep it. I shivered. What other concessions had he wrung from Inette, and at what cost?
The moment we got home Sisu shoved me against the bedframe, her fists knotted in my tunic. “You son of a bitch. You knew about this and you didn’t say a word!”
“Sisu,” I began, helpless in the face of her anger.
“No. Shut the fuck up.” She let go and stalked the narrow confines of the room. “He was a god, Bari. We had a fucking god in our house. And you didn’t say shit.”
With her back to me she rubbed at her face. There was no doubt about it: her godliness had emerged from its long winter of sleep, fed by the happenings of the past weeks, knocked loose by the stresses of the day. The divine parts of me could sense her, new kin in my vicinity. There was nothing I could do about it.
The motion of her hands over her face slowed, then stopped entirely. She turned to me with the canniest look on her face. “You’re a god too, aren’t you? That’s how that falling walkway didn’t crush you.”
“Sisu, please,” I said. “Leave it alone. Please.”
She would not leave it alone. She came towards me, her head tilted curiously, her eyes narrowed. “And what am I, Bariegh? Am I one of you, too?” She thumped her fist against her chest with rage and desperation and fear. “What is happening to me now?”
“Leave it alone,” I repeated, hopelessly. “There’s no good to becoming divine.”
“How do you even become divine?” Incredulity flooded her voice, then anger and suspicion. “Did you do this to me?”
I shook my head. “It’s your birthright. From your great-grandmother.”
“My—” Sisu blinked, and drew an oceanic breath. “Fuckssake.” Her voice wobbled.
“I was trying to protect you,” I said.
“By lying to me? By treating me like an idiot?” She drove her fist into the bedpost. Something cracked, bone or wood, it didn’t matter. “I’m not a little girl anymore. I deserved to know.”
“You’ve seen what they do to godkind in this city,” I said. “We go to such lengths to keep ourselves hidden. Why would I wake your slumbering gift if you could pass as mortal?”
Sisu swore and once more turned her back to me. The shape of her hunched spine was an alien language. The bones of my head ached with exhaustion. Sunyol was gone; was I going to lose her too?
Finally she stood. “I’m not going to let him die.”
Alarmed, I blurted: “What are you planning?”
“I’m going to free him.” Mania danced in her eyes. “I won’t stand by while they carve him up. I’m gonna give that bitch what she’s looking for.”
This was what I feared: Sisu getting all swept up in the euphoria of first discovery, carried away by the intoxication of new power. How could I explain the creed we godkind had agreed to abide by? I moved to stand between her and the door. “Do you think I want this, Sisu? Do you think I want to watch Sunyol die?”
“You sure as fuck didn’t fight back when they took him!”
I grabbed her by the wrist. “You think I’ve never fought back against the blasphemers? Do you never ask yourself why there are so few godkind left?” Sisu’s face scrunched up as she tried to tug her wrist free, but I was relentless. “We cannot beat them, Sisu. They are too strong.” The last recourse: appealing to her compassion. “Please. I have lost almost all that I have loved. Don’t make me lose any more.”
Sisu’s mouth set in a tight line. “Let me go, old man.”
And then a sharp burst of sound and panic echoed down the corridor. A gas canister had exploded somewhere close by. A woman was screaming, children cried. A momentary distraction, and a moment was all Sisu needed. She broke her wrist from my grip and darted out of the door.
Sisu-luck. A lifetime of it had made her bold, made her proud and stubborn and reckless. I ran after her, but she was already far ahead. Later I would wonder if the explosion itself had been real, or merely in my mind. But for now my mandate was nothing but the chase.
Sisu’s newfound divinity expanded within her, changing her very essence, elongating the borders of her limbs. And lo! This could have been a thousand years ago, my half-sister Edukan racing across the treetops screeching in joy, from hand to hand to tail to hand, while among the roots below Bariegh the Hunter sprinted on agile feet. Last to the Bilkan moutains is a rube! And although I was far swifter than Sisu, than Edukan, for some reason or the other—rains, a sinkhole, a stampede in my way—she would always get there first.
