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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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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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Posted (edited)

Part III

FLAME OF VALKYN

 

BEST LAID PLANS

Itani leaned back.

“We've been talking a while.  You need to rest.  How do you feel?”

“Like someone half-clawed to death who still ended up with no treasure.”

“That’s the fae talking.  Cup half-empty.  How does Leya feel?”

“Tingly - confessing to a Nethari without any clothes on.”

“Come now,” said Itani.  “You are in a hospital.”

He paused.

“You’re not wearing anything under those covers?”

“I am not.”

Leya sat up in bed, the edge of her blanket sliding down one shoulder.

Itani reddened and averted his eyes.

 “Your tattoos are glowing,” she grinned.

“I am just - pleased - you have recovered.”

She smiled and took his hand.

“Relax.  It’s okay.  But what now?”

“I…don’t know.  I’ve never had feelings for a fae before.”

Leya laughed.

“Not that!  The other stuff.  The Bride.  The tomb.  Remember?”

Itani let out a deep breath.  He sat down on the bed.

“As Second to the Magna Mater, I lead investigations for the Golden Council.  But I deal in hard facts.  This…this is the stuff of legends.”

“Slow down,” urged Leya.  “One step at a time.  We figure out what’s solid and what’s not.  Then we decide what to do.”

“You’re right,” nodded Itani. 

He rose and began to pace back and forth.

“Based on what you’ve told me, plus what I’ve learned from the archives, Clem left the Devoted over a century ago and went to Ferisse.  That’s if we assume that tomb mural of Imlec was really Clem.”

“Oh, it was him,” said Leya.

“Okay.  So, Clem arrives on Ferisse.  He finds a prehistoric cave in Elriza that supports the legend that Ferisse was Hero’s home world when he was still mortal.  He also finds an ancient book that says a child of Valkyn was born to Hero’s wife, a girl who died just before the All-Father left, leaving behind a wandering spirit.  An increasingly angry spirit the locals named Subeiha.  Supposing this spirit to be Valkyn’s lost child, Clem built up worship of Valkyn to see if he could call to her.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“Reasonable?  It sounds crazy,” exclaimed Itani.

“Step by step?”

Itani shook his head, then continued.

“Alright.  While in Elriza, Imlec-Clem meets a young woman named Bellana who he either tutors or makes his mistress…or both.  Things go horribly wrong.  Clem gets killed and Bellana runs off into the desert.  Clem, being a Crow, is soon back.  But so is Bellana and she has changed.  Clem now calls her a “sacred vessel” and “Bride of Valkyn.”

“That’s the weak part,” said Leya.

“Yes,” agreed Itani.  “We have no idea what really happened to Bellana in the desert, except that people regarded her return as a miracle.  But Bellana was still mortal, since she later walks into the flames and dies.  Poor girl.”

“And Clem gets away,” added Leya.

“By his own account, Clem is grief stricken and leaves Elriza.  This brings up another dicey area.  What happened over the next hundred years?  We can agree Clem didn’t give up, since we know he kept spreading the worship of Valkyn.  Then, a century later, in Taveris, he finds or creates another Bride of Valkyn.  Our girl Cembrye.”

“Who runs away from him,” said Leya.

“Let’s not get too far ahead.  How did Cembrye get to Taveris in the first place?  Where was she from?  What path did she take after leaving Clem that led her to the Pillared Hall, the duel with Stilicho and being Called?  And what about the pair of Valkyn symbols, one dropped by Clem when you kidnapped him and the other dropped by the Bride in Elriza?  Do they have some use or meaning?  We know a lot more about the first Bride of Valkyn than the second.”

“What seemed to interest Anaxis most was how Miss Prissy ended up with Kitaara Red-Hand as a bodyguard,” said Leya.  “And Ransom, Warden of the Golden Council.  Talk about an odd couple.”

A pained expression came over Itani’s face.

“Ransom.  If the Bride of Valkyn is a threat to the Kingdoms, he will have much to answer for.  He was supposed to interrogate her but became her follower.  Kitaara seems to have joined the Bride earlier, in Elriza, where they pretended to be desert bandits.  But there are even more mysteries.  Thanks to the word of mouth that surrounds the arrival of such an extraordinary new Crow, we know other Crows were in the Pillared Hall during the death duel between Cembrye and Stilicho.  Stoor, a mercenary who, like Stilicho, has since disappeared.  The minotaur Two-Ton, who helped Call the Bride.  And, remarkably, the Drizzlewitch herself, as the second Caller.  Somewhere in the middle of that mess is a bloodsoul amulet, which Yuki got a hold of but is now, supposedly, held by the Bride.”

