The Street of Stags was full to the brim with life - along this single cobbled street Niowyn saw more people than she had ever seen in one place in her lifetime. Not even the battle at the Hollows, with every one of its villagers rallied to the walls or elsewise seeking shelter in the town center, compared to the bustling, almost writhing, sea of people before her.
Her hands wrapped around one of the leather straps that hugged around her shoulders to support the gourd of water on her back as she weaved through the crowd of people, doing her best to dim her senses to the overwhelming presence of life around her. The dull throb of blood that pumped through the veins of people was normally easy enough to ignore, but here in the Shroud, amongst the sea of people... that throb had intensified into a parade of drums difficult to ignore. As she walked, she practiced a grounding technique Celothel had taught her for moments when she found herself encapsulated in the immaterial world of Essence, bringing the ceaseless barrage to her senses back to a tolerable level.
The House of the Magi - not the Arcanist’s Archive, as Celothel had been eager to remind Niowyn in their last moments together - was a rather unremarkable structure. The House of the Magi was but a house of stone and timber, what she had always imagined the castles Nathyen had told stories of might look like. Her attention hovered on the Archive - an impressive building that dominated the Street of the Stag with its roof ending in a large dome. Flanking the dome were four pillars that ended in spear-like tips that towered over the city wall behind her, and had been visible from the start of her walk up past the Casual Pint. The dome rested atop a ring of stone that seemed to predate the dome and the pillars that surrounded it, and as Niowyn grew closer she could just barely make out carvings of epic scenes of battle, coronations of kings whose names she did not know, and magical beasts.
In the morning sunlight, the House of the Magi was cast in the shadow of its compatriot, a fact Niowyn was thankful for in the heat left by the warm spring air and bustling crowds. A line had formed at the House of the Magi, composed largely of young boys and girls intermixed with a handful of men and women Niowyn’s age or slightly younger. At the gates of the House, which were made of the same aged stone as the ring upon which the dome of the Archive rested with similar carvings, two figures robed in the same purple Celothel wore called the line ahead one at a time administered a quick test Niowyn could not quite make out, and either handed them a slip of paper or cast them out.
Niowyn collected the recommendation Celothel had written her from the pouch on her hip that sat below her gourd and clutched it in her hand as she drew a meditative breath before joining the line. Her gaze wandered, admiring the buildings soaring above her and watching as people zoomed past her - she truly was far away from home in this palace. And although she was excited for what was to come next, there was a small twang of nervousness in her stomach. Celothel had talked about her and her people as though she was some sort of magic anomaly… one that was meant to be treasured and revered - but what if the people waiting for her at the front of the line didn’t think so? The Order had become a necessary step in discovering the truths of the Ta’Lassa’s past and something even more ominous - stopping the death of magic. No was not an answer she could accept.
One by one she drew closer to the imposing figures standing at the gates until she found herself in front of them. One a woman, the other a man, with faces hardened and cold as ice. It was nothing like the familiar friendly smiles of the Ta’Lassa that welcomed you the moment you stepped inside the village. Niowyn nodded her head in greeting as she said hello and extended the parchment in her hand toward them, “from Celothel Ashfall.” The man’s face flinched slightly, as though to react to the name, and as the woman’s hand brushed alongside Niowyn’s to accept the parchment, her eyes showed intrigue, confusion, and surprise, before ripping the paper from Niowyn’s hands.
“Glad to see she is still doing something while she squanders College coin doing whatever it is she and that Shielder of hers desire,” the woman quipped, volume and tone suggesting to Niowyn that the woman had not fully intended for her to hear. “Tell me, what did Celothel look like? What was her Shielder’s name?”
“Deormund was her shielder’s name and she was a beautiful and talented woman, blonde. Had a burn scar on one side of her face.” Niowyn responded flatly, not impressed with the remarks the woman before her made. “Why is it that you ask?”
“Celothel has not been to the Shroud in many years,” the man interjected before his companion, brow furrowed and face creased in a frown, could respond. “She has sent a number of prospects to us, and we must ensure these recommendations are legitimate like we would for any prospects sent by those in the field. That is all.”
He gestured aside his companion, who called up the next prospect in line, and waved Niowyn forward towards the gates of the College.
“Now I trust Celothel’s word well enough,” he said, with a frown that was as calculatingly charismatic as it was apologetic. “But, again with routine, I must also verify your skill. Have you received any formal education, either within the Shroud or perhaps elsewhere in the west with, say, the Earthworkers north of Alderstone?”
“Understandable given the prestige of this place.” Niowyn offered with a small smile as she walked alongside the man toward the gates of the college. For a moment she lost herself in awe of the massive structure before her but her attention snapped back when her training came into question. “Earthworkers?” she repeated aloud with an inquisitive eyebrow… and then she laughed lightly and waved the question off. “I suppose the only formal education I’ve received is from Celothel herself… but I was surrounded by gifted individuals who could use magic in the tribe I was born and raised in.”
“It says here…” the man said, voice trailing off as he read through the document. “Celothel noted you are skilled in both water and air magic, might you just demonstrate?”
A squat finger pointed to the gourd on Niowyn’s back.
“I assume that’s filled with water, yes?”
“You assume correctly.” Her response came quickly, with a playful tone to it. “Made lighter with the use of air magic. But of course, let me demonstrate something for you.”
As the final words left her lips, her eyes began to gleam and a stream of water sprouted from the gourd and danced in the air like leaves in an autumn breeze. The water spiraled, continuously pouring from the gourd until it took the shape of a few stampeding horses headed toward herself and the man next to her. As the horses galloped on thin air, they quickly crystallized into sculptures before them, frozen in time.
Niowyn cocked her head toward the man and with a wry grin said, “is that a good enough demonstration for you?”
“Very good,” the man said, and Niowyn noticed that his face was doing more to hide his surprise than his tone. “Better than most journeymen, in fact. Then again, I’d expect nothing less from one of Celothel’s recommendations.”
He reached into the pouch at his side and produced a roll of parchment and a quill. The parchment was marked with writing Niowyn could not quite make out, but she could see where the man checked that she was eligible for admission. He scrawled along a line across the bottom, two names - first his own in a messy signature, the second illegible at her distance. He handed Niowyn the document after rolling it back up and tying it with a thin length of twine, nodding.
“Right through these gates you’ll hand this to the scrivener at the first desk,” he explained. “You will be contacted within the week for formal instruction scheduling at the behest of the College, but for now we will get you situated within our records. Your tutor will be Hamath Immet, Last of the Line of Maidenholm, and Keeper of the Fifth Seal. He is skilled in wind and water, though in time you will notice such distinctions matter only beyond these walls, but I believe he will sharpen your inherent talent.”
Niowyn accepted the parchment, nodding in acknowledgment as the man explained the process. Her curiosity piqued at the name of her tutor - Last of the line of Maidenholm. The drowned city of Elves. She remembered reading about it in literature from the libraries of Gol Badhir. She even had scribbles and writings of her own on the place. But the last of his title, the Keeper of the Fifth, was not something she was familiar with. “The Keeper of the Fifth?” she asked.
“A question better answered by him - as you are not yet a member of the Order until passing through to the scrivener, I am not at liberty to say,” the man said, gesturing to the doorway. “Fret not. You will have a chance to speak with him today.”
“Thank you” she politely nodded and headed through the gates and as she passed over the threshold on the ground, it was as though she had stepped into an entirely different world.
The hallway was narrow, with a long runner in deep purple and intricate golden patterns throughout it. The walls were dark and adorned with antique-like candle fixtures that lit the hall. At the far end of the hall where it gave way to a room, there were two individuals standing in line. In front of them was an elevated desk with a shrewd looking man sitting in a chair that was three times too large for him staring down at the people in line. His hand waved impatiently in the air to call on the next person and the line moved up by one.
Niowyn stepped lightly and joined the back of the line. From where she stood now, she could see clearly behind the shrewd man at the desk - the room was in the shape of a hollow cylinder with floors upon floors like rings in a tree with great wooden staircases that connected the levels together. The architecture here reminded her of that from Gol Badhir. Her drifting eyes caught amber and purple robed figures coming and going from the levels below her and as she soared upward, she was elated to see that the walls were lined with shelving that housed thousands and thousands of books. But there was something odd about the upper levels - an eerie light, emitting from candles that housed no flame. It brought a chill to her neck.
“NEXT” the shrewd voice boomed above her. Niowyn shook her head lightly and looked back to the man at the desk who was now annoyed. Had she drifted off in thought while he had called on her? With a few gingerly steps forward she was at his desk, which was littered in papers and notes. It looked like her study back home. “My apologies… I was lost admiring this place.” Niowyn produced the parchment given to her by the man at the gates and handed it over to him.
“Yes, yes, the College is quite admirable,” the scribe tutted, snatching the parchment from Niowyn’s hands and squinting at it, highlighting the already apparent frown lines etched into his cheeks and forehead. “And is hardly a shadow of the Archive you saw heading this way. Niowyn, is it? Yes, yes, Hamath Immet. Good.”
A quill scratched furiously against the parchment, though Niowyn could only see the very tip of its feathered counterweight. Opposite the scribe floated down another, fluttering about as if carried along in a gentle breeze, ink dripping from its tip onto the oaken floor below which Niowyn could see was dotted in similar, dried splotches.
“Take that, sign here, and meet with Master Immet in his studies on the third floor. He is not expecting you specifically, but he has been expecting a student each day with the prospects coming through.”
He thrust forward a document different from the one Niowyn had signed, written in immaculate script outlining her privileges and responsibilities as an initiate of the Order of Arcanists. Skimming it, she noted little of substance between the lines of flowery, legal-like language beyond her access to the College and the Archive in their fullest save the top floors. Below, confirmation that she was to be instructed by Hamath Immet rested in a flowing script that was of a different hand than the one that had penned the rest of the document, and a line for her to sign.
“In addition to these privileges come costs of tuition,” the scribe explained. “We are far from the old ways, and so you will not be charged for biannual sessions as one might have in the past. We instead take payment at the end of each month for services rendered and resources used. As outlined in the paper below, the cost is two thousand crowns a month, or goods and services in equal exchange as to be determined by an independent assessor. Signing this document obligates you to at least one month’s payment, which will be collected in full within the fortnight at a time to later by delineated. Do you understand the terms and conditions to which you bind yourself by signing this document?”
Niowyn nodded along as the man explained himself. It was evident that he had been reciting this speech for many moons with how scripted it was. There were so many finer details, including a tuition, that Celothel had left out in their travels. But she didn’t blame Celothel, there were so many other things she was teaching her that the finer details were minute in the grand scheme of things. “Yes. I understand”
“I guess it’s a good thing I have my fortunes from Gol Badhir” she whispered to herself as she signed her name - Niowyn of the Ta’Lassa Tribe - to the parchment before handing it back to the scribe.
The scribe raised a quizzical eyebrow as his gaze reached the line where Niowyn had signed. He nodded to her, the formality of his position seemingly forgotten for a moment.
“Be sure to mention that to Master Immet,” he said in a hushed tone, one that would not carry to the small line that had formed behind Niowyn. Before she could respond, he let out a sharp “NEXT!” and waved her aside.
Niowyn quickly moved to the side as another individual behind her quickly filled her place. She clutched the document outlining all of her privileges in her hand and took a small moment to look down on it with a smile, this was real… Her life was about to change.
With a smile, she headed down the ring hallway toward a staircase and made her way to the third floor where Hamath Immet’s study was. Along the way she passed others wearing robes similar to Celothel’s with the addition of a red coloured robe, both which she had noted from the lower levels. There were far more red robes than there were purple, so she could only assume that those in purple were of higher positions. Niowyn grinned, of course Celothel was as revered as she seemed.
The library of books drew closer and closer as she climbed the floors of the College. There was an ache in her chest that yearned for her to go forward and pour her soul into uncovering the histories that awaited… but Hamath Immet was waiting for her. Not her specifically, as the old shrewd had so eloquently pointed out, but waiting nonetheless. Reading would have to come later. After a short time, she found herself in front of a door with his name etched into a nameplate on it. With a light knock, and a small “hello?” she pushed open the door slightly and peeked in.
“Come in,” replied a calm voice that emanated not from the room, but rather the gap in the doorway itself.
As Niowyn pushed the door open further, there was no speaker standing just by the doorway. Instead, a purple-robed man sat at a small writing desk at the end of a narrow room that might more readily have been called a corridor. It was well-kept, scrolls organized neatly into containers and pouches along one of two shelves that lined the walls to Niowyn’s left and right. The other housed a collection of tomes, most of them labeled with hastily scribbled titles and not the sort of ornate handwriting she’d seen of similar works. Opposite the desk rested a plush chair that showed its age in its sunken cushion, slightly leaning legs, and chipped edges.
The man in the purple robes was the only splash of color in the room, she noticed as she approached the desk and made to sit at the chair at his gesture. He was slender, the robes seeming to swallow him as made evident by how they folded and bent themselves at his motions, finding no scraps of flesh to rub against. A well-kept ginger beard and locks likewise stood out against the dull backdrop of his study, and somber, perceptive brown eyes gazed at Niowyn as she approached. His lips tugged into the ghost of a smile, one expressed more in how it lit his eyes than moved his face.
“I take it you are my new student?” He asked, cocking his head to one side.
“That is correct” she replied as she came to a stop at the back of the chair. She couldn’t help her wandering eyes from adoring the shelves and their possessions to the left and right. Before sitting, she gestured with her hands in a tribe style greeting common to her people “Niowyn…” there was a small hesitation as she thought back to what the shrewd man had whispered to her… “of the Ta’Lassa Tribe.”
Niowyn pulled the gourd from her back and set it beside the chair as she sat and smiled softly at the man. “And I take it you must be Hamath Immet? It is a privilege and honour to be here.”
To Niowyn’s surprise, Hamath replied with what was an approximation of the proper response to her greeting, smile manifesting itself more apparently upon his face.
“Well met, Niowyn,” he replied, the smile apologetic now. “I have yet to actually meet one of your people, but your customs and such are well-documented. So my apologies if I made a fool of myself. Might I ask if I may sense you? I take it you understand what that is, yes?”
Excitement caught her as she watched Hamath respond to her greeting, although sloppy, it was recognizable. Her excitement turned to a bashful smile at the thought of her tribe’s customs being documented in texts. “There is no need to apologize… I’m just happy to have met one more person who even knows who I am. Although, my people are quite popular among the world of Magic as it would seem.”
“For future…” Niowyn reflected the response in the proper manner to demonstrate. She smiled again and brought her hands to a clasped position in her lap. “Yes… yes, you can sense me. The terminology is only something that I’ve learned recently and the actual use of the skill in a formal way even more recently than that. How we explain the use of magic back home and how we apply it is very… very different from what is practiced here.”
“A common occurrence,” Hamath said. “Where I come from, magic was very different to what is taught here as well. Such is the way of the world when any sense of common culture is lost. But yes, pardon me a moment.”
For a moment, nothing about the room changed. Then, suddenly, Niowyn could feel a presence that was not quite her own prodding at her mind. Rather, the part of her mind through which she felt the air and the thrum of water, the same one she touched when she reached for the flow of magic. Then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, the presence was gone, replaced with the low din she was accustomed to sensing.
“I shall hazard a guess and assume you were recommended to study here by Celothel, would I be correct?” Hamath asked, fingers forming a steeple atop his desk, sleeves sliding down to his elbows.
At Niowyn’s nod, Hamath mirrored the affirmation and cocked his head to one side once more.
“She has a habit of sending ones like you our way. I remember her fascination with bloodlines when we were initiates together. It seems it is a curiosity she has maintained, in her own unusual way. But I get ahead of myself. Doubtless you have questions, and before we begin with formal studies, I find it best to purge as much of that curiosity as you can so that I might also understand that it is I can assign you to keep you engaged. So, Niowyn, ask away.”
Niowyn smiled softly, her fingers curling around themselves as her hands sat neatly in her lap. “I have questions upon questions… but there are two I am curious about to start. When the first people outside of the gates mentioned your name, it came with a title. One, the last from Maidenholm and the Keeper of the Fifth Seal. In my adventures through Gol Badhir I read about the drowned civilization…” she paused for a moment, thinking back to the libraries of the Dwarven fortress. “... and how it was mostly inhabited by Elves. Can you explain that one to me?”
“It is a common misconception of history that Maidenholm was immediately drowned in the Unmaking,” Hamath said, somberness in his voice off-put by the lingering mask of politeness that lingered in his smile. “We think of it as one concrete event, one that took place instantaneously everywhere all at once. The truth is, for the better part of two generations the world decayed. First came the conquest of Alderstone, and the establishment of Piersym’s court. Then the wars began, long before anyone knew of any sort of otherworldly presence driving the would-be Demon King. First Gol Badhir in the north, then all the nameless cities and townships further south near the Pass. Further and further east the armies went, conquering as they saw fit. The first accounts of the Others came to many in this time, but the elves were on the wane. The Shroud…”
As if to accentuate the point, Hamath gestured around him.
“...the Shroud stood defiant. Maidenholm did not. More than twenty years after Piersym began to unmake the world, his armies arrived at the gates of my ancestors. The elves had left us to our fate when first they heard of his uprising in the west, leaving no trace. We did what we could to prepare, and then the end came. Many of the families of Maidenholm perished in the siege, but mine - the rulers in place of the elves - survived long enough to do the unthinkable. They were the ones who ordered the city to be flooded. If history is to be believed, none survived the flooding, and in the centuries since my ancestors congregated with other survivors from the fiefdoms of Maidenholm in the Shroud, continuing the traditions of the house. Not content with that for long, they took the family back north to rebuild, and New Maidenholm stands now for their efforts.”
Niowyn sat quietly, listening intently to history unfolding before her. Normally this topic would excite her but the sorrow in Hamath’s tone echoed that of the elders in her tribe that recounted old Ta’Lassa tales. With a light breath, as though to recompose herself, she spoke “... too many were lost to Piersym. Entire cities… villages…” she paused, pain creeping in. “... tribes and people.”
“Thank you for telling me. I know that it wasn’t easy, as it isn’t easy for me to talk about how the Ta’Lasssa… how we lost ourselves so long ago.” Niowyn’s shoulders tucked up near her ears and relaxed in an overexaggerated tone as though to shake off the heavy tension sitting in the room. “And what about The Keeper of the Fifth Seal. What does that mean?”
“How familiar are you with Aetherstones?” Hamath inquired, a bushy ginger eyebrow raised in curiosity.
“Not many are, even here,” he said in response to her shaking head. “Even with the keep and all, they think it's just a fancy title given a pretty stone.”
Hamath plucked a small crystal from a leather strap about his neck tucked beneath his tunic, holding it up so that light might catch its surface. To Niowyn’s surprise, the crystal did not reflect the light back atop the table, but seemed to drink it in. It hummed and glowed as if it had a pulse - first a throb of light that receded into darkness, before repeating over and over. All told, it was no larger than the span from thumb to forefinger and both cut with sharp edges yet adorned in soft curves that strained Niowyn’s eyes the longer she tried to perceive it.
“There are a handful of these left in the known world,” he said, tucking the crystal back beneath his tunic. “Were you to try and sense it, it would be like trying to clutch a piece of glass slick with water between your fingers. Solid to the touch, but difficult to maintain a grasp for long. We know the elves made them, but we know not how they work, or what they might even be made of. Though they appear solid, they are in fact hollow all the way through. If I would split it open, it would either explode outward like some alchemist’s contraption, or unleash some Other-twisted creatures, it is difficult to tell. Some of these aetherstones are particularly potent, potent enough to give us a sense of what might be going on inside them - these we call Seals, and there are perhaps as many as ten of them in the known world. Some are yet unrecovered, some lost in the days between the Unmaking and now. This has been entrusted to me for protection, though I must admit calling it the fifth seal is… rather arbitrary. It is simply the fifth we have discovered.”
It was an unconscious movement when Niowyn reached for the crystal, though not to take it, but rather to marvel in its mysterious beauty. A thing of the past, a piece of history, created by elves and shrouded in mystery. It was a relic. “Incredible…” she managed under her breath.
“But you don’t know its purpose?” Niowyn looked up to Hamath before she sat back in her seat and her shoulders shuddered with amusement as she laughed softly. “Hopefully the thing doesn’t burn a hole through your chest at some point. But it is rather fascinating… The World of Old is lost upon us but fragments of its soul and life are everywhere. I want to discover them. All of them.”
“All of them?” Hamath said with a polite chuckle, and in it Niowyn heard the first ounce of genuine warmth he had yet to display. “It is a wide world, and much of it remains undiscovered. Or, perhaps more accurately, has been buried and made lost once more.”
He thrummed his knuckles atop his desk, cocking his head to one side as he examined Niowyn with his somber brown eyes.
“For now, I think I will have you read a number of texts you can find in the library,” Hamath began, voice becoming curt and formal. “These are all baseline texts most initiates read before the time they come of age, so you might find this to be an accelerated course of study, but I think you’ll take to it well. Most are on the history of the Order and its general best practices with magic, as well as the role of Magi in society both before and after the Unmaking. I’ll include a handful on the history of old world as well, to keep you motivated.”
His eyes twinkled with faint amusement as he produced a quill and parchment from one of his desk drawers, scribbling down the texts along the paper before sliding it over to Niowyn.
“Any other questions?”
Her hand reached for the parchment, pulling it toward her. Her finger scanned across the texts and a ping of excitement struck her heart. There is where it would begin, her journey to the Old World and the rediscovery of her People. The keeping of Magic. Niowyn coupled her hands together in her lap and with a wry grin answered his question, “I guess the only question left is, when do we start?”
L: The Arcanist Order | A collaboration with @ze_kraken
They had begun months ago, when the Spring Moon had risen and the last of winter's bite had faded into naught but a bitter memory. Always the same - visions of fire and pain that left a wordless dread in their wake, if only in part because they, like the winter nights before, faded into nothingness with the first moments of wakefulness. At first Hamath had been keen to regard them as the last vestiges of pain at Illiana's loss echoing through their link in the Essence to torment him years later, but as the days stretched into weeks that nameless fear was given a face that remained seared into his eyes, its afterimage flashing each time he so much as blinked.
Hamath had seen their kind before, felt the searing bite of their blades ripple through his and Illiana's link, but even the phantom pains of fiery lashes that had never marked his flesh paled in comparison to the terror he awoke to when the nightmares came. The dreams always began the same. Hamath stood atop the walls of the Shroud overlooking a field of fire and blood, a black mass dotted with the red and white of death gathered before him. He was alone, helpless to do much besides watch as the Others came, scaled the walls, and slew him: always a thrust to the chest, and he always awoke to the sound of his collarbone cracking before its might. At first, Hamath had tried to use his Gift to fight them off, but wanton resilience had slumped into meager acceptance as the nightmares resumed.
Then Niowyn had arrived.
In the weeks since his formal tutoring of the Ta'Lassa girl had begun, she had propelled herself through every text and exercise he had given her with remarkable zeal and dedication. It was her brilliance as a student that sustained what threads of sanity he had left to him as the nightmares drifted from visions of death and fire into something more sinister. Gone were the armies and the corpses and the infernal blades clutched in skeletal hands. In its stead, Hamath's dreams came into being in his study, and always he sat by his desk, his Seal the only object to stand atop the table's surface. And across the desk sat none other than Piersym the Spellbinder, or at least a man who claimed to be.
Hamath had never seen sketches of the man - none alive had, if the rumors were to be believed. He was disappointingly unremarkable for the man who had broken the world. A man of blonde-grey hair clung to his head with all the grace of a storybook king, and the wrinkles and crows feet that marred his face lent an air of wisdom and presence where it might have robbed another of his aura of vitality. He wore dark purple robes in the fashion of an Arcanist, fringed with golden flushes at the sleeves and neckline. His hands were bedecked in a battery of rings of various gems, and the necklace he wore over his robes gleamed with a power Hamath did not need to reach into the Essence to observe plainly.
"You cannot hide from me forever," he said, and as he spoke the words fire flared behind his eyes and flickered out from between his lips. "With each passing day I see more. Soon I shall not even need this."
He reached out across the desk to clutch at the Seal atop the desk, and Hamath felt a searing pain in his neck where normally he wore the amulet. He reached reflexively to clutch at his neck as if to remove the amulet, but only felt his own flesh, clammy and feverish to the touch. Piersym laughed, and in the laughter flames crackled, embers fluttering out of the Spellbinder's mouth to flicker and die atop the desktop, leaving scorches where they landed.
"If... if I destroy it..." Hamath rasped, terror clutching at the words, letting them pass from his mouth only after the terror had minced them into quivering, half-uttered syllables.
"You still do not understand," Piersym responded, a smugness filling the flames behind his eyes as he considered Hamath with his baleful gaze. "These stones are but vessels, and soon I shall outgrow the need for even these playthings as I did the trappings of mortality."
His ring-clad fingers wrapped about the Seal once more, and Hamath whimpered in agony, but the fear kept his limbs locked in place as the burning consumed his neck once more.
"I claim you," Piersym spat, the flames leaking once more like spittle might from a normal man. "You and all your Seals are mine. They always were, and always shall be. Try and rid yourself of it all you wish - leave it behind and it shall find its way back to you. Destroy it, and I shall consume your flesh and do with it what I will."
"What would you have done with me?" Hamath asked, his fear still present in his tone as he examined the Spellbinder.
"Nothing - your powers pale in comparison to mine, or the ones I have at my disposal. Fret not, for you are only mortal, and mortals interest me little," the Dark One responded, bemusement filling his voice, oozing. "In time you all will come to serve me, and I have grown to be a patient being, as you'll learn."
Hamath nodded reflexively. This was the longest the dream had lasted - usually Piersym merely ranted on about his power, or at least that was all Hamath remembered when he awoke. Only, the dream felt as real now as his conversation with Niowyn had that morning. He clutched his thigh, wincing in pain, but yet it did nothing to draw him from the dream. Piersym noticed the act and chuckled, hands steepling atop the desk in a criss-cross of glittering gem-light.
"You shall soon wake, though perhaps as ill-rested as you were when your slumber began," he said. "It was foretold this day would come - that I would yet face one to rival my being, and I have felt this one in your presence. I know not who it is in detail, but I shall learn with time - you shall not tell me, and regardless if you did, names and faces are meaningless to my soldiers. Only my mark is of consequence."
Suddenly there were several figurines atop the desk beside the Seal and Piersym parted his hands to gesture to them. They were carved of wood like a child's toy, but Hamath had never seen their likeness save from Toymaker, an earth Magi on the Street of Stags. Among them were a short and stout figure, a woman clad in blue, a woman in shining knight's armor, a slender blonde-haired man, a large bull of a man, a woman in the Arcanist's purple, a woman of fire-red hair, and a gruff soldier. Each of them was as lifelike as flesh and blood, the only mark of falseness being the joints and seams in their construction where limbs bent and met the torso.
"I see their faces in the web, as plainly as I see you here before me now," Piersym growled. "This one cannot channel the Gift..."
He swat aside the stout man.
"This one I see clutching the Blade."
The woman in shining armor fell.
"This one shall perish before he lays eyes upon me."
The blonde man fell.
"This one seeks the Light and passes it to the One,"
The Arcanist fell.
"This one shall meet his end for the one with the kiss of fire,"
The soldier fell.
"She replaces the Light-seeker."
The fire-haired one fell.
"All that leaves is the One."
The one clad in blue.
"Niowyn," Hamath spat out, jolting upright.
His study faded - he was alone, sweat clinging to his forehead, matting his hair and soiling the sheets about him. The room was dark, the city outside eerily silent. Panic clutched at his chest, and the Arcanist forced himself to peer out through arrow slit in his chambers to the Shroud below. All remained as it was - there was no ruin and death in the streets, no scars of some great battle he had slumbered through. With feeble fingers he clung to the Seal about his neck, panting as he urged his heart to still.
It burned to the touch, flaring white-hot where his fingers laid upon it. He let it bounce to his chest harmlessly, and frowned. Hands clutched it again and his skin blistered under its burning-hot touch as he attempted to wrench it from his neck.
"Gone with you, Dark One," he grunted through the pain, but even as his skin screamed in agony and protest the amulet would not budge.
Seconds passed and Hamath surrendered, letting the amulet flutter back to his chest. He glanced down at his hands, the fingers blistered over and ruined from the touch. He grimaced, but jolted in shock as the skin became full with life once more, as if nothing had happened. The Arcanist clutched his temples, feeling the beginnings of a headache stir, and let out a choked sob born of frustration, restlessness, and fear...
This round of posts will be a mixture of downtime and collaborations to get your individual plots progressing. It has been approximately 3 weeks since your arrival in the Shroud, and so what happens in that downtime is largely up to you - make as much progress to your current quest(s) as you feel is appropriate given the scope and time of the quest. Reach out with any questions or requests to collaborate on the status of your quests - the next GM post will propel the timeline forward more, and coupled with the momentum of your solo posts, should continue the flow onward through the season.
Reminder that a list of the Shroud's areas of renown is here.
Arianell Oresh COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | Errybody
"That is enough for today, I think, Aria of Korin,” Germund huffed, accepting Aria’s extended hand to pick himself up to his feet as he brushed off the dust and dirt from his tunic.
“Given another month or two, you’ll be ready to cross blades with any one of us and expect to win as often as you lose,” the knight said, sheathing his practice sword. “Perhaps more.”
The two mulled over their waterskins in silence, tending to fresh bruises with ice from the cart of a particularly industrious student of the College of Magi. The sun overhead had begun to fade into twilight, and the outline of Linsinius and Lunsal were just visible over the horizon. The silver glow of Lunsal was lost to Linsinius’ pale green aura, and the twilights under its watch were tinged with more yellows than they were the oranges of winter.
Around them other fighters were closing out the day, in a shared amicable silence Aria had come to grow fond of during her weeks training with Germund. Not all of them were knights of the Raven, but in those moments they were all companions of sorts, even if they stood several paces apart across a space larger than the home she and her siblings had shared back in Korin. Just as the silence had settled into its being, it was torn asunder by the pealing blast of a horn off towards the Third Wall. Then another. And another.
“Knights returning,” Germund explained, seemingly unfazed as he stood from his cross-legged seated position. “Come, let us see what the fuss is about. Might be we’ll make it to the gate in time.”
The two hurried along on stiff and sore legs to the gate that barred the road to the Aetherstone Keep just in time to see a column of riders three wide and five deep advance through the gate and onto the road. They clutched lances held aloft with streamers of various colors fluttering in the wind behind them, and at their head rode a man clutching a banner bedecked in raven’s feathers and embossed with a crowned raven fringed in black, red, and gold. They wore matching breastplates, but the rest of their arms and armor were as varied as the ones who wore them.
As the column passed the statues flanking the road to the Aetherstone Keep, a man next to the standard bearer let loose a note on his horn and the column stopped. His gaze passed over the spot Aria and Germund stood, his visage masked by the glint of fading sunlight and the visor of his helm. The visor lifted, but the face beneath it was lost in its shadow. Still, its excitement was palpable even from this distance. Hurriedly, the man slid down from his horse and rushed to where Aria stood.
Germund uneasily thumbed the hilt of his practice blade, about to step in front of her until recognition flickered in Aria’s eyes. Hair as ashen blonde as her own peaked over his brow from his helm, matted with dirt and plastered to his skin by dried sweat. The same color sprawled across his cheeks in a patchwork beard that might have looked better given a chance to trim it- he was half a stranger, but there was no mistaking those eyes as anyone but her brother’s.
“Ari?” He croaked once they were within earshot, and she could see tears beginning to well at the corners of his eyes.
The frost of fear that had risen within her gut at first sight warmed within her, tears of her own already streaming as her fingers moved from hilt to the chain around her neck, curling around the second of the two rings there.
"Y-you can't… you can't be here. I… I found you.. The shore… I buried you…"
"I think I would have remembered that," he said, the good nature in his tone reaching everywhere but his eyes as he removed his helmet. "I do remember this, though."
He reached out to tap the chain Aria clutched with a gauntleted forefinger.
"How did you find that? I thought it lost for good."
With a shuddering breath, Aria's answer came in a sudden rushed motion, arms looping around her brother's middle, face buried into the crook between armor and shoulder. For a long time, she could not speak, but when the silent sobbing dissipated, and she released him, stepping back, she dried her cheeks, shaking her head, "There was a tangle of bloodvine… near the water's edge outside the Last Home. I went hunting and I saw… I saw a body in the vines. Pulled it free and they were wearing this. They looked... I thought… I was so sure..."
“In a river hamlet due north of here - Tinville, it’s called - a tavern maid or some other thief must have swiped it from my bags, how it wound up on your bloodvine-ravaged corpse from there I couldn’t say,” Matthias replied, letting the chain slip from his steel-clad hand. “We have much to discuss, you and I.”
A smile flitted across his lips as he glanced back to his companions atop their horses, their visored helms fixated on the two siblings.
“I have matters to attend to with the Grandmaster,” he said, offering Aria a grimace. “Where in the Shroud are you staying? I’ll come find you after I’m done.”
Still dazed, Aria racked her brain for the words to say, before lamely offering the name of the Casual Pint, her own hand clutching the chain, before curling tightly around the rings at its end, "Oh! He… he might think you a ghost." She blurted, suddenly, "I might have told them of your passing…"
“Then he will pleasantly surprised for more reason than one - I’ll be back to see you as soon as I can, little sister,” he said, ruffling Aria’s hair and bowing his head to Germund before making for his horse, donning his helmet once more, lowering its visor as he went.
Watching as Matthias joined his companions, disappearing into the crowded streets, Aria’s arm lowered to her side to find Germund’s wrist, steadying herself, “...You saw him, right? Matthias? He’s… he was real?”
“Aye, real enough - though perhaps he was a ghost,” Germund said with a shrug, voice hanging about its usual note of indifference even as his eyes twinkled with a faint, wry amusement. “I have yet to hear tell of ghosts who can ride horses and ride alongside men, though.”
“I buried him…” She repeated, dully, before shaking her head, “I should go. H-how long do you think he’ll be with the Grandmaster? No… it doesn’t matter. He’ll come.” Turning to her instructor, her eyes slightly wide, she fumbled a moment over her words, before clearing her throat, “Do… do you suppose we could start a bit later tomorrow?”
“Ah, I was planning to use a spear tomorrow during our sparring,” the big man replied, that amusement lingering in his otherwise stoney face. “If past experiences are much to go on, you’ll be bruised to uselessness well before the sun sets. Aye, we can start later tomorrow. Enjoy the time with your brother.”
After brushing at her damp cheeks again, her hands clasped his briefly, and she nodded, “Thank you, Germund. Truly.”
She didn’t linger after that, moving through the streets with the efficiency of a woman on a mission. Initially, she had intended to use the evening hours to run errands, but the anticipation of seeing Matthias drove her back to the tavern without pause. Fear chased, still, like an animal on the hunt, and not far from often, she found herself dreading the possibility that anything… everything… could still go wrong. There had been other times along her journey that Aria had questioned whether she was devolving into madness, but never more than upon seeing her brother dismount from his horse.
Passing time pacing before the fire, she found herself longing for Nathyen’s levity… for Nio’s wisdom, Oryn’s straightforwardness, or Erskine’s guidance. For its worth, she would even have settled for Elyssia’s blunt edge or the frustrating sobriety of Deormund. More than ever, she missed Blanc, and her ability to say the right thing, even when (Aria imagined) it wasn’t entirely intentional. It felt so long ago since they’d left the Hollows behind, and she found herself oddly curious as to what had become of their Orc friend… of her old mentor… of Maud’s old crew.
There was so much… so much history. So much to tell her brother…
“Oh, Matty… you’ve missed so much…” She whispered into the fire as she collapsed into the chair before it.
It was some time after nightfall, or at least Aria assumed as much with the Casual Pint’s lack of windows, that Matthias entered the tavern’s common room. Stripped of the splendor of his armor and shining helm he looked haggard and exhausted, his every step measured and cautious. Though he was among none that would do him harm, his hand rested on the pommel of his sword, which Aria noted bore a remarkable resemblance to Shard. He had shaved and bathed in the time since their meeting, and the patchy beard was replaced with a grey shadow, his dirt-matted hair longer than she had ever seen it back home.
He unbuckled his swordbelt and placed it upright by the chair he settled into, facing Aria and the hearth in the wall. As it had before, his smile reached everywhere but his eyes as he looked over his sister, hand never dwelling far from his blade’s hilt. He let out a sharp, relieved sigh and seemed to calm himself, but even as he sunk back into the plush chair there was a sharpness and tension he carried in his shoulders.
“I don’t know where to start,” he said, eyes fleetingly meeting Aria’s before shifting back to the hearth. “How… how does one start a conversation like this?”
A soft sound, something like a laugh, but not quite as humorous escaped her, as Aria sank back, drawing her legs up to rest her chin against her knees. She had left her armor in her room as well, and while she’d become more accustomed to being without it, she felt oddly exposed then, as though the girl she had left behind in Korin had found her way North, after all, “I’m still not entirely convinced I haven’t lost my mind and you aren’t some figment of my imagination. Your burial was lovely… well, we had to burn the body, actually. We were a bit hurried…” Smiling dryly, she shrugged, “I can’t believe you’re here, Matty. I… I thought so many times along the way what I would say if I found you. But I’ve… I’ve been through so much, and things have changed. I-I’ve changed. And none of it makes much sense, anymore. Look at you. You’ve grown up…”
“I doubt any burial involving a bloodvine’s hunger could be lovely,” he snorted with mirthless laughter, face softening as he met Aria’s gaze once more. “And hush now, I’m the eldest, I should be saying these things of you. Father would be proud - you did not end up weaving and gossipping like some of the other village women in Korin. I almost did not recognize the lanky Ari I sparred with using broomsticks in the barn back home.”
“Bruises are still the same… Germund doesn’t pull his punches.” Rubbing a particularly tender place on her arm, Aria laughed gently, before her expression shifted, falling serious once more, “I couldn’t stay. They wanted him at the front, Father. When he lost Cal, a part of him was lost, too. He would not have survived it. I did what I had to, but I don’t know that he would be proud. By Korin’s standards, I’m a disgrace. I don’t regret it, but it does… it does make it easier knowing I’ll probably never get back over the border.” With a sigh, Aria shifted, “I’ll admit, I didn’t expect to be training as a knight… But I suppose I earned something of a small and rather unintended notoriety, bringing down the likes of Maud.”
“Fate weaves as fate wills,” Matthias said with a note of sadness to his voice, thumb brushing the hilt of his sword almost absentmindedly. “If it is meant to be, we’ll see home again. It makes me wonder why in all the songs old Peyrin used to tell at winternight they never mention the homesickness and worry.”
The words hung in the air for a moment, and Matthias glanced towards the fire.
“I never expected to find you here, knight or otherwise,” he said. “I… I didn’t expect father to have been called up to fight here, nor that you would take his place. I thought, naively as I’m sure many of our folk do, that my passage north would be different. That I would come and conquer the darkness, and spare you the same fate. That I may never gaze upon Korin at harvest time, or celebrate the spring bells, or ever dare see a field of sunflowers in bloom seemed such a small price to pay if it might mean others need not go. I cannot undo your passing through the pass, but I can count it among my failures.”
A tear slid down Matthias’s cheek, which he brushed aside with the back of his hand, eyes not daring to look Aria’s way as he pulled back a sob and closed his eyes, forcing his breath to steady.
