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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 Elken 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.  So, what’s this about?  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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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 the mantle none had claimed in a century.  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 yet.  Memories of his first failure hung like a dark phantom on the edges of his mind.  Had it been a hundred years?  The horror never left him.  The feelings of helplessness and despair.  

He would not fail this time. 

And so, when he’d lifted her chin, looked into her eyes, and saw, he made the final decision.  He passed her The Gift.  The fruit of a century of research.  The sum of all his hopes.   

Damn his weakness afterward.  With all her potential, she still needed guidance.  Protection.  But he'd failed her again.  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.  A new cult of the All-Father founded in Elriza after the miraculous appearance of a legendary warrior maid.  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!”

 silhouette_harley_quinn_by_kefrench-d83w

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 Lord Archon Anaxis 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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RAINY DAY

For the first time since my ascension, I dreamt.

I saw a great chamber filled with people.  All the races were there - Minotaur, Fae, Elf-kind – all standing silently in armor.  In their midst was an open space with a raised dais on which sat three great lords on carved chairs.  A girl in homespun, head shaved and hands bound, knelt before them. 

One of the lords nodded.  A hooded man gripped the girl and raised her to her feet.  Many in the crowd began to weep. 

I awoke covered in sweat.  My heart beat like a drum.  I pulled off the covers and stared at the ceiling until I calmed. 

It was only a dream.

I went to the bedroom window and pulled back the drapes.  The first hint of pink in a starry sky.  Dawn was near in the kingdom. 

My kingdom.

You want to know the strangest thing about becoming a Crow?  It’s not what you think.  It’s not the resurrections.  The creepy vessels. 

Nope.

It’s being handed a piece of land and told you decide everything there.  Think about it.  Not even a mortal ruler has that sort of power.  Then, as soon as you take one step outside, anything can happen.

Pilkington told me some Crows do not take well to this.  Especially the older ones who have fought many campaigns and amassed tremendous riches.  As time goes by, they keep more and more to themselves.  Even their closest friends wonder where they went.  Finally, they seclude themselves in their conjured realm, tended by conjured servants, surrounded by piles of exquisite items bought or stolen.  The gates shut for the last time and they are never seen again.  People call these The Crypt Kingdoms. 

On the other side are the newest Crows still settling in.  After I received a proper orientation - from a kind and helpful Centaur named Lilybeth - it struck me that the first step outside the gates was going to be the hardest.  Why leave safety to risk pain and death once more?  Some new Crows – not many, but some – flunk this part.  They refuse to go out.  These realms are called The Stillborn.     

What I had suffered in the Pillared Hall had really happened.  And though I had passed beyond and returned, death left its mark.  It always does.  

If Kitaara hadn’t come to stay with me, I don’t think I could have mustered the courage to take that first step.  Our trip was just to The Pantheon to meet Ransom.  But it meant crossing the threshold at the hedge. 

She went first, then stood and waited, like a duck for her duckling.  I took a deep breath, then walked to her side.  I tensed as I crossed, but felt nothing.  She nodded in approval as I reached her, as if I had completed another one of her tests.   

As promised, Kitaara and I had long talks.  Sitting in my house, she patiently answered most of my questions.  I learned about Crows and Gods, wars and realms, guilds and orders.  About the Devoted.  And about what I’d glimpsed that horrid day in Besht – The Hunger.

And Kitaara spoke of herself.  How she’d met Stilicho.  How she’d become a Crow.  Some of it was not easy to hear.  I came to understand why Ransom had called her Red-Hand. 

When she was done, I asked her about coming to find me in Elriza.  She paused a long while before responding.

“I decided in Stilicho’s chamber.”

“When I tossed the knife onto the carpet?”

“Yes.”  

“But why?  You were angry with me.”

“I was.  But I saw a girl use her wits to create a choice where there was none.”

“Then I ran away.”

“The right choice.”

“What happened then?”

“Many guards came.  I fled north.”

“To draw them away from me.”

“Yes.”

As we’d talked, it became clear Kitaara was as in the dark on some things as I was.  On where Stilicho was now, for example.  

I asked her about the amulet.

“It is forbidden.  It captures that which is not ours to take.  That is all I know.”

“But what can it do?  Ransom seemed terrified.”

“Legends say such amulets can cut the thread.”

“Between a Crow and their spirit?”

“Yes.”

I shuddered.

After we’d met with Ransom, I had followed his guidance and stayed in my kingdom.  Or queendom, I suppose.  It was pretty enough, but not much to it once I had explored. 

You see, besides the basics, everything costs money.  Lots and lots of money.  Even food and drink.  You can’t starve, but your belly will get rumbly.  Kitaara helped, but I didn’t want to live off charity.  But making coin meant going on campaign.  And I needed to deal with the amulet first.  Somehow.

A little way from my house was a small glade.  I would often go there to pray. 

And so, a day after returning from the Pantheon, a day of grey cloud and coming rain, I knelt once more on the grass.  I closed my eyes and felt again His comforting presence. 

I heard the rustle of leaves.  Opening my eyes, I saw that Kitaara, for the first time, had come to join me.  Or so I thought.  I noticed her gaze fixed on a spot in the middle of the glade.

I had wondered about that spot.  A circle of raised ground right in the middle of the grass.  It looked like something was supposed to be there. 

Kitaara was staring at the spot, her face pale.

In a moment I understood. 

Should anything happen to a Crow after they leave their realm, their spirit essence, in time, will return.  It is bound to a golden statue in the likeness of the deity they have pledged to serve.  The statue appears in its appointed place once a Crow has returned from making their choice.

Mine was empty.

I rose and went to her side.  I touched her arm.

“It’s going to be all right.”

She turned to look at me.  Her eyes were moist.  I had never seen her like this before.

“How do you know?” she asked quietly.

I placed my hand over my heart.

“I just do.”

There was a rumble in the sky.  Then the first drops of warm life-giving rain. 

I took Kitaara’s hand and led her towards the house.

“Come on.  I’ll make us some tea.”

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Edited by cemya

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CHANGE OF PLANS

Lord Archon Anaxis hated war camps.

It wasn’t the danger.  Or the noise.  Or the discomfort of living in tents.  Before he had taken his vows as a Devoted, Anaxis had fought many campaigns under the banner of Kronos Moon-breaker.  Although the Order of Balance was the smallest of the three, its warriors were renowned.  He had been proud to serve.

No, it was the stench.  A mortal may ascend to Crow.  Come to wear fancy armor.  Boast a fancy title.  But some things do not change.  Bring together this many Crows on a large muddy plain with poor drainage, under endless rain, and keep them there for months and you get – stench.  No wonder that Leya, fastidious as she was, refused to visit such places. 

Carefully holding a silk handkerchief to his nose, he picked his way across the last set of duckboards.  His Second, Eamon, followed close behind.  Up ahead loomed a large canopied pavilion emblazoned with the silvered arms of the Order of Chaos.

Two guards, both minotaur, stood at the entrance to the pavilion.  They brought their axes up in salute and parted to let them pass.  

The rain started to fall harder.

Bedlam was already waiting for them within.  Around the Elken stood his chief lieutenants, also Elken.  Light from the braziers glinted off their antlers and gilded armor.  

Bedlam bowed as they approached.

“Lord Archon.  Master Eamon.”

Anaxis returned a nod.

“We are surprised at your visit.  All goes well.  The siege will start soon.”

“That is not what I have heard.”

The Elken snorted.

“You have been listening to the lies of the dwarf and his sidekick.  Once we finish digging the last siege lines we will have them surrounded.”

The Lord Archon raised his hand dismissively.

“Please.  I am not one of your herd.”

Bedlam leaned forward so the others could not hear.

“I need more men!  This is not what was promised!”

The Lord Archon shook his head.

“I gave you more than enough for the purpose.  And it is achieved.  Your rivals have agreed to let me mediate.  A mediation that will doubtless take a very long time.”

“While we rot in the mud!” 

“While your rebellion provides cover for our true goals.  The spectacle of Chaos divided has drawn the attention of all the kingdoms.  And given me the opening I need.”

“Speak plain, Anaxis.”

“Baruk and Ogram have found Two-Ton.  Like all the others involved in the fiasco, the bull made himself scarce afterwards.  It took some doing, but since he had been one of theirs, they managed it.”

“So?  He was going to be your spy.  What do you want from us?”

“There has been a change of plans.”

“You found Clem?”

“Leya did.”

Bedlam gave a long, low whistle.

“Not sure how you get her to do your bidding instead of cutting your throat.”

“We have an understanding.”

“So I’ve heard,” leered the Elken.  

Anaxis flushed with anger.  Bedlam started, then bowed deeply.

“Apologies Lord Archon,” murmured the Elken.  “You said there was a change of plans?” 

Anaxis clenched his jaw, restraining his desire to punish Bedlam’s impudence.

“Two-Ton is now an inconvenience.  He needs to be taken out of the picture.”

 “Why not just use Leya?”

“She will be busy elsewhere.  Who can you send?”

Bedlam rubbed his muzzle.

“This is a job for ten. Denk and his half-giants will handle it.”

“Good.  Eamon has the coordinates.  And it must be done quickly.  We have received word the girl may be leaving her kingdom soon.”

Eamon stepped forward and handed Bedlam a scroll.  The Elken examined it closely.

“The bull’s on Ferisse?”

“Yes.  Remember, under no circumstances should Two-Ton be allowed to join her.  Is that clear?”

“Crystal, Lord Archon.”

Bedlam watched Anaxis and Eamon leave.  Once they were out of earshot, he threw the scroll on the ground and stamped it with his hooves.

He motioned to one of his lieutenants.

“Get Denk over here.”

“He’s asleep.”

“Well wake him!”

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Edited by cemya

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FERISSE

Taveris was just ahead now.  

Itani pulled his cloak more closely about him.  Although to the untutored Nethari bore close resemblance to humans, he could not risk drawing attention.  

He pondered what he knew of this world – this Ferisse.

As Second to the Magna Mater of the Golden Council, the Devoted had allowed him access to their archives without question.  In them was a record of every world, every campaign and, to the extent the information existed, every Crow.  

It was a rich trove.  Most Crows didn’t bother to plumb its secrets.  For most, it was enough to fight and amass riches.  But Itani lived by an ageless truth – knowledge is power.

On first examination of its archive entry, Ferisse seemed unremarkable.  Biomes of gentle rolling hills and forests in the west gave way to scorching deserts and mountains in the east.  Polar regions north and south.  The world was heavily fought over in its infancy.  But several unusual aspects caught his eye. 

While most worlds contained a diversity of sentient mortal life, Ferisse was peopled solely by humans.  These mortals quickly built proud and vibrant civilizations.  But why only humans? 

As he read further, he’d learned the humans of Ferisse had developed religions based on the beliefs of the many Crows who ventured there.  This itself was not unusual.  Feared as they were, some Crows also enjoyed being worshipped.  These mortal cults were bastardized versions of religion, but it was common to see shrines to Kane, Gaea, Arkon and the others on many worlds.  These cults formed a bridge of belief across which exceptional mortals would sometimes walk - called to become Crows themselves.  A few of the more pious mortals might even be taken to the Kingdoms, to live their lives as favored servants to Crow masters.

Yet the humans of Ferisse also developed a cult of Valkyn.  And not some wayward forgotten shrine hidden in the hills.  A full-blown creed, with temples and priesthood and all the rest.  According to the archives, the Valkyn cult was present on Ferisse from the beginning as a vestige.  But it only really took off about a hundred years ago, when it came to dominate all the rest.  

Itani stroked his chin.  Belief must come from something, even if it is just a legend or fairy tale.  Worship of Valkyn was forbidden to Crows.  How had the mortals of Ferisse learned to worship the All-Father?  

The final mystery.  At the beginning of summer, at the same time the cult of Valkyn spread across Ferisse, the resources of the world began to diminish.  This made no sense.  Such diminishing – a sign of the approaching Hunger – should only appear when winter is nigh.  It was this diminishing that had caused the guilds to abandon Ferisse in search of riches elsewhere.

Before Itani left the Devoted archives, he'd checked to see who had also accessed the records of Ferisse.  There were very few notations.  The last time was a little over a hundred years ago.  Someone named Clem, one of the Devoted.

“Who goes there?”

In his musings, Itani had failed to realize he had reached the Taveris city gate.  Drawing reign, he stood in his stirrups and affected his most imperious tone.

“Heramor, Inquisitor of Valkyn, on business with the temple.”

The city guard came forward, looked over Itani’s vestments – carefully chosen as a disguise – and waved him past.

It took a little more than an hour to reach the Temple of Valkyn in the center of Taveris.  From what he had gleaned from Ransom’s account, this was where the trail of the “Bride of Valkyn” began.  Assuming Ransom had been honest about that.  

As Itani rode the streets of the city, he noted the signs of the coming winter.  The crowds of refugees.  The shouted warnings of war in the east.  The whispered rumors of tremendous cold and the sudden appearance of unnatural ravening monsters.

Itani was old enough to have seen many winters fall.  That did not diminish the horror.  The Hunger was an evil to be fought to the last.  Under his robes, the tattoos on his arms glowed.  

Forewarned of his coming, the caretaker of the Temple let Itani in.  Passing quickly through the courtyard, the Nethari entered the main building.  

An aged priest rose from behind his desk to greet him with a bow.

“Welcome Inquisitor.  Blessings of the One. I am Brother Altaris.”

“Blessings of the One.”

“May I ask why we have the honor of your visit?”

“I have come to speak with Brother Genesius of this Temple.”

The old priests’ expression dropped.

“Then you have not heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Brother Genesius has been abducted – taken away to a place no one knows.”