“Yuki’s the real shocker,” said Leya.  “No one knows why she does anything.  But how did she get involved?  I do know that Yuki and Anaxis hate each other.”

“With reason,” nodded Itani.  “But here is where we get a break.  Yuki has her own legends and one of them is that she once knew Hero.  And, of course, she is a moon elf.”

Leya let out a low whistle.

“There was a female moon elf in the murals.  She looked like she was egging on the mob to attack Clem.”

“Exactly.  Have you ever met Yuki?  To know what she looks like?” asked Itani.

“Nope.”

Itani sighed.   He sat down on the bed again. 

“Neither have I.  Then that goes onto our to-do list.  Or rather mine.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Leya.

“We need to fill in more blanks before we take this wild tale to the Magna Mater.  A visit to Dreamfast is in order.”

“I’m coming with you.  Don’t you dare try and stop me.”

“Leya…listen to me.  Those Hunger Beasts almost killed you.  You need time to recover.  You can’t even fly yet.”

“Nonsense.  I’ve had worse.”

Leya slipped from under the covers and stood up.  She swayed a moment, grimacing as she attempted to pull the splint from her bandaged wing.

“By the Gods,” exclaimed Itani.  He seized the blankets and covered her up again.

The Nethari placed his palm on his forehead and closed his eyes a moment.  Then he opened them and regarded Leya, who was staring back at him defiantly.

“You can’t come with me,” said Itani.  “Yuki and the Lord Archon don’t get along.  People know you work for Anaxis, which means the Silver Fay knows.”

Leya hesitated, then sighed.

“Your making too much sense,” she conceded.  “Alright.  I have a better idea.”

“What?”

“Anaxis will be wondering where I went.  Once I can fly again, I’ll head to The Arch.  Fill him in and see what he thinks.  Maybe he’s found out more from Clem – and I’d like another shot at questioning the old geezer myself.”

“You sure that’s a good idea?”

“What’s the matter?”

“Well, we don’t really know what the Lord Archon’s role in all this is.  Clem used to be one of the Devoted.  And Anaxis won’t be happy you disobeyed him.”

“Bah!  Let me handle Anaxis.  He had no idea what Clem was up to.  He can be a big help.”

“Anaxis is a good friend to the Magna Mater,” mused Itani.  "Maybe his wisdom is just what we need.”

The Nethari nodded.

“Alright.  Just be careful.  Please?”

Leya scoffed.

“I’m more worried about you.  You’re the one visiting Yuki.  People go in that castle and never come out.”

“I’ll be all right,” said Itani.  “I best head out.” 

Itani stood up.  He hesitated.  A long moment passed.

“Yeesh,” said Leya finally.  “Guess I have to do everything.”

Holding up her blanket with one hand, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.

“There,” she smiled.

“Leya.”

She placed her finger across his mouth.

“One step at a time?”

6017901d-bd2e-4635-865d-f8c6f9dc54c0-ori

Edited by cemya

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THE BULL AND THE DANCER

Egil dropped to one knee and raised his hand. 

A hundred yards behind him, the file of heavily armed half-giants of Clan Haugstad halted.  To their rear, an ox-drawn wagon with a barred cage also creaked to a stop.

The scout searched the woodland path, eyes straining in the failing light.

The portal of Ferisse was just beyond.  After capturing the minotaur Two-Ton, their journey had been uneventful.  But every Crow knew the lands around a portal often held the greatest danger.

A crackle of dry branches.  Egil knocked an arrow to his bow as a figure ran into view.

At first, Egil thought her a child.  Then he realized it was just a short young woman.  Very pretty, with clear skin and blue eyes and shiny black hair that fell in braids down her back.  Barefoot and clad in a plain white tunic, she kept looking over her shoulder, as if something was chasing her. 

When the girl came level with his hiding place, Egil rose.

“Hold!”

The girl stood shivering, eyes wide in terror.

“Easy lass.  I’m not going to hurt you.”

He looked down the path. 

“Is something after you?”

The girl gave him an uncomprehending look.

