Things weren't great.
Obviously, the fact that the President of the United States was a half-demon Blood Mage who'd made a career of destroying entire civilizations to slake his insatiable thirst for being an asshole was sort of sucky. So too was the fact that Darci and most of her friends had been forced to flee Arcadia Oaks to avoid Merlin's lackeys, which now counted among their numbers the Secret Service, FBI, and U.S. Armed Forces (the crime - conspiracy to kill the president - was at this point pretty much a fair assessment of their current goal). The sole bright point was that most of Darci's friends were here (including her girl Claire, who'd crossed the infinite void to rescue Tobias Domzalski from the fate of everyone he cared about thinking he was dead), but that was offset by the fact that 'here' was a previously-abandoned troll city that was uncomfortably damp even after they'd drained the lake.
Darci had no idea how she was going to explain this in college applications.
But at this particular moment, the upsetting thing most occupying Darci's mind was the alien wizard currently shaped like a fox who was perched on the foot of her bed.
"I get you're like, crepuscular or whatever, but it's a-" Well, it wasn't a school night. Mr. Strickler and Blinky had teamed up to keep the teenagers up on their schoolwork, but their hours were a little more flexible, given that one of their students was a creature of the night. Still, a girl needed her sleep.
Kubo shook his head, a jerk of movement. "We don't have time to argue," he said. "I need your help."
"Ugh," Darci groaned, "the last time you needed my help it was to punch your stupid ghost aunt in her face."
"Well, you won't have to do that again," Kubo replied. "And from what I heard, you left quite an impression on my grandfather."
"The Moon King," Darci confirmed, scowling at the memory of the old man, capable of seeing despite his blindness, but unwilling to acknowledge anything he hadn't already decided was true. "I wouldn't mind punching him in the face."
Kubo's ears drooped, his body hunching down. "It might be for the best," he acknowledged. "Something in him is - susceptible to Merlin's corruption. I freed him once, but Ryuujin - Merlin's dragon familiar - ensnared him again."
"But we're not fighting him, are we?" The Moon King had boasted he couldn't be defeated without the Sword Unbreakable, which was lost, or the Lunar Shamisen, which had been destroyed. He'd backed off when Darci had threatened him, perhaps seeing something in her bluff, but Darci didn't know what it was.
"No - not unless you're terribly unlucky." He turned, his tails (and Darci stared a moment, to figure if she was seeing things, or if Kubo really had two tails) flicking behind him. "And we cannot afford any bad luck in this mission."
"The mission I haven't agreed to take yet?" Darci asked, and Kubo flinched back. She sighed; the fox (the boy, or Constellation, whatever that meant) had, despite his tendency to show up in the middle of the night with dire warnings, proven to be less confident than he appeared. "Maybe you should tell me about it, Kubo, so I can decide if I want to do it." When Kubo remained huddled at the foot of the bed, Darci pulled herself sitting up and patted closer to her folded legs. "Come on," she said, "tell me the story."
Kubo huffed, but his ears perked up as he stepped into the offered space. "Well, have you ever read Dante's Inferno?"
"Yeah, finished it a couple weeks before all the shit went down. Why?"
"It makes the explanation a little easier," Kubo said. "Do you recall reading about the Seventh Circle, where the souls of people who committed suicide were made into trees?"
"Yeah." Darci shivered, tucking her arms close around her. She hadn't been moved much by the book, but the forest of suicides had left her shaking when she'd read it. She'd set the book aside for a day and a half after that, and her mind kept returning to it - the injustice of suicide condemning someone to Hell.
"It's not - entirely made up," Kubo replied. "People who commit suicide are lost, and the souls of the lost enter the Unknown - the realm between this world and the next. The people of the Unknown call the trees born of suicides Edelwood."
"Ugh!" Darci muttered. "Out of all the parts of that book to be true-"
"It's - probably not torment," Kubo said. "Most scholars of the subject believe Edelwood deadens the spirit encased within. However…" He trailed off, tails twitching anxiously.
"However what?" Darci demanded.
"However, a Blood Mage discovered you could render Edelwood down into oil, and use that to create a - construct, a creature that subsists on Edelwood oil-"
"I'm going to kill that bastard," Darci growled. The sheets were clenched in her fists, only the cloth preventing her fingernails from digging into her skin. She was shaking, not shivering but furious.
"What?" Kubo's ears flicked back.
"Merlin made one of these constructs, didn't he? And you need my help killing it."
"I mean, that was the goal, but-"
"I'm in," Darci growled. "You said those spirits - the suicides - were at peace, right? And Merlin's burning them for fuel? Yeah, I'll help you rip that thing apart and shove it up Merlin's ass."
"I mean - not at peace, exactly," Kubo protested. "The shell of Edelwood deadens the spirit - to the pain they felt in life, to the peace they might feel in the afterlife. But yes," he concluded, "The suicide golem causes the victim spirit unimaginable pain, and...consumes them."