Itani hid a growing unease.

“How did this happen?”

“A young woman came.  We thought the Bride of Valkyn had returned.  So we let her in.  But beneath her robes lurked a demoness!”

“A demoness you say?”

 “Yes!  We heard commotion and rushed in.  A blonde woman, but with long bat ears and wings.  Wings!  She flew off with Brother Genesius.  We could do nothing!” 

Itani made a holy gesture of dismay.

“I am sorry for your loss.  These are dark times.  Such monsters – who knows where they come from?”

“From the east, Your Grace – no doubt.  They say the end times are upon us.  We are cursed!”

Itani placed a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder.

“Take heart.  But tell me more – what of this Bride of Valkyn?  I had thought that title died long ago.”

Brother Altaris wiped his brow and fell into a chair.  

“There had not been a Bride of Valkyn for a long time.  Only one had ever existed.  Bellana of Aramore - blessed be her name - martyred in the East a hundred years past.”

“How did there come to be another?”

“A year ago, in the grey dawn, a slave girl named Cembrye of Medria rushed into this very temple, unclothed and desperate.  I bear witness under the eyes of the All-Father for what then happened.  She pledged herself as Bride to Valkyn.  Brother Genesius took her under the protection of the Temple and we rescued her from her pursuers.”

“Who was after her?” 

“A vile guild of assassins wanted to sell her to the fleshpots.”

“Can you describe this slave girl?”

“I do no violence to my vows to say that Cembrye was lovely beyond words, raven haired with eyes like the stars.  A fitting Bride to the All-Father, bound to his service.” 

“Where is she now?”

Altaris dropped his head.

“She left us on the night of her anointing.  We had rumor she took caravan to the east.”

“Do you remember where?  The east is vast.” 

“Elriza.  But if that is true, she is lost. The east is falling under ice.  The horrors are most numerous there.  We have held service for her passing.”

Itani pondered a moment.  Then he nodded.

“Thank you, Brother Altaris.  I must return to the priory.”

“Wait, before you go – you should take this to the Lord Bishop.”

The old priest rummaged in his robes.  He pulled out a filigreed chain with a silver symbol of Valkyn.

"This symbol belonged to Brother Genesius.  He treasured it and was wearing it when the Bride took her vows - he gave her a matching one.  He dropped it when the demoness took him.  To look upon it now brings us only sadness.”

Itani accepted the chain and symbol.  Then he bowed and left.

In another hour he was back outside the city, this time riding east.  There was precious little traffic in that direction.  Most were refugees headed west, away from the troubles.  But east is where he needed to go.  He ignored the strange looks and shouted warnings. 

Itani made camp that night in a hollow.  Beyond the road loomed mountains, the first of several ranges he knew he’d need to cross to reach Elriza.  He pondered what he had discovered.

Cembrye was the second to bear the title of Bride of Valkyn.  The first Bride had been slain a hundred years ago - about the same time Ferisse began to diminish and was abandoned by the guilds.  Coincidence?  

There were many missing pieces.  There had to be more to this Brother Genesius.  The creature that took him didn’t sound like a Hunger beast.  

The camp fire crackled.  Shivering, Itani moved to add another log.  As the night bore closely in, the Confessor said a prayer to Arkon.  He would need the strength of the Prince of Light where he was going.

Idly, Itani took the symbol of Valkyn that had belonged to Brother Genesius out of his pocket.  Absent-mindedly flipping it over, he noticed how tarnished it was.  It looked very old, but quite finely made.  A shame it was so dirty.  

Taking a cloth, Itani began to wipe it clean.  As he removed the layers of dirt, his eye caught something that had been hidden by the grime.  

The Nethari gasped – then laughed as he held the symbol up to the light.  On the other side was another marking.  

A depiction of a Crow, wings rampant.  

47324203421_ef0c0da8b3.jpg 

Edited by cemya

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REVELATIONS

Another blast of icy air struck Kitaara.  She braced herself, teeth chattering.  

The roaring was closer now.  Almost upon them.  Claws on cobblestones. 

She smoothed her daughter’s hair, tenderly moving a stray lock away from the pale, still face.  She leaned down and kissed the child on the nose. 

“She’s dead.”

Kitaara turned to see a dark-haired man in strange armor standing nearby.  She picked up her husband’s sword from where she had laid it.

“I know,” she replied.  “I will join her soon.” 

The man pointed to the Hunger beast carcasses lying about, crusted and blue.

“You did this?”

Kitaara nodded, eyes vacant.

The man shook his head.  He stroked his chin a moment, then peered intently at her.

“There is another path.”

“No.  There is only death.”

“You are wrong.  There is power.  And there is vengeance.”

She looked up at the man.

“Who are you?”

He extended his hand.

“I am Stilicho.”

  ***

“Kitaara?”

She started, then cursed inwardly.  Lost in her thoughts, she had not noticed Ransom come up.  She gripped her sword hilt.

The ranger raised a calming hand.  

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

“What do you want?” growled Kitaara, unappeased.

Ransom sighed.

“If we are to work together, we need to start trusting one another. We have a common cause.”

The assassin turned to regard him. 

“At last.  The silver tongue of the Golden Council.  I wondered how long it would take to flick.” 

Kitaara placed her hands on her hips.

“And what is this common cause?  Tell me.  I see only a man whose eyes linger too long on a girl he claims to protect.”

Ransom flushed.

“It doesn’t take Truesight to know what men think,” she smirked.

The ranger stepped closer.

“Have a care where you spread your poison, spawn of Malekai,” he warned.  “Have you told Cembrye why they call you Red Hand?  She would flee in horror.”

“As will your Magna Mater, when she discovers her favorite lied through his teeth.”

Ransom laughed bitterly.

“I imagine she will.  Every day I ask myself why I’m doing this.  Decades of service - to throw it all away.”

The ranger paused with a thoughtful expression.  

“Yes, I find her beautiful.  But that’s not why.  I can’t name it.  I feel it.  You do too.”

Kitaara was silent a moment.  Then she nodded.

“But I didn’t come to argue.  You need to see this.”

Kitaara followed Ransom as he walked across the field towards the glade.  In a few minutes, they were under the eaves of the trees.  Voices came from the clearing ahead.

Cembrye knelt on the grass.  Around her sat Crows of all races, perhaps twenty in number.  They were listening raptly to her.  Every now and again, one of the Crows would look in wonder at the mound of earth behind her.

“They started coming this morning,” whispered Ransom.  “She told Pilkington to let them in.” 

“How long have they been here?” murmured Kitaara.

“About an hour.  Listen.”

They saw one of the Crows raise his hand.  A grizzled man in plate armor.  Ransom recognized him as a Champion of Yaga.

“The scholars say the All-Father has left us.  Yet he speaks to you?”

Cembrye held up her hands, palms open.

“Not exactly.  Its not like that.  I just…”

Another of the Crows, a centaur, elbowed the grizzled champion.

“See?  I told you it wasn’t true!”

The champion scowled.  

“She slew an elder Crow!” he replied hotly.  "As a mortal!"

He pointed at the empty mound. 

“And where is her statue?”

The centaur pursed his lips.  Others began to murmur.

An elf raised his voice.

“Brothers and sisters!  We can deny it no longer."

He pointed at Cembrye.

"The All-Father has returned!  He speaks through this girl!”

Cembrye stood up, waving her hands.

“Wait!  I never said…”

Her words were drowned out as the Crows rose excitedly, all talking at once.  The voice of the champion boomed over all the rest.

“I have seen enough!  To the Kingdoms!  All must know!”

They rushed in a crowd towards the hedge gate.  Pilkington, carrying a tray of refreshments, leapt aside, scattering cups and saucers on the grass.

Cembrye was left standing alone, her mouth agape.

Ransom turned to Kitaara.  

“What the hell just happened?” 

Kitaara shrugged her shoulders.

“She gets...inspirations." 

Ransom looked back to Cembrye, his expression grim.

“We need to get her out of here – fast.”

47324203551_d8849613d8.jpg

Edited by cemya

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DEPARTURE

Dawn was near when the last of the pack animals was saddled.  Pilkington fussed and muttered, making sure Cembrye would have all the things she needed.

Ransom was surprised when the Guineacean offered to stay and watch over things while they were gone.  As a Registrar, he surely had many other responsibilities.  But he seemed to have formed an attachment to the girl.    

Cembrye had that effect on people.  Even in her short time in the Kingdoms, she had already begun to gather strays.  A family of mortal elves, made homeless when their Crow master went mad and vanished, now lived in an outbuilding, tending a growing garden.  Two young centaurs, a mated pair, whom she had come upon as they returned from the Pantheon, now galloped across the fields.  They had agreed to serve as foresters.  Having no money, Cembrye borrowed from Kitaara to support them, vowing repayment in full.

Kitaara and Cembrye seemed to have an unusual relationship.  They hardly said a word to each other in public.  But every morning, Kitaara would hold weapons training.  Ransom had been shocked at the violence of their sessions.  The assassin seemed to hold nothing back, tossing the girl about like a rag doll.  But Cembrye gave as good as she got, knocking Kitaara down several times.  Once, the assassin split the girl’s lip and then leaned forward to make a mocking comment.  Cembrye stuck her chin out, spat blood on Kitaara’s chest, then laughed as she ducked the return blow.   Ransom was about to step in, but the two women just leaned forward, pressed their foreheads together a moment, then separated to continue sparring. 

Thankfully, Crows healed fast.

Kitaara was now standing quietly to the side, watching the preparations.  Ransom wasn’t sure she fully trusted him yet.  Their first real conversation had hardly been friendly.  But it was a start. 

He walked over to her.

“We’re almost ready.  Any luck talking her out of it?”

The assassin shook her head.

“She has set her mind.”

Ransom nodded.  He and Kitaara had found common ground not just on the wisdom of leaving.  But in opposing Cembrye’s plan for a stop before heading to Ferisse.

“Let me talk to her.  Where is she?”

Kitaara inclined her head towards the fish pond.  It was a good distance away.  He began to walk.

Ransom found Cembrye seated on a bench looking at the water.  He was reminded of the first time he'd glimpsed her, at the foot of the Empty Throne.  Then she was in a dress.  Now she wore undyed assassin leathers, hand-me-downs from Kitaara, tailored to her small stature.  Her long dark hair was braided and tied behind her head.  Finely made daggers gleamed in thigh sheaths.  She didn’t turn as he approached.

“You think I’m an idiot.”

“I didn’t say that.”

She rose to face him.  He could see the tracks of tears on her cheeks. 

“I thought it would help.  If I explained things.  But I just made it worse, didn’t I?”

Ransom hesitated, then nodded.

Cembrye walked to the edge of the pond.  She knelt and dipped her hand in the still water. 

“I never asked for any of this.  I’m a nobody.  I just lived day to day, like everyone else.  Trying to be happy.”

One of the small golden fish came near the surface.  She reached into a belt pouch and sprinkled some crumbs on the water.  More shapes glided from below.

“I was sold.  Like a milk cow.”

Cembrye wiped her hands and stood up.  The fish hung by the surface, hoping for more, then reluctantly receded back into the watery depths.  

“I was angry but hid it.  Even from myself.  Then Hulagu was killed.”

“Kitaara told me,” said Ransom.  “It was a difficult situation.  Sometimes we have no choice.”

“And sometimes we do.”

She turned to face him.

“I didn’t tie the noose.  But he died because of me.”

Ransom was silent.

She rubbed her eyes, then composed herself.

“I dreamt of him after that.  We never really knew each other.  I pretended.  I’m good at that, I guess.”

“It saved you.”

She nodded.

“Yes.  In the Pillared Hall…and a few other times.”

She looked across the fields.

“Now they think I’m some sort of prophet.”

“What do you believe?”

The girl hesitated before answering.  She replied carefully, as if mindful of choosing the right words.

“Something awoke at the Temple.  For the first time in my life I felt...whole.  That's the best I can do.”

Cembrye turned back to him.

“Is it time to leave?”

“Yes.  But I wanted to discuss your plan,” said Ransom.  “I'm a tracker by profession.  I can find the boy.  We don’t need her help.”

“Maybe not.  But that’s where we go first.”

Ransom shook his head in wonder.

“For a new Crow you are very stubborn.”

“I know.”

“And short.”

“I know.”

“And….”

“Beautiful!” she finished with a mischievous look.

Ransom opened his mouth in shock, then shut it.  He reddened. 

Cembrye giggled.

“Did I just silence the silver tongue of the Golden Council?”

He rolled his eyes.  She shrugged her shoulders innocently.

“What?  Girls talk.”

  ***

Ransom checked the harness of the lead pack animal one last time.  Cembrye did likewise with her beast.  Kitaara was already preparing the summoning.

Pilkington walked over to Cembrye.  She turned to smile at him.  The Guineacean appeared agitated, as if he wanted to say something.

“Is everything okay?  You look out of sorts.”

“My Lady…I…”

She leaned down to embrace him.

“I still remember the first time we met.  I was so silly.  And I wasn’t wearing any clothes!”

She stepped back and adjusted his feathered cap.

“You’re worried.  Don’t be.  Everything is going to be okay.”

The Guineacean closed his mouth.  He nodded glumly.

“Yes, my Lady." 

There was a sizzling sound behind them.  They turned to see that a magical portal had formed.  Kitaara stepped back, surveying her handiwork.

“It is ready – but be quick!” she warned.

Ransom pulled on a heavy fur coat.  The others did the same.  He stepped towards the portal.

“On then - to the realm of Yuki.”