“Fate wills, as you said.” Leaning forward, she offered a small, wistful smile, “...Matty, I don’t regret it. Not for a moment. I… I have been through horrors worse than I ever imagined. I’ve fought things I still see in my nightmares, when I close my eyes. I have slain… and there is a weight to the blood on my hands, no matter the good it did. I have lost people...” Her fingers gently traced the scrap of fabric that she had tied to Callum’s ring, before dropping back to her lap, “But I have also discovered so much more than I ever would in Korin. I have met… so many good people. There’s Nio… She is the most gifted mage, Matty… A tribal woman, so stubborn and fierce, but so kind and wise. Oryn… strong and brave and decent. Erskine, he’s… funny and charming, and he has a sadness to him, but it gives him this… immeasurable depth. And Nathyen…” Pausing, breath catching, she looked to the fire, “He can be so frustrating… so willful, yet I have never met a man who can calm my storm so efficiently with just a word. And I would not have met any of them, were it not for crossing that border. And I have grown, too. Home… I’ve come to realize, Matty… it’s not a place. It is so much more. And this is the first time in my life I have ever felt like I belonged. And now you’re here, and it feels… it feels complete.”
“You always did see the glint of the gold for the shadow,” he replied, voice steadier now. “And I must admit, selfishly, knowing I have you here now helps. The people here are hardy and strong, but half the time they think my stories of the south are outright lies at worst or fanciful retellings at best. I’ve spent years here, and always feel like the traveling bard who used to come at summer’s end - an interesting person to entertain yourself with, here to tell a story, and go on. To have another like… like us, and for it to be you, is more than I could ask for.”
Chuckling, she shook her head, “All that means is there’s two of us for them to gawk at. But I don’t mind. They are a broken people. More than anyone in Korin ever was. I tried for so long to understand, but I don’t know that I ever will. For all I’ve been through since leaving home, it isn’t half of what these people endure their whole lives. That any of them can find joy or humor or worth among all this darkness is… well, it’s nothing short of miraculous. And maybe that’s part of why I… was so eager to join the knights. Because even if it is bitter and cold and full of these horrors… There is something here that is worth fighting for. Worth protecting.”
“Every battle fought here is one those back home do not need to think about - there will come a time, perhaps, where the darkness here slips past the magics of old, and if I can give my life to delay it, or perhaps foolishly believe I can stop it, it shall have been worth it. The people here, though? I don’t think they see they need protecting - to them, there is an unnerving acceptance that there are those who walk this world from a dimension not of our own out to kill them, and that the crops do not grow to be big and strong. I feel like a living man among corpses when I look around,” Matthias said, glancing about the tavern and waving his hand vacantly through the air. “There are sparks of hope - the Knights, for one, the Magi for another, but the… hopelessness I see, it is hard not to slip under it like a rowboat at the tide.”
“...I know.” Nodding, she shifted, and pulling at the chain, her grip shifted from Callum’s ring to Matthias’s, “When I found… this, at the shore. When I thought it was you, I very nearly gave in to it. That hopelessness. I don’t know that I would have made it without my friends by my side. Joining the knights gave me a purpose, one I didn’t even know I needed, until I came here. For so long, all I could think about was finding you, getting home. And then that wasn’t an option, anymore, and I drifted. I drifted into that place of darkness. Being offered a place… a way to make worth of all these terrors. It was like being handed a new life.” Pausing, she managed another weary smile, “I could do without the daily beatings, though.”
Reaching out, then, she rested a hand on his forearm, eyes searching his for a moment in silence, “...I see it in you, Matty. The weight of this place. And I’m so sorry that it took me so long to find you.”
“You found me, and in the end, it is more than I could have ever hoped to see of home again,” he replied, and Aria was sure the lump he swallowed back then was one of tears not shed. “I fear another parting is imminent, however - soon I must venture back out into the world, I have found a lead on our quest, and the Old Lion wishes I shall lead the lances out to see what might be learned.”
Sitting up straighter, Aria’s jaw tightened slightly, “...How soon?”
“Within the fortnight,” he said with a small, apologetic smile laced in a lingering sadness. “It pains me to leave you once more, but what I..”
He paused, raising an eyebrow as he considered Aria.
“What we are doing is above any one of us. The same weaving of fate that drew us north puts us on this path now, and I will not sit by and let the work be left undone.”
“Hardly seems fair, though, does it?” Voice wavering slightly, she knotted her hands in her lap, looking down at them, “Still… There’s time. There’s so much I’ve missed, Matty. But nothing more than our talks beneath the skies. They play so vividly in my mind, still. Just once, before you leave, could we?”
“Only if you tell me more of this Nathyen,” he said, and for a moment, it was like they were back in Korin teasing one another before supper while they set the table. “A man who can calm the storm that is Arianell Oresh is rare indeed, let alone one she speaks so sweetly of.”
“I will tell you about him…” She answered, with a grin, “But only after you promise to leave him be. I know you, Matthias… and I won’t have you bullying him the way you did poor Tomas Fornsworth back home. All he did was give me a flower and you and Callum put him up by his ankles in the barn for nearly an hour.”
Matthias’s grim demeanor faded for a moment as he broke out into a loud, joyous laugh, slapping his thigh and beaming at Aria.
“Ah, we did do that, didn’t we?” He said, wiping away a tear that had formed at the corner of his eye from laughter. “I seem to recall he was due to wed the magistrate’s daughter, and any man who would prefer that brainless dolt did not deserve you. At least, that’s what we told father when he asked us how it came to be Tomas was swaying by the last of his good rope at his ankles.”
“He had you weaving new rope for a week, after that… And I’ve the good mind to tell you, that wasn’t even the last of his good rope. He was so furious, he said as much, but he had a whole seven yards of it piled behind the woodshed. All those calluses and blisters, for nothing.” Laughing, she leaned forward on her elbows, “And for the record, Tomas did marry that dolt… and they were deliriously happy… Until she ran off with the butcher’s son that same spring.”
“Oh it wasn’t for nothing - I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on his face while Callum hauled him the ladder,” Matthias remarked, grimacing. “And ah Mikah had a habit of doing that - I remember, ah, no, I shouldn’t say.”
At Aria’s raised eyebrows, her older brother’s grimace darkened and he nodded, cheeks flushing a light pink.
“Ah, well, you’re grown now. Gisela, the eldest daughter of Tam’s farm just half a mile up the road from ours, and I had shared a bed, and I had been ready to propose and Mikah swoops in, and suddenly, her interest disappears faster than snow in a bonfire. It was later that summer I…”
And just like that, the warmth and nostalgia was gone as Matthias glanced down at his hands, gnarled together by his knees.
“I came north. Not because of her - gods be good, I did not do this all because of some butcher’s boy. But, the timing was not great in hindsight, was it?”
“I’m less concerned for the timing, and more appalled by your taste. Gisela? And you had the nerve to tease me over Tomas?” Shaking her head, her smile remained warm, though his shift was not lost on her, and a moment passed before she reached out again, to cover one of his hands with her own, “Has… has it been all bad, here, Matty? Have you had any bit of happiness?”
"Good. Bad. They fall short of describing this place," he replied with a small shrug of his shoulders. "I have felt fulfilled. There are days where the darkness recedes and I find myself lost in the charms of this land. The way the sun always seems to set behind mountains, and casts its orange highlights about the horizon. The songs people have written here I might never have heard otherwise. But then the days come around where I am reminded of how bleak it must be to live here. There are joys, but they come with the constant sense of danger and uncertainty. Enjoyment for its own sake feels not like a harmless celebration of what it means to be alive, but a survival trick meant to fool your mind into mustering the courage to make it just one more day."
“...Maybe it’s a not a trick, though? Maybe it’s a kindness? There is so little here of peace and warmth and goodness. Maybe those little bits that we find, however small and infrequent, maybe they are the tiniest glimmers of light, to remind us that not all can be dark… Not always. You once told me, I don’t know if you remember or not, that even when the sun does not shine, we will always have the stars to light our way. Just little pinpricks, but innumerable when you see them all at once. Maybe those moments are like the stars. One at a time, they seem small, fleeting… weak. Tricks. But all of them together, bundled up and spread across the darkness. There is more light than we will ever know…”
Pausing, she sat back again, teeth worrying briefly at her lower lip, before she smiled again, slightly slyly, “He’s a bard, you know? Nathyen. Wrote a song about me, once. Sang it in a room full of people and looked right at me, the whole time. I nearly killed him for it…”
"Ah from bakers to bards," Matthias grinned sheepishly at Aria. "Might be he doesn't understand you quite so well, but this story does not end in you showing me the poor boy's corpse in your room, does it?"
“Ah, not quite.” With a gentle, almost wistful chuckle, she shook her head, “Not entirely sure where it’ll end, honestly. I’m still… still figuring things out. I’ve gone a long time with such a single minded focus. I never thought I’d get far alive, so I certainly never imagined there would be anyone I could…” Trailing off, she looked up, gingerly meeting his gaze, “But I think, for what it’s worth, for all his faults you would no doubt find, I think even you would like him.” A sigh, in feigned irritation slipped out, “He’s woefully charming.”
"What a glowing recommendation you've made," her brother chuckled. "So long as I don't find the time to go see about getting some new rope, I think we'll get along fine. Though in my defense, it would never have happened without Callum. He was always the stronger one, though you'd never know it by looking at him."
“He’d be proud of you, you know?” The wistfulness returned, though more pronounced, as her fingers brushed the ring at her throat, “I’d dare say of both of us. I think if he had us with him, then… But it doesn’t do to dwell on what might have been, does it? And anyway, we’ve got each other, again. That’s something.”
“It is something,” Matthias agreed, hand prodding the hilt of his sword again as he scratched his chin, now dropped in hesitation over what to say next. “How much of our - no, no. This should not be said here with so many prying ears. Might we take a walk?”
Nodding, and with very little in the way of hesitation, Aria rose. Her own blade had been resting on the hearth, and sensing the odd trepidation in her brother, she hooked the belt around her narrow waist, giving Matthias a look, "You know the city better than I… lead on."
Matthias buckled his sword about his waist, nodding and guiding Aria out of the Casual Pint and to the street above. The lamplighters wandered the street, long candlesticks in hand which they used to light the torches lining the streets. Some among them, Aria noticed, simply pulled the flames from one torch to light the next with a flick of their wrist as they worked. The mages among them did not wear the purple cloaks of the Arcanists, but a grey-green cloak fringed with orange and yellow that were it not for the bright contrast of the warm tones would have made them all but invisible in the night air.
Matthias adjusted his own cloak - a plain brown traveler’s cloak - and wrapped it about his person to fend off the chill wind that swept through the streets as they walked. The din of the other taverns in the district filled the air with a pleasant warmth that was still foreign to Aria’s ears after weeks and months traveling the country in silence with the constant threat of violence looming overhead. In the sky above, the twin moons Lunsal and Linsinius gleamed bright, adding their silver and yellow-green glow to the orange and yellow of the torches.
Once they left the street upon which the Casual Pint stood and made their way up the King’s Road towards the Aetherstone Keep, Matthias turned to ensure there were no onlookers within earshot before speaking.
“Tell me what you know of Volcite steel,” he said in an undertone that carried only to Aria’s ears.
"Until recently? Very little. My companions and I… we were hired by Nathyen to search Gol Badhir. A bit of a treasure hunt at the start. But in the pass we ran into some trouble. I'm sure you're well aware if the defector, Maud. He wanted us to find him the collection of Volcite inside the ruins. We came across a small cache, but what he wanted was something bigger. A hammer. One we were… less than inclined to part with. In the end his greed for the hammer set him on the task of harming my companions. He killed one of our number. Tried to kill Nathyen. He didn't get the chance." Fingers curling around the remains of Shard, she shrugged, "I've his blade, now. Bits of it, at least. Seems to come in handy against the Others. That's rather the extent of what I know about it, beyond some tales Nathyen's told us round the fire. Legends and such…"
At the mention of the hammer, Matthias’s eyes lit up, and when he spoke again there was an unmistakable air of excitement to his whispered voice.
“This hammer - the one Maud wanted - did it have a gemstone anywhere on it?” He asked.
Pausing, Aria considered the question, before giving a small nod, "It did, aye. Red. A ruby if I had to guess."
Her brother gazed around before sliding his cloak aside and drawing his sword, clutching it by the flat of its single-edged blade towards the crossguard. It was a lovely thing, but no less practical for it - the fringes along its crossguard were as stylized as they were capable of snagging an opponent’s blade, the tips of them ending in open dragon’s maws too small to see at a distance. Its hilt was made of ivory worn yellow and smooth by age, and Aria could just barely make out where once there might have been runic carvings smudged by age. At its pommel rested a dark gem as smooth and as deep as she imagined the still ocean might look by night. It seemed to drink in the light, and though torches crackled overhead, not so much as an orange highlight glazed the gem’s surface. The blade of the sword itself shimmered as Shard did, first one color, then another, and another as Matthias moved it about to catch the torchlight from different angles.
“That was no ruby, Ari,” he said, sheathing the blade, that dark gem now standing out like a patch of void among the darkened streets. “Has this hammer exhibited any features beyond a normal warhammer?”
"I'd say. Oryn slew a Hollow Knight with it… It seems to channel magic. Maybe even make it stronger. Not that I understand the first thing about magic. Still… if it took one of those down, I'd wager it's no ordinary weapon."
“Would you take a Volcite weapon of any kind to any dark-fiend it would perish, but this is no ordinary weapon.” Matthias said. “The steel itself is likewise effective against mages - a wound inflicted by Volcite steel will cut off their access to the Source, possibly permanently. It fractures non-material things like a hammer to glass and disperses them, but that gem…”
He thumbed the gem at the pommel of his own weapon.
“...is able to soak that energy as it is released into our world. Not many weapons were made fusing the gems and Volcite steel, and to our knowledge all of them house the essence of one dark-fiend or another, and quenching the gem’s thirst for energy unleashes whatever magics it absorbed when it first was used.”
"In Gol Badhir… we found a book. A sort of chronology. There was mention of a creature… Mother of Drakes. By the account, Ormund slew this creature with the Hammer. By what you’re saying, that creature’s essence is trapped within that gem? That’s what Oryn channeled when he fought the Hollow Knight?”
“He channeled nothing,” Matthias said flatly. “Whatever powers rested within the weapon simply triggered with whatever reserves of power the gem had left to it - slaying the Hollow Knight likely replenished its reserves. The problem remains, though, that as far as we know these gems have a fixed capacity.”
Matthias patted the pommel of his sword.
“Once the gemstone is filled, it cannot absorb a new essence… it just, ah gods be good the words elude me,” he paused. “Once an imprint has been made upon the gem, all future essence is merely converted into energy, and that energy is put back into…”
He waved a hand out into the night.
“Wherever it goes after it has been used, like power from the Source a mage conjures to light a torch. So that Hollow Knight’s essence still exists, and as the hammer burns its energy it will be put back to whatever dark hole it came from. But the essence - in your hammer’s case, that dragon’s essence - remains unchanged, locked away in that gem, never to be seen again. And what we quest for is the Hyanda Wendë,” Matthias explained. “The virgin blade, one with a gemstone yet to be fed an essence, for that weapon will be the one to slay the Dark One.”
“...Because it contains no essence.” Nodding along, Aria considered the words, before continuing, “Is this the lead you’re after? The one they’re sending you away for, then?”
“Aye,” Matthias said with a nod. “I will lead my fellow journeymen with me to the Wailing Keep. It is inhabited by dark-fiends, but there was tell of an elven lord who dwelled there and was fond of collecting weapons of his age, so if there is to be a chance at finding an unclaimed gem it is there.”
“The Wailing Keep. Sounds charming.” Frowning lightly, Aria looked to Matthias, “And you really think that this blade… If you found it, it could stop him? For… good?”
“It is as good a hope as any. None have seen or heard of the Dark One walking for almost three centuries now, but it is a glimmer of light.”
“And here I thought I was the one who always found the glimmer. It’s a strange thing, Matty. Knowing what you’re heading into. The danger. Knowing nothing I say will stop you. Knowing I… I wouldn’t say it, even if it could stop you. I know it’s important. But you are still my brother. And it’s hard… not to worry.”
A firm hand gripped Aria’s shoulder, and Matthias offered her a small, sad smile.
“We both already came to accept we would never see one another again, little sister,” he said softly. “Though doubtless the thought of coming to grips with that fact once again cuts as deep as any knife, we have time now. Not enough, perhaps not never enough, but time nonetheless.”
"There's so much I want to say… To talk about. To know. And the others! Oh, I want you to meet them. But… but there's not enough time. A fortnight." Smiling dryly, she looked up at him, "You're sure saving the known world can't wait out the season?"
“Fate weaves as it wills, little sister,” Matthias replied. “The Dark One stirs, even now I feel him haunting my dreams - time is growing short, and a debt from ages past is coming due. I dare not have future generations bemoan if but the difference of a day had been the difference between the light prevailing or the dark consuming all.”
“Ugh.” With a dramatic sigh, Aria collapsed into her brother’s shoulder, arms around his middle, “You had to go and become all noble, didn’t you? Fine. Then we will make the best of this time. You… you’ll come again tomorrow, night?”
“I would not miss it for the world, Ari.”
“If it’s clear… Maybe we could find a field. Look at the stars like we did, before… before you had to leave?”
“Might be we can when next you have a day of rest - leaving the city takes time, but it won’t be any more difficult than when we used to trespass on Tam’s springs,” her brother replied with a smile, reluctantly sliding from Aria’s embrace. “The night grows long, and we both have our part to play on the morrow - I will see you again tomorrow, I swear it.”
Gripping the chain around her neck, Aria nodded, “Till tomorrow, then. And Matty? It doesn’t need to be said, but… I’m really glad you’re alive.”
“What a blessing it is fate did not make you a storyteller - I’d much prefer it if my song did not end with a bloodvine,” he said with a smile. “I love you, Ari.”
Sniffing lightly, Aria bowed her head, “Love you, Matty. See you tomorrow.” And though it was a statement, there was a hint… only a hint of that earlier uneasiness, before she turned back the way they had come, giving him a wave as she did so, “Goodnight.”
The cloaked figure entered the Casual Pint to little fanfare or notice - so busy was the tavern, so accustomed to strangers coming and going, that the arrival of just one more person wishing to keep their dealings discrete was of little consequence. Only, something about this one was different to Oryn, who in his days and nights spent haunting the tavern’s common room had established a familiarity with the “Business of the Right People” as he’d found it to be called. That was, shadowy dealings the purposes of which he often failed to grasp - better to deal with matters directly, with a sword or perhaps a balled fist.
Men in red cloaks were the most bombastic, though he supposed they preferred it that way. The Humanist Society they called themselves, and seemed to protest little to his attempts to eavesdrop - the bartender, an orc, was often dismissed in favor of the tavern’s human staff by that lot. Grey and brown coats and cloaks likely marked a member of the Locksmith’s Guild, a fact confirmed by Nathyen on the few occasions the two shared drinks together on particularly quiet evenings. He knew their names and faces, and had even begun to notice the distinct gaits they preferred when their cloaks masked all else. Cloaks of purple and black of a good quality marked a member of the nobility or the Arcanists.
This stranger did not wear the alarming red of a Humanist, the subdued shades of a Locksmith, or the rich purple of an Arcanist. So Oryn took notice. This one’s cloak was a pure white, crisper than any snow Oryn had ever seen. Upon further inspection, Oryn noticed that it seemed to have the texture of scales, for it was clearly segmented into ringlets of a material that was not quite cloth, but neither did it clink like mail.
The figure stared about the tavern, and Oryn caught a glimpse of yellow eyes twinkling beneath the shadow of the stranger’s hood. Something like recognition flickered in those eyes, and the stranger froze before approaching Oryn and baring empty hands from the folds of its scaly cloak. Those hands then gestured to the chair opposite Oryn. When no response was forthcoming, the stranger took the silence for assent and seated itself, drawing back its hood.
A woman smiled faintly at him once the hood slipped down about her shoulders, face framed by hair that was a warm brown tinged with strands of blonde and amber that spoke to exposure to the sun, strengthened by the olive hue of her skin. Her eyes still shone with that yellow glow, and her pupils seemed narrowed into reptilian slits, though it was difficult to tell due to their brilliance that was as mesmerizing as it was unsettling.
“You needn’t worry, you have nothing to fear from me,” she said in a voice that thrummed with an authority and power that stilled Oryn’s unease, melting it away as quickly as it had arrived when first she approached. “I am called Yivarna - you do not know me, but I have known you for a long time, Oryn.”
“Sure. Because that is not alarming at all.” He said, crossing his arms and leaning back in his seat, fixing his eyes on the woman before him. At the same time, he extended his right leg, moved forward in his seat a little so that he could more easily pull out the dagger on his back. Oryn had spotted the woman when she entered, mainly because a dainty white cloak like hers was difficult to overlook. She claimed that he had nothing to worry about, but he didn’t like the sound of her words. Especially because he had made a point of not being known by anyone, for most of his life.
“Thing is…” He cleared his throat and then sighed. “You look like you have authority, what with your nice cloak and all. You look like you’re here in an…” He paused, thinking it over. “In an official capacity. Professional capacity, perhaps - oh!” Oryn now leaned closer, resting his left arm on the table and his right hand on his right thigh - closer to his blade. Just in case. “Or perhaps you’re here unofficially.” For a brief moment, he had an excited expression on his face but it quickly vanished. Oryn knew he was getting ahead of himself and that his best option was to let her talk so that he might actually learn something instead of starting a fight before he knew what she wanted. Again.
“Whatever the case…” He shook his head. “When folks like you come looking for folks like me.” He clicked with his tongue. “It usually bodes ill for me.” Oryn raised an eyebrow and studied her, a smile slowly creeping onto his face. She didn’t seem like she was there to harm him. He relaxed a bit, sighing softly. “For the most part these things end with me getting in a fight or getting very drunk. And I’m not drunk yet. So if you’re not here to fight, I guess you better tell me how you know me and what you want.” With a shrug, Oryn motioned for the barkeep to bring them two mugs of ale, not bothering to ask if his new friend wanted one.
A wry amusement flickered across the woman’s face, and she steepled her slender fingers atop the table.
“I do not believe I can explain how I know you - such things are better left unsaid in crowded places, and I doubt you would believe me even if I told you,” Yivarna said flatly. “I have been awaiting your arrival to the Shroud for a long time - you have something important in your possession. You know what I refer to? Good. I have a word of advice for you, Oryn - a companion of yours, Erskine, will venture into the eastern mountains of the Shroud in a few days’ time, and you would do well to ensure that the gem of the Mother finds the son.”
As she spoke, Oryn kept his eyes fixed on her, clearly unsatisfied with her response. He was very much concerned with how she knew him and why she had been expecting him and it made him very uncomfortable that she wasn’t providing an answer to his question. He sighed. Their ales arrived at the table and as they were set on the table, he moved his eyes from Yivarna to his mug of ale. After a few seconds in silence, Oryn took it, drank deeply, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and set the mug back down. In a very intelligent and profound manner, Oryn crossed his arms once more and said:
He had understood everything she had said, despite how strange it was. He knew exactly which item she was referring to, as it was the only one of any significant importance in his possession. But the rest of it did not make any sense at all to him.
“Listen…” He began, sighing. “I would prefer if you spoke reason. I’m just a thick-headed sellsword from Ashfen who can barely read and write. So no riddles, please.” Oryn took another deep swig of his ale. “And since you won’t tell me how you know me and why you have been awaiting my arrival, could you at least tell me where I get one of those pretty cloaks?”
Yivarna pursed her lips, brow furrowing as she examined Oryn with her reptilian-shaped yellow eyes.
“So be it,” she said as her voice adopted the same mystical quality it had when she asked to take a seat and she gestured to Oryn’s hand, still firmly wrapped about his stein of ale. “If I may?”
Looking from her eyes to his hand and back, Oryn shrugged and then held out his hand toward her with his palm facing up. “Aren’t you supposed to ask my father first?”
“That jest loses its charm after the hundredth time I’ve heard it,” Yivarna said matter-of-factly, and reached for Oryn’s hand with her own.
It was warm to the touch, oddly so Oryn thought. Not quite the heat one might feel from laying one’s palm atop a patch of feverish skin, but neither the same warmth he would expect from the typical person. Gingerly, Yivarna’s fingers curled about his and Oryn’s world went dark.
He was a boy in Ashfen again. He grew up without his parents. He got into fights with bigger boys - some he won, others he lost, but over time the losses were swiftly outnumbered by the wins. He broke a man’s jaw in a bar brawl, and this time the magistrate took notice.
Calen. Calen was there - dressed in a farmer’s garb. He would take the boy, he said, whip him into shape. Years went by, Oryn tended the farm, watched Calen grow old. Each season they would take their harvests into town, sell them, and return with supplies to see them through until next they ventured back to Ashfen.
Then one winter, Calen grew ill. It was not like the other times, where once he had been younger and hardier. Oryn tended to him as best he could, even hiring the aid of a traveling Arcanist with a burned face, but nothing helped. Calen died, and Oryn inherited the farm. He lived out his days, wed a village girl, and together they filled the house with children to lend their helping hands tilling the field.
Only, as he grew older and the black hair of his youth gave way to grey while the strength once prevalent in his limbs weakened into flab, Oryn would sometimes sit at night and contemplate the course of his life. This did not feel right, he thought - this was not what he was supposed to be doing.
Those thoughts did not last long, for the following winter he fell ill as Calen had years and years before. His children, full grown now, took care of him as he had his own father before. He died with them by his side, that thought lingering in his mind as he slipped into the abyss - none of this felt right.
Oryn rode alongside Calen on the road north - he had lit fire to the tavern in Ashfen, and rather than see the boy beheaded for the crime, Calen had broken him out of his prison cell and they now fled the huntsmen from Ashfen. His horse, Mikael, whinnied and snickered, protesting the harsh gallop they had maintained for days.
In the nights they drilled with the sword, which Oryn had a knack for. They rode along the road for a few weeks before arriving at a crossroads by the Dead Sea, where they were split by a band of Misshapen along the road. Oryn slew many of them before fleeing east. They were surrounding him - he was already scraped and slashed and bruised, his strength failing him. Only, relief came on horseback just as they were about to deliver the killing blow. Four of them in total, armor shining and lances streaming with red and gold and black banners now stained in the blood of the beasts.
The Knights of the Raven they called themselves, and they took him into their care. They returned to the Shroud, and there Oryn drilled with them as he had with Calen on the run. Years passed, and by the time Oryn was a full knight proper, dark words along dark winds came from the west - the Others and the Misshapen were massing under the banners of men calling themselves the Thirteen.
Oryn met them in battle with the other Knights of the Raven and the armies of man, dwarf, and orc in the open fields north of the Shroud. Banners streamed and waved in the air, lightning crackled overhead, and winged horrors circled the battlefield joined by the raucous caws of bloodthirsty ravens. The order to charge was sounded, and Oryn urged his horse forward. Only, this did not feel right either - even as his lance lodged itself in the skull of one of the Others and it collapsed into ash, his mind lingered on what might have been had things gone differently.
He met his end upon the field, chest rent open by the blade of a Hollow Knight that cackled over him as it delivered the killing stroke.
Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Flicker.
In some lives, Oryn trained with Calen and they ventured the land as sellswords together as he had known. In others, he found his way to the Hollows, only sometimes it was Nathyen who offered the job into Gol Badhir, other times it was Blanc, sometimes Vardis. In some lives Niowyn was there, in others she was not. Some they wed, others they held one another as they died. In some, Oryn rode into battle against the Dark One, in others he perished long before he made it to the last battle. Some ends were peaceful, others horrendously violent.
In each one of them, no matter how the details changed, that feeling lingered - none of these felt right, none of them seemed to be the path he was meant to walk.
He lived as a farmer, an Arcanist, a Knight of the Raven, a beggar, a sellsword, a warrior, a scholar, a politician, a fisherman. So many lives, each cut abruptly before he flickered to the next. He was aware of himself, his true self, as if looking up at an image of himself from halfway down a pool of water sitting still as stone in the common room of the Casual Pint. He lost count of the lives as they blurred into one homogenous mass of unfamiliarity, threaded through with fragments of his own memories that echoed with pieces of the truth but never quite sounded clearly.
Oryn stood beside Erskine in a dark tunnel, lit only by the dwarf’s alchemical lantern and the faint ruby glow of Scarnesbane that pulsed like fire with every few steps. Their footsteps echoed through the cave, and neither of them spoke a word. Oryn felt fear creeping in the back of his throat as they crept through the tunnel, coming upon a wide antechamber that might have once been the throne room of some great forgotten king.
Light filtered through holes in the ceiling seemingly miles above the two, casting rays atop a dusted floor cracked and worn with the weight of ages. Here, the light of Erskine’s lantern and Oryn’s hammer lent their strength and the room came into focus. A pillar crumbled, sending Oryn’s head swiveling to its source.
A serpent. A great, large serpent slithered through the antechamber. Erskine said something, something Oryn could not hear, and the serpent’s head peaked over the arch of what must have been the throne of the long-dead king, seeming to smile down at them.
“So, you have arrived.”
And finally, this one felt right.
Oryn was back in the Casual Pint, back across Yivarna who looked at him inquisitively, head cocked to the side. Her hand retracted from his, and she clutched the mug of ale before her, but made no move to drink from it.
As soon as her hand left his and the contact between them was broken, Oryn pulled back his hand as quickly as if he had been holding it over an open flame. He rubbed the skin where she had wrapped her fingers around it, as it felt almost sore and tender, but then again no. It was a strange sensation, though not half as strange as what he had just experienced - what he had seen. Oryn had been aware that he was in the Casual Pint still, but he had been so many other places at the same time. All the things he had seen had been terrifying, glorious, sad, painful, incredibly joyous and some of them infinitely boring. But none of them had been for him. Except one. Oryn looked at Yivarna with furrowed brows, barely able to utter a word.
“I…” He swallowed, out of breath and with a dry throat. He drank from his ale although less heartily this time. “I thought that was one of my better jests, if I’m honest.” Oryn tried to smirk, but what appeared on his face was some strange, weak imitation of a smile. Following that, he rested his elbows on the table and put his head in his hands, feeling slightly dizzy. Closing his eyes, it felt as if the world outside was spinning. As if he had consumed a lot more ale than just the one he had been served.
“I take it I am to follow Erskine?” He asked when he finally looked back up. Oryn was more serious now. He was done questioning her knowledge. Yivarna knew. She knew about the hammer. She knew about his childhood somehow. About Calen, about Ashfen about… Niowyn. How else could she have shown him all the things she had? “To kill a.. Snake? Dragon? Basilisk?”
...ensure that the gem of the Mother finds the son.
“The gem?” Oryn said before Yivarna could answer his questions. “The gem in the hammer?” Needless to say, he did not doubt her any more. But now he had many more questions. Too many, in fact. They all piled up and threatened to make his mind collapse and so the only one he could get past his lips was: “Who are you?”
“You needn’t follow him, no more than you needed to take Calen’s farm,” Yivarna replied calmly. “Your choices are your own - but should you choose differently, then another branch of fate is cast, fracturing from our own. You will never notice it, but it shall splinter anew. I would advise you to avoid slaying the serpent you meet, not only to preserve the weaving of fate as best you might, but you might find it a futile effort. The serpent will know who you are so long as you have the hammer, and all your questions will be answered.”
Her lips tugged into a small, warm smile made slightly unsettling by the flicker that followed in her golden eyes.
“As to who I am - I am but a humble servant of the light,” she added with a bow of her head. “We will meet again, Oryn. Tie’l un twu’ath’uan, tai’shern Aelderthum. Peace favor your sword, blood of Alderstone.”
“Again with the riddles…” He shook his head as if he was disappointed. Oryn was still holding his wrist, rubbing it absentmindedly while he was watching her. He was absorbing the words she had said and tried to make sense of them, but she did not seem one for speaking clearly. As he sat there, staring at her, he noticed the strange look in her eyes. Or was it something else? The smile she had given him was warm enough, but there was something in her eyes. Something almost… reptilian. Oryn’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he cleared his throat and gathered his thoughts.
Downing the last few mouthfuls of ale, Oryn set the now empty stein down on the table and motioned for another.
“A servant of the light bringing messages in the dark.” He said, nodding. “I don’t know if I can trust you. And I certainly have nothing to do with Alderstone. It’s a ruin and anyone with half a brain would steer clear of it. But this I say with confidence,” He pointed at Yivarna with a smirk tugging at his lips. “I will seek out Erskine and go with him if his path leads us to the serpent.” Oryn leaned closer. “And if you and I do meet again, then you better have more answers for me.”
“Perhaps I am mistaken, then - you remind me of another I have seen in the flames,” she said, standing, bowing once more, revealing the glitter of gold mail beneath her white cloak and the hilt of a blade whose pommel ended in the head of a serpent. “Farewell, Oryn.”
With a flare of her white cloak, Yivarna made to exit the common room, and none in the tavern seemed to note her passage even as she shouldered past a handful of the patrons.
The study chambers that Hamath and Niowyn used to practice hands-on applications of the Essence were unlike the rest of the structure they occupied. Whereas the rest of the Arcanist’s Archive was as intricate and grandiose as it was practically organized, the small rooms that shot off from its central, empty chamber were comparatively plain and unadorned. No larger than Niowyn’s room in the Casual Pint, and floored in simple wooden panels with stone walls chill to the touch, each of the various rooms they had used blurred into one static image of a crammed and intimate space that bordered the line between uncomfortable and cozy.
Hamath had been instructing Niowyn in the same basics of the Essence (which he had called the source, a term which he indicated was interchangeable) that Celothel had, much to her chagrin. There had been only so many ways Hamath and Celothel both had been able to walk her through touching the same source of power she had been since she was a child, and the lessons were growing repetitive and frustrating. So it was that when Hamath had suggested to her after a particularly in-depth discussion about Niowyn’s readings, there was a note of annoyance that lingered between them.
“Today should be the start of something new for you, I think,” Hamath said with a small, apologetic smile as he shut the door behind them.
He looked tired, more than the ingrained weariness Niowyn had noticed when first they met. The dark circles about his eyes gave his signature purple cloak a sinister look, though he made no mention of exhaustion, and any attempts to raise concern had been met with a polite, but firm, denial. Hamath pulled the sleeves of his tunic up and hummed softly, flicking a handful of candles to life in the dimly-lit chamber and assessed Niowyn, cocking his head to the side.
“We’ve spent quite some time discussing things you likely already know,” he continued, stepping towards the edge of the room opposite the door, keeping his cloak clear of the candles atop a small desk flush against the lefthand wall. “But it was important to establish as clearly as possible a baseline for the next step in your education to resume. Tell me, Niowyn, what would you do if I asked you to extinguish those candles there?”
The tribeswoman watched intently as the candles in the round room lit one by one in succession, giving the space an eerie glow. Her focus landed back on Hamath as he presented her with her next task. Extinguish the candles. It was a simple request, one that could be completed in an instant. But she knew better than that by now.
“I would use my water magic to put them out,” she then grinned, turning to look at the old man with a coy smile. “But I know that’s not the answer you’re looking for. You want me to tap into the fire’s source and use it to extinguish the candles.”
“Ah, that question usually puzzles my younger students, forgive me for not updating my curriculum,” Hamath replied, a wry flash of amusement playing across his face. “Correct. I want you to try and reach out and tap into the source of the flames and extinguish them, using what you have learned during your time here. No cheating by touching the wind’s source - I’ll know if you do.”
“I’m more than just a pretty face” Niowyn quipped before turning her attention back to the fire dancing in the night of the room. Her chest filled as she drew a breath and the mysterious glow her eyes wore when she tapped into the source appeared as it always did. And right before her, many paths appeared, all pulling in different directions. There were those that were greater, stronger, and brighter… ones that connected to sources that she had been drawing to all of her life; water and air. It was as though the gourd sitting helplessly by the door was mocking her, provoking her, and pulling on her. She winced, looking for something else. And then there were the paths that connected her and Hamath, and her and the other students in the building. A bead of sweat rolled down her brow.
’...remember, Niowyn, when you are looking for something you are unaccustomed to… you can drown in all that there is… take a breath and focus only on what it is that you are trying to draw on…’
Niowyn drew another breath and as she exhaled, she closed her eyes and released her connections to the water, the air… and all that surrounded her. In the stillness of her mind, she pictured a single flame dancing in front of her. It’s fiery beauty called to her. Blue eyes shot opened and the tether to the source of the fire appeared before her - and then it happened quickly. Within the blink of an eye, the candles extinguished one after another in quick succession, like a series of cascading pillars.
Forefinger and thumb met her temple as she massaged it before turning to Hamath. It was almost impossible to judge how she had done by his expression - he almost always looked the same. There were a few rare opportunities where she had seen inflection in his face. Niowyn released a sigh of relief before speaking. “There was a lot of noise… it felt strange and bizarre. Unfamiliar. But it was there, just hiding underneath everything else.”
“As touching the source often is,” Hamath inclined his head in agreement, eyes fixated on the lingering wisps of smoke wafting through the air. “Tell me, though, did it remind you of the time when you first discovered your gift?”
“When I first discovered my gift…?” Niowyn repeated and looked at her hands as if they had the answer. Her eyes wandered over to the gourd by the door once more before she gave Hamath her attention again. “No, it didn’t. Not in the slightest, actually. I wouldn’t describe me ‘discovering’ my gift as discovering my gift. It has always felt a part of me. Like it was meant to be there. I probably am not making much sense but… I don’t know how else to explain it. It was as though I always knew it was there.”
Hamath nodded along at Niowyn’s explanation, gesturing with one hand to the extinguished candles.
“Each of us talented enough in manipulating the source is born with a particular preference to one element, in rare cases more than one,” Hamath explained. “Even one particularly unskilled feels little to no resistance in touching the source to manipulate their gifted elements, but why should it be that those who touch the source may only touch that which they were born to?”
Hamath’s ring finger pirouetted in a small semi circle and one of the extinguished candles came to life again.
“Fire presents a unique challenge, as it is not so much something physical, but energy itself, but the core concept remains the same - where the source can touch, so we can, whatever our talent. The notion that humans are born only to use one element’s magic, two if they are lucky, is a falsehood born out of centuries of informal education and a lack of diversity in the bloodline.
“The source is simply a medium of exchange - we exchange our bodily energy for a shred of its power, which we might invest into something to manipulate it to our will. But it need not only be the four elements of water, air, earth, and fire, though the source prefers these above all others. Your healing is an extension of the source’s ability to change things beyond the elements, though you may not have been aware of it at the time.”
Niowyn had crossed one arm over her chest with an opened hand turned upward to balance her elbow nesting in it. Her free hand rubbed her chin in thought as she made an audible ‘hmmm’. After a brief few moments, she smiled, almost laughed, and shook her head back and forth lightly. “Brilliant” she whispered lightly.
“As long as we have a connection to the source, we have a connection to a borrowed power that we can use to influence almost whatever we can imagine… and bend that to our will. The laws of nature will say that I cannot bend free will but there are many things that fall within the confines of the laws of nature.”
Niowyn drew a breath. Her eyes closed as she focused on her connection to the source but this time she wasn’t reaching for the tether she always had. She was just reaching. A rush of power flooded through her and she imagined the candle across the room from her contorting into something else. Niowyn opened her eyes to watch as the wax changed shape into the resemblance of a horse. “.. and I give you, Dale” she exclaimed with a ‘ta da’ motion of her hands and a big grin.
“Dale?” Hamath questioned, the only sign of surprise on his impassive face a slight widening of his eyes. “A horse you are familiar with, I take it?”
At Niowyn’s nod, Hamath offered her a small smile, mirroring her nod with one of his own.
“The truth of the matter is that once you begin to practice applying use of the source to things beyond your gifted elements, you will begin to unconsciously meld techniques together - in bending that candle as you did, you likely used a combination of fire and earth to create a more malleable wax,” the Arcanist explained, gesturing to the crude horse sculpture. “And each element is oppositely paired to another - being born with air and water means that you will struggle to learn earth and fire equally, but it is doable with a little time and effort. I have a number of texts I will assign to you to complete before our next session, and as a challenge to you I want you to refrain from using water and air as best you can in your own day to day practice.”
