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a star without light

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Once upon a time there existed a human, and this human had a family to his name, a family made of his lover and his children and his sisters and his brothers and his mother and his friends. And he loved his family with all his heart, and for them he would do anything, would give away all his belongings and die a thousand times over and fight off the worst demons in existence to ensure that his family stayed safe.

And one day when he was away from his family, someone came and stole away every last one of them. And when he came back to an empty home, he knew this was not the work of a mortal, for in the center of his dining table he found a pile of his family's belongings, and when he set eyes upon it the pile caught fire and burned to ashes, and the flames burned white and laughed as they faded.

And the human searched and searched to try and understand who had taken his family, so that he may find and bring them home; and in time his search led him to a witch with golden hair and a single red eye, and when she saw him she cried out and stepped away from him.

And the human was shaken, and asked, “Witch, why do you cry out?”

And the witch told him, “You wear the coat of a murderer.”

And the human was horrified, and said, “I am not a murderer; and this coat belongs to my lover's ancestor besides, and he never saw war.”

And the witch told him, “No, you are not, and perhaps he had not, but in the stitches of the coat you wear, I see a lonely, angry, frightened man who slaughtered the family of the current King of Stars.”

And the human was confused, and asked, “Who is the King of Stars?”

And the witch told him, “The King is the ruler of the stars, and stars are beings beyond mere mortals, with powers we cannot comprehend. They exist in the realm of stars, separate to the mortal realm, and the two realms are blocked by the Wall, through which one may occasionally slip, if it strikes their fancy. The stars live much longer than us, and the Wall often stops them from seeing into our world, but they have flawless memories and hold grudges longer than a dead human can hold their breath.”

And the human was frightened, and asked, “And what have I done to earn the hatred of a star? For my family has been stolen from me, and all I had left of them was a pile of their belongings, and those were burned up in a flash as laughter rang in my ears.”

And the witch shook her head and told him, “The stars see humans as lesser beings that live and die in one of their heartbeats, and so they rarely memorize faces, but instead characteristics. It seems to me that the one who stole your family might have been the King of Stars, for you wear the coat of the man who killed his family; and even if he knew you were not his family’s killer, stars rarely care who has done them an unkindness, as long as someone is punished for the deed.”

And the human was taken aback, and said, “That is hardly fair.”

And the witch told him, “Stars care not for fairness, save for when someone is kind to them.”

And the human grew determined, and said, “Tell me how to get to the realm of the stars, so that I may find and bring home my family from the King.”

And the witch looked at him sadly, and told him, “Your journey will take a long time to complete, if it is ever completed; and you may never return to this world again, for the realm of stars changes those who walk its grounds. And all this assuming you live through the endeavour, for if it is indeed the King who has taken your family, you have found yourself a fearsome opponent."

And the human shook his head, and said, “I care not for all that; as long as I see my family safe and sound again, I am content.”

And so, with great reluctance, the witch showed him the places where the Wall between the realms thinned, and bade him to travel through the thin places on a night when the moon was full, with his coat as armor and food as an offering and a knife as a weapon.

And so the human entered the dimension in which the stars lived, travelling through the realm in search of his family. And as he travelled, he came across a star in the shape of a bear, thin and wild and furious. And though he was frightened, he saw that the bear was furious for she herself was hungry and frightened, and his heart hurt to see her go hungry when he had food to share.

And so the human crouched low and made himself harmless, and put away the knife he carried, and held out the little food he had brought. And the bear-shaped star stared at him in surprise, but stepped forward and took his offering, and when she ate it she took a step back and stood on her hind legs, and then there stood a woman with the bear’s fiery eyes, and something to the set of her mouth that reminded the human of his own mother. And for the food the bear-mother star gave him her deepest thanks, then asked the human, “Little human, why do you cross the realm of the stars?” For it was rare to see a human in this realm, and the bear-mother star was curious about what brought the human to her home.

And the human said, “To find and bring home my family.”

And the bear-mother star said, “I have seen a human come through here in search of her family. What is your family like?”

And the human told her of his family, and at the end said, “The oldest of them is my mother, a fierce protector who almost gave her life to save me once, and her appearance belies her true age, and her age carries with it wisdom and love.”

And the bear-mother star said, “I have seen one of your family, and she was kind to me; she returned to me my lost bell, and for her kindness I would have given her my blessing, had she not been taken by the King.”

And the human said, “Then I shall bring her back from the King.”

And the bear-mother star said, “Then take the blessing which I was to give your mother—take my blessing of an ever-full stomach, which will let you travel days and nights without ever having to think of food or drink; and save your mother who loves fiercely, for she was kind to me.”

And for her blessing the human gave the bear-mother star his deepest thanks. Then the bear-mother star pointed the human west and said, “Travel two weeks’ time in that direction, and you will find a friend of mine, who will surely be able to help you.”

And so the human continued travelling through the realm of stars in search of his family. And as he travelled, he came across a star with blond hair and fiery eyes and a tilt to his mouth that promised trouble. And the star was tense as the human approached, so the human slowed his step and asked, “What bothers you?” For the human had seen that the fire in the star’s eyes was lit by distress, and his heart hurt for the star.

And the bright-eyed star said, “I am bothered by the loss of my crown, which my dearly beloved gave to me.”

And the human said, “Then I will help you find your crown,” and so he did, searching tirelessly for the crown and returning in triumph to the bright-eyed star.

And the bright-eyed star placed the crown on his head, and held the human’s hand and gave him his deepest thanks. Then the bright-eyed star asked the human, “Little human, why do you cross the realm of the stars?” For it was rare to see a human in this realm, and the bright-eyed star was curious about what brought the human to his home.

And the human said, “To challenge the King, for he has taken one of my family, and I intend to find and bring her home, along with the rest of my family.”

And the bright-eyed star said, “I have seen a human come through here in search of her family. What is your family like?”

And the human said, “One of them is as my sister, the youngest of my friends, and her hair is gold like yours, and she has a spirit of fire, despite the sadness that dims her flames.”

And the bright-eyed star said, “I have seen one of your family, and she was kind to me; she helped me look for my crown, and for her kindness I would have given her my blessing, had she not been taken by the King.”