"How do we get there?"
"Technically it's very easy, but given I presume you want to return to the world of the living afterward-"
"Things will be a little more complicated."
Hui stepped out of the phone booth, handing the hawk perched on the door two quarters (the cost of practically anything that could be bought in the Unknown was two coins of any denomination). Wirt stepped away from the nearby tree he'd been standing next to rather than try to figure out whether he should make conversation with the hawk.
"So, did you reach your friend?"
"This does not appear to function like a normal telephone," Hui replied, "so not in the manner you indicate. And once I realized I could not simply relay a coherent message to a friend, I deviated from our plan."
"Deviated?" Wirt demanded, heart fluttering anxiously. "How? We were going to call someone from the subreddit-"
"A less practical decision when we are sending prophetic visions instead of a voice mail," Hui said. She glanced at Wirt, eyes tilted in worry. "I am sorry I underestimated the threat. I thought the sui-"
"The Beast," Wirt corrected. The people of the Unknown already spoke of it in hushed, fearful tones, and there was something so - clinical about the phrase 'suicide golem'.
"The stories said suicide golems are sustained by a flame set within a lantern forged in the depths of Hell," Hui said. "It was natural to conclude the Beast would conceal it somewhere we could steal it."
"Instead of…" Wirt trailed off, waving vaguely. Hui nodded, understanding; she'd been there when they'd found the Beast, a colossal steel-banded construct, an elk-horned humanoid creature with a massive furnace burning in the place of its heart. Even Greg would have hesitated to attack it, probably.
"Who - did you call, exactly?" he asked.
Hui's shoulders slumped. "Someone who I think can help," she said. "I do not know his real name, but I knew him online as 'Foxmoon'. He made - allusions that have made clear he is not an ordinary human. And he knows more about the Unknown than anyone else I have spoken to."
"And we're, uh, going to wait for him to come join us?" Wirt asked.
"No," Hui said. "You heard what the Beast said - about who made him. The Moon King has two known vulnerabilities, and I am certain you have as little experience in swordcraft as I do. But you are a musician, right?"
"Are we there yet?" Darci asked. Ahead of her, Kubo paused as he landed on a tree root, turning back to her, eyes bright in the gloom of the forest.
"I couldn't say," he said. "The Unknown is the realm of lost souls; it's very difficult to find your way here."
"Seriously?" Darci growled, falling sideways against a tree (not Edelwood, Kubo had assured her - she didn't know how she'd feel, leaning on a tree that used to be someone). "I thought you knew your way around this place."
"I know this realm," Kubo corrected, "but navigation is another matter altogether." He sniffed at the air a moment before circling a few degrees. "Let's try this way."
Darci rolled her eyes, but followed, because she didn't have any better idea. After a few moments of walking, however, she asked, "How do you know this place? It doesn't seem like your…"
"Paradigm?" Kubo asked. "It isn't, really. But I spent some time here, once, looking for my parents." His dead parents, Kubo didn't say, but Karasu had said Kubo's mother had received a traitor's reward, and she couldn't imagine they would have treated his father much better.
"So, is there like a visitor's center we could find - get some pamphlets, maps?"
Kubo paused, turned, pointed head lifting to stare blankly at Darci. "A visitor's center, to the Unknown. With maps."
"I don't know - you said there's a town where a cat governs a bunch of skeletons; there could be anything here!"
"...Anything," Kubo mused, stilling as he looked at apparently nothing.
After a moment, Darci waved her hands in front of his face, causing him to start. "What's going on?"
"I was just thinking," Kubo said, "a suicide golem is a creature of Blood Magic, which means an orichalcum blade should be able to defeat it."
"Then you should have gotten Toby for this," Darci said.
"Mmmm, no," Kubo replied. "Defeating a suicide golem - I need a warrior who fights death."
"Dr. Lake, then."
"Anyway, all anyone can say about the Sword Unbreakable is that it's 'lost'," Kubo continued, ignoring Darci's protest, "and you can't get more 'lost' than in the Unknown."
"We're in the Unknown."
"And we've got no idea where we're going," Kubo concluded. "Still...there was a witch who was good at keeping her eye on what's going on around here - albeit with a nasty habit of stuffing people's heads with wool." He narrowed his eyes at the trees before bounding forward. "Come on! If we can find someone, I bet they can tell us where to find Adelaide."
"Yeah, I'll get right on that," Darci muttered as she trudged after the fox.
They found a tavern, eventually, where men spoke of a fearful Beast stalking the woods, but confirmed Adelaide lived along the ferry route. The ferry itself was uneventful, which was just as well, because when they arrived at Adelaide's house-
"Oh," Kubo muttered as they peered in through the broken front door. The one-room cottage had, it seemed, once been the home of someone who knitted or wove almost obsessively (filled people's heads with wool), except the tools were shattered, contents ransacked, and no sign of the witch Adelaide.
