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Coldark Kestrel

    • 89 posts
    November 23, 2020 10:24 AM PST

    She follows the pages of dreamthe warmth of hearth and forge, the searing cold of the hills around Ashildur, the hollow of loss, the sharpness of wind. And the sea, the rocking of a ship upon the waves, yearning for the constancy of land.

    Until a certain dawn when she steps onto the deck and sees a port city in the twilight. Ru'lun, they say it is. She doesn't care its name, only that the ground is still, unmoving.

    She walks through a city barely seen. This is not the place she saw in dreams. The buildings are made of too-straight lines, a city descending from grand palaces of stone to a seaside slum of wooden shacks rotting in the salt-choked air. Her own world is far away, a thousand shades of gray, gleaming and solemn and blue, snow that reflects the moon and the fires of forge and hearth.

    In a midtown inn she asks about the Archai. Sure, they've seen one or two in the streets, but what does he look like? A tall Archai with thin rivers of flame… what else can she say?

    What brings you to Ru'Lun, they ask, and every time her answer is the same. 

    "I hunt."

    She stays one night in the inn, dreams of a pond embraced by trees and mist. Her quarry is close. 

    Northwest road and across the wide river she walks. Awake or dreaming, her path is a whispered call.

    ...do you hear me...

    On foot the going is slow, but she is not fond of horses. In Ru'lun they called this place the Silent Plains. Day after day walking, stumbling over turned stones, fighting sleep in the day and dreams in the night. She no longer knows how long she has traveled, only that she cannot stop until her quest has ended.

    Afternoon rain sweeps across the grasslands, gray and grim, and she huddles in the lee of a large stone. She doesn't know when she passes into sleep and dream. Waking days and dreams seem so alike of late. She awakes with sodden hair and wet clothes under armor. Seeing the stars, she drifts back into sleep until morning.

    ...there was war here, long ago...

    The late spring steppe is sprinkled with lily and wind flowers. The road wends ever northwest over hills of grass that glistens after the rain. A dance of thistledown across the road, and birds chasing after seeds scattered by the wind.

    ...north I am...

    She turns north, leaves the road, and sees the same flower-speckled grass. Clouds the shape of anvils drift across the sky. The wind smells sweet.

    A few trees ahead, and brush, and gradually a forest surrounds her. Here and there the fabric of mist threads the trees.  A sad-voiced bird, and something chittering in the branches—but the whisper has left her alone now. Branches gnarled and twisted like the hands of old storytellers grasp at her sleeves. Her feet drag across the ground, and now and then a root nearly trips her.

    Soon the scent of water, and then she sees a pond through the trees. Still, silent.

    And a man crouching on the eastern shore, leaning over, his hair fallen into his face. He peers into the water, though whether he sees himself or the depths, she could not say.

    He looks up slowly at the sound of boots against the ground. Ears peek through his ebon hair—an Elf.

    "You are as far from home as I," he says. "Welcome."

    He stands and he is tall, lanky, like a shadow play of a thin-carved man. He is somehow graceful when he moves and awkward when he's still. 

    "My name is Inethryndir, though some for sake of brevity prefer to call me Thryn. May I ask your name, child of Khazas?"

    She raises a cerulean hand, lowers it again. She loosens her voice, creaking instrument, and "Lindis," she says.

    He smiles slightly. "I have been starved of conversation for a time, but perhaps you have as well."

    She nods, looks around the clearing. Some of the wrinkled trees dip roots into the pond as if tentative about the cold. Cattails mingle in the shallows. But she does not see the one she seeks.

    "There was something here," says Thryn, "in a long-ago age. See the remnant of a wall," he points, and she can see a short wall of crumbled stone just peeking above the waterline. "I waded out and found a stairwell leading down. I am not a Myr, or maybe I would find out where it leads."

    Sadness now, and she wilts in the sodden mist. He isn't here. All these many leagues and she finds no one but this Elf.

    "You have come so far," says a new voice.

    She looks up, her heart quickening, and sees him step out of the sullen trees. Striations wend and curve along his body, dark as coal, and his eyes glimmer in the mist. "I found you," she whispers. "I found you."

    The Elf looks at her, then nods, understanding. The three of them stand around the pond, looking at one another. 

    "Lindis of Ashildur," calls the Archai. "I felt that you might seek me, though I could not imagine how."

    "I am a Keeper," Lindis says, "and my dreams shine in the night. Paths call to me sometimes, especially now, in the echoes of my Oath."

    "Of course," he says, then turns to the Elf. "My name is Morod-Si."

    The Elf bows his head slightly, says, "And I am Inethryndir, an Ashen Elf of Taraas'lavan. Why does the Dwarf seek you?"

    Morod-Si turns to look at Lindis once again. "Because I killed her family."

    Lindis stands straighter and looks into his burning eyes. "Hrefna," she says. "Rannva. Leikny. Sindri. Why?"

    "Why," sighs Morod-Si. "I should tell you, before you take revenge."

    She stares at him, her heart pounding in frustration and sharp, sharp regret. She cannot but see him as he is, now, and know that it was all for nothing.

    "The people of Ashildur took me in," Morod-Si begins. "They were kind and hospitable and offered me shelter in the snow. My journey had taken me into dark places in the ice, places so old that we have no name for them, or for the Ones who sleep there. But in those caverns, I found some answers, and far too many questions."

    "Are you a scholar?" asks Thryn.

    "Of a sort," the Archai says. "I sought knowledge. But perhaps I underestimated the dark magics that embraced me in that place. I thought that I was strong enough, that the search for knowledge is of such sacred worth that eagerness alone would shield me from the dark."

    "You were wrong," says Lindis, her voice even.

    "I was wrong. Whether curse, or broken homeless spell, I was taken by... something. And later, taken by madness. I slew some of the dwarves who had so kindly sheltered me, not knowing what I did. And then I ran, and kept running, until I saw the ocean shore and knew myself and what I'd done."

    "You could have turned back," says Thryn.

    "Perhaps I should have," says Morod-Si. "But by then it seemed too late. I was driven. Perhaps the madness was still in me. I was afraid. Afraid of who might hunt me." He smiles sadly. "And it was you, the Cleric who said words to thank your Maker before we ate our last meal."

    Lindis collapses on the ground. She would weep but cannot find it in her anymore. She has come a thousand miles, at least, and found what? Nothing she can do but finish what was already begun long ago.

    She hears something stirring the water and looks up. Morod-Si is wading into the pond, walking slowly toward her. The gathered trees lean over the water, watching.

    In the middle, the Archai is in water waist deep. As he approaches her, he emerges from the water, cleansed—if that were possible—by these waters in the wood.

    When the Archai is but three yards away, he stops in the shallows and raises his arms. "I give myself to you for justice."

    "He does not realize," says Thryn.

    "I know," Lindis replies, and heaves herself to her feet. "Justice was taken from me—if justice it would even be. Whatever magic that you found took everything from both of us."

    "So it would seem. Please, take my life," he says gently.

    "It is too late," she says.

    He tries to blink. "What… do you mean?"

    "Did you not even feel when you died during your long journey? When the curse ended you, yet you kept walking mile after mile."

    Morod-Si frowns, shakes his head slightly. "I don't… don't understand."

    "Since you are already dead by the hands of those who sleep, I can take no justice for my kin. All that I can do is end your suffering. It is my calling."

    Lindis wades into the water, then sets her hand upon his cold chest, the striations long since faded into dark. She chants a few words, and for a moment the two of them are surrounded by light.

    When the light fades, the body of Morod-Si falls into the water, in peace at last.

    She doesn't know how long she stands there before the Elf pulls her out of the water and sets her on the ground with great care.

    After a long time, she manages to say, "My family is gone. My chance at vengeance is gone. What am I now?"

    "You are a child of Khazas. You are a Cleric. You are lost."

