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cemya

Bride Of Valkyn

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Posted (edited)

THE TEST

Anaxis stepped to the edge of the battlement.  He surveyed the lands stretched beneath him, pulling his robes closer to ward against the biting wind.

A fascinating mix of volcanic mountains and plateaus, Overholt had harbored the richest mines ever recorded.  Every Crow of note had fought here under the Laws of the Dregs.

Now Overholt was at its nadir.  The Hunger, moving with greater velocity each day, would swallow this last corner soon enough.

This castle had been taken over early in the campaign by a band of Kronos worshippers.  Anaxis had once been pledged to the Lord of Time.  It was a small matter to contact his old comrades and have the now-abandoned structure placed at his disposal.

Where better to conduct the final experiment?  Here they were safe from prying eyes.  And they had an appropriate choice of test subjects.

The true warriors were gone.  Even the Scrappers had pulled out.  The last remaining Crows were the kind that wouldn’t be missed.  Misfits and vagrants.  Loners.

And he could wait no longer.  Calliope was no fool.  It was only a matter of time before she found out.  There were too many loose ends. 

Eamon, his Second, walked up and bowed.

“Lord Archon.  Preparations are almost complete.  We lack only the bloodsoul amulet.”

“We will proceed without it, Eamon.”

“My Lord?”

“The only amulet currently in existence is in the possession of that ridiculous girl,” said Anaxis.  “You know that.”

“Yes, of course my Lord.  But I assumed we would obtain it before the test.  Without the power of the amulet, our calculations predict instability.  The test subject…”

“Is a necessary sacrifice to a noble cause,” Anaxis said, cutting him off. 

The Lord Archon fixed Eamon with a steady gaze.

“Agreed?”

Eamon licked his lips, then nodded.

“Bring the Magus here.  I would like to have a word with them before we begin.”

The Magus.  Hand-picked Devoted who had taken secret vows to the Lord Archon personally.  It was the Magus who had conducted the decades of painstaking research to bring them to this point.  Clem had once been numbered among them - before the old fool had run off to chase legends.

In a few minutes, the Magus stood quietly before him.  The men and women knelt as one.  Clearing his throat, he motioned for them to rise.

“Brothers and sisters.  When we began, none of us knew what lay ahead.  We only knew the stakes.  A century ago, the Hunger, our great enemy, quickened its march.  Who can say why?  Perhaps we lacked piety.  Perhaps nature itself had become unbalanced.  Yet while others talked, we decided to act.  To act for generations to come, mortal and Crow, so that they may live free.”

He gazed slowly around.

“Many of you may harbor doubt.  That is to be expected.  Our ship sails towards an unknown horizon.  We may fail.  But if we succeed, we have birthed a new age of peace and progress.”

Anaxis looked at each in turn.

“Now is the moment to decide.  Once we enter that room, there is no turning back.  If you do not wish to pass through that door, no one will think the less of you for it.”

The Lord Archon waited a long moment.  None of the Magus moved.  He smiled.

“Then let us begin.”

In a few minutes they were all assembled in the ritual chamber.  It had formerly been the dining hall of the followers of Kronos.  Faded banners with the sigil of The Watcher still hung on the walls.

Fitting, thought Anaxis.  The Lord of Time had shattered the moon.  They were about to shatter the Codicil.

The tables and chairs had been moved to clear a wide space.  In the middle was a large object covered with a canvas tarp.  Beside it was a chair equipped with manacles.  They took position in a wide circle. 

Anaxis wrinkled his nose.  Even from here the stench of what was under the tarp was overpowering.  He turned to Eamon.

“Are you sure it’s fresh?”

“Slain within the hour, Lord Archon.”

“Then bring him in.”

Eamon scuttled off.  A moment later, guards brought in a blindfolded prisoner.  A wood elf.  They had caught him a week ago in the ruins, trying to chisel the gemstone eyes out of a statue to Maeve.  The guards manacled the wood elf hand and foot to the chair and stepped back.

The wood elf sniffed.  He made a wretching noise. 

“By the Pantheon, what’s that?  It smells like Yaga’s armpit!”

“Take off his blindfold,” ordered Anaxis.

The wood elf blinked in the light.  He focused on Anaxis.

“You look like the big shot here.  Let me go or you’ll face severe repercussions from House Wyndemere!”