Darci glowered at a pile of instruments - a guitar, violin, and a few others (she saw something she thought was a lyre, unless she actually had no idea what a lyre was) by the far wall. Something about them, about the empty cottage, bothered her, but she couldn't quite identify it. She took a circuit of the room, surprisingly easy for a place that had been robbed, stopping next to Kubo, who had settled next to the wide bed at one side of the room. He was sniffing at the sheets.
"This isn't a weird fetish, is it?" Darci asked, earning a glare from the fox.
"I'm trying to see if I can track where she went," Kubo said. "But her scent is just sort of - worn in. It's like she just-"
Darci yelped and spun, throwing the nearest thing on hand (a pillow) at the door, where a pale woman caught it neatly in one hand. She offered Darci a brief smile, understated but likely genuine.
"Who - what - how-"
"My name is Lorna," the woman said. "I do apologize for startling you, but I'm afraid there wasn't much to be done; no matter how much I try, Auntie Whispers says I walk like a cat." She stepped into the cabin properly, walking straight from the door to the side of the bed (and that's what was odd - the ransacking had left clear paths throughout the cottage, the neatest breaking and entering Darci had seen), where she set the pillow down. "As for what, and how, I was here to visit Adelaide."
"Friend of yours?" Darci asked.
"Well, no," Lorna replied. "She is - well, was - Auntie Whispers' sister."
"Was?" Kubo asked.
"Auntie Whispers is strong in body, but her magic is weak; Adelaide was the reverse. Her magic was powerful, but she was frail in constitution. The night air...disagreed with her." She tugged at the sheets, straightening them, the motion almost compulsive. "If the doors and windows were open when you arrived, the air got in and…"
"You said she disappeared," Darci said.
Lorna shrugged. "Auntie Whispers said she was dust held together with wool." She looked around the rest of the room, frowning. "I can understand why someone might wish to get rid of Adelaide, but there's no cause for making such a mess." She jerked her gaze onto Darci, her brow wrinkling. "I hope you won't object to helping me."
"Actually, we do," Kubo interjected before Darci could agree. He wound between Darci's feet to stand between her and Lorna, tails lashing. "We're in something of a hurry."
"It only takes a few moments to clean up after yourself," Lorna chided.
"But every moment we dawdle, the Beast grows more powerful, and takes more lives," Kubo retorted.
Lorna looked down to him, her frown easing from something disappointed to something...sad, hands sliding from a prim grip in front of her to her sides. "If you intend to face the Beast, you can tarry a few moments - Death will not begrudge you being late to your appointment."
"We don't intend to die!" Kubo snapped.
"If you intend to fight the Beast, you do," Lorna said. "Auntie Whispers says-"
"No disrespect," Kubo said, "but your Auntie Whispers isn't the ultimate authority on Blood Magic constructs. The Beast isn't - it's more like a nightmare than a proper creature. It can be beaten-"
Lorna hummed. "But you need help. And Auntie Whispers can help you…after we sort things here."
It took more than a few minutes, but Lorna did most of the work, moving with practiced ease, slipping around Kubo and Darci as they struggled to straighten up the abandoned cabin. She patted her hands against her now-dusty apron once they were finished, smiling at Kubo as she did. "Now, if you like-"
"Yes, let's go," Kubo said, bounding to the door. But Darci paused, eyeing one of the walls of the cottage. There were hooks along it, set just so you could hang a musical instrument from them. In cleaning the cottage, they'd returned a dozen or so instruments - a guitar, violin, and others - to their place, but there was a gap, a space where there should have been an instrument, but there wasn't.
Darci approached the wall, raising a hand to the empty space, before letting it fall. She was certain she stared only for a moment, but then something tugged at her pant leg, and she looked down to find Kubo's scrunched face glowering up at her.
"I wasn't just trying to avoid doing chores," Kubo said. "We are in a hurry."
"I - know," Darci replied. But she didn't move toward the door, instead turning, narrowing her eyes to take in the rest of the room - neat, now, everything in its place...except for that one last instrument. "What went here?" she demanded of Lorna.
The woman drifted to Darci's side, humming as she stared at the hooks - cataloguing them, Darci thought.
"I'm afraid I don't know," Lorna said, at last. "But Adelaide was fond of strings - you can see there is a lyre, and a guitar, a crwth, a khim…"
"We don't have time for this!" Kubo snapped. "Every moment we waste-"
"He has a point," Darci said, apologetically (because they did need to hurry, but something about the wall of instruments nagged at her). "So maybe we should go see Auntie Whispers."