“Refrain from using water and air?” she echoed, her voice trailing up in surprise. “Let me guess, water and air are so innate to me… by not using them it will teach, or allow me, to use their opposing elements with less tension? I won’t be pulled in multiple directions… less noise. Even subconscious noise.” The student sighed and then smirked, “that won’t be easy.”
“Oh, nothing quite so simple as that, unfortunately - I just want you to practice that which you are unfamiliar with rather than that which you have already mastered,” Hamath said. “You are, after all, paying this institution a not-so-insignificant sum of gold.”
Niowyn shot him a glance as though to tell the old man to be quiet. “And what are these texts you want me to read?”
“A number of them are primers on utilizing the source of your non-gifted elements - best practices, where to start, and the like. These we will practice when next we meet. The others contain some more mechanically-minded notes detailing how to use fire and earth magic from the Colleges of the Magi - usually we do not focus on such specific methods, but in this instance I believe it might be helpful,” the Arcanist replied. “The last of them I think you will particularly enjoy - a handful of histories of the old cabals of the Nine Kingdoms, and the establishment of the Shielders as best as we can recollect it.”
“I love to read, Hamath…” she began, her voice playful this time “but even that is a lot to get through in a few days.” Hands on her hips now, she flashed him a huge smile, “but I am up for the challenge.”
Niowyn proceeded toward her gourd at the door, hand hesitating before she coiled the leather strap to heave the ground over her back. She withdrew her hand and tilted the gourd over, allowing the water to freely escape its prison and puddle on the floor. Niowyn looked over to Hamath as the water inched toward him and shrugged, “can’t carry it all the way back to the inn without air magic. It would be too heavy after a few blocks.”
“As always, your commitment and at times too literal interpretation of things is appreciated,” Hamath said, voice tinged with a soft touch of amusement as he cupped his right hand, left hand rising to collect the water into a sphere which slowly began to dissolve into mist until the room smelled like a soft spring rain and was tinged with humidity.
The tribeswoman crouched next to the ground, arms needling through the straps as she hoisted it onto her back and returned to a standing position. “Show off” she muttered as she turned to leave the room, “see you in a few days!”
L: The Arcanist Order | A collaboration with @ze_kraken
Arianell Oresh COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | Folks
Though her mind was in little position to find humor in it, Aria had to note by the length of their stay, the floor in front of the fireplace would no doubt have grooves in it, to account for all her pacing. After leaving Matthias, she’d had to force herself to return to the inn, but knew no amount of sleep would find her any time soon. Grief was a strange sort of creature - at times all encompassing, but so often just a small fiend, lingering in darkness, barely seen or felt until it showed itself in full.
She had not healed from the grief that had covered her like shadow upon leaving the shore, but she had begun to feel the weight of it less and less. Now with Matthias’s appearance, there was a strange sort of anxiety that mingled with that sense of loss that sat like a pit in her stomach, churning and twisting and heavy.
It was only when that all too comforting and familiar face finally returned to the tavern that she felt anything else, and leaving her pacing, Aria crossed the room, wordlessly bringing her arms around Nathyen’s middle, her face to his chest, to stop him in his place with an oppressively silent embrace. Nathyen’s arms wrapped around her shoulders with a note of uncertainty, and after a brief pause he gripped her shoulders to bring her face into view.
“You doin’ alright there, lass?” He asked, one bushy eyebrow raised as he considered Aria.
"I don't know what I am." She breathed, drying her eyes with the back of her hand, "Matty's alive, Nathyen. I… I just talked to him not but a little while ago. He's alive…"…”
“I…” He paused, brow furrowing and creasing his forehead. “Didn’t that corpse in the bloodvine have your brother’s ring, though?”
"It was stolen. A barmaid or something. He showed up with the other knights, returning from the field. He… he's older. Worn. But he's so much the boy who left home…" Rubbing her arms, she shook her head, "But it felt so much like talking to a ghost, Nathyen."
He nodded, slowly, nodding towards a booth nestled towards the back of the Casual Pint’s common room.
“You look like you’ve more to say about it,” he said softly.
Following him to the booth, she sank down, rubbing her hands over her face, quiet for a moment, as she mulled over the words.
"It's just… I never expected to see him again. And then he was there. But I mourned him, Nate. I.. I don't know how to feel. What to feel."
“I can’t say I’ve got any better answers than you,” he replied, scratching reflexively at his bare chin. “Must be nice to see him, though, no?”
There was a forced note of optimism in his tone dampened by the lingering weariness and worry in his eyes, and the smile he gave Aria reached all but those burned-out orbs. He locked his fingers atop the tabletop, staring down at them.
A brow rose at his response and reaching out, Aria covered his hands with one of her own, "It was wonderful. Strange. Haunting. But wonderful. Are you alright?"
“Nothing rest won’t fix,” the locksmith replied with a shrug. “Returnin’ to the Shroud might’ve been a mistake, but - ah, I won’t bog ‘ya in the details, but way I see it is I do this last job and I can leave it behind, conscious clean.”
"You've never been one to slump under the weight of anything, Nathyen. If there's anything too heavy for you to bear, you can talk to me. Goodness knows I've left enough of my own on your shoulders."
“I’ll keep that in mind, Boots,” he replied, though it lacked in its usual warm inflection.
"As you should…" Shaking her head, Aria released his hand and folded her own in front of her, "Perhaps… now for example? You're not yourself, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a touch concerned…"
“Ah, well, I left the Shroud almost half a year ago now,” Nathyen said, casting a glance over his shoulder before continuing. “It was not on the best of terms of the Guild, and I knew if I ever wanted to come back I’d have a tough time fittin’ back in. But I expected it to be the same as it was. Only, it isn’t - Father Lock’s health is in decline, ‘n people are vying for his spot in the web. One of them is a good friend of mine, or was.”
He paused, thrumming his knuckles against the tabletop.
“Was,” he repeated, as if feeling out how the word sounded on his tongue, nodding in satisfaction. “Anyways, the game she’s playin’ is more than I’m suited to, but I owe her this much before I can leave here in peace.”
“Was?” Curiosity edged into her features now, spilling over into concern. Aria straightened, hands laying flat on the table, "What game, Nathyen? Are you in danger?"
“No, not directly - no more than you are in service of the Knights,” he said, scratching at his chin. “The Guild is situated in a strangely powerful position, trading information among nobles and protectin’ them from amateur theft. It’s a poor kept secret that the Guildmaster’s a force to be reckoned with on and off the streets, ‘n my associate Sabine wants that title for herself. So naturally the work she has me doin’ is risky, but no riskier than the trip over.”
"And you feel like you owe it to this woman? Sabine?" With a note of uneasiness, Aria's hands knotted together, the weight of his cavalier words no lighter than a confirmation, "Taking the risk?"
“I let a good friend of ours die when I left the Shroud,” Nathyen replied, gaze fixating on the tabletop, head tilted to cast his eyes in shadow. “I finish this up, ‘n I can leave without that mark on my conscience.”
Quiet for a moment, Aria breathed out a small sigh, before pushing herself to her feet, a hand held in his direction, “Right then. If you’re going to do this, and I imagine you’re far too stubborn to listen to the countless reasons why you shouldn’t, then you’re not going to get yourself needlessly killed doing it. Come with me.”
“I reckon the only way to get out of it is to leave the city, ‘n I’m not sure there’s a place for me outside of you all,” Nathyen retorted, brushing the comment aside with a wave of his hand. “Lead the way.”
Guiding him to the stairs, Aria was silent until reaching her room at the upper floor of the inn. There, she paused a moment to fish out her key, before pushing it open, gesturing Nathyen inside, “I meant to wait a little while, until I’d finished my own training and had a thing or two new to teach you, but now’s a good a time as any, I suppose.”
Crossing to the chest in the corner, she unbolted it and rifling around for a moment, pulled free a slender, parchment wrapped bundle, holding it out to him with a nod, “Go on, then…”
Nathyen raised a bushy eyebrow and accepted the bundle, unwrapping it with uncertain hands. Glimmering steel shone in the light of torches along the wall, and as Nathyen shifted the parchment aside the steel below shimmered in a myriad of colors. His eyes widened and slender fingers wrapped about the hilt of one of two blades, pulling it from the bundle. It was single-edged and about the length of his forearm, a curved crossguard forming a counterweight that extended down to protect the knuckles. Embedded in its hilt shone a blue gemstone, one that cast its reflections along the blade, saturating the steel’s rainbow of color in a blue tint.
“Aria,” he said in awe, glancing up at her. “Is…”
He turned the blade over in his hand, testing its balance.
“Where did you find the steel for this?”
“It’s the fragments… from Shard. The bits that broke off when it shattered.” Her eyes trained on the blade, she gestured to the one balanced against her hip, “Kept the other half. I… I want you to be safe. Wagered it was about time you had something a bit more to the job than wood or training swords. I can’t always be there with you, but with this, at least I’ll… I’ll feel a bit better about you running off on your own…”
Nathyen nodded, thumbing the gemstone at the blade’s hilt.
“And this? I don’t remember seeing this on Maud’s sword.”
“Ah…” Hands knitting together, she brushed casually along her own now noticeably bare index finger and gave a small shrug, “That… that was my own addition.”
“Thank you, Aria,” Nathyen said softly, wrapping the blade alongside its smaller companion, shifting the bundle under one arm to pull Aria into a quick hug.
“You don’t need to thank me…” Aria mumbled softly, smiling lightly, “You needed a better weapon, and… and well, I kept that ring for so long because it reminded me of Korin. But I realized it again tonight, when I was talking to Matty… I was holding on to something that doesn’t make sense anymore. Korin… it hasn’t been home for a long while. It’s not home.” Looking up briefly, her shoulders rose and fell in a shrug, “You are. Seemed like the proper place for it, after all that we've been through…” Gaze lowering again, her hand rose to rub her elbow, “Bit silly, I know.”
“Curious how this place makes home people and not places, isn’t it?” Nathyen asked, gaze avoiding Aria’s. “In the nobility here, the families all have these family heirlooms - all Volcite steel, like these.”
He patted the bundle under his arm.
“It’s a token gesture when two houses marry into one another to trade blades,” he said. “Only, we’re taking the same one and splitting it in’twain. Wiser mind ‘an me probably know what that symbolizes.”
“Well, I’d not claim much in the way of wisdom… not intentionally, anyhow, but I know… I know what you mean to me, Nathyen. And I expect that’s a bit of clarification, there…” Idly, she gestured to the bundle, “A bit.”
“Aye, that it does,” he replied with a small smile, eyes meeting Aria’s.
Briefly, she returned his gaze, before, slightly pink in the cheeks, she cleared her throat, “You’ll be expected to practice with those. I do hope you know. You’re not off the hook on training, just yet.”
“Aye, one ‘o my old friends - a real one - ‘n I spar in the evenings,” Nathyen said with a wry grin. “Won’t hold a candle to what they teach you in fancy lad school, but I won’t be rusty.”
“I look forward to seeing what you’ve picked up.” She answered, with a small, pleased smile, “But if I don’t want to lose my place in that fancy lad school, I’d best get some rest. And Nathyen? Whatever it is this woman has you doing… promise me you’ll be safe? Nothing… and I mean nothing is worth dying for in this place.”
She had practiced the craft over a lifetime now, honed her skills to such a razor sharp edge that lying no longer carried the cutting doubt and hesitation it might have for another. She had lied early and often - first as a child to avoid the cudgels of the Steelcoats and to filch coin and wares from the open markets on the Street of Stags. Those had been like the crude hand stencils she had made with her siblings - passable as art, and since she had been a child, few paid it much heed.
The years went by, and Sabine began to lie more often and more boldly. Lies about picking pockets and nabbing loaves of bread became elaborate cons to swindle the nobility of their coin, or petty attempts to scare former lovers into doing anything she asked of them. It was then that the small part of her mind, that little hushed voice that doubted if she might find another way to live, began its slow but irreversible descent into silence and neglect. Sabine had lied to noblemen and beggars, warriors and thieves, merchants and magi. She had often wondered how it was possible in a city that was simultaneously her entire world, and yet, if the old tales were to be believed a fraction of what the old world had been like, filled with so few important to keep up such a reputation for long.
"Lies built the Shroud we know," Father Lock had told her as a young woman. "Lies will keep it going long after we are gone."
Taken to that transactional extreme, Sabine had supposed he had been right to a point. The nobility always lied to one another, and to the people of the Shroud, and yet with each day the sun still rose over a productive, self-minded city. Was what she did, then, so different? It was true that her clientele did not necessarily wish to be serviced, but then, her lying and thievery and skullduggery played their part just as readily as the Steelcoats and the Arcanists and the Miners Guild played theirs.
Indeed, Sabine had comforted herself so often with the notion that her lies and her network of informants and cutthroats and brigands was as integral to the Shroud as the Aetherstone Keep that, if she had to be honest with herself, it was ever since Father Lock had told her that lies built the Shroud we know that the little doubting voice grew hushed. She no longer felt any more for the victims of her lies than a ledgerman might have felt about the figures in his books, or the fisherman for the creatures ensnared in his nets.
Only, it was different with Father Lock.
In his old age, his strength had left him - he was no longer the sharp-tongued, harsh man she had known as a girl. He was no longer the tough-but-fair mentor he had been to her as a young woman learning the ways of the Right People. He was not even a shadow of himself, for even a shadow kept appearances better than Father Lock. None knew of his condition besides her, her inner circle, and - in a moment of weakness she saw now in hindsight - Nathyen.
The name made her recoil in equal parts annoyance and disgust. She knew him enough to know he would not run his mouth, either out of duty to her or ignorance to the true situation it made no difference. Having to rely in part on Nathyen's connections to the rest of the Guild, him being the ever-more-popular face to her schemes when they were children together playing at thief, still was not the worst of it all. No, the worst of it all was the lying. Lying to him. To Father Lock.
"You musn't let your mark know you've marked him," Lock muttered absently towards the wall of his chambers, waving a feeble hand as if to demonstrate a point only he knew. "Only, then will he learn to tighten the purse strings."
It was a favorite lesson of his, one every footpad learned when scooped up by the Guild and set to sweep the streets of valuables and information. Only, Sabine was a woman grown, and Father Lock's audience consisted of a lantern and a bedside table.
"I'm here, Guildmaster," Sabine said, softly entering the room - no one called him Father Lock to his face, it was a title whose origins were as elusive to pin down as its owner's.
"Oh, Sabby?" He croaked back, glancing over his shoulder, milky, watery eyes glancing out aimlessly across the bedchamber. "Is that you?"
She still saw in him the man he had been, and it nearly brought her to tears each time she looked at him. Consumption had robbed Father Lock of his vitality - first his hair, which now hung in clumps where once it had been a rich mane. Then his muscles had slacked and grown useless, protesting the slightest movements and shaking uncontrollably. Then, and most tragically, his mind. His moments of clarity were few and far between, and he seemed stuck somewhere between fifteen and twenty years prior, citing the names of dead men and treating Sabine as if she were still a young footpad.
"It's me, Guildmaster," she said softly. "I've come to make sure you're alright, see if you need anything?"
"Oh but..." his voice trailed off and his eyes glanced at the window, the twilight sun flitting through the blinds to give his glazed white eyes an orange highlight. "Oh, Sabby, you needn't worry about me."
It was curious seeing him more affectionate and warm than he had ever been with her. The analytical part of her mind told her he had never been like this, and yet this was how she remembered him. She ignored the yelling and the lashings and the threats of violence towards her and her crew and only remembered why they still all called him Father.
"...I'll be alright here with all the other folk to help me."
He'd been still blabbering away while she had been lost in her nostalgia, and was once again gesturing to people who were not there. She had been about to say something, but the scuff of an unfamiliar footstep sent her heart flaring into life. She spun about, hurling a dagger towards the door to the bedchamber - it sunk into the wall beyond with a loud thunk and quivered there as she fetched another from her belt. Father Lock gazed absently at her, unperturbed by the show of violence.
"A friend of yours, Sabby?" He pondered aloud, a smirk etched upon his face as he gazed opposite the direction of the door, pointing with a hand that shook more than the dagger in the wall.
"Who's there?" Sabine called out, ignoring Father Lock.
The voice was almost a squeak of surprise, though one traced with the edge of someone who knew they were about to squeak like a young maid and so tried to add in a touch of bravado. Sabine cursed herself - had she truly been this careless to let herself be trailed by Nathyen of all people?
"What do you want?" She asked, voice stone cold as Nathyen stepped from around the doorway, sheathing a sword that shimmered in the last shreds of twilight.
"I only came to see what it is that seems to occupy a good portion of your time," Nathyen retorted, hand never straying far from the blade at his side. "Thought I should know what it is you're so keen to keep from me, in case it might be useful in keepin' my head firmly attached to my neck where it belongs. Seems like it might be."
He nodded to Father Lock, who snapped his head around and glanced over.
"Sabby, is that Nath? Nath - is, is that you?"
Nathyen bit his knuckle with his free hand, glancing at Sabine with a look that was not quite sorrow, and yet not utterly devoid of it. Sabine empathized with it, and judging by the way Nathyen's face eased, she knew she had let that empathy play across her face. Rather than berate herself for the slip-up, she nodded, offering him a sympathetic smile whose insincerity only she knew.
"So all this talk of Father Lock bein' meaner in his old age - that's just to say you've been tougher on people, pretendin' to be him," Nathyen said, pointing to the decrepit old man in the chair by the window, voice deflated of its usual charm. "Seems to me if you're already defacto Guildmaster, ain't no sense in us keepin' at this game of yours, Sabine."
"As long as they think I'm enforcing on his behalf, I'm not a threat," Sabine retorted with a snort. "The moment he passes, this game ends, and I have half a dozen rivals I've yet to deal with vying for my throne. I cannot have that, Nathyen. Will not have that."
"Oh come now, there's more than enough coin on the Street of Stags for the both of you," Lock said, trying and failing to hoist himself to his feet.
It was an argument the two had fought tooth and nail when they were thirteen - which would be the crew leader of the footpads assigned to the profitable Street of Stags. When neither had agreed to let the other take charge, they'd formed their own crews. Sabine still had the scars from those lashings, and she could feel them tingle now as she looked over Nathyen.
"No one thinks it's odd they haven't seen him?" Nathyen questioned, nodding to Father Lock.
"No. I tell them it's because the nobility are discussing a renegotiation of the Peace with him, and want it to be just a meeting of the Right People, no one else. It's a flimsy lie, but it will hold out for another week or so, and that's all I will need."
Sabine let the words hang in the air as Father Lock babbled to himself incoherently, fixating his attention once more on the window. The silence between her and Nathyen extended until it was too uncomfortable to keep up.
"Tell me, how did you find me?"
"Like you said, no one knows their way around the Shroud quite like I do, Sabine," Nathyen said with a dry amusement. "A few weeks back, and the rust has been scrubbed away. Best remember that before it was sneakin' in to share in Katherine's bed, it was avoidin' Steelcoats and those boys over in the Miner's Quarter. Now, you've every reason to make me disappear - 'n this don't help my case much, what with me bein' all defenseless 'n no one quite knowin' I'm back or for how long, so it'd be easy for you to make up a story."
"Not a great case you're building for yourself, Nath," Sabine replied.
"I was gettin' to that point," Nathyen said, holding up a pacifying hand, though the other never strayed from his sword hilt. "I'll still be what you need me to be, way I see it, this doesn't raise the stakes any more 'an they were. I'm sure you aren't the only one who knows 'bout this - I mean, I didn't know the full extent from what you've told me, but point stands I know you aren't the one feedin' him and clothin' him and the like all day every day. You got more to do than that, and it makes your lie less convincin' should you go off disappearin' for too long. So one more person who knows, who you've got all the leverage over, isn't a risk."
"It's odd, seeing him like this, isn't it?" Sabine asked, ignoring Nathyen's plea and delighting in the momentary panic that played over his face because of it. "He used to be so threatening, but even now, he's still the father he was to me."
Nathyen swallowed back a lump in his throat and nodded, glancing to the chair Father Lock sat in, mumbling once more to himself. Only one word in three was coherent, but put together they still made no sense. Something about men and locks and avoiding rooftops at sundown. Sabine sheathed the dagger and moved to sit on the edge of the bed by Father Lock, cupping his hand in hers. He turned to her, milky white eyes fluttering in recognition before glazing over once more. It was enough to bring her close to tears - ones she might have indulged in, were it not for Nathyen looming behind her.
"Go now, Nath," she said sternly. "Before I change my mind."
She felt a strong hand clasp her shoulder, and she fought the urge to recoil from the touch. She glanced up to see Nathyen there, free hand offering a gesture of support cheapened by how the other seemed glued to his blade. If only he had been here a year ago, perhaps it might have been a more genuine gesture - she was a better liar than to let a lesser one go unnoticed, but she could do little more than offer him another perfectly insincere smile.
"It's our secret."
Lies built the Shroud, lies will keep it going long after we are gone.
The sun crested over the horizon, its light pouring through the shades of Niowyn’s window in her room at the casual pint. As her room filled with light, her eyes began to flutter open to welcome the morning. The tribeswoman pulled back the heavy blankets on her bed and planted her naked feet on the cool planks of the wooden floor beneath her. With a stretch of her arms, she rose to standing and crossed the room to the window. Drawing back on the shades ever so slightly to peek at the world beyond, she mouthed the words good morning in her native tongue. Crossing the room once more, she approached the water basin sitting on the table in front of the aged mirror looking back at her. Niowyn looked to the jug of water sitting next to the basin and fought her natural instinct to call it to the bowl. Instead, she picked the jug from its place and poured the water into the basin before splashing it on her face. It was cool against her skin and for a moment, she felt connected to it. A breath of relief and familiarity escaped her. Niowyn examined her face in the mirror, whispering “tarlo a' gho a' lla'mnn”. The woman collected her clothes that were neatly folded on the table, slipped them on, and headed to the door. Her hand gingerly wrapped around the doorknob, hesitating to open it. Niowyn looked to the gourd next to the door and with a slight shake of her head in disagreement, she pulled the old door open and headed out.
Niowyn walked along the cobblestone streets toward the city gates. The bag slung around her shoulder carried her journal with notes from the texts Hamath had assigned her, a small loaf of bread, salted meat, and a waterskin. The lesson ahead would be taxing and she knew that she wanted to be surrounded by the land. It was familiar to her and the lessons in the round room were becoming tiring. Niowyn missed the smell of the trees around her, the feeling of the wind against her face, and the sound of the brook nearby. Immersing herself in the land gave her focus. And she knew she would need it to hear the words of the fire and the earth.
As she passed through the gates and exited the city, she nodded at the two watchmen at the entrance. The watchmen barely acknowledged her existence but their purpose was to enforce the curfew in the Shroud. Once the sun set, so did the gates. It was important that she was back by nightfall. Niowyn walked until she found herself in an open and flat grassland. There were trees here and there, which became more dense nearby to mark the beginnings of a forest. In the distance she could feel the pull of water and there were a few boulders stamped into the ground. Niowyn removed her bag and put it atop a rock. Next her cloak fell on top of that. And then her boots were kicked to the side.
The student moved away from the boulder and into the open. Her toes wiggled into the grass and dirt as she smiled and then she closed her eyes to listen to the world around her. There was a lot of noise, just as there had been when she extinguished the flame. Niowyn drew a long breath and thought of the ground beneath her feet. She focused on the feeling of the dirt between her toes. And then she could hear it. The voice of the earth. It was the source. Niowyn tethered to it, eyes opening. Her hand reached out, as if to grab it, to help her focus. The dirt below her started to dance around her feet before the ground started to split and a small crack formed. “Yes!” she said with a huge smile as she threw her hands in the air in celebration.
The morning was different. It was different because Oryn had not had to drag himself out of bed, already bored at the thought of spending yet another day drinking in the Casual Pint, and wondering what he wanted to do. No, today he woke up in a good mood. He had something to do. Ever since his conversation with Yivarna, he had been thinking about whether or not he should follow her advice. If it had been advice? Guidance? Whatever you might call it, Oryn was relieved and excited at the prospect of having a plan. A purpose, you might even say. The walls of the city wore him down and it was difficult for him to settle and sit still and have nothing to do. Except drinking, of course. With a smirk on his lips, Oryn swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up.
A content sigh left him when he put on the new leather boots he had bought. They were soft and warm and high and would serve him well. They were a much needed replacement. But they would not be the only items among his equipment that would be replaced. Oryn had decided to spend some of his gold today, buying new armor or having his current repaired. And then he would take Dale for a ride. Whenever he visited the horse, he seemed anxious and impatient, clearly wanting to stretch his legs. Like his master, he too was used to travel constantly.
When he stepped outside of the Casual Pint, Oryn breathed in the crisp morning air. Then he turned left down the street, heading toward Garon the armorer with his equipment in hand. He was a gruff old man with gray in his hair, but he was fair and he was skilled. Once he arrived, he threw his steel greaves, spaulders and brigandine armor down onto the nearest table. It was hot in the workshop even though it was early morning. The furnace was never really cold, but Oryn could see that Garon’s apprentice had already poured in more coals and lit a fire under them.
“What in all creation is that noise!” A booming voice called out from somewhere further back. Oryn cracked a smile and leaned against the table. When Garon came to the front and saw him, he stopped in his tracks and shook his head. “You.” The big man shook his head, as if he was disappointed. He crossed his thick arms over his chest and watched Oryn.
“What, no names this time, old man?”
“It’s too early to be that cocky, runt.”
“Ah, that’s better…” Oryn chuckled as he watched Garon come closer. The older man had pointed a finger at him but he now directed it toward the armor on the table.
“What’s this? Can’t you take care of your things?” He asked, lifting the brigandine armor with a disappointed expression on his face - the same expression he had when he had seen Oryn. “Hmph.” He shook his head, put it down and took a look at the rest of his things.
“I guess not. I’m in need of your expertise and your skill, old man.” Garon glanced sideways at Oryn, which was enough to let the latter know that his flattery worked. Garon would never admit it, nor would he smile, but he knew it had worked. The two of them had talked at length on several occasions and despite the tone of their conversation, they enjoyed each other’s company. Something neither of them would ever admit.
“Well, it’ll cost you this time…” Garon threw the greaves onto the table, turning to face Oryn again. “Those I can mend,” he pointed at them. “Those need new rims and new straps. But that..” He padded the brigandine armor. “Is shot.” He shook his head, pursed his lips and sighed. “Now, I can mend it for ya, but it’ll take a few days. For this you’ll have to buy a new one or wait a few weeks. I have one you can buy, but if you want it fitted, you can have it when you come back for this.” He pointed at the spaulders and the greaves again.
Oryn sighed. After a few moments he shrugged and nodded. “I’ll be a poor man soon, because of you.”
“I haven’t said a price yet and besides, poor beats being dead.” Garon said, picking up the greaves and took them to a workbench. “Haelin!” He called loudly and in a matter of seconds, a woman with gray hair appeared. “Take his measurements and get him out of my shop, else I’ll set him to work, see if I can’t build some muscle onto those spindly arms.” Haelin immediately set to work and then, in a much more gentle fashion, led Oryn to the door.
In the next half hour, he visited the tailor, ordered a new surcoat in the same dark blue and bought a nice new travelling cloak. With the latter around his shoulders and his sword comfortably resting in its sheath at his hip, he made his way to the stables. Dale was clearly excited to see him and could hardly be still once Oryn fastened the saddle on his back. But it was not until they had stepped out past the city gates that Oryn swung himself into the saddle and let Dale take them at his own pace down the road. After a little while, the environment opened up and he quickened the pace. But this was not fast enough for Dale who soon increased their speed and took them flying across an open field. Oryn held on tight, following the movements of the horse and was happy to be out of the city.
Once both horse and rider were winded and ready to lower their pace, Oryn steered Dale toward a hill. He was breathing heavily as they reached the top and he leaned down to pat the horse on the neck. “That’s better, isn’t it?” He muttered and pulled on the reins to turn back toward the city, but as he did he saw something blue flickering out of the corner of his eye. Oryn turned his head again and fixed his eyes on the figure in the distance. A figure who could hardly be anyone but Niowyn. Oryn chuckled, amused at the coincidence that he should come across her out here. He set Dale into motion and made him walk slowly toward her.
“Leave it to savage tribespeople to leave the comforts of the city to go and play around in the dirt.” Oryn said once he had come up behind her. He tried to pour as much disdain into both his words and his expression, but he could not help the smirk that tugged at his lips.
Niowyn turned at the sound of the familiar voice to find the familiar face of the rugged man and his steed mocking her. As always, his smirk pulled at his scar in a charming way that gave his otherwise serious expression a softness to it. Niowyn smiled warmly at them, welcoming their presence despite the jest before turning her back on them in an exaggeration. “Leave it to uncultured swine to not realize the comforts that lie beyond the wall.” Her head leered over her shoulder slightly, only slightly, to reveal a glimpse of a playful grin.
Oryn threw his head back and laughed. That was exactly the sort of thing Niowyn would say and one of the many reasons why he liked her so much. He sat atop Dale and watched her for a few moments before he dismounted. “That’s not the worst thing I’ve been called in my short but colorful life.” He said, patting Dale on the neck and approaching Niowyn. When he reached her he tilted his head to the side and crossed his arms over his chest. “What are you doing out here?”
“Practicing” she answered as she looked up at him standing next to her. “Hamath has given me new lessons. I’m learning how to speak to fire and earth now. But that’s not the most challenging part of it… he told me I should refrain from using that which is natural to me. It’s hard not to give in to the wind and the water’s pull. I came out here for some resemblance of familiarity that cannot be found within the city walls...” Niowyn looked down at her bare feet digging into the soil and chuckled lightly, that was what he meant by playing around in the dirt. “It helps me to connect” she answered his unasked question.
Her gaze wandered back to the icy blues looking down at her. “And you, what are you doing out here?”
With a single raised eyebrow he let his arms fall to his sides and moved so he was standing in front of her. What she was learning now was so far beyond his own knowledge of magic. Granted, in the time he had known Niowyn, he had experienced magic a lot more than he had earlier in his life. But it was difficult for him to grasp how it worked, but he understood what she meant when she spoke of ‘connecting’. He liked the way she looked, standing there with her bare feet in the soil.
“I needed to stretch my legs.” He pointed to Dale. “So did he.” Oryn looked at his horse who was standing still, seemingly content with a break. “I had some things to do in the city.” He looked back at Niowyn, wondering how he should tell her about Yivarna and what she had told him. “How is your master? Are you fast becoming the most powerful mage in history?”
Niowyn looked over to Dale as Oryn gestured to him, such a fine and loyal stallion. Her warm smile returned as she looked back at Oryn. “Hamath is… quiet. He doesn’t wear his emotions on his face. Kind of like you when we first met.” Niowyn’s smile melted into a wry grin as she nudged Oryn with shoulder. “But he is incredibly talented and wise. The man’s taught me a lot already and judging by the rare remarks on his face and some of the things he has said… I seem to be picking it up quite quickly. Although, as it should… people of my name are known for their magical prowess and it is almost expected of me at this point. It reminds me of when my mother would give me lessons back home… daughter of the Zah’le, must get it right the first time.``
When she broached the subject of her lessons at home, she crossed her arms across her chest as though to guard her feelings. Releasing the tension, she sighed and allowed her arms to fall back to her side before giving Oryn another gentle smile. “What were you up to in the city at such an early hour? Trouble sleeping?”
He nodded. Of course she was. He knew she was talented and skilled. He had seen it over and over again. Surely her teacher was able to challenge her, he did not doubt that, but he was certain Niowyn was doing well so it did not come as a surprise. Still it made him smile. “I’m glad that things are going well. It’s good to know that the daughter of the Zah’le doesn’t know everything.” He joked, briefly wondering if Niowyn would ever teach him more of her native tongue. It was so different but he liked the way the words sounded. “I bet your mother would be proud of you if she could see you.” Oryn nodded, shifting his stance so his weight was in his left leg. He had noticed how she seemed to tense up before relaxing and changing the subject.
“No I…” He shrugged. “I had to have some armor repaired and then I had to buy some new clothes.” Oryn took the fabric of his surcoat in his hand and held it out, showing how worn it was and how frayed it was along the edges. “Nothing interesting.” He said, but scratched his cheek, obviously having more to say. It took him a few seconds before he got started. “I, uh… I was approached by someone.” Oryn was not sure how to explain Yivarna. “I don’t know who she is. I know her name. She knew me though. She was.... Strange. She told me to… She showed me all these…” Oryn sighed, the images she had shown him flashing through his mind again. All his deaths. All Niowyn’s deaths. The ones where they died of old age, the ones where he died on the battlefield. Their children, their home and all their countless lives. And then he saw the ones where he had never known her and that nearly pained him more. Oryn stepped closer to her and slowly reached out to take her by the wrist. He looked down at her thin fingers in his large, calloused hands. “I don’t know how she knew or who she was or why she showed me all of these… lives.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “But in my head I saw countless lives. Lives that were different than this one, but… You were there in some of them and in some of them you were not.” He realized he was rambling and shook his head in frustration. “She told me that I had to ensure that the gem of the mother finds the son. She showed me a vision of me in a dark tunnel. Erskine was there as well and there was a… serpent. And I had the hammer. I think the gem Yivarna talked about is the one in the hammer.” Oryn fixed his eyes on hers and sighed again. “I think I have to go there with Erskine.”
It was evident by how her eyes had widened and her lips parted slightly in disbelief that Niowyn was shocked by what Oryn was saying. She looked away from the man and down at her small hand in his before she was transported back to a world when she was just small, sitting cross legged on the ground at the river’s edge amongst a handful of other children all staring up at the Zah’le telling them a tale of old. “Tho oaro a'r ho a'o llha' ha'rcs a'aum roaos…” she mumbled, still lost in her hand enclosed in Oryn’s.
“Oryn…” Niowyn looked up at him, her brow shaking with unease as she wrapped her free hand around their cupped hands gently. “What did this… woman, this Yivarna look like?”
“She..” He started, but the expression on her face made him pause. Niowyn was shocked, but he did not know why. “She had the strangest eyes. Almost like a snake? And she wore armor and this snow-white cloak that seemed to be made from scales almost.” Oryn shook his head. Yivarna had made quite the impression, but whenever he thought about her it was with a sense of unease. She had not been there to harm him or even threaten him, but there was just something about her that made him feel like she was dangerous. “Her eyes were golden and her hair was… blonde but with red in it.”
As he spoke Oryn had lowered his gaze to their hands. He blinked a few times before looking back up at Niowyn with a concerned expression on his face. “Why? Do you know of her?”
“... it can’t be a coincidence..” she mumbled, listening to Oryn describe the snake-like woman. Niowyn’s gentle hand found the warmth of his cheek and she raised his face to hers. The worry on her face had been replaced with an excitement that was diluted by compassion for the man before her. He was clearly worried and she wanted to comfort him.
“The Ta’Lassa have been telling an old tale since as long as I can remember, even as long as my mother can remember, about a person who can see the future; see our fates. We call it tho oaro a'r ho a'o llha' ha'rcs a'aum roaos. Translated, the one who holds our fates. I thought it to be a folklore tale told to children for fun, like it had been told to me, until we came across remnants of the same story in Gol Badhir… and then again in the Shroud when I started studying in the Arcanist Order. The libraries there, Oryn, they’re fabulous, and have the most detailed account of this story and everything started to come together. I thought it to be a coincidence but…”
Niowyn released his cheek, her hand finding the upper part of his arm. Her fingers squeezed the flesh and muscle below his sleeve as her gentle and warm smile returned. “Yivarna is not a human, Oryn. She is what’s called a wyrm, a lesser cousin of the dragon. Wyrms can see the future, or in the words of folklore I grew up with, hold our fates.”
Oryn shook his head gently, not quite able to believe what she was saying. It seemed almost impossible that an ancient Ta’Lassa tale should be relevant to him and his actions. He had smiled when she had spoken the words of her native tongue, enjoying the sound of it. When she continued and mentioned Gol Badhir and then the libraries she now had access to, he was smiling brightly.
“Bookwork.” He called her, just as he had back at Gol Badhir. For a few moments he struggled to focus on what she had told him, but when her hand left his cheek, it became easier. Oryn wanted to close what little distance there was between them, and the fact that he was contemplating it was revealed on his face for but a few seconds, but he never moved. Instead he sighed, nodded and shrugged. “It seems the strands of fate weave our lives, past and present, together. This life, anyway.” Oryn said. “But… If she is the serpent… The wyrm, then she is the one waiting for me and Erskine?” The question was as much for as it was for himself. “Either way, I never got the feeling that she wanted me any harm. I guess that remains to be seen..”
“I don’t know if she is the serpent that she told you about… all I can tell you is that it sounds like she is what I’ve been told since I was just small and what I’ve been reading about since I’ve been on this journey with all of you.” Niowyn glanced away for a brief moment, collecting her thoughts as she contemplated what Yivarna could have meant by the gem of the mother returning to the son. There was nothing she could recall in the readings she had done about it and that bothered her.
Niowyn pictured Oryn and Erksine in the dark tunnel, alone, facing a serpent with a gem in a Oathsworn hammer that they had fought to obtain and continued to fight to keep… were they being led into a trap? Lines in her forehead appeared as her brow turned down and shuttered. Her worried look had returned. Niowyn crossed her arms in front of her in an instinctual protective manner as she lost herself in thought about the two of them alone in the darkness and what that could mean for them. Her bottom lip quivered lightly and she hugged herself tighter. “I don’t like it…”
Oryn shook his head. That was exactly it. They could not know for sure. Deep down he knew he had already made up his mind about going. Sitting around the Casual Pint was driving him mad and the work people suggested he take around the Shroud didn’t sound much better. He could go back to being a sellsword, but that would take him away from his friends. Granted, so would this thing with Yivarna, but at least it might help them. You have no idea if it will help us… In fact, he had no guarantee that the large serpent wouldn’t eat him. But there had been an urgency to Yivarna’s voice when she had spoken her riddle. The gem of the Mother....
“Stop your worrying.” He said in a slightly commanding tone before he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Niowyn. “I’ll be back as quick as I can. Besides, my armor is being repaired as we speak. I bought a new cloak, had my sword sharpened and I’ll bring that damned hammer as well.” He said, trying to reassure her. “Besides, Dale is there. He’ll take care of me. And probably Erskine as well. Or… From the waist down, anyway.” he smiled at his own joke, glad that Erskine was not there to hear it. Then he looked down and with his right hand he made Niowyn look at him. He brushed a strand of hair out of her face and shook his head. “Don’t worry.” He said, knowing that even though he said it, she probably still would.
Niowyn burrowed her face in his chest as his arms came around her, listening silently to his reassuring words. But it wasn’t his words that calmed her, it was the warmth of his body pressed against hers and his arms wrapped around her, pulling her in. It was in that space that she felt safe. Slowly, her protective arms crossed over her chest gave way and found themselves around Oryn, pulling him closer to her and squeezing him as though to never let go. She lightly chuckled at his joke and when his hand came to ease her face toward his, she forced a weak smile.
“It kills me that I can’t go with you, not with my schooling at the Order… who is going to bring you back to life when you get reckless if I’m not around?” she attempted to joke as a pathetic chuckle escaped her. “You better come back to me…”
“When I do come back.” Oryn said, confidently. “You’ll have to teach me some of those savage words you speak in your tribe. I like the sound of them.” It wasn’t actually because he was worrying about going and facing potential dangers. No he was, as Niowyn apparently well knew, too reckless for that. And too confident in his own skill, perhaps. He worried for the same reasons she did. “And who knows, when I return, perhaps you’re the new head of the Order.”
“Who knows…” she echoed. “In our language we have a saying to those who are embarking on a journey. Avon’lea llarr ghauaco iya'au ha'rlo. It means, Avon’lea will guide you home. Avon’lea is the water spirit.”