But this was not a thousand years ago, and the city was nothing like the green wilds we gods used to run in. Sisu’s control of her powers was still inchoate, a clumsy-fingered baby-grasp, but lucky her! The narrow architecture around us, with its layers and levels and climbing handholds, was a boon to her nimble, prehensile form. Despite my advantage in speed, the gap between us remained.
Sisu raced upwards, where the Axis waited, bright and ostentatious with death in its teeth. The late afternoon sun baked markets surfeit with shouting and haggling. In the tunnel-focus of high speed, I passed through consecutive patches of frightened citizens, eyes and mouths wide as we leapt over their heads.
Somehow, despite it all, we were not stopped. Sisu, her luck and cunning in full swing, found her way through the rings of guards fencing the way to the Axis. Following in her wake, I too escaped their scrutiny.
Inette had not replaced the dead guards around her house. Sisu crashed through a window in monkey-form, but by the time I’d leaped through the ruins and landed on glass-spangled marble, it was a human silhouette I saw vanishing down the stairs to the dungeon. I snapped back to mortal form and ran after her.
When I entered the dungeon I found Sisu wrenching a gap into the bars of Sunyol’s cage, human muscles straining under the demands of divine strength. Sunyol, pale and bloodied, had his hands on her wrist, powerless to stop her except through soft pleas. “Sisu. You’re making things worse.”
She ignored him and kept pushing. A space barely wide enough for his shoulders had opened between the bars.
“Sisu,” I said.
“You can help, or you can stand there and watch. I don’t care either way.”
I came down the steps, heavy-footed. Sisu spun, baring her teeth in a threat. “Stay the fuck away if you’re gonna interfere.”
I stopped with a foot between us. “Sunyol. Look at me.”
He turned his head but said nothing. His gaze startled me: I had expected sadness, defeat, pain. But what I met were the eyes of an old warrior, hard and unforgiving. His body might be a battered pulp and his holiness a ruin, but his spirit remained lit like a furnace.
I asked: “Why are you doing this? For my sake?”
“Yes,” he said, “and no.”
“Now’s not the time to be cryptic, beloved.”
A shiver took hold of the boy as the word beloved slipped through. A snarl of frustration tore out of Sisu. “Oh for fuckssake, you old men can talk after we get out of here!”
“Sisu.” The girl startled as Sunyol’s hand darted between the bars and brushed her cheek. “Let us talk.”
“I will not leave with you,” he said, gently but firmly. He possessed frightening composure for one who had recently been so close to death. Sisu burst into an anguished “Why?” but he had already turned his attention to me. “Bariegh. Take her with you. Leave this place as soon as possible.”
“And I will. After you answer my question. Why are you doing this, Sunyol?”
His shoulders sank. “Do you never wonder where the blasphemers got their sunmetal from?”
I blinked, unsettled by this question. “What connection has that got with anything?”
He said softly: “The sunmetal came from my people. From between the worlds.”
Earthquake. Epiphany. My mind refused to believe what my ears were hearing. “You gave them the technology?” My fists tightened, and Sisu stepped back from the bars, driven by fear, or surprise, or both.
“Gave? No.” He turned to look at the shadows. “It was stolen from us. Stolen by one of our own. A trickster. A monkey.”
A monkey god. His words— his rationalization of Sisu’s distaste—returned to haunt me. “Like Edukan?”
The ghost of a smile briefly possessed him. “Not much different, I assume. A lover of chaos. Harmless, usually. Served their purpose.” It pained me to watch him struggle for breath. “They stole from a vault I guarded. I let them slip past. And they scattered it to many different worlds.”
“Including yours. And your blasphemers found it on their planet. It channels divinity, stores divine power for later. We called it an elixir. It could grant immortality to mortals, it could—” He broke into a fit of coughing before he recovered. “Those you call your blasphemers, used it for their own purposes.”