    "I am… all of those things."

    "Then let us be lost together. Life grinds along like some great mill, and we are but the grains."

    Lindis looks up. "Are all Ashen Elves as dour as you?"

    He smiles. "Some, though I have a special reputation for bleakness."

    She almost laughs. "I don't know what I should do."

    "Then walk with me to Ru'lun. There must be a worthy inn to lend us ale for a few days."

    "And then?"

    He looks up at the fading sky. "We can talk about 'and then' with tankards in our hands."

     

     

     


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at December 24, 2020 5:38 AM PST
    • 97 posts
    December 18, 2020 9:58 AM PST

    Y'know?  This might be my favorite from you, Crow.  Even more than some of the cool stuff you've written in the RP chat on the Discord channel Terminus Tavern (shameless plug).  Sounds like you write like I do, with a vivid picture of your surroundings and watching it play out like a movie scene in your mind.

    • 89 posts
    December 18, 2020 10:47 AM PST

    I like moody surroundings that are somehow emotionally connected with what's going on. I'm not sure I'm very good at visualizing them sometimes. With this story, and Song of Seret even moreso, I felt like I needed to write about grief, so the surroundings kind of reflected that I guess.

    • 89 posts
    December 18, 2020 10:52 AM PST

    Though my first images of Thryn were incredibly vivid. I can just see that Elf with his emo hair and dour humor rising from the edge of the pond.


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at December 18, 2020 10:52 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    December 19, 2020 5:30 PM PST

    Chapter Two: Thorn Garden

     

    The Silent Plains sweep across the world beneath the sky, and the wind plays among the endless grasses and scattered flowers of late spring. Colossal thorns stand higher than oaks, silent guardians over the lifespans of those who move along the earth.

    The caravan takes a secret road, a whispered way for rogues and scofflaws, wanderers who would avoid the eyes of Queen's law and settled folk alike. Three wagons and a few pack animals, and several guards hired in a merchant town to the south.

    "How far to the next spring?" asks Cavall.

    Wark peers more closely at the map in his hands, and sighs. "I think we're standing on it."

    They look down and see a sunken area in the ground, some four ketels across. A breeze stirs dust from the ground at their feet.

    "A bad season," says Wark.

    "More than a few, it looks like." Cavall turns and looks along the caravan until he sees the elf. "Thryn!" he says.

    Thryn walks over and sees where they are standing. "Another one?"

    Cavall nods and calls someone to bring a trough from one of the wagons. They set it in the dirt and step back.

    Thryn pulls a dagger from a sheath and waves it in the air, murmuring a few words of Elvish. An Undine appears near him, drops of water falling to the ground beneath it.

    He points to the trough with his dagger. The Undine looks at him as if disappointed, then drifts over to the trough. A rush of water forms around the arcamental, splashing into the trough.

    "Bring over the animals," shouts Cavall, "then fill your waterskins! This has to keep us until we reach the town."

    Thryn walks over to his companion, Lindis, who is examining one of the giant thorns near the road. The Undine follows him in desultory silence.

    Lindis knows him by his tread upon the ground. Her hand rests on the giant thorn, exploring its shape beneath her fingers. "It's strangely beautiful," she says. "Why are Cavall and the others afraid of these?"

    "I don't know," he says. "Legends, stories, old bards tales. The minds of Humans are small puzzle boxes."

    "If they weren't afraid," she says, "they might have noticed the ground is a bit soft here."

    A moment later, Thryn says, "So it is. I wonder…"

    The Undine drifts over, curious, and drips onto the ground for a moment. Then it looks up at him.

    "Moisture," he says, "all around the thorn."

    "They draw water to themselves," says Lindis. "The ground in between them will be drier because they've taken the water and gathered it around them."

    "If I were a Druid," says Thryn, "that would no doubt be of spectacular interest to me."

    "It reminds me of home." Lindis looks down at the ground. "Bogs in Whitethaw."

    Thryn does not interfere with the Dwarf's remembrance. He silently watches her and releases his Undine to wherever it wishes to go. Lindis has been decent company, and he certainly feels safer with an armored Cleric by his side. But she is the first Dwarf he has encountered in his travels, and he has much to learn about her moods.

    By late afternoon, a gray and sickly sky presses down upon the plains, and a north wind blows dust and grasses into their faces. After days of keeping watch on fields of long wheat-stained grasses, Lindis feels her focus begin to drift. Tower thorns brood across the plain, sentinels leaning over the earth below. Flowers of violet and ocher and rust break through the fields all the way to the hazy edge of what she can see. It has been two days since they last saw a herd of oxen far to the east.

    Movement ahead draws her eyes, a movement of wind and dust with eyes of storm. One of Thryn's pets moving toward something on the other side of the caravan. Lindis jumps between two wagons to see what has attracted its attention. Thryn is following the arcamental toward a lone megalith rising from the grass. His lanky form is moving more swiftly than usual, his hair a tangled web of black behind him.

    Lindis runs to catch up and sees that it is old, the sides rough and encrusted with rust moss and the dust of ages. Carvings in the sides could have been letters long ago, but now it is hard to tell. A few of those carvings still pulse softly; whatever magic once shone from the others has long since died.

    Thryn holds his hand above one of the pulsing letters, not touching it. "Still a bit of thought in you," he says, "but not much. How have you dreamed upon the plain?"

    ...their hunger...

    Lindis starts, her breath catching. It has been a long time since she heard the voice. "What," she says. "What."

    "Hmm?" Thryn turns and looks at her.

    "Something...."

    ...not wake...

    "Stay with the caravan," says Cavall, walking up to them. "I'm not paying you to look at old stones."

    "Of course," says Thryn. "My Zephyr drew me here, and I thought I should make sure it was nothing."

    "Those have always been there," says Cavall. "Herne used to sell the crumbled pieces for a lot of money when more of them shined."

    "Sold them..." begins Thryn, but Cavall continues, "Tirnan Bryn is close, and I want to get there by nightfall." Then he smiles slightly. "Then you'll see a thing. Come along."

    He turns back toward the caravan, which has now moved past them on its way north. Thryn follows for a few steps, then turns back. "Lindis?"

    She shakes her head. "Nothing," she says. "Fine."

    A river of black birds flows overhead, passing across the caravan. Lindis turns and walks after him. As she turns, she hears one more whisper.

    ...must...


     

    As the sun glows through the gray western clouds, they enter the town of Tiernan Bryn. The walls are old, a patchwork of crumbling stone and clay and wooden palisade. Armed roughs surround the caravan as it passes through the south gate. The gate closes behind them.

    Thryn watches Cavall speak with a man bearing a particularly impressive scowl. Then both turn to look at Thryn and Lindis where they stand near the second wagon. The scowling human walks over and says, "Which one of you speaks Trade?"

    Thryn glances at Lindis before answering, "I am more adept."

    "Follow me, both of you, to Cawthorn Hill. Lord Herne likes to know who is in his town."

    They follow Scowl past small warehouses and stables, into streets of houses and the odd tavern. All of the buildings look old and neglected, but paint and weavings of wool and bone-yarrow bring some color to their surroundings. Most of the people in the streets are armed, and look at the Elf and Dwarf with suspicion.

    "You've come at a good time," says their guide. "The festival of Draenenddu starts tomorrow. The festival of thorns."

    "The thorns that are all around us on the plains."

    "Of course. You might have trouble finding an inn tonight. But the fires tomorrow..."

    As they pass what seems to be a gathering place, they see a man draw a serrated dagger and stab another man in the chest. As the victim drops to the ground, bleeding, the attacker is disarmed and dragged away by others.

    "Charming frontier town," mutters Thryn in Dwarvish.

    "Frontier to what, I wonder," says Lindis.

