"Alright, Lieutenant, let's go over this again..."
Lyra pushes another temperamental strand of blue behind her ear, staring into the dark void of her coffee mug. Leaning back, she pulls her combat gloves off and massages her brow. "Listen, don't get on my ass about it. The thing took out a gnome four-wheeler with one hand! Civilians were in danger-"
"So you issued backup, and launched a warning flare, and saw to the needs of the people we're protecting..."
Lyra crosses her arms and avoids the telescoping eye of the Captain, its red core boring into her. "The perp was getting away - I had to follow. If I didn't, we wouldn't have the win here!"
The Captain raises an eyebrow, the flickering light of her right eye settling into a cold blue. "Oh, It's a 'win' now? To have brass from every echelon knocking on this chamber asking what the new kitten dragged in out of a tea shop in the Western Quad. Yes, we are definitively living the dream, little vossler."
Lyra looks the woman hard in the face, her expression set. "I didn't think IT would turn and FIGHT me...I was confident my bike would just rattle it a bit and give me a moment t-"
"Assess its capabilities? Size up the monster?"
"It was a threat!"
"This isn't a war, Lyra. There are rules and consequences. If we discover that this...thing is a sentient soul, it is known on record that you shot first."
A dangerous look spills across the Lieutenant's young face. "...Not if we change the narrative."
"I won't do that. You might be willing to adjust reality on the field to suit your paltry sleep habits, but I will not be one to sacrifice our integrity because you allowed yourself a destructive joy ride."
"But Cap!" The Lieutenant stands with desperation, the armored shroud flaring with energy, shocked to life through the nodes at the nape of her neck. The Captain raises her head to her, unfazed.
"You're young, Lyra. You have time to rectify this mistake. Learn from it, or I'll cut your wings myself." Captain Eksana leans back slowly, legs still crossed, and hangs one arm off the chair. The other pulls a long sheath from her belt, flicking her nodachi's guard with her thumb. The movement is slow and intentional, as the lens of her right eye turns jet. "Am I clear?"
Stamping down her emotions, the shroud's electricity slowly dampens, its geometric pieces folding back within the sleeves of its contour. Lyra breathes through each finger, pulling them from tight fists. Her eyes are steel and cold, but her voice diminutive. "As clear at the Temperance."
The Captain watches Lyra for a beat, before holstering her weapon once more. "And may its fire continue to burn some sense into you. As for our win... Beck, what do you have?"
She calls across the room to a long, steel table. Framed by stone columns cut into the metal, a series of runes flow up from the floor and along the metal edges, threatening to flare at any moment. The table is bent, barely holding under the weight of the being laid across it. Adamantine threads and platinum buckles bind the thing to the metal, and dozens of electrodes dot the body.
It is a dragonborn woman. No more than 17 or 18. Brass scales, rugged pants, tank top, and leather jacket. Muscular; built like a small tank; metallic claws, augmented jaw. Her clothes are tattered and torn, but the body appears immaculate. A keen eye up close, however, would reveal two thin gashes in the throat, a chorus of wires and cabling hidden just under the surface. Slashes in the rib cage, fully transfixed stab wounds through the chest, missing patches of scaling across the whole body; all replaced by intricate and masterful electronics and adamantine plating. From an untrained eye, it would look like no more than an expensive silver thread tattoo job.
Hunched over the dragonborn is a thin, lithe man of strikingly bland features. Forgetful, even, despite his skills, his whole being consumed by the white of his lab coat and long white gloves, currently stained with oil and ash. His face is a neutral mask of pale skin and opaque white eyes, framed in black eyeliner. His only defining individuality is a shock of green hair among the black side shave he is currently rocking. With a flourish of his hands, he lifts his goggles and addressed the Captain with efficiency.
"Sire Moria. Daughter of Arios Moria - Gladiator of the Inner Ring, and Kava Moria - deceased. Known: Sworn member, presumed dead by drowning. Siblings Ogdes, Desiree, and Orim, all serving in the Sandsea of Jakt by drafting. ...However, this creature is not bloodborn. In fact, no blood runs through these veins."
Lyra's hand twitches to her sidearm. "We talking some undead bullshit?"
Beck does not turn their gaze to her, instead speaking matter-of-fact to the air ahead of them. "Even an undead would possess a measure of ichor; lubricant to fuel their unnatural musculature and necromancy. No. This thing has no life. At least...not at the moment."
"It was QUITE alive when it crushed my bike!"
The Captain sighs. "...Does its make or model match any inside the Erudition?"
Beck blinks a few times, their face's pigments changing. For a moment, they are female and elven; a moment passes, and they are orc; then dwarven; then tabaxi. And then they are themselves again. "It matches no known archive of the Nightforged, nor any current schematic of automaton employed by Volition or Waveshaper Industries."
Blood drains from the Captain's face, memories spinning through her psyche. "Did the Nightforged build it? Take a corpse and repurpose it? They might live here now, but if they're allowed to do this, they'll outnumber bloods five to one in a month."
Lyra shakes her head. "One helluva way to bring out an ambassador... No, this thing's a weapon. We need to destroy it."
In the corner of the room stands a Drow man in a fine gray suit. Matte black with a gold ring for the iris, his eyes pierce into the room. Skin the color of night, and dark silver hair cultivated with precision and professionalism, the light around him fights to stay lit. "Her. She. And no one is going to lay a hand on her."
"Mr. F-Foster! I did not hear you come in."
Mr. Foster strides across the room. "You weren't supposed to." He delivers with no expression. With a look, Beck backs away from the body, and Foster addresses the Captain. "This girl is now under my care. She will receive all the treatment she requires with the context of her unique situation. No more discussion is required."
Lyra steps forward, "Now hold on a minute-"
Before the Captain can say a word, Foster calmly addresses the Lieutenant. "No one is going to harm this girl. You have no further authority in this matter. It is, quite literally, above your pay grade. ...So step your ass back. We need on the beat."
Lyra bites her tongue, glaring down the dark man. Beck, from a worktable at far end of the room, offers, "Of course, sir. However, you will need a technician of remarkable ability to provide such care. If you like, I could-
Foster raises a hand, shaking his head. "That won't be necessary. I assure you, I have the perfect candidate in mind. ...Now pack her up. We leave in an hour." And Mr. Foster, hands clasped behind him, drifts out the door in silence.
As Beck prepares Sire for transport, Lyra and the Captain trade looks. "Cap, what the actual hell was that?"
"Hell. Exactly." And Captain Eksana, sword held tight against her hip, clenches back the desire to run a man through.
Cracked sunlight spills through rusted bars, flecks of dust and ash dancing in her rays. She spills along a pressed stone floor, immaculate and level, inching across it, reaching for the far wall. She creeps and claws for it, yet the shadows curl toward her. The suffocating black surges toward the light, yet peels and burns away, a silent scream churning through its mass every time. Yet, even as it coils away, new tendrils fill its void, and it seeks to take the light again.
Here, in one of the edges of the shadow, pale yellow eyes watch the light with indifference. Long, spindly claws rest on the tucked knees of the creature, a pale platinum coin dancing between the fingers of its left hand. Friends of the dark would see the sharpened teeth and strange teal skin and smile as it gives way to a fine dress shirt and satin vest, a gold chain linking a rib pocket to a simple leather belt. The businessman sits with his sleeves rolled up, resting on gray khakis. The patent leather shoes are a bit scuffed from years of foot races and brawls, but every blood stain has been buffed out.
The creature stares at the far wall, then shakes his head and begins to chuckle. A low cockney drawl dribbles out, "Ye really not gonna' say nothin'? It's yee fault they picked me. Ye done got yerself killed, little git."