There was a moment of silence. A smirk tugged at his mouth as Oryn’s mind raced to figure out just how he was going to pronounce those words. He chuckled and gave it a try.
When he tried to repeat her words, it was clear that they were very foreign to him and he was not used to making those sounds. He laughed at his pathetic attempt and shook his head. “Maybe… Maybe when I get back, I will have learned to say it properly.”
Oryn lingered for a moment before he forced himself to break the contact between them. He stepped toward Dale, knowing that if he hesitated it would only be harder to leave. Once he had swung himself into the saddle, he turned the horse so he was facing Niowyn sideways. “You take care of yourself, Niowyn of the Ta’Lassa. Tell the others that I’ve gone to save the world and they better have an ale for me when I return!” And with that, Oryn kicked his heels into Dale’s sides and let the horse gallop over the flat grassland, back toward the Shroud.
Arianell Oresh MASSIVE COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | Peeps
The Shroud & The Veil
It was not the first, second, or even dozenth time Aria had entered the Aetherstone Keep but it was the first since her arrival that she felt the weight of her responsibilities. The central antechamber always seemed large and empty, but today it felt especially so, a fact unaided by the absence of servants and aides bobbing about. Even with Matthias striding aside her, both of them dressed in bare steel, the volume of the chamber seemed to swallow her.
Matthias wore a breastplate polished to a bright sheen, but still made imperfect by scuffs and scratches with its raven sigil embossed upon its chest freshly outlined. His tunic sleeves showed beneath mail and leather vambraces, and his legs were left free of armor save his iron-shod leather boots that clattered loudly against the stone floor. Belted at his side was his Volcite steel sword, one hand resting on its pommel, the other thumbing the length of his belt.
As they approached the crystal for which the Keep was given its name, Aria felt a presence beyond that of her own anxieties join her and Matthias, one that had not been there before. Soft voices echoed in her ears as they always had when she walked past the stone. Where once their tone was soft as lace and barely louder than the whisper of grass in the wind, now there was an edge of fire to them now and a reverberation that seemed to thrum an echoing chant through her mind. As soon as she had noticed the change, it was gone, and the hushed whispers softened into meaningless chatter.
She and Matthias went beyond the stone and towards the Old Lion’s study. The door was open to greet them, and the Old Lion sat at his desk, smoking a pipe that left a pleasant aroma that reminded Aria of evenings spent in Korin listening to the men share stories about the fire at sunset. He stiffened into his normal stern self upon seeing them, slumped shoulders rising with the faint pop of stiff aged joints, and his content face hardened into steely sinew. When he spoke, his voice was its usual gruff tone, and trails of smoke still slipped from between his lips along with the words.
“Matthias, Aria,” he said with a nod by way of greeting. “Apologies for the suddenness of my request, but a cry for aid has gone out from the Veil. There is tell of the Others from merchants and farmers - there has not been sighting of their kind here in near two centuries, and I’ve no reason to suspect that will change, but we owe the Veil the duty to investigate.”
At the mention of having no reason to suspect a change, Aria noticed Matthias’s lip twitch, but he kept his tongue.
“You are to ride as soon as you can and report to the town magistrate - if you ride fast and true, you should arrive by midday tomorrow. Once there, you will likely be aided by the town watch, but should you need further aid do not risk your lives playing at hero.”
Aria almost opened her mouth in jest, reminded all too well of the many times she and the others had done exactly the opposite of that advisement, but the heavy presence in the room and the weight of the task were not conducive to humor, and she had to remember the Lion wasn't one of her comrades, but her superior, due the respect and regard of his station.
"Aye, Sir. We'll investigate and see what can be done to aid and fortify. These sightings… Can you elaborate at all? Numbers?"
"Some men say twenty, others five, others say instead it was a band of orcs in the dark, it is impossible to know for certain," the grandmaster huffed, glowering off at some distant place before returning his attention to Aria and Matthias. "I doubt it more than a dozen, any more would be difficult to hide without the Mist."
Nodding, Aria looked over to Matthias, before returning her gaze to the Lion, “We’ll head out as soon as possible, then. And with hope, we’ll return with news of wandering orcs and watchmen with strong imaginations.”
"Something troubles you, Matthias," the Old Lion grumbled, gesturing flatly with one hand. "Speak."
"I wish it as does Aria - that we find nothing but perhaps the ramblings of a drunkard, nothing more beyond the fear that it is not."
"I see," but his tone suggested to Aria that the curtness carried within the history of an argument buried. "Then ride true towards the Veil, brother, and journeyman."
As the pair left the Old Lion’s presence, Aria curled a hand around the hilt of her blade, resting it casually. Her gaze drifted once again to her brother and when she felt like they had gone far enough, she cleared her throat, “You don’t think it’s rumors, do you?”
"The Old Lion has grown complacent," Matthias said, tone hushed so low that it risked being lost to the chattering of the aetherstone before them. "He sees three centuries of relative peace from the Dark One as definitive proof he is forever vanquished or subdued - that there are raids in the west, and sightings of Hollow Knights and the like is of little concern. The Shroud will stand because the Shroud has always stood."
He crossed his arms as they walked, gnawing at his lower lip.
"It might well be rumors, but to think it cannot happen here is folly."
“Folly, indeed. How can he…” A sigh escaped, and Aria pinched the bridge of her nose, frustrated, “The road here… we nearly died countless times. And that’s not the half of what we encountered in the Hollows. How can he possibly think that it won’t eventually come to the Shroud? That sort of mindless thinking could bring this place to the ground, some day.”
"What happens in the west is of no concern to the Shroud, an island in the dark they call themselves," Matthias grunted. "Come, let us go to the stables."
“It’ll matter when that darkness makes its way through the wall…” But there was no sense in telling Matthias. She could tell his views were aligned with her own. Yet what could be done? They were only two people, and the only two among the other knights who didn’t hail from the cursed lands. For all their skills, they were outsiders, with very little chance to sway the mind of a man convinced his home was the only safe haven left in the broken world.
“I’ll need to head to the tavern… if that’s alright? Before we leave. Post a note with the barkeep to let the others know where I’ve gone. Is there anyone you need to say goodbye to, first?”
“None that I can think to mention,” Matthias said with a shrug. “Perhaps there is one, but no need to worry yourself with that. Go, I’ll meet you at the tavern with the horses.”
A brow rose, but Aria didn't press and was off a moment later. The way back to the tavern was quick and once there, Aria packed a bag and scratched out two notes, leaving them with the orc at the counter. The first was to be given to a member of her party immediately, to let them know about her journey. The other, she instructed, was only in the event she did not return.
With her tasks finished, she made her way outside to wait. The city around her bustled with life, though on the day of Sariel, the Raven’s Day, the streets were less crowded than they usually were despite the hour. The faint outline of the spring moon Linsinius hung in the sky, a patch of faint yellow-green in the otherwise cloudless day. The face in the moon seemed to wink at Aria by the way the shadow clung to it.
The sound of approaching iron-shod horseshoes on cobblestone drew her attention to her left. There Matthias walked alongside their two mounts, each saddled and lined in small pouches and bags, a bedroll behind each seat. He wore a brown traveler’s coat over his armor with its hood pulled up, though not so much that it concealed his face, and clutched the beasts’ reins in one hand, the other resting ever-defensively on the pommel of his sword.
“All go well?” He asked, nodding towards the Casual Pint behind Aria. “No teary eyes, I hope, for such a short venture.”
"None from me, anyway. Barkeep might lament the coin, but I doubt he's one to weep." Aria quipped with a small grin. Taking one of the pairs of reins, she slung her bag up higher on her shoulder and started forward, gently leading the mount behind, "Now… are you going to tell me about that 'one' you mentioned, or do I have to drag it out of you?"
The two made their way from the Casual Pint to the Street of Kings that split the Shroud into east and west, the city folk they passed bearing them no mind as they went about their business. Here the wind swept from the gates through the tunnelway created by the structures on either end of the street, lofting the pleasant scent of warm spring air from beyond the city walls. The wind rustled Matthias’s cloak as he scratched at his chin, considering whether to answer Aria’s question or not.
“We have the whole day before us,” he said with a wry grin, though she noticed the slightest of pink flush at his cheeks. “Doubtless you can be patient, hm?”
"You've been away from home too long if you imagine I've grown at all into patience." She teased, but a moment later gave a shrug of her shoulders, "But I suppose I can wait. For a little while, at least."
As the two cleared the gates of the Shroud, they mounted their horses and set on at a trot down the wooded hills. Over time the cobbled road gave way to a well-trod dirt path, but the trees remained lush, green, and vibrant along their sides. The air was warm, the first bit of warmth Aria had felt since spring began, and the trilling of songbirds echoed through the woods. Below them as the mountain upon which the Shroud stood slanted down into a steep slope, the copper-and-green seas of wheat at the base of the mountain stood out against the bright, verdant green of the grasslands beyond. From their vantage, the river below glimmered golden in the sunlight, its threaded streams and off-shoots like molten gold.
Matthias and Aria chatted as they rode further and further down along the mountain road, coming across few travelers as they went. What few they did looked haggard and tired, shuffling close together in small packs, hands never far from their weapons. Even the least heavily armed among them still carried heavy quarterstaffs or bows in a readied grip.
“The Others may not be here, but their influence is,” Matthias said after they passed a band of farmhands ferrying grain up the mountain, the boy in the cart clutching an armed crossbow.
By the time the sun was beginning to set, Aria and Matthias had reached the base of the mountain. The chirps of birds and other woodland fauna were replaced by the low hum of crickets and the croaks of frogs, the air just beginning to return to a chill wind. They made camp in an alcove by the main road in the ruins of an abandoned watch tower twice as tall as the house Aria had grown up in, its top crenelations having tumbled to the ground in a loose semi circle, and its road-facing wall collapsed in on itself, lending a sheltered spot from the elements just beyond.
The interior of the watchtower was well-kept and well-used. Fresh hay clumped into the approximation shape of a bed lay in four separate patches at each corner of the tower’s base, and two lanterns rested on poles. Matthias explained this was a common stopping point for travelers from the Shroud, and maintained by the city in an unofficial capacity as he laid his bedroll over the straw mattress. He lit the lanterns with a flint and steel, shutting their hatches to keep the light at a level low enough to see by but without the light being seen for miles down-hill.
Unrolling her own bedding, Aria looked around the space with a small, wistful smile before her eyes shifted to her brother, "Reminds me of camping out in the barn loft when we were little. Do you still remember those days?"
“Aye, I do,” Matthias said, a smile creeping at the corners of his mouth at the memory. “Many nights, not too unlike this one.”
"It all seemed so different then." Settling onto her bedroll, Aria pulled her knees close and leaned against them with a small sigh, "Easier. I know he's foolish to think it's happened already… the Old Lion. But do you think it'll ever happen, Matty? Peace? Real peace?"
“I would not be here if I didn’t,” Matthias examined Aria, eyebrow raised as he fetched a bit of hard tack and dried meat from his pack and set to nibbling at it.
"It's good to hear. Not a lot of optimism up this way. I can't help but think it's that cynicism in part that's kept peace so unattainable. No one seems to want to fight for it." With a small shrug, she pulled her own rations out, picking at them, "But what point is a world without hope?"
“Peace is difficult to ascribe to this land - I’ve been here a while, and I have yet to fully understand it myself. Back home, when, say, Cailin and Veildosa would wage war with one another, there was a more tangible face to it,” Matthias gestured to his own face as he spoke. “It has a beginning and an end that we understand - surrenders or peace deals, a foe to reason with. The Unmaking, though, did not end the war, but it did end the organized hostilities. And no one knows why. The uneducated might say that the Dark One was defeated, the boorish might beat their chests and say we triumphed, and the deniers might pretend the tales of dark fiends are fables of the westerlands and the secluded corners of this land. None of that changes the fact that for many, it is a reasonable conclusion to say the threat is not what it once was given the last three hundred years.”
"And what do you think? We know them not to be fables… and I don't think you're a fool or boorish. I've seen these fiends attack in such numbers… ruthless and seemingly, without purpose. And for all the scattering and the disorder, I can't help but think it's like what Dad would say when all the trees turned over their leaves, right before the clouds rolled in. A storm is coming, even if we can't see it. Maybe I'm wrong. I hope so. But this… doesn't feel like any sort of end, without taking out the source."
“We were told of a land boiling in constant war,” Matthias said. “Daily battles, desperate struggles for the good of the rest of the world - the truth is there is nothing but bitter people here. Yes, there’s darkness in it, but it is inert. But I can’t help but feel that whoever sealed this land off after the Unmaking knew something we do not - if the war were truly over, the Wall of the Pass would have never been raised. Aye, a storm is coming.”
"For what it's worth.. Whatever comes, I'm glad to be here with you. Can't think of anyone I'd rather save the world with." Grinning, Aria stretched out her leg to nudge his foot with her own.
“Here’s to hoping we’re wrong - and if we aren’t, then that we have the strength to do what must be done,” Matthias raised a drinking horn in a mock toast, taking a sip from it.
"We've got each other. We'll be plenty strong." Raising her own, she took a drink before leaning back on her elbows, "If there is trouble when we arrive tomorrow… Do you mean to follow the Lion's order? Not to lend more aid than what he's told us?"
“I don’t mean to die - so long as neither of us perishes unnecessarily, I don’t know as the Old Lion cares. He knows I will do what I must, I know he will always berate me for it.”
"Good. I was hoping you'd say as much. I've no death wish, either… Too much left unfinished not to make it back. But I won't leave these people in peril, either. He can berate us both." With a dry smile, she shrugged, "Wouldn't be the first time we faced someone's wrath together."
“Ah, no it would not,” he replied with a soft smile, washing down a bite of food with his skin before returning both to his pack.
The pair continued to talk well into the night, reminiscing on memories of Korin and their travels as the spring moon began to cast its yellow-green glow across the treetops about the tower. The night passed in relative comfort and silence, especially for being beyond the city walls. They woke at sunrise, shared a quiet breakfast from their trail rations, and mounted their horses for the Veil.
Beyond the trees of the Last Forest, the expanse of grass about the Shroud opened into the sea of green and brassy wheat they had seen from the tops of the hills. The road grew rougher the closer to the Veil they came, more covered in grass in places than tamped earth. At their pace, the hooves of their horses tore up the dirt and grass as they galloped for the town. It was another clear spring day, warm and temperate, with a pleasant wind coming down from the sea to the east leveled with the faintest traces of salt.
The Veil came into view before the sun hung overhead - a town walled in a wooden palisade, with a bell tower visible over the tops of the parapets. It rested along the banks of the Wormwood River, a river whose beds rested wider than did the water, a shade of its former self if the accounts Aria had told were to be believed. Still, the sounds of its water crashing over the rocks sounded loud enough to be heard over the clash of hooves atop the dirt.
Matthias and Aria slowed from a gallop to a trot when they came within a mile of the Veil, and Matthias made sure his hood was lowered as they approached the city wall. Half a dozen men stood clutching an assortment of bows, crossbows, and spears to greet them from the parapet, two others clutching two-handed axes by the gate into the town. They were hard and grizzled, more than the Steelcoats in the city had seemed. One of them, wearing slightly higher-quality mail with a red sash along his breast, stepped forward and removed his helm. He stood a head shorter than his fellows, and a bushy blonde beard tied into a knot dominated his face.
“That’s far ‘nuff,” he huffed in an accent Aria could barely make out. “What do be the purpose of your coming here?”
“We are sent on behalf of the Knights of the Raven from the Aetherstone Keep, answering your summons as sent by your town magistrate,” Mathias said, voice carrying as if echoing through a grand hall.
“We do be needin’ it, I do recall,” the dwarf responded. “I do be tellin’ the magistrate you be here, wait while I do.”
The men atop the gate sounded a shout below and the dwarf squeezed between the gap left. The gate shut a moment after, and a tense silence followed, eased as soon as the dwarf’s footsteps faded.
Looking to Matthias, Aria frowned softly, her voice low and quiet as the dwarf disappeared beyond the gate, "Didn't seem like drunk ramblings to me…"
Matthias shrugged his shoulders, the gesture so subtle she doubted any on the wall would have seen it even looking directly at him. A few minutes passed, and the gates opened once more. The dwarf stood beside a handful of other villagers, these dressed in well-made but plain garments. Among them was an orc who towered over the lot, long black hair tied into a well-kept braid. She reminded Aria of Blanc, save for the eye which was as sterling blue as its companion. She was dressed in the finest of the garb present, and when she stepped forward, the others parted way.
“Greetings, companions of the Knights of the Raven,” she said cooly, turning to bow her head to each of them in turn. “I am magistrate Ghorza. Come, let us speak about the reason for your coming in my chambers - if you would not mind dismounting your horses, they shall be taken to the stables at the Winking Helm.”
As Matthias slid from his saddle, an aid from among those gathered about Ghorza rushed forward to take the horse’s reins, ushering it through the gate. As Aria dismounted, another aid likewise rushed to take her mount through.
"Thanks." Aria uttered to the aid, giving the horse a ginger pat before following Matthias to the gate. Her eyes roved through the villagers, taking them in with curiosity before once again looking to the orc as they were led inside.
The main village road ran east to west from the gate, meeting with another path in a rough patch of dirt and grass in the village’s center to create an intersection with the road that ran north to south. Houses of stone and wood with sloped purple and red roofs lined the two streets, each no taller than the wooden palisade walls. Their windows were lined with wooden shutters painted in the same tones as their roofs, and everything from small gardens to clothes lines ran from them. The aroma of cooking and rich, oaky smoke filled the village, wafted through the central road along the sea breeze.
What villagers they saw greeted Aria and Matthias with a bow of the head or a brief curtsy. Their look reminded Aria of Korin even if the houses did not - their clothes were worn and plain, but they carried themselves with the same sort of humble pride she had grown up with in her own village. They wore woolen coats and cotton tunics for the most part, though a handful of women rushed about clutching their plain skirts to bob from one house to the next or to chase after a gaggle of children running by.
At the end of the road running west to east stood a structure that was not in the least bit more remarkable than the others, but which bore the crest of a raven, snake, and stag upon a coat of arms along its facade. Unlike the sigil of the Shroud, though, it was also set with vines that separated the three creatures and formed a ring about the shield. Here, Ghozar dismissed the watchmen back to the wall with a soft word and a smile and led Matthias and Aria inside along with her servants.
The interior of the magistrate’s chambers, for which Aria had no doubt they were, were comfortable if plain. The room that greeted them upon entering the threshold was lined with two benches about a small table lined in cushions that looked to be older than she was. Overhead, a wrought iron chandelier hung, stalactites of hardened candle wax flowing off the sides of its arms. Beyond the benches rested a writing desk, which one of the servants occupied while Ghozar led the pair upstairs through a door just beyond the desk.
Ghozar’s personal quarters sat opposite a narrow hallway, at the end of which was her own office. This, like the entry room below, was plain but comfortable. Two bookshelves rested behind a large writing desk adorned with a handful of gemstones, inkpots, quills, and papers both blank and not. The wooden floors creaked underfoot as they walked, the panels worn almost smooth by years of use. Sunlight flitted through two open windows on either end of the office, offsetting the musty smell of ages with the fresh salt-tinged spring breeze. Ghozar beckoned the two to sit opposite the desk in the pair of rickety dining chairs as she herself settled into her own, the wood protesting at the sudden strain put upon it.
“Now, let us discuss why you are here,” she said politely as one of her servants shut the door behind them. “I find it alarming it took your order much of the winter and part of the spring to answer my summons - my first messenger was sent just before the winter moon crested the sky. I have taken it upon myself to hire a small squadron of mercenaries to supplement the watch through the winter, and we have been fortunate to be free of violent incidents, but the sightings are growing more frequent. I take it it was not the urgency of my requests but their frequency that finally stirred the Old Lion?”
It had the tone of a question, but Aria knew it was a statement not to be responded to as Ghozar nodded and continued.
“No matter. The past is the past. Over the last three months, we have seen the Others no less than a dozen times about the homesteads and farms surrounding the Veil. Four weeks ago, a storm came through and a number of the mercenaries now employed in the service of this town were slain by the Others. Halevar, their sergeant of sorts, survived.”
Matthias raised an eyebrow at the name.
“Halevar, you said?” He asked slowly.
“Aye, he was one of you, if memory serves,” Ghozar said with a casual nod of her head. “Forsook the oath when the winter came, he says-”
“-for the Order’s inability to take matters of the Others seriously,” Matthias interjected. “Aye, he is a Questor, not a Warden.”
“Whatever you wish to call him, you shall have the opportunity to speak to him before the day is up,” she said. “Today I believe it best you confer with the men and women who have cited seeing the Others before riding out tomorrow. Your room and board shall be provided, humble as it might be.”
"Sightings… but no attacks until four weeks past?" Aria posed the question with a note of curiosity, but it held the same rhetorical note as the magistrates earlier question regarding the Lion had. Instead, with a nod, she rose and looked to Matthias.
"We'll get started right away, then."
“Aye, it seems that they are mostly blood traitors and a handful of the Others themselves,” Ghozar said with a nod. “Should you require anything of me before your departure, you need only ask. I’ll send word to Halevar and his men that you will be staying at the Winking Helm.”
With a nod, Aria followed Matthias out, her expression pensive, even as she remained quiet. Only when they were back out in the open did she look to her brother, a brow lifting quizzically, "So many sightings… but they've only just now attacked. And this isn't exactly the most well fortified city. Does that make sense to you?"
“The dark thinks not in days but years and decades,” Matthias offered with a shrug of his shoulders. “What seems nonsense to us might be the start of a grand design for them. If what she says is true and it is myrodel with them, then perhaps the mortals are simply lusting for a bit of glory and some recognition.”
As they left the magistrate’s quarters, a servant followed behind, rushing down, Aria guessed, to alert Halevar and his followers. They made their way to the Winking Helm, though she supposed that name was charitably given. The sign swinging by the tavern’s doors did indeed have a winking face, though perhaps the “Winking Warrior” might have been more appropriate, what with the design showing arms and all.
The tavern was pleasantly lit between the influx of natural light through the open windows and a handful of lanterns lit along the walls. The fire crackled, and a heavy pot of stock rested over it, filling the tavern with a savory aroma of onions, potatoes, and carrots. At this hour of the day, few sat about the common room - most of the villagers they had seen out and about working the day’s tasks - but a handful of patrons sat in quiet conversation that was not kept purposefully hushed, but whose volume seemed insufficient to fill the room.
A young tavern maid greeted Matthias and Aria, escorting them to their room upstairs with two straw mattresses atop plain beds, lined in cotton sheets and with one pillow apiece. It paled in comparison to even the Cat and Rooster back in the Hollows, but was comfortable nonetheless. Matthias set down his belongings by a bed facing a window, out from which one could only see the village and the palisade walls beyond. He scratched at his chin pensively, lost in thought as he clutched the pommel of his sword.
"What are you thinking, Matty?" Aria asked, laying her things by the opposite bed as she sat down, her own expression deeply etched with the same thoughtful lines.
“I am trying to think where I would hide twenty or so armed men without use of the Mist,” he said, almost absently. “How they evaded pursuit through the winter makes sense enough - few dare trek far from the hearth when the chill comes, but to do so in the spring? Especially after so brazenly attacking travelers on the road? It makes no sense.”
"It's a terrifying concept." Rubbing her brow, she shook her head, "Some new magic, perhaps?"
“Or worse, aid is being given to them in the Shroud,” Matthias said darkly, glancing from the window to Aria. “Come, let’s see if Halevar and his band have gathered downstairs.”
When they arrived once more in the common room, a small crowd of grizzled warriors stood about the floor. They wore a mixture of leather and metal armor, all having gone at least a season without proper maintenance. They spanned orc, man, and dwarf and carried swords, axes, spears, shields, bucklers, knives, and bows among them all in all kinds of makes and sizes, though one thing common among them all was a worn, experienced stare - the kind that reminded Aria of Deormund’s steely gaze.
At their front stood a man stout and barrel-chested, grey at his temples with a bushy mustache that he thrummed through with one hand. Aria noticed then that his other arm ended in a stump capped with a leather dome, and he wore a sword at his side of exquisite make. His brown eyes met Matthias’s, and his stern brow lightened as a smile tugged at the corners of his lips, hoisting up the ends of his mustache. He took two steps forward and clasped Matthias in a one-armed hug, clapping him on the back and considering Aria beside him.
“Unless my eyes deceive me, this looks to be the sister you told me of, Matthias,” he said, voice rumbling like a bumblebee, rich in tenor and tone. “It has been some time since I’ve seen you.”
“I thought I might never see you again either,” Matthias responded warmly, taking a step back. “The Old Lion is as ever-critical of us Questors as when you left. I wish we would be meeting under better circumstances, friend. And aye, this is my sister, Aria. Aria, this is Halevar.”
“I look forward to hearing how you managed to find yourself here, girl,” Halevar said with a wry grin.
Watching the exchange brought a smile to her lips, her eyes bouncing between the pair, taking in the sense of camaraderie with satisfaction. It reminded her of her own companions, in a way, and for a moment, Matthias felt like his old self again.
As Halevar turned to her, she smiled in kind, giving a half shrug, "That is… quite a story. And one I'm happy to tell, but first, there's another conversation we need to have."
"Ah, suppose that we should," Halevar said with a nod. "Here, let us take a seat - you lot can stand at ease, no need to stand about ready for a march when we've yet to know where we're marching to."
Waiting for Matthias and taking her cue when he sat, Aria sank into a chair and fixed her gaze on the man before her. He has the same imposing, hardworn exterior and manner that most in the Shroud and beyond did, but there was also a quality to him that somehow reminded her once more of Korin. It was odd to have so many memories thrust before her, but there was also a sense in that, that made their mission in the Veil that much more important.
“Why don’t you start at the beginning… And spare no detail. The more we know, the better.”
“Dulcimer,” Halevar said, gesturing for one of his fellows to come. “He’ll have a better explanation than I can give you to start.”
A narrow man whose frame fit his name approached the table. A long neck supported a head half a hand’s span too wide, and his gut widened out in a way that reminded Aria of the men who would hang about Korin’s inn drinking ale all day. He wore a padded leather jerkin, a two-handed battleaxe slung across his back. Greasy black hair clung in long streaks about his head, and there shone a bald patch at the top of his head.
“Aye, so first winds ‘o winter I go about the farmsteads with a couple of me mates,” he said. “We make the rounds, offer up what food and the like we got. As we’re headin’ back from old Fayne’s property we see them. Maybe five, six of them - can’t miss them in the snow, all black and red, melting it as they go along. We stayed clear of them, but they kept following us every way we went. We made it back to the village without a problem, but more and more sentries noticed them every time they did the rounds. It wasn’t ‘til the snows thawed and the spring moon came that they started attackin’ anyone.”
Halevar leaned forward.
“That’s about when they came for me, and this.” He raised the stump of his arm. “I was traveling from the Shroud after sending word for Magistrate Ghozar, and was intercepted at the Wormwood Bridge - a handful of them chased me to the top of the bridge. I slew them, but when I returned the reports were growing more frequent, perhaps because of more travelers, but still. There were now rumors of halfmen and blood traitors with them. I estimate there’s no more than thirty of them all told, and no fewer than ten. We have guessed at a number of their hideouts, perhaps with a day of riding we might be able to investigate them all should we split into small parties to scout them out. Once we know where they are, we shall report back and approach in a larger number.”
“I’m sorry if this is uncomfortable for you to relive…” Her eyes briefly flickered to the man’s arms, before Aria met his gaze, “But it may help us. What was it like when you were attacked? Did it seem… random? A sporadic incident? Or was it more organized? Did you come upon them, or were you ambushed? And did they appear to have any sort of… leader or guide?”
“I cannot speak for their goals - it might have been intentional, or just bad luck,” Halevar said. “Dulcimer, if you’d..”
“A few weeks back we hanged a blood traitor. He went on about some old blood phrase the elves used, we couldn’t make sense of it. Seems whatever it is he was talking about, the bloody things are after.”
A brow quirked, Aria looked to Matthias, before turning back to the greasy haired man, “...What phrase? Do you remember it?”
“Myerit C’ullzirak,” Halevar supplied. “One of power.”
“Mean anything to you, Matthias?” She asked, frowning faintly, as she recalled his words to her the night of their reunion with a growing sense of discomfort.
“Nothing,” Matthias said. “The words echo with a familiar ring, but then everything in the old tongue has a touch of foreboding to it.”
“Foreboding… That’s the word for it, alright.” A shiver rolled down her spine as she contemplated the meaning, before abandoning the myriad thoughts.
“How many hideouts are you looking to investigate?” She asked instead, turning back to Halevar.
“There’s six we want to look into,” Halevar said, waving for another of his companions to approach.
A map rolled out over the table, covering it from corner to corner and hanging off the ends besides. It showed the southeastern corner of the former Iladrian crownloads, marked with villages and settlements Aria had never heard of before. Drawn over the old paper was the current position of the Veil and the Shroud, and Halevar pointed to a number of etched markings along the page that circled the Veil.
“Here they are,” he said, hand gliding across the parchment. “There’s Old Domani, the ruins of a town just out to the east where the waters from the sea collect. Further north, there are a trio of cave entrances that used to form the tunnel networks of the Shroud but have since collapsed into separate cave systems. That leaves the pair of dwarven watchtowers south on the other side of the river. Riding true, they are all within a day’s ride for a small group, though no less difficult to traverse unseen.”
Rising, Aria looked over the map, tracing a finger from each point with a thoughtful nod, “If we were to find the closest point to the center of all of these, we could make camp there as a whole, then split up and investigate the areas of interest the following day. We won’t have the element of stealth either way, but at least by daylight we won’t be ambushed. Do you and your men have Volcite?”
“Aye, we have that here,” Halevar said, pointing out a spot on the map. “A handful of village folk under armed escort will establish the camp while we investigate. As for Volcite, no, girl - I have my own blade from my time in the Knights of the Raven, and Dolcimer here has perhaps half a dozen arrowheads to his name, but the order hordes whatever Volcite makes its way through here. A tithe for their protection.”
“What a tax, taking a season and a half to answer a baseline request.”
Brows briefly knitting, Aria looked to her brother, shaking her head before her gaze returned to Halevar with earnest, “I’m sorry it took so long. There’s really no excuse to be made. And without Volcite… and with our foe in the numbers you’ve suggested, They won’t be easily dealt with. But my brother and I will do whatever we can to help… Whatever we can.”
“It isn’t me you owe an apology to - my lot and I are mercenaries, if anything you did us a favor taking as long as you did,” Halevar said. “But if you and Matthias are of the same stock, I know you will do right by them. Right, then - let’s get to gathering the supplies and letting the men know the plan.”
“Same stock, indeed.” She looked to Matthias with a firm nod, before extending a hand to clap Halevar on the remaining forearm, “Tell us where we can be of use, and we’ll get to it.”
Halevar, Matthias, and Aria went about dividing the work among Halevar’s band, alongside a handful of villagers who would set up the camp. Once the tasks were assigned, Aria and Matthias reported back to Ghozar with the news, and assisted in gathering the supplies needed for the journey. By the time they had readied their kit with the village’s horses, the sun was beginning to set and they returned to the Winking Helm for a supper of roasted vegetables, soup made from a mixture of beef and chicken bones, and hard bread washed down with thin ale.
Halevar sat with Matthias and Aria and they shared stories throughout the evening. Halevar recounted his travels with Matthias throughout the country and their perils, while Aria caught Halevar up on her own journey to the Shroud. Matthias’s grim, burdened demeanor seemed to recede, but not fade entirely, as they talked and shared in food and drink. By the time they closed the night, the subdued darkness had returned, and the two siblings shared brief chatter before settling down to sleep.
As Aria hooked her sheath over the post at the end of her bed, the pleasant warmth of a comforting meal and good conversation fading with weariness, the reality of what tomorrow held began like an itch along her back. With a sigh, she sank down, rubbing her brow.
“We’ve, at best, three Volcite blades and a few arrows… and no idea what we’re up against. I don’t feel good about this, Matty.”
“If they are mostly halfmen and blood traitors then we have nothing to fear - it will be bloody, but manageable. If the Others are there with them in great numbers, then we will withdraw while we can and call for more aid, there is nothing to worry about.”
“But will it be answered? A call for aid? Why did they wait so long to send us? I can’t understand it…” Laying back, her eyes drifted up to the ceiling, a frown creasing her brow, “I want to help them, but I don’t know that we even can.”
“Because we are few in number, the country large, and the feeling of complacency has crept in,” Matthias said, mattress crinkling as he laid down. “The Veil’s walls while manned can hold off thirty of them for aid to arrive should it come to it.”
“Then let us pray there’s not more than thirty. And that they’ve nothing coming upon them like what my friends and I faced in the Hollows. We had the numbers, but without Oryn and that hammer, we’d have failed, without doubt.”
“Let us hope.”
Aria did not sleep well that evening, though she slept, her mind roiling for hours about the potential threats that could befall them over the next few days. But it was not only what was to come that plagued her thoughts, but a lingering distaste… a sense of frustration at the order to which she had become entangled in all too willingly. What could be the reason the Knights, the Old Lion in particular, had ignored a plea for aid for so long… And if it was only complacency or a false sense of security in their own merit of protection, what would be the consequences of that disregard?
When Matthias and Aria broke their fast in the hours before dawn the next morning, they were accompanied by Halevar’s band and a handful of villagers. Few talked, save for a handful of strained jests and forced laughter. Before the sun began to crest the horizon, they had gone to their horses and packed the last of the supplies. Aria and Matthias were to investigate the ruined village of Old Domani, and were accompanied by a pair of Halevar’s mercenaries. One was an aged orc, the first Aria had seen in her travels, with greying hair tied in a top knot and a crossbow holstered in his saddle. He wore a patchwork cloak of brown, green, and grey that seemed to shimmer and fade into whenever he stood. The other was a young woman that reminded Aria of Ygritte in the Hollows with fiery red hair and a long spear she kept ready across her thighs as they rode.
It was difficult, with those memories on the fringe of her mind, not to draw on so many similarities to the Hollows, and in truth the persistent presence of them felt almost like an omen. For one so generally aligned with optimism, it was becoming increasingly more challenging not to fall too deeply into her own wariness…
She could feel tension in her mount as she road and she was all too aware it was more than likely her own agitation the animal was reacting to, but her free hand remained close to her blade all the same, her eyes dancing across the road with alert urgency.
It seemed too perfect a day for the danger that lurked beyond the slopes and rises that formed the foothills of the Shroud. The Wormwood River babbled on to their right as they rode northward towards Old Domani, and the sea carried with it a fresh, cool wind that offset the spring air with a nice touch of humid vitality. Not a single cloud lingered in the sky above, and the pale green outline of the spring moon shone with its odd glimmer of warmth. Aria saw little to alarm her, and though she was not certain and her horse did nothing to confirm the oddity, she could have sworn she could smell the slightest hint of sulfur in the air.
“I don’t like this,” the red-headed woman, Laurina, said. “I hate thinking they are watching us like this.”
“...Slow down.” Aria stated, softly, but with a firmness she wasn’t accustomed to using, “Everyone stop a moment.” Pulling her own horse to a halt, Aria took a pause and breathed in, deeper this time, taking in the pungent scent with a crinkle of her nose. The mind had a wicked way of playing tricks from echoes of history, but she was certain the acrid odor was no phantom recollection, “We should get off the path.”
“I thought it was just me,” Matthias said, nostrils bulging as he sniffed at the air. “Mahnem, do you know another way to the village?”
“Well enough,” the orc said.
Mahnem fetched a jewel from a saddle bag and thumbed over it. The gem flared into life, light flashing brightly before subduing into a low throb of energy. His eyes glimmered in rhythm with the gem, and he nodded in satisfaction.
“If we ride due east four miles, there should be a rise we can use to conceal our movements from any onlookers.”
He pointed to a hill overlooking the road, fingers bending as if to gesture bending around the hill.
“The good news being if Others were up there, I could see them from here.”
“We need to move quickly, and quietly. Smell's not so strong, here, but they can’t be far off. Blades at the ready and be on guard.” Uneasiness crept into her tone, her eyes shifting to Matthias with an unspoken note of worry, “Let’s go.”
They rode east towards the hill, the babbling of the river fading into white noise as they reached its base. Mahnem clutched at a second gemstone, eyes pulsing with energy like Blanc’s had when they explored Gol Badhir. He scanned the crest of the hill, crossbow laying across his lap now, a bolt nestled and primed to fire. Laurina rode a quarter mile ahead of them, clutching her spear at her side like a lancer, red hair streaming so vibrantly it made her difficult to miss.
As they followed the curve of the hill, Laurina halted before passing around its edge into open sight. She waited for the rest of the group to come within comfortable earshot of a normal speaking voice before speaking.
“Something scared my horse ahead,” she said, using her free hand to reassuringly pat the beast’s neck. “Might have just been the wind or something, but I don’t like this.”
“That’s a well-ridden horse… No wind is going to spook a beast like that.” Swinging her legs around, Aria pulled her blade free and dropped down to the ground, “We can press on, or we can stop here and prepare. Either way, I don’t think we’re getting through these hills without a confrontation.”
“Let me take a look from the hill,” Mahnem offered.
He swung down from his horse and fetched his crossbow from his saddle, taking a moment to reassure himself it was still ready to fire. He gently laid the weapon at his feet while he fastened his sword to his belt before picking up the crossbow and nodding to the group. Wrapping himself in his cloak, Mahnem began to scale the hill, cloak blending into the grass as he went along.
The trio at the base of the hill did not speak while they waited for the orc’s report. Fifteen minutes passed before Manhem returned down the same way he had come, a grim look on his face. He waited until a whisper would be sufficiently heard over the din of the Wormwood and the rush of sea wind.
“I can see Old Domani up ahead,” he said. “The way through these hills there is clear enough, but I saw something in the ruins - it might just be treasure hunters or looters, we get them this time of year, but I doubt it. Just halfmen or blood traitors from the look of it, but then black is difficult to see among the grey even with my eyes.”
“We’ll go until we can all get a good look,” Matthias said. “Is there a hill overlooking the ruins we can safely occupy?”
Mahnem’s eyes flickered and he nodded.
“It will require some backtracking south to avoid coming in sight of the village, perhaps no more than ten miles.”
“When we’ve come within a mile or so, we should go on foot. The horses may scare… and even if they don't, I can’t imagine their scent'll go unnoticed. If there are Others there, they would give us away without trying.” Pulling herself back into the saddle, her blade still in hand, Aria took a breath, “...Don’t think I need to say it, but eyes peeled.”
They doubled back around, following Mahnem who rode ahead of them this time. Their horses protested the fast pace, but as Matthias had been quick to remind them it would likely be noon by the time they reached their vantage point. Laurina rode behind them to watch for ambushes to their rear, leaving Matthias and Aria in the center, blades at the ready. Matthias’s grim bearing was replaced with a stiff alertness and poise, almost as if her brother had disappeared, leaving behind little more than brute instinct.
The sun hung directly overhead when at last they arrived at the hill Mahnem had directed them towards. There, they dismounted and left the horses with Laurina. Aria and Matthias followed the orc slowly up the hill, barely coming to peek overs its edge at the village below.
It was an odd ruin, Aria thought. It was unlike any village she had ever seen, ruined or otherwise. Old Domani stood atop a stone slab with stairs leading to its top spread every twenty paces or so, perhaps wide enough for two men to walk abreast. Atop the slab rested the bones of structures long worn away, but unlike the Shroud, they seemed to have been built with a certain flow to them. What might have once been support beams were curved like arches, and as she examined the slab more it looked less like stone than it did a facsimile of it. It was too smooth, too perfect, as if someone had shaped the bedrock beneath them into shape.
“There,” Mahnem pointed. “You see them? Coming and going from the west-most stairs, to just behind that hill there.”