The Lord Archon gave a half-smile.

“No, I won’t.  There is no House Wyndemere.  And you are just a liar and petty thief.  A guild-less, penniless, scab on the backside of this world.”

“I’m still a Crow!  I got rights!  Free me!”

“We will.  Very soon.”

Anaxis motioned to the guards to gag the wood elf.  He turned to address the Magus.

“On my mark.  Summon all the power that is within you.  Leave nothing back.”

“Yes, Lord Archon,” they nodded.

“Eamon, if you please?”

His Second edged forward to the canvas tarp.  Pinching his nose with one hand, he yanked the covering back.

The carcass of a recently-slain Hunger beast came into view.  A Bog Bear.  Ichor still dripped from its gaping maw.

The wood elf’s eyes widened.  He began to struggle wildly.

“Now, brothers and sisters!” cried Anaxis.  “NOW!”

The Magus raised their staffs and began to chant.  Their words were in the same tone and meter as the Chant of Making. 

But this was a not a Making.

A blue-green haze appeared above the Bog Bear carcass and the wood elf.  It began to glow and then to swirl.  Sparks of light flashed.

“More!” cried Anaxis.  “All you have!”

The Magus slammed their staffs to the ground.  Their chanting grew louder.  The blue-green haze thickened.

Anaxis moved to stand beside the struggling wood elf.  He drew a dagger and raised it high.

“By all that is sacred and profane - let it be done!”

The Lord Archon drew the blade across the wood elf’s throat.  The man gurgled.  His struggles grew weaker until his head drooped, and he was still.

A wisp appeared above the dead elf’s head.  Transparent and barely visible.

A spirit crow.

The ephemeral crow cawed and fluttered, as if seeking to fly away.  It screeched and struggled as the blue-green mist enveloped it.

The mist, still entangling the frantic crow, now funneled towards the open maw of the Hunger Beast.  With one final caw, mist and crow disappeared inside the carcass.

There was silence.  Everyone in the room waited breathlessly.  A long minute passed.

A magus lowered his staff.

“Nothing,” he murmured.  “We have failed.”

“No!” cried Anaxis.  “Look!”

The snout of the Bog Beast twitched.  Yellowed eyes opened.  It gave a keening cry.  Claws scrabbled on the stone floor as it heaved up onto its feet.

“We have done it!” shouted Anaxis.

The Hunger beast howled.  But this sounded like agony.  It began to circle aimlessly, as if confused.

“Stand back,” commanded Anaxis.  “Give it room!”

The beast howled again.  As they watched, great flakes of fur and flesh began to slough off its body.  Drool from its maw formed a puddle on the floor.  Wheezing, it reared up on its hind legs, pitched over and lay still.

Eamon gingerly prodded the carcass with one foot.  He sighed. 

“As we feared, Lord Archon.  Without the power of a bloodsoul amulet, the transformation is unstable.”

“No matter, Eamon,” replied Anaxis.  “We have proved it can be done.  A Crow can inhabit a Hunger beast.”

As Anaxis spoke, the Bog Bear shuddered one last time.  They looked to see a wisp of a crow rise from its gaping maw.  But the spirit was now twisted and green.  As they watched, it writhed and dissolved.

“The spirit of the wood elf…” gasped Eamon.

“A necessary sacrifice,” intoned Anaxis.

The Lord Archon turned to the Magus.  Many of them were still looking wide-eyed at the rotting carcass of the Bog Bear.

“Brother and sisters.  Today is the Third of the Harvest Moon.  Mark it well.  We have achieved the impossible.  Once we obtain the bloodsoul amulet, we can act with purpose.”

He pointed to the rapidly-decaying Bog Bear.

“The union of Crow and Hunger gives us an unassailable weapon.  The monsters do not attack one another.  Drawing power from infected crystals, our Crow Beasts will pass through the ethereal barrier and destroy the Hunger at its source.  Then new Gods shall arise.  Crows with the courage and wisdom to throw off their shackles.  I will lead us to a…”

Anaxis swayed.  He passed his hands over his eyes, then sank to the floor. 

Eamon rushed to his side.  Anaxis waved him off.

“Just…a passing weariness,” he murmured.  He rose unsteadily to his feet.

“We should all get some rest.  Tomorrow, we return to the Great Temple.  We have many preparations to make.”

The Lord Archon smiled.