And the human said, “Then I shall bring her back from the King.”

And the bright-eyed star said, “Then take the blessing which I was to give your sister—take my staff to protect yourself with, and take this lock of my hair, and if you ever need help use it to call me to your side; and save your sister with the ever-burning spirit, for she was kind to me.”

And for his blessing the human gave the bright-eyed star his deepest thanks. Then the bright-eyed star pointed the human north and said, “Travel four weeks’ time in that direction, and you will find friends of mine, who will surely be able to help you.”

And so the human continued travelling through the realm of stars in search of his family. And as he travelled, he came across two stars entangled in a fight, one female and the other male, one with gold hair and the other with black, one with a pair of white angel’s wings and the other with a pair of black dragon’s wings. And he pushed them apart and told them to stop fighting, and the stars were furious and leapt to attack him.

But the human carried the bright-eyed star’s staff, and he swung it towards the stars and knocked them back. And when the two stars saw the staff in the human’s hands, they restrained themselves, for these were the friends of the bright-eyed star.

Then the human said to them, “Why do you fight?” For the human had seen that there were tears running down the cheeks of the two stars, and his heart hurt to see anyone whose rage was fuelled by grief.

And the holy star said to the human, “I fight the unholy star because he brought the attention of the King upon me, and the King took someone dear to me, and he places the fault of my loss upon me.”

And the unholy star said to the human, “I fight the holy star because she brought the attention of the King upon me, and the King took someone dear to me, and she places the fault of my loss upon me.”

And the human said to them, “It is not your fault that you have lost someone dear to you; the King is stronger than you, and therefore able to take your dear ones from you. It seems to me that fighting over this does neither of you any good; and indeed it seems to me that the best course of action is to challenge the King to return your dear ones to you. I understand, for he has taken someone dear to me, and I intend to do the same.”

And the holy and unholy stars were startled, and asked, “Little human, is that why you cross the realm of the stars?” For it was rare to see a human in this realm, and the holy and unholy stars were curious about what brought the human to their home.

And the human said, “Yes, the King has taken two of my family, and I intend to find and bring them home, along with the rest of my family.”

And the holy and unholy stars said, “We have seen humans come through here in search of their family. What does your family look like?”

And the human said, “Two of them are as my sisters, and they are this tall, and both have dark hair, and one was born with the mark of a star under her eye, and one marked infinity on her own hands.”

And the holy star said, “I have seen your sister with infinity on her hands, and she was my dear one, for she was kind to me; she helped me confess to my beloved, and for her kindness I would have given her my blessing, had she not been taken by the King.”

And the unholy star said, “And I have seen your sister with a star under her eye, and she was my dear one, for she was kind to me; she warmed me with her jacket when I was attacked by an icy star, and for her kindness I would have given her my blessing, had she not been taken by the King.”

And the human said, “Then I shall bring them back from the King.”

And the holy star said, “Then take the blessings which I was to give your sister—take my blessing of fire which cannot be extinguished, and take my blessing of wings to carry you quickly through the skies, and save your sister with infinity on her hands, for she was kind to me.”

And the unholy star said, “And take the blessings I was to give your sister—take my blessing of shadows to hide you from unwelcome eyes, and take my blessing of claws that will cut through any armor, and save your sister with a star under her eye, for she was kind to me.”

And for their blessings the human gave the holy and unholy stars his deepest thanks. Then the holy and unholy stars pointed the human east and said, “Travel two months’ time in that direction, and you will find a friend of ours, who will surely be able to help you.”

And so the human continued travelling through the realm of stars in search of his family, often taking to the skies on his newly acquired wings. And as he travelled, he came across a forge, and in the forge sat a star with his head in his hands, and his skin was metal from head to toe. And the human approached the metal star and asked, “Why do you sit so sadly?” For the human had seen the exhaustion lining the metal star’s form, and his heart hurt to see anyone so obviously resigned to a sad fate.

And the metal star raised his head and said, “I am sad for I have grown old, and I wished to complete one last project before I retired; but I can no longer work the bellows to keep the fire in my forge going, and without the fire I may not finish.”

And the human said, “I have a power given to me by another star, which allows me to call a fire that will burn hotter than the sun, a fire that will never be put out lest I ask for it. And I will use this fire to help you finish your last work.”

And the metal star was grateful, and worked alongside the human to finish his last project; and when he finished, the metal star gave the human his bed to rest in and food to eat, for the human may have pushed himself until the metal star was done with his project, but he was far past exhausted in both soul and body. And as he rested, the metal star asked the human, “Little human, why do you cross the realm of the stars?” For it was rare to see a human in this realm, and the metal star was curious about what brought the human to his home.

And the human said, “To challenge the King, for he has taken four of my family, and I intend to find and bring them home, along with the rest of my family.”

And the metal star said, “I have seen a human come through here in search of his family. What is your family like?”

And the human said, “One of them is as my brother, and he is incredibly strong, but his touch is as gentle as his heart, and his heart is the kindest of us all.”

And the metal star said, “I have seen one of your family, and he was kind to me; he helped me work the bellows and shape my project, and for his kindness I would have given him my blessing, had he not been taken by the King.”

And the human said, “Then I shall bring him back from the King.”

And the metal star said, “Then take the blessings which I was to give your brother—take the last sword I will ever make, for it will never break in your hands, and take my blessing of steel skin, to armor yourself against those who would hurt you, and save your brother with the gentle heart, for he was kind to me.”

And for his blessings the human gave the metal star his deepest thanks. Then the metal star pointed the human south and said, “Travel four months’ time in that direction, and you will find friends of mine, who will surely be able to help you.”

And so the human continued travelling through the realm of stars in search of his family. And he took to the skies often, but just as often he walked, for he found himself more tired after long flights than after walking twice the same distance.

And as he travelled, he came across a group of stars, all arguing with each other, armed with spears and books and goblets and bows and arrows and all manner of other weapons. And he pushed his way to the front of the group, where three stars stood; one slightly apart from the other two, dressed in the ocean with a spear in hand; and the other two dressed in shadows and spring, hands entwined and fierce glares levelled at the ocean star. And the human asked the stars, “Why do you argue?” For he felt that if all the stars he had met so far had seen his family, surely a group such as this would know of his family, and perhaps he could gain their favor by helping them.