But she spent the journey, a day-long walk through increasingly-dark woods through which Lorna ambled without any apparent concern, worrying at it. Because Kubo had mentioned a tool that could be used to fight the Moon King, a string instrument. She wondered if the Lunar Shamisen could be used to kill Kubo, and who might try to steal it from a witch who was guarding it (the Moon King had no reason to want his enemies to believe there was a weapon capable of harming him, so she wasn't certain it was truly destroyed).
When they arrived, Lorna paused at the door of Auntie Whispers' home, a dour, imposing building that seemed to have several extensions stuck onto it. She gave Darci and Kubo brief glances before nodding.
"You should stay here for a moment," she said. "Auntie Whispers...isn't used to unexpected visitors."
She vanished inside before Darci could ask questions, but Kubo paced on the ground. Darci considered asking him about the shamisen, but as it was less than a theory, basically a wild notion, she decided against it. And then the creepiest woman Darci had ever met appeared at the door - a sallow-faced woman with a wide mouth, bulbous nose, and huge, elongated pupils that were somehow dwarfed by even larger yellowed eyes.
"Hello," she said, "Lorna has told me you have come to see me. That you did not kill my sister Adelaide, though she found you in her ransacked home."
"We really didn't," Kubo said.
"Oh, I don't mean to suggest you did," the woman said. "Although I would not be surprised - Adelaide made many enemies. Still. Lorna tells me you intend to face the Beast."
"We must," Kubo insisted. "My - it is vital."
The woman twisted her head around, her smile widening. "I can see that. The Beast is your grandfather's work, and you feel responsibility for his crimes."
"Wait - what?" Darci glanced down at Kubo, whose ears flicked back against his head, tails tucked around his legs, looking the part of a contrite dog. "You didn't say-"
"Does it really matter who made it?" Kubo snapped, ducking down. "We have to destroy it anyway."
"Well, no," Darci said, resisting the urge to give the fox a reassuring pat. "But it would have been nice to know." And she wasn't bothered, really. But she was beginning to think the key to winning this fight - beating Merlin - rested on things they didn't know. Secrets and things people didn't think to mention. She didn't know how knowing Kubo's grandfather made the Beast helped them, but it was bound to.
"I'm just saying, I don't like the way the moon is - looming," Wirt said, waving at the sky. It was hard to say how long they'd been in the Unknown, or how long that meant they'd been gone from the world of the living, but the moon had hung, pale and full, in the sky every night. Like an unblinking eye, ever-watching-
Hui slapped Wirt's shoulder, startling him out of his reverie.
"We do not have time to daydream about the moon," she said. "You should be practicing-"
"Practicing what?" Wirt demanded. "I told you I only studied the bass for a few months, and this - Japanese guitar or whatever, only has two strings." They'd wrested the instrument, weathered, battered, and ancient, but sturdy, and weighty with its untold history, from the witch Adelaide, taking from her a skein of wool from which they'd fashioned one string, which miraculously produced some tone. They'd found a music teacher, Miss Langtree, who'd scrounged up another string, but it was clear as a weapon, a two-stringed shamisen would be found wanting.
"And even if you do find a third, it won't be much use against the Moon King."
Wirt yelped, and Hui kicked a foot out, connecting with something that let out a yowl. There was a hiss, a scrabbling of leaves, and a moment later, a dark form clambered up on a nearby tree stump. It was a cat, glowering at Hui as they licked cautiously at their side.
"That was uncalled for," they said, reproachful.
"You should not have snuck up on us," Hui retorted. "We are hunting the Beast - we are not the sort of people who should be startled."
"It won't help," the cat said. "Killing the Beast. Not as long as the Moon King lives."
"The...man who made the Beast?" Wirt asked.
The cat sighed and settled on the stump, ears falling. "The Moon King is more than a man - he is a king, or a god - a Constellation - who claims dominion over everything the moon can see. He and I...don't see eye-to-eye about a lot of things. He made the Beast, and if you destroy that, he will remake it. So you see?"
"Then how can we defeat the Moon King?" Hui demanded.
"The Sword Unbreakable," the cat replied. "But he has set an implacable, indestructible guardian to watch it."
"But there is another way," Hui protested. "I had read that the Lunar Shamisen could strip him of his powers - surely with that, we could weaken him."
"But that is not the Lunar Shamisen," the cat snapped. "It's a - ship of Theseus."
But the cat hadn't been talking to Hui; he'd been talking to Wirt, who understood. He lifted the instrument, examining the aged wood. "You mean - this may be the same body of the shamisen called the Lunar Shamisen, but it's not...the same. It's something about the strings, isn't it?"
"It's not the strings, it's-" The cat growled in frustration, tail whipping as he leapt to his feet. "To bear the Lunar Shamisen, you must build it yourself. The strings must represent yourself, or your triumphs, or the goal to which you intend to turn it."
"We have won yarn from the lair of the witch Adeladie," Hui said.
