“I believe you have a question that I can answer.”
He had very nearly forgotten she was there, and her voice surprised him. Abruptly, he pulled his eyes from the scene below him to turn to her. Then he stared at her for a while, blinking.
Her attire had changed. Gone were the ragged remnants of a dress; in its place was tunic of chainmail, over which she wore a long, flowing black cloak with bearskin trim. Her coal-colored hair was done up in intricate braids interwoven with red ribbons, and she held in her left hand a war helmet that bore a striking resemblance to the familiar iron crown of spikes. In her right, she held a round shield, the likeness of a flying raven emblazoned on its front.
“This is how I appeared to them,” she told him. “They were my people, my Moribinuites. They were nothing before me, just a little town on top of a magical spring. I saw that they could be great, and I made them great, and they revered me for it. They built temples to me and laid the lives of their young upon the altar for me and sang songs in praise of me. They knew that their city could be great forever, as long as they worshipped me and sacrificed their blood to me.
“Then the Rezynites swept in from the south, brandishing their new religion in their swords and in their words. Had they simply attacked Moribinu, they would have failed. But they crept in, and they turned the minds of my people. And my Moribinuites forgot me.” Her voice suddenly became a harsh, angry, hissing shriek. “So I painted the cliff with their treacherous blood!”
Seymour shied away from her, deep, primal fear pounding in his heart. She was transforming before his eyes, growing, becoming monstrous. Her fangs lengthened to become sharp, glistening daggers, her eyes emitted twin beams of blinding blue light, her shoulders broadened and her limbs thickened, and a pair of enormous, black, feathered wings unfurled from her shoulder blades. She was towering over him now, nearly twenty feet tall, her wings spread wide enough to eclipse all the light in the sky.
The Aechyed felt like a kitten at the hooves of a bull. His bones turned to mush and he cowered on the ground, trembling uncontrollably, his body wracked by dry sobs. He had never in his life been so dreadfully afraid.
“I brought them down from their greatness, I retracted the favor,” she went on. Her voice had deepened, and it shook the ground. “And the Rezynites, they saw what I had done. They saw, and they called this place, in their language, ‘The City of the Weeping Cliff.’ Otka-thunil. And when, over the course of centuries, the spoken language revolved back to Magramish, the name was translated and became Waelyngar. But still, they remembered what I had done, and they knew they must appease me.
“They resumed the ritual sacrifice of blood. But they didn’t wish to surrender their own blood. And they didn’t want to brand the ritual with my name, or else they risked being perceived as hypocrites. But every night at midnight, deep underground, for a paying audience seeking diversion, the ritual takes place. But the blood of madmen taken by the lash is not nearly as sweet as the blood of citizens, given in free will. It will do, but it shall not last.”
And then she was as she had been before, back to her normal size, back in the crown and the ragged dress. Seymour found that he was on the ground again, and right-side-up to boot. He looked up at her, trying to keep the utter terror from his eyes, trying—and failing—to stop the chattering of his teeth. His heart was pounding painfully in his throat, and he felt helpless and weak.
“Do you understand now, Seymour?”
Yes, he did. The problem wasn’t with the roots, nor was it necessarily with the flowers, nor even the space in between, as he had suspected. The problem was that the water supply allowed to the roots had been rationed. Slowly, he nodded, internally debating whether the acquisition of this bit of information had been worth the strife he had been forced to endure.
“Good,” she whispered approvingly. She stood him up on his feet, like a mother might a small child, then reached into his cloak pocket. When she withdrew her hand, whatever she had taken was hidden within her closed fist. “Go now, Seymour. Rest well: the fate of the world shall lie in your hands tomorrow.”