The far wall does not respond, but the other looks insulted.
"Wut you on about, gittle? Yeah? You tell me the name a that weird tree or I'll bring ye back and kill ye all over again!"
A door creaks open beyond the bars and a bundle of heavy footsteps approach.
The face in the dark turns pleading...than resolute. The voice changes, becoming lighter, and more direct. "See you soon, then, traitor. I'm sending it now." He then takes the coin - a simple thing inscribed with a spear on one side and a gear on the other...though the gear clicks once to the right - tapping it once on his wrist. In a tiny flash of smoke and mirror, the coin is gone, and the prison door unlocks...
Morning clouds crackle with rolling thunder above the Winged Citadel. Rows upon rows of assembled Faith wait in the chill of the dew, their hoods and masks obscuring expression. A few whispers spill through the ranks, but all sound stops as the far oaken doors open, the dark yawn of a staircase being revealed.
The sound within begins like a grating whisper - metal dragging on stone. It elevates to a strange hiss and a few of the Faith shift uncomfortably. A rhythm of clinking heavy plate begins the procession within, yet only dense shadows meet their eyes. The metal rhythm is joined by many more, and a chorus of approaching machines begin to echo up the staircase and then...silence.
A torrent of flame seethes out from a slitted helm, scorched red feathers its ornament. A few of the Faith are startled as gasps spill through those assembled. The helm's owner is Gairos Xalim, the new Captain of the Zaharian Blades. His raspy laugh emanates from within the helm as his long tattered cloak of crimson seems to move on its own. He straightens and marches confidently forward, followed by four other Blades flanking a well dressed teal goblin in fine shoes. The little business man sneers up at his guards.
The procession stops about midway through the crowd and Xalim continues to the Citadel's precipice. There, he approaches a man of dark purple skin and silver hair.
This Drow wears robes similar to the Fathers of the Severed Wing, but the garb seems older. The robes most resemble the hakama of old, with layered shoulder ornamentation to beautify the coat. A black doublet frames the familiar, but more intricate design of the Severed Wing crest. Cinched in places to support movement, with fibers of adamantine, the entire ensemble favors dark blues, grays, and black, with a stark crimson fabric that flows through the interior of his garb. His silver hair is long and pulled back into a single braided line.
The Drow turns a patient face to the spiked armor visage of Xalim...and smiles kindly. He turns to face the goblin. Warm, green eyes regard the creature. He waves a hand to the Blades assembled, and they step back, giving ample room to the two. The priest descends confidently, but without haste, bowing to the goblin. "Mr. Scab, was it?"
The goblin smiles, then glares at the priest. "Why don't you get on with whatever divine judgement you have planned, and we can skip the pleasantries. I'm a busy man."
The Drow's expression does not sour. In fact, he smiles. "A man who values efficiency. I can understand that. Very well." He does not address the crowd in any grand way. He simply continues speaking, his voice amplifying suddenly, but he is still speaking to the goblin. "Master Scab. You are a creature who deals in the currency of flesh and blood. You have accepted payment in the form of pounds of flesh, vials of blood, and promises of children and meat. In the old times, we would call you monster and hire a plucky band of adventurers to kill you; but here, you were given an economy to exploit."
The goblin laughs, and spits at the priest's feet. "I have served this city and its people since before you were conceived, and I have outlasted many tired speeches from all forms of deified deviants. I have outlived the fall of empires, and I will outlast you. You're just a priest bound by laws and belief. I have broken no laws, so while my lifestyle may make you uncomfortable, no punishment awaits me. The economy bears what it can, and I serve the people that fuel that economy."
The Drow smiles, warm and inviting. "Brave words for one so small, and yet, so wrong." He begins to pace slowly around the goblin, each step echoing off the fine marble floor. "You have conspired with scatterscales, gifting illegal materials to the Tyrium Court. You have aided and abetted known Spirals in the population of this city. You have smuggled citizens from their responsibilities, to meet their ends upon the Fringe. And you have ushered in new creatures to replace them. You have even...taken the flesh of a Scorched One as payment for your services."
"I still fail to see what line I broke, Mr. Priest man."
"Ah, you speak of the city's laws. The Code that governs our civility, our property, our capital. It is a doctrine writ upon the backs of mortals and men. It is not my code. I serve something infinitely more pure. The Will of the Seven Wings. The Old Code."
Scab the Goblin stares daggers into the priest. "Daniel Miller followed the Old Code. He served the people, and gave us the tools to ensure that no creature would be cut off from the realm of magic. It belongs to all of us - I honor his memory with my existence. If you follow the Old Code, then you must respect this honor."
The Drow listens with patience, then smiles, gazing out over the city's many spires, his eyes resting on the desolate Utriena. "Ah, Mr. Miller. A treasure to us all. It was his anecdote that spurred the first of us into Faith. ...It was a great pain to learn of his treachery in the Flesh Markets and to know his name as the first of the Spirals. His immolation would be a heavy weight to bear for anyone." The Drow turns to look Scab dead in the eye. "Especially one of his blood."
Scab feels his eyes widen in stunning realization. "...You." He opens his mouth to say more, but a dark hand closes around his throat as Primus Father Tehken closes the gap with speed and precision.
"I close your throat to save your breath. Lest you say something to anger the Last Gods." He easily drags the goblin from his kneeling position toward the edge of the wall. "I am neither judge nor executioner. I am merely a conduit." The priest lifts the goblin up over his head, dangling him over the precipice of the Winged Citadel, his squirming back to the shifting clouds of the morning. His feet kick and sputter, like a broken engine trying desperately to turn over. Father Tehken calmly and patiently looks into Scab's eyes. "The Dawn will decide your worth. Shopkeep or conspirator, Booklender or imperator...Servant or Spiral."
As if on cue, a crack of thunder booms overhead, a flash of lightning marking the day. The clouds darken, a swirling pool of gray forming overhead. Tehken turns his wrist, forcing the goblin to face the clouds. Angry wind begins to buffet his face...then a single ray of sunlight warms it. Like a lance of purity surrounded by gloom. "Thank you... Thank you." Scab sobs.
But then the light fades. Just as quickly as the sliver came, it is choked away. Howling wind and hail and sleet begin to hammer the roof of the Citadel. Tehken turns the goblin back to him, still held aloft. "The Dawn has spoken."
Father Tehken gives a solemn smile. "From one of the Old Guard to another, I will remember you." He lifts the goblin up a little higher.
"Hold on, I-
The goblin's body explodes in radiant flames, as if the ignition came from within. His screams of agony echo along the stone as some of the Faith turn away. Many others watch in dread fascination.
In but a few short moments, his body is ash. Tehken stretches his hand, a blazing tattoo on his palm fading with golden light.
"I am not a being of verbosity or diatribe. I am, however, one not to ignore deeper meaning when it presents itself. After 27 days and nights of storms and clouds, this morn marks the first ray of sunlight you have seen. So I come to you not as a purveyor of martial law, but as an act of Providence. Serve me or hate me, I will be gone in seven days. And by this measure, that is all that is required to return my city to its Age once more." Calmly brushing the fresh ash from his palm to catch the wind, the man stands at the citadel's peak a moment longer. "Let no Spiral take refuge. Let no citizen hold quarter for them. There is a sickness in my city." With a flash of silver in his eyes, he turns his gaze to assembled Blades, and the horned helm of their new captain. "Captain Xalim, your station calls you to protect the nobility under storm's reign. Does this include the parasites that seek to kill it from within?"