"And Miss Langtree gave us a string-"
"But only by stringing it with the hair of one of the Moon King's progeny may the instrument harm him," the cat declared.
"And how do we know we can we trust you?" Wirt demanded. "You're-"
"I am Enoch, mayor of Pottsfield, the longest-established community in the Unknown," the cat said, rising to his full height. "I am guardian to the unmourned and forgotten, and the Moon King and his wretched construct burned down my village! So believe me when I say I have a great deal of investment in seeing to his destruction."
They were quiet a moment after that; it was hard to find words to respond to Enoch's impassioned speech. It was Hui, who after all had been best at keeping them on task, who spoke first.
"Could the Moon King's own hair be used to harm him?"
Enoch's ears perked up. "I suppose, if you defeated his immortal guardian, bypassed his magical defenses, and bested him in single combat, so you could pull one of his hairs, you could subsequently use the instrument to defeat him."
Hui narrowed her eyes at him. "Do not think I cannot recognize sarcasm," she said.
"I don't think he's being sarcastic," Wirt said.
"I was," Enoch piped up.
"But if we somehow did get ahold of the Moon King's hair, we could defeat him, right?" Wirt waited until Enoch nodded. "Then how about we work that out, and try to find him. Do you have any idea where he is?"
Enoch narrowed his eyes at Wirt. "Where do you think, if he keeps the Beast as his constant guard? The edelwood groves."
"So, I've heard a lot of talk about the Beast, but no idea what they look like," Darci commented as she followed Kubo through the dark woods outside Auntie Whispers' home.
"From what I was told, a horned king formed of edelwood," Kubo replied. "So you're going to want to watch out for the pointy bits."
"You haven't forgotten we still don't have any weapons, right?" Darci said. "Because I didn't take your aunt down with my bare hands."
"Yes, I'm aware," Kubo replied, pausing to sniff at a tree before shaking his head. "But Auntie Whispers was right - I'm a sorcerer of the Moon King's own lineage. I should be able to confront the Beast myself."
"Then why-" Darci scowled as the fox hopped over a root, giving no indication of listening. "Hey!" she snapped; Kubo paused, turning toward her, ears perked up, alert. "You're planning to do this yourself?" she asked. After a moment, Kubo nodded, and Darci felt a flicker of - annoyance, disappointment, something. "Then this whole dragging me out of my bed, the 'you're the only one who can do this', what's the point?"
Kubo stepped back, ears falling back, tails curling around him, as he peered up at Darci, eyes wide - wet? "I didn't want to do it alone," he said, voice quiet. "And you reminded me of…" He looked away, suddenly, ears flicking to the side.
"My mother," Kubo said.
Darci felt the flush of hurt, anger, confusion, wash away, and looked at the fox again. He was small, a social creature left walking the world on his own. His parents were dead, and Darci had-
"Really?" she asked.
Kubo nodded. "You have her ferocity, her sense of protectiveness. Her courage - you never quailed in the face of the favors I asked of you. I...lied, when I said I asked you for help because of your connection to the moon. Or - I thought you could do it, because my mother had, once before."
It was strange, how comforting that admission was. Kubo's strange pronouncements that Darci had a connection to the moon had worried her. She didn't know what power was judging her alleged connection, what that connection gave her. But hearing she reminded an orphan of his mother, a warrior-mage who had fought to protect him?
She understood what he saw in her. What he expected her to be. Brave. Fierce. Protective. Nothing more (he didn't expect her to be able to fight the Beast, but she knew she would anyway; its existence grated at her).
The ground shook under their feet; Darci caught herself against a tree, and Kubo braced his feet apart as a bone-shuddering sound echoed through the forest. Darci stood, cautious, when the movement stopped.
"What was that?"
"The Beast," Kubo said, and broke into a run. Four legs made him faster, but being several feet shorter than Darci, she more or less kept up as he sprinted through the trees. The occasional roar swept past them, with further minor earthquakes, and it occurred to Darci that Kubo had not told her how large the Beast was.
(And it was hard to tell as they ran, but the trees seemed to change as they moved. There was something in their shapes that left her uneasy, strange patterns within the whorls and knots of the bark. She didn't have the breath to ask if this was edelwood or not, but this close to a beast who consumed the souls of suicides, what else could they be?)
There was a scream, and then another voice, speaking unfamiliar words that Darci somehow understood.
"You will not touch him!"
And then another voice spoke, one smooth and prim and hateful, and Darci's blood boiled at the sound of it.
"I hope you do not believe a few words of the angels' tongue will save you," the Moon King said, "not when you are fighting one of the Constellations."
"I'm going to kill him," Darci growled.