“What’s your name, little one?”

She just stared back, nervously twisting the end of one of her braids.

Egil sighed.  She must be a local.  A lot of them didn’t understand the common tongue. 

He pursed his lips.  They’d been running into Hunger Beasts more often.  She was probably being chased by one.  If they left her alone, she’d be in its belly before dawn.

This world was doomed.  But sometimes, as a mercy, Crows took a few mortals with them before the end, to live out their lives as servants in the Kingdoms.  Perhaps this girl’s arrival was a sign from the Gods.  And his wife could use the help.

Braggi sauntered up.  The skald grinned as he looked the girl up and down.

“Something for the cold nights?”

“No.  I’m taking her back to Haugstad.  A gift for the wife.”

“You have an understanding wife.  If I brought home a morsel like this, she’d bury an axe in my skull.”

“The lass will be food for the beasts if we leave her.”

“Derk won’t like it,” the other man shrugged.

“Lord Derk is hunting and left me in charge,” replied Egil with irritation.

“Alright, alright.”

Egil inclined his head towards the wagon.

“Put her in with Two-Ton for now.  Assuming she can bear the stench.”

The skald grunted and motioned for the girl to follow.  She meekly complied.  The other half-giants elbowed and guffawed as they passed, whispering to one another. 

Braggi laid his two-handed sword against the cage and was about to open it when there came a shout. 

A half-giant with a red forkbeard strode up.  Behind him scurried a man with a slain deer balanced on his shoulders. 

Braggi bowed deeply.

“Lord Derk.”

The chieftain ignored him.  He was squinting hard at the girl.

“We found her on the trail,” said Egil.  “Likely running from a Hunger Beast.  I decided to bring her along.”

“Did you now?” scowled Derk.

Egil straightened.

“You left me in command.  I’m taking her back.  As a maid servant for Helga.”

“The girl asked you to?”

“No.  She doesn’t speak our tongue.”

Derk roared with laughter.  Egil shuffled, face reddening.

“Oh, I think she understands everything we’re saying,” said Derk at last.  He turned to the girl.

“Don’t you, cupcake?  Or shall I use your title – Bride of Valkyn?”

The girl looked back at him, her blue eyes expressionless.

“The Bride?” gasped Egil.  The other half-giants murmured, moving in for a closer look. 

A loud bellow came from inside the cage.

“How do you know it’s her, Lord Derk?” asked the tallest of the half-giants, a man carrying a heavy maul.

“Because I pay attention Varg,” replied Derk.  “A friend saw her preach.  She fits the description.”

The half-giants pressed around, peppering the girl with questions.

“Are you truly she?”

“The All-Father speaks to you?”

“Have you come to end the Hunger?”

The girl didn’t reply.  Instead she was looking back towards the path.

 “Ware!” cried Braggi, pointing.

An armored man had appeared.  The half-giants scrambled for their weapons as he raised his hand.

“I come in peace.”

Derk shoved his followers aside and moved towards the newcomer.  As he got closer, he shook his head.

“I’ll be damned.  Ransom, Warden of the Golden Council.”

The man smiled.

“Greetings, Lord Derk.  It’s been a while.”

“It has.  Since the Gericht Campaign.  What brings you to this gods-forsaken world?”

“I could ask the same.  But to answer you, I was chasing her.”

Ransom pointed at the dark-haired girl.  He raised his voice.

“In the name of the Golden Council, I hereby arrest the one called the Bride of Valkyn on a charge of heresy.  I see you also have a witness to her crimes, the minotaur Two-Ton.  He will come with me as well.”

“Hold on,” growled Derk.  “We have no interest in the girl.  But we’re charged to bring the bull to The Pinnacle.”

“Charged by whom?”

“The Lord Archon.” 

“Why?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“It is the business of the Golden Council.  The bull comes with me.  Step aside, please.”

Derk hefted his axe.

“You have my respect, Ransom.  But don’t try me.  Take the girl, count yourself lucky, and go.”

“Lord Derk,” interrupted Egil.  “What if she truly is chosen?”

Several half-giants grunted in agreement.  Others shuffled, unsure.

Egil looked intensely at the girl.

“There is something about her.  Can you not feel it?”

Derk spat on the ground.  He grinned at the other half-giants.

“This is what happens lads when you see a pretty girl.  The blood rushes from your brain to your chimney cleaner!”