I paced the confines of the cell. Thoughts frothed in my mind like a boiling sea. “So all this—” I gestured around myself, encompassing the dungeon around us, the hanging city, the entire world— “You blame yourself for what happened.”
“It is my fault.”
The moving parts of him, the things I could not figure out, were all starting to make sense. “When you left last night, you went straight to Inette.”
He nodded. My chest ached. Stupid, stupid foolish boy.
“That’s the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard,” Sisu snapped. She plunged into the gap she made and seized the boy’s arms. “Come on, you idiot. Get moving.”
Sunyol pulled himself free and staggered out of her reach. “Leave me,” he hissed. “You’ll be caught. Go now.”
I came up to the bars, close enough to touch him, yet not bold enough. “And what good would your death do? The blasphemers have greed in their bones. Inette will use you up. You’ll die, like the woodnymph. And what then? Another will take your place. Nothing will change.”
“I’ll feel better,” Sunyol said. He could not meet my eyes.
I snaked an arm between the bars and grasped his chin, finding it wet with tears. “Sunyol, please.” I tilted his face towards mine. “Come with me. You wanted me to fight, so let’s fight. But together. I can’t do it without you.”
“No,” he said softly. “What you said—you were right. This fight is not your burden. My captivity will satisfy Inette for a while. Use this time to find a way to leave, both you and Sisu. Find lands the blasphemers have not touched.”
I sighed. Oh, for all his power and wisdom, how little he understood! “I am bound to this land, Sunyol. I draw sustenance from it. Broken as it is, I may not leave. Beyond its borders I will waste away to nothing, and die. This is our boon as godkind, and it is our tragedy.”
“Wait,” Sisu interrupted. “Are you saying I can’t leave here either? The fuck?”
I dropped my hand. “Not anymore, Sisu. As a mortal you could have left the city and crossed the seas at any time. But now that you have embraced your divinity, you are bound to the rules that govern our powers.”
Sisu spat a small blasphemy, then followed it up with: “Well, guess I’m not planning any grand voyages soon, huh?”
Sunyol exhaled. He looked exhausted. “You’re trapped here.”
I said: “You are the one who is free to leave, Sunyol. And you should. Don’t waste your life on this.”
Breath whistled through this throat and lungs. How fragile he still was! Yet determination fortified the soft vowels in his mouth: “I won’t leave you.”
I saw that he still bore my gift around his neck, the teeth of my long-dead foe gleaming in the yellow light. I reached through the bars and took his hand. “If you won’t leave, then let us fight, side by side.”
He blinked. Something like hope briefly filtered into his expression. “Together?”
I tugged him towards the gap in the bars. “Together.”
It was a good moment, filled with hope and promise. A beautiful moment. It couldn’t last. It shattered. A voice, of familiar and chilling timbre, echoed from the dungeon walls. “Well, well. So my quarry took the bait. And look what he brought. A friend. We’re in luck!”
Overseer Inette stood at the head of the stairs, bearing a smile sharp enough to cut through steel. Amassed behind her were the guards who had been mysteriously absent from the surrounds. Of course. It was more than luck that got us here. Inette had laid a trap, and we’d obligingly fallen into it.
As she descended the stairs steel I stood between her and those I loved, my feet planted. Behind me I heard Sisu hissing come on at Sunyol, and the boy’s pained grunt as he eased between the gap she had wrought. I growled at Inette. My divinity writhed under my human skin, yearning to break free, fangs and claws crying to rend blasphemer-flesh, lusting for the taste of Inette’s blood. But not yet. Not while the way out was still blocked.
Inette smiled at me. “I always knew something was different about you, Brick Wall. But your lanky little girl, too? What a beautiful bonus.”
“Yeah?” Sisu snapped. “Big fucking surprise to me too.”
“Sisu,” I said quietly. I switched over to the old tongue, the forbidden language, the temple-dialect that all godkind instinctively understood. “Run when I tell you to—”
Pain snapped though me as the filament of a whip snared my torso. Inette’s wrist was held high, the control bracelet singing with power. She’d charged it up, then. As I feared.