47324203081_e0b8004eca.jpg

Edited by cemya

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URTOPAN

Thankfully, the cold also hardened the roads.  This made travel easier, a boon considering the distance Itani needed to cover.  But the confessor could travel swiftly when pressed.  And he was pressed, for everywhere he looked were the signs of deepening winter.  As he descended the last of the mountain ranges, he came upon his goal.

Urtopan.  According to the records of the Valkynite church, this was the village where the “Bride” performed missionary service under the guidance of a Father Telos.  The village looked quiet and unremarkable.  No one was on the streets, but he caught glimpses of the villagers looking at him out of their windows as he passed.  He rode down and dismounted before the door of the modest church.  An older man in priestly garb, dark hair greying at the temples, answered his knock.

“Yes?  May I help you?”

“I am Heramor, Inquisitor of Valkyn.  Blessings of the One,” Itani replied, using his cover name and the correct religious greeting.

“Blessings of the One. I am Father Telos, keeper of this church.” 

The priest motioned for Itani to enter.  The inside of the church was simply furnished, with chairs, benches and an altar.  No one else was inside.

Father Telos sighed as they took their seats.  His fingers interlocked nervously.

“I knew this day would come. That there would be an inquiry.  Even in these dark times.”

“You know why I am here?”

“It is about her.”

“Yes.  Be at peace.  I wish only to learn.  Tell me what happened.”

Father Telos described the excitement he and his congregation felt as they traveled east with the Bride of Valkyn.  Of their peaceful mission among the Elrizans.  And of the coming of Amnon, High Priest of Arkon, whose fanatical followers vowed to slay them as heretics.

Itani hid his disgust at the portrayal of his patron Arkon, Lord of the Sun.  He reminded himself this was a mortal cult, a warped mockery of the Pantheon.  But he was not here to argue religion. 

He nodded for the man to continue.

“Alas, although our congregation survived, our dear sister in the faith, Cembrye of Medria, Bride of Valkyn, was slain by Amnon's raiders.”

“How did she die?”

“We did not witness her martyrdom.  Our rescuers found a token among the fires that consumed her.”

Father Telos leaned forward, lowering his voice.

“Two female nomads, robed and veiled.  They called themselves the She-Cats of Kharamun, Daughters of the Burning Sands.  We had never heard of such.  They killed all the raiders but Amnon.”

Father Telos dug into a pocket and pulled out a silver necklace with a symbol of Valkyn.  He treated it with great reverence.  He offered it to Itani.

“Here is the token they left us.  It used to be worn by dear Cembrye.  It is still blackened by the cruel flames.”

Itani took the necklace, made a show of examining it, then put it in his satchel.

“I shall see that this blessed symbol is added to the reliquary of the High Temple.  May I ask what became of Amnon?”

Father Telos shook his head in wonderment.

“I am surprised word has not yet reached the outside.  Distances are great.  Perhaps everyone thinks only of the icy terror in the East.”

Itani gritted his teeth.  He had been in such a rush to leave Taveris that he had not updated himself on the current news of Ferisse.  He would need to fake this.

“Forgive me, I don't usually serve as Inquisitor, but was pressed into the task.  My regular duty is as the librarian.  Nose always in the books.  The castellan swears the keep could fall around me and I would not notice,” he ended lamely.

The priest nodded with a puzzled look.  But he seemed to buy the explanation.

“Amnon rode alone back to Shuhpur.  His sins must have burned his soul, for he renounced worship of Arkon and founded a new faith based on the All Father.”

“That is a good thing, no?” offered Itani.

Father Telos shook his head sadly.

“It was the beginning of religious war.  Some followed the new sect.  Others raised arms against it.  The streets flowed with blood and conflict spread to all Elriza.  Soon after, as if the Gods themselves were angered, the ice began its advance.”

The priest stood up.  He gestured at the empty church.

“The others have left.  I alone remain.  I cannot give up hope.”

“Hope for what?”

“Amnon laid down his sceptre a few weeks past.  The heresy wars have ended.  All now flee the cold beasts.  Amnon makes pilgrimage to Enuma.”

Enuma.  Itani hid his surprise.  He recalled that name from the archives of the Devoted.  A ruined shrine on Ferisse.  A vestige of the earliest worship of the cult of Valkyn.

“Why would Amnon go there?”

“Who can say?  It is the site of the martyrdom of Bellana of Aramore, the first Bride of Valkyn.  Perhaps he wishes to offer penance for his crimes.  Some even say he plans to summon the warrior spirit Subeiha to protect her people once more.”

“Can you tell me how to get there?”

Father Telos eyes widened.

“It would be your death.  Enuma is in the wilds, far to the east.  Few traveled there in the best of times.  None go there now.  I beg you to desist.”

Itani shook his head.

“I am protected by faith.  Amnon has strayed.  He must be returned to the High Temple for questioning – and justice.”

The priest looked even more distressed, but also a little afraid.  Itani realized that Father Telos now believed he was dealing with a madman.  Reluctantly, the priest went to a chest and brought out a parchment map.  He handed it to Itani.

“Thank you,” said Itani as he took it.  “May I trouble you for something else?  As I am a stranger to Elriza, do you have any lore on Enuma and this warrior spirit, Subeiha?”  

Father Telos nodded and returned to the chest.  He came back with a slender book.  He handed it to Itani without a word.

“Blessings of the One,” said Itani, bowing to leave.

“All Father guide you,” replied the priest sadly as he watched him go.

Back on the road again, Itani paused on the eastern ridge to take one last look at Urtopan.  He would not return here.  The village and its people would be taken by the Hunger.  What he carried in his pocket was all that would remain to show they ever existed.

He took out the silver necklace given to him by Father Telos.  He carefully cleaned it, then compared it to the one left behind by Brother Genesius at the Temple in Taveris.  They were the same.  Returning the necklaces to his satchel, he spurred his mount.

Female nomads who appeared out of thin air with a tale of a burnt saint.  A temple priest abducted by a winged demoness with bat ears.  Each leaving behind identical silver necklaces bearing the sigils of Valkyn and the Crows. 

Itani could already see the banks of bluish tinged clouds rising to the east.  He noticed the markings on his forearms begin to glow.  He smiled.  He was ready for a fight.  But he was even more eager to find Enuma.  He sensed that the various threads of this mystery were all bound up in that name.

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Edited by cemya

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Posted (edited)

THE ARCH

She could do this forever.

Leya huffed her wings and turned a somersault.  The lands below pinwheeled, plateaus flecked in green, ochre and grey, blending in a swirl of color.  Laughing, she plunged into a steep dive, wind whistling past her ears.  The ground grew closer and closer until, at the last possible moment, she pulled up and flapped to a perfect soft landing.

It is a common misconception that fae cannot truly fly.  They only glide from perch to perch.  That is true when loaded down with armor and weapons.  Clothed as Leya was, in just a thin tunic of shimmering silk, she could match the swiftest eagle.

Her landing had placed her just outside the keep.  The sun was beginning to set, painting the smooth granite walls in tints of rose.  She wondered how a place with such a dark reputation could be so beautiful.

The Pinnacle they called it.  Built atop a steep hill, it was founded by the legendary Crow Almuir, rumored to have been a bastard son of Hero.  It had passed through many hands since.  Eventually it was purchased by the Devoted to serve as a prison for valuable captives.  

Several interesting ruins were scattered around the area.  A black obelisk rose amidst a dark mere.  It marked one of the rare confirmed sightings of the Goddess Illara.  The shrine was called The Doom of Almuir, since that was the spot they found his corpse.  To the east was the Grimward, a massive fortification Almuir built as one of his final acts.  He must have been going mad by then - the reason he gave for its construction was to guard against The Hunger.  Now abandoned, it was still quite impressive.

The land itself, one of the very first Crow kingdoms, was called The Arch of Lyessa.  To some imaginative cartographer, the name merged the symbolism of obelisk and fortress.  The Arch was the end of the world, the last bastion.  Beyond The Arch, supposedly, were other verses and the Hunger.

What rubbish.  But it was fun to read about.  Better than playing nursemaid to an old coot.  Speaking of which, it was time for a little visit.

She sauntered through the gate.  By command of the Devoted, besides the prisoners, the only others allowed on the Arch were the prison warden, a few turnkeys, and the hand-picked Nethari Guard.  Oh, and Hansa, who lived alone near the Grimward and tended the obelisk shrine. 

The Nethari Guard were lined up in the courtyard for roll call when she came in.  An hour early.  The men’s chattering stopped as soon as she hove into view.  

Leya smiled to herself.  Naughty boys.

She strode past them towards the main door of the prison.  Half way there, she stopped.  Running her hands through her loose blonde hair, she stretched, arms high above her head, unfurling her dove-like wings and standing tip toe until the hem of her tunic was well above mid-thigh.  She did a slow pirouette, one toe placed before the other, passed a hand daintily over her mouth, yawned, and walked on.

You could hear a pin drop.

Leya considered herself no better or worse than other Crows when it came to a scrap.  But fighting didn’t give her any thrills.

Yanking strings - that was something else.  Leya loved that.  More importantly, she was good at it.  Especially the strings of the sanctimonious.  When she went to the Pantheon, it had taken her all of ten seconds to choose Zaleena as her patron.

The choice didn’t make her popular with other fae.  Especially those who followed the Unseily.  You were supposed to be warriors.  Kill men.  End of story.  

Bleh.  What hypocrites, she thought.  As bad as the Devoted.  Cats like to play with mice.  She was just honest about it.

Leya often wondered what drew her to Anaxis.  Yes, he could be kind and thoughtful and affectionate.  These qualities helped offset his vanity and compulsiveness.  But not enough for the risk she was taking.  And it wasn’t that he was one of the most powerful men in the kingdoms.  Or even the guilty pleasure she got from defrocking a Devoted.  

No, what drove Leya crazy, what made her come back for more, was how he turned the tables.  She was used to calling the shots.  Being in charge.  Anaxis didn’t let her.  The last time they were together, he pushed her off his lap and made her wait.  She bolted in rage, but within an hour was wondering what he was doing.  

Leya passed quickly through the entry hall and found the stairs leading down to the cells.  Anaxis’ letter of introduction gave her the run of the prison.  Important captive, secret, secret, blah, blah.  The warden gave her a look but knew better.  Smooth as silk.

She stopped before a large brass door emblazoned with the sigil of the Devoted.  Taking a key from a string around her neck, she unlocked it, stepped inside, and closed it behind her.

Clem was chained and manacled right where she left him, in a large comfortable chair built for the purpose.  Not much else in the room.  

He was snoring loudly.

Leya recalled the first time she visited the Pinnacle.  She was still new back then.  The Lady of Knives – fae had great titles – had sent her to check up on someone.  A scraggly minotaur.  She remembered her surprise at not seeing any torture devices.

She learned Crows almost never tortured each other.  What was the point?  You just ended up angering an immortal victim.  This led to epic feuds until people got bored.  No, the purpose of a Crow jail was to get information for as long as you could.  Because eventually the Crow would get pulled to a different bind point and escape.  The Gods didn’t like their champions kept off the field too long.  A Devoted explained it to her once. 

Not this jail, though.  The Pinnacle was unique.  A quirk of The Arch was that it had a single bind point.  Scholars speculated the Mistress of Cats herself had arranged it for some unknown purpose.  Anyway, the Pinnacle was built right over it.  This quirk led to huge controversy when the Devoted decided to turn the Pinnacle into a prison.  The idea was that prisoners would revive and then get marched right back to their cells.  All the Orders were opposed.  The Devoted won out by promising two things.  First, no one would be held captive beyond a reasonable time.  Second, the records on who was imprisoned would be public.

The system seemed to work, although it had oddities and blind spots.  Someone like Baron Mandrake, for example.  He’d been imprisoned in the Pinnacle for over a thousand years.  A lot of Crows thought this a bit much.  But no one wanted to be held responsible for letting the bastard out.  And public records weren’t always current.  Gold in the palm of the Recorder could convince him to take his sweet time publishing a new prisoner list.  Since sentences didn’t start tolling until the list was public, a secret captive or two could be held temporarily with none the wiser.  The Nethari Guard was supposed to prevent this sort of thing, but they answered only to the Lord Archon of the Devoted.

A nice arrangement for Anaxis.  He had the money and authority to put someone on ice.  He used his power rarely, but people knew he could do it and this increased his clout.  

Something ate at Leya though.  Why imprison Clem?  He'd been gone a hundred years.  She wondered if it had something to do with that half-pint girl.  She scowled.

Clem groaned and stirred.  

About time.  

According to the strict orders she had been given by Anaxis, she was just supposed to grab Clem and get him settled.  Under no circumstances was she to question him.

She clapped her hands. 

“Wake up Clem!  Time for questions!”

  ***

Clem opened his eyes.  He tried to move, but realized he was held by chains.  As his vision cleared, he assessed his surroundings.

He was in a room.  Grey and bare.  A cell?  He had a headache.  

Someone was standing in front of him.  It was a young blonde woman.  Green eyes and bat ears. 

A fae.  Damnation.

“You!  You were the one with the hammer,” he accused. 

“That’s right," she replied calmly. 

She pursed her lips.  "Wait a minute…I’m the one asking the questions here.”

“The Devoted sent you, didn’t they?”

“You could say that.”

“I just did.  The question is why.”

“Let's get something straight.  You don’t get to interrogate me.”

“Why not?”

“Because you're my captive. That's not how it works.”

“Who told you that?”

“Now you’re just doing it to irritate.  Anaxis said you were clever.”

“So it was Anaxis.”

“Last warning.  Don't make me be the bad girl."

She pointed to an over-sized wooden mallet leaning against the wall.

"I’ll tell you everything."

“Better!  Now, if Anaxis had sent me – and I'm not saying he did – why would he want you thrown in prison?”