And every one of the group of stars clamored to answer him, but the three stars at their head raised a hand each, and they all fell silent. Then the spring star said, “Little human, we argue because the ocean star has allowed the King to take one of those dear to our own, and he says it was our own fault, and that is an insult we cannot allow to go unpunished.”

And the ocean star said, “Little human, we argue because those who cannot keep their possessions protected think to accuse others for their own folly, and I find their complaints laughable.”

And the human was furious, for he knew that there would always be someone stronger than you who could take everything you held dear; but he hid his anger well, for he knew that the ocean star was strong enough to kill him no matter what blessings he bore. And he knew this was not a conflict he could solve peaceably, so he said to the spring star, “I have urgent news, and I must speak to you away from this group.”

And the spring star smiled at him, and said, “Little human, come with me, and we shall not be overheard by any but those who would aid you.”

And the spring star took the human’s hand and led him away to the safety of her palace, her husband the shadow star following behind her. And there in the palace, the spring and shadow stars asked the human, “What news do you carry, that makes you cross the realm of the stars?” For it was rare to see a human in this realm, and the spring and shadow stars were curious about what brought the human to their home.

And the human said, “The news I carry is the loss of my family, for the King has taken five of them, and I intend to find and bring them home, along with the rest of my family.”

And the spring and shadow stars understood why he spoke to them alone, and they said, “We have heard of a human who came through here in search of her family. What is your family like?”

And the human said, “One of them is as my sister, and she has brown hair and eyes that know everything, and she would put herself in harm’s way before letting any of us be hurt.”

And the spring and shadow stars glanced at each other, uncertain, and the human’s heart sank; but then voices came from behind him, voices lined with certainty, and those voices said, “We have seen one of your family, and she was our dear one, for she was kind to us; she helped us escape the decree of our cruel king and brought us to this palace, and for her kindness we would have given her our blessings, had she not been taken by the King.”

And the human turned and saw a star of revelry with a goblet in his hand, a star of coming home with a ball of thread in her hands, and a star of messengers with winged sandals on his feet, and a star of knowledge with scrolls in her arms, and to them the human said, “Then I shall bring her back from the King.”

And the four stars said, “Then take the blessings which we were to give your sister—”

And the star of revelry said, “Take my blessing of this goblet, and if you ever find you are lost, drink from it and you will always find yourself again.”

And the star of coming home said, “And take my blessing of this thread, and tie it to that which you keep dear, and if you ever lose your dear ones, you will always find your way back to them.”

And the star of messengers said, “And take my blessing of communication, and if ever you are far from someone, you will always be able to hear their voice.”

And the star of knowledge said, “And take my blessing of a strong mind, for even the strongest wills may be broken, but as long as you can think of a way out you are never shattered.”

And the four stars said, “Take our blessings, and save your sister with the wise eyes, for she was kind to us.”

And the spring and shadow stars smiled at the human, and said, “Your family is kind, and so must you be, for no kind person would befriend one who was cruel and see them go unpunished. And for the kindness your family has shown our own, we would see you safe. So if you ever have need of us, call upon us, and our power will be yours to do with as you please.”

And for their blessings the human gave the stars his deepest thanks. Then the spring and shadow stars pointed the human northwest and said, “Travel six months’ time in that direction, and you will find a friend of ours, who will surely be able to help you.”

And so the human continued travelling through the realm of stars in search of his family. And though his wings still stayed strong, his head was plagued by aches and his ears plagued by whispers he could not find the source of, and his soul tired far faster than any of his limbs; and so it took him thrice the time to cover half the distance as it had before.

And his will to go on often tired, too, but he knew he must keep going; and so he used the blessing of the star of communication and sent off messages on the wind to all the stars he had met so far, and their responses ringing in his ears kept him moving when he wanted nothing more than to lay down and sleep forever.

And as he travelled, he came across a large ship, and on that ship stood a star dressed in a naval admiral’s uniform, and he frowned at the ropes tied to and from the mast of the ship. And the human flew up to the deck of the ship and asked the naval star, “What bothers you?” For the human could see from his face that he was troubled, and he bore a startling resemblance to one of the human’s family, and his heart hurt to see that familiar expression of worry.

And the naval star glanced at him, and his brows furrowed at something he saw in the human, but nonetheless he said, “I am bothered by my inability to set sail, for the ropes around the mast are tangled, and my crew has abandoned me, for they are all dead; and there is no one to fix them, for I am too old to climb that far up.”

And the human said, “I can assist you in untangling the ropes.”

And the naval star said, “But some of the ropes must be cut and resealed by flame, and you cannot carry a torch and your sword up with you, for they will be too heavy and make you clumsy; and furthermore the ropes are too tangled to climb.”

And the human said, “I have claws which are sharp enough to cut through the ropes, and I have a flame I may summon to meld them back together; and furthermore I have wings that will let me fly around the mast, so that I need not climb the ropes.”

And the naval star nodded hesitantly, and with his permission the human flew up and neatened the mess around the mast. And when he flew back down, the naval star had him sit down, and frowned at the human’s sudden exhaustion; and he said, “I give you my deepest thanks for your kindness, and I would give you a blessing, save for the fact that you appear to have been blessed by one star too many, and the power has become too much for your mortal body, and the overflow is tearing your soul apart.”

And the human stared at him, for he had not known his kindness would have such a cost. And the naval star said, “I cannot help you, but I know who might, and as thanks for your kindness I will take you to them, for they live past this ocean on the island where the King holds court.”

And for months on the rocky seas they sailed, for the King’s island was far from the mainland. And as they sailed, the human grew weary and frightened, and called to his stars for guidance; and they all sent apologies and well-wishes and their hopes that he would be safe, and he felt comforted, but not enough.

And when the naval star saw that the human was still weary and frightened, he thought to distract him, so he asked the human, “Little human, why do you cross the realm of the stars?” For it was rare to see a human in this realm, and the naval star was curious about what brought the human to his home.

And the human said, “To challenge the King, for he has taken six of my family, and I intend to find and bring them home, along with the rest of my family.”

