Warning: contains violence, minor character death, cannibalism – basically all the things normally associated with a zombie apocalypse.

Book 3 Chapter XV: Rise and Fall

I navigate the endless rise and fall
You push my back against the wall
When I attack I'm taking all
Starset, Rise and Fall

Once again the gong rang out in the middle of the night. This time Mirio knew exactly what it meant. The Fifth Prince was dead. He lay awake and stared up at the ceiling while chaos reigned outside.

I must stop this, he thought. It was a pointless thought when he didn't know where to start.

Over the noise of a hundred people wailing he heard the faint click of a door being closed just outside his room. Soundlessly he climbed out of bed and poked a small hole in the paper door. When it was just large enough to see through he peered out. He was just in time to see a figure open the door out to the courtyard.

He couldn't see their face from this angle. Whoever they were, they were dressed in white sleeping clothes and had their hair loose. Probably one of the servants going to see if they could help. Then they turned their head just enough for Mirio to see the side of their face.

It was Lian. He stood in the doorway for a long time. Mirio noticed with a start that he was unnaturally still. He didn't even seem to be breathing. There was a strange look on his face. In the contrast between the darkness of the house and the light of the torches outside it was hard to tell for sure, but it looked like he was annoyed.

What an odd reaction to a death, Mirio thought.

True, the Fifth Prince had never done anything to be greatly mourned. He had never done much of anything, in fact. But annoyance didn't seem like the proper response.

Lian moved so abruptly that an average immortal's eyes couldn't have followed him. Even with a sea serpent's better-than-average eyesight Mirio only saw a blur. Then he was gone. Mirio slid his door open and crept over to where Lian had been a minute ago. Now there was nothing to show anyone had been there at all. It had been raining for days, the garden was a morass and the path was waterlogged, but there wasn't a single footprint or a ripple in any of the puddles. Nor was there any sign of Lian anywhere.

Maybe he flew, Mirio wondered.

Was Lian a shapeshifter? He had never said one way or the other.

By now the noise had awoken Zi Yao. He began to sob loudly. That disturbed his mother and the servants. Within a few minutes the palace was full of light and noise as everyone tried to calm him down. Mirio went back into his room, put on a dressing gown, and went to see if he could help.

All of the noise and activity centred around the Fifth Prince's Manor. So that was exactly where Lian was not going to go. Instead he made the rounds of all the other palaces. He checked on all of the king's other children. None of them were overcome by grief at their brother's death, but none of them were openly celebrating it either. The Third Princess was the most emotional of any of them.

"It's sickening," she complained to her maid. "At this rate I'll never be out of mourning."

Lian moved on without wasting any more time listening to her. He put her down on his list of "probably not guilty". The trouble was that by the time he returned to the Ninth Prince's Manor, all of the princes and princesses were on that list. He'd spent ages running around in the cold and wet, dodging guards and servants, eavesdropping in very uncomfortable places – who knew a rooftop could be so cold? – and he had nothing to show for it.

In the course of his job the constable had received many minor scrapes. This wasn't even the first time he'd been bitten. He checked the injury before leaving the shrine. The bite had broken the skin, but only just. A small plaster would deal with that while it healed.

He went home, rinsed the wound, put the plaster on, and went to bed reflecting on the shocking turn today had taken. Perhaps it was because of the frights he endured, but he found it difficult to get to sleep. After tossing and turning for a while he began to feel hungry. So he got up and went down to the kitchen for a late-night snack.

For the past three thousand years the constable had hired local youngsters to clean his house after breakfast. It earned them money, gave them something to do, and spared him from having to do the housework, so it was a very convenient arrangement for everyone. His current housekeepers were three siblings who stopped by on their way to school. As soon as they drew knew the house they sensed there was something wrong.

Rioghaen, the oldest, shielded her eyes with her hand as she stared at the house. "Weird. The curtains are still drawn."

Chaebioth, the middle sibling and the only boy, shrugged dismissively. "He probably left in a hurry."