"How?" Kubo demanded. "Just stay back, and I'll try to-"
And then they stumbled onto the scene. The Moon King stood at the far end of a circle of cleared trees several hundred feet across. There were two figures at the leftmost edge of the circle, one holding one hand out toward the Moon King, motes like stars whirling around their feet, and the other behind them holding-
"He said it was destroyed," Kubo whispered, staring at the instrument cradled in the human's arms.
"I'd say so, too, if I were him," Darci said. "Keep people from looking too hard. But your shamisen isn't our concern right not."
Because the clearing also held the Beast. It was, technically, a horned humanoid, but at thirty feet tall without the horns, it dwarfed all but the largest trolls Darci had seen. Metal bands braced the wooden form, dark metal interspersed with the strange patterns of edelwood. And in its chest burned a fierce white light (it should have been red, or black, an evil color, instead of white, Darci thought), the cage of a lantern embedded within the creature's body. Its eyes glowed with the same steady light of the lamp, and its face nothing more than two slits of a nose and a mouth open wide (round and wide to accommodate the trunk of a tree). There was something, a strange third horn glimmering in the twilight, protruding from its forehead.
"Grandfather!" Kubo shouted, and the Beast and Moon King both turned toward him. Looking directly at the Beast, Darci could see its torso clearly, the twisted patterns within the wood.
Faces twisted into eternal screams, agonized expressions fused into the Beast's skin.
"Kubo," the Moon King said, voice placid, unmoved. "I see you continue in your impertinence. Are you aware the boy you travel with threatened my life?"
"Boy?" Kubo asked, as Darci bit her lip, fighting through the jolt in her chest, the twist of fear and uncertainty (what did the Moon King see when he looked at her?). "I don't-"
The Moon King laughed. "You truly are blind, Kubo. That child - plays at being a girl, denying the truth of his birth."
And Kubo snorted. "And which of us had our eyes plucked out?" he demanded. "We are Constellations, you and I. We are masters of form and phase, of the transformations effected by belief. Surely you cannot deny that a person can make themselves into what they believe themselves to be."
"One of us, perhaps," the Moon King retorted. "But not a human, not a mortal."
Darci didn't understand half of what they were saying, but she did know Kubo was defending her, refusing to listen to his grandfather's insults. She'd...worried, vaguely, that, being centuries older than her, he'd hold similar views, that learning she was trans would have led him to the same conclusions his grandfather had. But it was - reassuring, a strengthening warmth, to know the cautious affection she'd felt for Kubo was not misplaced.
"She knows herself as well as any of us do!" Kubo screamed.
"And how can you say you know yourself?" the Moon King asked, "when you cannot even escape the shape I forced upon you?"
Darci narrowed her eyes, staring at the Moon King. Something in the way he spoke was...strange. Needling, insulting with every word...it meant something.
And then the Moon King shouted, pained, and a flicker of movement drew Darci's gaze down. One of the two other figures was sprinting toward the one with the shamisen while the Moon King turned toward them, face twisted in fury. "Destroy her!" the Moon King ordered, and the Beast moved, reaching a hand down to grab whoever it was.
Kubo leapt forward, both tails twisting behind him, and spat out a line of gold-edged flames that singed the Beast's reaching claw. It howled and swatted at him while it shook its hand to extinguish the flames. Kubo hopped to the side, and the person running away from the Moon King scrambled further away. Kubo lashed one tail out as the Beast lumbered after the fleeing woman, and suddenly there were four of her, and the first one it grabbed fell apart into a whirl of leaves. The Beast stomped on the ground, and branches snapped up to entwine the other three forms, two of them vanishing, and the third struggling against the hold. As the Beast drew closer, the light of its eyes and heart illuminated the figure, the flash of a reflection showing something in her hand-
"A hair?" Darci murmured.
Kubo bounded to the other woman's side in two jumps, hissing as the Beast drew close, and reached up to slash at the Beast with his claws when it didn't slow. Chunks of wood flew away as deep gashes appeared in the Beast's hand.
It paused, a moment of perfect stillness, before it slammed the injured hand on the ground, sending Kubo and the woman, who had been furiously snapping the branches away, stumbling. It turned, reaching for the nearest tree, pulling it free from the dirt with no apparent effort, and lifted the tree to its mouth.
A sick horror whirled in Darci's gut as the Beast shoved the tree into its gaping maw - shoved an edelwood tree, a human soul, into its mouth - and wood grew to heal its injured hand. Tears pricked at her eyes, mouth and hands clenched, as she watched, furious, miserable, because she couldn't fight it, couldn't help these people who'd lost too much already.
She felt something, then. A hint of breath against her ear, or the sense of a presence next to her, and she remembered.
Kubo had said she reminded him of her mother.
Had said she could be who she believed herself to be.
And she could fight.
"Stop it!" she yelled, and her voice carried, a forceful sound that gave human, Beast, and fox pause. "I won't let you do this anymore," she said, pointing at the Beast. "I won't let you torment them further. They shouldn't have to go through this, not after losing the battle with their own pain. They shouldn't be tormented further. It isn't right!"