Inching forward, closer to the orc’s position, Aria crouched low and peered into the ruins, mildly certain that if their approach hadn’t been recognized by whatever foul thing lingered in the village, her pounding heart would give them away, “Yeah. I see…”
Two figures silhouetted against the wide green expanse of the grass beyond marched across the field. They carried what looked to be spears, or perhaps bundled of supplies Aria could not tell. From this distance, all she could confirm was that they were plain men, without a trace of the black and red and pale white of the Others about them. As they watched the men go about whatever their work was, two new figures appeared from the ruins, descending the stairs along the side of the slab. They galloped along on all fours, their postures hunched and more beastly than not.
“I count four…” Aria whispered, not daring to speak louder than what the wind couldn’t carry, “But that doesn’t mean that’s all there is. Can you see what it is they’re carrying, Mahnem? Would there be anything left in the ruins worth taking?”
"I see spears, but those are halfmen, Aria," the orc said, spitting at the word 'halfmen'.
"You might know them as Misshapen as they are called in the west," Matthias supplied in a whisper. "Are there just the two of them?"
"As I can see, aye, just the two," Mahnem said. "As to what might be worth taking? Gods know, there's nothing there but stone and more stone."
“Oh, believe me, I remember them well enough…” She muttered, rubbing the gap between her pauldron and chest plate where a pitchfork had once made a rather significant dent in her shoulder, “If we can risk it, I’d like to wait a bit longer. See if any more show up… Or anything else…”
The other two nodded their ascent and the trio adopted as comfortable a concealed position as they could, laying flat on their stomachs so only their eyes crested the top of the hill. Mahnem signaled to Laurina down below using some code they both knew, and she signed back, picketing the horses to a spare spear thrust point-up into the ground.
Half an hour went by, the sun shifting from directly overhead towards its setting horizon by degrees. More men and halfmen came and went, different from the ones before. A handful of the men stood taller than the others, their features more akin to the Others than their fellows but without the signature garb and weapons.
The first of the Others arrived just a little after their first hour watching the village. None of the trio could say where it had come from, only that it suddenly appeared among the busy dark friends below and began to seemingly converse with a handful of the Myrodel about it. Then, after its arrival, all of its followers retreated into the ruins and the slab of Old Domani went still as stone.
Shifting carefully, silently, Aria rose up, cupping a hand over the lower half of her face in anxious thought, before she turned to the other two, “...If even one of the other locations houses as many as this one, here, I fear we haven’t the manpower to face them. And we certainly won’t make much of a dent without the proper weapons. But that’s not what worries me. This felt… this felt less like a hideout to hunker down in, and more organized. I don’t know what they could be doing… planning… but it does not bode well for the Veil to have them camped so close.”
"Shall we return to camp and report what we've found?" Matthias asked, glancing sideways at Aria.
Looking to her brother, the ghost of a weary smile appeared, as Aria shrugged, “Unless you want to storm the hideout and take them all down, together. No? Me neither. Let’s get back to camp and hope no one’s found anything else worth reporting.”
The ride back to their established camp took the better part of the afternoon to do safely without putting themselves within sight of Old Domani. When they arrived, a camp of several tents encircled by knee or waist high wooden fencing had been established, and a smattering of Halevar's company had already returned. They busied themselves around cookfires and helped continue to expand the perimeter of fencing, paying the return of Aria's band little mind.
It was some time before Halevar himself returned, horse looking worse for wear, his fellows likewise looking haggard. He briefly explained he had been occupied circling around the Veil to avoid crossing the river at the most obvious point, and had wanted to arrive before sunset to avoid causing unease and panic at his lateness. As the group gathered for dinner, Halevar pulled Aria and Matthias aside, inviting them to his tent, which was more to steer clear of the others than it was an invitation to talk as the tent barely stood to Aria's waist and seemed barely long enough to fit Erskine, let alone her brother or any other of the company.
"No one else has seen anything which makes me think it's you who drew the short straw."
“Unfortunately, yeah. Several Misshapen and blood traitors in the ruins. It was difficult to tell what they were doing, but they seemed too busy to be a mere encampment. And there’s more…” Frowning, Aria rubbing an arm uncomfortably across the back of her neck, “There was the presence of the Others. We saw one, at least, but there may have been more.”
“I hope not,” Halevar said, rubbing at his stump. “I damn near died taking down four of them. Are the hills enough to conceal us?”
“If we ride loosely,” Matthias nodded. “Though I doubt this lot knows a thing about riding in formation.”
“Other be damned if I know a thing about riding in formation, boy,” Halevar said. “We will ride for Old Domani at dawn - I will leave a handful of men to protect the camp and serve as a rear guard. That will leave perhaps twenty of us to press into the village. We will need to use the terrain and what bows we have to our advantage. I don’t well like the idea of cutting through some old ruins street by street.”
"Along the road, my companions and I came across a mass of Misshapen. We were able to repel them, but we employed traps and caught several of them off guard. If we could find a way to draw the throng into the valley and set traps along the way, we may need not fight all of them head on."
“Were we a hundred strong with spears and shields we might be able to do that well enough along the roads,” Halevar said. “We have horses we can use to harass them, and archers to ring about the village to pick them off from afar - perhaps a handful can lure them on horseback like you said to beyond sight into ambushes we lay at the top or base of the hills.”
"Back home, a lot of our soldiers were farmers and millers and cobblers. What they lacked in experience and training they made up for in their ingenuity. If Matthias and I can offer anything, it's that… We can use rocks… logs… Anything heavy enough to drop down on them from the hills. If we flush them down, archers can pick off as many as possible, then we'll spring the traps and finish off whatever makes it through."
“It might be possible to with stones,” Matthias said. “Any logs we would have to ferry up with our horses, and we cannot spare a single one of them should things go wrong and we need to make a quick escape.”
“Here’s the plan, then,” Halevar set aside his bowl of soup and laid the map out among the three of them. “A handful of us will go mounted to draw out the halfmen from their dens. They won’t think twice about tracking down fresh prey unless one of the Others holds a tight leash on them - while they’re out chasing the horses, we can harry them from afar with arrows and draw the less impetuous of the lot out with men on foot into the traps. Halfmen die easily enough to arrows and spears alone, the blood traitors and the Others do not.”
"Leave any craftsmen with me. Anyone with strength in the arms… We won't have nearly as many logs as I'd like, but we can make palettes, like Dad used to for the wheat harvest, and drags those uphill. It'll take time. A few hours… Give me at least four, five if you can and I think we'll manage. Those of use with Volcite will do our best, then, to take care of them when they spill through." Breathing in, Aria's mind revolved back to the second letter she had left at the inn, praying it wouldn't be necessary… "Someone should ride back to the Veil, all the same and tell them to prepare for the worst."
“We can send the villagers back - they have done their part in setting up the camp, no need to trouble them further,” Halevar agreed with a nod. “Aria, you’ll lead the ones setting up the traps with Mahnem to help guide you. Matthias, you will lead the horse-bound troops, and I will go with those on foot. I’m no use in a saddle with one arm.”
"And we'll meet here, when we're finished." Aria added, with a note of optimism, however forced it felt, "May I have a moment with my brother, Halevar?"
“I’ll leave you to it.”
“What is it, Aria?” Matthias asked.
“Do you remember that spring… when the fjord overflowed, and the field flooded? It was only a few months after Cal’s letters stopped coming from the border and we knew he’d crossed over. Dad thought for sure the crops would never recover and we’d lose our harvest. Everything felt so bleak… and whatever we did, there didn’t seem to be much hope we’d make it. You were the one who found Dad in the barn, in tears, ready to give up and you talked him through it. I can still remember how grown up you sounded… How wise, and how everything, all the weight and fear and sadness seemed to lift for a little while. Harvest was weak and it was a struggle, but we survived. I don’t know if we would have, if you hadn’t done what you did.” Breathing out, Aria reached out to cup a hand over Matthias’s, “I’m not even sure what the point of bringing all this up is, but I can feel that same hopelessness building here, and I don’t know if… if it’s even worth it to try, but if we could somehow remind them that there’s something to hope for, that all of this is for some good, maybe we can make it through this, too?”
“I remember.” His fingers wrapped around Aria’s. “We will do what we did then - we will fight for this day, then the next, then the next. We keep going until the chances are spent.”
Matthias stood, fingers slipping from Aria’s.
“Get some sleep, we will both need it.”
"Aye." With a nod, Aria smiled weakly, "Good night, Matty."
The night passed in quiet, illuminated by both the full spring and annual moons, so bright as to almost leave the valley around the Wormwood in a green-tinged twilight. The villagers traded watch along with a handful of the orcs among the company whose gemstones could keep them fresh without rest. When the morning came, the camp set into motion wordlessly - all knew their tasks.
The company mounted their horses and set for the ruins of Old Domani in a loose trio of columns, spearheaded by Halevar, Aria, and Matthias. Of the three groups, Aria’s was the smallest, comprising a handful of the more crafty types among Halevar’s men. They were armed with crossbows and longbows, and each among them carried one of Dulcimer’s Volcite-tipped arrows. Mahnem rode alongside Aria, pointing out key positions among the hills as they went.
By the time the sun had risen and was drifting towards its noonward position, the three columns separated five miles from the ruins. Halevar’s group circled the same hill Aria and Matthias had the day before while Matthias ordered his band northward to loop about to the west of the village. He spared Aria a tender glance and a nod before riding away, sword drawn at the ready.
With a nod to her brother and a lingering glance that said what she could not, Aria turned back towards her team. Not a man among them stood less than a head and a half taller than Aria, yet she could feel their attentive focus and for a moment, she felt overwhelmed. Fingers curling around the hilt of her blade, she straightened to whatever height she could manage, bright gaze traveling the length of the line, "Right, then. Our men are counting on us. The Veil is counting on us. Let's get to work…"
For the next few hours, Aria and the others worked diligently along their route. Logs were cut, stones gathered and sticks whittled into spiked ends. Along the ridge, just out of sight from below, they were piled high onto triangular pallets, dragged uphill and secured into formation with ropes, ground into the dirt with sturdy stakes. When the hillside had been laid with fall traps and boulders strung with deadly barbs, the troop stood on guard. At Aria’s instruction, archers waited at the ready while those with axes and blades held their ground before the ropes, prepared to cut them at a notice.
"How's that look then, Little Lass?" Mahnem's voice carved through the weighted, pressing silence and tension, the orc coming alongside Aria with what she hoped she perceived correctly as a note of respect. Sweaty, covered in dirt and weary, she held the reconstructed Shard by her side and with fixed determination and a growing sense of pride, she looked up and down the line, “A damned sight like hope. Courage, men and be on guard! Sure as hell, we don’t have them in numbers, but by the stars, those foul things will not overpower our resolve! The minute we see the brunt of them cross the marks we’ve made, cut those ropes and archers… let them have it. Concentrate your fire on the front, and see if we can't slow those at the back with a pile up. Hold the Volcite arrows for the Others, if you can, but spare none of these abominations.”
Bringing the blade to her chest, she rapped it against her armor, voice quiet, but quaking with vigor, “Today, we stain the grounds of Old Domani with the blood of demon kind and free the Veil of their infestation! And if we fall, then we fall fighting harder than we have ever fought before, and we pave the way for our kin to send these nightmares back from where they came and bring this bounty to its end! You with me?”
“Tai’shern Sindari, tai’shern Illadria!” Called one of the men, thumping the bottom of his bow against the tamped earth.
The cry was echoed among the others gathered about Aria as she saw one of Matthias’s horsemen below raise his spear up towards the hill, a red streamer flapping in the wind. Matthias clutched a horn from his belt and sounded it, its low boom echoing through the hills as the horsemen began to gallop on towards the village below. From her vantage point they looked little larger than the tip of Mahnem’s crossbow bolt, the stomping of hooves barely audible save for the sounds she imagined.
Motion stirred in the ruins of Old Domani and hunched figures began to dart out from the stone slab, rushing towards the sounds of horn and hoof. Behind them lurked half a dozen men lashing with whips, driving the dozen or so Misshapen forward. Black slivers flew from Matthias’s gathered horsemen as they rounded the base of the hill on approach to the village, and some of the beastly attackers were driven back. A few collapsed and remained motionless while others merely staggered before launching forward, paying their wounds little heed.
Matthias’s horn sounded and the horsemen wheeled about, riding northward as the Misshapen followed behind. The horsemen vanished around the bend of another hill, and the Misshapen halted, the men behind them sounding horns of their own and lashing out with their whips. The horde of them huddled into a rough circle, the handlers driving them back towards Old Domani, three of them forming a rear guard with spears pointed out. Three limp forms rested along the path the beasts had taken, which the handlers took great care to avoid, though Aria could see even from her distance how the survivors looked hungrily at the corpses of their fallen.
“This isn’t good,” Mahnem’s eyes flared bright as he watched the procession below. “Halevar’s column will be arriving soon.”
As if on cue, the loud call of Matthias’s horn sounded again and the horses rushed from the other side of the hill they looped around, loosing arrows at the mass of Misshapen and their handlers. The shows landed short, the small black slivers dotting the flat expanse of the planes as the handlers formed a hasty wall of spears to protect the flank of the Misshapen from a charge. The last among them fetched his whip and drove the Misshapen back, keeping them behind the others but it was of little use. The beasts rushed forward, going around the handlers in the spearwall where they could, shoving them aside where they could not.
The blasts of Matthias’s horn became frantic, and the horsemen at the rear began to peel off, retreating back behind the hill. Those in the front dug in their heels, their horses rearing up as the Misshapen hit home. Steel flashed in the sunlight, and horses collapsed to the ground, their riders savaged by the rushing horde. Just as the clash came to a close, Matthias’s horsemen having fled behind the hill once more, the disordered handlers rushed out to quell the bloodlust of their charges. The Misshapen seemed content to feast on the fallen, paying the handlers or the fleeing horsemen much mind.
“Here they come,” Mahnem pointed to the road into Old Domani.
A loose formation of warriors marched up the road, clearing the side of the hill a pair of Aria’s company occupied. At their head stood Halevar, sword raised and pointed forward as if signaling a company of soldiers in rank and file, not a loose gathering of mercenaries. They marched on as the handlers and the Misshapen took notice, and Aria saw Halevar look up to her position. Though she could not make out his face, the doubt could not have been clearer had he been standing but an arm’s reach away. He thrust his sword forward and the group began to run forward, men armed with spears and long axes rushing to the front as a handful of archers retreated behind. Halevar’s men formed in a rough semi circle halfway between Aria’s hill and the ruins of the village as the Misshapen began to dart out across the field.
Arrows flew, but arranged as the men were and at their distance the shots lacked the weight and concentration to do much besides slow the oncoming rush. In the distance Matthias’s horn called out once more, and out from beyond the hill rushed Matthias alongside four other horsemen. Matthias held a long spear aloft, his fellows hefting shorter ones but no less deadly for it.
As if realizing their mistake, the handlers abandoned the Misshapen to rush head-long into Halevar’s formation, spears raised to blunt the impact. Then, in a cacophonous crash of steel Aria found difficult to follow the horsemen collided with the wall of handlers at the same time the Misshapen hit home. The shouting of men caught in a life-or-death struggle mingled with the braying of horses and faint echo of clashing steel.
Matthias’s horsemen had punched through the meager wall of half a dozen spearmen that awaited them, but a member of them lay lifeless along the field. What handlers were left had been bowled over by the impact of horse and spear or driven from the field, rushing back towards Old Domani. Meanwhile, Halevar’s men fought in a protracted melee with the Misshapen as Matthias chased the handlers back to the base of the village before turning back, driven back by arrows loosed from archers Aria could not see. The sounds of the clash began to fade and Aria looked on with horror at the carnage left in its wake.
Of the eight horsemen Matthias had mustered, five lay dead or dying on the field. Halevar’s column had fared little better - of his dozen, perhaps four were seriously injured or dead, the surviving Misshapen fleeing for the hills beyond the village. She saw Matthias approach Halevar, and the two conversed as she saw more figures spill from the village’s western-facing stairwell out to the road. No more Misshapen, these were Myrodel and the Others themselves, numbering less than ten but massed as they were it was difficult to tell.
“Get those Volcite arrows ready.” Aria’s voice rose with a slight quake, as she looked down to see the figures emerging from the ruins. The traps would do little to the Others, but it was less a matter of ambush now, as it was slowing the beasts.
Marching to the further edge, where their mounts had been tethered, Aria unhitched her horse and foot in the stirrup, swung on the saddle. Turning swiftly, she looked to Mahnem with a firm expression, “The plan hasn’t changed. Be prepared to spring the traps, as soon as they’re past the mark. If any of them make it through, I’ll be waiting. I hope we meet on the other end of this.”
Shard in hand, she gave a yank and turned the horse to follow the path down the mountain, circling swiftly around to the where the gauntlet of traps would come to its end. On the road up ahead she saw the mass of the surviving men of the Veil retreat towards her, Matthias at their rear along his horsemen to cover the withdraw. When they came within hailing distance, Halevar waved his good arm, gesturing with his stump to the village behind.
“More of them are coming, tell us where we need to stand to avoid being crushed.”
The survivors took up positions alongside Aria’s men atop the hill, forming a loose circle of spearmen with the archers concentrated at its top. Matthias and his horsemen formed a wedge alongside Aria, the two siblings at its head.
“Just like the stories,” Matthias said as he instructed Aria on where to position her horse. “Puts weight to the charge.”
“So much for not playing heroes…” Aria quipped, looking at her brother with a small, nervous smile, “Ready?”
Matthias nodded. Ahead, the cluster of the Myrodel and the Others became clear. The mortals in front looked gaunt, their features stretched into a facsimile of the taller monsters behind them. Their eyes shone red, but did not crackle with the same power as did the Others. Their weapons and armor were still of steel and leather, but they moved with the assuredness and grace of trained warriors.
The Others were larger than the ones Aria had encountered in the Hollows, and whereas those had carried red-tipped spears these carried slender swords that looked as though they might hack apart steel just as easily as they could slip between a pair of ribs. Their comparatively small, skull-like heads gazed down at the survivors, eyes almost level with Aria on horseback. The scent of sulphur hung heavy in the air, sending their horses into frantic whines and uneasy shifts along their hooves.
Just beyond the base of the first hill the procession halted in eerie unison, the Myrodel hunching down and parting as one of the Others strode forward, considering the gathering of mounted humans before it. Its body remained still as stone, eyes flickering back and forth before coming to rest on Aria. Those burning orbs seared her, and suddenly Aria’s vision flickered red at its edges before fading into blackness.
When it returned she stood alone in a small room. As she attempted to examine it, she found that the harder she focused on any one object the blurrier it became. She supposed it was a tavern common room, or perhaps a bedchamber, though there was neither scent nor sound to help clarify which it was.
She wasn’t alone.
Across from her stood, or maybe sat, a tall man dressed in rich purple robes. The cuffs of his sleeves were fringed in gold, and the deep neckline of the robes were likewise richly decorated in a swirling golden pattern that resembled a pair of intertwined snakes. Each finger bore a ring that thrummed with light and ranged in color from red to green to blue to golden to white. A mane of grey-blonde hair gave him the appearance of a king and reminded Aria faintly of the noblemen that had visited Korin making the rounds to appear invested in their vassals, though none of them had looked half as fair. The wrinkles and creases at the corners of his jaw and forehead were marks of wisdom earned, not of what age had robbed him. About his neck he wore a necklace of gold and silver, a single round gemstone embedded in its center black as midnight but with a depth that seemed to absorb Aria’s attention.
“So this is the one who would raise arms against me,” he sneered, droplets of flame flicking from his mouth as he spoke. “I expected more. Why, it took all of the Nine Kings to do little more than scratch my armor. I do not expect a peasant girl to do any better than they did.”
Fear drove like a spike through Aria, nearly physically painful, even as rational thought told her this couldn’t be real. She was on horseback alongside her brother… they were in Old Domani…
But rationality rarely met with magic and this… this was the Spellweaver, himself.
It occurred to her that his words had meaning, and perhaps a better man… or lesser, might have, in that moment, tried to prove the worth he was so coarsely denying her, but Aria had, for her credit, always been simple. And fear was, as she had found countless other times, clarifying.
“You’re afraid…” She answered, surprised that the words lacked the quiver she’d expected, “You must be. Or this would not be happening…”
“You mistake fear for curiosity,” he said. “You do not frighten me. You intrigue me. I feel it in your presence, and yet you do not hold it.”
Suddenly Shard was in her hand and the Spellweaver tutted disapprovingly.
“A pretty thing, but that is no better suited to harm me than a butter knife.”
He snapped his fingers and Shard vanished into a shower of sparks. Suddenly the room darkened until the only light seemed to shine directly upon his face. Small fires burned behind his eyes, and seemed to leak from his mouth as he spoke.
“But of course you would not have it yet. I still sense the other, too, and there must only be one. That there are two of you is… an anomaly. No matter. I will simply have to kill you both.”
“You can certainly try… Others have. But I don’t think you will. All things have an end… and you will meet yours.”
“My end is woven into the fabric of this world’s,” the Spellweaver stood. “When the mountains have worn to dust and the seas dried to cracked basins, when the last gasp of breath slips past the lips of the last living being and the very sun shrivels into naught but a faint trace of light then, and only then, shall I perish, girl.”
He raised a hand and claw-like fingers that ended in blackened skin and ivory talons beckoned. Aria stiffened, muscles wailing in agony as she was wrenched towards the Spellweaver. When she came within arm’s reach, he pressed a thumb into the skin of her forearm and a searing, burning pain flooded her senses. The scent of burning flesh filled the void, and when he withdrew his hand a patch of burned flesh in the shape of a single eye weeping a tear from its center rested where he had touched.
“I claim you, girl. You will carry my mark in this world, and the one you call home. So long as you both live, you pose no threat to me.”
She was back atop her horse. Matthias was shaking her arm. The Others ahead on the trail still stood watching the gathered horsemen silently, weapons held in a ready grip, mirrored by their mortal retinue.
Panic seized her the moment the vision faded, Matthias’s voice cutting through with an eerie disjointed sort of rhythm. Pain flooded, where that mark had rested, but she dare not look and as her eyes readjusted, her mind returning to the present, her grip tensed around Shard as she stared down the throng before her, “Well?! Come on then! What are you waiting for, you coward! Come and fight!”
The Myrodel lurched forward, clutching their weapons in a ready position. Ten paces. Then eight. Five. Three. One. The sounds of tumbling stones echoed through the gap between the hill and the road and the Myrodel turned just as the trap Aria and her companions had laid rolled over them. Half of them lay crushed or pushed back from the sudden impact, and then the sound of bowstrings thrumming followed. Arrows clattered against the earth, driving the Myrodel back as some of the shafts found their targets.
With the clattering and screeching, her horse bucked wildly, but Aria held tight to the reins, and Shard was raised above her head, as with a cry, she propelled forward, hooves hitting the dirt, racing towards the closest of the Others. Shard swept down in an arc, tight and rigid, carving a diagonal slash through the horror. The creature seemed to howl in pain as Shard seemed to ripple through its body rather than slash through it like she might have expected from her old blade. For a moment the demon stood before flickering and disappearing into a pile of ash.
Aria was carried forward by the momentum of her charge as the remaining Others were set upon by Matthias and his surviving cavalry. She heard the death cry of one of the horses, but the momentary panic that flared in her heart was still as Matthias outpaced her steed, wheeling about, bloody sword flashing back into a ready position. The charge had scattered the Myrodel and staggered the Others, slaying half of them. Arrows continued to fly from on-high, driving the Myrodel further and further away from their otherworldly masters.
The remaining cavalry formed up with Aria and Matthias, standing ten paces from the surviving monsters. They stood over two slain horsemen back to back, seemingly unperturbed by the arrows that sank into the ground about them. The Spellweaver’s fiery voice filled Aria’s head as one of the Others looked upon her.
“Keep that butter knife of yours for now, girl.”
The Myrodel howled suddenly, and the Others of their own accord collapsed into ash. The mortals around them fell to the ground, still, their weapons clattering to the ground. An eerie silence filled the road as the battered warriors of the Veil stood frozen, speaking hushed whispers.
Breath held for a moment, Aria stared as the ash scattered into the air, the echo of the voice in her mind rippling in her with a shiver as the color was leached from her skin by the lingering sense of dread. Shard rested by her side, almost absently, her free hand wrapped so tightly around the reins, the leather bit into her skin. As the breath was released, all at once, she slid free of the saddle and sheathing Shard, she pried at the clasps of her gauntlet with an almost frantic urgency. Yanking it off, it clattered to the ground and heaving in another deep breath, she pulled up her sleeve, looking down at her forearm.
Where the Spellweaver had touched her was burned and blistered, the skin weeping moisture and screaming its protests to touching the air beyond her gauntlet, but no trace of the mark remained.
The sob of relief came without warning and her knees buckled as she clasped the burn with her free hand, pulling both her arms to her forehead to hide the momentary rush of emotions. Matthias’s hand clasped her shoulder, gently pulling Aria into a momentary embrace. It felt as though it lasted ages, but it was no more than perhaps a second before he was back examining the dead and conversing with Halevar. The loud sounds of violence and bloodshed still dinned in Aria’s mind even as the surviving warriors came down from the hill.
“Tai’shern, Illadria,” Laurina said to her with a bow of her head.
Looking up, eyes red but dry, Aria looked to the woman with a shake of her own head and a small, wry laugh, “I don’t know what that means…”
“Blood of Illadria,” she said. “You and your brother, you come from Illadria, do you not? South, across the wall?”
Pushing herself upright and dusting herself off, Aria gave a nod, “We do, yes.”
“It is a war cry and call of respect in the old tongue. At least, that is how we use it now. How the elves intended it does not really matter anymore, does it?”
Laurina gave a shaky laugh, the kind Aria had seen in the Hollows from survivors trying to brush past the trauma of the battle.
“No, it does not. Thank you, Laurina. We have no war cry back home, but for what it’s worth, you’ve my respect, as well. Excuse me, a moment.” Giving the woman a pat on the arm, Aria moved past her to where Matthias had gone and as she approached her brother and the one armed Quester, she paused, apprehensively.
“...We need to talk.”
“No rest for the weary, is there?” Halevar said, nodding over his shoulder. “This way. Come.”
Following, Aria’s fingers traced absently at the mark on her arm, and only when they paused did her worrisome fiddling cease as she gave both men a pointed look, “I saw him.”
“Seen who, girl?” Halevar said right at the same time Matthias spoke.
“You’ve seen him too?”
Paling slightly, Aria stared in silence for a moment at her brother, slowly shaking her head at his words, before the movement turned into something of a nod of acknowledgement, “...Just now. Before the clash.”
Pulling up her sleeve again, she held out her forearm, “I don’t know what it means… I don’t… I don’t understand what any of it means, Matty.”
“You ought to be careful showing that around, girl,” Halevar said. “Last thing you want is anyone thinking you to be a friend of the dark.”
“We are one of the same, then,” Matthias rolled up his own sleeve. “A friend in the Shroud told me this means friends of the dark and dark fiends may see us wherever we go, like a lantern shining in the night.”
“It’s you he was talking about…” The words were almost a whisper, as her eyes stared at the identical mark on his arm, tears filling them again, unbidden, “The anomaly.”
Meeting Matthias’s gaze, she pulled down her sleeve once more, “Hell of a thing for two farm kids…”
Matthias’s face grew dark and he nodded slowly.
“It is,” he said curtly. “I must tend to the survivors and gather what I can from the village. Halevar, send a runner to the Veil - we will need help seeing to the dead.”
“Matthias.” The single word was a command, and stepping forward, Aria caught her brother’s arm, her gaze searching his face with increasing concern, “... You think I can’t tell when you’re trying to run from a conversation you don’t want to have? What is it?”
“He told me I was the one,” he said. “But lately, ever since you arrived in the Shroud, it’s as if he is taunting me. There will still only be one, and so long as there are two he shall remain.”
Hand sliding from his arm, Aria clasped Matthias’s hand, firmly, shaking her head, “Stop. He’s wrong, Matty. He’s a scared old man, on the verge of ruin, and he will do anything to save himself. Whatever he says, you cannot believe it. I did not leave home and cross into hell itself to find you, just to lose you to some stupid prophecy spoken by that monster. Do you hear me? I know you, and I know the way your mind will work this through… Stop. Alright?”
“Old man?” Matthias laughed. “Whatever it is, it is not a man. I’ve seen things, things long past and yet to come - it may just be smoke in the air, but you would do well to avoid underestimating the foe, Aria. The dark is gathering, and if this is not proof enough that we need be on guard, I do not know what is.”
“You misunderstand. He scares me… To my core, he scares me, Matthias. But nowhere near the thought of losing you. I don’t know what this means… this mess about only one and two and anomalies and all that. I can guess at it, but I don’t want to. And more than that, I don’t want you to. Whatever it means, whatever is coming, we will face it together. Promise me… together.”
“Together,” Matthias said, and then turned to see to the dead or dying.
TLDR || Matthias and Aria are called upon by the Old Lion to investigate claims of the Others', present outside the Veil. After journeying from the Shroud they encounter Halevar, a former disgruntled Raven's Knight, and friend of Matthias.
Discussing a plan, the venture towards Old Domani, a ruin outside the Veil, where they discover the presence of Myrodel, blood traitors and the Others, themselves.
A plan is hatched to clear the infestation and the following day this plan is set into motion. Things devolve, but a trap set by Aria and her team of mercenaries manages to slow the fiends, but during the ensuing faceoff, Aria finds herself caught in a bewitching moment and seemingly blacks out.
When she comes to a moment later, she is no longer on the battlefield, but in a dark chamber, where she comes face to face with the Spellweaver Piersym, in the flesh. Mocking her, Piersym reveals that Aria is destined for something to do with his destruction… but that she is not alone in this destiny and while both she and this other exist together, Piersym cannot fall.
He marks Aria, claiming her, before returning her to the battle. The Others and Myrodel are fought off, but before victory can be fully claimed, Aria hears Piersym's voice, mocking her once more and the creatures fall dead on their own.
With no other choice, Aria reveals to her brother the mark and what she saw and discovers her brother has been identically marked. The pair realize the anomaly Piersym spoke of was reference to each other and Matthias grows despondent at the idea, but Aria is ever determined to prove the theory wrong and asks Matthias to promise that they will face this together.
Arianell Oresh MASSIVE COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | Peeps
The Shroud & The Veil
Aria's heart hung heavy in her chest as she and Matthias rode away from the Veil. Their mission had, by and large, been more success than failure, with the hoard of Others and their minions either destroyed or scattered. Despite the good they had done, she could not help but find herself possessed by the lingering dread of what she had seen and endured on the battlefield. The weather had warmed, but angry clouds hovered overhead, thick and grey, threatening rain by the late afternoon.
By the time the tinny rhythm of droplets began to mingle with the hoof clap from their mounts, the pair had said little more than a few words aloud. In her mind, however, the voice of Piersym repeated hateful, mocking words with such clarity, she almost worried it was more than her imagination at play.
When they stopped to rest for lunch beneath the tattered straw roof of a small hoveled out farm building, long past use, Aria found herself once more rolling up her sleeve to stare at the mark on her forearm.
“It will heal with time.”
Aria swung her head up to see Matthias sitting opposite her atop a clump of damp straw.
“Once it does, it will look like it did in your dream - and you’ll want to keep that from everyone you can, Arcanists most of all.”
"What?" Frowning softly, Aria straightened, and for a moment there was almost a defensive nature to her posture, albeit unintentional, "Matty… one of my best friends is training to be an arcanist. And we've always been open with each other… Orym and Nathyen, too. How am I going to keep this secret from them??"
“The mark is misunderstood - it is not a sign of support of the Spellweaver, but of his attention and intent for violence upon you. The commonfolk will distrust you, the Arcanists will see you burned for it.”
"Burned… For something we have no control over? That's barbaric. And Nio would never do that." Looking at him pointedly, Aria shook her head, "You've told no one what happened? What you saw?"
“Perhaps half a year past while residing in New Maidenholm to wait out the winter, I met a woman - an Arcanist, to be exact,” Matthias said. “She told me things about my own mark and showed me hers, only it was on her shoulder. Said she had to hide it, and left the Shroud for fear of reprisal for it. But beyond her, no, not a soul, save now you and Halevar.”
"I can't promise I won't say anything to them… but if the Shroud is really that dangerous for… for us, then I'll keep it secret until after we leave. I don't suppose you've tried healing it? Or… or getting rid of it?"
“As far as I know, the mark is permanent.”
Glancing down at it, Aria's frown deepened, "Of course it is. That monster would see to it." Pulling down her sleeve, her eyes found Matthias again, "Maybe your Arcanist friend's had better luck. Any idea where she went?"
“West,” Matthias said. “That’s all I know - said she’d have business in Molestown come springtime. Whatever business there is in that pathetic tradestown for an Arcanist is beyond me, but she left as soon as the snows stopped and the wind still rang chill.”
A brow raised, Aria straightened slightly, "Molestown? Was she traveling alone?"
“When’ve you ever seen an Arcanist traveling alone?” Matthias asked, shaking his head. “Right. You’ve been here maybe a year. She was traveling with her Shielder, a dour man but good at fighting. I learned quite a bit from him that winter.”
"...Built like a bear, but scarier?"
“You’re giving me the impression that you have met this woman,” Matthias said. “Blonde hair, a burn across her face?”
"Celothel?" With a dry chuckle, Aria shook her head, "Either someone's been very cleverly determining our steps… to ensure a very small world, or fate has a sense of humor. We ran into her and her Shielder in Molestown. They journeyed with us for a time. Deormund saved my life, when we were set upon by Misshapen."
“As far as I know, should you meet an Arcanist beyond the Shroud you have good odds she will be the one you meet. She might be one of perhaps four who regularly leave the city,” Matthias said. “There are not many raised to that rank, and those who are tend to view themselves too highly to leave. The distinctive features help.”
He crossed his arms, considering Aria for a moment.
“She was not very forthcoming in much of anything beyond the mark. When I asked her how she got her own, she would not say a thing.”
"But it's rather safe to assume if she's been marked, it's for the same reason you and I were. Or at least similar. Which leaves me to question how many other innocent people did the Shroud kill for him, because of his mark?"
“It is not so common as you might think,” Matthias said. “If the legends are true, we are the first to be marked in decades.”
"What a wonderful honor…" She remarked dryly, shaking her head, before looking up at him, "I'm sorry, Matty. I'm being selfish. You're dealing with this, too… and longer than I've been. Are you alright?"
“As far as I am concerned this changes nothing - if he wants to see my life and send his legions after me, I will meet him with steel in hand.”
"But that's what has me worried. What if he is watching? What can he see? Overhear? And if we're nothing but beacons for his minions, then we are liabilities. Are we a danger to the Shroud? To the people we love?"
“I do not begin to understand it fully,” Matthias said. “Any darkfiend close enough will see you bright like a torch, and feel compelled to attack you or turn you into one of the blood traitors. They’d prefer it that way, I think.”
"Then there's not much else we can do…" With a shrug, Aria reached out to clasp his arm, briefly, "It's as you said… we meet him and we end him."
“Aye, it is not comforting, but then nothing north of the pass is, is it?”
"Not much, anyway." Sitting back, Aria forced a small, weary smile, "You never did tell me who it was you'd say goodbye to, back before we left."
“Oh little sister,” Matthias said, voice rising into a sarcastic pitch. “Would I tell you, it may be a scandal in the making.”
Laughing, she shook her head, "That's hardly fair. I told you about Nathyen… And he's not exactly considered an upstanding citizen."
“Oh, but then that’d be two commoners,” he said with a wry grin, and his cheeks flushed the way they always did when he spoke of women.
"A commoner? Well… That is scandalous." With a chuckle, Aria leaned forward, chin in her hands, "But I know your secret, Farmboy. We're as common as they come. Who is she?"
“Lady Natacha Bettencout,” he said after a pause. “It won’t amount to anything, I’m afraid - she is a firstborn daughter, and for some reason that matters in the Shroud among the nobility. I am a Knight of the Raven, but that carries no weight of blood like knighthood back home might.”
"You don't know that for certain. We heard stories back home… Noble ladies, running off with squires and kitchen boys. Forsaking their name for the love of a common man." With a softer smile, she shrugged, "If she's any sense at all, she'd do the same, and if not, well… You deserve a girl with sense."
“Ah, well, we’ll see, I suppose,” he said with a shrug. “To my understanding, her father is not in a rush to marry her off, so perhaps it may end favorably for me.”
"Does she know?" There was a light note of teasing behind the curiosity, the warmth returned fully to her tone, "And how does she feel?"
“Of course, we have been courting in secret, you see,” he said with a shy smile. “But, it matters not if she is due a noble husband, or indeed if all this ends in fiery damnation.”
The lightness of his tone did little to soften the comment, and he looked downward.
“Sorry, it is hard to look past that more often than not.”
"Does seem to come up more in my own mind than I'd like." She muttered with a nod, "But that's why we need to seize every chance we have in the light. And who knows? Maybe we'll win. But that aside, if she loves you, Matty… no noble husband will entice her away. And if she does stray, well… I've a Locksmith I know quite well. We can break in and put worms in their marriage bed or something."
“Ah, do you really take me for the same farm boy I used to be? I’m hurt, Aria,” Mathias held a hand to his collarbone in mock dramatism, chuckling as he did.
Grinning, Aria shrugged, "Same to me, at least." With a teasing elbow to his rib, she straightened and pushed up to her feet, "We should get going. Anxious to get you back to your girl…"…”
“We have a deal, then - you introduce me to this Locksmith of yours, might be I’ll find a way to make an introduction with my lady.”
"Only if you promise your best behavior…" Wagging a finger at her brother, Aria shouldered her bag and started out from under the shelter roof, back onto the road. [/size]
It was not the first time this week he had feared what dreams might await him beyond the reach of consciousness, nor did he suspect it would be the last. Not that his waking hours were much better these days. His thoughts were beginning to be crushed by the impending weight of a thousand voices that were not his own. Mostly they were little more than meaningless noise that did no more than distract him. At times, particularly when he was left alone, he could make out fragments of sentences though they were often as bereft of meaning as the cacophony of their fellows.
After a fashion, Hamath supposed he preferred the dreams with Piersym more than the never-ending din of the voices. At least in that twilight realm between the conscious and the unconscious, his mind was clear. Piersym’s own coherency had changed from that first fateful night, and he had regressed to his random torments and rants.
At least I might put a name to that fear, Hamath thought, dipping his quill in the inkwell on his desk.
A mess of scrolls and books littered the surface of the desk, ranging such topics as the study of creatures from the Other to what little knowledge about Seals had been collected. Beside the deluge of texts sat a pile of Hamath’s own notes, scrawled in at times illegible script and dotted with patches of spilled ink besides. Not a single bit of it told him much of anything he did not already know. There were no secrets to be uncovered, no revelation to be found comparing texts from different eras. Nothing.
The Seal around Hamath’s neck burned again, and he clutched the edge of his desk and waited for the pain to subside. The marks it left were not burns, but rather a blossoming patch of inky blackness that centered about the Seal and spread outward in tendrils across his flesh. The Seal would not part with his skin now, and it seemed to have fused with the flesh around it, metal and crystal indistinguishable from the living tissue.
Why after hundreds of years of keeping Seals around, which he knew contained a fragment of the Other, were they suddenly so dangerous? He laughed to himself and set the quill aside. It was a question without an answer in the past, he supposed. And besides, judging by the angle of the moons from out his study window it was perhaps two or three hours before dawn. That was enough for the day.
Hamath stood, wincing as stiff joints and muscles popped and tugged uncomfortably in protest at the motion. He extinguished the candles about the study as he walked with a flick of his fingers and donned an overcoat to cover the purple robes of his order at the door.