“He wants my treasure.”

The fae’s eyes lit up.

“The spoils of a hundred years.  Wealth immeasurable.  I'll tell you where if you grant me one boon.”

The fae pondered a moment.

“Okay.  Spill it.”

“There is an ancient ruin in the east of Ferisse.  It is called Enuma.  Deep within is a vault.  It is magically trapped, but I will give you the spell word to disarm it.  You can have everything inside except one item.”

“What’s that?”

“A book.  A very old book.  It has no real value except to a scholar.  But I could not bear to leave it behind.”

“This better not be a trick.”

“I am in no position to bargain.  I rely on your honor as a fae.”

She burst out laughing.  

“I meant that seriously,” said Clem with a hurt expression.

“I know.  That’s what made it funny.  But times-a-wasting and treasures-a-waiting.  Tell me the spell word.”

She leaned in.  He whispered in her ear.

“Got it,” she said, stepping back.

“Have a care,” he warned.  “Ferisse is in the grip of winter.  The east teems with Hunger beasts.”

But she was already walking out, a pair of dove-like wings unfurling from her shoulders.

“I’ll wave to them as I fly over,” she called back.  The cell door shut with a clang.

Clem shook his head as he watched her go.  

All his careful plans and preparations lay in ruin.  One shred remained - the Bride was still alive.  If she had ended, he would have felt it.  But where was she?

With the book, he could take his case to the Great Councils.  It was a desperate move, but he had little choice now.  Anaxis would visit soon.  If the fae made it back in time, and Clem showed him evidence of the truth, perhaps his old friend could still be made to see reason.   


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Edited by cemya

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Posted (edited)
On 10/16/2018 at 12:53 PM, Pann said:

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

Thanks for the encouragement!  :)

Edited by cemya

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Posted (edited)

MYRMIDON

Midnight in the deep forest.  Ten half-giant warriors sat wearily about a roaring fire.  Some polished and repaired arms and armor.  Others drank mead.  The flames cast weird shadows on the fir trees.

A man with a red fork-beard gestured.  The youngest warrior rose, harp in hand.  He began to sing in the haunting meter of the north.  

Bull-bound honor
By might undone
The brave skald                                                                
Beheld the fire 
Embers dimming 
Beast knows sacrifice                                                                          
Red waters hot
Soul ebbs                                                                                      
Thrust through
By hellish wound                                                     
Broke-backed 
Falls bellowing
Pen-proud ode 
Of bronze blood                                                                 
Wail at fate
A Prince laughs                                                                                   
Dawn-hope flees
 

The warriors waited for fork-beard to react.  A long moment passed.  Finally, the half-giant chieftain clapped.  

“Well done Braggi.”  

“Thank you, my Lord.”  

The fork-beard raised his cup of mead.

“To victory!  Skaal!

The others shouted in unison. 

“Skaal!”

All but one.  

A half-giant in deep-forged chain.  He continued to run a whetstone across the blade of his sword.  

“What ails you Egil?  The beast is taken.  Our vow fulfilled.”

“Ten against one, Lord Derk,” replied the man without looking up.

“True.  But our orders were to seize, not slay.  And the beast fought.”

“Aye.  He fought.”

Egil put away the whetstone and stood up.  Leaning on his sword, he pointed to a large nearby wagon.  Inside was a massive slumped shape.  

“The Two-Ton I knew would have laid the half of us in the dirt before being captured.  The rest would have been lucky to keep all their limbs.  Yet here we stand with nary a scratch.”

“We are Clan Haugstad,” replied Derk.  “Wolves may bring down the greatest prey when they fight as one.  The minotaur met his match.”

Egil shook his head.

“Did you mark his appearance?  Fur matted.  Eyes dull.  The ribs show through his hide.”

He spat in the fire.  

“I fought alongside the Iron Legion during the Fair Wind campaign,” continued Egil.  “I understand the minotaur tongue.  I have spoken with Two-Ton.  I know why he fled to the deepest woods of Ferisse.”   

“Why?” asked Derk.

“Shame.  He has been cast out of the Guild of Myrmidons.  Worse, cast out of the Obsidian Brotherhood.”

The men stirred.  The Guild of Myrmidons was ancient and honored.  But the Obsidian Brotherhood was the beating heart of bull-men culture.  Only minotaurs who held to the highest principles, the Paths of the Axe, Sword and Maul, were admitted to its ranks.

“That is grievous,” said another half-giant, a man with braided beard.  “Why was this done?”  

“He was found to have worked with a slaver,” replied Egil.  “The bull-men are former slaves.  There is no greater sin.”

“If that is true, he is well-shamed,” said Braggi.  The other half-giants grunted.  Slavery was unpopular among Crows.

“Two-Ton claims he was deceived by the one they call Stilicho," said Egil.  "But Stilicho has disappeared.  There are no other witnesses."

Derk shrugged.

“No matter to us.  We have him.  The rest should be easy.”

“Where are we taking him?” asked Egil.

“To the Pinnacle.”

Egil’s brow furrowed.

“The Pinnacle is a prison of the Devoted.  Why take him there?  Shouldn’t he be brought for judgment to the Obsidian Brotherhood?” 

“We have our orders.”

Derk rose.  

“It is time for sleep, my brothers.  Tomorrow we begin the long journey back.  Egil will stand first watch.”

As the others slept, Egil pondered.  Two-Ton had told him things the half-giant chose not to share with his clan mates.

The minotaur was broken in spirit.  He had fought the half-giants only to satisfy honor.  

But Two-Ton also spoke of the Bride of Valkyn.  The minotaur wanted to find her again.  He refused to say why.

Egil wondered why Derk avoided mentioning the Bride.  It was well-known that Two-Ton had participated in her calling.  

The half-giant shook his head.  He was spending too much thought on this.  He was of Clan Haugstad.  Once they delivered Two-Ton to the Pinnacle, they would return to the battlefields.  

Let the seers read the entrails.  What mattered was the sword.  And the man who wielded it.

 

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Edited by cemya

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EVERFROST

It had been three days since they’d entered Yuki’s realm.  A land of arctic forests and chill streams.  Each morning heavy snow.  The drifts were up to the bellies of the pack pigs.  Thankfully, the beasts didn’t seem bothered by the weather.

For the people, it was another matter.  The cold gnawed and every breath turned to frozen crystals in the air.  Ransom had been to the worlds of the moon-elves, strange creatures who thrived amidst the ice.  But this was something else.  

Then again, Yuki was no ordinary moon-elf.

Amongst the Crows, Yuki had many names.  Silver Fay.  Drizzlewitch.  The Glacier Queen.  The legends were fantastic.  That she had known Hero when he was mortal.  That she was called to be a Crow by Illara herself.  And that she was the very first Frost-Weaver.

Yuki would disappear for decades.  Rumors would spread that she had passed to The Beyond.  Then she would reemerge and be everywhere at once.  Fabulously wealthy, Yuki rarely campaigned, but when she did it was on dregs worlds where her sudden arrival would cause havoc.

Cembrye’s eyes widened as Ransom told the stories.  Clearly, the girl had no idea who she’d been dealing with.  Who she planned to visit.

Yet, the more Ransom thought about it, the more he understood why this trip was necessary.  In all her countless years, Yuki had never called anyone to become a Crow.  Until Cembrye.  Yuki’s letter to her was also highly unusual.  She could have useful information.

Or Yuki could just be toying with them for her amusement.  She was impish and unpredictable.  A guest could find a hearty welcome and depart laden with gifts.  Or just as likely be fed to Yuki’s cave bears.

They would find out which soon enough.  In the last day they had begun to climb.  Just ahead was the bridge leading to the main gate of the castle.  

The ranger decided it was time to deal with the sleeping urgu in the room.  As Cembrye cleaned up after supper, he pulled Kitaara aside.   

“We’re about to walk into Yuki’s castle.  I need to know what happened.”

Ransom expected resistance.  However, Kitaara nodded calmly, as if she’d expected this.  The assassin took a deep breath.

“Stilicho began to take slaves.  Children.  I could not allow that.”

“Nice to see you have a conscience.  Did you know why he was doing it?”

“No.”  

“Why did you hire Yuki?”

“I needed help to make sure no children were harmed in the rescue.”

Ransom scratched his head.

“And Stoor?  He’s a mercenary who works the dregs.  Who was he was employed by?”

“I do not know.”

Ransom sighed.  This was no help.

“Alright.  What about Stilicho.  Where did he go after the Pillared Hall?”

Kitaara clenched her jaw.

“He cannot bear defeat by a girl.  So, he hides.  But he is vengeful.  We have not seen the last of him.”

Ransom decided to push it.  

“You've taken Cembrye under your wing.  Does Malekai have something in mind for her?

Kitaara rounded on him, eyes flashing.

“Do not play the fool,” she replied hotly.  “I will see no harm come to her.  From anyone.”

Ransom placed his hand on Kitaara’s shoulder.

“Nor will I,” he offered quietly.

The assassin’s expression softened.  She looked towards the castle.

“Then let us rest.  Tomorrow we will need all our wits.”

 

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Edited by cemya

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ENUMA

Itani pulled his sword from the carcass of the Hunger beast and surveyed his surroundings.  He was close now. 

The last leg had been wearisome.  He was deep in the winter of this world.  But the beasts were growing fewer at last.  Most had moved west to lay waste the rest of Ferisse. 

A typical world was relatively uninhabited.  At least by sentient beings.  Crow would fight Crow and then, when the seasons changed, fight Hunger beasts.  A familiar cycle.

Ferisse was different.  This world had birthed a civilization.  Now it was dying.  Even in this remote place, he still passed ruined houses, the inhabitants slain or fled.  

There.  Out of the mist.  A tall grey standing stone.

Enuma.

Itani had read the lore book given him by Father Telos.  The echoes of a lost world, it would make a poignant addition to the archives of the Pantheon.  For now, he was interested in only two tales.

The first – the Legend of Subeiha – was quite brief.  Unfortunately, except for the editor’s forward, it was in Elrizan, a language he did not speak.  He would need a translator.  The forward was intriguing though.  It was written by none other than Nerys Glym, one of the first Crows to visit Ferisse.  Glym was well-known as an explorer and his accounts were treasured by scholars.  It read:

This is a tale of the east - a desert land of strange beliefs.  The inhabitants worship nature spirits but hold one above the rest – Subeiha the Warrior.  When called upon, she manifests to serve bloody vengeance on the wicked.  To the educated, the accounts suggest she is in fact a Spirit of Rage, an entity known to arise from dire circumstance.  If spirit she was, what spawned her?  Unfortunately, sightings of Subeiha ceased at about the same time All-Father worship on Ferisse began its rapid spread.  This seeming coincidence has birthed some rather fantastic speculation on Subeiha’s origin.

Father Telos believed Amnon, the fallen priest, had gone to Enuma in a desperate bid for Subeiha’s aid against the Hunger.  But what was her connection to this shrine?  And what “fantastic speculation” on her origin was Glym referring to?  

The second tale was an account of the life and martyrdom a century ago of Bellana of Aramore, the first Bride of Valkyn.  Thankfully, it was written in the common tongue.  The author was anonymous but seems to have been a skeptical eyewitness.

Bellana was raised in southern Ferisse, the teenage daughter of a minor noble.  During a visit to Elriza to attend a cousin’s wedding, she became a follower of a much older Valkyn priest named Imlec, who was rumored to dabble in dark magics.  Believing Imlec had ensorcelled Bellana for impure reasons, her family had him arrested and put to death.  Bellana fled to the arid wastes.  

It was thought she’d perished.  But a month later, she miraculously reappeared with Imlec at her side, alive and well.  Imlec pronounced Bellana the Bride of Valkyn and a “Sacred Vessel.”  Awed by this, no one dared stop the couple as they made their way west.  In due course, Imlec founded numerous Temples of Valkyn.  But many whispered Imlec cheated death by bargaining with demonic powers.

Eventually, Bellana returned to Elriza with Imlec.  They preached for a time in Bagratan, a small village in the east.  One night, as Bellana returned from prayer, she saw flames rising from a clearing.  Locals had seized Imlec, intending to burn him alive.  Ignoring Imlec’s frenzied appeals, the Bride declared she would prove her faith by casting herself into the flames.

Her ashes were gathered by her followers and a shrine raised at the site of her death.  This became Enuma - "Brightflame" in the Elrizan tongue.  Some whispered Imlec himself reappeared, grief stricken, to lay the keystone.  But others scoffed, claiming they had seen him die in the flames.  

As Itani finished reading the tale of Bellana, several things struck him.  This “Imlec” seemed to have returned from the dead several times.  And he’d referred to Bellana as a “vessel.”  

The confessor’s suspicions were beginning to crystalize.  He needed to look through this shrine.  Maybe there were other clues. 

Cautiously entering the clearing, he saw the standing stone sat atop the tomb itself.  The surface structure was not large, but the main chambers were supposed to be underground.  Nearby was an open quarry.  A stone path led to double doors of cast iron emblazoned with the symbol of Valkyn.  

As he drew near, he saw the heavy lock and chains on the doors had recently been sawed through.  There were fresh footprints in the muddy grass.  

“Looks like we got company.”

The voice came from behind him.  Itani spun.  

Two men slouched by the open quarry.  Their hair and beards were long and unkept.  They wore ragged leather armor and carried rusty swords.  The gruesome sigil on their chests, a severed arm holding a dagger, was a familiar one.   

Scrappers.

The many guilds of Crows each had their own character and reputation.  Some were mercenaries.  Others focused on trade.  A number were holy orders serving the various deities.  The largest were loose gatherings that fought under the banners of Order, Balance and Chaos.  