"And what would you do to stop it, boy?" the Moon King asked. "You do not even have a weapon."
"Doesn't she?" Kubo asked. Something settled in Darci's tight-gripped hand, and when she looked down, there was a katana held tight in her hand, hilt worn but blade dark and pristine, glittering with stars.
"Though we commissioned it, we were never meant to wield the Sword Unbreakable," Kubo said. "We are the shapers of legends, and so we made a weapon fit for a hero - a soul of unquestionable honor. And an orichalcum blade will always respond to the need of its true owner."
Darci looked up, and found, between Kubo snapping at his grandfather, the Beast fumbling at its forehead, where the strange central horn was gone (the Beast had not been guarding the blade, strictly, but the effect was much the same). Darci hefted the blade and considered, for a moment, charging at the Beast. But standing in a forest of edelwood, it could heal any injury, at the expense of another wounded soul.
"That sword is anathema to any work of Blood Magic," a voice hissed at Darci's feet. She glanced down to find a black cat sitting just a foot away, looking up at her with bright eyes.
It sounded like the cat was telling her she could destroy the Beast with the sword, but…
Darci turned, looking at the edge of the clearing, the edelwood trees twisted, as if reflecting the pain of their souls. And she squinted until a face resolved into the surface of the wood. Blood Magic, she remembered, was creating something from sacrifice. And saying it like that…
The golem wasn't Blood Magic. You could make a golem out of anything.
"The trees are Blood Magic," she whispered.
"They kill themselves to end the pain," the cat said. "And in that sacrifice, they create a shell to protect themselves from all sensation. Unwitting, they deny themselves the chance to find true peace. They are lost, more than any other soul in the Unknown." The cat sounded wounded, miserable, as if they understood that pain - and maybe they did.
And Darci, who had defeated the Moon King's daughter when she stopped thinking and acted, did what her heart told her to do, and stabbed the Sword Unbreakable into the heart of the nearest edelwood tree.
The tip of the blade stopped before it could penetrate the wood, however.
"You really shouldn't do that without thinking of the consequences."
Darci tried to turn toward the voice, but she couldn't move, frozen in place. She felt a spark of panic, a racing of her heart-
Or would have, if she'd had a heartbeat.
"Calm down. We're in one of the billions of moments between one moment and the next." A woman - dark-haired, grey-eyed, with a sharp edge to her outline - stepped around Darci. "The moment when decisions are made."
"I made my decision," Darci ground out, the answer coming, somehow, though her mouth couldn't move. "I want to free them."
"To what?" the woman asked. "They cannot pass into the afterlife - so long as they are lost, they will remain in the Unknown."
"I don't know, but anything's better than this!" Darci snapped. "Give them a town or something so they can commiserate, so they can heal and - pass on, or whatever!"
"It's an interesting thought," the woman said, and glanced to her feet. "Would you welcome them in Pottsfield, Enoch?"
"All are welcome in Pottsfield," the cat, Enoch, apparently, said, lazily. "And I've worried about these poor souls for a long time."
"Well. Are you resolved, then?" the woman asked Darci.
And then the world started moving again. The blade sank into the wood, and something snapped. The hundreds, maybe thousands, of trees around them vanished, yanked up out of the ground and gone in an instant. Darci turned, slowly, expecting to find the Beast still looming over her.
But all that was left of the construct was a three-foot-high cage of metal, battered, dented, and empty of all but a single dying ember. Darci looked up to the Moon King and bared her teeth at him.
"So," she said, easily, "are we going to do this the easy way, or the hard way?"
To the side, a guitar (shamisen) chord drifted across the now-empty plain. "Okay, that's an 'E' chord," someone muttered. "What am I supposed to do now?"
"Let the music flow through you," Kubo said, crouched between Darci and the Moon King, eyes fixed on his grandfather.
"I sort of meant what song to play," the shamisen player protested. "I don't exactly know a lot of songs-"
"I think whatever you play, it'll be fine," Darci said.
"Oh, um. Okay." There was quiet a moment, and then a sharp staccato tune rose around them, a rousing song Darci almost recognized. She took a step forward, and her foot landed heavily. She looked, and found metal coating her form, armor covered in elegant tracery. She looked back up and found the Moon King watching her with a calm gaze.
"I see," he murmured. "You were a Valkyrie all along." He closed his eyes and bared his throat. "Then this is one battle I cannot win. You cannot just heal or redeem me, this time, Kubo. Myrddin's corruption runs too deep. You are the next Tsar Lunar; make it so."
Darci was angry, still, knew the Moon King had to die (not just because she hated him, but because Merlin had a hold on him his grandson had been unable to break). But she had expected him to rage, not to submit quietly. And as she readied the blade for a quick strike, she saw his lips moving. She strained for the words, wondering if they were a prayer or a plea.