And the naval star said, “I have seen a human come through here in search of her family. What is your family like?”

And the human said, “One of them is my lover’s student, and she is determined just like him; her hair is long and tied back to stay out of her way as she fights for those she cares for, and her loyalty runs deeper than the ocean.”

And the naval star said, “I have seen one of your family, and she was kind to me; she read maps for me when I was busy handling the ship in a storm, and for her kindness I would have given her my blessing, had she not been taken by the King.”

And the human said, “Then I shall bring her back from the King.”

And the naval star said, “Then I wish you the best of luck, for I can give you nothing else that will not hurt you, and you will need the luck besides; save your lover’s student, for she was kind to me. And save yourself, before the blessings of well-meaning stars tear you to pieces.”

And the ship stopped, for they had reached the island where the King held court and the human could be saved. And for his assistance the human gave the naval star his deepest thanks. Then the naval star pointed the human into the forest blanketing the island and said, “Travel five days’ time in that direction, and you will find creatures that befriend no being, but they might be willing to help you.”

And so the human continued travelling through the realm of stars. And as he travelled through the forest, he grew more and more tired, and more and more worried, and more and more he longed to return safely home with his family. And the only comfort he had was the voices of his stars in his ears, brought to him by the wind.

And on the fifth day the cover provided by the trees thickened, and the skies went dark, and the light fled from his eyes, and he grew aware of the shadows clustering at his feet, ready to protect him if the need arose.

And he grew aware of two presences just ahead of him, looking down at him from the tree branches. And he said, “Hello, is there someone there?” For he longed for his family, but he could not have them; and his heart hurt at his loneliness, and so he would take any company, no matter who they happened to be.

And one of the beings ahead of him said, “Baat.”

And the human blinked and said, “Excuse me?”

And the other being ahead of him laughed, gently hushed the first being, and said, “What brings you to our forest, little human?”

And the human was very confused, but he answered nonetheless, “I come to challenge the King, for he has taken seven of my family, and I intend to find and bring them home, along with the rest of my family.”

And the other being said, “We have seen humans come through here looking for their family. What is your family like?”

And the human said, “Two of them are my children, and they are lovely in their own ways; my daughter loves animals, and my son loves insects, and though they are often fighting, they are both more alike than not, and they are just as fierce as the creatures they care for.”

And the other being said, “We have seen your family, and they were kind to us; your daughter tended to my little one’s injury—”

And the first being said, “Abaat!”

And the other being said, “And your son found her food, and gave her his jacket to ensure she stayed warm in her sickness.”

And just then, the beings dropped something into the human’s arms, and he felt it to find it was his son’s jacket, and tears sprung to his exhausted eyes.

And the other being continued, “For their kindness, I would have given them my blessing, had they not been taken by the King. And with his actions, the King has broken his deal with us, for he intruded upon the forest which he ceded to us aeons ago. And for his crime, he will pay, and you will be our judge and executioner, for we may not leave this forest by the King’s own decree.”

And the human hesitated, for he wished to comply with the being’s order, but—

“But I see you are ill,” the being said, voice low. “You bear the wounds of a heart that offers kindness too easily. And for your past kindness, and for your children’s kindness, I will give you the blessing I would have given them—I will give you the blessing of harmony, so that your powers may coexist instead of fighting over your soul, as the animals who live in the forest coexist instead of tearing each other to shreds in a war that no one wins.”

And the first being said in a small, sad voice, “Baat.”

And the human felt two soft furred paws upon his head, one smaller than the other; and in the next moment his soul tore itself to pieces before stitching itself back together; and he did not see for it was too dark, but in that instant his body remade itself. His blessings twisted along his form; the bright-eyed star’s blessing bled through his white wings and lined them in gold, the unholy star’s draconic blessing settled in his metal skin and turned it scaly, and his teeth and nails sharpened into natural fangs and claws; his mind steadied, and the whispers in his ears grew quiet, and finally the holy and unholy star’s powers took the fire inside of him and lit the shadows with it, and his eyes could see through the dark.

Then the human crumpled to his knees, and hunched over till his forehead touched the dirt, and cried breathlessly, for he knew that what the beings had done to him was irreversible, and something inside of him had changed irrevocably, and now he was—

Now he was—

Now—

“I am sorry,” said the being softly, and when the thing-that-was-once-human looked up, he gazed through his tears and the darkness to see two white-furred and horned creatures floating in midair, one smaller and rounder than the other. And he knew instinctively they were not stars, but something else, something younger but no less powerful. Then the taller creature bowed its head to him, and apologized again, and said to him, “Forgive us for the unkindness we have done you, little one. Time will never take your life from you ever again, though I cannot say the same for the King. Take care, and with our blessing go save your daughter and son, for they were kind to us.”

And the smaller creature said, “Baat,” and kissed his forehead.

And the thing-that-was-once-human could do nothing but bow his head in something that was not thanks. Then the creatures pointed the thing-that-was-once-human towards the center of the forest and said, “Travel a single day’s time in that direction, and you will find the King himself, and with him your family; but beware, for there are creatures in the forest much older and much more powerful than us, and their intentions may not be kind.”

And with that, the thing-that-was-once-human got to his feet and made his way towards the center of the island, once more travelling through the realm of stars in search of his family. And though the seams of his soul no longer threatened to rip with every footstep and every wing flap, he still felt exhaustion and loneliness and grief, incomprehensible but no less intense.

And then, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, he felt that his pain grew a little less incomprehensible. And for a moment, the thing-that-was-once-human felt seen.

For as he travelled, an ancient existence blocked his path, something that was very old and very lonely and very, very tired.

And the thing-that-was-once-human went still.

And the existence said, little one, you are here looking for your family.

And the thing-that-was-once-human could barely take a breath to speak, so he abandoned his words and nodded.

And the existence said, little one, i saw a man come through here looking for his family. and he was a lost prince, blood of this world’s throne and descendant of my child, and he had hope in his eyes, and his will was unbreakable. and he was your family, and he loved you, and you love him.

And the thing-that-was-once-human did not understand the existence’s claims of princehood, but he knew that he loved the man it spoke of, and so he nodded.