Outside the House of the Magi the streets of the Shroud were empty and silent. A chill hung in the night air, and Hamath pulled on the heat of the lamps to keep the air about him comfortable as he walked. He walked without much direction, thankful that the din of voices seemed to be still this night. From the Street of Stags he went east and up towards the Aether District, keeping a loose pull on the Essence to warn him of potential threats in the night.
At the gates he was met by a pair of young initiates of the Knights of the Raven. He produced a writ of passage from his cloak and handed it to the two. The lead among them, a young orc no older than eighteen years, looked it over and handed it back to Hamath with a nod.
“Late night, Lord?”
“You could say so,” Hamath said with a weary smile, fetching the writ.
Hamath walked through the gate and towards the training grounds just west of the Aetherkeep. Though the torches and lamps here were few and far between, he would have remembered the way just as well blind-folded and bound. The soft crunch of gravel and hard-packed earth told him he had made it his destination even as his eyes remained fixated on the Aetherkeep. Without skipping a beat, Hamath turned north and crossed the training grounds, pressing on into the small patch of woods on its opposite edge.
The woods had been there as long as Hamath could remember, all gnarled oak threaded with a dense underbrush. They towered high into the sky and rivaled the Aetherkeep, their branches spreading like dark limbs in the dim glow of the moonlight. From the training grounds, Hamath followed a narrow path trod by thousands of boots over hundreds if not thousands of years into the woods. The stillness of the Shroud was replaced with the low hum of bugs and the hoot of an owl, and Hamath took in a deep breath of the fresh green air.
He could still recall the first time he and Illiana had taken this path together, and the memory brought a smile to his face as he seated himself on a rock near the path. When he had been a younger man, they had sparred together and taken to the woods to meditate on their bond. How strange that he still felt her presence here, even nearly a decade later. As if her ghost still lingered where she had been observed the most. It was a fanciful thought, Hamath supposed. After all, would it not be an easier explanation that this was simply the place he most associated with her, and so would naturally be inclined to flights of fancy here?
Still, the thought comforted him. Hamath closed his eyes and anchored himself in the moment. He was dimly aware of the voices lingering just beyond his frame of consciousness, but for now the sounds of the woods drowned them out. It was peaceful, or as peaceful as Hamath supposed his life would be, for what little of it he had left in him. The Seal would kill him, that much Piersym had made clear. Or, at least it would kill the part of him that was recognizably human.
Then it becomes a question of the time I have left, he thought, berating himself for not bringing a quill and paper.
There were many loose ends in need of tightening, ones long hours spent squirreled away in his study would not aid in resolving. There were scrolls to finish editing, books to categorize, tutorships to pass on. But none of those felt so pressing as to what to do with Niowyn. She was still a novice, hardly a member of the Order proper, and there were still many things for her to learn.
That he would not be able to teach her them would have been tragic, as much as it would be for any of his other students, but then none of them were entwined in some plot with the incarnation of darkness and death either. Though it violated tradition, he would need to teach her as much as he could in as little time as he could manage. Important texts would need to be temporarily misplaced out of the library, lessons in ethics and philosophy put aside. A plan was beginning to form, and as Hamath stood he felt a gust of wind lift his overcoat and sent its tails fluttering in the breeze.
As Aria waited outside the door to Niowyn's room, Matthias's warning replayed in her brain like an Oracle's omen. The burn was healing as well as a burn might, but whether it was in her mind or not, she was sure she could see the mark forming.
Matthias told her to tell no one, and thus far her return had been busy enough with debriefings and training that she hadn't needed to worry about weighing the risk. But that evening she had seen Nio returning and the nagging concern that entered her mind was far too aggressive and lingering to ignore. These were her friends… her family… And her most trusted allies. But more than that, Nio was the greatest mage Aria had ever encountered. It seemed almost more foolish, then, to ignore the woman's qualifications in fear of ramifications…
If she couldn't trust the people most close to her, who could she trust?
Pushing Matty's words to the back of her mind and taking in a breath coupled with anxiety, Aria rapped her knuckles against the woman's door.
The sound of knocking at her door came as a surprise to Niowyn. It was late, her lessons at the Arcanist’s Order had her studying well past when the sun had set and the shroud of night painted the skies. Who could be knocking at such an hour?
Niowyn approached the door. Her hand loosely coiled itself around the doorknob as she gently pulled the door a fraction to reveal the petit soldier standing in its wake. “Aria…” her name fell from her lips instinctually as she pulled the door open even greater. The look on the young woman’s face was all that Niowyn needed to know that something was wrong. “Come in.”
The tribeswoman stepped out of the way to invite Aria in. Her room was tidy, though scattered with books, parchments, and papers upon the desk against the wall. Niowyn’s signature blue robes were folded over the chair at the desk and all she donned were the rather plain black fitted pieces she wore underneath. Her otherwise long hair was pulled back into a rushed bun and in that moment, she didn't look as unusual as she normally did.
“What’s the matter?” Niowyn asked, knowing there were few reasons people came knocking so late in the night. “I imagine you’re not here to profess your love, so what is it that’s troubling you?”
Following Nio inside and ensuring the door was shut behind her, Aria turned to the woman with a grim shake of her head, "Before I tell you… I need you to understand that knowing puts you at risk. I trust you, and it's why I'm here, but I would never endanger you, Nio. If you don't want to be involved, tell me now, before I say anything and I'll go."
Niowyn cocked her head at what Aria was saying. She was traditionally one of the more serious ones in their lot, but whatever it was that she wanted to tell Niowyn now had the young woman on an edge Niowyn had not seen from her. “Usually knowing more always puts you at greater danger. I trust you to know that you have only come here, with whatever it might be, because you need me and because you are afraid. Whatever this might be, I will not let you shoulder it alone.”
Nodding slowly, Aria stepped forward and pulled her sleeve up, turning her arm over so her wrist was upright. A little ways above it, on her forearm was what appeared to be an oddly shaped burn mark, red and raw, faintly reminiscent of an eye, "While I was away with my brother something happened to me. During the battle in Old Domani, I… I had a vision. Or at least it seemed like a vision. I saw the Spellweaver. He spoke to me. Made mention of what sounded like a prophecy of some nature. He claimed that there was some anomaly in this prophecy. That there were two of us woven around the same destiny. And so long as both lived, no harm could come to him. Then… before he released me, he marked me. Here…" She gestured to the burn with a heavy frown, "I've been made all too aware of what this mark means and the extreme danger in showing it… particularly here. But Nio, I'm scared. This works as some sort of beacon for the Others. And I'm scared of putting all of you… and the Shroud at risk. It's a long shot, but you are the greatest healer I know. Maybe… maybe you could try…?"
Delicate hands came around Aria’s arm and gingerly brushed her pale skin around the burn mark that had formed. Niowyn’s brow turned inward in a serious and stern expression as she examined Aria’s arm. “...the mark of Piersym…” her voice trailed off into the stillness of the room. Niowyn thought back to the readings she had done on the Spellweaver and to the lessons Hamath had given her about the Dark Lord.
“I know what this is, Aria.” Niowyn released Aria’s arm and sat down on the bed behind her with an exasperated sigh. “But I can’t heal the Mark of Piersym. I might be able to heal the burn… but the mark will still be there.”
"Damn…" Her eyes unmoving from the mark, Aria's expression darkened slightly, "I sort of figured as much, but it was worth a hope."
Rubbing her brow, she took in a steadying breath and her gaze turned to Niowyn, slightly misty, "He'll find a way to make it count… this mark. I don't doubt it. Wouldn't have put it there if there wasn't good cause on his part. Probably means to kill me off, what with someone spotting it. Make it worth his time."
A somber expression came over the tribeswoman as she listened to the young soldier’s realization of what the mark upon her arm meant. Aria was a sensitive soul, Niowyn knew that, but this was the first time she had seen her friend look as in despair as she did right now. Shuffling to the edge of the bed, Niowyn reached her hand out toward Aria and with a gentle smile, invited her to step closer.
“Lets take care of the burn… and who knows, maybe we are both wrong and something surprising happens.”
Sniffing sharply, Aria nodded, her posture stiff and controlled, "Thank you, Nio…"
Approaching the bed, she sank down on the edge of it, "People think… they think it means I'm on his side. That's why Matty said to keep it hidden. It's awful… knowing at any moment, someone could see it and accuse me of… of working for that monster."
Niowyn forced a small smile for the young soldier, “your brother is probably right to keep such a mark hidden. The Spellweaver… is a darkness that swallowed this world and scarred all that live here. I know you realize just how awful Piersym is, but for someone that did not live through the ripples of his destruction…” there was pain in her glossy eyes as she thought back to the loss of her people. “Just… be careful, OK?”
“Now, let's see what we can do here.” Niowyn’s hand came around Aria’s arm and covered the mark. Her blue eyes fluttered close to focus and she exhaled gently. A golden light appeared below Niowyn’s hand. It was weak and not at all as bright as when she had healed others before. Her brow strained and her breathing became laboured as the light brightened. Something was being pulled out of her and leaving behind a feeling of emptiness. And then darkness and chaos snapped at the mage.
Niowyn’s eyes shot open and her hand recoiled away from Aria’s arm. The burn had melted away, leaving behind some minor scarring. Niowyn massaged the inside of her palm as though it was in pain, even though it wasn’t. The swelling of emptiness lingered in her gut like a hole of blackness. It was the same feeling she felt on the Dead Sea. The Other? Niowyn looked back at Aria, confusion resting on her face. The tribeswoman shook it off and sighed heavily. “...it shouldn’t have been that difficult.”
"Shouldn't it, though? Why would he ever make it easy?" Frowning, Aria rubbed the mark with a deep, lingering disdain, "Are you alright? That looked… different than it usually does?"
“I.. think I’m OK. I just feel… odd.” Niowyn looked down at her hand. Why did she feel the same as she did on the Dead Sea? What was behind that feeling and why did she feel empty now? “..you’re right to think it was different. It was. Healing is never like that. Not for a burn of that size, anyway.”
Reaching out, Aria cupped Nio's hands, her expression shifting to concern, "Like what? What happened?"
“Well… normally an injury of that size should be easy to heal. This wasn’t…” Niowyn didn’t want to tell her about the emptiness and the feeling of something being taken from her. Knowing that Aria already had such a heavy burden on her shoulders, she didn’t want to worry her friend further. Niowyn smiled softly and squeezed Aria’s hand gently. “Piersym works in mysterious ways. I’m sure this is all that was.”
"...I shouldn't have had you do this. Nio, if I've put you at risk…" Rubbing her brow, Aria stood up, "You're alright? Truly?"
“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t want to, stop worrying.” Niowyn stood with Aria and smiled again. “I’m alright, truly.”
With a nod, Aria hesitated for a moment, before giving Nio a brief hug about the shoulders, "Thank you. Just be careful, Nio. Moves like this… knowing he's reaching out.. Someone like you, with your gifts, would be a prime target for him."
“I’m not the one with the mark… between us, you need to be careful.” Niowyn returned the hug. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do more.”
"Seems I'm destined for dramatics. At least life will always be interesting." With a gentle, humorless chuckle, Aria nodded, "I'll let you get back to… whatever studying has trapped you up her tonight. Thanks again, Nio."
“You’re welcome. Have a good night, Aria.” Niowyn walked her to the door. “Stay safe.”
Unwinding the scarf from her humidity frazzled hair, Aoife dropped the stained fabric to the floor before crashing onto her bed like a sack of rocks. From the crown of her head to the tips of her toes, muscles fired off howls of complaint. There was nothing more in the world that the red-head wanted than a strong drink. It would be the work of a few moments to slither down the stairs to the tavern and secure herself a bottle of wine or mug of ale. But Aoife knew the energy to do so was beyond her. If the last few weeks were anything to go by, the sun would be long set before she found strength enough again to move from her bed.
The plan she had come up with in those days after her rat-like patron was not the easiest. Climbing a wall, unfastening a window and stealing into the house in the dead of night would have been easier. Perhaps less back breaking anyway. The problem was that the letter she had to deliver just falling into its target's hands would all be too convenient. They might suspect it was a scheme of a rival family. Aoife didn’t credit the upper echelons of the shroud with much intelligence, but they did have a certain cunning. They could sniff out plots like starved hounds hunting a fox. It seemed best to build things to a point slowly. It had taken her a day or two to come up with a plan but come up with one she had.
Slumping down on her bed, the red-head stretched to try and work out the kinks from her muscles, Aoife let her mind drift over the course of action she had been following for what felt like an eternity.
Walking towards the looming bulk of the center of The Shroud, Aoife tugged at her clothes. The cheap fabric of her clothes pricked her skin. It rankled the red-head how much she had paid for these rags, but the truth was she needed them. People who entered into the service of the rich didn’t wear the sorts of clothes that she preferred. Gone were the heavy jacket and sturdy boots that Aoife preferred. Instead, as she joined the stream of mostly women walking up the hill, the former guards woman wore a long, almost tattered dress, an irreparably stained apron and a dark head scarf bound tight around her auburn locks. The clothes of a washer woman.
The street was filled with women dressed just like Aoife. A life of service was one of the only careers open to nearly every woman in the Shroud, especially if you had an aversion to lying on cheap beds. Washer women were at the bottom of the hierarchy. They barely even made it into the compounds of the families they worked for. Both the families these women worked for and even other servants treated them with casual disregard and that was what Aoife planned to take advantage of now. In years gone by she had been on good terms with a good number of the city's women of ill repute, they’d always joked that the difference between them and laundry maids was that whores at least had to be pretty.
The crowd of women Aoife was now part of, began to stream through a wide open doorway, into a dark tunnel. Following the crowd eventually bore the red-head into a room whose air was so hot and heavy with moisture that she was almost dripping sweat after just a few steps. Now the crowd split. Most women followed the line to the right past two guards who were wearing far more armor than any sane person would want to wear in such a place. Aoife however shuffled to the left towards a battered looking table occupied by a man who judging by his gut, rarely left the comfort of his seat.
“I was told this was the place to come if I needed work.”
“Aye that’d be the case,” the fat man said, spittle forming about lips that seemed incapable of unpuckering.
He wiped his lips with the cuff of one sleeve, one hand coming to rest passively atop his belly.
“What’s it you’re wanting to do? Can’t see why you’re looking to do menial work, must be men lining the street where you walk hoping you’d be off to a brothel.”
The shudder that traveled the length of Aoife’s body had nothing to do with her plan. The way the Overseer’s eyes were looking at her made bile rise in the back of her throat. On another day the man might have quickly come to regret those words, but today, necessity was his protector and all he received was a weak smile.
“Errrmm… laundry work or cleaning. Anything really.”
Leaning forwards, Aoife did her best to meet the man’s gaze and then quickly look down to the floor.
“Please, I don’t want to… I’ll do any honest job you can give me.”
Untrimmed and dirty fingernails scraped against the tabletop as the foreman glanced to the line heading off past the armored guards.
“If you want to scrub those looks out of you, I’m not to stop you. You join that lot heading that way, report back to the quartermaster when you’re dismissed and you’ll be paid for your labor.
A heavy knock on the door snapped Aoife back from her horde of memories into the present. Hauling herself off her bed, the red-head paced stiffly across the room. Opening the door, she was met by the sight of an empty corridor and the sound of footsteps fading into the general hubbub of the inn. Looking down, Aoife eyed up the tray her visitor left behind and smiled. Dragging her dinner through the threshold with the toes of one foot, she slumped down next to the door and tore into the bread and ale. If only all the challenges she had faced to get to today had been as easy to deal with as lechery or an empty stomach.
The sticky heat of the washroom was something Aoife never got used to. The work was hard, but when you came from the gutter, the only work you ever got was hard. Perhaps life had been a little easier as she had gotten older and carved out a place of her own in the world, but that reserves of grit and determination Aoife had always relied on were still there deep in her soul. The heat that all but strangled her as she scrubbed soaking fabric against seemingly ancient wood.
Gods knew that she wanted out of this miserable hell of a room, but that wouldn’t be as easy as getting into it had been. The problem was that servants were as rigidly cast by status and rank as the preening inbre-
An image of Celothel oozed its way into Aoife’s mind and stopped that thought dead.
Servants were just as divided by rank as the people they served were. A butler was basically the lord of a strange kingdom, and washerwomen were the beggars. To get out of here, to get on with her plan, she would need to be lifted out. Either she needed to prove herself too valuable to be left languishing in this humid dungeon or create a situation in which she had to be elevated. Neither was an easy option, but hours of observing the workings of the washroom had given Aoife ample time to conjure up a scheme.
Surreptitiously, the red-head looked around before ripping a pearl inlaid button from the shirt she was scrubbing and stuffed it in a little pocket she had sewn into her CLOTHES amongst a couple of others of its kind. Aoife didn’t relish the idea of stabbing one of her compatriots in the back. Fortunately, there were people that worked these humid halls were vile enough that she felt no guilt about the fact she would destroy their lives.
The idea was simple enough. For the last couple of weeks, the valuable trinkets that her employers adorned their clothes with had been finding their way into Aoife’s possession. It had taken a few days for her efforts to be noticed, but now guards lurked in the archways and corners of the washroom and searched the woman at every opportunity. Today, with a little help from Aoife, they would find who had been stealing from their master.
After squeezing water from the shirt she had so recently liberated a button from, the red-head threw it into a barrel sized wicker basket, before hefting the receptacle onto her shoulder. The first few days she had tried this. Walking over to a table surrounded by her colleagues, she emptied the contents onto the table and took her place in the gaggle of other women.
The day’s work went on as it so often did, with minders and guards hovering about the washerwomen with an almost predatory air made all the more apparent by the way they seemed to strut about without much mind for the humidity and heat. They brandished no steel, but yet they did not need to - with but a helmeted glance they could send even the bravest scurrying, though each carried a cudgel when stern glances would not do. Aoife had yet to taste the blunt edge of a cudgel on this job, but the memories of nursing bruises as a young girl were enough to still her tongue even when dedication to the job alone did not.
By about mid-day, after the garment in question had been washed and dried by a rather exhausted-looking fire mage distinguished from the rest by his purple initiate’s robes fringed with blue thread, it came back in the arms of a worried-looking servant. She tugged at the coats of the overseer and held it out for him to examine. After a pause, he called over to one of his guard who struck a metal drum with his cudgel. The low chatter and sounds of scrubbing halted, and all turned from their work stations inward.
The Overseer, now clutching the garment, held it aloft in a leather gauntleted hand and pointed with an accusatory finger at the washing women gathered about the floor.
“When next one of you gets the idea to steal buttons threaded with silver, pick one less obvious like on the cuff or sleeve,” he called out. “Which one of you’s the one who took this? Hm?”
When no answer was immediately forthcoming, the Overseer shoved the garment back into the servant’s hands without taking his gaze from the crowd of washer women.
“Keeping your tongues only hurts all of you,” he said, beginning to prowl up and down the lines. “A mind unburdened with guilt and shame is a productive one - so come, speak the truth.”
In the tips of her shoes, Aoife’s toes curled and uncurled repeatedly as the podgy man passed past her. An old sergeant had taught her the trick years ago when she had first joined the city guards. Just as it had helped her to keep a straight face while a noble pranced around the city, it helped her to keep a straight face now. Speak too soon and it would be obvious that she knew too much. The impression of being observant, trustworthy and perhaps most importantly loyal was she needed to impress. The lies she would paint a truth with needed to wait till they were really called for.
“Will none of you confess?” The Overseer asked. “Or must we force it out of you? I can guarantee you whatever coin you might earn for the trouble will not be worth the punishment, but speak now and we might be willing to let this transgression slide.”
Confused and worried silence radiated off the faces of the assembled women. Even against the background noise of the laundrette, the man’s boots hitting the ground were like hammer blows on an anvil.
“No one. Not one of you wants to confess?” Pausing his pacing, the man turned to face the women and crossed his arms. “Very well. Search them.”
From a shadowy alcove, two additional guards stepped forwards and seized the closest worker. Without hesitation or any apparent remorse, the pair aggressively began running their hands up and down the woman's body while their superior continued to stare with a stoney face at those who remained. A mixture of shocked gasps and scared whimpers ran up the line at the sound of tearing cloth.
“You all had a chance to confess. You all made this bed. Now you must lie in it.”
After a few more horrible moments, the woman being searched was unceremoniously shoved aside by the guards, the tattered remains of her clothes held together by white knuckled hands. Slowly the process began to repeat itself over and over with the half terrified women being torn from the line at random and groped at until the guards were satisfied that nothing was being hidden from them or just got bored. In the corralled crowd of those yet to be searched, Aoife maneuvered herself next to a woman who she was a little friendly with and placed a hand on their shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Bea. Everything will be okay.”
Unseen to anyone else, as Aoife whispered in the woman's ear, the stolen buttons were withdrawn from Aoife’s pocket and one deposited in her acquaintance's apron pocket. Truthfully, the red-head felt bad about what she was about to put the woman through. They were the type of person who had bent and buckled under the hammer blows of life rather than been hardened. The type who would burst into tears rather than fight if confronted. The type that wanted, needed even, to be friends with everyone.
“Just do what they say, and it won’t be too bad."
With a gentle cough used as cover, Aoife palmed the rest of the stolen trinkets into her mouth and under her tongue as she positioned herself in front of her unknowing victim. If Beatrice was searched first, someone far less palatable than Aoife was planning for would need to take the fall. Fortunately the maneuvering paid off when after two more of her compatriots had been searched, a hand landed heavily on the red-heads wrist.
“Your turn, Pettle. Got anything you wanna tell us?”
Looking this particular guard in the eyes, tested Aoife’s control over her mask of worried compliance. At any other time, if the balding middle aged oaf she was staring at had talked to her like that, she would have broken his fingers and robbed him for good measure.
The word was a muffled mess partly because of the need to seem a little scared, but mostly because the red-head couldn’t afford to move her mouth and risk the buttons she had stashed there escaping.
The guard gave Aoife a self-satisfied chuckle and a wink that made her want to take a bath.
“Its more fun when you ladies think you can hide something from us.”
With a hand clamped around her wrist, the red-head was dragged across the washroom floor and pushed against the same wall that all her fellow workers so far had been. The search itself wasn’t the worst Aoife had ever experienced. When you grew up at the bottom of society, you were always the first person accusing fingers were pointed at when things went missing. Certainly, she had enough experience to know that the two guards who were searching her now didn’t really know what they were doing. The balding man who had dragged her across the room, well his hands were doing quite a lot more feeling than actual searching. As for the second guard, a tall skinny boy with a nervous attitude hidden behind a bad mask of stern authority and spots showing through a scraggly beard, their hands were moving back and forth between the same few spots in an earnest but almost useless attempt at finding anything.
When the sound of her own tunic being ripped finally came, Aoife’s hands moved to cover her face. Unlike the woman who had gone before her though, she didn’t do this to hide embarrassments. That was her excuse, but the reason was so that, with a flick of her tongue, the buttons were once again comfortably in her hand.
The technically justified assault on Aoife’s dignity came to an end with a firm impact on her rear and the same self satisfied chuckle that had started it.
“Off you go love, ya all done””
Fairness was rarely a concept the red-head worried about, but some people made it so much more satisfying for her to stab in the back for her own gain. Turning around an apparent fluster as her hands appeared to try and both hold close ripped cloth and shield her body from prying eyes, Aoife walked straight into the older of the two guards.
“Oi watch it you dozy mare.”
In the confused moment of impact, a pale, scarred hand dropped in the bald man’s pocket for just a fraction of a heartbeat before coming out a little lighter. For his part, the guard placed a podgy hand on Aoife’s back and shoved her towards the gaggle of workers who had already been searched.
Watching the rest of the searches was harder than it had been before her own ordeal. Again, the former guardswoman felt a pang of guilt at using these women for own aims. In her head Aoife repeated the promise of the slimy little shit who had employed her to assuage errant thoughts. Still, it was a relief when Beatrice was finally picked to be searched.
Finding the planted trinket didn’t take the guards long, the tall one with the bad beard found it on his second pass through the pocket on her apron holding it aloft for the overseer to see.
“Well well well well well, I guess we have found our little thief then haven't we.”
The overseer wasn’t a big man; Oryn would have made him seem like a malnourished dwarf. But Beatrice was smaller still and appeared to be getting more so by the moment. Aoife didn’t need to see the woman's eyes to know they were probably already red with tears. Each moment now felt like an eternity, but still the red-head held her tongue. She needed to time this just right.
“You put all these fine ladies through all that just so you could cheat your betters.Got anything to say for yourself, Thief?”
Despite the heat of the fires, the mood in the washroom was suddenly ice cold. There was a certain amount of indignant resentment radiating from the other washer woman, but largely it was the overseer from whom the dread chill seemed to emanate. While the man’s face had never exactly been a beacon of joy, now it positively radiated cold destain and his words were laced with venom. The squeak of a response that he got from Beatrice seemed to do little to alleviate the mans’ sour feelings and he grabbed her by the back of the neck.
“You know what; I don’t care about the words of a dirty little thief. Time to go and sort this nasty business of yours for good.”
Pushing the quietly sobbing woman before him, the overseer began to make for the archway that led to the rest of the wash house. Aoife watched each step, waiting till the unhappy pair were almost through the threshold.
“It wasn’t her.”
In an instant, Aoife felt the atmosphere of the room change. Where there had been anger and hints of masked relief, now sudden curiosity and nervousness saturated the room as dozens of eyes and ears turned their focus to the red-head. Likewise, the overseer stopped mid-step.
“What did you say, lass?”
“You know what; I don’t care about the words of a dirty little thief. Aoife returned the look unblinkingly.
“I said she didn’t steal anything.”
“So how do you explain young Samuel there pulling this out her apron pocket then? Something you want to tell me?”
One of the Overseer’s raised quizzically. Off to the side, the older guard nudged his suddenly worried looking companion, smirking until Aoife raised a finger at him.
“He did it. I saw him put something in Bea’s pocket right before the other one found it.”
In the moment that followed, Aoife could hear the sound of feet gently scraping over stone as the other woman tried to surreptitiously step away from her.
“You want to say that again, lass?”
Even the dullest of drunks would have caught warning, in the man’s voice. The guard that had just been accused now had a similar look of anger as his superior.
“Yeah, I saw him, put something in Bea’s pocket. That creep has probably been stealing stuff so he can grope us because he’s too cheap to pay for a whore. He’s probably got a whole pocket full of stuff he stole today and he’s trying to blame it on Bea.”
With speed that surprised Aoife considering the man’s well cultivated beer belly, the overseer let go of Beatrice and crossed the floor to stand nose to nose with her. Beady eye stared at the former guards woman’s face as if their owner was trying to memorize every freckle and blemish on her face.
“I remember you, girl. You was the one that practically begged me for a job cos you didn’t want to do no whoring. You rethinking that? Fancy laying down for your coin, huh?”
The overseer wasn’t quite shouting, but the fine spray hitting Aoife’s face spoke to the man’s fervor. Behind the man, smirks had found their way back onto the faces of the two guards
“So, I’m going to ask you one last time, lass and I warn you, you better be real certain about your answer. Understand?”
Aoife could feel the flames all around her calling to her. All it would take was a thought and she could have the three men on their wailing on their knees. This whole scene might have been of her own creation but still she could feel anger rising. She swallowed it back down.
“I saw that balding oaf put something in Bea’s pocket right before that other idiot found it. I’d bet his pockets are full of stuff he’s nicked.”
Even to her own ears, what Aoife was saying sounded almost unbelievable. The sniggering coming from behind the overseer reached a fever pitch of intensity in unspoken agreement with this assessment. Fortunately, if a thumb was placed on the scales of justice, almost unbelievable would be enough. For his part, the overseer continued to direct his ferocious gaze at Aoife, nostrils flaring with every breath.
“Fine! On your head be it girl. Maybe I’ll come see you when you find a new job.”
With the snort of a wounded boar, the overseer turned towards his two colleagues.
“Sorry about this. Samuel, do us all a favour and show this dumb bint there aint nothing in Geralds pockets.”
The guard who could in dim light be mistaken for a coat rack suddenly looked nervous again. His older colleague, however, let out a raucous laugh at his coworkers discomfort and beckoned him over.
“Come on lad, don't be shy. This has been fun, but time to put an end to it now, eh.”
Still trepidatious, Samuel reached into the first of the pair of pockets on Gerald's dirty and tattered breaches. After a moment of furtive rustling of fabric, Samuel looked up and shook his head. The Overseer shot a triumphant glance at Aoife.
“Come on boy, pull the pocket out. I want everyone here to see that fair is fair.”
The fabric of the pocket was quickly tugged into a little pyramid. It was devoid of any stolen items. Folding his arms with smug satisfaction, the Overseer turned to stare directly at Aoife.
“Next one now. Just pull the bugger out; there’s a good lad. Let's get this done with.”
It was only because she knew to look for it that Aoife spotted the sudden look of puzzlement and panic on the tall guard's face in the moment before two shiny lumps flew through the air and hit the ground with a satisfying metallic ping. For a moment the room was deathly silent and then for the three men, a very special, very feminine hell opened up upon them.
A sudden wet sensation on her leg yanked the red-head from slumber. Staring vacantly for a moment as she tried to marshall any coherent thoughts, Aoife swore as she realized in her sleep she had doused half a cup of ale over herself. At first she groped around for something to mop the spilled liquid with before reason took over from instinct. After sliding the soaked garment down her legs before hanging over a chair so they might dry, the red-head crawled into the embrace of her bed.
Tomorrow would be the beginning of the end of her torment by menial labor. In the immediate aftermath of her little stunt with the stolen buttons, the wash room had been a scene of barely contained chaos. Word of a guard stealing and trying to pin the blame on one of the workers had spread like wildfire. Arguments and accusations had flown in every direction. The more senior servants of the household had spent the whole day trying to understand and calm the situation. In all this chaos, with a few well chosen words to the right people and the unwitting help of some of her colleagues, Aoife had managed to negotiate herself a promotion.
Instead of washing clothes, she had spent the next few weeks carrying the cleaned goods up to the noble family’s house proper and helping the servants there sort it all. It was backbreaking work, but it had been exactly what she had needed. In just a couple of weeks, she had learned exactly whose hands the letter she was helping to deliver had to find its way into to make sure the lady of the house ‘found’ it in a way that wouldn’t raise suspicion. She would have to stick around for a few days afterwards, just to keep up appearances, but tomorrow her task would be done and she could start getting to the bottom of her own problems.
It was strange but for the first time in her life, Aoife felt herself smile at the prospect of the day of exhausting labor as she closed her eyes to give herself fully to the realm of dreams.
Thanks for the contributions by @ze_kraken and sorry this took an stupid amount of time guys.
Gravel crunched beneath Oryn’s feet as he and Erskine walked through the Miner’s Quarter in the twilit hours before dawn. They gathered a few looks from the miners off to work their shifts - they were, after all, perhaps the only two not decked in weeks or months of grime and dust. The dawn sky was tinged in pink and yellow-green hues from the rising sun and setting spring moon, and the chill of night was beginning to recede though a damp humid cold still clung to their cloaks as they walked.
They ventured into an overseer’s office and spoke briefly, confirming through both sealed letter and choice of words that they had been sent by Kilmah. The dwarf had been reluctant to believe the pair at first, but Erskine’s mixture of down-to-earth charm and Oryn’s bullying persona swayed him even when parchment and passphrases had not. The overseer donned a bright red cloak, fetched a lantern from beside his desk, and ushered the two outside as he lit his lantern.
In the dim light, the lantern’s shifting yellow-orange glow cast everything in an arm’s reach in a warm glow that contrasted the cool tones of dawn light. The miners averted their gaze as the trio passed through, wishing not to incur the wrath of their overseer Oryn thought. The dwarf led the two to where the outer wall met the face of the mountain. He turned up to a sentry atop the wall and waved his lantern in a circular motion, shutting its case several times. The sentry signaled back. A moment later, a stone shifted in the mountain and the overseer nodded to an opening just wide enough for Oryn to squeeze through on hands and knees.
“It’ll be a tight fit for you both,” he said. “But you follow this for two, three hundred paces and you’ll be out the other side. You’ll see a narrow path lined in painted symbols - follow the path, and perhaps by sunrise you’ll be at the Second City.”
With a sigh, Oryn began tightening belts and straps, making sure that all his pouches were tied tightly and securely so he could get through as easily as possible. He undid his sword from his belt so he could carry it in its sheath, perhaps allowing for more mobility as they crawled through.
“Three hundred paces..” He mumbled to himself. As he pulled a piece of cloth up to cover his mouth as well as the hood of his cloak over his head, he glanced at Erskine and shook his head. “Did I ever tell you that I am not overly fond of tight spaces? Longsword’s no use in there.” He nodded toward the now open hole in the face of the mountain. Absent-mindedly, Oryn reached behind him and checked that his dagger was securely in its sheath on the small of his back. While he did not think they would meet anything that wanted to kill them in the narrow passage, it was best to be on the safe side. You never knew.
“Are there any inns or taverns in the Second City?” He looked from Erskine to the overseer and back. “Have you ever been? I hope it’s more lively than this.” Oryn grinned and shrugged. Then he nodded toward the hole in the mountain again and sighed once more. “Shall we?”
The overseer shook his head.
“In our tongue it more means - colony city, or new home. You won’t find much there beyond small outposts, but that’s why you’re here. Now go.”
He waved Oryn and Erskine off before hurrying back to his post. Erskine lead the way through the small gap, which even he had to hunch to fit through. Oryn followed, the walls of the tunnel squeezing on his broad shoulders and forcing him to crawl on his hands and knees. The way was lit by dim alchemical lanterns spaced just far apart enough as to avoid light spilling out the entrance, and as they ventured through the tunnel was shut behind them.
They pressed on through the tunnel for the better part of half an hour before emerging out the other side, coated in dust and with muscles sore from bad posture. Erskine grumbled to himself as he stretched, dense bones popping as he examined the space about them. The pair had emerged in what might have been called a valley, though an exceptionally small one at that. They were flanked on all sides by steep cliffs that arced up into the mountains around them, and the flat expanse upon which they stood stretched perhaps fifteen paces at its widest point.
A footstep echoed through the empty space, drawing the two to attention. A dwarf peered from a bend in the cliffs, barrel chest lined in a dense thicket of curly black hair that poked from the top of his plain, dirty tunic. He wore a flat cap, the brim of which was folded back to keep from obscuring his face. Stern eyes gazed at Erskine, then at Oryn, and he thumbed gnarled fingers through his greying beard.
“Hadn’t expected to see two of you,” he said, voice not too unlike two stones grinding against one another. “Looks like that tunnel wasn’t the best fit for you, was it lad?”
Oryn glanced at the dwarf, judged that he was no immediate threat as he hadn’t drawn steel against them and continued wincing at the pain in his joints. “Oh…” he said, screwing up his face. “Ah!” There was a pop from somewhere in his lower back. “Gods be fucked.” And then he straightened carefully, stretching out his muscles. Before he answered the dwarf, he removed the cloth from his mouth and pulled down his hood.
“No, that was…” He pretended to consider the experience. “Absolutely terrible.” Oryn rubbed his hands together, trying to get as much dust and dirt off as he could. Then he raised an eyebrow and looked the dwarf over more closely now. “You were expecting anyone?” He asked, wondering what he knew. “I’ll admit, I’m not quite as handsome as my friend here, but I was allowed to tag along anyway. I’m Oryn. This is Erskine.” He began strapping his belt around his waist again, so that his sword would be at the ready. It felt more comfortable with its familiar weight at his side. “And you are?”
“Yossac,” the dwarf said with a bow of his head. “Fortunately for you, Oryn, there won’t be any more tunnels built for the likes of Erskine and me.”
He nodded with a wink to Erskine.
“But ah, come - come. The day’s getting lost from us.”
Yossac vanished behind the bend in the cliffs from which he had emerged, leaving Oryn and Erskine to hurry after him. The walkable path ventured left before continuing to twist and curl into a maze of stone that gradually opened back up into a series of mountain trails Oryn had walked in the Crags. Behind them, the very top of the Shroud could be seen - namely the guard towers overlooking the Aether District, though Oryn could just barely make out the outline of the Aetherstone Keep as well.
Their path took them further out to where the cliffs faded and suddenly to their eastern-facing side the expanse of the countryside came into view. Oryn could see all the way to the Veil, naught but a solid patch of color along the glittering river to its side with the slightest haze of chimney fires creeping upward. Beyond rested flat grasslands, tranquil and still with the slightest hum of wind passing through in great waves of yellow and green.
“This makes me feel a fair bit smaller than the tunnel did, I dare say,” Erskine mumbled with a well-humored chuckle, fetching his pipe from his pack.
He gnawed at it, hand clutching its chimney but he made no move to light it as they pressed on, following the distant outline of Yossac ahead of them. The sun had well crested the horizon and was on its way to hang overhead when they stopped before a fork in the path. Yossac stood at its center, gesturing to the right-hand split.
“This will be where you head off, through to there,” he said, pointing.
A city not too unlike the Shroud stood where he pointed, though how far away was difficult to say without a sense of scale. It traded the patchwork stonework and mixed styling of the Shroud for a more traditionally time-worn facade, though in its own way dwarfed the Shroud in the silent grandeur of ages weathered. A section of the wall visible to them had caved in long enough for trees to begin growing in its ruins, and moss had breached the wall like an invading army, growing to cover much of the hole in a lush green carpet that stood out against the pale grey stone.
“It’s perhaps half a day’s trip if you’re walking like you don’t intend to spill over the side. Gol Vargrin, it was called.”
“Vargrin,” Erskine repeated. “Awfully close to ‘hydra’ there, isn’t it?”
“Three cities make up the mountain here that we know of - it isn’t the most clever family name to take, but then I suppose that’s why they changed it just a touch.”
Yossac waved the comment aside and pointed to the left split.
“This way is the Second City. We’ll get you supplied up and answer any questions we can before your expedition, come.”
Just as before, Yossac wandered down the trail, not checking to see if Erskine and Oryn were following behind. The walk to the Second City was considerably shorter than to the fork in the trail. At first glance, there was no ‘city’ to speak of, though as they made their way through into a narrow mountain pass Oryn noted the outlines of doors and windows etched into the face of the rocks about them. The smells of cookfires filled the pass, and as they pressed on the pass widened and he could see people - some human and orc, but mostly dwarves - walking about their business.
Yossac guided them through a town square of sorts where the pass split into three, up towards its northern side and through a small doorway in the side of the mountain. The ceilings here were low enough to just brush against the top of Oryn’s head, but the chamber was spacious enough to accommodate the trio with room enough to spare extended elbows.
“Speak to the one here about what you need, and what information you might need and he will provide it if we can,” Yossac said, tipping his cap to them both. “Stag’s blessing on you both.”
“...Wh-What?” Was the only thing Oryn could manage. He knew he looked like an idiot, standing there with a confused expression on his face, feeling like a giant in a room where the ceiling touched the top of his head. He was somewhat tired of feeling like he was one step behind all the time. It seemed that the Overseer and Yossac both knew more than him and he wondered if the same was true about Erskine. Ever since that meeting with the odd woman back in the Casual Pint, Oryn had felt out of the loop. And he didn’t like it one bit. It annoyed him. Letting out a sharp breath, he turned and faced Erskine, shaking his head.
“Am I the only one who feels like we’re not being told everything?” He asked, sighing deeply. “I get why we’re here,” Oryn paused and with a shrug he added, “I think. But there’s an eerie feel about this place. Almost as if we stepped back in time when we crawled through that tunnel. Could be all the dust, I suppose.” Over his shoulder, he looked back toward the door leading outside again. He had questions. Questions he wasn’t sure he would like the answer two, but questions that needed to be answered. Oryn pulled his cloak around him tighter in an effort to keep the hammer, which was secured tightly to his hip, concealed. “I don’t know about you, but I remember the last time I ventured into a ruin vividly. I’d like to be as well-informed as I can before I do it again.” Oryn tapped his foot against the floor, impatiently. Then he cleared his throat, pointed toward the person Yossac had said could help them and patted Erskine on the shoulder before he approached.