“None of that forsaken drivel in my house,” Inette said. “We really must teach you some manners.”
The perfect chance was never going to come. We had to move now.
I grabbed the end of the whip and roared. “Run!” Then I pulled on the burning filament. This was Sunyol’s power, and he was once mine; I had more control over it than Inette did. She jerked forward with a cry and fell face-first, jaw meeting floor with a satisfying crunch. The filament came loose; now it was I who wielded it. With one swing of my arm I flicked it at the assembled guards along the stairs. Pain. Screams. The heavy thunk of armor as it crashed end-over-end down the stairs.
Sisu was on the move, dragging Sunyol by the arm, streaking towards the tiny window of freedom. The boy gasped my name, but we had no time left for anything else. I burst into my oldest form, my truest form: Bariegh of the gaze of fire, terrible and unforgiving. Once, I had let Sunyol look upon me like this. That seemed a lifetime ago. I leapt at Inette as Sisu hauled the limping boy up the stairs.
I landed on her back, jaws diving for her spine. A shield snapped around her. Fire surged into my mouth as it closed around the shield’s power. It flung me backwards; I landed, belly-up, and there was Inette, driving a swift blade downwards.
Inette punctured my chest. There came pain, so bright it dissolved the world: the knife was charmed. A knife to gut the divine with. “I’ll suck the marrow from your bones!” she screeched. I roared in agony as she pulled the knife downwards, cutting me open.
“Bariegh!” Sunyol’s anguish drove him back towards me. Sisu’s scream was a string of obscenities.
“Go,” I snarled through the pain. Go. You fools. My blood slicked the floor. I clawed at Inette’s shield: it could not last forever, and her mortal form was soft and edible. Who would die first? I, or she?
The sound of more iron-shod feet coming down the stairs. Sisu yelled, the syllables opaque to me. The world faded, my connection to what sustained me dissolving as Inette cut me open. I could no longer see well enough to read her emotions. I tore still at her shield, but I knew the battle was lost.
So this was how it would end. Strangely, there was only peace underneath the pain. Death in battle was what I would have preferred. And beyond the veil: Who knew what was waiting? As my arms fell to my side I turned my head to look at Sunyol one last time. My boy, my beautiful, tragic boy. I should have done more for him. He was on his knees, the chains of a guard around his neck. Farewell, beloved. My story ended here. I only prayed that his would go on.
In my last gasp of lucidity I glimpsed his tender lips one last time. They moved. They shaped two syllables:
To say her name is to summon her.
The sky above the city split. For a moment an empty void bisected the heavens in a long blade. Then it erupted in spumes of fire, white enough to blind, as though a star had exploded over the sky.
The miasma contracted and took form. A shadow fell over the city, taller than mountains and broad as the sea. There stood a woman of unbelievable proportions, triple eyes burning like embers, helm as red as blood, spear glinting bright as a second sun. Her voice shook the foundations of the city as she let out a battle-cry.
Her name was Er-lang the Indomitable, Er-lang the Three-Eyed, Er-lang the Righteous. God of war, protector of the weak, traveller between the firmaments, she had been summoned.
In the years to come a thousand different versions of what happened that afternoon would circulate among the people, passing reverently from mouth to mouth among the faithful. Some said that a bolt of lightning brighter than the hottest fire had sundered the Axis and all within it. Others said that a flock of crows big enough to swallow the sun and the moon had descended upon its white spires and carted it away, block by foreign block. And then there were those who said that their salvation was a woman who filled the sky: vanished Mother Fuata herself, reborn to bring justice to her children with the righteous point of her spear.
All the stories agreed on one thing: one moment the Axis of Tranquillity lorded over the city. Then the air was split by the sound of a hundred avalanches, and the Axis, and all who were within it, was gone.
In our universe there are places where time and space hold no sway. Places in between, and places in between the in-betweens. It was in this place that the god of war laid down their passengers. That made four of us in this soft place full of mists and floating rocks: the god (neither man nor woman), their celestial hound, Sisu, and I.