A rasping tenor flows from under the helm, like scraping a rusty knife across a whetstone. "I was a doctor on the Fringe before I joined the service. I found my Angel Of Irons there. And even She, in her divine wisdom, understood that the only way to deal with a blight of disease, was to carve it from the body." Steam exhales from between the slits of the helm, the red tattered cape moving with no wind. "I ensure the future of the Tyrium. A cancer in any House threatens the survival of our entire Court." Xalim takes a step closer, a raspy, labored breath sucking in through the helm. "Heh. I will be your surgeon, and the Blades my scalpel."
Seventh Father Zakarum Tehken does not smile, nor does he blink. "Then your Blades should visit the Den in Spyrelight currently under repair; I’m sure they’ll appreciate the help." He regards the clouds, shifting once more to blot out the sun. "And you, Ser Captain..."
“Find me the Ferryman.”
It comes in tumbles. First a scream, then a sword. It is plunged deep into my chest. From the blade embedded in my flesh, I watch in horror as flares of bright burning flame seep out from the steel. It floods over my skin, catching as it goes, and I search frantically for the Tether.
It is behind me.
Once a sun of mechanical cores and spinning tops - but now the metal grinds to a halt. I watch it drop as the Tether snaps, and I am flung upwards, a pendulum swung. I tumble endlessly, the heat scorching. I curl my legs in to avoid the fire, wrap my arms around my chest, and try to become as small as possible. Become like a stone, little seed. A pebble cannot be burned.
And yet the claws of fire lick my skin. I open my eyes to witness a cyclone before me; a tempest of flame and destruction. It is white hot, and with tears flashing to my eyes, I know this is the end. The Forest calls to me, and I can run no more, so I wait for the Burn to come for me too. I wait.
My eyes flash open as I gasp, fresh air entering my lungs. Shut them, dear Child! I clamp them shut, alone in the dark. I wait. My legs shift under something. It is soft and a little bristled, and warm. The same material rests over my shoulders, pressed up to my cheek. I brush along the material; it feels nice. Soft. My hands move on their own, pulling the material closer. I feel my face nuzzle down into it, soaking in the smell of fresh cedar, grass, and a touch of wet ash. I am warm, but not burning. Perhaps they saved me before I could be burned! Yes, yes that makes sense. Supplanted me into a new biome. A soft, fuzzy biome that smells so wonderful! A little strange, I guess, but Mr. Wilt has always been innovative. This is a bit new, but so far I like it! Though it is a little dark in here. Maybe just a little peek...
I venture a single eyelid to open. Just a slit at first. Hm. Looks like I'm alone. Good, I guess. Okay, this time the whole eye. I feel it widen as it darts around the room, even as I try to remain as still as possible under this soft cover.
I am surrounded by cut wood. Dozens of chopped up trees, cobbled and tacked together. Some have even been portioned and sliced longwise, their bodies covering the floor! Others stand tall, wrapping around the edges of this small room, their stalks pierced by sharpened wooden spears that form tiny bridges above me. Slits of warm light spill through and between the oddly shaped logs. This was a structure of some type; Mr. Wilt had taught us about them. It was a simple word... Floors. Walls. Ceiling.
Both eyes shoot open as I sit upright with a start. "A house!?" I gasp, clamping my hands over my mouth.
A creaking on the far wall sends me back under my soft covering, burying my head under the strange marshmallow it was resting on before. I listen carefully, returning to the stillness of my mind. A good pebble, my Child. No one notices a cobblestone.
I can hear the padding of bare feet, and a gentle creak in the wood that lines the floor. It is a creature, and it's moving around the room. My vines slowly creep out from the folds in my skin, reacting to danger, and wrap around my shins and between my fingers. I hear a scrape of metal, and thorns extend from the vines. If it comes closer, I am ready. The vines harden, a layer of bark spilling from the small of my back and I feel the familiar setting of my face as a thin, translucent layer of armor flows over it.
The creaking stops...I think.
Something is placed right next to my bed and I nearly blow my cover. The thorns extend a full 2 inches now, threatening to pierce the cloth laid over me. I watch them intently as they push against the fabric, trying desperately to will them back down. Instead I feel the fury inside manifest, curling more layers of sharpened bark over one arm, a chitinous helm beginning to form over my scalp. The moment it lifts this fabric, I will strike. Just a few more inches, and it will rue the day it chose to harm me.
And then I hear something else. Music. No, humming. Why is it familiar? No time to wonder, as light spills into my cocoon, the fabric pulled back by a purple hand.
With a primal cry I leap from the covers, thrusting one thorn-covered gauntlet at this thing's face.
It stops my hand in its own, and I stare in awe at the claw of bark and sinew that dwarfs my fist. The corded threads of living roots wrap in spirals up the right arm of this creature, dozens of fireflies flowing in and out of its complicated fissures. The roots course up the shoulder, sending a familiar crosshatch over the bare chest of this creature; a defensive layer of barkskin, I know it well. Glowing embers for eyes stare back at me with patience, even as cracks form upon the face, bubbling lava beneath. If he wanted to, he could melt me where I stood. Instead, his other hand takes my own, and the thorns retract.
"Hyacinthe..." It comes out in a sob, and I squeeze his hand tighter. The barkskin turns to ash, reabsorbing into my flesh, and he pulls me into a hug. I try to form words as he holds me, "I thought... How? How are you alive? How are you here? ...What IS here?" I gasp and pull back. "Are we dead? Is this death? Did we avoid the Gray...or is it...waiting outside?"
Hyacinthe smiles and laughs, shaking his head. "Afraid not, little cherub. This is...something entirely different." His eyes drift to the far wall, the one that creaked before, and it creaks again! I watch in alarm as the wall, which I now realize is cut differently than the rest, swing open and flood the room with a warm, verdant light. Ah yes! A...a "door."
Another voice flows into the room. "Ah. We are sorry." It is feminine, and raspy, like a gentle breeze rustling leaves. "We can come another time if they are still recovering."
Hyacinthe answers instead. "No, please, come in. She is ready." Like hells I am! What authority do you-
Before me is a woman of smoke and wind. The edges of her form seem to break and crackle with energy, like at any moment she'll break apart. But as my eyes are drawn inward, her dissonant pieces seem to solidify. Onyx armor adorns her beautiful green skin, a bronze etching along its edges. The pauldrons and greaves look like they once held a symbol, but every time I look at it the image crackles and shifts. The only insignia I can pinpoint is cinched around her neck, binding tethers of the armor together. It looks like a tiny snake, or serpent, glowing white hot. Did its tail just move?
Her eyes are black stone, backed by the living fire within her, and the same fire ignites the edges of her short hair. Those eyes bore into me...then she smiles, lowering into a curtsy. "Greetings, little one. I am Knell. The Alpha sees all new additions to our conclave." She steps aside, gesturing beyond the door. "Please."
I look at Hyacinthe, concerned. He laughs. "C'mon, friend. You need to learn sometime." He takes my hand and ushers beyond the door.
I am led past through an expansive village of dozens of dwellings like my own. Cinthe explains that for each of us that come here, a place is grown for us. It provides for us safety, warmth, and love. "How many are we now?"
"Well." Hyacinthe gestures around. "Start counting."
We are being followed. Tens of individuals. Too much to take in at once, so I try to find details. A set of horns, tufts of black feathers, a halfling here, a dwarf there, dozens of tall creatures with pointed ears. They flank us on each side, emerging from their own dwellings, standing from gardens. Some even smile, and others glare, gathering fire in their hands. I can feel my thorns creeping. Just try it, buddy...