“Greetings,” Oryn began, crossing his arms as he casually leaned against the counter. “My good friend Erskine and I came from the Shroud.” He saw no point in outright stating why they were there, and decided to get straight to the point. “Yossac mentioned you might be able to help us with equipment as well as knowledge.” Oryn raised an eyebrow expectantly before he continued. “We came across a fork in the road, a while back, and Yossac mentioned a place called Gol Vargrin. What can you tell us about that?” He paused, waiting to see what reaction his words would be met with, but then he slowly turned his head, brows furrowing as a chill ran down his spine. “Wait, Erskine… You said something about a… hydra? What did you mean by that?”
A crag-faced dwarf sat behind a wooden desk, face creased and scarred in dozens of places. Cheeks that may have once been proud and high-boned sagged with the weight of age, and what hair was left atop his head was a stark white that contrasted the sun stained, leather skin of his face. His frame was wiry, arm muscles coiling beneath age-loosened skin as he crossed his arms across his chest and squinted at Oryn and Erskine.
“It refers to the number of cities in the mountain,” the dwarf offered before Erskine could fish the pipe from his mouth. “In the days of Piersym’s War these fortress cities were likened to a hydra - where one fell, the others doubled their efforts to stand firm. It was a short-lived moniker even by human standards.”
Erskine gave a rueful shrug and made a point of gnawing at the stem of his pipe once more as the older dwarf continued.
“I am Bozmal. You stand here now in the first of many settlements of my people, meant to stand separate from the human world. Erskine here was chartered by Kilmah, our political figurehead in the Shroud, to map out and help establish a foothold in the remnants of the city here. The work that follows will take time - infrastructure must be repaired, structures cleaned out, but none of that can begin until we have an idea of what we are looking at.”
Bozmal paused, scratching at his chin as he examined Oryn with a quizzical gaze.
“That you are here tells me you are trustworthy enough, but tread carefully, human. The bonds between our kind forged in Piersym’s War are strong, but with the rebuilding of society has come the reestablishent of caste systems and my people refuse to bear the burdens of slavery we endured under the elves. Most here see a human and see the tyrants of those who call themselves Humanists - we are all here to avoid your kind, and though I am not blinded by my hatred, some here are. Ah, but I have yet to answer your questions. My apologies, my mind meanders to its destination.”
Bozmal produced a scroll from his desk and placed it atop its surface.
“We have mapped the entrances to the old city and many of its streets, but know not what lies beyond. What supplies you think you will need we can provide if it is within our power. Erskine, you will need to see where we might need to make repairs and mark it down. Your companion will be useful, as we have firsthand accounts of foul things lurking these ruins, and he looks strong of arm.”
“I rely more on the sharpness of my blade than the strength of my arm, Bozmal.” Oryn said, letting his palm hit the desk with a thud. Those were the words he chose instead of the many that wanted to spill concerning budding conflicts between races. Being told to tread carefully annoyed him. That was partially because it was frustrating that he needed to, but also because Oryn was, well, somewhat immature. Racism was one of the most illogical things in the world, in his mind. And that had nothing to do with Oryn giving any thought to a political standpoint, no, it was simply because ”...being a cunt had nothing to do with race.”, as he had so elegantly put it. Oryn had met a lot of people of varying races and he failed to see how any one was superior to the others.
Snatching the scroll from the desk, Oryn handed it to Erskine as he turned to face him. “I didn’t know you were going to work here, Erskine? The job of an overseer felt more alluring to you?” He smirked, giving his shoulder a pat before sighing and looking at Bozmal again. “I have the weapons I need. We could do with some torches and some food, if you can help with that?” And then he crossed his arms, waiting to hear what supplies Erskine required for their venture.
Erskine listed off a number of supplies, leaning more alchemical and technical than Oryn had the patience or indeed understanding to properly listen to. When he concluded, Bozmal nodded and sent a runner to gather the supplies. As soon as the dwarf left the room, he turned his attention back to the pair.
“Once you have what you need, I will summon a guide to take you where you wish to enter the ruins. I must warn you that the way is perilous, monsters and other creatures besides. I recommend you not stay past nightfall beyond those gates if you can help it.”
Oryn nodded, shrugging at the dwarf’s words. With their luck, they’d be trapped inside throughout the night. That made him think back on their adventure so far. There had been more than a few close calls and he was certain they had all been born under a lucky star. Some of the scraps they had been in were so sure to cost them their lives, but somehow they survived by either fighting their way out or being undeservedly lucky, sometimes so much that Oryn was almost tempted to think there was some higher purpose for them to serve.
He scoffed and shook his head.
“Perfect. We’ll keep an eye out for the runner and return here when he does.” Oryn said to the dwarf behind the desk, before turning to face Erskine. “A word?” He said, raising an eyebrow and looking around. “Outside?” And then he started them toward the door. It was not that there were eavesdroppers, prying eyes or an oppressive atmosphere, but Oryn felt more comfortable talking with his compatriot outside. And once they were, he pulled Erskine off to the side.
“As you know,” He began, clearing his throat before he continued. “I’m a very trusting and approachable man.” Oryn shifted his weight onto his other foot, crossing his arms and silently appreciating his own sense of humour. “But somehow I get the feeling that the danger we might be facing is somehow being… underplayed. I've felt that way ever since we crawled through the mountain.” He sighed deeply, looking away from Erskine and toward the mountain peaks around them. “There’s…” Oryn cleared his throat again, wondering how best to choose his next words without causing too much worry, if indeed Erskine was prone to such feelings. “There’s something in that mountain. Before we left the Shroud, I spoke to someone. I’m not sure who or what she was, but she knew me, she knew this mountain and she knows I have the hammer. She knows its power too.” He looked around once more, ensuring that no one was within earshot. He recalled Yivarna’s words and spoke them now. “She told me to ensure that the gem of the Mother finds the son. And she referred the hammer specifically. Well, she referred to something important in my possession and I hardly think she meant my coin purse.” Oryn stifled a chuckle and the smile that followed faded relatively quickly. “There is a… a serpent in the mountain. She said it would know me, but that we would not have to kill it.” He avoided mentioning that she had also said the effort would be futile. “She said a lot of things that confused me, if I’m honest.” Oryn glanced at Erskine before looking down at his feet with brows furrowed.
Peace favor your sword, blood of Alderstone. Had been one of them. Oryn still wondered why she had said that. In his veins ran the gutter muck of Ashfen. He was a street rat that made it out of there. A no good sellsword. And he was lucky.
“The woman was of course also somewhat vague when it came to what other dangers we might face,” Oryn finally said as he looked back at Erskine. “But then, I think we’ll find out soon enough.” He nodded and pointed to the runner who was now returning to Bozmal with their requested items. “Oh, but Erskine…” Oryn said, as the dwarf was turning around. “I don’t want to drag you into this. If you could help me get to where I need to be, I’ll manage the rest on my own. If you want to stay here and help your people, there is no need to risk your life now.”
Erskine threaded a hand through his beard to scratch his chin, fetching his pipe to gnaw on.
“That’s quite a tale you have there,” he said with his particular sense of mercurial humor and amusement. “Quite the sort to befuddle even the most acute mind. I had wondered why you were so eager to accompany a humble craftsman like me into a dark little hole in the mountain, but if that’d be your reason, I will do what I can to help you.”
The dwarf paused, chuckling.
“I must say, though, I wager I will want to stay clear of any… serpent, was it? Yes, yes, I will want to stay clear of any serpents and the like if I can. I’ve had my share of monsters and beasts for my time.”
The runner returned and gave the pair the requested supplies before nodding and wandering back off. His eyes lingered on Oryn in equal parts confusion and distrust, but before Oryn could acknowledge it he had turned a corner and vanished.
“Well,” Erskine said, clapping his hands together. “No sense in wasting daylight. Let’s go see the good man about a guide.”
Bozmal summoned another dwarf to escort them. She was a muscled woman, a stout battleaxe looped at her belt that had seen more than its fair share of use. She went unarmored, wearing a simple tunic and trousers threaded with quilted padding at the torso and shoulders. If the spring heat bothered her in the heavy cloth, she paid it no mind as she guided Oryn and Erskine through a rock archway at the edge of the main path and out into a wider rocky valley beyond.
By the time they reached the first of the gates marked on Bozmal’s map, the sun had tilted from its noonward position and begun its descent into twilight. Oryn wagered they had perhaps six hours of daylight left, to Erskine’s agreement. Their guide pointed out where they were on the map, explaining the ways the roads beyond connected.
“Once you’re in there, there will be a great hole in the top of the mountain where sunlight passes through. The city is vertical more than it is horizontal - there will be many stairs, and lots of spots to climb the rubble where stairs are not available. We are fairly confident that the first layer of the city is safe, though that certainty is less… ah, well, certain the further up you go.”
To him it sounded like they weren’t certain of a lot of things. But then again, Oryn was a pessimist. And he didn’t like the light here in the mountains. It didn’t look right to him. Whether that was just his own mind playing tricks on him, he wasn’t sure, however.
“Well, we best get going before it gets dark.” Oryn was quick to say. He didn’t enjoy the idea of having to climb very much. And he certainly didn’t like the thought of having to climb in the dark. That was a great way to end up with broken bones and there was no reason to put him at a further disadvantage before entering the mountain. Oryn preferred fighting with his sword, but if they were fighting in small spaces, that would be a disadvantage. He was less deadly with his dagger and on top of that, he was unsure of the enemies he might face.
And with all these thoughts circling his skull, the pessimistic sellsword sighed heavily.
“Thank you for being our guide.” He said, thinking that if nothing else, he could at least try to make a decent impression on these dwarves before he was eaten by a giant, fanged worm. “I truly hope you reclaim these mountains and make a good home for your people.” Oryn nodded, wondering where by all the gods, these words came from. He blinked, looked confused for a second and then nodded once more. “Erskine?” His eyebrows went up, as if to ask whether his companion was ready, and then he began heading toward the gate.
“Well, let’s be getting to it then,” Erskine hummed, setting down his heavier pack by the gate.
Darkness and shadows lined the archway of the gate as the pair passed through the mighty stone doors. The gateway was wide enough for twenty men to walk abreast, and its arch taller than Oryn had seen in the likes of Gol Badhir and the Aetherkeep. They walked on in the darkness for the span of thirty paces, guided by a small alchemical lantern Erskine latched to his belt that cast their own shadows in an eerie red outline.
At the end of the archway, they emerged through another pair of great stone doors to a cavern that opened into an expanse that simultaneously dwarfed Oryn and yet filled him with a palpable sense of claustrophobia. City streets much like those he had walked in the Shroud surrounded him, twisting and winding in a maze of cobble paving stones and stone structures seemingly carved from the mountain itself. Only, the streets stacked atop one another in arched bridges that layered one over the other, stratifying the city. The further up the layers went, the narrower they became, hemmed in by the walls of the mountain itself until it reached its top where a hole cast sunlight through to the layers below.
The architecture was practical, but no less refined for its simplicity. Every angle was pristinely wrought, each stone facade chiseled with an expert hand to depict runes and scenes of long-forgotten gods and kings. Even the paving stones under Oryn’s feet were arranged in geometrical patterns that had survived through the ages, remaining rigid and intentionally placed as if they had been laid just yesterday. All throughout the streets the same alchemical lanterns that Erskine carried hung atop stone hooks, casting their red glow in unison with the filtered sunlight from above.
As if he was no longer in control, his feet slowed to a halt and Oryn stood and took in his surroundings. What he could see, at least. The red light from the lanterns was a little unsettling, if he was being honest with himself, but better a little light than none at all. And the darkness felt suffocating enough as it was. Almost as if it was encroaching upon them; as if it was trying to smother the light.
His thoughts remained only briefly on the darkness of the mountain, however, as his eyes were fixed on the buildings and the work that had gone into constructing them. Looking down at his feet, he was amazed by the skill involved in laying the stones they were treading. In most places it looked like he could hardly fit a piece of parchment between them. It seemed that when dwarves built their cities, they wanted them to last as long as the mountains they so loved.
“Such is the craftsmanship of the dwarves…” Oryn let out, chuckling. He shook his head, gave Erskine’s shoulder a solid pat and nodded. “Legendary.” He had never seen anything like this and maybe he never would again. Then again, he had been saying that since before Gol Badhir. There was just something in his mind telling him that he could not keep the lack he’d had so far. Being almost killed by a dragon was close enough for him - how much more luck could he have? Sellswords were not supposed to live very long. “Can you navigate this place, Erskine?” Oryn directed his question at his companion. He felt awestruck by the architecture of their surroundings, but at the same time he found his inner compass challenged. Perhaps because they were inside a mountain?
“Let’s see, shall we?” Erskine asked, a twinkle to his eyes.
Erskine took the lead and the two walked from the gate into the city. As they went along, signs of previous expeditions were made clear - a scrawled note on a wall here, a small camp site there. The void of silence that filled the city was oppressive, lightened only by the footfalls of the two men as they walked.
Their way went without words shared between them, and after a span of time Oryn could not quite place they arrived in what must have once been a square. The streets branched off into four paths, forming a star of streets with a statue at its center. It depicted a dwarven queen clutching a two-pronged spear encircled by a snake, with the head of the serpent resting between the two prongs and giving the spear the look of a trident. The two prongs of the spear rested evenly with two branches in the streets ahead perfectly from Oryn’s perspective, and though the queen’s eyes were carved of stone they seemed to follow him wherever he might turn.
“Hrm, now this is a bit more complicated than a simple left or right, isn’t it?” Erskine chirped. “What say you, Oryn?”
In the time it took for him to answer, it was not just quiet around them. It was deathly silent. The cavernous atmosphere around them felt like it weighed heavily on his shoulders. Oryn constantly felt the urge to turn because he was certain something was behind him. But the less he moved, the better he could hear. And focusing partly on any sounds that were not caused by the two of them and partly on the statue ahead, Oryn sighed and thought.
“Should have brought brains instead of brawn, Erskine…” He mumbled, crossing his arms over his chest. And then he took a few steps forward, taking in the sight of the paths leading in different directions and the statue. “Then again…” Oryn said, lining up his line of sight with the prongs of the spear and the paths beyond. “From here, the tips of the spear each point to a path….” Oryn said, waving Erskine over and pointing first upward to the statue and then to the paths beyond. “But… Which way to go..” They were not exactly closer to an answer.
He was silent again, contemplating their possibilities. He had no idea how far into the mountain the paths and tunnels of the dwarves went. If they chose the wrong one, they might get lost and who knew when they would be back. And then he noticed it. The serpent. Oryn had first thought it was just another tip of the spear, but now he saw the serpent encircling it. It’s head indicated a path on its own. “Yivarna…” Oryn mumbled to himself. “The gem of the Mother…”
“Erskine… I think it’s that way.” Oryn said, a smile appearing on his face. He pointed down the path indicated by the serpent. “You’ll just have to trust me.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Erskine said with a good-natured shrug, following behind Oryn.
Familiarity echoed through Oryn’s mind as he walked down the central path. It did not remind him of his vision, at least not the sliver of it Yivarna had shown him, but there was still something resembling a memory of past experience nagging at the back of his mind as he led Erskine along. They walked through a narrow passageway with arches at either end coiled in stone snakes with fanged maws held wide open. On the other end they were greeted with another tangled web of city streets.
That same familiarity urged Oryn right, towards a flight of stairs built into an alleyway that took them up to the next strata of the city. The stairs were awkwardly scaled by Oryn’s long legs, a disastrous proposition when the sides of the buildings forming the alley below gave way and left only handrails meant for a man two thirds his height.
Once at the top of the stairs, the streets grew more spacious with fewer buildings walling them in with a sense of eerie claustrophobia. What buildings from the first level extended to the second formed squares and blocks that Oryn could spot from his vantage point, leaving covered walkways like the one he stood on now with arched portals in between. The closer to the mountain walls the city streets stretched, the denser the concentration of buildings became, etched into the mountain itself without the need for supports.
“Here might be where I go about my work,” Erskine said with a nod. “We’ll meet at the square with the statue by sunset?”
At Oryn’s agreement, the two parted ways. Erskine headed in the direction of the second-tiered streets, leaving Oryn to venture towards the next set of stairs. On and on he climbed, through increasingly improbably wrought walkways suspended in the air dozens and then eventually perhaps a hundred paces off the ground. The sun still pierced through the hole at the peak of the mountain, shedding its amber glow onto the floating dust with the tint of the afternoon beginning its decline into night.
Eventually Oryn halted before an opening nearly ten paces wide and half again as tall as he was, framed in a stone archway whose center was held by a sneering drake’s head that gazed down at him with eyes inlaid with rubies. He could not tell if they were responding to him or if it was merely a trick of the light, but they seemed to pulse at his approach, and that same nagging feeling of premonition tugged his feet forward. Beyond the archway was dark and silent. The shadows seemed to swallow Oryn whole as he stepped through, leaving even his hands difficult to spot in their yearning void.
Oryn stood a few feet forward in the tunnel. The air hung heavy with the scent of sulfur. His muscles tensed when suddenly a spear thrust from the darkness and impaled him through the abdomen. He grunted with pain, collapsed to the ground.
It felt as if someone had slapped him across the face, or as if lightning had struck the ground right in front of him. As if there was a flash but at the same time not. Oryn had been somewhere else for a few moments, but now he was back, staring at the drake’s head at the center of the archway. Its rubies held his gaze and silence snuck up on him and enveloped him as he stood there. Then he realized why he was staring at them. Both rubies reminded him of the one pulsating in the hammer. A calloused hand slowly found the weapon strapped to his hip and he pulled it forth. He expected something to happen, but nothing did. He was just left standing there with the hammer in hand, staring into the blackness in front of him.
He looked back over his shoulder then, contemplating turning around. For some reason the blackness in front of him was terrifying. The unknown was scaring him. As it scared everyone. But then he reminded himself that the only path he knew for sure was the one behind him. Oryn had never had a path set in front of him, so he told himself that this one shouldn’t either, just because he couldn’t see it. And then he tightened his grip around the handle of the hammer and stepped through the darkness, hoping that whatever happened, he would at least get out of there alive so he could see Niowyn one last time.
Was it wind that brushed his skin? Oryn stepped forward, caution steadying his footfalls into quiet scrapes of leather over stone. The image of the Other flickered behind his eyes just as the scent of sulfur registered in his nostrils, and his arms moved with a honed precision only years of practice and training afforded.
Blackened steel whistled by where he had just been standing, and the jarring impact of Scarnesbane sinking into flesh ran up his arm. He froze, seeing a pile of ash two paces ahead of him, a skull-like face glaring up at him before it too disintegrated. The scent of sulfur was worse now, the pile of ash at Oryn’s feet reeking worse than a back gutter in the Shroud. The sensation of wind was replaced with a subtle chill, and Scarnesbane’s ruby thrummed with a dim red glow.
His pulse had quickened and his heart beat against his chest. Oryn’s senses were on alert and he had been surprised at how he had managed to get out of the way and turn to strike a blow against his opponent. He was still for a few moments, listening intensely for any other movement in the darkness. Hearing none, he sniffed in the air. The scent of sulfur made him screw up his face and a grimace. It was a foul smell.
Holding the hammer out in front of him, to light his way by the dim red glow, he held his torch high above him so the bright light of the flames would not inhibit his vision against the dark. Oryn exhaled deeply before willing his feet to move forward. He was worried that another flash vision would appear in his mind, overtaking his senses. And if it did, he worried that it might happen just as another foe attacked. But there was no other way than forward and so he pressed on.
In the yearning silence of the cave was something bordering on being noise at all - a tension palpable enough that it filled the space and pressed on Oryn’s eardrums like anvils. The visions flickered behind his eyes, and reality blurred with the physical space about him with the directionless diffusion of a drop of blood in water. Some were filled with pain, fire, and blood. Others were full of similar cavern halls like the dozens he had just navigated. Suddenly, walking in a straight line was growing increasingly untenable and his legs faltered in their attempt to keep their forward momentum.
Were these things yet to pass? Or had they happened already? Intermixed within the visions of things Oryn was not certain had yet to happen were experiences of his own past. Did the ground that felt firm underfoot actually exist, or was that a sensation born only in his mind? Touch, sight, smell, sound, taste. All blurred until it was a mass of sameness. Neither familiar nor unfamiliar, past nor present, tangible nor immaterial.
Reality rushed back as searing pain, real enough to cut through the gaping rift in Oryn’s consciousness, flared in his shoulder. He wheeled around and Scarnesbane’s ruby flared in delight as the scent of sulfur once again intensified from the pile of ash at Oryn’s feet. There were four of them in the hall now, ruby eyes glimmering like smoldering fires in the dark, alabaster skin vivid and cast in an eerie red.
They approached in unison, driving Oryn back with lashes of swords and spears so dark they were almost invisible in the darkness. But despite their coloration, Oryn knew exactly where to dodge and where to parry. Sparks flew, adding their bright pops of orange and white to the dim red glow of the combatants’ weapons.
Oryn stood beside Niowyn, sat cross-legged on the ground, pointing to an unlit campfire. Her mouth moved to form words that sounded as though they were uttered underwater. In her usual fashion, she moved her hands as if signing words and the fire came to life. She then doused the flames and gestured to Oryn, whose mind opened to the touch of something greater than himself. Something warm yet uncaring. Comfortable but distant.
Yellow and orange light flooded the hallway, drowning out the dim red glow of Scarnesbane and the Others. Heat followed a second later and the scent of sulfur reached a fever pitch, replaced soon after by the acrid touch of smoke. Oryn stood, clutching Scarnesbane like a staff pointed at where the Others had been standing a moment before. Its dragon-fanged maw glowed cherry red like a blade yet to be quenched in the forge, and the ruby shone with swiftly fading brilliance.
Before Oryn had time to process what had happened, weariness suddenly flooded his body and the world began to recede. The pain in his shoulder was a distant memory, the drumming of his heart became a gentle serenade. Not even the collision between his knees and the ground registered as much more than a distant touch before he was out.
Oryn stood in the hallway he had seen in the tavern, alone. On either side of him stood massive columns of stone worn white with age, cast in the light of fading twilight from above. The light caught the dust in the air and reflected orange, yellow, and pink highlights in brilliant shimmers throughout the hall. Carpet once regal crunched underfoot, dried in some spots and worn through with mold and fungi in others from centuries of exposure.
Something nagged at Oryn’s mind as he walked forward. Erskine had been with him before, for one, but then where in the hold was this place? It rang with the same sense of familiarity much of the ancient ruin had, and yet its familiarity was of a kind totally distinct from the unconscious drag of purpose he had felt before. It had the feeling of home, or at least what he always felt would be the feeling of home. Warmth, comfort, security.
Oryn stood below the hole in the ceiling, and could just catch the first shy glimpses of the stars above before the ground shook underfoot. He wheeled about, and suddenly Scarnesbane was nowhere to be found. Had he been holding it when he entered this room? He reached for his sword, and yet it was also gone along with its scabbard.
A long, cylindrical shape pressed out of the darkness on the fringes of the hallway. It snaked between the pillars, and Oryn could catch the glimmer of jagged scales in the dying light. Their color fluctuated between every possible shade, seemingly in no relation to the way the light caught them. The serpent passed through to the head of the hallway, and a great crested head came to look down at Oryn, its nostrils trailing a faint black-hued mist that looked and yet behaved nothing like smoke.
“You have come,” it said, fanged maw opening in a simulacrum of speech and yet its jaw’s movements did not seem to align with its words.
Brilliant yellow eyes met Oryn’s own, framed by a scaly brown line more noble than even the kings of legend. Great ebony horns shot from the serpent’s head, curling like a ram’s into clubs on either end of its head. Its triangular head was beset in the forehead by a singular gem-like object that seemed to mirror the color of the scales that surrounded it. The gem was not separate from the serpent, but rather as natural an extension of its being as a fingernail or perhaps a tooth.
“Not as I expected, but you have come all the same.”
It was as if his heart was still. As if he could not even breathe as he stood there, watching the enormous serpent before him. He felt a mixture of fear and awe. The latter emotion greatly because the beast was so large and he so small in comparison. The thing that made his arms fall down along his sides in surrender was the fact that he was entirely at the mercy of this great serpent. There was nothing he could do, even if he had wanted to. But, for now it seemed that it would not come to that.
“I…” Oryn began, a wave of nausea washing over him. The visions he’d had along with the pain made him dizzy. He wasn’t sure where he was or where his belongings were. His sword. Scarnesbane. But somehow that didn’t seem to matter just then. Oryn swallowed and sighed. “Who are you, great one?” He heard his own voice and the uncertainty that had crept into it. “Where am I? I brought the hammer as Yivarna instructed, but… I don’t know where it is.”
It took everything in him to remain where he was and not step back from the serpent. He considered kneeling, but as that had always been something of great difficulty for him, Oryn did not.
“You are where you stood this morning,” the serpent said. “Or rather, as it was before what you will come to call the Scouring.”
The serpent huffed and shifted its mighty head to level one golden eye on Oryn.
“And, as for your hammer - it is the length of a continent away being used by the kin of Ormund as we speak. Its bearer shall be slain on the morrow, and the hammer will be carried back by more kinsmen of Gol Badhir where it shall rest for centuries to be found by you. Your swords and other belongings have yet to be forged.”
Despite mustering all his willpower to not move his feet, Oryn automatically took a single step back when the serpent leveled its gaze with him. The sheer size of this mighty creature would make anyone feel so small and so very insignificant. And as he was grappling with that very notion, it spoke in riddles which added to his confusion. Shaking his head once more in an attempt to clear his thoughts, Oryn cleared his throat and did his best to fully comprehend the meaning of the words spoken to him.
“So… I’m…” He started, feeling silly that he was about to ask if he had traveled in time. That was impossible… right? Oryn felt so strange and was so confused by all of this that he wasn’t sure time meant the same to the serpent as it did to him. “Ugh… I thought Yivarna spoke in riddles, but you…” Some of his usual humor was back, but it faded quickly as he soon discovered that reading the facial expression of a giant mythical creature was impossible. Oryn cleared his throat again. “Have I gone back through the ages? If my weapons are not yet forged…” He began again, but then shook his head. “Why? Why am I here? Why am I… now?”
“Because the fates have converged, a path has been chosen. What was once obscured has been made clear. In your time, I am long dead, but here where my bones lie we may yet speak - and there is much to discuss, Blood of the Alder.”
The creature shifted backwards, its multicolored splendor now muted in shadow. Those golden eyes still shone like small stars in their own right, seeming not to look at but rather through Oryn. When it blinked, it felt to Oryn as if a pair of spears were being pulled from his body only to be stuck back in place when once again they opened.
“Long ago, the Alder walked this world, mortals capable of touching Mael’arhrun.”
At Oryn’s puzzled glance, the creature bowed its head.
“The Essence, as you might call it. They discovered ways to view the future through the Essence, an imprecise art if ever there was one. Moments fragment into a thousand more, and those into a thousand more each. When they came across my kind and learned of our gift similar to their own, they sought a kinship with us without fully understanding their foresight.”
The creature shifted through the pillars, its serpentine body slipping between stout cracked stone.
“To glimpse the future when one will not live to see it is dangerous. To a mortal man, to change an event a century from now is as unlikely to change one from his past. This the Alder did not understand. More and more they began to see the coming of a great doom and as they were want to do, they looked to divert the disaster. But where one man plants the seed, the next may trample the sapling and plant it anew elsewhere. They fought and they argued what visions portended which fate and what, if any, were true at all. All the while, with each generation that passed, they undid countless attempts to divert the flow of time.”
A pillar collapsed as the creature wrapped itself about it, crushing it beneath its weight.
“We saw more clearly than the mortals the way to avert the doom they foresaw, but as we tried to shift the strands of fate, we angered the Alder. War followed. Many of my kind were slain.”
Another pillar collapsed.
“When the fighting ended, the Alder sought to ascend to immortality to better understand and control the flow of time as my kind had. They banded together and conjured forth massive flows of power from Mael’arhrun. It was too much for them to control, and they shattered the world.”
The serpent wrapped around the chamber now, scaly length encircling the pillars on either side of Oryn and peered down at him once more.
“Some were consumed by the flows and became the Mael’taishern, Blood of the Power. Others were imbued with the Essence in their flesh, the Mael’taishael. Last were the Alder themselves, scattered across the world. In their arrogance, the Mael’taishern came to believe the doom meant the fall of their own civilization, and in believing it so they acted in ways that brought it about instead. The Mael’taishern were cruel to the Alder that remained here and crippled them, burning out their ability to touch the Essence and wracking their bodies until they were stunted versions of themselves so that no other might wield the full extent of the power against them. In doing so, they believed that they had stopped the portents of doom, for it was known that the doom would come from the power of one not born to the Blood of the Power who could touch the Essence. Even with the wisdom of ages, they remained as blind as they had when they were but mortals.”
“You, Oryn, are wound in that vision of doom. When you unearthed that hammer in Gol Badhir it made clear patterns of fate in which the doom might yet be turned back instead of merely delayed. You are Tai’shern Alderthum, Blood of the Alder, and though my sight grows weary with age I see in you an important role yet to be played.”
As the voice of the serpent trailed off, echoing through the chamber, Oryn stood with his mouth open, unable to speak. The silence that followed felt suffocating. Struggling to process all of this information, Oryn blinked, let out a breath he did not know he had been holding. Though he had stepped further away from the serpent each time it moved and each time it crushed a pillar under its weight, it was so large that he could not see any change in distance between them.
“I am not Blood of the Alder.” Oryn said, furrowing his brows as he did so. It was almost on instinct that he said it. He didn’t want to be part of anything that carried such importance. “I can’t be…” He then added. “I’m the son of… Well… No one. Nobody. Parents that gave me up. Didn’t want me. Just like all the other gutter rats in Ashfen.” Oryn had been looking down at the ground, though not really focusing on anything. Now he returned to the moment and his eyes refocused on the serpent. “If it’s a hero you want, you’ve found the wrong man. And if you look for heroes to play their important roles in your web of fate, in men like me, then I truly fear for the future of this world.” Oryn shook his head, scoffing. He didn’t know where this courage came from. And he was not quite done talking yet. “There are so many people better than me. I know them. Nathyen, even though he can be a little shit sometimes. He is a good man. Aria… One of the bravest people I have ever met.” He paused for a moment. “Niowyn… She-” Oryn looked away for a second, gritting his teeth, unable to find the right words and unwilling to share them here. “I came here to deliver that damned hammer. You and Yivarna can find someone else.”
“A hero?” The serpent chortled, a noise that grated on Oryn’s ears and sent the hairs on his arms bristling up. “Heroes. Villains. These words are conjured by mortal minds to tell stories of the confusing world they inhabit. Tell me, Oryn, do you think it not equally likely that Piersym was once touched by destiny. Would you call his actions heroic? The fabric of fate weaves as it wills, and cares not for the morality of men. Try as you might to step aside, your fate will call to you all the same. Let history decide your labels, act how you believe you must, but know that your being is woven into this fate no matter your personal feelings.”
“I don’t want this fate!” Oryn shouted. He felt anger. Desperation. He felt like a child, screaming at a parent. But he truly meant it. He did not want this fate to be his. “I just want… I just want to go back and live my life. Kill things. Drink. Love, perhaps.” The last part came out as barely a whisper. After a moment of silence, Oryn scoffed, shaking his head. “But I guess, if what you say is true, it doesn’t really matter what I do. If my fate is going to call on me regardless, I guess I should make the most of my time here.” He said, realizing it as he spoke. Oryn had told himself he had lived like that all his life, but now he began to realize that might not be entirely true.
Having calmed down somewhat, his shoulders relaxed and his breathing evened out. Oryn sighed after a few moments and then nodded to himself. “I’m leaving the hammer here. I don’t want its power. No one else should have it either. It’s too mighty a weapon.”
“A curious choice.”
The serpent slithered forward, coiling part of its scaled body about one of the remaining pillars. Hot, damp air brushed Oryn’s face from the beast’s nostrils as it moved its head close. Fangs a hand’s span in length glimmered in the darkness, and those golden eyes glowered down at him as the serpent came to a halt.
“There is a gift I must give you before we part. I’m afraid we will not speak again in this or any life, and there are things you must know.”
A sensation like a splinter buried into Oryn’s flesh suddenly burrowed into his mind. Itching and stinging and agitating it remained for a moment that seemed to stretch into infinity. When it stopped, he was alone, back in the room he had been. Darkness enveloped him, and the wound in his shoulder flared in pain as he felt for it. The blood had already scabbed over, and hunger panged at his gut.
The feeling of a splinter under skin lingered, less prominently than it had before. There were memories buried there alongside the splinter, memories that were not his own. Visions and recollections and stories as varied as they were confusing, the longer he probed at that part of his mind, the more confused Oryn became. His head ached, and thirst parched his lips and throat made worse by probing at the splinter.
Suddenly, the room was spinning. The pain and the gravity of what he had just experienced washed over him and he felt nauseous. Oryn coughed and it was all the more unpleasant since his throat was dry. Then he fell to his knees, tried closing his eyes to keep the room still, but he felt more and more dizzy and nauseous until finally, he vomited. When he was done, he spat to clear his mouth of the taste. Then he coughed again, wiped his mouth and nose and slowly got back onto his feet.
The light was so scarce that he could only just see the extinguished torch on the ground. The one he had carried in here. Oryn bent down and took it, lighting it in seconds. And that made him realize that he had all his belongings again. His sword, his dagger. All of his pouches in his belt. The hammer. Oryn grabbed a hold of the handle, slowly freeing it from his back and holding it in his hand. He looked down at it, wondering if this was the right decision. Then he gritted his teeth, nodded once and raised it high above his head. When he brought it down, he struck the ground with all his might. The sound that followed was deafening and for a second he thought lightning had struck as fire flared up and around the weapon. Oryn fell back and when he could focus on the hammer, he saw that the rocky ground was sundered around it. The metal of the head was buried halfway into the ground, the hilt sticking up at an angle.
Brushing himself off, Oryn sighed and stood up. He picked up his torch once more, held it over his head and gave Scarnesbane one last look. “May you rest here for eternity and never fall into the hands of evil.” Then Oryn turned around and walked away.
Erskine jolted in surprise at Oryn’s approach some hours later and rushed to appraise the man. Judging from the dwarf’s expression and the disbelief that crossed his face when his hand met solid flesh, he seemed to believe Oryn to be a ghost. The dwarf shook his head, braided beard flailing about with abandon.
“Gave me quite a fright, you did,” he huffed, beckoning to a smoldering fire nestled in the alcove of what might have once been a shopface. “By my count, you’re nearly a full day late.
Weary and with aching bones, Oryn sat down. He undid his belt so that he could remove his sword and dagger. He placed both weapons within arms reach and then leaned back. Eyeing Erskine he chuckled and shook his head. "Pour me a drink and I'll tell you everything."
After Oryn finished explaining everything from the Others to the encounter with the serpent, Erskine shook his head.
“You lot are an interesting one to put it mildly. Tell me, though, were those eyes of yours always so yellow?”
"What?" Oryn's head snapped up and he looked at Erskine. Then he grabbed his dagger, pulled out the blade and tried to catch his reflection in the metal. "If this is a jest it's a poor one Erskine."
“I swear it, it’s like two gold coins winking at me when I look at them.”
"Not only did that overgrown worm talk to me about fate and blood, it has now also cursed me with this." Oryn said, frustrated. He put the dagger back in its sheath and threw it on the ground.
“Blessing, curse,” Erskine shrugged. “All a touch too mystical for my tastes. Anything more supernatural than a parlor trick, and, well, you’ll see me running the other way. Seems whatever it is you did back in that valley’ll before you came to Molestown will stick with you. I know the feeling - the Hell Maw stays with me, perhaps in a less magical sense but it’s no less a burden for it. The question is, will you shoulder it or let it crush you?”
“To be honest with you, Erskine…” Oryn said and sighed again, shaking his head. “I’m not sure I can shoulder it alone. I was not meant for this.” Despite everything the serpent had told him, Oryn was not ready to believe it. He was not ready for the responsibility. “But these are thoughts for the morrow. Now, where’s that drink?”
Already the lamplighters were darting about the city, using their poles or the arcane arts to add the orange-yellow flicker of torchlight in support of the fading sun's liminal tendrils of fire. The shadows, lengthened as they were, stretched over the lower tiers of the city and cast the lower third of the city in what was known as first-night, for the day's light would linger above for an hour more but for those at the ground night had already donned its cloak.
Sabine, as did all other thieves, enjoyed first-night. It left more hours in the day to act under the cover of darkness while others still not ready to call the day finished still wandered about. She could blend into crowds when required, or slip away into shadows when she pleased. First-night was one of many ways those in the Aether District were at an advantage compared the lower tiers, even without the tenuous peace between noble and brigand. She passed a patrolling Steelcoat and nodded, recognizing the man as a guard sergeant named Josha. Josha returned the gesture and made a point of turning the other way along his patrol, hand slipping from his sword.
A sword, not a cudgel. What a fraught peace it was beginning to be. It did not take much for a cut-up gutter rat working the streets to spark the undercurrent of tension, from both her own people and the nobility above. Between Father Lock's convenient absence behind closed meeting doors, the Humanist Society growing bolder by the day, and the hushed mutterings of Others as close to the Veil Sabine allowed that perhaps it was a touch more than an undercurrent.
An undercurrent made more apparent than ever in the last three days.
Sabine had heard the news of Lord Narder Tolpher's fall from grace among the nobility with the commoners. That in itself was enough to rouse suspicion - Tolpher was a friend of the secret peace, and she had dozens of informants embedded in the Aether District besides. Tolpher was uncle to the man Nathyen had fancied a few years gone by, but she had been able to track his movements for weeks now and there was no link between the leaked news of the Lord's affair and Nathyen's seemingly randomly wanderings. With none of her informants squawking, Sabine had taken measures to meet the Lord personally and at great effort secured a private audience at the Wayward Courier, one of the lower tier's seedier establishments.
Her arrival was met with little fanfare or acknowledgement. All knew her, cloaked or otherwise, but the Wayward Courier had a particularly nasty case of selective memory when it came to Sabine's comings and goings. Her hand darted to a concealed dagger when a hand gripped her by the shoulder and she tensed.
"Easy now," the innkeep, a thin reedy human named Alzeth, said. "Just wanted to warn you he's brought Steelcoats."
"That fucker," Sabine spat. "Steelcoats, here? He must know how that looks."
"No uniforms, but they aren't any sellswords I know, and noble guardsmen have more between their ears than this lot. If you need me to gather up some men, I can-"
"That won't be necessary. If he wants to posture about with swords, let him. His situation won't be improved by killing me, and neither will ours by killing him. At least not yet. Thank you, Alzeth."
Without another word, Sabine moved on through the common room of the tavern. The patrons knew not to pay her much mind, and little changed about the dimly lit common room's bawdy comradery as she passed. She moved on down a narrow hall at the end of the ground floor and entered the third door on the right, shutting it closed behind her and locking it using the dwarven mechanism by the wall.
In the narrow audience chamber swung a single chandalier half-lit with candles, plumes of melted wax dripping down from the base of the brass and iron fixture like stalactites. A plain, worn wooden table dominated the room. It was wide enough to keep its occupants more than an arm's reach away, low enough to keep hands in plain view, and long enough that one had to shimmy along the wall to pass from side to side.
And situated at the other side of the room sat Lord Tolpher, flanked by a pair of burly-looking humans in leather jerkins, cudgels displayed plainly on the table. Sabine unsheathed her own blades and laid them atop the table before seating herself opposite the Lord, giving him a look-over. Obviously a lord from the cut of his hair and beard, and no true criminal would wear a cloak so fine even if it was as dark as her own. Hardly the worst disguise he had dared to grave the Wayward Courier in, but then neither was it his best.