    They turn a corner and see Cawthorn Hill rising at the western edge of town. On the hill is a large house that must be Lord Herne's dwelling. The house is framed by backlit gray clouds, but the manse pulses with glowing runes around the walls. Against the clouds, a tower seems to rise up into the sky in silhouette: a thorn outside the western wall.

    "I see," says Thryn.

    Lindis says, "Are those..."

    "Yes."

    Guards slouch on either side of the double doors. Seeing their guide, they straighten and open the doors. Scowl leads them into the house. Once relieved of their weapons, they are ushered into a large, richly furnished study.

    Bookshelves and maps line the walls, along with two rich tapestries of Elven make. There are few books on the shelves; instead, Lord Herne has collected ornaments and curios, strange mechanisms, and what appear to be magic items of uncertain heritage. The room is in semi-darkness, lit by two lanterns in the back of the room near the windows.

    The man himself sits behind a large desk of some dark wood. Before him on the desk is a globe lf glass two hands wide. Within the globe, several lights glow gold and silver. The globe casts a soft light beneath Herne's face in the dark.

    "My lord," says their guide, "these two signed on to Cavall's caravan down in Chadel."

    The man studies them for a moment, then says, "I hope one of you speaks Trade."

    "I do," says Thryn. He bows slightly. "I am Inethryndir, though most call me Thryn. My companion is Lindis, a Dwarf."

    "We don't often see your kind here."

    Thryn could not tell from his tone if this was good or bad.

    "I am Alaijival Herne, and you are in my realm."

    "We intend no trouble," says Thryn.

    "You might be surprised to learn that I have heard those words many times. They are seldom true."

    With a creak from his chair, the man stands and walks around his desk to look at them more closely. He is a tall, sturdy Human who has clearly seen battle. Even in his middle years, he seems capable of dealing with unruly visitors.

    Thryn stands awkwardly as is his way, like an oddly jointed doll that some child has played with and left standing. He wears threadbare clothes—faded linen trousers over boots long since beaten and scuffed, and an embroidered dark blue tunic with much of the embroidery gone or tattered.

    "Elves are said to wear more fancy dress than yours," says Herne.

    Thryn peers at him with the one eye not obscured by hair. "This shirt was fancy long ago."

    Herne pauses. "And you travel with a Dwarf with decent armor and a sturdy… what sort of mace is that?"

    "It is a skavakh," says Lindis. "It came to me from my great-grandmother, who won many battles with it."

    Herne looks at Thryn. "Was that Trade Language? I can barely—"

    "She is still learning Trade," says Thryn. "We speak Dwarvish between us on the road, since I studied it before leaving home." Thryn smiles. "Then I am the one with an accent."

    "Yes, yes." Their guide whispers something to Herne, who says, "You are not part of Cavall's usual team. He hired you along the way after he lost two men to a were-mule."

    "Yes, we agreed to help guard the caravan on the way to Tirnan Bryn."

    "And then?"

    "And then, it would seem, we are for hire."

    Herne looks them over dubiously, but nods. "Well then, feel free to find work here or somewhere else, but don't disturb the peace of my town."

    Thryn decides not to mention the stabbing they witnessed. "We saw a fascinating megalith on the way here. Trace remnants of magic sill breathe within. I couldn't help but notice that the walls of your house are built from the same material."

    Herne chuckles, pleased. "It is impressive, is it not? There are six of these ruins spaced around the city, though they were once taller. I've had people quarrying stone from them since I built this town."

    "And you sell some of the stone as well."

    Herne's smile fades. "We have none to sell at the moment, but we should in a week or two. If you are still here at that time, and you wish to negotiate... well, you might have some competition."

    "I would be fascinated to discover who the other bidders are."

    Herne smiles again. "You are an Elf, so you appreciate things of delicate magic... or so I have heard."

    "Elves have that reputation."

    "Look at this, then. Colwen, bring a lamp."

    Their guide brings over one of the lamps, and Herne gestures them over to the desk. The globe is sitting on a bronze stand shaped with the feet of some predator. He points to a large, golden light glowing on the inside of the glass, pointing toward the west. "Mirrors the path of Sirios, the sun." He waves over the smaller silver lights. "Mirrors the moons Hauna and Lauta, and the two brightest stars."

    "I see." Thryn stares. "What does it do?"

    "Ah. The lights in here move in time with the heavenly lights, showing you always their position relative to the watches of the day and night. It is a timekeeper."

    Lindis finds Herne's face more interesting than the globe. He has the look of one who enjoys being admired.

    "I have heard of mechanical timekeepers among humans, but this I have not seen."

    Herne smiles brightly. "Of course, I know of no one else who possesses such a thing." He stands straighter. "I am a collector, and this," he gestures around him, "is part of my collection."

    "This is most impressive indeed," says Thryn. "I have rarely seen so many intriguing objects in one place." He clears his throat. "You said there would be more of the stones... with their magic intact?"

    Herne laughs and moves back behind his desk. "I can tell you want to see. But you shall have to wait. Everything in time."

    Lindis looks back to the globe. A new light has appeared where there was none before.

     


     

    "Where should we stay?" asks Lindis later as they walk through the gloaming streets of Tirnan Bryn.

    "Perhaps there is an inn with fewer stabbings."

    "We must hope."

    Tiernan Bryn at night is a thing of sharp black shadows and ragged sound. Laughter claps from flickering windows, and now and then Lindis sees a huddled shape against a wall. She looks for a likely place for them to find safety until the dawn.

    They slow their pace at the sound of harping from a stable. Light flickers within, and notes fall into the air around them, melancholy and sweet and cold like flowers in ice. For a moment Lindis is certain that she can see the sounds dancing in the air, bright silver threads shining in the dark. They dance around one another before they fade.

    "You are new here," says a woman. She is leaning against a supporting beam and watching the street. Her muscles speak of weapons training, though she is dressed in a sleeveless wool tunic and comfortable trousers. She appears to be unarmed. Lanternlight from within the stable reveals half her face, and short-cut hair splayed wildly like a poorly treated broom.

    "We have but this day arrived with a caravan," says Thryn, "and just now left behind the hospitality of Lord Herne."

    The woman chuckles. "Hospitality. We all met Herne when first we came."

    The harping stops. She looks within and speaks softly, then turns back to the newcomers. "Come in if you have nowhere to go. All we have is a stable, but there is leftover hash and pickled vegetables."

    "I am suddenly hungry, and grateful."

    Elf and Dwarf enter the smallish stable and see two others besides the woman. One is another human, a man in his early 40s, perhaps, sitting with a harp in his lap. The other is Archai.

    Lindis stops, holding her breath. Everyone turns to see her staring at the Archai.

    The woman who greeted them moves to place herself between the Archai and Lindis. "Is there a problem?"

    Thryn takes a breath. "No offense is meant. A couple of months ago, my companion suffered the murder of her family by an Archai to whom they offered hospitality."

    The Archai looks stunned for a moment. Then he bows, one hand on his chest.

    "He has never offered anything but kindness," says the woman.

    "Our friend does not speak," says the harpist, "but he once knelt and wrote Nara-pujo in the dirt. We believe it is his name."

    "I must know if you are a threat to him," the woman continues.

    "She is not," says Thryn. "The Archai was compelled out of his mind by old magic. Perhaps even possessed."

    "Forgive me," Lindis manages to say. "It was not long ago. Not long enough."

    Nara-pujo nods. The woman says, "I am Krisaya, and our harpist friend is Kaven."

    "I, Inethryndir, greet you. I am Ashen, and my companion is Lindis, and we are both far from home."

    The harpist, Kaven, gestures toward the fire in one side of the stable. "We each found our way here after trying the inns."

    Lindis sets her mace down far from the others and moves over to sit across from the harpist, and Thryn next to her. Krisaya sits on her other side. Nara-pujo keeps himself at a distance.

