15 Years Ago... "Onii-chan," the little girl pleaded, "Don't go. I'm scared." Her companion gave her a cheeky grin and a gentle pat to the head. "You'll be okay, Princess. You're strong, and it won't be long before you're even stronger than I am. Just you wait and see." "But I'm just a girl! What can I do?" She stared up at him with wide, innocent eyes. She had always looked impossibly young, and as she stood there in that moment in her white slip of a dress and bare feet, she seemed more childlike and unworldly than ever. The boy threw back his head and laughed. "I'll tell you a secret." He knelt down before her on the tower ramparts, the rough wind ruffling his already tousled blond hair, and put his hands on her slim shoulders. As the sky crackled and burned red over their heads, he leaned in to whisper in her ear... Present Day. The city walls quaked. "Sir, the southern slums have been lost." The Captain of the Knights looked up sharply from his seat at the Members' Table, his hands frozen mid-polish where he'd been tending to the great, spiked ceremonial Hammer which hung in the Knights' Hall. He was not a large man, but his steely blue gaze was imposing nevertheless. Most Knights dared not disturb him unless the matter was of great import; as such, this news did not bode well. "Soulmate Julia?" he demanded at once, not masking the urgency in his voice. "We don't know. No one can get through to that section of the city right now; the Infected and the Cadre are everywhere." The knight cleared his throat. "Mara and I will try to search, if you-" "No." The captain stood, dropping his work, and reached over to shuffle through the sheaves of paper piled in the center of the table. The scroll he sought was near the top; he unrolled it with an impatient flick of his wrists, skimming over the scrawled list of names that decorated the parchment. ...Soulmate of Bone Mara, Soulmate of the Hearth Ochalla, Soulmate of Life Fluffy, Soulmate of Shadow Julia Foxtrot, Soulmate of Shifters Kitti, Soulmate of... Finally, he reached the newest additions to the list. Drumming his fingers upon the table, he considered, trying to think of an alternative- any alternative. The list of names stared back at him, taunting him, giving him bare facts when what he really sought was an answer. "It's no good," he growled. "She's not ready, but the potential is too rare. Ricarten, bring me the Soulmate of Fire." The day that the Cycle called her had been the happiest day of her life. Even when it burned. She could still feel the tongues of flame licking at the sides of her face, but now it was a pleasant sort of heat. Fiery kisses from what had once been locks of her hair. She grinned at the thought, twirling her finger through the dancing blaze. The Soulmate of Fire swept through the Knights' Hall with her head held high and a confidence in her stride that not many could claim when summoned by the surly Captain of Iwaku's finest. There were very few things which she feared, and he did not number amongst them. In fact, she was practically humming with the thrill of being asked for by name, her heart pounding with anticipation. She walked through the door, and their eyes met. The pounding in her chest quickened apace. "Soulmate Iliana," he greeted her curtly. His dark hair was growing long and unkempt, and his attentive posture was belied by the slight sag in his shoulders. The assault on their city was beginning to wear heavy on him, she could tell. She paid attention to these things. "Captain Vay." Her face lit up with an eager smile. "What do you need of me? Whatever it is, I'm up to the task, I promise." He stared at her for so long without speaking that for just a flickering moment, she felt ill at ease. She had the notion that her measure was being taken- and for a petrifying instant, she wondered if she would be found lacking. Hadn't she proved herself, over and over? Wasn't she always doing what she was asked, and better than most? Who was she being compared to? "Don't just stand there." The silence was finally broken by the Captain's usual sardonic drawl, and Iliana felt better at once. This was the Vay that she had come to know so well in her short time as a Soulmate; this was familiar ground. "Kneel. I have something to give you." The young Soulmate lowered herself to her knees, curiosity mounting, and watched as the Captain reached under the Members' Table and retrieved a long, narrow box. He set it upon the table before him as he fussed with the lock. When he opened it, she gasped and leaned forward in awe and delight. A gleaming white staff rested upon the deep blue velvet lining of the box. It was carved- perhaps of wood, perhaps bone- with intricate symbols, the ancient hieroglyphics of Iwaku's past. Most prominent was the large symbol that stood for the Sacred Feminine, the