Fennijan, the youngest, shook her head emphatically. "Look! His bike's still outside the door. He hasn't left yet."

This was something new. Normally the constable woke up at around ten, had his breakfast, and cycled off to the district police station at around eleven. When the children arrived at half-past eleven they would find the door locked but the key under the doormat, the curtains open, and the dishes from breakfast and the previous day's meals in the sink.

All three of them exchanged puzzled looks.

"Maybe he's sick," Fennijan suggested.

They went up to the house. The door was unlocked. Rioghaen gestured for her siblings to stay behind as she stepped inside. It took her eyes a minute to adjust to the darkened hallway. She pulled open the curtains and let the light flood in. Then she saw the state of the place. She gasped.

It looked like a burglar had broken in and ransacked the whole house. Furniture was overturned and smashed, pictures hung askew on the walls, and there were marks on the floor that suggested a dog had clawed at it.

The kitchen door was ajar. She poked her head in. More chaos awaited her. The fridge doors were wide open. So was the pantry door. Both fridge and pantry were stripped bare. Yesterday they had both been full. Pieces of food littered the floor. It looked as if a starving mob had descended on the place.

Muirus 9436[1], being a planet at a considerable distance from Vanerth, had its own folklore that had very little in common with Saoridhlém's even though the original settlers were from Saoridhlém. But both planets had stories about the ghosts of people who starved to death. Saoridhlém called them shaberos. Seroyawa called them tenewa. Muirus 9436 called them lonijed. All three places agreed they were eternally hungry and would eat everything in their path – including people. Rioghaen thought of those stories. She paled.

It was time to get out of here.

She turned to flee. Her foot slipped on the spilt food. With a crash she fell against the table.

Heavy footsteps crossed the landing and hurried down the stairs. Rioghaen jumped up, just in time to see something lunge at her.

Her screams echoed through the house. Then they stopped.

Through the hall window her siblings watched in dazed horror as the constable tore out their sister's throat with his teeth. Chaebioth started forwards. Fennijan grabbed his collar and pulled him back.

"We've got to get out of here," she hissed, dragging him towards the road.

"But we have to help!" he protested.

The constable was now eating Rioghaen's face. She had gone still earlier but now she began to thrash again. Chaebioth tried to run to help her. Fennijan tightened her hold and continued dragging him away.

"We can't help! We have to warn everyone!"

They got as far as the gate before the constable caught up with them.

"Let me get this straight. Ilaran turned into a monster, Abihira turned into a phoenix, and now Ilaran is back to normal. Is that right?"

Koyuki looked justifiably confused. Irímé could sympathise. He was confused too, and unlike Koyuki he hadn't come on the scene after everything was over.

"More or less," Abi said.

She winced when she tried to stand. Irímé helped her up while Shizuki slithered to the ground and turned back into a boy.

"You should have seen the phoenix!" he told his father excitedly. "It's so bright! And glittery! And lots of pretty colours!" He looked hopefully at Abi. "Turn into it again?"

Abi shook her head. "Certainly not. I've had enough excitement for one day."

All four of them made their way to Ilaran's rooms. Abi was limping so badly now that she had to lean on Irímé for support. There was a chorus of shocked exclamations when they saw the state of the house.

"What happened here?" Koyuki asked.

"The monster," Abi said shortly. She'd spoken less and less lately. Her face was completely drained of colour and her hold on Irímé's shoulder was almost painful.

Siarvin appeared in the bedroom doorway as they entered the house. "Shhh," he whispered. "Ilaran's asleep. Don't wake him."

"Is he alright?" Abi asked as Irímé helped her into the sitting room.

"Physically? Yes. Mentally? That's another matter. I think he'll have a few choice words to say to you when he wakes up."

Abi winced. She practically collapsed into an armchair. For several minutes she stared up at the ceiling. At last she said, "I've made an awful mess of things."

Siarvin snorted. "Talk about an understatement. I hope you haven't gotten anyone else possessed."

"No," Abi said quietly. "But I got someone killed."