    The harpist—Kaven—sets down his harp and spoons food into two bowls, then hands them to the newcomers. "I am from Thronefast, which is... well to be honest, I have no idea how far I've come."

    "Why did you leave?" asks Thryn.

    "A friend encouraged me to rise from the darkness and find my path." Kaven looks over at a black bird, a crow, who sits sleeping on a barrel, head tucked under a wing.

    "You have an interesting friend."

    "There is just the two of us. I met a Halfling in Thronefast who has many such friends."

    Lindis eats some of the food, but she is too weary to finish it. The fire smells strange yet somehow reminiscent of home. Excusing herself as well as she can in this slippery Trade language, she finds a spot to roll out a blanket, and is soon asleep.

    Deep in the night, Lindis awakes with a yell, breathing heavily.

    Thryn is by her side in a moment. "A dream?" he asks.

    Her eyes are wild. "Did you feel... as if the ground suddenly dropped a foot or two and you were caught a moment before falling into the abyss?"

    "No, I felt nothing like that." Thryn looks up and sees that the others are awake as well.

    "Just me," she breathes, "again."

    Thryn looks outside, but it is still dark. "Try to get some sleep, my friend. We'll talk in the morning."

    She nods and closes her eyes.

     


     

    A shape hooded and cloaked, tall as a Human or Elf or Archai, though she cannot see a face within its shadowed hood.

    The shape moves no closer, but a voice, quiet, deep: "You felt it. I am surprised."

    "What did I feel?"

    "A door," says the Hooded One, "a door long since closed has now shifted on a rusted hinge."

    Silence, while she wonders if this is dream or vision.

    "You can see and hear me. I wonder if that is a good thing."

    "I am a Keeper," she says at last, "but it hasn't gone the way I thought it would. Maybe it is just madness that has taken me."

    "Which voice do you hear?" asks the Hooded One.

    "What?" She looks up. "What do you mean, which voice?"

    He frowns slightly, then turns away. "There are so many, it can be hard to bear."

    "I hoped I was going to understand the world better," says Lindis. "Learn things about the past, about where we come from."

    He is silent a moment, and then he turns to look at her, his eyes in shadow. "You come from ice and stone and the Craft of your Lord, do you not? You were brought from a world far away. You come from love, and grief, and joy, and hate. From battle and conquest and devotion. A mystic with a blade-edged mace. Devotee of a once god."

    "And who are you? Do I dream?"

    "You do, but I am sadly no less real for that."

    He is more glum than Thryn. "What do you want of me?"

    The figure's head tilts slightly, thoughtful. "Your mind shines brightly, and you are the first in a long, long time to speak to me. Perhaps I have come to warn you."

    "Of what would you warn me that I have not already seen?"

    "You think that you have seen the darkness. Perhaps you have. I can see the wound within you. But I am not the only one who awakens now. And I am not the one that you should fear."

     


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at December 22, 2020 3:27 PM PST
    • 89 posts
    December 22, 2020 2:51 PM PST

    Chapter Three: Seven Fires

     

    The children dance in a circle around the woodpile, singing.

     

    When summer comes to Tirnan Bryn

    ​the Festival of Thorns begins

    Seven fires for seven nights

    ​ever they must stay alight

    Wand of blackthorn, wand of wheat

    ​winter straw and summer heat

    And if the watch should e're stray

    ​you'll never see another day

     

    They laugh and chase one another around the woodpile. Two of the children pick up sticks and stage a mock battle as others cheer for the triumph of summer over winter.

    Nearby, an Elf and a Dwarf watch the dance. Thryn translates the poem for Lindis, as it was in the language of Humans.

    Krisaya walks up to them, her backpack loaded with food from the market. She sees where their attention is drawn, and says in Trade, "Most of the year they gather peat near the thorns in the plain, and burn the peat for fires. They don't have forests for wood, and they tend to show the thorns some respect, even setting food at the base of a thorn sometimes for good luck. But during the festival, they burn actual wood from thorns." She looks at Thryn. "Also, apparently, for luck."

    "I suppose we'll see a celebration tonight."

    "Bonfires, a mummers play, dancing, probably a few people sneaking off into the darkness in twos..."

    "What is peat?" asks Lindis.

    Krisaya says, "They dig up some of the fertile ground near the thorns..."

    "Ah. That was why the fire last night reminded me of home. Some Dwarven villages use peat for house fires, though not for forges."

    When the children begin to sing again, they turn to head back toward the stable.

    ...begins to spawn...

    "****," says Lindis in Dwarvish.

    "What is it?" asks Thryn, turning to look at her.

    She glances at both of them, wondering if they think that she is mad. She shakes her head.

    "I have a bad feeling about this festival."

    Krisaya looks at Thryn, who says, "My friend hears things, sees things. I have only known her for a brace of months, but I do not disregard her intuition."

    The Human's expression doesn't change. "And what does she say?"

    "We may wish to be on our guard during this festival."

    "Sound advice in any case."

    "Seriously on our guard."

    "I am suddenly less interested in enjoying the evening."

    "Welcome to my everyday."

    ...to feed...

    Lindis draws a breath and starts to walk. "Go nowhere without me," she tells Thryn.

    Krisaya leads them west toward the stable. The tall thorn just outside the city wall looms over Herne's manse on Cawthorn Hill.

     


     

    The air is tense in Lord Herne's study. The windows face west, toward the thorn, so that in the morning there is little light streaming through the windows. Both lanterns are lit behind Herne as usual, and he hovers over the globe on his desk.

    "We should depart, my lord."

    Herne is still staring angrily into the globe. He sits and looks more closely. The golden light is on the eastern side, pointing toward the morning sun, and the other four lights are where they should be. But now there are more.

    "My lord?"

    "It doesn't work anymore. All this…" he waves his hand at the bottom of the globe, "these other lights gathering at the bottom like dust. It's broken. Do you know how much I spent on this thing?"

    "We will have a word with the merchant, if we can find him."

    "Find him? That Ratkin thief scurried off into a hole where you'll never find him."

    Herne scoops up his sword from off the desk and leaves the office, followed by Colwin and two guards.

    Behind them, the lights in the globe continue to glow. Sun, moons, stars… and a number of pale, steady lights in the bottom of the globe, pointing downward into the ground beneath Tirnan Bryn. A moment later, another appears. Another.

     


     

    In the stable, Kaven is tuning his harp while the crow watches from his shoulder. The Archai, Nara-pujo, is doing some sort of combat forms exercise, stretching muscles, balancing.

    Kavan looks up as the others enter. "I thought I might play at the festival tonight, earn a few coins for supplies."

    "You might want to wait," says Krisaya. "The Dwarf... She has had a vision of some kind, a presentiment of trouble tonight. I don't know how much faith I put in these things. Magic I can believe in, but visions, I find, are mostly the provenance of charlatans. Still"

    "It does not hurt to wait one night," says Thryn.

    Kaven shrugs the shoulder that is not supporting a crow. "Very well. Can we at least watch the festival?"

    "I think we should go together," says Thryn.

    "I would like to see that globe again," says Lindis.

    "What globe?"

    "The one on Herne's desk. The timekeeper."

    Thryn turns to the others. "Did you notice a globe on Herne's desk when you met him?"

    "When I was brought in," says Krisaya, "he was preening around one of his shelves. A magic sword of some kind."

    "He was showing the globe to someone when I was there," says Kaven. "It points to the sun and moons, some stars..."

    "I just want to see it again," says Lindis. "It might be important."

    Krisaya looks at her for a moment, then says, "Come on. I think we can come up with an excuse to visit the master of the town."

    "I'll stay here," says Thryn.

    Lindis examines her macea flanged mace with one of the flanges extending another few inches and coming to a sharp pointand wraps the end in its leather covering. Krisaya dons a leather cuirass, front and back and left shoulder, a leather waist protector, and leather bracers. Then she lifts a longsword in a well-worn sheath.