"Hey." Cinthe squeezes my hand again. "It's okay. They just don't know that you're good yet. ...They will." Cinthe stops suddenly. "We're here."
It is a citadel. Flooded. Moss creeps up a set of four pillars that wreath a raised platform of stone and earth. At its center spirals a tree. It spins and curls, its branches reaching toward the sun that spills through a broken stone canopy. The leaves appear to be reflective; crystalline, even, and a deep crimson. After a few moments I notice that Cinthe is no longer next to me and I spin to look back.
He waits at the edge of the water, smiling and laughing a bit at me. I realize what I've done and look down.
The water looks like glass. In fact, as I step on it, the ripples fluctuate beneath the surface, obscuring my reflection, but do not affect what I'm standing on. I hop a few times, the ripples, like silent shockwaves, pulsing out from me. I start to giggle, then laugh in big bouts of joy, my voice echoing off the high stone walls and columns.
"We are glad you are having fun."
I am hunched over, mid-spring into a high jump. I arch my spine a bit to look at Hyacinthe and am surprised to find that he has apparently been joined by EVERYONE. Yeesh, no pressure. He nods his leafy head to the space behind me; to the tree.
With a deep breath, I turn back to the tree.
There is a creature sitting in front of it. I swear they weren't there before. They aren't looking at me. A few moments pass and I hear no other voices. I could just keeping jumping, but...I feel drawn to them. Alright then.
My steps echo along the glass water, the only sound for miles. I notice the long vines of moss, only months old, still fresh and clinging to the stone. Then my foot stops at the edge of the platform, knocking me out of my head, and I am struck with the vision before me.
A creature of tan alabaster skin and long dark hair tends to the dirt surrounding this tree. They sit with a coat and dress of rags and patches. It flows out beneath them like a sun of soil and sand. Simple cloths of earth tones; layered browns, sandstone, and pale gray. The only glint the gold from a belt buckle that binds a boned corset over their stomach. Smudges of dirt and soot and ash adorn their attire, and they continue to tend to the soft earth surrounding the tree. I watch them gather soil around a small sapling of deep amber and emerald, fingers dancing over its leaves, and sending a bit of breath to the stem.
I feel a little shiver run up my spine and watch the sapling grow an inch.
They lean back from this position, their gaze meeting mine and their smile filling with warmth and welcome. A pale hand reaches up to push silken black hair behind long, pointed ears. I notice the glint on them; dots of earrings and crystal - tiny, detailed symbols without meaning. A book, like a pin; a piece of tied thread; a wing; a lute.
I realize I am getting distracted and look back at their face. They have gathered the grass around their form, gently stroking the blades until they grow high. Blooms of roses and orchids join them, as daffodils spill forth from the edges of their dress. A path of snowdrops roll out from them as they stand, drawing a circle around me.
"Welcome." Their voice is soothing, young. Like me, but not at all. "What is your name?"
"Welcome, Niobe." They drift gracefully to me, cupping my hands in their own. A node of warmth forms between them, and the Alpha lets go, stepping back and grinning. I look down to find a beautiful fire rose, bright orange as it fades to a deep crimson at the edges, nestled blooming in my hands. "Welcome...to the Hearthstone."
It is hard not to smile. I keep waiting for the knife, but it never comes. No needles to prick me, no biome test to fail, and no Temper to cage me. The Alpha smiles wider at me, their eyes kind and understanding, like they've felt what I've felt before. They begin to turn from me, but the word spills out anyway. "And...uh."
The Alpha turns back, raising their eyebrows. I can feel dozens of eyes trained on me. But I stutter through. "And. Um. What...is your name?"
And they sigh, relaxing even more. They reach out behind them to touch the trunk of the young spiraling tree, looking up at its ruby leaves. "I think at one time I was called Petrya..." They turn back to me, and all of us, with a knowing warmth and understanding.
"But you can call me Petals."
The art in this short fiction is done by very talented people. Their info and credit is below, as well as links to their work. Or, you can just click the image you're interested in and go there anyway!
Hyacinth Concept: Hyacinthe | by BrBianca
Knell concept: isildae - portrait | by Artborne-WD
Petrya concept: still looking! If you know this artist, let me know so I can credit them!
A strike of steel, a rush of blood, a song of death, and caw of surprise. A song is Silenced.
She reaches out to me, soft hands spiraling - one red, one scorched - soothing me back to the silk and satin; yet our eyes dance along the curtain. I do not know how long we can visit this time. "He is dead." She tilts her hair to flow over our faces, a calming gesture. Our lips move on our own. "The one who binds us and breaks us in Her name. It is He who took my fingers, and now another has taken his throat."
"Shh." Tender energy curls over my mind, her soft care a promise broken a dozen times over, but a heartbreak I willingly return to. Our body relaxes, folding and sprawling inches above the stone floor.
Yes. Rest, we will.
We will. For He is gone, and we are Safe.
And then, with the sharp spike of cold breath slicing into my lungs, the Gray clears. I see them - I see them all. We will never UNSEE.
The man on the bridge, his desperate hubris driving the stick to his mouth and the raw arcana through his veins. It was the drug that bound him, entwined in the fates of the disparate Verdance and the Cold One's Prince. The spiral that took us, the Vermillion, the last of our brothers, to send the Four, then Three, then Two, then One, to send the towers crashing down amongst them. Amongst the bodies, the masses, the temples, and masks. Motion, such a tempest, to churn the blood and summon the harvest.
A Grim One, I know, and without Eyes to see a brotherhood torn, a resonance translated, and a Genocide chilled. Wings for a wingless devil, seeds for a dying tree. Fingers for pens and blood for its ink; he smokes the poison in and knows his death knocks, yet meets it anyway. Soulless, skinless forms marching to the beat of a slowing Clock. It swings, slowing...growing...to a stop.
Our back is driven to the floor, our body convulsing.
GLASS. SHATTERS. Frozen, and heaving, warped by white blood - a milk of vengeance, still wet, still young. A taunting song cut short. Knives and feathers. A sun rises, and falls, its clockwork soul sending ripples through the Ethos. As its flares scar our skin, we are plunged into drowning memory.
A boy - pale of skin and porcelain - claws at his mind while Genesis takes hold, blind to the dread purpose of his Shell; while another pulls free from glass, leaving his memories dripping behind it; a girl makes a choice, a simple alteration, and it spells her death in mere days, if not for the virus growing inside her; a man makes a choice, complex and righteous, and stands to wage war with the Infinitum itself; a woman stands on the precipice of worlds unknown, pitched and leaning, aware at length of the symphony she writes, yet uncaring of its form, and the bodies that tumble beneath her. We dare not look away, dear Savras, not to thine throne that we now witness, weeping at your feet.
We will not look away, even as our muscles spasm and our bones crack and whine.
It is this our Sight craves, and this we Cry for. We cry out every night our Sovereign summons the storm. We cry to see what the Gray clouds cover.
The name, shrill and striking, screaming with the thunder - she crumples, my muse, her ashen horns and split-tone skin mingling with the red now flowing from her chest...I cannot escape her eyes, even as more Thunder smashes through the walls, the wood, the bed, the floor. She locks me there, salty streams dripping down our faces. She locks me in, the gaze the key of our reverie, and the cage of our Reliquary. And it is in the beautiful Starlight of her eyes that my goddess leaves me - frozen and trembling.
I am there for the Eons and the Epoch.
Until blessed Thunder takes me too.
Our mouth turns sour with foam, our stomach rejecting this vision.