“Destiny awaits.”

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Edited by cemya

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Posted (edited)

OVER THE EDGE

I wasn’t completely truthful when I told you my early life was uneventful.  When I was eleven, I nearly died. 

Outside of Medria is a river, broad and swift.  Where it hooks past the hills, it slows.  A deep pool at the base of a rocky cliff is a favorite spot for older children to swim.  The easiest – and most fun – way to get down is to dive from the edge of the cliff.

I’d often begged my brothers, four and six years older than I, to take me along on their trips to the pool.  They said I was still too young.  I would follow anyway, and they would chase me back home. 

Finally, I eluded them.

I can still hear their terrified shouts as they saw me running towards the edge.  I ignored them and flung myself off, arms spread as I’d seen the others do.  It wasn’t until I was in the water and saw the blood that I realized what had happened. 

Beneath the cliff, the rocks jutted out a bit.  To dive safely, you have to cast yourself out when you jump.  If you don’t leap far enough, you can strike the rocks.  I threw myself with all my might, but being smaller, it was not quite enough. 

I was fortunate my stubbornness earned me only a cut on my thigh.  I still bear the scar. 

Yet, I felt only exhilaration as my brothers swam scolding towards me.  I hadn’t thought of the danger.  Only of the wind in my hair as I sailed free.

Now, on the brink of returning to Ferisse as a Crow, those memories rose again.  Once more I was leaping off the edge.  And I felt the best way to avoid the rocks was to hold nothing back.

After Dreamfast, I decided to stop wrestling with myself.  To embrace the love of the All-Father and let his spirit flow within me.  But it came with a price.

Upset with Yuki, I’d left camp to vent by tossing knives at a tree.  As I came to my decision, it felt almost like a physical transformation.  As if a fire within, long-banked, now burned fiercely.  I had to rinse in the stream to cool off.

Poor Ransom.  He came upon me in that moment.  I had felt resentment at his silence when Yuki spoke harshly.  But he didn’t deserve such anger as I gave him. 

When he got back to camp, I apologized.  He seemed to accept.  But I knew, to my sorrow, that things would never quite be the same between us again.

He must have spoken to Kitaara, for the next morning she took me aside to ask whether I was well.  I told her about the sudden warmth.  I wasn't old enough for the likeliest possibility.  She felt my forehead and declared I had no fever. 

I was glad I wasn’t sick.  I had just lost my temper.  I’m sure that’s what it was. 

So onwards and upwards, as they say. 

Ransom reported that a band of half-giants was on the other side of the portal to Ferisse.  Clan Haugstad, who apparently were not the sort to be trifled with.  They’d captured Two-Ton, the minotaur who’d helped Call me to become a Crow. 

Ransom wanted to detour.  If they were arresting everyone, there was no telling what other forces were hunting us.  Our main purpose was to find the boy and reverse the bloodsoul magic.  And since I had no statue to return to, he didn’t want to risk my getting killed.

I declared we were going to rescue Two-Ton.  Ransom looked at me like I was insane.  Kitaara, who knew me better, simply asked what the plan was.

My idea was pretty simple.  I knew it would work.  

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Edited by cemya

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Posted (edited)

CLOVEN DAWN

“Thank you for coming, Magna Mater,” said the human priestess, bowing low.

“Of course, Lady Olenya.  And please – no bowing to an old friend.”

Olenya gave a nervous smile.

“It is wonderful seeing you again, Calliope.  I'm sorry it has to be on such a dire occasion.”

“Dire?  You mean the missing lad?  What mischief can he get into?  We are in the kingdoms, after all.”

Olenya lowered her voice.

“Yes, of course.  But there is more.  Matters which I could not trust to a letter.”

Striving to appear casual, Calliope looked around, . 

They were in the antechamber of the Pinnacle, prison of the Devoted.  Nearby at attention stood two men of the Nethari Guard - soldiers loyal to the Lord Archon.  Normally, Calliope would not have given it a second thought.  But after her last meeting with Anaxis, her disquiet had grown.

The manner of Calliope’s reception at the Arch of Lyessa fed her unease.  Usually, a routine visit would summon the attention of a single, sleepy clerk.  Instead, an entire squad of pike-men had mustered.  Gerakos, the Warden Commander himself, had scrutinized her pass.

