There was always time to run.
The strangers had come, shining, gleaming, reflecting back the cerulean sky, the golden splints of light to the sky, throwing back the images of the spirals and fluted shapes, the spindles and confectionery lace of both the crystal-kissed city and the delicate gardens nestled across the grounds between and twining up in loving limbs: the perfection of symmetry, the fluid love affair between smooth synthetic and lush nature. Three fingers of glass and silver bone shot up through the richness to press the vault of heaven, higher than clouds dreamed. At their feet had cropped the dance of civilization. Perhaps the folk who'd lived there had thought to give them fitting airy names, but collectively, they had been known only as the Towers.
"Ari," one of the people whispered to its companion, watching the milling strangers far below glinting metal and dipped in red, "what are they?"
The other moved closer to the window, watched, but said nothing. Their kind were tall, willowy, as graceful as the place they inhabited. Their limbs, their fingertips, their near-black hair flowed long and free. Their skin was pale to near translucence, their eyes large, coffee flecked with amber and bronze. Slight differences sounded in them: the silent one was taller, the speaking more slender. In their flowing alabaster robes to their gold sandaled feet roped in gold at waist and breast over garnet and amethyst vests, sleeveless arms decorated in gold bands and throats wrapped in woven shapes and gemstones, to an outsider, they appeared very nearly twins. A second glance however, might define the slighter form as female and the taller as male—but in reality, their kind had no need for such distinction, having been borne more of dream and breath than bone.
"Strangers." The slightest motion of his head and shoulders before she asked. "Waiting, Ciel." A puzzled look flashed over his eyes. "For what, I do not know. Maybe Father will know."
No answers awaited them in the Chamber. Father was gone, the Council milled about in chaos, lost children. The strangers had come from nowhere it seemed—they had not been seen by land, air, or water. They just sprang up over night, milling in metal and red, plumed in blue, like a carpet of alien flowers in the gardens, studying the quickly surrounded cities. They had not allowed or exchanged messengers. They would not speak. They would not even acknowledge the presence of the beings whose land they seemed intent on occupying.
"You warn the west—I will go to the east. Meet me there." They were made of smoke and air, they were the essence of thought; he rose like heat, and exploded forth like a comet. She hesitated, throbbed on foot down the ocean wave of stairs, the tongue of marble spill into the courtyard to gather and aid any survivors. The last of them had their throats unknitted by daggers of gold as she stumbled to a choked screaming halt.
They caught her on the stairs. They rushed over her in a blood spill of scarlet tabards and squelching metal. They had appendages the likes she'd never seen on her world. They tore her garments, they did as they wished to her until it seemed surely her throat would light on fire with screams, her body would bleed to death. When her female form lost its solidity, they were not discouraged, but continued in refreshed viciousness.
Their leader pulled a knife from his belt, scraped off every one of her beautiful locks. He carved alien symbols into her arm, into her thigh, dipped his fingers in a pouch at his side and wrote on her broken body in an alien tongue. It burned, it burned. Throat too tattered to shriek any more, she mewled pitifully, begging them to stop. He brushed her forehead in sick tenderness and said in a hollow metallic voice, "Assimilate."
Her face lost shape, stretched beyond the dream that made it, became bestial, snarling, fierce. She lunged forward, snapping at his face. He took a small tool, hooked and the length of a hawk's feather, from his belt, grinning gold and sinister. He said, "You shall See," and drove it through her right eye, leaving her shrieking and singing in pain, thrashing violently to be free, but unable even in agony to break their grip. She howled and raged, snapped up at him, the difference between his heavy earth bound race clearer from hers in every serpentine arch, each smoking hiss, in the acidic scorch and bitterness when she spit in his face. Holding her down hard to the stone, he took from a canister something that sizzled and guttered and sparked in his perfect gauntleted hand—a live coal. "You will learn your place. You will change your voice. You will assimilate." In a simultaneous motion, he shoved the coal past her lips and gripped her mouth shut and thrust the blade into the most damaged wound on her body with a cauterizing blow. Words of his own tongue spilled from his lips, the symbols he'd drawn smoking before the full immolation blazed. His featureless soldiers pressed her down, did not blink, immune to the blaze, until it was complete.
Whatever they had intended, it was not this.
No ash smeared beneath. A creature burst beneath them, with inconceivable strength—horrifying in its power and grotesque burned beauty, some wretched thing into whose dream existence melded nightmare, merging with the unholy fire until they became one. Raised above their heads on wings of soot and the ash of charred flesh, held aloft by heat and hate alone, Ciel drew in an endless breath as the pristine soldiers shook in abject horror... exhaled as a bellows with the force of all the winds behind it and incinerated them where they stood in a maelstrom of flesh-stripping blazes.
She soared west, scorching stragglers, crisping these immaculate murders and rapists where they cringed, where they cowered, over the bodies of her people. Too late. Not a single willowy long-haired form still moving. Both the north and the west Tower were in flames and crackling lightning half a mile up the side of the buildings. Too late. No one left to rescue. Nothing left to save.
Perhaps—perhaps they had not made it east yet. Perhaps these new powers could make her outdistance the invaders. Perhaps she could still save him, whoever was with him.
But the eastern Tower was the furthest away. It's why he had chosen it. He was faster.
