No one trained on the east tower now. The slate armor stand still stood beneath the starry sky, its outstretched arms reaching emptily. Lichen clung to the rough stone floor.
To the west, the new tower was rising, a ring of steel, a keep of 6 towers, still smooth from the forge, smooth and shiny, except where stained at the base. The sound of the night laborers carried easily above the trees, as did the sound of the Hardy Arches, sparring off-season in their unfinished new barracks by a newly forged steel weapon rack, soldiers panting and laughing as the sky drank their sweat.
Aban's own kit, she knew, lay deep beneath her, a crate full of exceptional steel dumped carelessly close to the forge, a nation's wealth and a dwarf's history marked for melting. Every meal she had ever cooked, long gone; she didn't even recognize the meat they were using now.
She had lingered by the kitchens before, but soon, they'd be no more, every room she'd ever known relocated. When Id had seen her there, he had dropped the barrel he was carrying, brown rum running over blackcap rim, and began disrobing, right there in the plant stockpile. His steel, too, lay marked for melt now, and an unknown dwarf tended the still.
There was still Oddom. Aban went to her then.
* * *
No moon hung over Conjuredskin, but neither any clouds, and the stars were enough light for Cequova Tomeroars to read Graveflowers. She traced his smooth contours now.
Graveflowers was a bow tree, the oldest in Conjuredskin, and the largest, ten elves around. He gave infrequently now, but his gifts were as fine as they had been two hundred years ago. Cequova remembered him as a sapling, tending him with a consciously felt sense of detachment, afraid to care too much about a sickly bent thing on the hill's north side. Graveflowers had surprised her, even saved her life once. He didn't speak any more frequently than he gave, taciturn, even for an ash, and when he did it was rarely pleasant, but always worth heeding.
It was at the scar, where the cambium would never regrow. Cequova knew it penetrated into his heartwood, a deep knot that twisted like some otherworldly storm, widdershins then deasil then widdershins again. She saw into Graveflowers's mind there, at that scar that he spun uselessly, his phantom limb reaching through her, shuddered at what she saw, and nearly toppled with fright when she felt Are's light touch on her shoulder.
"Cimathi is alive, and returned. You'll want to hear her story."
Cequova composed herself. Three years was a long time. Are was presumptuous, but correct.
* * *
Oddom wasn't a mason, but everyone at Lanterdark built. That was part of the original plan, one of the few things they had stuck with. So when she had peered down that gloomy, ringing tunnel, she had just shrugged against the weight of her backpack, dropped the door, and backtracked for some slate. The staircase had occupied her for several weeks, but she knew well enough how to build downwards.
She'd been afraid to drop for the last bit, uncertain what might swoop upon her with no exit, and had lain from above until it had touched the ground, the strange ground that didn't give, that left her boot soles red despite the hard dustless gray of the rock that formed underlit hills and cliffs, penetrated only by the glowing abysses. She had seen them, far off, shimmers in a diffuse glow, but she wasn't down here for them, and she looked carefully for their shadows cast on the cavern's ceiling, and planned her paths carefully.
She had come upon bones down there, hollow bones heavier than stone, and beaks, chips of brass in the magnificent desolation, but no blood in the essentially gray landscape, and so when she came upon the curious pool, hard, but softer than the stone, curious, she had followed. The horse was dry, dessicate, spine torn in two along with its packsaddle, pale entrails spread in a pool of stick, the smell of nightsoil, but only faintly, and nothing fed. Oddom wondered when it had died. More than a day past, by the blood; more than a month, by the beast's mummified skin-- but less than an hour, by its pale entrails, by its wide terrified eyes, dry and wrinkled but still open, by its belly, unswollen. She had filled her backpack then from its saddle bags, content enough with mystery, and continued.
She had walled the staircase before she returned, thinking of her students, and only now did she return to the door. It was functional, but not beautiful. She stepped back, after the jamb was set, waiting for it to swing closed, waiting for the catch of the lock, but it hung. Not quite square. She stepped forward then to fix it, but the instant she did, it snapped shut and latched. Oddom retrieved the key from her purse and unlocked it, swung the door wide. It hung again, caught on some microscopic speck. Oddom took a step backwards and the door closed, latching.
It had been more than a month. The Pinnacles were waiting. Oddom began the long hike home.