Calliope's request to travel to the Shrine of Illara was denied at first.  Gerakos insisted all efforts were already being made to find the missing caretaker.  The Magna Mater need not remain at the Arch.  It was only when Calliope pulled rank, invoking her authority as a member of the Golden Council, that he relented.  Even then, he required that she be accompanied by his guards.    

What had happened to make the garrison this jumpy? 

Calliope realized she needed to speak with Olenya – in private.  She motioned to the nearest guard.

“Do you have accommodations for ladies?” the half-elf asked delicately.

The two Nethari looked at each other.  One of them shrugged.

“Of course, Magna Mater.  This way.”

Once they were alone, Calliope turned to Olenya.

“Speak freely but quickly.  If we take too long it may arouse suspicion.”

Olenya took a deep breath.

“When I arrived a week ago to visit Hansa, I found an empty cabin.  I summoned the guard and we searched the area.  We found a single set of booted prints, walking off into the hills.  After several leagues, they disappeared.  It was as if whomever had made them had vanished into thin air.  So, we came back.”

Calliope stroked her chin.

“Strange.  On a campaign world I would guess robbers.  Or an assassin.  But this is a placid realm.  And no one comes to the Arch without a pass.  Was there anything else?”

“Yes, although I am not sure what it means.  One of the Nethari guards told me they saw strange blue lights out by the Obelisk a few nights before I arrived.  When I heard that, I wanted to return to Hansa’s cabin to investigate further.  Perhaps the lights would repeat themselves.  But Warden Commander Gerakos forbade it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.  The night before you arrived, the garrison was suddenly in great agitation.  I was commanded to stay in my room at the Pinnacle.  I was told it was for my own safety.  I just managed to get a letter off before I was confined.  They let me out only when you arrived and asked for me.”

“That is outrageous,” scowled Calliope.  “I will have words later with the Warden Commander.  But dawn is near.  Let us go and see things for ourselves.”

Calliope took Olenya by the hand and they walked back into the antechamber.  To her surprise, the Warden was already there waiting.  With eight of his men.  He seemed more anxious than before.

“Before we go out, Magna Mater, I want your word.”

“My word?  What do you mean Warden Commander?”

Gerakos mopped his brow.

“I want your word that you will tell the Lord Archon that you ventured beyond the gates on your own authority.  That I forbade it but was overruled.”

Calliope frowned.  She nodded.

“Then follow me to the courtyard, please.”

A large coach was waiting for them by the gates.  The Nethari guards fanned out as the two women took seats inside.  The Warden Commander waved and the procession set off.

The road east to the Shrine was well-maintained.  The ride was smooth and swift.  They arrived just as the sun was peeking out above the eastern horizon.  They got out and looked about.

Calliope had not seen the Obelisk in some time.  It was an impressive sight, casting a long shadow in the half-light of the coming dawn.  The half-elf turned to the others to comment on its grandeur.

Olenya was staring white-faced at the horizon behind her.  All around, the Nethari guards were dropping to their knees and making holy signs.  The Warden Commander drew his sword and stood frozen, his eyes wide.

The Magna Mater spun, her hands instinctively reaching for her weapon before remembering she was unarmed. 

Then she saw.

As the sun’s light crept forth, the entire eastern sky scrolled into view.

Boiling clouds towered as far as the eye could see.  They churned and twisted.  Their hue was a sickly black-green.

An icy gust blew over them.  They shivered in its embrace.  It felt wrong.  Unnatural. 

“When, Warden Commander?”

Gerakos gulped.

The Magna Mater strode towards the man and shook him by the shoulders.

“When?!” she cried.

“On the Third of the Harvest Moon,” he murmured, as if in a daze.  “We heard a ripping, as if the skies were being torn.  But this cannot be.  It is impossible.

“Control yourself,” urged Calliope.  “Listen carefully.  Take us back to the Pinnacle.  Breathe no word of this to anyone.”

She motioned to Olenya.

“I need you with me when I speak to the Golden Council.  Otherwise they will think me mad.” 

Calliope turned back towards the thick banks of black-green clouds.  She shivered again, but not from the cold. 

“The Hunger has reached the Kingdoms.”

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END OF PART II

Edited by cemya

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Thanks to everyone for their patience in following Part II.  I hope people are enjoying the tale.  Part III - the cataclysmic conclusion - is coming soon!

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