    "Ready?"

    Kaven looked between the two of them. "Are you going to fight your way in?"

    "Doubtful. Though..." she looks at Kaven. "A bard might help us look less threatening."

    "Doubtful," he says, but he stands up with his harp. His crow stays on his shoulder.

    "Good," says Thryn. "You can sing of their brave yet futile attack on a manse of magical stone."

    Lindis looks at Nara-pujo, but the Archai shakes his head and points to the stable floor.

    The two women leave and begin to make their way toward the manse at the west end of town. In the daylight, the huge thorn seems to reach above all the world and play among the clouds. It grows not straight upfew of them dobut leans toward one side, leaning over the manse. If it ever fell, thinks Lindis, it might very well take a few west side buildings with it.

    As they walk up Cawthorn Hill toward the manse, the guards at the door straighten, seeing them approach. They look over the armor and weapons of the visitors, and their frowns deepen.

    "What is your business here?" says one.

    "My Dwarven friend would like another look at Lord Herne's globe."

    "Lord Herne is out. Come back later, and I'm sure..." he flashes an unsettling grin, "he would be happy to welcome you."

    "Where has Lord Herne gone? Is he examining the city before the festival? Perhaps we could look for him."

    Both guards look very unfriendly now. "Herne doesn't give a Ratkin's tail about the festival. He has business, and you should be finding yours."

    "We didn't come to make trouble," begins Krisaya. "We just"

    "Too late." Both men draw their swords more quickly than Lindis would have believed, and she has just enough time to raise her mace to counter an attack. His longsword catches the head of her mace, still covered, and the momentum unbalances her. Though she manages to twist enough to avoid a rock by the path, she hits the ground hard and rolls...

    ...onto a soft fur rug. The Hooded One is stirring something in a cauldron over a fire. Lindis blinks and looks around. She is in a small Dwarf house, and she can see snow gathering against the windowsill.

    "I was... I was in a battle."

    "Yes, you were."

    "Where am I now?"

    "You tell me. This is your mind."

    She blinks. "Am I being killed right now?"

    "No" He chuckles a moment. "You recovered well, and would have been on your feet in no time, but I needed to talk. And I don't have much time."

    "Who are you?"

    The Hooden One sits on a leather-covered chair by the fire, clutching a bowl of some steaming broth in his... hands. With far too many fingers.

    "What are you?"

     


     

     

    The roughs at the north gate step close to block his way. "Where are you going?"

    Thryn bows slightly. "I just wanted to wander in the plains for a while, and gather some flowers."

    The roughs look at one another, then back to him.

    "I won't go far. I want to be back in time for the festival."

    "That you do," says one of the men. "You have never seen anything like the Draenenddu."

    "East," says the other. "There are many flowers in the north and east. You can throw them at the festival Queen later."

    Thryn nods, smiling, and leaves Tirnan Bryn. After walking north a while, he looks around him. There seem to be no more flowers in one direction than another, hiding among the wheat grass, spots of purple and rust. He turns east and walks up a hill. League after league, the tall thorns command the plan, all the way to the ends of the world, against a sky of amber and rust. A wind stirs the grasses, and brushes through his tangled hair.

    I should really comb it from time to time, he thinks. My master would disapprove of how I look now. But then, didn't he always?

    He stands on the hill watching the ocean of grass in the wind, looking for something. At last he sees it, and heads in that direction.

    "There are six of these ruins", Herne said the day before, "spaced around the city, though they were once taller."

    I have no doubt they were. As he approaches the megalith, he sees that this one is in even worse shape than the one they saw south of town. Someone has been chipping away the top, carving out a chunk at a time, until what remains is about as tall as Lindis would be, were she sitting on his shoulders. Unlike the other megalith, this one has no life left, no magic in its carvings.

    His master, Sillanti'kannen, taught him that songs and folk tales, myths and legends, always come from something. Even if they come from the remnants of dreams.

    "'Seven fires for seven nights'," he says to the dead stone. "If you had a seventh brother, where might he be hiding?"

    The wind picks up. On a whim, Thryn summons a Zephyr.

    "Now I have a wind of my own. Come, let us see what is hiding in the west."

    Thryn turns and begins to walk toward the giant thorn looming in the amber sky.

    As he draws closer, he can see that Cawthorn Hill, on which Herne's manse has been built, extends beyond the town wall, which rises to cross the crest of the hill.

    "Scout ahead for me, will you? Not too close."

    The Zephyr races through the grasses, which part as they would to any wind passing among them. He stands still with his eyes closed, and soon he can see what the Zephyr is seeing. It slows, peering through the grass. Scaffolding has been build along the side of the thorn, and several people are working...

    Something strikes Thryn on the back of his head, hard, and he sees no more.

     


     

     "What are you?"

    Lindis can barely see beneath his hood, but has a vague sense that she would be better off seeing no more of whatever hides in that shadow.

    "I was a god once. Like your Lord. Of those who worshipped me, most were dead even before I did what I had to do."

    Lindis whispers, "And what was that?"

    "Even gods have monsters with which we must contend. Just as do adventurers. And sometimes we fear them."

    "What was your monster?"

    "A thing I knew too little about to fight effectively. My people built a prison for it, and when they were done, I led the thing into the void. It was hunting me, you see. But nothing they tried would close the gate. The thing was too powerful." The Hooded One took a long draft of whatever was in the bowl. "So I stayed behind and used much of my power to aid in closing the door. In the process, I Descended and became... what you see."

    Lindis sits on the rug with legs crossed. She has no choice but to trust that she is still alive somewhere. "If you were trapped with it, why are you here now?"

    "Ah, that is the right question. You see, the magic would have been enough to keep us both in the trap, if someone hadn't hacked away all the locks."

    "Locks."

    "Seven stones, each as tall as four humans." He shakes his head. "Never trust a Mortal to walk this world with any sense."

    "And if you're out of the trap, where is the monster?"

    The Hooded One looks up, and for a moment she has a glimpse of what is beneath the hood.

    "It is coming."

    The fire goes out... 

    ... and Kaven helps Lindis up off the ground. "Are you okay? You seemed out of it for a moment there."

    "Sorry, I... How did Nara-pujo get here?"

    "He arrived just after you hit the ground."

    They look at the Archai, who is now writing something in the ground next to the two dead guards. Lindis kneels down to get a closer look. He is writing in Dwarvish.

    Thryn is gone

     


     

    The second bucket of water is enough to wake Thryn completely. He coughs and tries to swiftly take stock of his situation.

    His arms are spread painfully to either side, and his wrists are tightly wrapped in leather. A light tug and he hears the sound of a chain.

    It is somehow not at all surprising that Herne has a room like this, thinks Thryn. Now what shall I do?

    "Are you awake?"

    Thryn opens his eyes and sees Herne's angry face in front of him. And a knife.

    "I am very much awake," he says.

    "Good, now make that thing go away."

    Thryn blinks and sees Herne pointing his knife at the Zephyr, which is making wind sounds near the door while it waits for its next instructions.

    "They never do return my love," says Thryn as he glances around the room.

    Herne grips his collar and shoves his head against the beam behind him, then brings the blade up beneath his ear.

    "There are five of us in the room. Make it. Go. Away. Or I shall have another Elf ear for my collection."

    Another?

    Thryn dismisses the arcamental and watches it fade.

    "What did you see?"

    "I saw nothing, Lord Herne"

    "WHAT DID YOU SEE!?"

    Thryn feels a drop of blood falling from beneath his ear.

    Then he hears a heavy, meaty sound. Thryn looks around, puzzled, then sees blood falling from Herne's mouth. Herne falls to the floor with the long blade of Lindis' mace embedded deep in his upper back.

    Then everything is chaos.