"My life was his, so yes, deny him my death."
After, they sat on the dirt and watched the full moon sink toward the horizon. Wirt, the shamisen player, looked to Kubo. "He said he cursed you into a new form. Shouldn't you - be back to normal, then?"
"It was the work of Celestial Magic," Kubo replied. "I can undo it when I understand what I am well enough to change it - and I have something new to learn about myself." He sighed and dropped his head onto his paws. "It's not so bad, for now. We should be waking, soon. It is the way of the Unknown, when you conquer the demons that brought you here." His tails flicked idly. "Thank you. It was clever, getting his hair like that, and we couldn't have killed him without the shamisen's magic weakening him."
"We should return it," Hui, Wirt's companion, said.
"No need. I'm not the Moon King's grandson anymore; I won't need it. And…" Kubo sighed. "Dark days are coming. You might need it." He shook himself and rose to his feet. "Come on, Darci. It's time we went home."
"Not yet," she said. "You need your shape back, and...we can't just leave Enoch to rebuild on his own." And she wasn't certain, yet, she'd defeated the demons that had brought her here. The spirits of the edelwood trees were still lost, and she'd agreed to take responsibility for their fate. "I think we can afford to bring a little peace to this world."
There was a woman standing in the middle of the Somerset County Hall, in the chambers of the Council. Someone had been by to speak to her, explaining she was trespassing, and that the Council was supposed to have a closed meeting, anyway, but had come back and said it was fine.
They'd done this three times before giving up and hoping she just wouldn't make a fuss.
But when the chairperson called the Council to session, the woman spoke up, in a voice that carried despite the soft volume. The voice was smooth, gentle, but impossibly compelling. You could not imagine ignoring it, even if you had a really exciting song queuing on your phone, or were trying to watch the new episode of a show you'd been looking forward to.
"Good evening," the woman said, gaze sliding across the Council members, each feeling, in the frozen moment that they met her eyes, fixed in place, seen in a way they had never been before.
"This is a closed meeting-" the chairperson started.
"I am aware. But as I bring an issue of some urgency to your attention, I felt it would benefit to dispense with the niceties."
"Niceties?" the chairperson sputtered.
"Yes. A great evil is coming to Somerset. It will lay waste to your fields, burn your villages, and spill the blood of all who stand before it."
"Who are you?" one of the Council members asked, leaning forward to peer at the woman. "Are you a county resident?"
"I am not a resident of this county, or this world, but this place holds many passages to my kingdom. You may call me...Titania."
"Ha! Like the Queen of the Faeries?" another Council member laughed.
"No, not 'like' her. I am her," Titania replied. "And I have come to you at the behest of my cousin. Her enemy comes seeking Avalon, and when he finds the door closed to him, he will turn upon the people of Somerset, in the hopes they can open the way for him."
"Enemy? What enemy?"
"And Avalon? Do you mean Glastonbury Tor? That's a tourist attraction!"
"If you think the Army will put up with nonsense like that-"
"He is a sorcerer of power unmatched by any living creature," Titania retorted. "And now is the head of the most powerful army in the world. There is nothing you can do to stop him, save allowing us to shield you, to remove Somerset from the bounds of this world until the threat has ended."
The Chairperson slammed his hand down, bringing the chamber to silence. "I think you should explain," he said. "No riddles, no roundabouts. Who is coming to Somerset? And what does he want with Avalon?"
"The wizard Merlin," Titania replied. "And he comes for the king sleeping within our halls. For it was told to him, 'Your legacy alone can be your end, o sorcerer, though it shall neither be by dawn nor midnight, eclipse nor noon. But know too, that while Pendragon sleeps, you may not know defeat, but until Pendragon wakes, you may not know victory.'"
"Merlin? You expect us to believe-"
"She's the Queen of the Fairies, Phil, don't be an arse!"
"But why are we protecting ourselves from Merlin?"
"Merlin has conquered the Bear and the Eagle, and the Dragon too shall soon fall to him," Titania snapped, whirling on the one who'd questioned her. "He is the downfall of every civilization he touches, and yours will be no exception. Our time grows short - his plane will be landing in London within the hour."
"Plane-" another council member murmured. "Eagle - are you talking about President Walters?"
Titania's grim smile was the only answer they needed. And perhaps it was fantastic and impossible, but so too had been President Martin Walters' (Merlin's) ascent to the presidency. Aliens, sorcerers, and sleeping kings, were too much to expect the people of Somerset to handle, so with an overwhelming majority, they accepted Titania's offer - the protection of her people, concealing Somerset from Merlin's prying eyes.
"And when will we return?" the Chairperson asked.
"When Merlin lies dead, or my palace burns," she replied.