Several half-giants laughed. 

Derk turned back to Ransom.

“The more I think on it – I won’t give you the girl either.  Not because I believe she’s any holier than my big toe.  I just don’t like your tone.”

“Then I am sorry, Lord Derk.  You leave me no choice.”

Ransom gave a low whistle. 

A tall woman in assassin leathers, a sword in each hand, stepped out of the woods.  All eyes were on her as she sauntered to Ransom’s side.  Several half-giants took an anxious step back.

“Red-Hand?” snorted Derk.  “As I suspected…this isn’t Golden Council business at all.”

“No,” replied Ransom.  “We are with the Bride.  But there is no time to explain.  Give us Two-Ton and no one gets hurt.”

Derk calculated the odds.  Ransom and Kitaara were two of the deadliest fighters in the Kingdoms.  Clan Haugstad or no, he could see his warriors already wavering.  But he still had cards to play.

“Grab the girl!” Derk shouted to his men. 

The half-giant chieftain glared at Ransom.

“Make one move and we cut her throat!”

Lord Derk turned.  His men were staring at each other dumfounded.  The girl was nowhere to be seen.

There was a crash, like a cage door slamming.  Then an ear-splitting roar.

The half-giants scattered as an enormous minotaur thumped into the clearing holding a two-handed sword.  The flanks of the creature were stained with dried blood.  Steam puffed from its nostrils and its eyes glittered red.

“The beast is free!” yelled Braggi.

“Throw down your weapons!” demanded Ransom.

Some half-giants obeyed.  But one, a mere lad with a wispy yellow beard, panicked.  He dropped his axe and stood frozen in place as the rampaging minotaur bore down on him.

The minotaur bellowed and raised his sword, muscles rippling and eyes glowing like coals.

“Two-Ton!  No!” shouted Ransom.

A small figure in a white tunic, braids flying, darted to stand between the bull-man and the cowering lad.

“Cembrye!” cried Ransom.

The girl raised her hands, palms up.  The sword glittered mere inches from her head.  Everyone froze in horror, the sudden silence broken only by the loud rasping breaths of the minotaur.

The girl began to speak, in soft words no others could hear.

“She’s mad,” murmured Varg.

“No,” whispered Egil.  “Look!”

The minotaur regarded the girl a long moment.  Then his shoulders drooped.  The bull man cast his blade aside with a clatter, knelt and bowed his head. 

Everyone let out a deep breath.

Lord Derk looked around.  Egil had also dropped to his knees, clasping his fingers together.  Several other half-giants were doing the same. 

The chieftain gritted his teeth. 

He knew when he was beaten.

  ***

Ransom shouldered his sword wearily as the last warriors of Clan Haugstad disappeared into the twilight.  Kitaara walked up.  He inclined his head to her. 

“Well, that didn’t go quite according to plan.  But quick thinking on her part.”

“It is her way,” replied Kitaara.  “She calls them inspirations.”

“Is everyone settled for the night?”

“Yes.  Two-Ton will stand first watch.  Then Egil.”

“They offered their service to her?”

“Yes.  And she has accepted.”

Ransom shook his head.

“She’s come a long way from when I first met her.  It’s almost like she’s a different person now.”

Kitaara shrugged.  Then she looked sharply at Ransom.

“What do you mean?”

“Come with me,” said Ransom.

In a few minutes they were back at the wagon that had held Two-Ton prisoner.  The barred door still hung open.

“Have you asked Cembrye how she managed to free Two-Ton?”

The assassin pondered a moment.

“She told me she doesn’t remember, that it all happened so fast.  The creature is strong.  Perhaps he broke free?  Or the door was already ajar?”

“I’d like to believe that.  But look.”

Ransom pointed to the remains of the iron lock.

The metal was twisted.  Melted.  As if consumed by a sudden intense heat.

“By the great web,” murmured Kitaara.

“Footprints burned into the grass,” said Ransom.  “Now this.  And the way she has been acting.”

“We should not assume anything.  We do not know.”

Ransom sighed.  He looked off into the night.

“It won’t be long now.  Once we find the boy, she is going to try and reverse the bloodsoul magic.  We haven’t a clue as to what will happen.  Doesn’t that bother you?”

Kitaara turned to him.

“As I told you before, we will only know when we walk the path.  For my part, I will walk with her to the last step – for good or ill.”