We gasp for breath, heaving and twisting in pain. Some minor dislocation, and fresh blood at our nose. We stare disapprovingly at the ankle, now broken in the seizure. Our eyes look around and wonder if our Muse is coming, and sigh in the rush of our Futures, clutching the tiny hummingbird wing around our necks.
A Sliver of hope, and a Spear of truth.
He is dead, and She is going to Kill Them All for it.
It is our grievance to report a tragedy transpired this eve.
While hosting a fundraiser for the afflicted Theater District, our Lady of the Arts, Satine Tesara, bore witness to a grizzly affair. Our very own Irvin Luse was on the scene to report.
We acknowledge and respect the Tesarian Estate's need for privacy, and we will keep this just to the facts.
A simple suve of our most respected noble houses and influencers gathered this evening to pay tribute and charity to our high arts. Luck has not been kind to old structures of our theaters and guilds, and Miss Tesara thought to bring together the most influential in her circles to remedy this fact.
No expense was spared, and with a full compliment of the Zaharian Blades and the Grinning Brand at her side, no one expected any trouble. Though the first few hours of the evening raised nearly 100,000 credits toward building a new Theater District and Miss Tesara has already broken ground on the project due to generous donation from her personal estate, a dangerous snake had woven their way into the hallowed halls.
As some of our audience is aware, we have been honored to house a decorated Detective from Feathertongue, Sir Bolton Jourdinais. He, hand in hand with the Grinning Brand, has been keeping our homes safe as the Severed Wing collapses with corruption. Just this evening, we knew him to be closing in on a murderer hiding in our midsts and plaguing our streets with blood and horror.
And it seems, tonight, that he was able to find his mark. However, as a malfunction in the Garden Maze pulled the Blades and the Brand to the aid of the other guests caught in its discord, the Detective made his move without any backup. This valiant knight of the republic entered a deadly duel with a murderous opponent, laying waste to the lower wine cellars of the estate in their vicious brawl. They were discovered by a young servant seeking refreshments, but by the time the Blade cleric could make his way there, the dark deed was done. Both criminal and detective had succumbed to their wounds, and passed to the Great Expanse this night.
As the dust settled, the Tower of Orquida suffered a cataclysmic structural explosion at its base. Experts cite an alchemical response to the healing salves and combat potions often studied in the tower. Though the resulting explosion was traumatic, there were no casualties.
Though Captain Ariessius of the Blades offered no comment, Miss Tesara had this to say on the evening.
"Sir Bolton was a gentleman, through and through, worthy of the highest honor of any slate or king of this age. He gave his life to defend the people of this city, and I would hope so many more could learn from his dedication and honor to the Old Code. Truly, I had so much more faith in the Blades as of late, but tonight proves what we all feared. They are not equipped nor capable of defendin' the noble families, nor our ambassadors of our sister city. No, I put my stake in our smilin' boys in gold. Men and women of good hearts and strong intention, from the cut of our finest tiers, unswayed by gold and silver; they carry now the values and the memory of this great man, and our city will only be safer when we swell their ranks. Swell them, with more like Detective Bolt."
This article humbly submitted for review. - Jote Riverwood Press
Second Sun - Confluence 6;34 Kena
Five fingers, five strokes. I scold sand and it stokes.
White and sparkling, I dance in its leather.
The threads it might sever.
Before the surf it can weather.
Though coarse and irritating, the granuals prove to be more profound than misleading this time. When poured into the Circle, they do transpire many branching paths, but stepping back I glean the connective tissue. Like so many choices, the smallest push down one avenue may change one's course altogether.
One would never be able to predict an outcome without a measure of godhood, yet we all try, don't we? Even She is not so magnificent, she admits; which is why She needs me. And yet, these paths, though intertwined they are, and though they swell and merge in unpredictable pictures...we always forget.
All it takes is a single tempest to tear it all down.
Kahna. This method is a waste. The Weave dost want too much, and this threading requires something with a bit more fortitude.
Third Moon - Confluence 7;19 Sova
Five fingers, five spokes. You blow dust, and it soaks.
Then you light it aflame, and speak its name.
Iron of cold, embers of light. Stay your teeth, lest they bite.
You who bore the Forever Night.
Lend this one your Sight.
You were smart to use cold iron in lieu of sand this time. The pattern lasts longer in the Circle.
However, the crackling tendrils tell me the Weave remains unchanged and unchained. It still pinches you when trying to hold onto them. Instead, you scry upon the forgotten boy - the manwidow - and the shroud of men and children he wears like a banner. Instead, you try to focus on five towers; upon the city, its whispers and its fates. But nothing comes.
You pour lightning into the iron again and again, and watch it dance along the Circle. Simpler eyes would see only convulsing metal, but you mark the subtle hints and sparks - the symphony of fury and fate and future.
A link tearing at its frame, as it desperately clings to what it already knows.
At the other end, a hunk of metal; it has been melted and cooled countless times, each moment severing and tempering its connections to the others. It is young and old simultaneously, and at the moment burns white-hot, its heat spreading to those around it.
A pad-lock; solid and strong, unbreakable in its use and function, yet unable to break free from its position.
The scattered remains of something; an old gauntlet perhaps, as its fingers twitch - a facade of living.
And the spike you drove into the Circle's center. A beacon binding.
Forces spinning, but unable to act. Unable to break from the bonds that define them. A silhouette of gray descends upon the city of storms, obscuring visions of the future and the past. Parting such a veil will require deadly readings if you hope to punch through. Yes. Step back, and listen to your teachings.
You still have pets to spare...
First Sun - Discordant 1;16 Sova
Five fingers, five discs. Broken, they shatter our risk.
Tear and break, crush tendons few.
The marrow is born, from blackened sinew.
It reveals what is new.
The marrow cracks are disturbing. Canine teeth were a good choice, though. Ribs too. The clatter pleases our ears and entices our Sight. The cloud is not obscured to us this time; it claps and roars, and though the red lightning is a concern, it is the proper fuel.
We close our eyes and let the electricity dance along our skin. With a gasp the vision takes hold at last.
Five heads. Draconic perhaps; not platinum.
Gnashing teeth and a splatter of black blood.
Shouts. Calls. Someone is missing in the confusion; a parent looking for a child.
Sails. Grim sails.
And fire. Walls of fire.
A plunging dagger, sudden and still, like a chilled knife.
We twist in agony, frost spreading along our fingertips, and are ejected from the cloud. We exhale cold, and snuff another candle, calling the firelight to us like a shield. We must close our eyes again; more to see.
It swirls this time as sweat pours from our brow. Focus on the shouts, we say. Who speaks and why.
The voices gone, instead we dive deeper. Clouds pass through us; the unknown gray the warm blanket we wear. The canvas gives way to a burnt planet. No light pierces this sky.
Winged creatures. The Sky Folk? No, long dead. Feathers and scales.
We reach out to touch them and begin to fall. Angry wind buffets against our eyes as we crash through the soot and ash of the earth below.
Something grows beneath them; beneath the fire. Past the rock and flame, down where the core still beats. Roots grow and stretch and scream. Touch them and they bleed. Show me, blood magic. Show me the fate of the Corpse Star.
The clip of two sets of footsteps brings us back to the Circle. We sort our things and try not to smile too broadly.
"It is as you say, though the threads are agitated. Do not worry, though, The Gray will not waver. Beautiful chaos and confusion will burn your enemies to Asher." We know they will be so pleased, we turn and glimpse threads of blonde. "Leaving the ground ripe to take-
The blinding white hot pain. We feel the trickle of our blood and the bruise already forming. "We are sorry. We did not mean to look upon Thee."