And the existence said, little one, i have seen one of your family, and he was kind to me; when he found me he was running from that fool who dares to call himself king, and he was desperate to find his loved ones, yet he saw that i was lonely, and he saw that i was tired, and he told me stories and kept me company for as long as he could stay, and i would have given him my blessing, but he did not need it, and then he was taken by the false king.

And the eyes of the thing-that-was-once-human darkened.

And the existence said, he did not need my blessing, but you will.

And the thing-that-was-once-human stared.

And the existence said, little one, take my blessing. and i will not tell you what it is, save for the fact that it will help you when you need it the most, and you will know it to be both your salvation and your undoing. and slay the false king, and save your lover with the iron will and the hopeful eyes, for he was kind to me, and in this world no kindness is ever, ever lost to time.

And the thing-that-was-once-human crumpled under the weight of the blessing as it rooted itself in the depths of his being, but he nodded and dropped to his knees and bowed low to give the existence his deepest thanks. And the existence left, and took with it the weight that kept the thing-that-was-once-human from breathing. And the thing-that-was-once-human breathed again, and knew from the taste of the air that he was close.

And so he stood, brushed himself off, and began to walk towards the center of the island. And as he walked, he sent his last messages to his stars, sent them his thanks and his love and his grief that he could not know them longer, and he shut his ears to the frantic howling of the wind as it returned carrying their words, and he made a note to himself that, when he got back his family, he would introduce them to the stars that saved him, for he knew they would love each other.

And with that thought, a year after he had first entered the realm of the stars, the thing-that-was-once-human came to the court of the King of Stars.

And the guards at the gate placed their spears in his way, and they bade him to halt, and they asked, “What is your business with the King?”

And the thing-that-was-once-human looked them in the eyes, and in a steady voice he said, “I have come to slay the King, for he has taken my family and my being from me.”

And the guards gasped, and those near the entrance of the court overheard him and gasped, and soon murmurs carried his intentions through the court to the ears of the King. And the King recognized who had come to his gates, and he rose to his feet and bade the guards to let his visitor enter.

And as he walked in, the thing-that-was-once-human set eyes on the King, and something deep in his soul rooted itself steady where he stood, and he knew he would stay in this spot till the day his family stood beside him, and then and only then would he move forward.

And the King looked down on he who had entered the court, and looked at his white-gold wings and his sharp claws and his scaled steel skin and his slit-pupiled eyes, and the King said, “You are not human.”

And the thing-that-was-once-human looked at him and said, “No.”

And the King looked down upon him and said, “You have become a star.”

And the star-that-was-once-human looked at him and said, “I wish I had not.”

And the King looked down upon him and asked, “Why?”

And the star-that-was-once-human looked at him and said, “For it means I have become like you, and I know no worse filth that has ever walked the earth and the skies.”

And the King looked down upon him and said, “I am glad you have become a star.”

And the star-that-was-once-human looked at him and asked, “Why?”

And the King looked down upon him with a smile and said, “For now you are one of mine, and I may do with you as I please, and therefore I may kill you if I please,” and with that the king raised his hand and killed the star-that-was-once-human.

 


 

You remember what the old one said, don't you?

You really should. It will be your salvation, after all.

Kindness is never lost to time.

Let's read it again, why don't we?

 


 

And the King looked down on he who had entered the court, the star-that-was-once-human with his claws and wings and scales, and the King said, "How interesting."

And it was then that the star-that-was-once-human understood what the existence had done for him, and he bared his fangs in something like a smile and something like a threat, and drew his sword and his staff, and said, "Give me back my family."

And the King laughed and said, "I have no interest in bargains, little star," and then he killed the star-that-was-once-human.

 


 

And the King looked down on the star-that-was-once-human and said, "How did you turn back time?"

And the star-that-was-once-human said, "With the same will that has brought me here to save my family," for something in him whispered not to tell the King about the ancient existence.

And the King said sharply, “That same will will be your death,” and then he killed the star-that-was-once-human.

 


 

And the King scowled down at the star-that-was-once-human and said, “How many times do you intend to return?”

And the star-that-was-once-human looked at him in silence, for they both already knew the answer.

And the King snarled, “Then I will not kill you that you may return again, but you will nonetheless suffer for daring to challenge me,” and he called his torturers and they took away the star-that-was-once-human.

 


 

And the star-that-was-once-human said, “It seems your torturers are not very good at keeping people alive, even those meant to be immortal,” but his stance was unsteady, and his hands were shaking, and his eyes were wide and glassy.

And the King saw him tremble, and he smiled and said, “They will get better with experience,” and he called—

But the star-that-was-once-human had not spent his time suffering without watching, without learning, without understanding, and so he slipped past the defences of the King’s torturers and killed them before they could take him away, but not before they wounded him deeply.

 


 

And the star-that-was-once-human said, “They are not the only ones who get better with experience,” and he was still trembling, but this time he smiled back at the King.

And the King set his lips in a line, and stood from his throne, and then he killed the star-that-was-once-human.

 


 

And then the King—

And then.

And then…

 


 

And the King looked at the star-that-was-once-human with tired, tired eyes, eyes that had seen the same silhouette at his gates over five hundred times, and he asked, “Little star, why do you come here again and again? Do you wish to be killed?”

And the star-that-was-once-human said, “No.”

And the King asked, “Then do you wish to kill me?”

And the star-that-was-once-human said, “Only somewhat.”

And the King was confused, for he believed that the star-that-was-once-human truly wished him dead, and he asked, “Then what do you wish for?”

And the star-that-was-once-human said, “I wish for my family back,” and drew his sword and his staff to challenge the King anew.

 


 

And then.

 


 

(Kindness nearly tore a man’s soul apart, once; and it did the same with his heart, a thousand timelines later.

The star-that-was-once-human had trouble counting deaths, not because his memories faltered, but because he sometimes welcomed them, and the momentary bliss of oblivion wiped all thoughts of counting from his mind.

And he made a note to himself that, if he got back his family, he would never tell them of those few rare timelines where his own sword found his neck faster than the King’s hands did, when he wished to let the blade bite into his throat and never wake to feel another sensation ever again.)