Ransom tightened his jaw.  Then he nodded.

“For good or ill.”   

19a4b19d-2e19-4a82-95ef-6f6535abf58a-ori

Edited by cemya

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COUNSEL OF FEAR

“Will that be all Magna Mater?”

Calliope considered. 

No.  It was best to leave off.  She had done her best.

She took one last look across the assembled faces.  Cherubim.  Granger the Bold.  Brianne.  Even her former mentor, the scholar Melander.  None had believed her.  Not even after hearing from Lady Olenya.

“What you describe is impossible, Magna Mater,” Cherubim had pronounced.  As chair of the Golden Council, the elf’s words held great sway.  “Many worlds lie between the Kingdoms and The Hunger.  Just last week there was a Making.” 

Melander was gentler.

“You saw strange clouds,” he murmured when his turn came.  “It is understandable – commendable even – that you assumed the worst.  One cannot be too careful.  These are trying days.”

Trying days indeed, thought Calliope. 

Once the Magna Mater had left the chamber, she paused to think.  Olenya, sensing her mood, went outside to wait.

The nightmarish vision at The Arch was only one trouble among many.  The Chaos civil war was paralyzing a third of the Kingdoms.  Fewer Crows were volunteering for The Making. 

And the Bride of Valkyn…

What was once fanciful rumor could easily grow into a dire threat.  It didn’t matter no one had a shred of evidence.  Many dearly wanted to believe.  And there were opportunists - the Beast Lord guilds and the Hunger cultists - for whom the Bride was a convenient excuse to spread their poison.  The risk of the girl becoming a standard beneath which all opposed to the current order could rally was real.

If that happened, all the careful decades of work would be for naught.  Its theology discredited, the Church would disband.  The dark days of old would return.

More than ever, she missed the counsel of Itani.  Her Second would surely have pieced the puzzle together by now.  And he would have known the best way to convince the Golden Council. 

But she had sent him away.  The Nethari was somewhere on Ferisse.  Why hadn’t he returned?

A thought crept unbidden into Calliope’s mind.  Could all this be related?  The quickened march of the Hunger?  The appearance of the Bride?  The green cloud-wall at The Arch? 

Calliope’s jaw tightened.  Her imagination was getting the best of her.  And she needed to stop feeling sorry for herself.  The stakes were too high. 

“Magna Mater.”

The half elf turned in surprise at the familiar voice.

“Anaxis?  What are you doing here?”

The Lord Archon bowed.  He was clad in simple robes rather than his vestments.  He looked from side to side as if to ensure they were alone.

“I’d heard of an emergency meeting,” he replied. 

“A secret meeting,” said Calliope wryly.

“The Church has many friends, high and low,” the Lord Archon replied with a half-smile.  “And the Great Temple is not far.  I saw it all.”

“Then you witnessed my shaming.  They think me mad.  Perhaps they are right.”

Anaxis shook his head.

“I see other hands at work,” he replied.  “Ask yourself this.  If rumor spread that the Hunger had reached the Kingdoms, it would spawn a crisis that would unite all Crows.  What would happen then?  Everyone would look to the Church.  All three great councils would become irrelevant.  Who gains from the shaming of Calliope?”

Calliope furrowed her brow.  Her rise had not been without opposition.  Nor had her alliance with Anaxis.  Order, like Chaos and Balance, was supposed to remain apart in matters of faith. 

In the eyes of many, Order and The Devoted had now become an over-mighty combination.  A State Religion of the Crow Kingdoms.  She had fought against this.  It had never been her intent.  It was Anaxis, each step of the way, who’d advanced “reforms” cementing the power of The Devoted.  Each time, he’d assured her it was only temporary.  Each time, the temporary became the permanent.

Anaxis was speaking again.

“We talked about this when we began,” said Anaxis gently.  “Change never comes easy.  People without vision resist.  And no matter how much we’d wish otherwise, history teaches dire times call for strong measures.”

Calliope shook her head.

“And my answer remains the same.  I became Magna Mater to spread goodwill.  Not fire and blood.”

“And look where it has gotten you, my dear,” replied Anaxis.  “The Golden Council treats you like an addled fishwife.  Ransom, your hand-picked Warden, the man supposed to embody this better way, has taken up with a heretic girl.” 

He placed his hand on her shoulder.