The snapping of the switch once more, as it scatters our urns. "For all your gifts, you seem to forget the simple rules we have laid out for you. ...Perhaps a more permanent reminder is needed."
Swiftly and suddenly our wrist is seized by the cruel feathered fingers of Him. Our feet drag and scurry backwards but we are yanked to our feet. He smashes our bottles and clears the table of scrolls, then hurls us upon it. We try to wrest ourselves from His vice grip, but He only clamps tighter. His other claw grips the back of our neck and we meet the table, pressing our face into the broken shards. We can feel warm blood in the back of our throat. Here, all of our faces and our eyes lay pinned to our table, watching only He and his shadows as He holds us there.
"There are lessons that must be remembered, little Ijarys. At one time I thought you my Siestra, a true prodigy of the onomance and the astrid, and I still think this beacon calls to you..."
We watch him pry each of our clenched fingers free, so our hands may lie flat, prostrated before Him.
"...but I worry that the culling of the cosmos has been too easy on you. For all your gifts, your lives, your vision; I have given you this library, this Circle, multitudes of resources, with only a whisper of a beating to guide you. And yet this lesson fails to stick. But truly, it is my fault. You see, I have not utilized your greatest teacher..."
Breath caresses our upturned ear, sending a shiver through our bones. "...Pain."
First Moon - Discordant 1;17 Kena
Four fingers, four knives. Blood pools to divide.
Thrice we remember, what the storm will seek.
And shun your eyes when My Sovereign speaks.
When the first of us fell, the stars were silent. By the second, they were already singing the songs of our demise.
Simple creatures of short memory, no one care if we razed them all to the ground. Yet some of us pitied the mortal welps. We gifted them knowledge, council, aid. And they took this and fueled their ships, their sky wars, and cities. I'd venture that we were happy, even impressed, by the courage shown by so many against so much, but let's be honest. Every necromancer, druidic general, or pirate lord that threatened the known mortal realm...is only a blink in the eyes of an ancient dragon.
The world's canvas and the grand clock of the Many strikes in eons and ethos, and we remember all. Jenora gave us choice, and Grumakon the flames of purpose, but these insects of our ages have forgotten the gods of their grand design. We gave them life, and now, with our guidance and aptitude, they hunt us for sport.
I remember when we left. Retreating to our Kin in Arkhosiana; the clustered fortress of the Dragonborn. My siblings had taken refuge in the Feywild, but with the Seal broken, their home was siphoning into the Material World. And so the Scion caste protected us. For many years, we sequestered ourselves, hoping others would complete the pilgrimage and find us. Dissatisfied, my sister ventured out with other Skyborn, returning with more and more. Each time she left, I'd watch the horizon; for the flaming whip of three tails. And each time she returned, she'd have a few more scars.
But this last time was different. This time she returned with only three wyrmlings. This time she returned crying.
"Volicia, what did you see?"
And her golden eyes stared back. "I found Kashana. He gathers them. Something is coming. He doesn't know what, or when, only soon."
My brother, the Timber King, is alive! "Why didn't you bring him to us?"
Her eyes grew dark and red. "He will not leave them! He...loves them."
"They hunt us and wear our skin as armor! How would he love such a creature!"
And her eyes. Her beautiful eyes spoke so much more than her draconic tongue. "Not all of them, my brother. Not all are cruel. They are...flawed. ...Just like us."
She did not speak to me again. I watched her leave that night, whispering wordless promises to the skies.
I was stubborn then. I waited for her to return, but there was only silence.
So I flew to brink of Io's Edge. To my brother's tree, and the great seed within. And then I saw them.
Thousands of them. Pilgrims of warriors and sages, armies and ships. They stretched for miles in every direction. I thought them flocking to such a temple - Ifa, the World Tree - but no, they stood as its protection. I scan the skies for a threat, and then I see her. My sister, the Rending Whip, as she floats above the canopy. I can still see her smile.
An eruption below us. Thousands of cracks in the earth surrounding the tree; foolish mortals being sucked inside. Another explosion beneath, fire and light rising from the scars across the continent.
The Tree catches fire. Golden and green fire. And I hear screaming. Deep within the marrow of the planet. Like millions of voices suddenly being rended into pieces.
And then Volicia screams. I dart my eyes to find her. She is above me. I watch in horror, beating my wings upward to her form, as purple tendrils tear her visage asunder. I scream her name and claw at the smokey remains of the banishing magic. And the storm begins to gather around my rage, a bellowing roar escaping my lungs. I fill my mouth with acid and lightning, breathe deep, and-
I feel a hand on my shoulder. A feminine voice, delayed and accelerated all at once, like it was fighting through time itself to speak. The crackling lightning surrounding me slows, and I watch the horror below me grind to a crawl. The carnage continues, but in immaculate clockwork detail, seconds passing as minutes. And then I see her.
An endless shroud of black feathers; a void that stretched across all my horizons. And there, at the center of my vision, impossibly massive - the porcelain mask of the mistress of the ravens.
Lightning still crackling at the edge of my lips, I seethe. "I am a dragon of three worlds. I answer to no god."
"I HAVE SEEN THIS OUTCOME." Her voice fights for presence, as if at any moment it will be hurled back through the gate of the grand clock. "YOU DO NOT SURVIVE THIS, ENDRAGAL."
"Like hell I don't. I have lived through worse-
"THE WORLD IS BREAKING THIS TIME. THE COSMOS WILL FOREVER CHANGE. AND A CREATURE BANISHED WITHOUT A HOME WILL BE TORN FROM EXISTENCE."
Volicia... "I must save her..."
"SHE IS ALREADY GONE. AND SOON, SO SHALL YOU. BE AT PEACE WITH THIS FATE."
And time began to return, the rays of light becoming burning columns up from the chasms beneath me.
"OR. TAKE MY HAND."
I stared at her outstretched hand, and in that moment I saw my brother. The kind Timber King. The Seedkeeper. He was patient, and was always willing to play the long game.
"Very well, Exiled One. But how will we survive?"
"WE SURVIVE AS A MEMORY. AN IDEA. AND WE WAIT TO BE BIRTHED AGAIN."
And her feathers enshrouded my vision, carrying me to the Astral Stars.
And it is here I remain. On dark nights, you might see the dozens of gemstone stars that burn bright through the storm. Her little Night Embers.
It was the devil's mark in the days of Sooth when Leylocke Gadamir stepped from the Farplane.
A mage of war, yet he had no spellbook to speak of, his arcane knowledge confused and garbled. For magic did not behave as it did in the Outlands. Not here in this strange world where creatures worship his friends like gods, and hold him in ill contempt for his blasphemy.
To harness his sanity and rebuild his intellect, Gadamir called forth the one legacy of his people, a semi-sentient magical ink pen, buzzing about like a dragonfly; he called Lemira, and with her help he wandered the new world, absorbing every book he could. But he could not memorize everything, so he carried the scriptures with him, adorned upon his skin. This would become his spellbook; prepared and studied, he would cover himself in scrolls of his own flesh, each time wincing through the pain of unleashing his magic - each time it would burn a little deeper. Soon, the arcane weave would embed itself within him, some spells permanently infused into his blood, the flesh burned black by the untamed weave.
Each morning and each dusk, Gadamir would pull away his robes and sit half-naked in meditation, reaching out to the scorched surfaces of his skin, tugging upon the fragmented memories of magic in the Outlands. He would use this as his study, his preparation, his reflection, and his pain. And each day, with each new shred of companions, he would drift further and further from his world beyond.