 


 

And then:

 


 

“I have not heard from your own mouth why you took my family from me,” the star-that-was-once-human said between blows, for after all these rounds he and the King had fallen into a rhythm, the star-that-was-once-human's enchanted weapons and all his powers against the King’s magic-wielding hands. (He did not know exactly how many rounds had passed, only that he had stopped counting after a thousand and five hundred deaths.) And their rhythm had grown as easy as breathing, and so the star-that-was-once-human had thought to ask his old questions and have them answered.

And after a pause, the King answered. “The reason rests on your shoulders, even now,” he said, still looking down on the star-that-was-once-human, even after all this time. “The one who wore that white coat before you slaughtered my family, and if you wear that coat now then he must have given it to you; and I swore that anyone who had his favour would suffer and die at my hands.”

And the star-that-was-once-human frowned, and thought to himself that the witch had been right; but then he remembered the words of the ancient existence that had given him his life back, and the star-that-was-once-human said, "A bold oath to swear, for one who is not the true King—"

 


 

The star-that-was-once-human stared at the King in shock, and the King was furious, the King was incandescent with rage, and he threw himself off his throne and stormed across the court to loom over the star-that-was-once-human, and the King roared at him, "Who dares make these claims against my throne?"

And the star-that-was-once-human shrunk back in months-old terror, a thousand phantom pains lancing through his body all at once (strangling burning crushing snapping limbs one by one and pressing sharp nails into the breaks and waiting until he stopped screaming to continue); but he saw the panic and fear that lurked in the King's eyes, and he knew that he had gained an advantage, so he pressed again, "Is it truly your throne, or did you steal it from someone deserving—"

 


 

“You are clever, and you are determined, and you are very, very foolish,” said the King, his clawed hand holding the face of the star-that-was-once-human. “Do not meddle with things you could never understand.”

And the star-that-was-once-human screamed as the King called magic to his palms and lit them with fire hot enough to melt steel scales, and he clawed at the King’s wrist until he let go, and the star-that-was-once-human collapsed shaking on the dirt with his own trembling hands covering his face. But his iridescent eyes glared up through the cracks between his fingers, and his voice rasped as he told the King, “I understand that you are a coward, and that you did something to my lover’s ancestor that drove him to kill your family, and that your throne is not your own—"

Then the King’s hands burned against his skin again, and as the star-that-was-once-human died, he stopped screaming just in time to hear the King whisper, “So the blood of the King lives—"

 


 

And the star-that-was-once-human trembled and whispered, “The one who killed your family was the old King, was he not?”

And the King trembled as well, and ground his teeth, and would not answer, but the star-that-was-once-human heard his lack of a refusal and understood it to be a Yes. And the star-that-was-once-human said, voice rising in anger, “The old King killed your family because you challenged him to a duel, as I do you, is it so?”

And the King’s eyes blazed with fury, and he clenched his fists, and would not answer, but the star-that-was-once-human heard his lack of a refusal and understood it to be a Yes. And the star-that-was-once-human shouted, “Is this challenge not meant to be fair, and are the victors not meant to leave the defeated alone in death?” For during his travels, the star-that-was-once-human had whispered to his stars and asked them about all that they knew of the traditions of challenging the King, so that he may be better equipped upon arriving at the gates of the court. And he knew that the defeated King would be slain by the new one’s hand, and the old court and family abandoned to their humiliation, rather than chased and kidnapped and tortured.

And the King roared, “They leave them in death! But the traditions do not bind me to abstain from chasing after he who still lives!”

And the court went silent, and the wind in the trees went silent, and the star-that-was-once-human went silent, and the King went silent. And the star-that-was-once-human asked, “You left him alive?”

 


 

And the star-that-was-once-human repeated his question undeterred: “You left him alive?”

 


 

And again, “You left him alive?”

 


 

And—

 


 

And—

 


 

And:

“I was young,” the King said softly, and the star-that-was-once-human shrunk back and watched him warily. “I did not challenge him. But my family had, and my family died at his hands, for he was strong and he was everywhere and nowhere at once, and the flash of the light off his white coat was all that one would see before they died.

“And he slaughtered my whole family, but he did not kill me, for I was weak and afraid then, and I hid. And he did not see when I came up behind him and stabbed him, and he lay bleeding out as I stole his staff and his crown, and with the power it gave me I banished him to the human realm, and I was sure he bled out and perished.

“But the crown never caught the light when it sat on my head, the staff never responded to my commands, and I knew him to live on, impossibly, so that I could not truly succeed the throne; and I grew furious, and swore that when the Wall opened again, I would kill anything that he left behind. And when the Wall opened again, I saw the coat, and I saw you, and I knew he had left you, and the surest way to kill a being is to take their family; and I should know, for he did it to me.

“And so I am the false King, for I have not killed he who wore this crown before me; and so I have stolen your family. And that is quite enough talking.”

And then the King killed the star-that-was-once-human.

 


 

And the star-that-was-once-human stared at the King in silence, and the King stared back; and the court shifted around them, muttered and mumbled and glanced around in confusion; but the King and his challenger stayed quiet, till the King waved his hand wearily and said, “Give him a place to rest, and give him food and drink to satisfy him; and we shall continue this abominable business another day.”

And the star-that-was-once-human trembled, for he did not wish his family to spend a single moment more trapped as they had been for the past—not months, he reminded himself, not the days and weeks and months he had spent dying at the King’s hands—as they had been for the past year. But he knew that the King would simply kill him afterwards, and time would be reset, and they would know nothing of the time that had passed; and so he gave in and let the King’s courtiers escort him to a small clearing with a warmly-lit cottage at its center, and in the cottage they showed him to a room with a soft bed, and gave him fresh fruit and sweet wine, and gave him clear water to bathe with, and told him to call should he desire anything.

And he did not call them when they left, for they could not give him what he desired most. And he did not touch the food or drink, for the spring and shadow stars had cautioned him to never eat or drink food offered to him by anyone other than his friends. But he used the clear water to clean himself of blood that did not yet stain his hands and clothes, and he let himself rest on the soft bed, for he was truly tired, and once he lay down, his will to get back up crumbled a bit more for every slow breath he took.