“Cally,” he said, using her familiar name.  “After this, how long do you think they will let you will remain Magna Mater?  Brianne will replace you.  Is she really what the Kingdoms need?”

Calliope gritted her teeth.

Brianne was her rival on the Golden Council.  The fire-elf was vivacious, charming and popular with the people.  Everything Calliope, with her stern piety, was not.  Brianne was also frivolous, selfish and greedy.  No.  Brianne must never be allowed to hold sacred office.

“But I am not here to add to your cares,” Anaxis went on.  “I came to offer help.”

Calliope inclined her head for him to continue.

“What I propose is risky,” said the Lord Archon.  “My own credibility will be at stake.  But I will accept that risk.  I will investigate your claims myself.  And if what you say is true, I will add my voice to yours.  No one will then be able to stop us from acting.”

“You sound as if you don’t believe me either.”

“I did not say that,” he replied.  “But let us be realistic.  No amount of evidence will sway those already inclined to oppose us.  But if it is true, and the Hunger is indeed at our gates, we can act together to unite the Crows.  If not, no one will blame us for being prudent.  Either way, your standing with the Council will be restored.”

Anaxis stepped closer.

“But if I do this, I must ask something in return.”

The Half-elf grimaced inwardly.  Somehow, it always ended up this way - with her owing Anaxis.  But she had little choice. 

“I need your blessing to act against the Bride of Valkyn,” said Anaxis.  “We cannot tolerate open heresy.  The Church looks toothless.”

Not the Church, thought Calliope.  You.  Her mind recalled how Anaxis persuaded her to support sending the Three against Yuki.  It was a disaster - a fiasco born of the Archon’s pride. 

She considered.  The Bride had done nothing but claim a title.  Need it go further than her imprisonment?  Assuming she recanted, after a period of re-education the girl could be released.      

Calliope closed her eyes.  A long moment passed.  When she opened them, she nodded.

“Then I will head to The Arch at once,” said Anaxis.  “And contact you upon my return.”

“And I will await word in my Kingdom,” replied Calliope. 

She gathered her robes and walked towards the exit.

Once she was out of earshot, Anaxis cursed.  His Second, Eamon, came out from behind the curtains where he had been hiding.

“You caught all that?”

 “Yes, Lord Archon.  She seems quite distressed.  Do you believe her?”

“That the Hunger has reached the Kingdoms?  No, it is fevered lunacy.  But it may be useful.”

“How so?”

“Next moon, I will come before the Golden Council.  I will report that I have just returned from The Arch.  I will report the phenomenon is unknown dangerous magic that requires full mobilization.  I will propose to lead that mobilization – an offer they will gratefully accept.  Calliope will make good her promise and we will deal with the Bride, retrieving the bloodsoul amulet along the way.  Which will be the only point of this charade.”  

“A brilliant plan, Your Eminence.  So, we journey to The Arch?”

Anaxis rounded angrily.

“Don’t be a fool!  I’ve no time for children’s tales.  Not with the work at a critical stage.  You will go.”

“To do what, Lord Archon?”

“Not to spend a moment on this silliness.  Find Leya.  She must have returned by now.  Tell her to come to me at once.  Check on Clem while you are there – the old goat stays in chains awhile yet.”

“As you command.”

“One last thing.  Send the Three to the Temple.  With Two-Ton on his way to a prison cell, it’s time to bring in an old friend.”

48660661041_259ecc8bbb_d.jpg

Edited by cemya

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REALMS BEYOND

Hansa opened the shutters.  Not because he expected to see anything different.  He just had to do something to keep from going mad.

The young man peered through the enormous window that covered the entire wall.  Vast fields of numberless stars, bright and cold, passed in procession. 

What time was it?  Morning?  Night?

He rubbed his forehead.  It was all still a blank.

The last thing he remembered was following the pale woman past the Obelisk and up the hill.  Then a strange weariness came over him.  He awoke here.  Wherever here was.

Hansa closed the shutters.  He looked about his surroundings for the thousandth time, hoping he’d spot something different.  A clue. 

His room was spare but comfortable.  A bed, a table and chairs, a fireplace.  It had an eerie unnatural feel though.  Everything was made of black glass.  And it was very quiet - except for a distant, thrumming sound.

At least he wasn’t alone.

The first time he met Them, he’d almost fallen over from shock.