It was a favorite pastime of Crows to debate the worth of the various guilds.  Which was best for a siege?  Who did you want for a raid?  

Whenever anyone asked who was the lowest of the low, the bottom of the barrel, the most wretched and unprincipled, it was no contest.

Scrappers.

There was a saying among Crows that, if you shook hands with a Scrapper, you’d better check afterwards that you still had all your fingers.  They roamed the most desolate regions, taking anything that wasn’t nailed down.  Useless in warfare, they excelled at thieving and scavenging.  If forced to fight, they used raw numbers to overwhelm.

Itani had dealt with Scrappers before.  But he had little time now.  Perhaps a fight could be avoided.  

“Greetings, friends,” he offered.  “I am Heramor, a wandering priest come to visit this shrine.  Who might you be?”

The Scrapper who had spoken first, a tall, lean man with a gold tooth, laughed and elbowed his companion.

“See Bliv - our lucky day.  Another chicken to pluck.”

“Then let’s be done with it.  I’m freezing my parts.”

“Oy,” the gold tooth called.  “Hand over your stuff and we’ll make it quick.”

Itani raised his hands.

“Don’t hurt me!  I’ve little coin.  But any I have is yours.”

Gold tooth spat in the mud.

“Bah!  Fine gear like that.  You’re loaded or I’m a Guineacean.”

“Nice boots,” sneered Bliv.  “Let's take them off his corpse, then toss him down the hole.”  

The men looked at each other and nodded.

Itani sighed.  He slid his hand beneath his robes to the hilt of his weapon.

The confessor heard the beating of wings.

Gold tooth looked up just as a white blur struck his shoulder.  He was knocked into Bliv and both men tumbled into the mouth of the open quarry.  Their wails echoed until they could no longer be heard.   

A winged creature spiraled out of the sky and plummeted towards the the earth.  A moment before striking ground it pulled up and flapped to a soft landing on the grass.

A fae.  I’ll be, thought Itani.  This didn’t mean he was out of trouble though.  Quite the contrary.

The fae stamped the mud from her feet.  She was wearing a sort of flying suit, pearl white and tight enough to leave little to the imagination.  Her mask had two holes cut on top for her long bat ears, and each ear was protected by sleeves of white rabbit fur.

She walked to the edge of the pit and peered into its depths.

“Whoops!  Bet they’re still falling.”

The fae beamed at him.

“Two at once!  I’m just that good!”

“Thank you for rescuing me Miss…” said Itani.  “What may I call you?”

The fae scoffed.

“Drop the act.  I know what you are.  Watched you coming over.  You carved up those Hunger beasts and would have made short work of those two.  I just saved you the trouble.” 

“Fair enough,” replied Itani.  “I’ll go first.  I’m Itani, Confessor of Arkon.”

“And I am The Fae.  That’s all you need to know.”

Itani rolled his eyes.

“Really?”

“Yes, really.  What are you doing here?”

“I’m investigating this tomb," replied Itani.  "It may have useful lore.  Why are you here?”

“I’ve already told you too much.”

“You haven’t told me anything.”

“I know your type.  You want me to…confess.”

“Listen…Fae…you need to understand something.”

Itani stopped short.  The fae had pulled out a small pistol and was aiming it at him.

“A Guineacean hand cannon,” he noted.  “Model 217, custom grip, lock iron pan.  They only made 18 of them.”

The fae’s eyes widened.  She examined the pistol with interest.

“Wow, no wonder it cost so much.  Hey!”

Itani knocked the pistol from her grasp.  It fell onto the grass.

“Now we can have a civilized discussion.  I…”

Itani grunted as he felt the tip of a dagger under his chin.

“You must not know many fae,” she smirked.  “We always have a hidden blade.”

“We don’t have time for this,” he grimaced.

“Then let’s make it simple.  Now that those Scrappers have been run off, I’m going to loot this tomb.  You, on the other hand, will march back to wherever you came from.”

“Look at the sky,” said Itani.

The fae followed his gaze.  Banks of azure-tinted clouds were forming a massive wall to the east.  Flashes of blue lightning arced within them.

“That Hunger storm will be here soon,” said Itani.  “That means quakes.  We both want to explore this tomb.  Either it’s done fast or not at all.”

The fae lowered her blade.  She pursed her lips.

“Fifty-fifty?” she offered.

“Of course,” he replied.

“And I get first pick of any rare items?”

“Done.”

The fae retrieved her pistol from the grass and slid it into her boot.  She began walking briskly towards the entrance.

“Last one in is a musk hog!”

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Edited by cemya

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DREAMFAST

“Quite the sight, isn’t it?”  

Ransom smiled as he took in Cembrye’s awe.

The white spires of Castle Dreamfast beckoned in the distance now.  The high walls, made of a pale blue rock found only on the worlds of the moon-elves, gleamed like ice in the wintry sun.  

They heard soft hooting.  A snowy owl had landed on a nearby tree.  It examined them with its large yellow eyes.  Then it flapped off towards the keep.

Ransom chuckled.

“Our arrival has been noted.”

They soon came upon a small roadside cabin.  Puffs of smoke came from its chimney.  Beside it was a large boulder.  

An elken emerged.  He looked them over impassively.

“Leave your pack beasts with me.  Stand by the rock.”  

They did as they were told.  Ransom turned to Cembrye with a serious expression.

“For what’s next, I need you to trust me.  Do exactly as I say.  No inspirations.”

Cembrye, a bit ruffled by his tone, opened her mouth to reply.  Then she glanced at Kitaara.  The assassin was looking intently down the road.  

They heard a jingling noise.  It grew louder.  Ransom gripped the hilt of his weapon.

Two enormous white bears came hurtling towards them.  They were pulling a green sleigh hung with silver bells.  No one seemed to be steering it.  

A dozen feet away, the bears dug in their paws.  The sleigh skidded to a halt, almost tipping over.  The largest bear slipped its harness and padded silently towards them.     

“Stand still,” whispered Ransom.  “Don’t look it in the eye.  And by all the Gods, don’t run.”

The huge bear ignored everyone but Cembrye, shambling up until it loomed over her.  It occurred to Ransom the beast could easily swallow the girl in one gulp.

The creature sniffed, nostrils quivering.  It raised its massive head and gave an ear-splitting roar.  Alarmed flocks of nearby ground birds took wing.

Cembrye’s face was as white as the bear’s fur.  But she held steady, fists clenched, her eyes focused resolutely on the ground.

As if satisfied, the bear slouched back to the sleigh and slid its head into the harness.  The beasts now seemed to be waiting.

Ransom took his hand off his sword hilt.

“All aboard.”

Kitaara clapped Cembrye on the shoulder as she passed.  Still dazed, the girl gave a nervous laugh, then followed.  

Once they were seated, the bears set off towards the castle, seeming to need no guidance. 

“What fun!” exclaimed Cembrye as they picked up speed.  Recovered from her fright, she knelt gripping the side of the sleigh, her braids whipping in the breeze.

“Aye,” said Ransom.  “But once we enter the keep, be ready for some strange sights,” said Ransom.  

“Stranger than being pulled in a sleigh by bears?”

He laughed.  

“Judge for yourself.”

In a few minutes they were at the gate.  Carved pillars flanked enormous oak doors embossed with the symbol of a slain rat.  

The bears halted.  They could hear the sound of grinding gears.  

“The token of Illara,” said Ransom, pointing to the symbol as they waited.  “Mistress of Cats and patron Goddess of Yuki Orinelle.”

“I saw a statue of her at the Pantheon,” said Cembrye.  “She didn’t look very friendly.”  

“Illara the Traveler is perhaps the most mysterious of all the Gods and Goddesses,” said Ransom.  “She is daughter to Valkyn but doesn’t seem very upset by his disappearance.  She travels across time, pursuing magical research.  It is said only Illara knows the secret for breaching the wall between this reality and others.  Many pray to her for that reason, hoping she will deliver us from the Hunger.”

“Has anyone ever spoken with her?” asked Cembrye, wide-eyed.

“There have been few confirmed appearances by the Gods or Goddesses.  Interestingly, Illara is the subject of one of them.”

“Tell me!”

“A lover of knowledge I see,” said Ransom.  “About a thousand years ago, in one of the oldest Kingdoms called the Arch of Lyessa, it is said Illara appeared before a Crow named Almuir.  What passed between them is unknown, but it drove Almuir mad.  He began to build the Grimward - a great fortress - in the Arch itself, raving that it was needed to defend against the Hunger.  When he departed, they raised a shrine to Illara on the spot where his body was found.”

“When he departed?”

“Crows are immortal.  But they may succumb of their own will.  Weariness, despair, the loss of love – the reasons are many.”  

Cembrye shivered.

“What a creepy story!  It should be told around a fireplace on a rainy night.  With mugs of hot chocolate.”

The ranger grinned.

“Have a care how you speak of your step-daughter.  I wonder what Illara thinks of her father taking a young second wife?”

“Maybe they would go shopping together,” offered Kitaara.

“Stop it you two!” said Cembrye.  “Scaring and making fun of me at the same time.”

There was a loud creak.

“The gates are opening,” said Ransom.  “Brace yourselves.”

The bears leapt forward for the last sprint.  

A stone path led to the mansion itself.  But the fields on either side teemed with activity.  Ransom had not been jesting about strange sights.

To their left was an ice pond.  About a hundred Guineaceans, wearing ice skates and dressed in party clothes of every color imaginable, danced to music only they seemed to hear.  Each held a long white ribbon that was fastened to a tall pole in their midst.  

To their right was a snow hill.  Half-giant children were racing sleds down it.  The eldest spotted them and waved to the others.  Pointing at Cembrye, he took a comic pose, as if he were preaching.  The other children erupted in laughter.

“Word travels fast,” remarked Kitaara as Cembrye blushed. 

They raced on.  Cembrye spotted flocks of black and white colored birds on either side of the path, gathering as if to greet them.  The birds were flightless and as tall as a man, with flippers for wings.  They made clicking sounds.

Cembrye clapped her hands excitedly.

“Pengwynne!” she cried.  “I’ve only seen paintings of them.  They’re adorable!”   

“Look more closely,” said Ransom.

Cembrye saw that the birds had the beaks of hawks.  Their talons dug furrows in the ground.  Glittering red eyes followed them as if tracking prey.

“Mandamors,” said Ransom.  “The result of a failed experiment by a mad wizard.  The Devoted ordered them destroyed, but Yuki tamed them.  They exist nowhere else.”

The bears slid to a halt before the door of the mansion.  

Cembrye saw that marble statues of men stood on either side of the door.  Suddenly, the statues began to move.  She gripped Ransom’s arm.

“They are harmless,” he said, patting her hand.  “Automatons.  Creations of Brody, Yuki’s Second and one of the most renowned inventors in the kingdoms.  ”

The marble men strode forward, joints squeaking, opened the door, then stood at attention.  An elderly moon-elf dressed in formal attire stepped out.  He bowed deeply.

“Salutations.  I am Wemys, Chamberlain to her Ladyship.  I trust you had a comfortable journey?”

“Yes, thank you.  I am Ransom, this is Kitaara, and this is….”

“The Bride of Valkyn,” interjected Wemys.  “A rare honor.”  There was a hint of amusement in his voice.  

The moon-elf gestured.

“I will show you where you can refresh.  Then her Ladyship awaits.  Please follow me.”

After washing and changing out of their travel clothes, they were ushered down a hallway that opened into a large, well-appointed dining room.  Tapestries hung on the walls depicting scenes from famous battles.  In the middle of the room was a long polished wooden table with carved chairs.  It was set with a fine porcelain service and silver candle holders.  

Beside the table, a blue-skinned woman with long, unbound silver hair and bat ears stood with her back to them.  She wore a black brocade gown.  She turned and smiled as they entered.

“Welcome to Dreamfast!”

Cembrye looked to Ransom.  He inclined his head towards the blue woman.

“Go on…this was your idea,” he whispered. 

“Uhm, err,” mumbled Cembrye.

Yuki was already striding towards them.  She stopped in front of Kitaara, who stood with folded arms. 

“Kitty!  No hard feelings?  Good!”

Kitaara’s eyes narrowed.  

“And you,” she said, moving to stand in front of Ransom.  “I have a message for your Magna Mater.  Tell her no!  Just…no!”

Ransom gaped, but the frost-weaver had already swept past him to Cembrye.

“Let me see you…really see you.”  She took Cembrye’s hands in her own and held her gaze.  Yuki was wearing gloves, but Cembrye could still feel the coldness of her touch.  

Yuki’s pupiless silver eyes widened, as if she’d glimpsed something.  She gave a little gasp, covered her mouth with the back of one hand, and turned away.

“My Lady,” ventured Cembrye.  “Thank you for your invitation.  There is so much I want to ask.  I…”

Yuki turned back and waved her hands.

“Yes, yes...but first - we feast!” 

Yuki clapped.  More automatons entered carrying trays of food and drink.  They all took their seats.

And what a feast it was.   Fresh baked bread with bowls of whipped butter and jam.  A delicious soup of potatoes and ham.  Roast boar and chicken, pot pie with sage and cheeses of every kind, with spiced wine and cider to wash it down.  

Cembrye had forgotten how ravenous she was.  Kitaara sent her a look to slow down.  The automatons had no sooner cleared one course than they brought another.  They finished with a dessert of pears in red wine and chocolate cake drizzled with maple sauce.

While they ate and drank, Yuki regaled them with tales of famous Crows.  Kleyman and his three hounds.  Sarissa the Night Walker.  Yar the Mighty.  The stories were familiar to Ransom and Kitaara, but Yuki told them so well, with humorous asides, that even they seemed to enjoy them.  For Cembrye, it was another kind of feast and she hung raptly on every word.  