    Krisaya and Nara-pujo are fighting Herne's people, the Archai fighting with only his hands and feet. Kaven has a... drum?... and in its rhythm, Thryn feels his nerves and muscles eager to move, to act.

    Herne is still alive, trying to draw breath through damaged lungs. Lindis walks up, removes her bladed mace, then plunges it downward again into Herne's heart.

    The battle ends quickly, and Lindis stands up in front of him. She reaches up, grabs his collar much as Herne did moments ago, and shoves his head back against the beam.

    "Ow."

    "I told you," she says, breathing heavily, "to go nowhere without me."

    "Yes, I do remember you telling me that," he tries to look down from this angle and see her face, "and I am very, deeply apologetic about..." Thryn notices that Krisaya and Nara-pujo are unbuckling the leather straps from his wrists. "How did you find me?"

    "By accident," says Krisaya.

    When he is freed, Thryn finds that he is falling. Lindis catches him and sets him down on the floor.

    "Dwarves are strong," he whispers.

    "Nara-pujo told us that you were gone," says Lindis, "so I suspected you had gone outside of town to look at giant rocks."

    "So," he coughs, "why did you come here?"

    "Because we had no idea where to look for you," says Krisaya, "so we had to trust that your pets would protect you while we finished raiding the manse."

    Thryn begins to laugh, then cough again.

    "To be honest," says Lindis, "we were heading toward Herne's study when we heard them bringing you in through a back door."

    "All right, I can stand."

    They pass several more bodies as they make their way to the study. "What did they catch you doing?"

    "I discovered the seventh megalith. So did they. The giant thorn back there grew around it long ago, so it was mostly intact. They've been dismantling it and carting the stones through a gate behind the manse."

    "****." Lindis stops and looks up at him. "How bad is it?"

    "I didn't get a clear look, why?"

    She continues walking. "Because those seven locks have been keeping a monster chained. If they're destroying the last lock..."

    As they enter the study, Kaven says, "What kind of monster?"

    "A god tried to fight it. That kind."

    Lindis leans down and looks closely at the globe while Thryn tries not to look around for an elf ear.

    "We came all this way," says Krisaya. "What do you see?"

    A large number of pale lights are gathered around the lower hemisphere of the globe. But some are about halfway up, corresponding to ground level.

    "I see the spawn of this thing reaching the surface."

    "Spawn."

    "What are we going to do?" asks Kaven. "Can we fight something like that?"

    They look around at each other. Then Krisaya says, "Two choices. We spread the word as far as possible that people need to run, and get as far away as we can. Or..."

    "I'm going to the festival," says Lindis.

    Thryn sighs. "Then I'm coming with you."

     


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at December 24, 2020 5:39 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    December 27, 2020 12:28 PM PST

    Chapter Four

    The Last Night of Tirnan Bryn

     

    The Maker of the Deep, my mother called it. In the darkness beyond the stars there is a deeper ocean than any we can imagine. An ocean that has drowned gods, swallowed worlds... and in its depths are things that must not be. Deeper still, the story goes, broods whatever builds this place we now call home. A Crafter of worlds, who made this quilt of many landscapes upon which we crawl, grasping at the patterns. Perhaps it was a fancy my mother created, and called it old. It does not matter.

    What I do believe is that they were mad, all of our ancestors who first came to this world. All of yours as well, if you are Human, or Archai, or any of the Sacred Six. What must it have been like to find yourself and others of your kind, your landscapes and dreams, even your gods, here in an alien world without reason or answer. Did they have paper and ink that very day, to write down their ravings, or did they scream their questions at the sky: Why? How? Or did they even have time for thought and stories in their scrabbling to survive? It would have been madness enough to have been left alone with such chaos.

    But as I listened to her spinning this tale, it came into my heart to wonder: Did some among the gods go mad as well?

    — from the Kestrel's journal, in the Year of Pale Banners

     

    ❖❖❖

     

    No one knows what to say. Krisaya stands by one of the shelves, studying a dark sword mounted on a rack with its scabbard. Nara-pujo stares out a back window, looking at the thorn beyond the town wall. Kaven sits in a chair cradling a drum, with his crow upon one shoulder. Thryn watches Lindis for a sign.

    And Lindis stares at the globe. She knows that time is drifting away, but yet she stares and wonders what to do. What would be difficult for a god must be impossible for the five drifters in this room, five who somehow came to this wretched town in the plains at precisely the wrong time.

    “I am but a mercenary,” says Krisaya at last. She runs a hand through her hair. “A good fighter, I would say. But if what you say is true, I don’t know what my sword arm can do against this thing. I will admit, though it shames me, that my instinct tells me to abandon this doomed place and move on.”

    Lindis turns and begins to pace. Have you left me alone with this thing you couldn’t destroy?

    You are not alone, comes the voice, and I do not believe we are without hope.

    What are you not telling me?

    Silence.

    “I am going to be at the festival,” Lindis says at last. “If it means that I fight while others flee, to give them a chance, so be it.”

    “You are not alone,” says Thryn, echoing the voice of the descended god.

    She looks at the Archai, who nods.

    Krisaya laughs without mirth. “For my last job, I defended a man with no conscience, accepted payment for being silent witness to casual evil. I am a terrible mercenary, that it should bother me so.” She lifts sword and scabbard from their places in Herne’s collection, and for a moment Lindis sees a glint of magic running down the blade. “Perhaps this job was meant to be my penance.”

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    As they leave the manse, Thryn looks back and sees its construction. Many of the blocks are plain stone, but scattered among them are a number of pieces cut from the megaliths. They gleam with magic and the letters of an old, old spell.

    He turns back and follows Lindis to the stable that has been their home for one day. In the time that he has known the Dwarf, a connection has formed between them that he cannot understand. All he knows is that he will not abandon her in this reckless determination to stay and face what is coming.

    In the stable, Lindis sits on the ground near the embers of their fire. Her eyes closed, she communes with whatever voice she hears. Keeper, she called herself, though in her it seems different than what he has heard of Keepers. Perhaps she listens to a difference voice than most.

    Krisaya is donning the armor she took from Herne’s manse. Over a linen gambeson she wears a brigandine of wine-red cloth over steel segments, along with her own leather bracers. No pauldrons. “They get in my way,” she said. She lifts her new sword and scabbard.

    “You are aware there is magic in that sword,” says Thryn.

    “I had a feeling there was,” she says, “or it would not have been in Herne’s collection. Can you tell what sort of magic?”

    “I’m afraid I cannot.”

    “Then I hope it is a magic that helps instead of hinders.” She looks down at the Dwarf, still meditating on the ground. “I wonder if she has a plan, or simply hopes a stratagem will arise in the midst of battle.”

    “She is a trained battle priest,” says Thryn. “I cannot imagine she has thought no further than ‘I’m going’.”

    “I have seen her fight, so I will trust to that.” Krisaya looks at Kaven. “Can you fight, or will you play for us again?”

    “I will play,” says Kaven, lifting his new harp of indigo crystal, “this.”

    Krisaya looks at Thryn. “Magic?”

    “Oh yes,” says Thryn.

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    “You said our conversations happen in my mind,” says Lindis. “Where then are you? If you Descended, where is your body?”

    “My physical form is lost, I’m afraid,” says the Hooded One. “For ages I watched the monster grow weaker in its confinement, waiting for my chance—but it outlasted me in the end. My body lies crumpled within… think of the bars of a cage, though not so mundane.”

    “Then how can you help me survive this night?”

    He moves closer and sits in front of her, at last lifting the hood from around his face. His appearance is a hybrid of creatures known and unknown—one vaguely Elf-like but not an Elf, along with bird and plains hunter and creature of the deep sea.

    “Do you find me unsettling?”

    “Yes.”