Ciel tore across the riven landscape, leaving only a swath of cinder and destruction below as she arced over the advancing army. Her heart battered her ribcage—if either could be called by their old names in this flaking fluorescing body, this horror capable of meting out justice or vengeance of equal measure to the violations unleashed upon her. Whatever she had absorbed into herself to survive was not good or bad, did not make her better, but certainly made her stronger, fiercer, direct. She would grieve the ruined flesh and sluiced beauty some other time, when there was nothing more at stake.
Even so, as the final Tower loomed on the horizon, spiking like a clear sweet note into the heavens, flames erupted at the base. Lightning crackled, snaring the lower floors in a violent violet electric web. Even in this forged form, Ciel knew she would not make it in time. Her soul surged, thrust forth to shriek, but could not get past her torched throat, her gate of teeth.
Like a flower knows the sun, blind, she surged toward him—he was still alive—but could find no entrance. The windows above stood strong, uncracked, too thick to penetrate, thick enough now to suffocate. The intruders had done something to the open first floors—something with their foreign magic—and she was trapped in the smoke and the flames, caught up as part of it. The plaza opened beneath the sparkling—now smoking and tarnished—colonnades to a turquoise tiled circular space. Around the edges, safe from any of her own people left alive by the fire—safe from her inside the fire—soldiers ringed. From above, she could clearly see the last few dozen of her people, shoved to their knees, golden daggers to their throats, awaiting the final order.
The leader of this contingent circled a standing figure—shoulders slumped in defeat, but head still proud—his bloody cloak a cloud of rape and hate and murder wild behind him. Her heart caught. Ari. He was still alive. Her stomach crashed through the floor: of course he was—they knew who the Father's scions were. Everyone else had gotten a clean death. Quick, nearly painless. They had been meant to be examples, a message, one way or another: as a warning of what was to come, or a triumph of what they could conquer. He was about to be tortured, in front of the last of their people, and there was nothing she could do to stop it—even as the abomination she'd become. If she could have moved, she would have cleaved her body to ribbons.
He looked up at the man pacing about him, lacing the air with threats and promises, and did the unthinkable. He took his voluntarily. He dropped to one knee, and said in the echoing silence, "I submit."
Nooooo! her voiceless scream battered him.
He reached forth both hands, palms up. "I choose this."
The commander froze mid-stride in surprise, in disappointment at the game thwarted, cleared his throat and said, "Very well. We shall continue with the ritual. To make you our brother."
She watched from her high smoky perch as he allowed them to tear his fine clothes enough to carve the words into his body, to paint him with filth, watched them baptize him in oils that made his flesh smoke. Ciel shuddered, but frozen, could not look away as he took the small gold hook into his own hands and with it a stilling breath. Another unthinkable, as he lifted it up to his own left eye, he looked right at her. Right at her. And she felt the weight of his soul in that glance, whispering, Just like Father. Horror, horror—she twitched but could not grip her own screaming socket that even now flooded with information her eye could never have interpreted. No sacrifice was worth this. Another breath of his, another steeling of determination, a bracing. We cannot win.
Noooooo! He did not look away as he drove the sharp in and howled in agony, nearly falling over in blindness and fire.
The commander gripped him. "Repeat after me, and the transformation will be complete. I See. I know my place. I will use my voice. I will assimilate."
From the far end of the flames, from the south entrance raced one of their own, shrieking himself hoarse, "NO! STOP HIM! STOP HIM! THE BLOOD IS PURE! STOP--"
Ari gripped his searing face with one hand, his skin smoking under the tincture, reacting to the flesh it was meant to transmogrify, and gripped the commander's arm for balance with the other. "I See. I know my place. I will use my voice. I will assimilate—" he moved like lightning, snatching the gold dagger and ramming it through the commander's abdomen, then throat, "but not for you." He dropped the blade, and the transformation shook him as he wrapped his hands around the commander's skull. Spikes erupted from his forearms, slammed through the bone and brain and out the other side. A deft twist, and the stranger's skull cap came off in Ari's hands, the body thudded to the floor.
The soldiers, petrified to the spot, were unable to move—wracked with horror at what they were seeing, their ritual of assimilation contorted beyond their worst nightmares, as an enemy absorbed their power, and his blood right and aborted oath mutated it beyond all recognition. Ari's skin steeled to grey. Spurs erupted across his body, a horrid phase of the armour that was really the strangers' skin, sometimes shooting right through his limbs, thorning his flesh and disfiguring him completely. His skin boiled molten, covered him afresh like iron, like hot lead, encasing him with its imperviousness. As he yowled in anguish, their own strange appendages ripped from his back, but in the tainted metamorphosis, his came in strangled and wet, with wilted black feathers.
At this final outrage, this nearness, this screaming of kin, the soldiers fell on him, sending their prisoners scattering as they moved to take down the abomination. They sliced his newborn wings clean off, thundering him into a new fury—and as they retaliated, they lost hold of their ring of flame, and Ciel broke through to join him in the slaughter. This time, when she screamed, sound and lava burst out to scald. This time, when he howled, the sound itself fractured bones.
In a last show of malice, the soldiers stopped defending blows and started to take the innocents with them. By the time Ari and Ciel dropped the last charred corpse, only a small handful of their people had survived—and those had run in terror of their saviours, of their godking's children.
The two stared at the changes wrought in each other, and could not speak. There was nothing to say. Civilization as they'd known it had cracked and fallen—even now, they could hear the towers overhead creaking, the beams groaning, the crystal shattering, soon to come down and destroy the ravaged bits left. The strangers may have appeared from the air—but they'd left a trail as they fled. The assimilated thought, even as they bolted, There were only two of them. There was always time to run.