And soon he lay sleeping for hours and days, and he dreamt of sweet things, of the warmth of his children’s hands in his own, and the sound of his sisters’ and brother’s laughter, and the taste of his mother’s cooking, and the sensation of his lover’s touch, gentle as he cupped his cheeks and pressed his lips against his forehead; and when he awoke, the star-that-was-once-human found tears running down his cheeks, and his will to fight another day missing altogether.

But he knew he had to get up and go back, and though his heart flinched at the thought, his mind focused itself on his goal. And yet the wisps of his dream still lingered in his ears and on his skin, and clouded his mind, and he could not think clearly to plan his next fight against the King.

And so the star-that-was-once-human thought back to his stars, for with his family gone, they were the ones that had given him the strength to fight, and brought him thus far, and surely they could take him farther—

And it was then that he remembered, tucked away amongst his belongings in the pack he carried on his back, there rested a goblet given to him by the star of revelry. And he took it in his hand, and watched as it filled itself with a wine clearer than what the King’s courtiers’ gave him, and he drank the wine down in one go.

And his heart steadied, and though the memories of his family still lingered at the front of his mind, now they served as motivation rather than markers of loss. And his mind cleared, and with the blessing of the star of knowledge, he thought through his options in the blink of an eye, and in that moment he knew how to defeat the King.

And he rose from his too-empty bed and left the too-quiet house, and as he walked out the King stood before him, a smile on his face, and he said, “You will leave without fighting me, then?”

And the star-that-was-once-human smiled back and said, “Without fighting, yes; without meeting you, no, for I require you to kill me once more, and then I have a task I need to complete before I battle you again.”

And the King laughed exhaustedly, and said, “Of course, little star, you may do as you please; and whenever you are ready, I will kill you with pleasure, and perhaps this time it will stick.”

And then the King killed the star-that-was-once-human.

 


 

And when the star-that-was-once-human opened his eyes, he knew he would stay in this spot till the day his family stood beside him—but though half his family lay imprisoned, the other half was free, and they would stand beside him in a heartbeat, and he was amazed he had forgotten their offer to do so in the first place.

And so he buried his hand in his pack, and pulled from the bottom a single lock of golden hair, which he set aflame with a thought; and he closed his eyes and roared a battle cry to the winds, and when he next opened his eyes, stars stood beside him, bear-mother and bright-eyed and holy and unholy and metal and half a dozen more, and he felt three presences watching him from afar, and he felt a warmth grow in his chest, small and secretive and happy.

And the spring and shadow stars rested their hands on his shoulders, and said to him softly, “We are sorry we took so long,” and though he saw in their eyes that they did not remember the lives he had lived before, he saw that there was recognition in their eyes, that they saw in his eyes the lives he had lost before; and he leaned into their touch and cried.

And the King stood from his throne, frowning, and drew the sword that had always hung untouched at his hip, and said, “Is your task complete?”

And the star-that-was-once-human bared his teeth in an old, familiar grin, and an old, familiar threat, and said, “Yes, and now we will kill you.” For now his family was with him, and it was now that he would move forward, as he had sworn to himself months ago.

And they did kill the King, though not without effort, and not without pain, and not without injury, and not without the last death of he who they all loved.

 


 

And so it was that the holy star crouched over the star-that-was-once-human, tears running down her cheeks, and called, “Little one, little one, focus on me, keep your eyes open, keep breathing, you are not done yet.”

But the star-that-was-once-human was very tired, and very lonely, and he had lost a great deal of blood, and the fortifying effect of the blessed wine had faded, and his heart desired his family but it also desired rest. And so he thought to grant both desires at once, and as his eyes slipped half-shut, he choked through the blood in his throat, “My family—”

And instantly, somewhere beyond himself, the star-that-was-once-human heard the bright-eyed star say in a strangled voice, “I will find his family,” and then the glint of gold from his hair was gone.

And the star-that-was-once-human focused again on those surrounding him, and he saw the spring star lean over him, and she placed a hand on his cheek as his mother used to, and he had cried enough for a lifetime (or one thousand and eight hundred lifetimes), so he simply leaned into her touch and listened as she spoke to him.

And the spring star said, “Little one, you have come so far and given up so much in pursuit of your goal, and the last thing I wish is to take away what little you have left of yourself without your permission; but these injuries of yours are grave, as are any star’s after they duel the King and win, and there is one sure way of healing these injuries and saving your life, but it will take from you what shreds you have left of your humanity, and you will never again go home.”

And the star-that-was-once-human laughed wetly, and whispered between ragged breaths, “Whatever there was to take from me, this world has already taken; there is nothing that can be done to me now that will hurt me anymore, save for hurting my family, and they are safe in your hands. Do whatever it is that you have in mind.”

And the spring star looked at her husband, and then at the other stars clustered around her, and they nodded silently, each with tense jaws and eyes bright with tears. And so the spring star reached towards the false King’s cooling corpse and took up his staff and his crown, and turned back to the star-that-was-once-human, and hesitated.

And the star-that-was-once-human rasped, “Do it.”

And the spring star nodded tightly, and with that she placed the crown on his head and the staff in his hand—and he screamed as magic seared its way to life inside his chest, tore its way through his body and tugged him upright and shredded his core to piece it back together bigger and better and more, and his vision went white from shock, and when he came back to himself the first color he saw was gold.

Gold, glinting off the hair of the bright-eyed star, who stared at him open-mouthed, and his family behind him, their eyes wide and in them the reflection of the star-that-was-once-human, and as the star-that-was-once-human watched, his family—

Flinched.

His daughter, a hand over her mouth. His son, clutching her sleeve. Both of them hidden behind his sister with the wise eyes. His brother, arms stretched protectively to half-cover his sisters with the marks on their face and hands. His mother, her mouth a tight line, her hand holding back his sister with the fiery spirit. His lover’s student, hiding half behind her teacher—

His lover, staring at him in shock, with eyes that lacked the slightest hint of recognition.

And so, on that day, a year and then some after he first entered the realm of the stars, the last pieces of the human died with a brilliant flash of light, and all that was left behind was a King of Stars, his title rightfully earned and wearing a coat dyed in more than just memories of blood.