I slipped back into the form others knew me best by. This place, floating and strange, whispered knowledge to me in a language without words. “You,” I said to the war-god. “You are…” Truths poured their waters into me. “You are they who used to call this one, who had no name.”
“I am them indeed,” Er-lang said. “And you are?”
“Bariegh of the Jungle,” he said. “And this is Sisu, who is blood of my half-sister Edukan.”
Sisu ran up into the gnarled lattice of a thing that resembled a tree and burst back into human form, a tempest of astounded fury. “What the fuck is this? You can’t just kidnap a bunch of people and fuck up a world. Who the fuck are you?”
“I am Er-lang,” the god of war replied. “I come from worlds beyond yours. And I came because I was summoned to undo damage that was caused by the actions of my people.”
They stood tall and magnificent, clad in golden armor and red livery, spear shining in the gloom where no sun existed. The star-hound, whom I had called Sunyol, curled up at their feet and said nothing, resting their chin upon their paws.
Er-lang said: “Your world has been subject to quite some interference, and for that I do apologise on behalf of my people.”
“Bullshit,” Sisu said sullenly, resting in the cradle of the tree-thing with her arms folded.
“What have you done?” I asked. They seemed so cold and distant, untouchable as the great stars in the sky. I had no good feelings towards them.
They simply said: “Removed the source of that interference.”
I blinked. “The blasphemers—they’re gone?”
“Not as such. I… took care of some of the more problematic individuals.” They tilted their head, as if murder was no more than an inconvenience to them. “But principally, I have removed from their custody what originally belonged to my people.” They held up a hand, and in it spun a bright, twisting ball of metal, wreathed in flame.
“The sunmetal,” I said, staring at its scintillating form. The source of all our torment rested in their hand like it was no more than an overripe fruit.
“Sunmetal… yes. If that is what you call it.”
“That’s all of it?”
“It is indeed. The rules of this place are quiet different from what you’re used to. More allusive than physical. But this is it.”
I could barely believe it. “So it’s gone from our world. The blasphemers—those who are left—will no longer have power over godkind.”
“That is the intention, yes.”
My breaths were fire in my lungs. Here in this place where air was but an illusion—a metaphor—the beat of my heart was but a cipher for my emotions. “So many have perished on account of that metal,” I said. “So many lost. Cultures erased. And yet you—you managed to undo it all in a single blink.” My voice rose, anger hardening my vowels and sharpening my consonants. “If it was so easy for you, why did you not come earlier? You could have ended our suffering at any time.”
“It is not our policy to dictate the happenings on mortal worlds,” Er-lang said. “We prefer to think ourselves guardians and observers.”
The hound at their feet growled, hackles serrating the edges of their form. Er-lang looked them over with tenderness that bordered on condescension. “Of course, they disagreed with me. So I gave them the freedom to do what they wanted to.”
“And what do you expect from us now?” I asked. “Gratitude?” My fists were clenched into weapons.
“Nothing of the sort. Forgiveness, perhaps, if you were willing to grant it.”
I hissed. From her perch, Sisu let acid-tinged derision crackle into the mist-thick air.
“If you would like to,” they said, “you could remain with us. I could grant you the ability to leave your domicile. You could travel between the worlds with us.” They gestured to the hound. “With them.”
Sisu made a noise that could have been laughter. I forced my voice to remain calm. “You want me to abandon my home?”
“It’s merely an offer,” Er-lang said. “You are free to ignore it if you wish.”
“We’re ignoring it,” Sisu snapped. “Don’t think we’re obliged to be nice to you because you did a thing.”
They tilted their head, as if in amusement.
“What happens to them now?” I gestured to the hound at their feet. I did not like the way they lay so still and quiet, barely showing a reaction to anything we said.
Er-lang frowned. “They come with me, of course. They called for me. It is time for them to return home.”