    “Then perhaps…” his form becomes smaller, his face the blue of a Dwarf, silver hair and beard braided in the style of an old heroic painting, “this would be more comfortable for you.”

    It was. “Thank you.”

    His voice is now warmer, a strong fatherly voice like that of her lord Khazas. “I, Ymkhoelant, swear to you that victory is possible. But it will not be easy for you.”

    “Nothing has been easy since the death of my family,” says Lindis.

    “Do you seek death?”

    “My ancestors would be displeased if I sought death without reason. If I sought death to protect a comrade, or the innocent, that is another matter.”

    Ymkhoelant smiles knowingly. And then he tells her what must be done.

    Lindis closes her eyes.

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    I was already lost in grief when I made my choice. A strange thing, grief—it is as if a hollow were torn into your chest, teeth of ice gnawing your heart until it you are left with the remains. All I had done was run since the day I lost everything, so that even when I found comrades, I did not count it the blessing that it was. I have learned better now. And I would not change what I have done. I saw no other way.

    — from the Kestrel's journal, in the Year of Spring Snows

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    In darkling streets under an umber sky, strange creatures prowl. Here, a man dressed in thatched wheat grass and the skull of a goat blows a somber horn. There, a thicket of antlers with arms waving skull masks at the crowd. A weaver bears a crown of flowers and a torch of spring sunlight. A leatherworker prowls the gloaming with armor of fur and a bear’s-head hood draped about his shoulders. As drums sound across Tirnan Bryn, the people dance as if dressed for a celestial war between winter and the coming of warmth.

    And here and there around the town, seven bonfires are ablaze.

    Into this menagerie come five strangers fresh from the murder of the town lord. One, armored in red brigandine, carries a dark shield and a sword that seems to glow in the firelight. Her hair like a mad broom rises above a grinning mask. Beside the warrior walks a lanky Elf with a hunting owl drawn on his face with ash, and long black hair falls down over one side of his face. A man in a hooded cloak of rust red cloth bears a crystal harp in his hands, and a large crow on one shoulder. An Archai with striations of glowing lapis across his naked chest, and cloth wrapped around his knuckles.

    Before them all walks a Dwarf with pale hair and brows, and cerulean skin. She wears armor of small coldark plates fastened to cloth over a gambeson, and in her hands she carries a flanged mace. One of the flanges extends a hand’s length outward to a sharp point.

    In her face there is no expression.

    Some laugh at the extravagance of their costumes while others draw away a little. But on this, the Festival of Draenenddu, none questions them.

    Through the streets they walk, following the throng toward one of the great bonfires.

    They reach a square already milling with people, and a mummers play moves near the bonfire. To get a better look, they climb onto one of the platforms set up on the outer edges of the square.

    Near the fire, Winter carries a stick of blackthorn, and a shield painted white as snow. Summer leaps upon him from a platform dressed in armor of flowers. Summer contends with his enemy, his weapon a wand of flowers and straw. The crowd cheers as Winter is beaten away, and falls upon his knees before triumphant Summer.

    Lindis passes a hand before her eyes, wondering if this is yet another vision, or if this is real. Something is drifting upward from the ground, moving toward the man who plays Winter. The thing is translucent, in shape like the manatees she saw from ship on her passage to Ru’Lun, but this is smaller, with a tail finned like a shrimp, and a large head in the front, shaped like an upside-down bowl. Tendrils seek from the lower inside of the bowl, and claws or pinchers extend from the front. The creature drifts through the air, and she can see the crowd through its body.

    She turns to her companions. “Do you see… can you see it?”

    “See what?” asks Thryn. He looks at the crowd around the bonfire, searching.

    “I just see two men in costumes,” says Kaven, “staging a fight. I’ve seen this in villages before. Summer is winning, of course.”

    Nara-pujo pushes through next to Lindis and points toward the fire. He points one finger to his eye, then toward the play. Then with both hands, he mimics something floating through the air.

    “You see it,” says Lindis, relieved. He nods.

    The ghostly creature is near Winter now. Its head drifts around the man’s head like a shroud, and tendrils seep into his skull. Now the claws at its front seem to extend forward from the man’s mouth. He stiffens, dropping his stick and shield.

    Then Winter is rising from the ground, shrouded, eyes half-lidded. He grasps the hands of Summer and tears away the flowers. Then he leaps upon the man and bites into his neck.

    The crowd gasps at this unexpected new part of the season play. But Lindis can see that the claws at the creature’s mouth are tearing into Summer’s neck even as Winter holds on.

    “It needs a body to feed,” says Lindis quietly. Nara-pujo nods.

    The crowd begins to scream as blood comes forth from Summer’s neck. Two men run forward to pull Winter away from him. Winter’s lower face is red with Summer’s blood.

    Only two in the crowd can see the creature’s mouth claws reaching, straining at a half-finished meal.

    But Winter is strong now, stronger than the ones who hold it. Winter flings them away, then lunges again toward Summer, and the creature’s body extends back a yard or so behind Winter’s head.

    Lindis leaps into the crowd and pushes her way through, trying not to wound anyone with her weapon. Nara-pujo helps her push through. When she reaches the bonfire she leaps, not onto Winter, but onto the creature that she can see attached to Winter’s head, its body floating behind. As she attacks the body with her mace, it flickers—and the crowd screams again.

    Then Krisaya is there. She has tossed her mask aside. “I see it now. I see the shape of what you’re fighting.”

    Lindis steps back and allows Krisaya to cut its body away from the head.

    Winter falls to the ground beside Summer.

    Some of the crowd are trying to escape the square, but there is nowhere to go when pressed in by so many. Some find passage on the west side and begin running toward Herne’s manse, perhaps to beg for safety behind his walls.

    Thryn watches them go. “Don’t mind the bodies,” he says quietly. “We did that.”

    “What now?” asks Krisaya.

    Lindis looks around the chaos in the square, sees another of the creatures drifting up out of the ground.

    “Nara-pujo,” she says, and the Archai begins, none too gently, to clear the crowd in front of her.

    Just as the creature latches on to a victim, Lindis strikes with her mace. The victim screams, but the creature flickers into visibility, and the others help her kill it.

    “What are they?” shouts a man. He holds a sheathed sword in his hand.

    “They are invisible until you attack them,” answers Krisaya. “But you will know them when one person bites another. You will know them from the screaming.”

    The man nods, and he and two of his companions disappear into the crowd.

    “Can we fight them all?” asks Thryn.

    Lindis shakes her head. “This is not my battle. These are the spawn. I am waiting for the monster to arise.”

    They move through the city, looking for signs of the spawn. The people of the town are panicking, beginning to attack one another. The farther into the night they fight, the more that Tirnan Bryn becomes a chaos of brawling and murder.

    Lindis is standing on a platform watching people run through a street when she feels a shiver. A presence that she has been waiting for. Slowly she turns and sees it rising like a ghostly mountain of ice into the air above the town.

    “This is my battle,” she says softly. Then, louder, raising her mace toward the monster: “I am your opponent! Warethtudth ylcharoth ust irrakra!

    Thryn whirls, eyes wide, and stares at her. But Lindis stares only at the leviathan that now turns, tendrils whipping around in the air, seeking her.

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    “The spawn needs a body to feed,” said Ymkhoelant. “You will be able to see it, and perhaps the Archai… whose spiritual training took a turn his teachers did not expect.”

    “Can I kill them?”

    “Yes, but they are only the heralds. When their Maker rises from the earth, you must call it to you.”

    She waited, but he seemed reluctant to speak. “What are you not telling me?”

    “You must call it in the words which I will teach you in the Dragon tongue.”

    “And then I will fight it?”

    Ymkhoelant, cloaked in the appearance of a Dwarf, lowered his head. “I spent most of my power to charge the bindings of its prison. And that fool broke them down, sold them for petty greed and fame. But many blocks remain.”

    “How does that help me?”

    He raised his head. “Much of my power is right here. In and around this town. But… The monster is weaker, yes, weaker than it was, but so am I. As I am, Descended and diminished, I cannot gather and wield this power.”

    He placed a blue hand on her own. In a softer voice, he said, “Like them, I will require a physical form to act.”

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    Holding up both her arms and watching it descend upon her like a living cloud, she screams, “Ymkhoelant, therevekor!

    And she feels his presence within her, moving through her limbs and into her heart, ghostly and cold.  She does not know what to expect, whether she will lose all sense of herself as he joins with her. She doesn’t even know if that’s what she would prefer.

    But she is aware, and knows herself, and who she is.

    This is going to hurt, says the voice of Ymkhoelant within her. For that, I am sorry.

    And then he draws his power from every stone and megalith that still breathes with it. He knows its name, for it is his own, and it answers to his call. And this power washes over them, and it feels as if she has fallen into a forge, into a pool of magma from a living mountain. She screams and feels that it will never end.

    Somewhere outside of herself, she realizes that Thryn is holding her tightly, yelling something she cannot hear. His arms are all that does not burn in her world.

    And then the power settles in, power somewhat cooled since his Descension, but still the power of a former god.

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    She stood up suddenly and backed away, knocking over the stool she had been sitting on in whatever place this was.

    “What do you mean by that?”

    “It means,” he said, “that if I am to call upon my power, much less wield it, I must share that form with you.”

    “Share,” she breathed.

    “I will not force you. I cannot. If I could… I don’t know if my hunger to finish my task would stay my hand. But I cannot force you, so I am left with persuasion.” He chuckled grimly. “It is a weapon I am unaccustomed to.”

    “And me?”

    “I do not know. I will try to be gentle. But understand, Lindis of Ashildur of the Kestrel Clan, if you do not choose to help me fight this monster, there is nothing in this world powerful enough to stop it from devouring all life. Not the gods of all the races, who cannot reach you now. Nor your King, who like me has forsaken much of his power. I don’t even know if the Dragons could contend with this, or if they would even care.”

    He stood up. “You said that you might be willing to seek death to protect a comrade, or the innocent. Do you still believe that?”

    “Of course I do.”

    He held out his hand. “I believe we can defeat this, together, and save them all. But only if you choose to join with me.”

    Lindis closed her eyes.

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    Lindis stopped screaming, and now she lies all too still in Thryn’s arms.

    “Is she all right?” asks Kaven. His fingers lightly dance over his harp as he speaks, and Thryn feels the familiar warmth of healing magic.

    Thryn holds his fingers just above her nose, feels a breath. “She’s alive.”

    Krisaya and Nara-pujo are keeping the churning crowd at a distance, and Thryn has also summoned a Titan to keep guard. He knows this quiet is but the eye of the storm. Lindis told him nothing of her plan, so he cannot tell if things have gone horribly wrong.

    “What should we do?” asks Kaven.

    “I wish I knew.”

    Lindis moves. Her eyes are still shut tight, but her arms thrash, and Thryn releases her. He steps back when she begins to glow with the bright sun of a Cleric’s celestial light. Her eyes open, and Something that is not her looks out of them. Then a violet edge creeps into the light, and her body begins to drift upward, her face and heart toward the sky and four limbs dangling.

    “Is this supposed to be happening?”

    “I wish I knew.”

    The Archai is staring at Lindis with wide eyes—no, at something beyond her, something only he can see.

    “Something bad up there,” says Thryn. “Probably something very bad.”

    Nara-pujo nods.

    Above them, Lindis rights herself, as if she is standing on something in the air. She glows more brightly until it seems a star has descended upon Tirnan Bryn.

    Blue-white light arcs from the Dwarf star toward something in front of her. Then they see it, like the shape of an insect the size of half the town. In the light of the attack, segmented legs or tendrils larger than the thorns of the plains reach out.

    Then there is no more time to watch, for two people in the crowd have been possessed by the creature’s spawn. Others in the crowd attack them, and the conflict drifts to those unpossessed. People are attacking one another for no reason.

    “It's getting worse,” says Krisaya.

    “There is no way we can protect people if this has descended into chaos,” says Thryn. “We would do well to protect ourselves.”

    Krisaya looks up, and Thryn can see lights of the battle going on overhead reflected in her face, crimson and orange and the fierce blue of stars. The melee in the square stops when the screams of leviathan peel down from above, and everyone looks upward with fear in their eyes.

    Thryn looks up again. I cannot protect her now. Whatever happens is in her hands, and whatever voice she listens to now.

    “To the roof!” shouts Krisaya.

    The four of them climb up the stairs along a wall to the roof of a small store. Krisaya stands at the top of the stairs, ready to keep anyone from joining them, possessed or not. Nara-pujo watches the rest of the roof in case anyone finds another way up.

    Thryn and Kaven try to watch the sky, where a battle worthy of gods will decide the fate of all the survivors of Tirnan Bryn, and perhaps beyond. But the light is too bright, and they are forced to watch the battle reflected upon the streets and buildings of the town. Fire and starlight duel, and for a long time there is no way to know which will emerge victorious. At times the starlight seems to flicker as if struggling.

    Until deep into the night, the fire dims, and then it is as if a burning mountain fills the sky, and then dims forever.

    Lightning arcs from the Dwarf above, striking here and there in the streets, killing the spawn.

    And Lindis falls. Thryn quickly summons a Zephyr and sends it up to bear her gently down upon its winds. He catches her awkwardly, then falls onto the roof beneath her. He scrambles out from underneath and feels for a pulse, and then a breath.

    And then her eyes open once more, and they are the eyes of a Dwarf.

    “I’m here,” she whispers. “How am I still here?”

    “I don’t know,” says Thryn, “but I am glad for it.”

    He helps her stand, and she walks onto the edge of the roof, looking into the sky where the monster was.

    I truly did not know if that would work, says Ymkhoelant, if the Accord would allow it while my magic lasted.

    “So you are still here,” says Lindis.

    I am. Though most of my power is gone, and together we are merely Descended.

    “Merely,” she whispers.

    Trust me in this: I would not tell them that you are no longer what you were in the sky.

    “Tell who?” And then she looks down and sees.

    Tirnan Bryn is burning. Several large buildings and warehouses are on fire, and the whole of the eastern wall is in flames.

    The people of Tirnan Bryn fill the streets, some in costumes and some armed with weapons or whatever tools they could find. Some are near the bonfires and some are on other rooftops. But all of them, every one, is now looking toward the rooftop where she fell after battling Leviathan in the sky. And one by one, and in groups, they fall to their knees and bow to her.

    “Oh no,” she breathes. “No.”

    People have a way of turning on demigods who fall from power. Do not dissuade them.

    “I am not this.”

    You are. Now. And in the wake of chaos, people look for a leader. It is already done.

     

    ❖  ❖  ❖

     

    It was already done. The voice of Ymkhoelant convinced me that I could help them. Did I choose my path, or did he choose it for me? Did he know the very words that might sway me toward a path he wanted?

    In any case, my people followed me on the long road. I have never known why. I led them away from their cursed town to a place of safety. Somewhere in the lands between Ru'Lun and Faerthale, there is a chasm between groupings of rocks. It cannot be seen unless you are nearly at its edge. The old one led me here, whispering of sanctuary. Within the chasm we found the ruins of dwellings carved into the chasm walls. Deeper in the rock, halls and passages. Long ago, before the First Collision, this was a place called Enkiligaeth, though even Ymkhoelant does not know who built it.

    It was here that my journey ended. It was here that my life began.

    Though perhaps I should say ‘our’ life, for it is mine alone no more.

    — from the Kestrel’s Journal, in the year of the Founding

     

    - END -


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at December 30, 2020 4:39 AM PST