And as he stood on the ground, he stared at the family of the human he had once been, and his legs gave out, too weak to carry him; and he would have hit the ground, had his family of stars not crowded around him and caught his arms to help him upright. But his eyes stayed fixed on the family-that-was-once-his, and he thought to himself that he knew nothing of pain, for the looks on their faces were worse than any blow the false King had ever landed on him.

And his once-lover stepped forward hesitantly, a frown marring his lovely features, and he said in a soft, worried voice, “Dokja?”

And the King-that-was-once-human broke his gaze and lowered his head, for he did not feel that that name belonged to him anymore, and he said haltingly, “I—I am sorry. That I took so long. You are… free to go home, now.”

And his once-lover’s eyes widened, and he gasped, “Dokja,” and then there were arms wrapping around the shoulders of the King-that-was-once-human, and he let out a strangled noise that was half-gasp half-sob, and he flinched away from the touch. And he did not remember summoning fire to his hands, but his palms had grown hot, and he was shaking from head to toe.

And the King-that-was-once-human choked out, “Don’t,” and his once-lover said, “Dokja?” in a voice filled with confusion and worry and longing. And the King-that-was-once-human found that he had tears left in him yet, and he lowered his face to hide them, and stepped away from his once-lover, and repeated, “Don’t,” in a quiet voice.

And his once-daughter and once-son crept closer and said, “Dad?” And the King-that-was-once-human flinched away, for he did not know of any children whose fathers had wings and claws and slit pupils and a tendency to talk to the wind and the shadows, and for his possession of the same, he was afraid he could not be their father anymore.

And his once-mother approached, and before she could say a name that did not belong to him, the King-that-was-once-human said desperately, “I know I am—I am not your son anymore,” and he turned to the others and continued, “I am not the man who was your lover and your brother and your father and your friend, I know I have changed, I know you dislike this me, but I can send you home, I promise you that you will be safe from harm and you will never have to deal with stars again, you will never have to deal with this me again—”

And his once-lover interrupted sharply, and he said, “Dokja. What are you talking about?” And his hands came to rest on the King-that-was-once-human’s cheeks, and the King-that-was-once-human inhaled sharply and let out a quiet pained noise, closing his eyes so he did not have to see his once-lover’s disgusted gaze.

“I am a star, now,” he said softly, “and I saw how you looked at me, I know how you feel about stars. And I will not force you to deal with that another day.”

And his once-lover’s hands pressed harder against his cheeks and shook his head back and forth until he opened his eyes, startled, and looked into his once-lover’s warm gaze. And his once-lover said, “Dokja, you are a fool.”

And the King-that-was-once-human stared at him in shock, and he said, “But—you flinched,” and sure enough his once-family flinched again, shoulders tensing and gazes flitting away for seconds at a time; but they looked back to him with an apology in their eyes, and he caught his breath.

“You were putting on a rather eye-catching display, and we knew nothing of your little act of regicide,” his once-sister with the star under her eye said, hooking a thumb towards the dead false King. “We thought you were him, and—he was not exactly kind.”

And the King-that-was-once-human tensed, but he felt a small hand in his own and instinctively wrapped his fingers securely around the smaller ones; and when he looked down, his once-daughter smiled up at him, and she patted his thigh, saying, “It is okay; he did not touch us, just said some cruel things that Papa yelled at him for.”

And the King-that-was-once-human looked back to the man before him, and his once-lover admitted, “He said cruel things about you, and I would have ended his life myself, had I not been imprisoned.” And his brow twitched, and he leaned in to press his forehead against that of the King-that-was-once-human, and he said, “Star or not, I still—”

And he went silent for a moment, and then said quietly, “I will still cook for you. You are still Dokja.”

And his once-lover had never said I love you, for he was not that kind of man, but he had often said I will cook for you, and he had often touched him gently like this, and he had often tilted their heads together like this—and the King-that-was-once-human let himself press into his lover’s hands, let himself press their lips together shortly, and let himself bury his face in his lover’s neck and clutch his ragged shirt and cry.

For he was a King-that-was-still-human, and his family was still his to love and his to keep, after an untold number of lives and deaths and years unlived for their sake.

And when each member of his family had wrapped him in hugs and plastered him with kisses and they had all cried themselves out, he turned to his stars (now truly his, both in friendship and in ruling) and he said to them, “This is my family, and I love them greatly, and I would do anything for them, I would cross realms and die more than a thousand times over and fight off a false King if it meant that they were safe.”

“And they are,” his stars responded, “and with us here they will remain so, for with their consent we will bless them and they will have power strong enough to stay in this realm if they so wish, and power weak enough that they will still be human enough to live on the other side of the Wall if they so wish.”

And the King-that-was-still-human looked to his family, and they shook their heads, and his heart sank, for he would lose them to the realm of humans just after gaining them back from the realm of stars; but his sister with her wise eyes asked, “Why would we stay on the other side of the Wall when our family is here?”

And she was right, for the King had to stay, and with him would stay his lover and his children and his mother, and if his lover and mother stayed then so too would his sister with the star under her eye, and if his mother and his children and his sister with the star under her eye stayed then so too would his sister with the wise eyes, and if his lover and the children stayed then so too would his brother, and if his brother and sisters stayed then so too would his sister with infinity on her hands, and if his sister with infinity on her hands stayed then so too would his sister with the fiery spirit.

And they would all stay for the King himself, for they loved the King just as much as he loved them back, willing to die a million deaths and fight three Kings just to see him safe.

And so the King’s family of stars nodded, and with the humans’ permission they blessed them with wings and claws and steel skin and clear minds and more, and when the King’s family shed their human forms, it was with joy in their hearts and not grief.


And on that day, a witch on Earth received a crumpled postcard, and the postcard had a photo of a familiar murderer with a glittering crown on his head, and his family all crowded around him, and stars lighting the background with their smiles and laughter, and a bright red thread tied on each of their pinky fingers, and on the back of the card was written “Thank you.”

And the witch smiled softly and placed the postcard in her diary, then put away her diary and smiled at the young adult who had just entered her store, come asking about stars.