Irímé almost fell out of his chair. "You what?"

"I hear there's something strange happening at Gihimayel Palace," Ninuath remarked.

Raivíth hummed noncommittally. She studied the board in front of her as she contemplated her next move. At last she decided on what to do. She moved the piece to the selected space. Then she had time to think of what her husband had just said.

"Gihimayel Palace? Again? It's not another dragon, is it?"

Ninuath shrugged as he moved his piece. "I don't know exactly what happened, but everyone was told to leave. Ever since Prince Ilaran arrived strange things have happened over there. I think it's time we encouraged him to leave."

"It's not just Prince Ilaran," Raivíth said. "It's Abihira too. She's barely been home two months and she's already thrown the place into chaos. I'd arrange for her to make a diplomatic visit to Tananerl when Ilaran goes home, but honestly I'm afraid of what trouble she might cause there."

"We need to send someone to Gengxin for the funerals," Ninuath said.

Raivíth frowned. There was something exceedingly odd about the sudden number of funerals the Gengxin royal family had to hold. "Her foster brother is in Gengxin, isn't he? I hear he was a restraining influence on her in Seroyawa. A very sensible young man by all accounts. If we do send Abihira to Gengxin, I can only hope he will still restrain her there."

When Mirio awoke the next morning he could almost think last night had been a dream. The Fifth Prince wasn't dead and he hadn't seen Lian go out in the rain wearing only his nightclothes.

The palace was eerily quiet, yet it wasn't completely silent. In the background he could hear the faint noise of someone sobbing. Odd. No one here had been close to the Fifth Prince. Mirio felt slightly bad for his cousin. They had barely known each other, but it was unpleasant to know how few people mourned him.

He got up, got dressed, and had breakfast. Still the palace remained quiet. He felt a faint flicker of unease. After breakfast he opened his door. One of Zi Yao's eunuchs was waiting just outside.

"Your Highness, Lady Yuan requests your presence."

Mirio raised an eyebrow. If Lady Yuan wanted to talk to him she just spoke to him when they were both out in the garden. She'd never felt the need to summon him like this before.

He followed the eunuch. They didn't go to the palace's formal reception hall. Instead they went to Zi Yao's bedroom. His unease grew stronger as the sobbing grew louder. When the eunuch showed him into the room he found it was crowded. The servants stood silently around the walls. Lady Yuan knelt beside Zi Yao's bed. She was the one crying. Lian leaned over Zi Yao, holding his wrist.

For one terrifying minute Mirio thought Zi Yao was dead too. Then his cousin moved and gave a pained whimper.

"Hurts," he whispered.

Lian brushed his hand over Zi Yao's forehead. He murmured something reassuring. As soon as Zi Yao closed his eyes Lian's expression became grim.

He let go of Lian's wrist. To Lady Yuan he said, "It's the plague."

Zi Yao was asleep now. His face was very red and he tossed and turned a lot. One of his servants kept a cool cloth pressed against his forehead, dipping it in cold water every few minutes.

Lian had been silent ever since giving the diagnosis. Mirio brought him back to his own room and got a servant to make tea for them both.

"Do you still think it's a curse?" he asked.

Lian nodded grimly. "No other explanation makes sense."

He drank his tea with the air of someone who wished it was a much stronger drink. They sat in silence for a while. At last Lian spoke again.

"Zi Yao is... He's like a son to me. I won't let him die. And when I get my hands on whoever's responsible for this, I will destroy them."

The absolute certainty in his voice left Mirio in no doubt he would do exactly what he said no matter what it took.

He thought of Zi Yao's excitement at the gift. He thought of Zi Yao running around happily and handing him a frog. Then he thought of Zi Yao lying in bed, feverish and in pain.

Mirio looked Lian dead in the eye. "I'll help."

Chapter Footnotes:

[1] To recap since this information hasn't been mentioned for a while: Muirus 9436 is the planet Kitri lives on and where Abi first raised the dead. Vanerth is the planet Abi and co. live on.