symbol that in modern times had come to mean Soulmate. This was the Staff of Iwaku. It was the most precious and powerful artifact in all the land, second only to the lost Sword. And suddenly, Iliana knew with perfect clarity that this was what her life had been leading up to, all along. Across the City... The Queen's Secretary took a fortifying sip of tea and took another look at the accounts. "This can't be right," she muttered, pulling the hood down from her head to reveal a tightly wound bun of hair and a severe frown. "Unless someone's been slacking off. These burials should have been scheduled weeks ago." There were far too many burials these days. She remembered another time, long ago, when the body count had been high. That was when she'd been out on the frontlines, not sitting behind a desk. But that was alright. The desk was better. It was her sanctuary, her own little retirement. The defunct Queen of Moonwings had needed a companion in a strange new land, and the two suited each other quite well. Sighing, Ochalla set down her cup and took a step out onto the balcony of Diana's palace. She barely noticed the periodic shuddering of the city walls as the Crimson Cadre strove to break through Iwaku's defenses; it was part of the city's background noise now, after the long months of invasion. "This can't keep happening." Her voice was a whisper in the autumn dark. "We can only hold out for so long." The jade pendant that hung about her neck began to hum. Blinking, Ochalla lifted her hand to the charm- and immediately jerked back. It was hot to the touch, and her skin prickled where she'd made contact, in a way that set her spine to crawling. And then it began to pulse with a soft light. "And from the ashes..." "Who said that?!" she snapped waspishly, taking hold of the cord- careful not to touch the pendant itself- and starting to lift it over her head. "I've had enough! I don't want this! I-" That was as far as she got before her words were drowned in a gust of air and a blinding flash of blue-green light. He caught her as she collapsed to the balcony in a boneless puddle. "Hello darling," he told her with a broad smile, chucking her under the chin. "Don't faint on me. We've got work to do." "...Ozzie?" she asked, voice bleary and tinged with just a touch of disapproval. "What are you doing here?" "It's nice to see you, too." He scooped her up and into his arms bridal style, ignoring her protests. "I'm your Knight, m'dear." That pronouncement left her speechless for a long moment. Then, "How?" "I wasn't expecting this either. None of us were. But here we are nonetheless, huh? Things... haven't been going so well lately." "I'm retired!" insisted Ochalla, prodding him in the chest hard enough that he felt it even through his bone armor. "And you know very well why! I have responsibilities here-" "The Queen will understand. She may not be a native, but Iwaku is her home now, and she saw with her own eyes what the Insanity did to her people. She won't try to refute the Cycle's calling." Ozzie's lips twitched. "Besides, you know how much she trusts Vay." The Secretary of the Queen stared at the Secretary of the Knights. "And you don't?" "Of course I do," he huffed at her, indignation written across every inch of his features. "...But?" "...But," he admitted, "I'm not ever sure what he's thinking. Then again, is anyone?" "What do you mean?" "He's given the Staff to a new Soulmate. She's young and recently called, but she's very powerful. And eager. She has the potential." His Soulmate raised an eyebrow. "He thinks the Staff is necessary?" "Evidently so." "And what do you think?" He made a face at her and started for the door. They needed to hurry; even now, the Knights and Soulmates were assembling at the Hall to send forces into the fallen slum sector. He and Ochalla could be of use, if they made it in time. "...I don't know. She's young and untested. I know that there was no one else, but I wish we didn't need to put so many eggs in one basket. That's a lot of responsibility for one young girl." "I can think of a few people who fit that bill as well," she reminded him drily, "including Sakura herself. You worry too much. It's not good for your health." "Somebody has to," he shot back, but he was smiling again. "You're probably right, though." Still, there was a sense of foreboding that the new Knight of Bone could not shake... The above was the first of two parts written over a year ago to introduce Chapter One of Crimson Soul, an Iwaku Mythos mass roleplay. As it is almost certain now that said roleplay will never take place, I thought I'd post this little bit of apocrypha for the ages. I may or may not ever post the second half because it is even less polished than this is and because the characters involved may need to be picked over and replaced.