But Gadamir's love for Io-Sooth would grow when he found himself under the care of the Auran people. The Skyborn, he called them, and his many years fighting for their independence in the name of Kord and Pelor would garner him a great respect from their elders, who gifted him a clutch of baby griffons. Now a Paladin of two gods, and a man of two worlds, Gadamir's code of ethics extended beyond simple coin for deeds. He saw the power of the arcane and divine, a righteous union of awesome power and responsibility. So he gathered others of his like mind, carefully selecting them for strict trials and valiant quests, all without promise of coin or treasure.
What he found was a lot of trouble, and was often in the frame to defend himself. But after ten years of discord, for every group that swore him off, there was one who stayed. And the ones who stayed were gifted the griffons, now trained and grown, and gathering more. Leylocke named them the Knights Of Duros; a blend of his world's greatest elder (an Elder Elemental from another time) and this world's Pelor, Kord, and Helm. An Allfayth was born under an ideal: protect the weak, defend the innocent, trade value for value, and keep your promises.
Before the turn of the age, Leylocke, now 180 and growing still older in a frail human body, left his legacy to a young captain, Sir Eres Black, and began a planar pilgrimage. He left at the turn of the tide, and never returned, but his deeds garnered such renown among the kings and queens of Erena that they gifted his memory with the eastern nation, home to his aviary of knights and the skilled artisans of Tal'Fune. Duros defended the shore, and would do so evermore...
Traditions and Codes burn hot in recent memory, but back then at the edge of Empyr, thousands of years past Gadamir's pilgrimage, the Knights were undergoing a revolution of ideals. Their code was one of sanctity, trust, and empathy, but rarely supported expansion. Gone were the days of the wizard-paladin, righteous beacons of knowledge and ethics, and as the water became more muddled, so did the idealogy.
The scale did shift with the swell of ranks under the leadership of two great Knights: a monk named Arthurian Dragoon and a warlock, named only Ortacana. Arthur was a militant man of strength, discipline, and order; he wore his tattoos proudly, adding to his ink notes of sentimental values and religious code. His followers did the same, emblazoning his teachings and the ancient interludes of Gadamir all over their bodies. Such a display amused Ortacana, and it could be this bravado that first drew her to him. Playful friendship became passionate romance, and the two spoke well of the order...and its need to expand.
With the blessing of Sir Hana Black, Ortacana and Arthurian ventured Westward, eager to set up an academy in the wondrous shorelines of Shefara. They righted wrongs along the way, gaining further renown and still more soldiers to their ranks. Now over 1000 strong, they set to the sea to find their future. And though there were threats, a combination like this, fortified with an ideal understanding of the weave, and the growing influential boons the entity called Vaeyen bestowed upon her champions, these valiant vanguards punched through the veils of the sea. Shefara was happy to have its champions, and the Flashburn Academy grew tenfold before the fall.
The Burn decimated the Knights of Duros. Thousands ripped from the weave itself, others gone mad by the culling. Countless deaths, the Knights tried to rebuild, but the shockwave sent from Ifa herself left Avianas and Tal'Fune in ruins. Further out from the impact point, at the westward reach, Flashburn was still standing. Shaking, but standing. An elderly Arthurian, desperate to reestablish order across the continent, dispatched all he could spare to douse the flames of discord and rally the people toward hope.
Arthurian found it in a merchant alliance. A drow named Breton Al'Frama. He had a small band of artists and engravers seeking refuge and sanctuary, and Arthurian welcomed them with open arms. Eager for knowledge, Breton asked many questions about the studies of Gadamir, and explained that magic no longer worked the way it was expected; that perhaps the Academy was the last great library of the weave before. The two became good friends in a short time, and the merchant guild was a curious, helpful sort; skilled in many things, they worked together to rebuild Shefara.
But Ortacana had been having nightmares; she said that Vaeyen was crying. Mourning the loss of her champions, and fearful of her waning power. She, an elder creature, was scared...a thought that would burn a hole so deep into Ortacana that it would shake her very soul. One night, while Arthurian still slept, she awoke in a trance-like state, wandering out toward the sea. The water parted for her, and she disappeared into the black...
Ortacana awoke on the surf, surrounded by bodies. She found the lost lives of her knights, their throats cut and drained dry. Sobbing and enraged, she pulled one back from the brink, ripping its soul back to her. "It was Breton..." It wheezed. "He got the others drunk and drugged..." Relinquishing the soul to rest, she scoured the academy for signs of life...and found none. What she did find, were the remains of her beloved and his consort; skinned and bled out.
"They were here...for our flesh." Her words carried with them the realization of an Elder's fear. That all that were marked by knowledge would become targets for those to eager to earn it themselves; that we were just goods and services to be claimed and bartered; and that our trust, our empathy, and our hope opened the door to monsters.
Even as the unmarked children ran to her, coming up from the hidden bunkers beneath the sand, Ortacana was shaking, and earth was rising around her. An elemental rage, raw and pure, and an acknowledgement of another voice deep within, like a seed sprouting. "Vaeyen...is that you? Am I to be your vessel, your haven, your mountain?" A rumble in her chest acknowledges. "Then you shall lend me all your power, and we will make safe the way..."
And Ortacana wielded the Elder as her Sword, summoning the angry spirits of her allies, an army of revenant souls. Perfect in their dread memories, and vengeful in their hearts, the Vagrant of Vaeyen and the Ghosts of the Flashburn sought out every "skinner" and scribe, killing and burning the bodies as they went... A dark tapestry of the swinging pendulum, her children spinning her threads into the tomes of our brethren.
And it is her example that we summon today.
Leylocke Gadamir was an idealist in a time where ideals were needed; he would feign to defend himself if there was but a chance to save the other. But Flashburn tells us that the Duros is dead, and we must discard this empathy for now and wear the dark shroud of dreadful purpose and ironskin. Only then can we usher back in the light. Only...when it is safe.
So bless your Ink, and harden your hearts. We build a better world, one body at a time.
--Imperiona Dragoon, Second of the Living Sun
"I am prepared to kill you. Are you prepared to die?"
He stands tall, a cut above the rest in this rabble. Dancing around them in the boots of a swashbuckler, his doublet never touching red, he smiles as he draws it from them, carving new scars into flesh.
It started as an insult of honor; a disrespect of the word "no", and a call to Apologize. The Instigator refused, drawing his axe and flipping a table. This cleared the floor. We were all poised to Adjudicate, but elders lay claim, and the sea captain called dibs.
Calm and collected, Micah took his space across the room, helping others away first. An older gentleman was taking his time, so the Slate turned to carry him to the edge. It was here the Instigator charged, eager to cut down a man of the Queen's Favor. But Micah is fast; everyone knows him to be. An expert of the breath between cuts.
In a flash of green, the axe flies from the man's grasp, embedding in the floor. A millisecond later, a gash appears on his left cheekbone. Such grace, such flash! A few claps chitter through the room as our reverend captain holds up one withered hand, "First Blood!"
The clapping stops as the big man sneers at the crowd, then sizes up his opponent. Micah, The Green Flame, stares back, his sword sheathed once more. "Your Dishonorable Form is noted."
Unimpressed, the big man spits in his face. "Note that." He growls and clomps back to his axe, hefting it back up onto his shoulder.
"Do you Apologize?"
The Big Man surveys the room, his rotten smile pulling at the sides of his mouth. I swear he makes a biting motion toward one of the girls - my friend, Bonnie. I feel my hand clench in anger around the wooden ladle in my hand, the wood whining against the pressure. "Easy, Jules." A firm hand claps onto my shoulder. Henrick, the owner of the Ravenwatch. "I know you're gunnin' ter Squireship, but you ain't built like it yet. The Slate is here; let it play out."