Her last story, about the many husbands of Queen Maggie, left Ransom in tears from laughter.

“By the Three, Yuki, that was well-told,” he grinned, wiping his eyes.

“The Three?” asked Cembrye curiously.

“You have not heard of them?” said Ransom.  “The Three are the greatest warriors of Order, Balance and Chaos.  They abandon their former callings and take holy vows to enforce the laws of the Devoted.  Once set to a task, they have never failed.  Except once.”

“And a close run it was,” said Yuki as she took a drink of spiced wine.   The moon-elf smiled at Cembrye’s astonished look.  She reached out and patted the girl’s arm.

“Trust me, sweet thing, you don’t want the Three after you.”     

“Why were they chasing you?”

“When you arrived, did you see flocks of black and white birds?”

“The Mandamors?”

“Yes!  Condemned by those without imagination.  They deserved a chance.  The Devoted came to agree.”

Ransom shifted in his seat, as if the conversation had taken an uncomfortable turn.  Yuki noticed.

“Fear not.  It is a poor hostess who argues religion at table.  I do not see eye to eye with the Lord Archon.  We may leave it at that.”

Yuki rose.

“Come, let us go to the drawing room.”

They followed her and were soon seated in comfortable chairs around a crackling fire.  Yuki sat directly across from Cembrye.  Paintings on the walls depicted Crows of legend.  

Yuki leaned back in her chair with an expectant look.

“Uhm…well, it wasn’t easy coming here,” Cembrye began cautiously.  “The day we met was the most horrible of my life.  But at the end of it, I was a Crow.”

“How are you finding it?” asked Yuki.

“I can do things I never dreamt.  But I feel…out of place…somehow.  Like there is something I am meant to do, but I don’t know what it is.”     

“And that is why you came here?”

“Yes.  I was hoping for answers.”

Yuki rose from her chair and stood with her back to them before one of the portraits.  There was a long silence as she traced the lines of the paint strokes.

“Tell me, sweet thing, in the Pillared Hall, when Stilicho wounded you to death…what were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking.  I just acted.”

“From here,” said Yuki, turning around and pointing at her heart.

Cembrye nodded.  

Yuki sat down and took Cembrye’s hands in her own.

“I have nothing for you, my child, that you do not already possess.”

“But my feelings, my beliefs…where do they come from?  What do they mean?”

Yuki laughed, a peculiar sound that reminded Cembrye once more of nothing so much as a wind chime being struck.  

The moon-elf let go and stood up.  Her kindly manner vanished.

“What did they tell you of the Silver Fay?” she demanded.  “That I was a witch?  That I knew the future?”

Taken aback, Cembrye stuttered, uncertain.

“I didn’t mean to offend.”

“Let me show you something.”

Yuki walked to a corner of the room where a curtain hung.  She drew it back.  

There, on a pedestal, was an Elken frozen solid in ice.

“Stoor!” exclaimed Kitaara. 

“Yes,” said Yuki.  “Unlike Kitty, he holds grudges.  He found a cold welcome!” 

She turned back to Cembrye.

“Wheels turn!  Knives are sharpened!  Armies march!”

“But the amulet.  The boy.  I have no idea what to do.”

“Maybe you will figure it out.”

Cembrye looked stunned.

Yuki clapped her hands.  Wemys appeared.

“Please escort our guests from my realm.”

The chancellor bowed.

Yuki made a shooing motion as she walked out the door, calling back over her shoulder.

“Goodbye then!”

As they prepared to mount the sleigh for the ride back, Ransom could contain his anger no longer.  He waited until Cembrye was far enough away, then grabbed Kitaara by the shoulder.

“A waste of time!” he seethed.

“Perhaps,” said Kitaara calmly.

“Perhaps!?  We had a fine meal, learned nothing, then are tossed out like vagrants.  Yuki was toying with us.  Look at Cembrye.”

The girl was staring crestfallen at the snow.  She appeared on the verge of tears.

“I believe there was purpose," said Kitaara.

“What purpose?” asked Ransom.  “To torture her?”

The assassin removed Ransom’s hand from her shoulder and looked him in the eye.

“Neither of us know what she is.  Yet we follow her.  Why?”

Ransom opened his mouth, then fell silent.

“I have traveled far with the girl.  She struggles.  But then she rises to look the day in the eye.  We both know something is happening.  We feel it.  But whatever comes, her strength to face it must rise from within.”

Kitaara sighed.

“Whether we are disciples or fools, we will learn only by walking the path ahead.”

  ***

Yuki waited until her guests had left.  Then she returned to the drawing room and stood before the frozen form of Stoor.  She snapped her fingers.

There was a loud crackling.  Shards of ice broke off from the elken.  He fell panting to his hands and knees, shaking his head to clear it.

“An ice spike between the eyes,” he growled.  “And now flash frozen.”

Yuki scoffed.

“Don’t be such a baby!”

“What now?” asked Stoor.

“We wait.”

“There must be something we can do.”

Yuki gazed wistfully out the door.

“No.  It is up to her now.”

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Edited by cemya

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THE CARETAKER

Hansa threw open the shutters and took a deep breath of night air.  Clear and cool.

The eastern plains of the Arch stretched before him under the moonlight.  He was still getting his bearings, but by now he could pick out landmarks.  To the left, far to the west, was the great mount of the Pinnacle, prison of the Devoted.  To the right, closer to hand, were the ruins of the Grimward, running like a jagged set of teeth along the horizon.  And of course, right nearby on its own little island in the middle of the mere, the reason Hansa was here - the Obelisk.

Hansa hadn’t been a Crow very long.  Until recently, he’d been the newest.  Now it was that girl everyone was talking about.  He wondered if she was also having a hard time adjusting.  

He still remembered how it happened, like it was yesterday.  Walking down an alley.  Seeing three men attacking an old woman.  Rushing in without thinking – too late to see they had swords.  As he lay dying, he saw a white flash – and all three men fell dead.  

The old woman turned out to be Olenya, Priestess of Gaea.  She brought him back.

Hansa often wondered why she did it.  He had just turned nineteen, a shopkeepers’ assistant who didn’t even know how to fight.  He’d only wanted to help.  All Olenya would say is that Gaea saw things differently than the other Gods.  She gave her life to nourish life.

Without Olenya, Hansa knew he’d be dead.  And he was grateful.  But he missed his parents.  He wondered if they were still mourning him.  If he’d ever see them again.

Olenya said that in time he’d find someone special and that it would help.  Hansa didn’t see that happening anytime soon.  Most Crow girls were really intimidating.  Even the nice ones.  And the fae?  Just saying hello was dangerous.

The priestess helped him find work.  Donations from believers supported shrines for all the religions.  Olenya said being a caretaker of one would give Hansa time to adjust, to find his purpose.  The job of watching over the “Doom of Almuir” – the name they gave to the shrine to the Goddess Illara – promised peace and quiet and a decent salary.  

Hansa didn’t know anything about Illara.  He had pledged right away to Gaea.  Olenya promised to bring him a book on her next time she visited.  

The job itself wasn’t hard.  The Obelisk was more or less indestructible.  He just needed to make sure visitors didn’t leave trash around.

A fae had come by recently.  Pretty, with green eyes and blonde hair.  But she didn’t pay him any mind and he didn’t dare start a conversation.  He’d seen her flying above the Pinnacle after that.  She was gone now though.

Hansa yawned.  The end of another day.  Still no closer to finding his purpose.  Maybe Olenya would come by tomorrow.  She always had words of encouragement.

Just as he was closing the shutters, Hansa stopped.  He thought he’d seen something.  A blue light.  

He peered out.  

There it was.  By the Obelisk.  Reflecting off the waters of the mere.

Now it was gone.

When he was hired, they told him the only thing he needed to worry about was pranksters.  Some guilds made defacing a shrine a rite of initiation.  Crows could be as silly as mortals.  That was probably what was going on.  Anyway, he’d check it out.

Hansa grabbed a wooden staff, the closest thing he had for a weapon, and went outside.  The Obelisk was only a couple of hundred yards away.  The moon was almost full, so he could see pretty well.  But he watched his step anyway since the ground was still muddy from the rains.  

In no time, he’d squelched up to the edge of the mere.  All quiet.  No light.  The Obelisk looked okay.  He’d come out again in the morning and see if they’d left any graffiti.

Wait.  Someone was up on the hill.  A woman in robes.  She was walking east, away from the Obelisk.

How strange.  What was she doing up there?  Was she the one making the light?  

Carefully, he came up behind her, as close as he dared without risking being spotted.

There was break in the clouds.  The moon illuminated her face.  

Hansa gasped.

She was beautiful.  But so pale.  And her eyes were covered.  Was she blind?

The woman continued east.

Hansa followed.  He wasn’t sure why.  His head felt foggy now. 
 

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Edited by cemya

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COUNSELS OF THE WISE

“A pleasant surprise, Magna Mater.  Please, come in.”

In truth, Anaxis was anything but pleased by this unexpected visit.  But he could hardly refuse. 

Calliope, High Priestess of Cybele, was the reason he was Lord Archon.

He had met Calliope soon after taking his vows.  At the time, the Devoted were a small conclave focused on the Making.  Calliope, one of the youngest ever to attain the position of Magna Mater, believed the Devoted could be more – a true church with a common purpose.  Ambitious and driven, Anaxis saw expansion as the vehicle to attain the recognition he craved.  Each found the other a kindred spirit.    

But it would not do for Calliope, a member of the Golden Council, to take the lead.  That would only incite opposition from Chaos and Balance.  Instead, they agreed she would support Anaxis from afar. 

Their partnership had been immensely successful.  The Devoted now bestrode the realms.  Chantries were founded in almost every temple.  Acolytes preached in almost every kingdom. 

Almost.  There were malcontents.  And new threats.

Anaxis suspected Calliope was here to discuss both.  But her timing could hardly have been worse.  For he had just received unsettling news.

The Bride had left her realm.  But not, as expected, to return to Ferisse.  She’d headed for Dreamfast, home of Yuki.  And while Leya had successfully secured Clem at the Pinnacle, instead of returning to him the fae had flown off to parts unknown. 

Fortunately, Derk and his half-giants had seized Two-Ton.  However, Stilicho and Stoor remained loose ends. 

Anaxis noticed Calliope peering across the table at him.  How long had he been lost in his thoughts?

“Ahem, as I said…a pleasure.  What brings you to the Great Temple?”

“You seem distracted.  Should I return another time?” she queried.

“No, no…please.  My apology.  It has been a long day.”

The half-elf priestess nodded.

“I needed to speak with you on a pressing matter.”

He motioned for her to continue.

“The girl.  As I feared, she has begun to preach.  A number of Crows have listened, and now the wildest tales are spreading.  Some claim she speaks for the All-Father.  Some argue she is behind the advance of the Hunger.  Many worship her.  Others call for her arrest.”

“The Bride,” nodded Anaxis.  “I thought that was why you’d come.   Do you know where she is now?”

Calliope shook her head.

“I do.  She went straight to Drizzlewitch.  The enemy of everything we are trying to build.”

Calliope sighed.

“If Yuki is an enemy, can you blame her?  You refused my advice and sent the Three after her.”

 “She was harboring abominations and defying the church.”

“And a failed use of force only made her stronger.  We will do things my way now.  I have invited her to parlay.  Just the three of us.  Let us hope she accepts.”

Calliope leaned back in her chair.

“If the girl is in league with Yuki that would complicate matters.  But let us not forget the rumor the Bride also possesses a bloodsoul amulet.”

The half-elf priestess took out a handkerchief and mopped her brow.

“The kingdoms are on edge as never before.  People have begun to consider the unthinkable.  A path I will not sanction.”

Anaxis stood and began to pace, his hands behind his back. 

“Magna Mater, the day may come when we need to think the unthinkable.  It gives me no pleasure to say so.”

Careful now, Anaxis, he told himself.  Tread carefully.  He licked his lips, then continued.

“No Crow should be forced to sacrifice themselves for the Making.  But what do we really know about the magic we wield?  Have we tested the frontiers of that knowledge?  What if the rules are not what they seem?”

“What are you saying, Anaxis?”

He detected her alarm.  This was enough.  For now.

“I was only describing the problem, Magna Mater.  We are all bound by the Codicil.”

The Codicil.  An ancient treaty agreed long ago by the early Crows.  It had been handed down from a vision received by Kuval, greatest mage of the time.  Many believed that it came from the Gods themselves.

The Gift – the power to inhabit a vessel – was not to be tampered with. 

But a bloodsoul amulet could be the key.  A stepping stone to power so great it would rival the Gods themselves.  A weapon to end the Hunger.

But as long as their hands were tied by the Codicil, they would never find out.  Any who tried would face sanction from all the kingdoms.

Unless that someone held unchallenged power.  A benevolent guide, who could decide what was best for everyone.  A man of vision to unite all Crows under a single iron will.

Calliope was speaking again.  He forced himself back to the present.

“We cannot act on mere suspicion,” she said.  “We need to know more about this Bride of Valkyn.”

“Is that necessary?  She convicts herself with her own words.”

“Even so, I will not act without more evidence.”

Calliope rose from her chair.

“I have sent Itani, my Second, to Ferisse.  He will learn what he can and report.  Until then, we should not hinder her.”

“You risk much, Magna Mater.”

“Do I have your word on it?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Then I must go.  But before I leave, I need a permit to visit the Arch of Lyessa.”

Anaxis forced a smile.  Why would Calliope wish to visit the Arch?  Now of all times? 