I looked at the hound that lay curled at their feet, the hound that I had once called mine. I remembered the brief, truncated hope I had seen on Sunyol’s face before Inette had come for us. We were supposed to fight together, thrive together. Calling for Er-lang had been an action borne out of desperation. He would not have chosen this.
“No,” I said. I knew, deep in my hearts of hearts, that I was in no position to bargain. What could I offer to parley with this being, whose power was set so far over mine? Yet I had to try. I had to. “You asked for my forgiveness, and I will not give it. But I will ask for restitution. My world is broken and near destroyed from your negligence and your inaction. You cannot leave us to rebuild alone. You owe us this much.”
“What are you asking for?”
I pointed to the hound at their feet. “Him.”
Finally, recognizable emotion filtered onto their face. With narrowed eyes they said, “You ask for something I cannot give.”
“Can you not?” I folded my arms. “How sincere are you in your apologies, anyway?”
They contemplated the hound with a heavy expression. A long, tense moment passed. I felt Sisu’s eyes on the three of us and wondered if I had pushed too far. This stranger, this uber-god, could reduce all of us to nothing if they felt like it.
Finally they said, “Wait here. I will discuss this with them privately.”
A yellow sun set over a mortal world: watery, tufted with green, steeped in a thin oxygen atmosphere. On the edge of an island, a silken-haired boy sat upon white cliffs over a churning ocean, watching the colors of the sky mature, fingering the serrated edges of the necklace resting upon his chest.
Beside him stood Er-lang. He was a man on this world, worshipped by a culture that did not believe women should be warriors. “Sunyol, was it? That was what he called you.”
“Do not speak that name,” the boy said. “It is not yours to use.”
“Ah. I apologise.”
“Why did you bring me here?” the boy asked.
“You heard his bargain. What do you think?”
The boy did not look up. “To take it or not is not mine to decide.”
“But it is.” Er-lang gently laid a hand on his head. “It is your fate it concerns. I will not decide it for you.”
The boy pressed a tip of his necklace into the soft flesh of his quasi-mortal form. “Do you not want me to return?”
The god of war sighed. “It has been long since I had a companion running by my side. And yes, I do miss it. And I do miss you, even if you do not believe it. But.” He ran his fingers through strands of the boy’s hair. “You were never well-suited to the task of warhound, even if it was your destiny. I would not force you back into that role, if you did not want it.”
The boy looked at the sky, gem-blue and stacked with swirls of clouds. “I wandered for so long without a purpose. I was fleeing the consequences of my failure, but something kept drawing me back to world after world where the elixir had warped the fabric of people’s lives. I cannot escape it. But if I cannot escape it, perhaps I should embrace it where I can.”
“Is that the decision you have made?”
“Destinies can change, even for gods like ourselves.” He stood, finally. “Yes, Er-lang. I would like to rebuild his world with him.”
The rising sun beat upon an oasis of white stone and chaos. We stood upon peaks of masonry at the zenith of the world, a place where no shadows were cast. Beneath us, the world was swept by change. The interlopers, those faithless blasphemers, found themselves cut down and diminished. For the first, sweet time in a long while, they felt the same fear that they had been inflicting upon others for years.
On my left stood Sisu, blood of Edukan, trickster and harbinger of luck. On my right stood Sunyol-of-the-stars, my bright boy, my shining beacon.
Sisu looked down at the mess beneath us, the ashes of the world from which a new one would rise. “Well. We’ve got a fucktonne of work to do.”
I grinned, baring my teeth to the earth and sky as though in challenge. And then I, Bariegh the Broad-shouldered, Bariegh the Builder of Worlds, leaped forward into our new dawn.
JY Yang is the author of the Tensorate novellas from Tor.Com Publishing (The Red Threads of Fortune, The Black Tides of Heaven, The Descent of Monsters), which have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus awards, and were on the Honor List for the Tiptree award. Their short fiction has been published in over a dozen venues, including Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed.
JY is currently based out of Singapore. They identify as queer and non-binary. Find them online at http://jyyang.com or on Twitter as @halleluyang.
Read the first two parts of Between the Firmaments: