cemya

Bride Of Valkyn

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CHAOS DIVIDED

“Dawn.”

Standing high atop the castle battlement, the two figures made an odd couple.  Half-Giant and Stoneborn, side by side.  The former towered over the latter by at least three feet.  Each was clad in black plate armor of similar design.  An onlooker might assume relative size determined who was in charge.  An onlooker would be wrong.

“What of it?” spat the dwarf irritably.

“Means the siege will start,” said the Half-Giant, staring down across the plain towards the eastern horizon.  The first glints of sun flickered off the lances of the surrounding army.  They looked like hundreds of red sparks in the gloom.

“Not with an Elkan in charge.  Especially Bedlam…that rotten shank of venison.”

The dwarf spat again.

From the tower stairs behind came the sound of a door opening.  Then hurried steps.  A human rushed in panting and knelt before them.

“Pardon, my Lords.  A messenger has arrived.”

“See?” sneered the dwarf.  “They haven’t even blockaded us yet.”

The dwarf turned to the kneeling man.

“We’ll, who is it?  Bring him up!”

“No need - I am here,” answered another voice.  

A sharp-nosed man in a robe stepped forth.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” exclaimed the dwarf.  He elbowed his Half-Giant companion.  “A visitor from The Devoted.  Eamon no less!” 

“Eamon?  The same Eamon who used to be in the Order of Chaos but then found religion?” replied the Half-Giant. 

“I don’t know…that Eamon was a thief and layabout…I don’t think The Devoted would let his kind in,” remarked the Dwarf.

“They would if he donated a lot of gold to the Church…in exchange for protection from angry husbands,” smirked the Half-Giant.

“Enough!” waved Eamon angrily as they burst into guffaws.  

He waited for them to subside.  He glared at the still-kneeling messenger, who took this as his cue to hurriedly depart.

“Baruk Stoneford.  Ogram Head-Splitter.  I weep to see the Order of Chaos has fallen into the hands of such leaders.”

“Lord Baruk Stoneford, if you please,” corrected the dwarf merrily.  “We flipped a coin and he lost.” He jerked his thumb towards Ogram.

“So, what’s this about?” continued Baruk.  “Be quick! We are busy!”

“So, I see,” nodded Eamon, gesturing at the far-off glints of spearpoints.  “I will be brief.  My Lord Anaxis sent me.”

The demeanor of Baruk and Ogram changed to serious in an instant.  Anaxis was not only a Devoted, he was one of the highest ranking.  A force to be reckoned with among the Elder Crows and that was saying something.  

Eamon smiled inwardly at their reactions.

“I come from a Making…someone you knew I believe,” continued Eamon.

“Beryl,” intoned Baruk.  “He was a good man.  We’ve both ridden with him.”  The dwarf and half-giant each made solemn holy gestures.

“Times grow dire,” said Eamon.  “The Hunger advances.  The Making keeps pace only so long as enough volunteers step forward.  Crows willing to end their existence so that a new world can be created.  Order, Balance and Chaos united to fend off the common threat. But what happens if we cannot keep pace?” 

Baruk and Ogram exchanged looks.  Eamon had touched on a well-known question.  But the search for an answer had split not only the Devoted and the three Orders, but every guild in the Kingdoms.  Some wanted to keep the status quo, using only Crows who volunteered for The Making.  Others wanted some type of lottery.  Others pushed for more brutal solutions – forced conscription, culling those deemed weak and unworthy.

The divisions were widening.  The reason was an open secret.  The Making was losing ground.  Each year, at a growing pace, the Hunger advanced closer and closer to The Kingdoms.  

“We know all this,” said Baruk.  “Why did Anaxis send you?”

“My Lord Anaxis sees that Order and Balance, for all their disputes, remain intact.  Chaos however has fall into civil war.  He has two requests for your consideration.  First, he offers to mediate an end to your conflict.”

“Good luck with that,” said Ogram.  “We’ve tried to reason with Bedlam and his followers.  They are extremists.”

“Yes,” nodded Eamon.  “They want The Making fueled by the sacrifice of captive Crows.  But perhaps there are other possibilities they haven’t considered.”

“Well, if he wants to try we won’t stand in his way,” said Baruk.  “What’s the other request?”

“He needs your assistance in an investigation.”

“Of what?” asked Ogram.

“Of whom,” corrected Eamon.  “You have both heard of the newest Crow, the so-called Bride of Valkyn?”

“The girl who says the All-Father talks to her?” said Ogram.  “We don’t know much except they say she’s a real looker.”  

The Half-Giant elbowed the dwarf beside him.  

“Perhaps,” said Eamon.  “But we need more information.  Our problem is that a follower of Malekai keeps her under close watch.”

“If you’re asking us to kidnap her from Kitaara Red-Hand, no dice.  We’d need an army and ours is busy right now.”

“No, nothing like that…we just need someone placed in her retinue whom she will trust.” 

“Why do you care so much about a batty girl?” asked Baruk, a note of suspicion in his voice.

“Lord Anaxis knows that often what matters most is not what is true or false – but what is believed.  The unity of the Devoted and the Orders, the glue that holds together the hundreds of guilds and their countless followers, the very foundation of the Kingdoms, rests on shared belief.  Undermine belief and you create cracks that, over time, will widen to shatter all.”   

Baruk and Ogram looked at each other again.  Lowering their voices, they whispered for a minute.  Then they turned back.

“Alright - tell Anaxis we’ll do it.  We know one of the Crows who helped her ascend.”

Eamon started in alarm, his eyes widening.

“Yuki?” the priest exclaimed.  “No!  That won’t do!  Lord Anaxis would never accept that!  Are you both mad?” 

Baruk laughed.

“No, not Yuki.  Don’t worry.  Let us handle this.  Go back to the Temple and – do whatever it is you do.”

Eamon huffed and straightened his vestments.  He bowed stiffly.

“Very well, I will deliver your answer.  Good day.”  

Baruk and Ogram watched the priest depart.  Once he was out of earshot, they turned back to each other.

“Well?” asked Ogram.

“Well what?” said Baruk.  “This stinks to high heaven.  Anaxis is up to something.  But for now, we play along.  He helps us broker a peace with Bedlam.  We help him with this mind-addled girl.  Fair exchange.” 

Ogram nodded.  He shouted for the messenger to return.  In a moment, the servant was kneeling before them again.

“Go find Two-Ton.”  

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Edited by cemya

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Happy to see that you're adding more chapters! Looking forward to reading more! 

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TAVERIS

“Brother Genesius.”

“Yes?”

“She is here.”

The old monk muttered a last prayer.  Rising from the porch where he'd been kneeling, he drew back his hood and carefully tied his loose gray hair with a bit of string.   He took a deep breath of the clear morning air.

At last.

Even in the deepest pits of his despair, he’d known she'd return.  The augurs were many.  Her arrival one year ago, unlooked for, stumbling naked into the nave of the great temple.  Her vow to take up a mantle none had claimed in centuries.  The purity of her belief.  

In that moment he’d felt it was all worth it.  The mockery of the others.  His long exile from The Kingdoms.  The untold years on this doomed world, laying the foundations for a new faith.  All the while hiding his true purpose.      

The Devoted were wise, but they had not all wisdom.  The Hunger beasts died in the millions, cut down by sword, lance and spell.  Yet more arose.  The battle of flesh could not be won, not even by Hero himself. 

But the battle of the spirit...

The answer was there all the time.  Right in front of them, in the Book of Creation itself:

Such is the nature of our world: the Embers of Chaos and the Dust of Order, divine materials for which all else is but a shadow. Dust floats across the heavens: adrift, lost, untethered. It coalesces around the Embers as if desperate to find purchase. It seeks out scattered chaos, gathered to it like iron to a lodestone.

Divine materials for which all else is but a shadow.  How many sleepless nights had he spent pondering these phrases?  Wrestling one word atop the other, turning them over and about, until he dropped senseless from fatigue?  Only to rise again the next day, as consumed as before?

Like iron to a lodestone.  When it came to him, he’d felt almost a physical pain, as if the truth scorched his brain, burning away the hindering follies.

And so, when he’d lifted her chin and looked into her eyes, he'd made the final decision.  In that moment, he'd passed her The Gift.  The fruit of all his research.  All his hopes. 

Damn his weakness afterwards.  With all her potential, she still needed guidance.  Protection.  But he'd failed her.  Failed himself.  Drawn to the loveliness of her form, he had felt the call of the flesh.  Sensing this, she had fled. 

He had searched far and wide.  From time to time he’d heard rumor.  An Elrizan cult of the All-Father founded by a warrior maiden.  Strange creatures spotted in Besht the same day it was destroyed by a Hunger storm. 

He wondered if others like himself were on Ferisse.  He dismissed the thought.  The guilds had long ago abandoned this world to its fate.

A knock at the door.  One of the younger monks entered and bowed deeply.

“The Bride of Valkyn,” he announced.

The monk stepped aside to let pass the shapely figure of a young woman, robed and cowled, then withdrew, closing the doors behind him.

She had returned to him. Beyond all hope.

The young woman remained silent, as if waiting for him to speak.  He could not see her features due to the cowl. But his mind’s eye saw once more her blue eyes, creamy skin and the shining black hair that flowed down her back.

Surely, she expected an apology. 

“Dearest Cembrye.  I did not behave properly before.  Please accept my…”

He gasped.

The young woman had thrown back her cowl and tossed aside her robe.  Braids of blonde hair circled long bat-like ears, carefully pinned to the side of her head.  She wore form-fitting doeskin and a pair of dove-like wings uncurled behind her back.

A wooden mallet appeared in her hands. 

She flashed her green eyes and laughed as she brought the mallet crashing down on his skull.

“Don’t worry about it Clem!”

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Edited by cemya

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CHOSEN OF CYBELE

Calliope, High Priestess of Cybele, leaned back in her chair - a gesture which indicated the interview was over.  

Ransom bowed low and turned to leave.  She did not move until the ornate doors of the Chamber of Welcome had closed behind the Ranger.  There was a long silence.   

“Magna Mater.”

“Yes, Itani?”

“I do not think I have ever seen you this sad.”

The High Priestess sighed.  She nodded and wiped her eye.

“This was…unexpected.  But what of you, my Second? Ransom was like a son to you.”

The Nethari Confessor shrugged and made a show of indifference, running a hand through his short white hair.  But the fiery markings on his bronzed forearms gave off a faint glow.

“He is only human.  Perhaps it was inevitable.”  

“Have you forgotten that I am half-human, Itani?”

“No, Magna Mater.  Forgive me, I did not mean to offend.  But haven’t most of our ills come from the pride of men?”

The half-elf cleric rose and went over to the Nethari.  She reached out and patted his shoulder, knowing she was one of the very few he permitted such familiarity.

“Ills and joys come and go, as rain is followed by sun.  Are not Men and Nethari the children of Arkon alike?”

“The Nethari do not surrender to lust.”  

“And that is what you think happened?  He betrayed his oath for the beauty of a girl?”

“It was ever his weakness.”

“Then perhaps you did not know him as well as you think,” said the High Priestess, turning to sit back on her throne.  

Itani flushed but remained silent.

Calliope stroked her chin, pondering.  

Ransom had been sent to gather information on this Bride of Valkyn.  As Warden of the Golden Council, he had the power to bring to justice any who posed a threat to Order.  It was one of the most powerful positions in The Kingdoms.  But many saw it as a relic of past ages, when the first Crows fought savagely all against all.  Unfortunately, in that time the power of the Warden had often been abused.  And so, when the last Warden passed to his reward, Calliope, as spiritual guide to the Council, had insisted a new approach be taken.  Ransom was chosen over other candidates not only for his skill in battle, but for his mercy and humility.  The Warden would no longer be just a sword of judgment.  He would be a living example of a better way.

The Ranger had proved himself many times since.  In the campaign on Yamoor, when the followers of Malekai and D’Orion, in their mutual hatred, laid waste the lands even as The Hunger approached, it was Ransom who brokered a truce.  On blood-soaked Agaste, one of the first campaigns won by the followers of Kane, it was Ransom who convinced the Primarch to unite his defeated foes rather than exterminate them.  And on ruined Tallymant, Ransom’s diplomatic skills enabled the world to hold out for longer than any dared hope.

But now this.  A message from the Lord Archon in the night.  A pilgrim wandering by chance through The Pantheon had happened to overhear a conversation by the Empty Throne.  The pilgrim's report was quite at odds with Ransom's tale of an uneventful meeting with an unremarkable girl. 

She examined the message scroll once more.  Her finger traced the strong signature at the bottom.

What puzzled Calliope was that Ransom, better than any, would have understood the peril.  While the girl had done nothing yet, it was only a matter of time.  She was a bomb waiting to go off, either by her own unwitting action or through the manipulations of others.  The rumors of bloodsoul amulets would be the least of their problems then.

However, instead of bringing The Bride back in chains for judgment, Ransom had returned with lies.

The Nethari Confessor stirred.

“What shall we do, Magna Mater?  Shall we summon the Guardians?”

Calliope was silent a long while.  Then she slowly shook her head.

“No – let him go.”

The fiery markings on the Confessors arms flared.

“Let him go?” he asked in astonishment.  “Magna Mater…”

Calliope raised her hand, palm outward, cutting him off.  Itani fell into a respectful silence.

“For now.  But you, my Second, must prepare for a journey.”

“A journey?  Where?”

“To Ferisse.”

“Magna Mater…winter will soon be upon that place.”

“Yes.  But Ferisse spawned this heresy.  Before it succumbs, we must learn why.”

“You do not think him guilty?”

“I think we need to know more.  Some judgments, once made, cannot be unmade.”

The Nethari pursed his lips, then bowed and left.

Calliope rose from her throne and began to pace.  

She had some time until the next meeting of the Golden Council.   She prayed that by then she would know what to tell them. 

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Edited by cemya

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