“I will sign one.  But what takes you there?”

“The acolyte of a dear friend has gone missing.  A young man who was caretaker of the shrine.”

“Then I wish you good fortune.  And I hope not so much time passes again before we see each other.”

The Magna Mater smiled, bowed and departed.

Anaxis was always driven, thought Calliope as she walked towards the gates.  But she detected something different this time.  Barely disguised frenzy.  And this sudden mention of the Codicil.  He was not telling her everything.

The thought terrified her.

She had helped make Anaxis one of the most powerful men in the kingdoms.  Never had she come to question her choice.  Until now.

Coming so hard on the heels of Ransom’s betrayal, it left her feeling unnerved.  Bereft.

She prayed Itani would return soon.  And that he could shed a light to guide her path.

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TOMB RAIDERS

“STOP!” cried Itani.

The fae turned and groaned, one hand on her hip.

“Great.  A dungeon crawler.”

“A what?”

“You don’t walk.  You craaaawl.  I thought we were in a hurry?”

Itani pointed to the doors of the tomb entrance.

“Observe, Fae.  The doors open outward.  We best prop them, or risk being trapped inside.”

She peered at the doors.  Pursing her lips, she picked up a pair of large stones and placed them as wedges.

“So smug.  So patriarchal.  But so right.  Strange though – it’s like they were more afraid of something getting out.”   

“Be prepared.  The Scrappers just sawed the lock.  They hadn’t been inside yet.”

“Someone has.”

The fae gestured at the threshold.  A faint set of footprints led into the dark.

“Someone with a key,” murmured Itani.  “I’ll go first.”

He stepped forward confidently.

“No!”

“The male can’t lead?”

The fae pointed to the path of the footprints.  After a couple of steps, they jogged left, making a half circle before continuing.  Itani realized he was now standing in the middle of the circle.

They heard a loud click.

The confessor yelled as the ground dropped away.  There was a sound of flapping.  Something struck his side and he hurtled through the air, landing on his back, where he lay stunned.

As Itani’s vision cleared, he saw the fae was sitting astride him.  She gave a wide grin. 

“Someone needs to diet!”

“It’s the armor,” he offered sheepishly. 

She hoisted Itani to his feet.

“Nuh-uh,” she smirked.  “But that’s okay.  You’re just lucky I’m not wearing…”

“Much of anything.”

“So I can move fast when I want to.”

She winked.

“Very utilitarian,” he muttered.

The Nethari dusted himself off.  Lighting his lamp, he looked down into the pit.  Twenty feet below was a forest of spikes.

“Missed my chance,” sighed the fae.  “Guess I’m stuck with a two-way split.”

“Now who’s being smug?  And…matriarchal.”

“C’mon,” said the fae, pulling on his arm.  “This place isn’t going to rob itself.” 

They carefully followed the footprints through the surrounding chambers.  Nothing unusual.  A room for pilgrims to rest.  A well.  Living quarters for attendants.  A storage room.

“It looks like this shrine hasn’t been visited for a while,” said Itani.  “Just dust and empty shelves.”

“And no treasure.  The guy who tipped me is going to get it.”

“The guy who tipped you?”

The fae’s eyes narrowed. 

“Alright, alright,” replied Itani.  He surveyed their surroundings. 

“We’ve covered everything but that hallway down.  The tracks go that way.”

The air grew warmer as they descended.  Then the passage leveled out.  They felt a draft and realized they were in a wider space.  Itani opened the lamp further.

Before them stretched a large vaulted chamber.  The walls were covered with murals, dulled by time but still strikingly colorful.  There were five sets, two on either side, with the largest set in the back of the chamber.  A ring of benches surrounded an elevated platform on which stood a stone pulpit.  Behind the pulpit was a life-size white marble statue of a young woman with long unbound hair, barefoot and wearing a plain dress.  She was gazing solemnly up at the ceiling, arms out with palms up, with representations of flames curling beneath her.  At her feet was a small urn.

He heard the fae’s indrawn breath.

“Who is she?”

“The Bride of Valkyn.”

“Wait a second.  The Bride of Valkyn?  That’s the same name of that crazy new girl.”

“Yes.”

Itani considered.  He did not know who this fae really was.  Or why she was here.  But he knew that to gain trust, one must sometimes first give it.

“I am on a mission for the Magna Mater.  She asked me to travel to Ferisse to investigate the claims of the newest Crow.  From a book of lore, I learned there had been another Bride of Valkyn, martyred a century ago.”

He gestured at their surroundings.

“This place is her tomb.  It is called Enuma, which is Bright Flame.  This must be the worship chamber.”

The fae’s eyes widened as he spoke.  Her reaction seemed genuine.  Itani felt an inward relief.

The confessor pointed to the murals.

“And these must be scenes from her life.” 

They walked slowly around the room, examining each set of murals in turn.

The first set showed the daily routine of a young noble girl.  Dancing.  Needlework.  Prayer.

“What was her name?” asked the fae.

“Bellana of Aramore.  As you can see, she came from wealth.” 

The second set showed the same girl, but as an older teen.  The scenes were of travel.  Riding a camel.  Climbing a windswept plateau.  Entering the gates of a castle.

“This looks to be her journey from her home,” Itani mused.  “A hundred years ago.  To attend the wedding of a cousin.” 

“That castle is Shuhpur,” said the fae.

Itani looked towards her, eyebrow arched.

“I’ve, uhm, been to Elriza before.  To do some stuff for someone.”

The fae nibbled her lip.  She looked like she had been about to say more but had stopped herself. 

Itani hesitated, then nodded.

The third set of murals showed the young woman in the company of a robed man.  He was cowled so that his face was not visible.  He seemed to be instructing her.

“I would guess that is Imlec,” said Itani.  “Reputed to have either inspired or ensorcelled Bellana, depending on who you believe.”

The fae pointed to the furthest panel in the set.  It showed the girl running away as soldiers seized the cowled man.

“Whoah.  What’s going on there?”

“The Bride’s family had Imlec seized and executed.  She ran off into the wastes.”   

“How do you know all this?”

Itani took out the slender volume given him by Father Telos.

“This book recounts her legend.  I do not know how accurate it is though.”

The fourth set of murals showed the young woman coming out of the desert towards a crowd of people, the cowled man once more at her side.  The crowd seemed shocked, some fleeing and others falling to their knees.  The young woman was smiling.  The muralist had painted a glow about her.

“Bellana returned from the desert with Imlec at her side,” said Itani.  “He proclaimed her the Bride of Valkyn and a holy vessel.  They started the first church after that.”

“Wait a second.  How did she survive the desert?  And wasn’t Imlec dead?”

“The crowd wondered that as well,” replied Itani.

They walked to the fifth, and last, set of murals.  These were much larger and placed in the center of the chamber, directly behind the pulpit and statue.  The murals depicted, in heart-wrenching detail, scenes from the Bride’s martyrdom.  One panel showed the crowd binding Imlec to a stake, piling branches around him, and setting the wood alight.  Another showed Bellana walking into the flames, eyes closed.  The last panel showed a weeping crowd gathering her ashes and placing them in an urn.

“And this of course is…” began Itani.  He halted mid-sentence as he noticed the fae’s expression.

She was staring wide-eyed at the image of Imlec bound to the stake.  Unlike the other murals, in this one he was not wearing a cowl.  His features were plainly visible.

“What is it?”  queried Itani.

The fae swallowed hard, then seemed to compose herself.

“Nothing.”

She was lying, thought Itani.  And upset.  It was as if she’d recognized Imlec.

Before he could follow up, he saw the fae scurry towards the back of the chamber.  She pointed to something against the wall while holding a handkerchief over her nose.  As he reached her, Itani saw why.

They had found the maker of the footprints.

The man was lying on his face.  His robes were the color of flame and had Valkyn symbols woven into them in gold thread.  A broken staff lay beside his body.  He looked to have been dead for some time.

“This must be Amnon, the High Priest,” said Itani.  He searched the body and found what he was looking for.  A key on a chain.

“Who?”

“A cultist of Arkon.  Supposedly he killed the second Bride when she came to Elriza.  Obviously that didn’t happen.  Suffice to say, he then converted to worship of Valkyn.  When the Hunger advanced, I was told he came here to summon the help of a legendary Elrizan woman warrior.”

“Subeiha?” asked the fae.

Itani gaped.

“You know of her?”

The fae nodded.

“From my visit before.  They were singing a song to her in a tavern.  I asked and the locals filled me in.  But why would this guy come here to summon her?”

“I don’t know.  I was hoping this tomb would have clues.  But nothing so far.”

“Wait a second!”

The fae knelt and examined the corpse of the priest.

“Look at his hands.”

Itani knelt and saw.  The priest, in his last agonies, had been clawing at the stone wall.

“Stand back,” the confessor said.  He made a series of intricate motions with his hands.  At first nothing happened.  Then, slowly but clearly, a gossamer line of light appeared on the wall in the shape of a large door.

The fae let out a low whistle.

“Nice!”

“Yes, but with no lock or mechanism.  It must require a spell word.  Without it, we are stuck.”

The fae gave him a nudge.

“Stand back!”

She stood in front of the door and raised her arms.

“Celestial!”

There was a crackling sound like electricity.  The gossamer lines faded.  A stone door creaked open. 

“Back at you,” said Itani, impressed.  “How did you know the spell word?  Wait, your tipster told you.”

She nodded.

“The one you won’t talk about.”

The fae nibbled her lower lip, then nodded again.

She took Itani’s lantern from his hand and walked through the door.

“He said there was something valuable past the ward.  Some kind of rare book.”

“Then let us see.”

The passageway sloped steeply downwards again.  However, its nature was different.  The walls were rough rock, not chiseled stone.  Occasionally a thin stream of water would flow out of an unseen crack above.  There was no sound but their breaths.

“This goes deep,” said Itani.  “And it is not like the rest of this place.  It seems older.  Much older.  I wonder if they knew it was here when they built the tomb?”

“I bet not.  Or whoever knew kept it to themselves.  That dead guy seemed to think there was something here, though.”

“Amnon had been a priest of Arkon.  And he was native to Elriza.  Perhaps other legends link Subeiha to this area.”

They continued on.  The passage seemed endless.  How far underground were they now?

They stopped to refill Itani’s lantern.  In the warm air, the fae decided to take off her mask.  Long blonde hair tumbled down.

“Good idea,” said Itani.  “This place is getting hot.”

“That’s all that’s coming off though!”

She poked him in the chest.

Itani stuttered.

“Just kidding,” she laughed.  “It’s fun rattling your cage.  Just tell me to snog off.”

“No chance.  I may need you to rescue me again.  But if I had to choose a last sight before I die, I could do worse than those green eyes.”

The fae’s jaw dropped.  A blush came over her cheeks.

“Wow.  I wasn’t expecting…I mean…I guess I have no comeback.  Point to the Nethari.”

The confessor adjusted the lamp with a deadpan expression.  

Inside, Itani was wondering what he had just done.  The words had simply…come out.  She was fae and he was Nethari.  He didn’t even know her name.

He needed to get moving again…now.

“Shall we?  I think the tunnel is leveling out again.”

It was.  After another hundred feet they felt drafts again.  Not only that, but a slender pillar of light appeared ahead.  It looked to be another wide chamber.

“Interesting,” murmured Itani.  “There must be a shaft leading to the surface.”

They entered the chamber.  It was large but rough-hewn - more like a cave.  A stone sarcophagus rested on the floor, lit by the shaft of light from above.  They could see a desk and chair in the corner.  Three murals covered the far wall, framed by carved symbols.

Itani opened the lantern further.  The murals and symbols came into view.  They were faded but still legible.  Like everything past the magic door, they looked much older than the rest of the shrine.

“By all that is sacred,” Itani murmured. 

He and the fae exchanged looks.

“Is that who I think it is?” she whispered. 

Itani nodded.  He stepped closer to the murals.

“Hero, the First Crow.  Those are his sigils.  But…these murals…” he whispered, his voice trailing off.

The first mural showed a weary-looking man in heavy armor with a two-handed sword on his shoulder.  A woman with silver hair and blue skin walked at his side.  They were climbing a long slope towards a farmhouse under a starry night sky.

“Hero.  And a moon elf,” said Itani.

The second mural showed Hero standing with bloodied sword over the corpses of a woman and three children.  The moon elf faced him, shielding a newborn baby in her arms, one palm towards Hero in a warding motion.

The fae gave a cry, then turned away and burst into tears. 

Itani gulped.  He began to recite the words from memory.  It was the Catechism of Hero:

Did Hero return to find his wife and children slain, innocent victims of a savage time? Did he slay them to prove his devotion? Kill them in nightmarish fit of rage? Perhaps none of these stories are true. Perhaps all of them are.

The last mural showed the moon elf again, bowing before a small girl who was transforming, melting from flesh into a figure of pure fire and light.

Itani moved to where the fae knelt sobbing.  He placed a hand on her shoulder.  She wiped her eyes, nodding thankfully as she composed herself.

“If these murals are true, then it is incredible,” murmured Itani.  “We may know the true origin of a God.  But the moon elf and fiery child…there must be more.”

Sniffling, the fae pointed to the desk in the corner.  A book and writing materials lay on it.  They seemed more recent than anything else in the cave, although they were still covered by a thick layer of dust.

“That must be the book.”

Itani picked it up and opened it.  He began to read it out loud:

I, Clem, Mage of Hero and servant of the Devoted, herein recount the journey I have made.  For many years I climbed, and now, at the summit, I see laid before me the truth.

When I came to Ferisse over a century ago, I was a man in search of a question.  By the will of the Gods or brute chance, I found it, and answers, though at great cost.