"Care to explain what's going on?"
"I would think to ask you the same. Who else has the talent so readily at their disposal to plant such false information in my own quarters? Has Father Lock truly let the peace slide to the wayside?"
"Your peers have their own agents. The peace only extends to my people and yours. Care to tell me why you or your mistress didn't catch this before I heard the town criers screaming it from the street corners?"
"My mistress? I-"
"Stop. Don't lie. You're going to run my patience thinner than it is, Tolpher. Speak openly."
"Fine." The Lord adjusted his shirt collar. "That's why it must have been one of yours. My connections to my peers run deep in the Aether District, as do hers. Not as deep as our coffers, and no bribes have loosed any name except the Albyn boy. Something about his idealism and hatred of the secret peace now that he's aware of it, and too young to let his pragmatism win out over his idealism."
"The Albyn boy? His family just died, and from last recollection he's a sickly boy without half a decent thought between those ears. All swans and poetry with that one."
"Just so, seems the sort to break the peace and hire one of yours unwittingly, no?"
"One of mine would know better than to work with some idiot boy like that. I've already shaken down everyone there is to shake down, no one's fessed up. No one's fled the city. I have nothing on this one."
"Then perhaps something more will come of this meeting than implying blame after all," Tolpher said, lips pursing in a thin, smug smile. "I heard a rumor from one of my men, at first seemingly irrelevant. Are you aware of the process by which a noble's wardrobe is laundered?"
"Spare me the details and posturing."
"Right, as it so happens there was an incident in my laundry. Petty theft, the sort that oft goes unnoticed. A button, or a pin. To be frank the details don't really matter, but the person implicated does. He was a good, loyal man, had been on my retainer as long as I've been lord of the house. A grungy man, to be sure, not without his proclivities, but he had a habit of scaring off the slackers."
"So he has fun with your washer women and you keep him around, seems like the typical fuckery I'd expect from one in your station."
"Not so. The sort of fuckery involved in keeping this particular fellow on the payroll centered around his connection to your enterprises. He knew the sort of types to watch out for that might, shall we say, infiltrate my staff?"
Sabine crossed her arms.
"And what does lady-groper have to say on his case?"
"He recalls a red-headed woman, the one that accused him of the theft. He had a choice few things to say about her to be sure, but then I got to thinking. How many red-headed women live in this city? Not many, you see that sort of thing in the north and the west. So I think, why not investigate this a bit more? And there we have it. An innkeep, at the Casual Pint. Recalls a few robed men meeting with a red-headed woman a few weeks ago, about the time this woman ends up in my laundry."
"And I take it you want me to confirm it isn't one of mine?"
"Oh very much so, because once that little spat is out of the way, we can go back to being the best of friends knowing neither of us worked to betray the other. How lovely, isn't it?"
Sabine pursed her lips in a smile. Better to let the lordling think he was still in the good graces of the Guild for now. Better he did not realize he no longer had the political agency to be relevant to her designs anymore. He still had resources and ears in places she did not.
"Why I'd love nothing more. The Casual Pint, you say?"
"The one and the same."
"I wager I'll find an excuse to go a-peeking there in the next week or so, then. Heard their ale is particularly excellent. Why, wouldn't be so wonderful then if not a Steelcoat was in sight when I went to look about?"
"Why, I seem to recall giving the Steelcoats assigned to that block the day off, come to think of it," Tolpher said, matching Sabine's sarcastic tone.
Casual Pint? Red-headed woman? One of Nathyen's companions, no?
Sabine stood and bowed her head in a gesture of mock-respect.
"Then it's settled. I'll take a look."
The Faceless walked alone in the dark. Armored as it was, its footsteps did not so much as echo with the brush of a fingertip over silk as it strode through the hall. In its right hand it clutched between empty fingers a blade blacker than midnight, thin though to slide between a man's ribs and yet stout enough to hack apart castle-forged steel. Its left reached out ahead, armored palm outstretched and fingers curled as if to grasp at something.
The pull was strong here. Strong enough that the Faceless knew it was coming close. It paused, glancing about as if it still had eyes, a remnant of a time long-gone, and continued. What could have been minutes, hours, or perhaps even days passed. The Faceless took one step after the other, pulled along by the tug of the power seeming just out of reach. Never did that midnight blade slip past its fingers, nor did its limbs grow weary as it pressed on. One step, then the next. Then the next.
Finally. The lure of the power was inescapable now. The Faceless inhaled out of habit, and yet no air filled its empty lungs. It exhaled nothingness and the blade in its hand vanished. Guided along like a droplet of water down a rope, the Faceless's hands reached forward and wrapped about the hilt of a new weapon. Power surged through its empty hands, coursed through where limbs and guts and bones might have once been. With tremendous effort it pulled, feeling the earth groan and crack beneath it. The sweet pull of the power drove it along, though physical muscles had long been cast aside the Faceless was nonetheless emboldened by the surge and renewed its efforts.
With a final crack of earth and the crackle of fire, the weapon came free. The Faceless held it upright in both hands before resting it by its counterweight atop the ground. One lifeless, formless hand reached and wrapped about the head of the weapon and the metal of its once-fingers hissed and burned at the touch. Bit by bit, globs of molten metal fell to the floor and hardened there before collapsing into ash. The Faceless was remotely aware of pain. Aware that pain was a thing it knew once. Smoke filled the air, and the Faceless half-remembered the scent of smoke and burning flesh. It wondered, were another to stand beside it, would it smell those things now?
The burning ceased, and shortened metal fingers clutched at something small and round, polished smooth. Eager, the Faceless pulled the small object forth and held it aloft, letting its dim red glow fill the hall with light. Oh what greatness lay beyond such a weak prison, what legends long forgotten waiting to see the light of day. Soon, oh so soon it would be left free to blot out the sun with its wings once more...
Naming a Shielder:
Niowyn's training is nearing its completion, pushed along by Hamath ahead of the 'typical' schedule for reasons he is not being forthcoming about. With that comes the need for Niowyn to name a Shielder to honor the tradition, and be appointed to the rank of Arcanist proper.
A Knight of the Realm:
After assisting Matthias in ridding the Veil of the Others, the Knights of the Raven are initiating Aria into their ranks fully as a Questor. Matthias will preside over the knighting, and leaves the morning after off on his own venture in service of the Quest.
A Debt Owed:
Aoife has held up her end of the bargain, and must now speak to the robed man's informant to get in touch with him. Once she has secured an audience, he will be able to provide the information she seeks.
Arianell Oresh COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | Folks
The Shroud | The Aetherkeep
Aria’s mind, since arriving back in the Shroud, had been rather a state of transfixed dread. The significance of telling Niowyn about her marking had been punctuated rather abruptly by the notion that it could not only not, in fact, be healed, but also that she had potentially put her dearest friend at risk. For a small time, she had considered telling Nathyen, too, but his own stress was rather obvious, and she dared not put him in danger as well. Living with the mark of that monster on her arm, in a city where no questions would be asked before ending her life was no simple task, and the weight was taking its toll. In truth, the end of their time in the Shroud could not come quickly enough… Not that the road ahead of them would prove any easier.
When she was called to meet Matthias then, in the Aether Keep, there was a certain uneasy tension that curled deep inside her belly. Arriving early that morning, Aria waited by the entrance of the keep, twisting the chain around her neck with an absent-minded anxiousness, her only comfort that her brother was the least likely, of any she knew, to trick her into some kind of ambush.
The morning sun had yet to break the horizon of the mountain into which the Shroud had been carved, casting it in a haze of light that teetered on the edge of dawn and twilight. The city was still, as was custom for the one day of rest of the week. A handful of guards, some steelcoats and some Knights of the Raven, wandered about the Aether District but paid Aria no mind as they patrolled. From the Aether District’s gates she could spot a small crowd of cloaked figures approaching, passing between the rows of statues dotting the road. They wore a mixture of blades, spears, and axes, though not so much as an extra sliver of steel marked them.
The closer they came, the more certain Aria was that these were Matthias and his accompanying Questors, Knights sworn to wander the land. Shard’s weight at her side reminded her briefly that Maud had likely stood here once, as she had. Likely taken the same oaths.
“Gods, you look as though you’ve seen a halfman in broad daylight,” Matthias said once his party had come within conversational distance. “Brighten up - the day is fine, and the company is excellent.”
As it often did, her brother's voice brought with it an immediate sense of comfort, and that warmth carried with it a smile, as Aria looked to Matthias, "If none of us worry, who will keep your head on its shoulders? Still…"
And while the smile remained, there was a delicate twist of nervous energy to her tone, "Why the procession? We're not headed out again, are we?"
“No, not so,” Matthias said. “Come on, this way.”
He gestured for Aria to follow, and guided her through the training grounds west of the Aetherkeep. There was a spirit of good humor about the gathered Knights of the Raven, and as they walked they chatted about small matters. A jest here, an anecdote there. Their woolen cloaks, dyed a mixture of greys and whites, while somber in appearance did little to dampen the spirit of the procession.
At the grounds’ northern fringe sprawled a small wood, gnarled trees sprouting from the cliff side of the mountain walls behind them. Though they towered to heights to rival the inner keep of the Aetherkeep behind, the scale of the Shroud still dwarfed even these aged pillars of oak and pine. The ground underfoot morphed from well-maintained gravel and wooden planks to well-trodden dirt pierced through with veins of grass and moss. The leaves overhead were rich greens tinged with yellow, their brilliance muted in the absence of direct sunlight. Looking ahead along the path, the wood seemed to leap out of a twilit fairytale with grey and rich brown bark flanking a hazy, dawn-lit trusses of leaves and undergrowth almost giving the illusion of mist.
Into the wood the Knights of the Raven went, their demeanor taking on a more serious note as they trudged through the dirt. The crunch and hard tap of leather boots shod with iron and steel was replaced with the delicate faint squishing of boots in fertile soil that took Aria back to time spent on a farm south of the Wall. A silence bordering between amicable and stern fell over the group, and time passed in equal measure swiftly and slowly. Minutes passed faster than the seconds, and when at last they came to the end of their path the dawn sunlight was beginning to strike the upper bounds of the Shroud in its full glory.
Where they stood rested a small rounded patch of worn dirt set with moss-covered paving stones arranged in a semi circle about a small plinth of stone so crumbled that it might have been mistaken for an accident of nature and not, as Aria was sure, an intentional placement. She could not tell if the grooves and ridges dotting the stone’s surface were the result of delicate carvings now worn smooth with age, or just the happenstance of generations of rain and wind and sun taking their toll. It was stained dark about its edges, though Aria was not certain by what in the shade of the trees.
Matthias reached into his cloak and produced a small stone, black as a starless night. So complete was its darkness that it seemed not to exist in the same space as the flesh of his hand, soaking in all the light the dimly lit wood had to offer. As he stepped forward towards the stone plinth, the passing rays of sun pierced through the foliage and a brilliant red highlight shone from the edge of the stone. The blackness within took on a fraction of the red’s light, gone as Matthias took another step and the shade of the trees dimmed the passing light once more. He laid the stone at the center of the plinth and drew his belt knife. His fellows did the same and took up positions about the semi circle of paving stones, each kneeling before the stone.
“This is the Raven’s Heart,” Matthias said flatly. “Within it rests a drop of blood from every Knight of the Raven to live since the Scouring. It is an aetherstone, passed through the generations, a living memory of each of our brothers and sisters to take up arms against to stop the Long Dark. So it is that they live on, their essence not yet fully departed from this world. To join us is to never truly surrender this fight - it is a duty you bear in life and in the death of your physical body. Never dead.”
“Never dead,” the fellows echoed.
“Kneel, Aria. Take your belt knife and lay a cut across your palm.”
Slowly, Aria approached. It was not fear that controlled her movements now, but reverence, as she passed by the brothers at arms. Oddly, she was reminded of the times back home when she and Matthias and Cal would spar in the barn, silly childish antics eventually giving way to something somber and deep… an unspoken recognition that what they were doing bore a sense of purpose and importance beyond them.
Kneeling, Aria slid her knife free and gingerly ran the sharpened edge of the blade along her palm, until a thin streak of red had marred the pale white. The orb shone with a maroon light, sinister in the dim light of the wood about Aria. As if pulled by a rushing stream, her hand fell towards the sphere and the world about her back to recede from view.
Fire spread along her forearm, searing pain lighting her nerves. When she tried to scream, her lungs refused to fill with air. Her feet fell out from under her and she hovered in the darkness, rushed forward as if by a storm’s gale. Silhouettes flanked either side of her, muttering words in languages she did not understand. An eternity the length of a breath passed, and she was back in the clearing, the steam of evaporated blood floating in the air. When Aria lifted her hand, embossed on her palm was a silvery raven with wings outstretched.
Wide-eyed, her gaze darted about the other knights, before falling on her brother, deeply etched with a concern she could not voice in current company. Strange markings were not a new thing… but as of late, they were also not the most encouraging, “That… that’s meant to happen, then?”
Matthias removed his glove, palm outstretched. A white scar ran down the center of the bird’s body. Replacing it, he gestured for his fellows to stand and the sounds of sheathing knives rang through the clearing.
“We do not know why or how the gem marks you, but it is nothing but a brand, like the cattle back home.”
“Ah, well, there’s no better way to put it, is there?”
“Dad always did say soldiers were a lot like cows…” Pushing up, Aria stared down at the mark, smiling dryly, “Though back home, initiation’s more a two hour lecture about armor wax and a pledge half of us couldn’t remember by the time we finished speaking it. This is it, then?” Looking this time to the others, there was a touch of nerves to the question, “I’m in?”
“Not so simple,” Matthias said with an apologetic smile. “You may go by the title Knight of the Raven, but, well, I suppose I should have explained the Lodges.”
A pause, silence broken by another of the fellows, a tall gaunt woman whose smile was missing a handful of teeth.
“You’re a Questor now. One of the ones doing the real work, not one of the old louts like the Lion.”
“Hush now,” Matthias interjected. “No need to disparage our brothers and sisters. Yes, Aria. We are Questors, a Lodge within the Knights of the Raven. That orb you touched was found by one of our siblings in arms after the Scouring, and has been our Lodge’s artifact and initiation ever since. There are so few non-Questors that the terms Knight of the Raven and Questor may as well be one in the same, if you ask me.”
“Even this far from home, the usual officialdom… But I think I understand.” Her gaze flickering briefly to the toothless quester, she smirked lightly, “Neven found much valor sitting behind a desk, all the same. I feel like… like I should say thank you. This is an honor.”
“You earned it,” the woman said before Matthias could open his mouth. “Not many would bring back a sword they could get for a handsome price in the market, fewer still want to go back out there.”
“Just so,” Matthias said. “You want to show your thanks? Then earn it.”
“I will.” She gave a nod, “You know I will.” With an oddly sober look, she stepped closer to Matthias, “But I’m not going with you, am I?”
“Our paths diverge - where I must go, you must go elsewhere,” Matthias said, softly as to be lost in the sounds of scraping boots as the fellow knights began to walk back down the path. “Fate wills as it wills, and we are cast along its threads.”
“Maybe we put too much stock in fate…” She muttered, but with very little real feeling behind it. Her eyes shifted to the palm of her hand and a small, weary smile appeared, “What do you suppose Cal would say of all this? You suppose… He’d be proud, yeah?”
“I think he’d call us both too noble for his blood, with the pomp and circumstance,” Matthias said with a small smile, reaching out to rest a hand on Aria’s shoulder. “Remember, a piece of us live on together here now. No matter how far apart we drift, here that fragment remains.”
The hand on Aria’s shoulder withdrew, picking up the gemstone instead.
“Don’t say it like that…” Aria’s smile fell away, and she covered his hand with her own, giving a sturdy shake of her head, “You’ll be back in no time, and the Keep will realize I’m an absolute disaster and everything I’ve done has been utterly by accident, and they’ll keep my here until I’m old and grey. And when all this is over, you and I, we’re gonna go back home. Or not. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is, we’ll be together, Matty. And when we’re good and ancient, then we’ll find Cal and Mama in that other world, after all this, and he’ll tell us we’re right stupid for getting mixed up in soldiering.”
Hand falling away, she rubbed her arm, “When do you leave?”
“Tomorrow. At first light.”
“That soon…” With a humorless chuckle, Aria shrugged, “Will you come to the inn tonight? We should celebrate, before you go.”
“I’ll be there,” Matthias’s smile did not reach his eyes.
He placed the gemstone into his robes and turned to walk down the path, hesitating to see if Aria would follow before continuing.
Aria, however, had turned back to the sight of the ceremony, and found herself staring for a moment at the odd crumbled stones. Fingers balling around the marking on her palm, she shut her eyes briefly and her words left in an inaudible whisper, carried only to the ears of whatever spectral light brought life to the deep woods, “...You keep him safe.”
Unrolling her fist, her gaze shifted to the space where the other mark still rested on her forearm, and with an uneasy breath, after a few seconds more, she turned around again and followed in Matthias’s wake.
The Arcanist’s Order was eerily empty in the dead of the night. Not a single student could be found lining the great halls of libraries or flowing from one staircase to the next. Shadows cast upon the floor from the dancing flames of the torches that lit the hallways and in the emptiness of the Order the sound of footsteps echoing through the great walls filled the still room. Niowyn had found herself in front of her mentor’s chambers plagued with questions about the Mark of Piersym - just exactly what was it? And what was that emptiness when she healed Aria? What was pulling at her when she placed her hand upon the mark? There was too much that she didn’t know. How could she protect those she cared for when she, herself, was in the dark fumbling around?
“Hamath?” a gentle voice beckoned as a small knock came at his door before it unlatched and was pushed open a crack to allow her voice to meet whatever person was inside. “Are you here?”
“Niowyn?” Came the reply, the voice cracking. “Are we not scheduled to meet tomorrow?”
"Yes… but I have something I wanted to talk to you about."
“Come in, come in - what’s troubled you enough to come in the middle of the night?”
Niowyn stepped lightly into the study as though she was afraid to make her presence known. Instead of taking a seat at the old wooden desk in the middle of the room, Niowyn found herself in front of the bookcases that lined Hamath's study. Delicate fingers brushed the ancient binds of the text.
"Can you tell me about more about the Mark of Piersym.."
“A curious thing to ask so late into the night,” Hamath said. “What is it you wish to know?”
"I know and I apologize for that…" Niowyn said. "What exactly is the Mark? What does it do to people?"
Hamath’s face hardened, and he examined Niowyn with an impenetrable gaze.
“Before I answer that, I need to know where you heard about it. You are not marked, are you?”
There was a frantic edge to his voice, and his knuckles strained white as they clutched the edge of his writing desk.
"It's mentioned in the very books of this great hall.. but it's never written about in length." Niowyn looked over her shoulder though she did not meet Hamath's eyes. Instead her gaze fell to the floor. "I'm not marked.. but I may have encountered it."
There was a pause.
“Niowyn, this is not some roundabout way of saying you have fallen in with followers of the Spellbinder, is it? If it is, I’m afraid I cannot help you. There’s little to be said for the mark, and if you’re with those who have been marked… well, my advice would be to stay away. Leave the city, if you must.”
"I haven't fallen in with the followers, Hamath." Her words came sharply as she turned to face him. There was fear masquerading as anger on her face. "I know you know more than what you're letting on and you're just trying to protect me.. otherwise you wouldn't be as cautious as you're being. But I concede that I am also dancing around the truth. I just need to know that I can trust you with what I'm about to ask.. there are forces at play that I just don't know enough about and I need your help to understand them."
Hamath’s hand had wrapped around the outline of the seal he wore about his neck, which he released as Niowyn faced him. He winced, closed his eyes, and exhaled softly.
“You know how you can trace flows of Essence back to their source?”
At Niowyn’s exasperated nod, Hamath continued.
“So it goes for those that bear Piersym’s mark. Nothing says you could not so mark someone with Essence, as Shielders and their charges might, but whereas ours is a mark that exists independent of this world, Piersym’s mark sears the flesh and the soul, if such a thing is to truly exist. All creatures of the Other can see you, and are drawn to you like vultures to a corpse. To be marked is almost certainly a sign of Piersym’s favor, though in the waning days of the Last War it was said he marked those he could not kill right away but wished to keep constantly surveilled. He can haunt your dreams, send his soldiers to find you, and perhaps…”
He hesitated at something, shaking his head.
“Perhaps more, but it is unclear. It is not well documented, nor well studied. Most marked end up hanged within the hour of the mark’s discovery and, well, corpses are only compelling subjects for the physikers.”
Niowyn leaned against the bookshelf. One hand cradled her elbow as she brought her other to her chin. "...so he is connected to you. But wouldn't that mean you can use that very connection to find him?"
Blue eyes met Hamath's. "I saw the mark. And when I touched it, I felt what I felt on the Dead Sea. It was a bizarre void. Nothingness… but there was almost a pull." she sighed. "But maybe people have been thinking about it all wrong. Maybe that pull, that void, that nothingness.. is exactly what is needed to uncover the Spellweaver… or whatever dark secrets lie beneath this world."
“Perhaps, but you would go mad were you to linger in that void for too long. You might become a Misshapen, or you might simply vanish from this plain altogether. The Other is not for mortal minds to observe, Niowyn.”
There was a sharpness in that last word, almost chastising like a parent would a child. Hamath hesitated, shaking his head and massaging his brow.
“I step too far in my authority over you. Forgive me, I’m used to students half and half again your age. I just mean to say, many have tried what you are saying and none have yet to live to tell of it.”
“I see…” defeat played at her tongue. “I just thought, maybe we could use this mark to our advantage rather than it just be… a beacon for him.”
Niowyn signed. She crossed her arms and found her gaze drifting into space. “I know the mark cannot be healed or removed… but when I healed the burn I could feel The Other. It was as though something was being pulled from me… and then there was… darkness and chaos.”
“What will happen to someone who has the mark?” Niowyn looked back to Hamath.
“I suspect over time they become one of them, one of the Others I mean. No one knows for sure. It is unlikely Piersym can do much else with it, lest he would simply snuff us out like candlelight in a breeze.”
“What can we do about the mark? What can I do about the mark?”
“Do about it?”
Hamath froze, knuckles straining white against the tabletop. He shook his head.
“Nothing, except learn to live with it. If you deem the companionship of those marks a necessity, do what you can to protect them. But…”
The mage’s eyes narrowed and he stood, pushing past Niowyn to shut the door to his study.
“There is one who might teach you what you need to know of the Other. How to… look into it. Not control it, but safely grasp at it. To the north, in New Maidenholm you may find him, if he still lives. I will teach you all I can, but he will have what you seek.”
Niowyn watched in curiosity as Hamath’s disposition changed - he looked as though he was a child telling a secret. Niowyn knew the old man knew something but she also knew the risk he was taking by telling her and she was grateful for that.
“Who is he, Hamath?”
“I knew him as Ferum, though I hear he goes by all sorts of titles and names now. Soulcatcher, Voidstalker - the commonfolk have endless imagination when it comes to their firelight tales.”
“And he’s in New Maidenholm?”
"When last I heard, yes."
“How do you know about this man anyway?” Niowyn asked with a curious eyebrow.
Hamath's eyes twinkled with a touch of tired amusement.
"He never lived in the city proper. When I was a boy, he lived in the nest of rocks by the coast called Shipbreaker Bay."
“I have a feeling you’re holding out on me, old man.” Niowyn crossed the room and sat in one of the chair’s in Hamath’s office. “Are you going to tell me the truth or are we leaving it at carefully?”
"He was my father's court magi when I was a boy. He grew increasingly interested in the Other, to the point it became a danger. He was banished, and stayed conducting his research on his own as much as he could."
“I see.. so he was closely connected to your family.” Niowyn sighed. There was a chance she could help Aria and it was a chance she was willing to take - but would the others feel the same? “How do we get to New Maidenholm?”
"Head north, and cross the Alben at its western tributary. At Tinville, you can commission a vessel to ferry you across the Giant's Gap and continue north. A handful of old roads might still lead you along from there, if not then head to the coast and continue north."
Niowyn looked up at the old man with a grateful but sad smile. “Thank you, Hamath. And not just for this, but for everything. I’ve heard rustlings that you have taken more time to work with me than others in the past. Why, I do not know… but because of it I will be naming a Shielder soon and will become an Arcanist proper. I have learned more than I could know from you and for that… I must thank you.”
The smile that touched Hamath's face did not reach his eyes.
He sounded tired, defeated, but the warmth in his voice shone through.
"Have you decided upon a Shielder?"
"I think I have always known but I've been battling with the decision. It is a big ask to ask someone to bind themselves to you for life in a way that is more significant than a wedding band upon ones finger…" There was only one person she could think of asking to be her Shielder. There was only one person that made sense to her. The warmth on her face was reflective of the feelings that she had developed for him. “... but yes… I have decided who I want to be my Shielder. I’m sure you have seen him before - he is a companion of mine, Oryn Valahn.”
“Have you brought it up to him? It is not a commitment to be taken up lightly.”
"We have talked about what a Shielder is before and what it means to become one… but I have not yet asked him"
“Then, in lieu of presenting you with any reading you do not manage to complete in half the time I expect, that will be your assignment before our next meeting. The officially scheduled one, I do hope.”
"To talk to him about being my Shielder? I know what I'm asking of him… this could be the toughest assignment you have given me yet, old man." Niowyn grinnedim..
“Good, you deserve to feel challenged at least once while you’re here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the hour is late and pleasant as your company is, I think it is time we both rest.”
Niowyn headed to the door and stopped before exiting. She looked over her shoulder and smiled at the old man. "Thank you for everything Hamath. Have a good night"
When first Aria had encountered her brother, the sense of impending doom, a shadow cast over her since arriving beyond the border, had lessened into something dangerously akin to joy. Now, hours before his departure, knowing full well the nature of his journey, those two feelings seemed oddly converse. In her mind, always a constant source of fear and threat, the mark loomed, present not only on her own person, but on her brother as well… Already, their task seemed near impossible, now clouded in the unknown and darkly obscured. He had come and they had drunk to good fortune and talked of the past, laughed and reminisced and courted an air of lightheartedness that felt of home and peace. Her heart, however, was anything but in their parting. As his form faded into the darkened streets of the Shroud, the foreboding notes… memories… stirred at the back of her mind, lingering and clear as glass.
“But of course you would not have it yet. I still sense the other, too, and there must only be one. That there are two of you is… an anomaly. No matter. I will simply have to kill you both.”
He would come for them. Whatever he had said, it was not mere curiosity that drove him to mar them with his image. The Spellweaver would not rest while she and her brother drew breath.
She sat now, absent, before the fireplace, her knees drawn up to her chest in a huddle that brought no real comfort. The flames licked the darkened clay of the firebrick, warm and bright, but Aria felt cold, and as a shiver traced the length of her spine, skin prickling with discomfort, her fingers, unheeded, found the hilt at her side, curling at the ready.
The old door to The Casual Pint swung open and a figure appeared against the moonlight. As Niowyn stepped through the frame, the light of the tavern revealed her face and as always, she carried numerous books in her hands. Like any other night, the Pint housed many guests and weary travelers. Scattered across the room were what she had come to know as one of the regulars, which now included herself considering her extended stay there, and then there were faces unfamiliar.
Niowyn spotted Aria by the fire and as she walked toward her, she signaled the bartender for a drink. What she had learrned from Hamath about Piersym’s Mark was invaluable information and even though she knew it was a risk to ask him… she couldn’t sit by while her friend was consumed by an unknown force. Niowyn just hoped that Aria would understand why she sought help.
As Niowyn drew closer, she noticed the young Knight reach to her side. “Preparing for battle, are you?”
Shaken from her thoughts, Aria gave a small jolt of surprise, before recovering with a light, humorless chuckle, “Seems like it, anyway. Just thinking. Always thinking.” A soft sigh escaped her lips and as her fingers eased, relaxing into her lap. She looked to Niowyn with a slightly more genuine smile, though not without its own mark of pensiveness, “Matthias leaves at first light. I’ll not see him again for some time.”
Niowyn found herself seated cross legged next to Aria in the oversized arm chair before the fire. Her books laid to rest on the small table next to her where a bar maiden had placed her drink. Niowyn nodded to the bar maiden a thank you before turning her attention back to the young knight. “Where is he headed?”
“He heads north to the Wailing Keep.” Her fingers glanced along the flat edge of Shard’s sheath, a twitch to her jaw, “He searches for a blade… something called Hyanda Wendë. The Virgin Blade. It’s… it’s spoken of in legend as the blade that will slay the Spellweaver. I had hoped that I might go with him, but that is not to be my path.” Rubbing the silvery mark on the palm of her hand, her gaze met Nio’s again, “I was made a Quester, today. Officially.”
“Hyanda Wendë…” Niowyn echoed as she assumed her classic thinking position with forefinger and thumb at her chin. A blade to slay the Spellweaver? She wondered if there was texts on such a thing in the Arcanist Order.
A quizzical look came next when she noticed Aria rubbing her palm but her quizzical look soon gave way to nothing more than a genuine smile. “A Quester! Are we happy about this? Do we need to celebrate?” Niowyn asked as she had already waved for another drink to be brought over for her friend.
With a light laugh, Aria shook her head, “We’re something of the errand runners, but personally, I bit more gratifying. It’ll be something to celebrate, if Matty can find that blade. It’s strange to think that there might be an end to all this, after all.” Fingers glancing along her arm, she shivered lightly as they came to touch the spot beneath her bracers, where the other mark lay, her voice lowering, “I think it’s why we were marked… I think he’s meant to find it, and that frightens… well… you know.”
“About that…” Niowyn started as she drew a long sip of courage from her ale. “I’m glad you didn’t go with your brother because there is something that I need to discuss with you.” She looked over her shoulder to ensure there were no listening ears about. “I couldn’t stop thinking about that night when you came to my room. You aren’t from our lands, Aria… you do not deserve to carry such a fate upon your arm. And when I couldn’t help you that night…” she paused, knowing what came next. “I couldn’t sit back. I have access to a tower full of knowledge - and not just in texts… but within people as well. I might have a lead on someone who can help you.”
Paling lightly, Aria straightened, and with a wide eyed gaze, she stared at Niowyn, “...Nio, please tell me you didn’t talk to anyone about this. Least of all the Arcanists.” Fingers curling over her arm, she shook her head, “This mark… it’s… it’s not well received. If they find out I have it, they will kill me. No questions. No trial.”
“I know the risks that come with his mark, Aria.” Niowyn looked away again, recalling just how Hamath reacted when she asked him about it. “... I didn’t just bring this to anyone. I brought it to Hamath and although I did not reveal where I saw the mark, he is a smart man and likely could put it together. But with that being said, you’re still alive, aren’t you? And it has been a few days since. We can trust him.”
Niowyn sighed. “Hamath is not like the other Arcanists and I’m not just saying that because he is my mentor. It is in his reactions. When I first questioned the mark and how I could use it… to look into it. A doorway works both ways. But he was angry… in a way that was wracked with fear. Almost as though he had experienced opening that door before. And then, Aria… he was nervous to tell me what he told me next.”
Niowyn leaned in. “Soulcatcher” she hushed before leaning away. “He knows of someone, someone from his own past, someone close to him who can help us. The old man can only teach me so much about this mark and how to help you… but he told me this man, Ferum, will know what we need to do.”
“...Slow down.” Rubbing her brow, struggling for a moment to shake free of the creeping dread that curled itself around her chest, she relinquished her grip on her arm, “Supposing your mentor isn’t sending anyone our way to burn me at the stake, I don’t… I don’t understand what you mean? A doorway…? And how can he help? This man…? Can he remove it?”
“It wouldn’t be just you that is burned at the stake. It would be me and the old man as well. The Order would act swiftly, within hours because of the threat and risk the mark poses, and now that both he and I have concealed this… we are just as guilty.” Niowyn took another drink. “His mark connects him to you… but that means the mark is also connected to him... or at least that is my theory. When I healed you, there was a pull. It was similar to the pull that I feel when I am touching the Essence. But it is not the Essence, it is the Other. Hamath said it is dangerous to linger there for too long but that this man, Ferum, can teach me how to look into it safely. I don’t know if we can remove it… but maybe we can learn how to use it to our advantage.”
“...What do you mean, the Other?” Sinking back, Aria frowned, “If it’s connected to the Spellweaver, why would there be a link to the Other?”
“The Other… it is hard to explain. Think of the Other as opposite to the Essence - parallel to it even. It has always been thought that the Other is inherently evil or bad because of the creatures and demons that are born and exist from within it. But I am not so sure how true that is.” Niowyn rubbed her chin again. “But why the Spellweaver is connected to the Other… that I do not know. But maybe that is something we can learn from Ferum. Hamath told me the last he heard was that Ferum is in New Maidenholm.”
“Nio… I… I don’t know. There is a mad risk with what you’re suggesting. If I’m to die for this mark, so be it. But you getting involved… and the others? I could not ask any of you to take that chance. What would be the benefit? If we were able to do whatever it is you think this can do, it would have to be worth that risk. I trust you. You know I trust you. With my very life. But it has to be worth the cost…”
"... And why is your life not worth the cost, Aria?" Niowyn sharply retorted. "The Spellweaver is a plague on my lands. The horrors and the atrocities we have faced because of him… I will not allow him to take someone else that I care about. IF we can do something about that mark, that is cost enough. And IF we happen to learn more about Piersym and whatever is happening in this world now… then that is an added benefit."
Falling quiet for a moment, Aria staring into the fire, eyes a quiet storm of emotions, none of which seemed to settle or ease, even as the words came free, “...I will not allow any of you to die for my sake, Nio. That must be clear, before I agree to do this. If I am to fall for this mark, it I, and I alone… Even if you need to throw me before the Arcanists, yourself. You do not take the fall for what he’s done to me. Understood?”
“You lost the ability to make a demand such as that when you came to my room that night, Aria…” Niowyn drew another sip of ale. “It is as I said before… should the Order discover that I knew this information, even protected this information, I would be considered a traitor and face the same fate as you. And even if you disagreed and refused to journey to New Maidenholm, you could not stop me from going on my own. You need to understand that we are in this together. And not just you and I. I know the others will feel the same way when you are ready to tell them what is going on. You aren’t alone anymore, Aria.”
“I did not come all the way from Korin to the Shroud, give up everything my life was and throw myself to the Raven’s call to see my friends die for me. I have lost a lot, too, Nio. More than I ever cared to. And I cannot lose you, too. It is because I am not alone that this decision is so difficult. I have not told anyone, but you. And I regret bringing you into this, even now. I thought maybe the mark could be healed, but I see now that I was selfish to drag you into something I did not properly understand.” Shifting forward, she reached out, taking both of Niowyn’s hands, “So if I am to do this. If I am to agree to go… and to be utilized in such a manner, then you must promise something. You must promise me that you will do everything in your power to keep the others safe, and not to put yourself at further risk. Swear it, Nio.”
Niowyn smiled lightly at the young Knight and couldn’t imagine just how hard this was for her. It was true, Aria had her own demons that she was battling and faced her own losses… and now she wore a mark that brought with it feelings Niowyn could not even imagine. “I will do everything in my power to keep the others… and you safe, Aria. That I can promise.”
With a dry smile, Aria shook her head, “...I see your clever words. I mean it, Nio. I cannot let this harm you or the others. It would make everything I have done, everything I have fought for a waste.” Breathing out and releasing her, she sank back into the seat, “...When would we leave?”
“I won’t lie to you, though… I do not know what risks are ahead so I cannot promise that. But I can promise I will do everything in my power to make sure that everyone is safe.” Niowyn grinned and then relaxed back in her seat. “I’m not sure… we have to talk to the others first and that is up to you. But I wouldn’t wait too long. In the coming days I will name a Shielder and be appointed an Arcanist proper and we should look to set out sometime soon after that.”
“...You… Nio. You did not tell me you were so close. This is wonderful news!” Smiling more brightly, Aria nodded, “I’m proud to call you a friend. And who will you name…? Not that I haven’t already my very intuitive guess.”
“It seems as though my training has come along splendidly.” Niowyn shared in a voice that mimicked Hamath’s accompanied by a gesture he always did. “When I was a little girl and found myself one day hearing the whispers of the wind… I thought I was special. All of the other Tribespeople could only ever harness the voice of the water. But now, here I am, touching the flame and grounding myself in the earth.”
Niowyn drew another sip of ale and sighed. “As for who I will name… well it’s not as easy as it sounds. It is much more involved than just someone swearing to protect you. There is a ritual… in which we are tethered together through Essence… creating a bond that is only to be severed upon death in which we share our lives, feelings, and even our thoughts.” She finished the rest of her drink. It was clear that this decision was weighing heavily on her. “In short, I will be asking someone to give up the rest of their life for me.”
“...And you’ve any doubt at all that Oryn will say yes?” Smiling coyly, Aria sat up straighter, “Nio… We all would give our lives for each other, but none more than he for you. You are far too smart not to see that. Certainly smarter than I, and I noticed it months ago.”
“I know he would say yes… but that is the very reason I am struggling with this.” Niowyn lost her gaze in the crackling fire. “I need to be sure he understands what it means and not just say yes because… because of whatever feelings he may have for me.”
“Sometimes… those feelings are the reason we say yes, Nio. But that isn’t always a bad thing. I have, in my life, seen those whose lives are so connected by the force of their feelings only a scattered few times. And that is the strongest bond there can be. It can only make the relationship between an Arcanist and her Shielder stronger, still.” Her lips twitching into something slightly more sly, Aria shrugged, “You can have both, you know?”
“I think maybe that’s enough talk about Oryn and I and my little predicament…” Niowyn looked over to Aria now with the same sly look Aria had given her. “...and maybe we should be talking about a certain locksmith who would, too, give his life for a young Knight that I know…”
Biting her lip, Aria shook her head, “I’m not so sure about all of that. But there is something there… I will give you that. Which is why I cannot tell him about the mark, Nio. Not yet. Not here, where he is already at risk. We will simply need to come up with another excuse to seek out Old Maidenholm. Yes?”
“That much is obvious enough,” Niowyn grinned. “We will come up with something and you can tell him in your own time but … the longer you wait, the harder it will become.”
“I know. And that is something I will have to face, when it comes. But who knows… Maybe I won’t need to tell him, until after you’ve found a clever way to get rid of it.”
“Mark or no mark… he deserves to know.” Niowyn smiled lightly. “He cares about you, and you him, and for that simple reason, he deserves to know.”
“Would you tell Oryn? If it meant he could die for it? If it meant putting him in a position where he would need to carry that secret?”
“I am doing that very thing asking him to be my Shielder… albeit he would not have to keep it a secret. But he could die being my Shielder.” Niowyn sighed for another moment before looking back to Aria. “But if I was to have the mark, then yes. I would tell him. Because I trust him.”
A sigh escaped again and Aria rubbed her brow, “Maybe you’re right. But it is an incredible burden to place on anyone. It’s no easy task, Nio… deciding to put someone’s life on the line. I’m sure you understand. Matty’s left, and that does alleviate some of the risk it puts on his head. I will give it some thought. But it sounds to me like you’ve some thinking to do, all the same. For what it’s worth, were you to ask me, I would say yes without hesitation. You are my friend, and I could see no greater honor than protecting you with my life.” Grinning, she looked away, to the fire, “And I am not in love with you. So there’s that…”
“Thought is all I ask of you to give.” Aria wasn’t wrong - Niowyn understand what it meant to put someone’s life on the line. It was no easy task and it was one that came with a burden of its own. It was a decision she would have to make soon but before she could say anything more, she was surprised with what the young Knight said next. Love!?
Niowyn shot Aria a look with pinked cheeks and stood abruptly. “Well then! I think it is time to drink, shall we!?” she announced as she avoided Aria’s remark and marched toward the bar.
Still grinning, Aria left her chair and followed along, without another word beyond the telling expression upon her face.