"No piece of strix here deserves an apology from the likes of me. I own this strip, I grew up here. With the licks I've taken, it is these buckets of filth that owe me!" He leers more at the crowd, taking a step toward Bonnie, who flips her tray and draws her dagger, flipping it face down. She's so cool. The Big Man seems amused. "Well would' ya look at that, you DO want to play with me..." And he charges her.
Another flash of green and the Big Man's on his back, fresh blood pooling at his bicep. He had taken two steps before Micah cut him off. "In case you didn't notice, your duel is with me. Your Dishonorable Focus is noted." Micah turns back to the captain, who nods, raising a hand.
The cheer rings out, "SECOND BLOOD!"
Micah's green blade stays drawn this time, his smile hardening to a cold glare. "I am prepared to kill you. Are you prepared to die?"
The Big Man's smile fades. "Fine." He turns to Bonnie and makes a big show of bowing to her. "Sorry for insulting your honor, and for bringing your mother into it. I. Was. Wrong." And with that, he picks up his axe, and leaves. A moment passes while Micah watches him and sheathes his sword. Then, we erupt in applause.
Micah buys everyone a round and receives a few handshakes before returning to his table. I feel Henrick press two steins into my hands and all but kick me in the Slate's direction. Old coot pushes so hard I lose my bloody balance and stumble right toward the table...but I don't hit.
"Easy there, buddy." Strong hands have caught me, and easily right my stunned form. "It's Jules, right?" Micah takes the two steins while I search for a reply.
"Ah, uh..." I wait for him to get bored with me so I can escape...but he's still staring at me a good ten seconds later. Say something, you idiot, or he'll think you're a mute! "Ah...yeah, kinda."
"Alright then, Jules Kinda. You work on that stutter you'll make an excellent Whisper someday."
I can feel the sweat already moistening the top of my head as my cheeks flush. Say it, say it, you moron, say it! I close my eyes, grab my dreams by the balls, and shout way too loudly. "I'D LIKE TO BE YOUR SQUIRE, LIR MICAH!"
I think Bonnie dropped a dish, or maybe it was Henrick coughing, but the room becomes still. Everything is quiet, save for the creaking boards under my shaking boot. Cursed left leg, shut up! I feel a hand touch my shoulder and give it a gentle squeeze. I squint my eyes open, face all scrunched up from embarrassment...and Micah's still watching me, beaming from ear to ear, hazel eyes warming me to my soul. "I'm honored, Jules. But I don't take Squires anymore. Ask around, though, I know of a few Slates willing to give you a Knight's Favor." He taps my stunned shoulder a few more times before heading back to his seat.
"Ack!" Apparently I'd been standing there a good five minutes staring at the floor, because Bonnie just smacked me.
"Get back to work, dreamer..."
It's late by the time Bonnie leaves. She gives me her usual hug and wink before gathering her things. Still a little starstruck, I've been slow in my chores, and she instead opts to help by sweeping so I can take the damn grease bucket out. It's been filling and boiling most of the dinner wave, so I don my Henrick's mitts and hoist the heavy pot out back.
I almost trip and eat strix down the stairs, still slick with the morning's grease and some stray liquor. "Gross..." As I investigate how badly my boots are sticking, a sound makes me freeze on the corroded stairs.
Clashing steel, followed by hushed voices. They're close. A duel? Stay still. I listen a little longer, the pot getting hot in my hands. A pained sound. Wait for First Blood. But there's no call. No Adjudicator? Wait, that means...
Against my better judgement, I inch around the corner stone, and I feel my eyes widen.
The Big Man, plus two others, blades drawn and hand-axes out, have surrounded someone. Whoever it is, they're having a hellova time drawing First Bl-
With a burst of green flame, one of the men is hurled backwards, fresh burns and lacerations coursing over his chest. Most of him charred but a few feet from me, he twitches, hurt but alive. With another flourish, I watch an armored mantle of green embers settle upon The Green Flame himself, defending his life against a band of Brutes. This was no duel. This was a three-on-one fight; a duel without honor.
The charred one stirs, reaching into his coat and pulling a vile of red dust, pressing to his lips. He downs it in a moment, chewing the ruby shards and I watch his injuries disappear as he draws a wicked curved dagger dripping with poison from a hidden sheath. He dashes forward behind the Big Man's shadow. Micah won't see him in time!
"Lir Micah, look out!" The words had already echoed against the brick and danced their jig along the stone before my better judgement could catch them, and I flinch at the flying sparks of clashing steel. In a haze, I look up with dread to see...Micah parry the blow, running the man through with an extra burst of fire. I grin stupidly, before a meaty hand smacks me across the face.
I stagger backwards, my thoughts swimming, and stare into the angry golden eyes of the Big Man from before. He cracks his knuckles and bears down on me.
So I pour the grease on him.
Cooled and half-congealed, the grease spills out in slippery slabs, coating the ground in front of me. The Big Man, with all his momentum, steps once, twice, and falls flat on the cobblestone with a crack. I let out a giddy giggle, shocked by my own victory.
And then something hits me square in the gut.
"No!" Micah yells more my way, but I can't make it out. Everything's fuzzy. So I take a deep breath...except I can't.
"Hey! Hey man." A clatter of steel. Something was dropped. "I give up. I wish to cross." I look up, vision blurring. The last man falls to his knees, begging, hands up. "I wish to cross! Please, I-" and then Micah cuts his hand off, blood pouring out from the stump. "You have to keep it open, you have to -- ygergk!" He sputters as the blade, brimming with arcane acid, plunges through his heart.
The Slate leans in close, but I hear the whisper. "The Door was always open. You closed it the moment you threw a knife at a child."
Hands trembling, I grasp the hilt embedded in my stomach. It's a long blade; I wonder if it went all the way through. I bet Bonnie would love to have it in her collection. "Lir Micah..." I pull it out.
He remembered my name. It's the wrong name. I have to...
He takes my hands in his, warm blood spreading down my legs. I slide down the cold brick, and sit with my eyes locked on his. With life flowing out of me, I lend all that I am to this moment. "Please... Please... It's Julien. Julien Tiana..." His brow furrows, and he nods gravely. Propping me up as best he can, he takes a knee before me, plunging his blade into the Big Man's corpse. He rests its edge on my shoulder, wiping the blood upon the cloth. I feel the tears well up; I've been given a great honor already, but then he begins speaking.
With this your first blood, I impart the Knight's Favor upon thee.
It is your choice to accept the bond of the Three.
To uphold the Gentlemen's Code,
To draw when the Name is forsaken,
To suffer the words of Ill and Grave,
And to leave the Door open, until it must be closed.
If you accept these terms, in your heart and your soul,
Then my Squire you are, and you are not alone.
"Then rest, Sir Julien Tiana. We will face many foes tomorrow."
And as the tendrils of pain and red fade to numb and black, I am content to join them at the gates. I feel the smile tuck at the corners of my face, wet with tears. I am eager to take up arms... Tomorrow. Yes. Just, let me rest a bit. I am so very tired...
The mists do sift
This transient rift.
A minstrel of the wheel,
Our stitches will heal,
Sown into the heart of the gift.
Lessai of the shift,
The Old Code of the drift,
Guardians of the Seal.
A pierce to glare.
A spirit might lift,
Though the seas might list,
A weighted grip must feel,
As in home, as in steel.
As in the gate to the broken rift.
Bury the needle into the seed,
And sow the future we desperately need.
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