The Canticles of the All-Father lit my way.  The Embers of Chaos and the Dust of Order, divine materials for which all else is but a shadow, float across the heavens: adrift, lost, untethered. But they are not alone. 

She was there.  At first it was a mad guess.  Then I found this cave.  Or was guided here.  By the All-Father?  Another?  Who knows.  The line between inspiration and madness thins.

Why did Hero kill all his family but the babe?  Why would his lover protect the child?  Years before, deep in the archives of the Devoted I had come across a fragment from the Apocrypha, writings banned from the sacred text of the Book of Creation.  They whisper to me even now in tongues of beauty and horror:

“Before the All-Father departed to face the Hunger, he left a part of himself.  None know why, for who can fathom the mind of Valkyn the Ancient?  He begat a girl child with the wife of Hero.  And Hero, returning from war, knew the babe was not his.  And Hero slew all his family but the daughter of Valkyn, for his consort begged him to spare the babe. And Hero did so, burdened by guilt, knowing he had not been a true husband.  In time, the divine child died, for one such as she cannot thrive in mortal realm.  But neither could her soul find rest, for the All-Father had departed.  And so, she wandered, untethered, until in the fullness of time her confusion and loss turned to anger.”

One small piece.  But, like a rock slide, this fragment triggered the rest.  Ferisse had always seemed different.  Settled by humans long ago, a shadow of the cult of Valkyn was there from its beginning.  And now we know it as the ancient birthplace of Hero the Undying.

I began my search with these words of the sacred Canticle as guide:  it “coalesces around the Embers as if desperate to find purchase…like iron to a lodestone.”

Slowly, I built the cult of Valkyn into something more.  I built a temple to call to her.  And I waited.  And she came out of the Elrizan desert.  But not to the temple. 

She came to my Bellana.  I cannot say the name without weeping.

The power of her faith, her purity and goodness…I pray the Gods will forgive me for what I did to her.  I know I will never forgive myself.  Bellana’s death is on my conscience.  And I know now her sacrifice made things worse.  I thought to hinder the march of the Hunger.  But I hastened it.

I go now to the west.  I will mourn and rebuild.  The name of Imlec I leave buried here along with my beloved.  I must try once more – the child of flame is the key.  Nothing else matters.

Itani closed the book.  There was a long silence.  He looked towards the fae.  She had buried her face in her hands.

“Fae,” he began gently.  “I can see you know more.  Care to tell me?”

“I can’t,” she pleaded, gesturing with her hands.  “I mean I can…but I don’t know if it will make things better or worse.  For me, for you…for everyone.  I thought it was just another job.  A lark.  I never dreamed…”

“Can you at least tell me your name?”

“I…no.  For me, its all or nothing.  If I tell you my name, then I’m going to tell you everything.”

Itani sighed.

“Well, we need to get this book to the Magna Mater.  Even if it is just the ravings of a mad man.”

“If he’s right,” said the fae, “then the Bride of Valkyn is actually the Daughter of Valkyn.  Ick.”

Itani gave her a look.

“C’mon,” she said.  “Your mind went to a strange place for a moment too.” 

“Regardless…it is all hard to believe.  I wish we could find more evidence.”

“Maybe there are more books?”

Itani looked around.

“I don’t see anything else here.  All I have left to go through are some notes on the legend of Subeiha.  But they are in Elrizan.”

“I can read Elrizan.”

Itani looked at her in amazement. 

“I’ve never met a woman who was so helpful and frustrating at the same time.”

“It’s my specialty.  Give me the notes.”

He handed them to her.  She began reading.

“Subeiha, blah blah.  They called her and she came, blah blah.  She killed five here, a dozen there, piled the corpses, blah blah.  Nothing out of the usual for her.  She basically showed up and killed people.  Wait…here is something…”

The fae read silently, her lips moving.  Then her eyes widened.

“Whoah…listen to this.” 

And she read:

In all her appearances, Subeiha is known to have spoken only once.  It was at the scene of her greatest massacre, where she had slaughtered a hundred sand raiders.  When she was done, she lowered her fiery sword and cried out: ‘Where is my father?’

They exchanged glances.

“Are you as spooked as I am?” asked the fae in awe.

“More,” admitted Itani.

Itani looked towards the sarcophagus.

“This was not just a tomb for Bellana.  Let’s look more closely.”

They walked over to the stone sarcophagus.  They could see that the light fell right on a hole in the top of it.  Itani traced the edges with his fingers.  Then he looked up at the shaft in the ceiling.

“The edges look melted.  If I had to guess, the hole in the sarcophagus and that shaft to the surface were made by something very hot.”

“Something that wanted out,” said the fae. 

“I suspect Bellana’s urn in the main chamber is empty.  But there is one other thing I wanted to check.  Let’s head back up.”

“What about the book?”

“We can come back down for it.  And everything else.  It’s a lot to carry.”

In a few minutes, they had climbed back to the main worship chamber.  Itani walked over to the mural that showed the crowd arresting Imlec.

“I was wondering about this,” said the Nethari.  “There is a whole black area here that seems out of place along the edge.  Like someone painted over it later.  Can I borrow your knife?”

The fae slid a slender blade out of her bodice.  Itani averted his eyes once he saw where she was reaching.

“Guess the secret’s out,” she grinned as she handed it to him.

Itani resisted the temptation to reply, forcing himself to focus on his task.  It was a delicate one, but slowly and steadily he pared away the edges of the black area.

“Just as I thought.  This part of the mural was painted over recently.  But if I’m careful, I can peel it away and see what someone wanted hidden…there we are.”

The confessor pulled back the congealed strip of paint. 

“Well, I’ll be.  It’s another moon elf,” he said.

“Or the same one,” said the fae.  “She is behind the mob…egging them on.”

“Another mystery.  Hopefully the Magna Mater can make sense of this too.”

He let out a deep breath. 

“Come Fae…let’s gather up what we’ve found and get out of here.”

“Great idea Nethari!  I’ve about had it with being underground.  Some sun and air would be nice.”

Suddenly they heard a low rumble.  It seemed to be coming from all around them. 

“Hunger quake!” cried the fae.

“That storm must be here," agreed Itani.

They were thrown off their feet.  The entire chamber seemed to be swaying.  Rocks tumbled down from the ceiling, narrowly missing them.  After a minute, the quakes stopped and there was silence.

“The doors!” shouted Itani.  They rushed up the corridor to the entrance of the tomb.

They saw the doors had broken free of their wedges and were now tightly shut.

“We’re trapped inside,” said Itani, his hands pushing fruitlessly at the doors.

“Maybe not,” said the fae.

He looked at her.  Then he smacked his forehead with his palm.

“That shaft to the surface.  Come on!”

They rushed back down to the cave.  Shielding his eyes, Itani peered up through the shaft. 

“It’s too narrow.  You won’t have room to flap your wings.”

“It will be tight.  And I’m not saying it will be easy.  But I think I can do it.  Once I get out, I can run around and clear any rocks blocking the doors.”

Itani reached into his robes.  He took out the key he’d gotten from Amnon’s body and handed it to the fae.

“Here is the door key, in case it locked.”

The fae took the key and nodded.  Tying back her long blonde hair, she pulled her mask back on.

“On my mark.  I’ll hoist you up to give you some momentum.”

“Wait.”

The fae turned to him.  Her large green eyes fixed him with an intense look.

“If I get stuck, I want you to promise you’ll finish me off.  With one of your bolts.”

“Fae…”

She seized his hands urgently in her own.  Her eyes were moist.

“Don’t let me die slow!  Promise me!”

Itani struggled for words.  Then he squeezed her hands and nodded.

“I promise.”

“Then let’s do this.”

Itani cupped his hands.  The fae unfurled her dove-like wings, placing one foot atop the sarcophagus and one on his hands.  The confessor counted down.  At zero, she launched herself upwards, wings flapping furiously.

The fae was halfway up the shaft when her progress slowed.  She could only extend her wings so far before they hit the rock edges.  But she redoubled her efforts, her wings beating faster and faster until they resembled those of a hummingbird.  She flapped and squirmed steadily up the shaft. 

Itani could hear her gasps of pain.  The rock edges must be battering her wings bloody.  He gritted his teeth.

Then, with one last heave, the fae was out.  He heard her shout in triumph.

“Go up top!” she cried.  “I’ll open the doors in a jiffy.”

Itani started up, then stopped.  Other sounds now came from above.

The sounds of snarling. 

The fae gave another shout, this time of alarm.  The snarling noises increased.  There was the sound of pistol shots.

“Fae!” cried Itani.  “Fae!”

Now he heard only the snarling.  The noises faded.  He was alone in silence.

Itani rushed back up to the tomb entrance.  He knelt by the door and put his ear to the rock.  Long minutes passed.

Nothing.   He bowed his head.

“Arkon, Lord of the Sun and Prince of Justice.  Give your blessings to this fae.  I don’t ask anything for myself.  Please protect her.  Please hear my prayer.”

There came a faint scrabbling at the stone.  Then panting breaths.  A small click. 

Itani pushed on the doors.  They swung open.

He shielded his eyes as he stepped outside.  A bright sun bore down.  He searched desperately.

The fae lay on her side fifty feet away.  He ran to her.

Three Hunger beasts sprawled dead around her.  A broken pistol was on the ground, as if it had been used as a club when its ammunition ran out.  Her pearl white flight suit was clawed and stained with blood and one of her wings was broken. 

Her eyes were closed.  But she was breathing.  She was alive. 

Itani looked to the sky and murmured his thanks.

The fae groaned.  Very gently, he rolled her onto her back.  Her eyelids fluttered open. 

“Got em’ all.  And unlocked the doors.  But I had to get my pistol back.  It was pretty expensive...”

“You could have flown off and left me,” said Itani.

“No way.  I talk tough.  But that’s not me.  Can’t leave a…partner.”

She coughed.  Specks of blood came out.

Suddenly the ground rumbled again.  Itani sensed another Hunger quake would come soon.  This one would be bigger than the last.  It would likely collapse the tomb and bury everything inside.

He could rush back down and get the book.  Or he could make a portal and get the fae medical attention.  He couldn't do both.

As if reading his thoughts, the fae squeezed his hand.

“Go on…get the book.  It’s more important than me.  I’m just a fae who ran out of bullets.   And one-liners.”

She coughed again.

“I doubt the latter,” replied Itani.  He gave her hand a return squeeze.

“I’m getting you to a doctor.  Just hang on.”

She forced a pained smile.

“Sticking around huh?”

Her voice seemed to be getting weaker.

“Don’t talk, Fae.  Just rest,” urged Itani.

The fae closed her eyes.  She pulled him closer.

“Leya,” she whispered.

“What?”

“My name.  It’s Leya.”  

47377492482_5387b3b175.jpg

Edited by cemya

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Posted (edited)

FIRE OF BELIEF

The portal sizzled.  A moment later, Ransom stepped through.

Kitaara looked up from where she was stirring the stew.

“Well, ranger?”

“Clear on the other side for about ten miles.  Then I came on a strange sight.  A camp of Crows.  About ten half-giants with a caged prisoner – a very large minotaur.”

“Did the minotaur have a broken left horn?”

Ransom gave the assassin a quizzical look.

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“Two-Ton.  He helped Call the girl.” 

The ranger grimaced.

“Then it’s begun.  They must be starting to arrest anyone who dealt with the Bride.  We need to tell Cembrye.”

He looked around their campsite.

“Where is she?”

Kitaara was silent a moment.

“She brought water from the stream.  But this was an hour ago.”

“I’m going to go look for her.  Can you stay here in case she comes back?”

The assassin nodded.

He walked some distance along the banks of the stream before hearing chunking sounds – the kind made when someone tosses knives into wood for practice.  He sighed in relief and followed the noise.

Ransom found her kneeling by the stream, wringing out her wet hair.  She was wearing her assassin leathers but was barefoot.  A half-dozen throwing knives were stuck in the ground beside her. 

She cast a side-wise glance at him as he approached.

“There you are,” scolded Ransom.  “You shouldn’t go off alone like that.  We were worried about you.”

Cembrye shrugged.

“I can take care of myself.”

“I know that.  I didn’t mean…”

The girl stood and began tying her hair into braids.

“You’re acting like you’re my father.  Or my boss.  Well, you’re not.”

Ransom, taken aback, gave her a look.

“Whoah – where did that come from?”

She stopped tying her hair and turned to face him, hands on hips.

“Look, I’m grateful for your help.  But I have to trust my own heart.  Yuki was right.”

“Yuki is wayward and unreliable.  What she did was cruel.”

“And you just sat there."

Ransom was silent a moment.

“You're right.  I should have said something.  But I was shocked.”

“I need friends to have my back.  Not be shocked.”

The ranger reddened.

“That’s unfair.”

“Fair or not, I won’t let it happen again.”

Ransom stepped forward.  He forced himself to keep an even tone.

“Cembrye, what’s come over you?”

She finished tying her hair.  She picked up her shoes and the throwing knives.

“I’ve decided to be me.  Get used to it.”

Ransom watched her stride off towards their camp. 

The ranger shook his head.  He needed time to process this before heading back.

He walked over to the large nearby tree.  It had deep marks in the bark.  The kind made by throwing knives. 

The prints of bare feet led back to the stream.  Cembrye's.  But something else caught his eye. 

Ransom knelt and examined the footprints more closely.  He had to look twice to convince himself he was really seeing what he was seeing.

The grass on the edges of the footprints was singed.  And the ground underneath darkened.  Like it had been burnt. 

By something very hot.

 

 47397846432_da36bbfb27.jpg         

   

Edited by cemya

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