He’d heard a scratching at the door.  When he opened it, an enormous cat stood there on its hind legs, as tall as a man and with emerald eyes.  The creature was holding a tray of food and drink.  The cat padded silently into the room and laid the tray on the table.  He’d tried speaking to it, but the cat ignored him and left.

The cat came and went many times after that, bringing food and cleaning up.  He dared once to touch its shoulder but retreated when the cat laid its ears back and hissed.

He’d peered outside the door before it closed.  Two other cats were standing in the hallway, one on either side, as if they were guards.  Was he in a prison?

And what was happening back at The Arch?  Had Lady Olenya missed him?  Were they searching for him? 

Hansa had never felt so helpless.

Suddenly the door creaked open.  A visitor!  He shook himself and rushed over.

A bearded man, reddish hair flecked with grey, stood there.  Older and taller than Hansa, he wore antique-looking armor, battered but finely made.  The style seemed familiar, but Hansa could not quite place it.  

The bearded man strode past him into the room.  Befuddled, after a moment Hansa followed.  The man reached the center of the room and stood there silently, his eyes squinting as he searched his surroundings.  

“Who are you?" asked Hansa, striving to be polite.

“A foolish question,” the bearded man grunted.  "I am a traveler, as you are."

“What does that mean?  Where are we traveling?”

The man peered at him.

“Ah!  I see it in your eyes.  It is as I feared.”

“I don’t understand.  See what?"

“The favor of Our Lady.  A treasure men would kill to possess.  Pure, but fickle as the wind.”

Hansa felt a chill of recognition.  Now he knew where he’d seen that armor before.  In an ancient, faded tapestry that hung above the main hall of The Pinnacle.

“By the Gods – you’re Almuir.”

The bearded man straightened. 

“Why do call me that?”

“I’ve seen you on a tapestry at your family castle in The Arch.  At least it was your castle back then.”

The bearded man passed a hand over his eyes.

“I was caretaker for the Obelisk,” continued Hansa.  “The one they put up where you’d disappeared - after you’d spoken with the Goddess Illara.”

At the mention of the name, the bearded man's face turned purple with anger.

“You dare speak of my beloved?” he shouted.  “You have sealed your fate!”

The man drew a dagger from his belt. 

“Huh?  Wait…no!” cried Hansa. 

Hansa yelped as the bearded man drove the blade deep into his chest.  He fell, vision blurring…and then suddenly he was somewhere else.

He floated weightless amidst endless fields of stars.  A circle of light beckoned in the distance, hanging like an ornament in the void.  The circle grew larger.  Whether it was coming towards him or he towards it, he could not tell.

As he drew nearer, the circle resolved into a great hall hung with gold and silver lamps.  The hall was filled with a multitude of fantastical beings.  Men with the heads of goats.  Winged horses.  Many-legged serpents.  

Seated before them on a great throne was the pale woman he had seen at the Obelisk. 

Although her eyes were covered, she rose and turned towards him in that moment.  She gestured to the beast creatures as if to bid them wait. 

Hansa felt a tingling, like fingers probing inside his head.  It was terrifying but didn’t hurt. 

A vision appeared in his mind. 

A beautiful dark-haired young woman, very short, with blue eyes, stood at the edge of a cliff.  A great shadow loomed over her.  As darkness engulfed the girl, she transformed into a being of pure flame.  But the darkness was stronger, and the girl’s light went out.   

The image vanished. 

The pale woman made another gesture.  A swirling portal appeared.

Hansa was launched at great speed.  Before he could register a thought, he felt his body slam into what felt like wet grass.

He rolled over.  Taking a deep breath, he waited for his eyes to focus. 

Above him was grey sky.  Beneath him, mud. 

From the corner of his eye he could see the Obelisk, rising through the mist.

The Arch.  He was back.  He felt his chest.  No wound.  No pain. 

Hansa struggled to his feet.  Suddenly, he shivered as a cold wind struck him.  He looked to the east.  His jaw dropped.

Rising above the Grimward, where once had been pure blue sky, were now piled banks of greenish-black clouds, rising as high as the eye could see. 

It was all too much for Hansa.  He ran.  In a few moments, he was at his nearby cabin.  Fighting back panic, he slammed the door behind him and stood panting until his mind cleared.

He had to find Lady Olenya.

48740063641_f849006b75_d.jpg

Edited by cemya

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