Kaustir, Chapter 4

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  1. CHAPTER 4
    The Blood Soiree

    May Desert Sun shine upon you this morning.


    Arise, you sons of killers and bitches. For the day is blooded. From Prosper's Shore to Eastland Cove, from Pauldron Mountains to Thorn Forest. The sky is torn and bleeds upon the righteous.

    Stand up and stretch your limbs. Wipe sleep from eyes. And kick the pretty creatures from your covers.

    It is the Seventh Day. The Purge is ended. We are one. Now close your fist with draken scale and nocturne pale, with cactus thorn and beastman fur. Brothers! Sisters! The Nation bleeds its sky for you, and in the sand its quivering heat.


    You workers of Dorgrad, take up the pick and shovel and carve your name into the earth. Towers reach the sky while your arms probe deeper. No hiding place for secrets. No realm unto the dead. The filth cannot veil itself in shadow or dust. For you have scoured your home of parasites, and turned the fiery river from your door. The jewel that shakes from ruin, you have risen stronger. Now rise again, my Equals. Rise! And be as polished gold.

    You merchant sons of Avarath, don indigo and umber burnt. Fly silks of chalk and eggshell white. Saffron and lead. Let all the colours of the newborn day to dance in Prosper's Wind. And like the swelling fruit make honeypots of market squares, and in the whore and bath houses squeeze the juices. The smoke and ruin clears. 'Tween blood and rubble flows the gold. Load up the ships and send them hence, four quarters of the world to suckle. We are strong!

    You men of Zirako, a weapon in one hand and kresnik in the other. Make stumbling steps and arch your backs upon the battlements. In Red Tower light the forges and work the bellows. Make iron of the outer walls. In Green Tower lay the sun upon the budding flowers and like broad-leaves lean to follow in its stead. In Blue Tower set the trolls to station and praise the rushing springs. Let not one drop be wasted. And in Grey Tower blow the dust from books and take up ink and pen to chronicle our deeds.


    And come ye, all you drinkers of the noble line. You watchers in the night and veilers of the day. Nocturnes! Rise! In this pure morning rise, though skin may crawl and throats may parch. Stretch out those burning limbs and sink your fangs into the day.

    For two hundred years you have suffered in the desert, and bled to build our nation. Now rise again and stretch the bodies of the ever-young. You are tireless. You are mighty. And in your blood the heroes of the ages.

    In Zirako, the spring and the fortress, we await you. Come ye, all you families of the ancient oaths. Swear again your fealty to the Sun, and drink with him to another hundred years of dominion. My nocturne lords, such mountains we have climbed and storms we have weathered. Let the dead of recent days be buried, and the pawing at our gates be damned. It is nothing! We remain!


    Insects, cultists, dissent and merchant insolence. It is ended. The Desert Sun has moved and bid no more! Now raise your swords as one, and poise your blades to Viridos. The days of the god-scourge are numbered.

    From forests dipped in poison crawl the vermin. And turn their bug eyes to the east. They look upon us, craving order and the curbing desert. They claw as they drown, for land not choked with weeds. And they will come, on that near hour, riding spiders and dragging fungus roots. A shambling horde who drool for corpse-gods.

    On Prosper sea and Chersonese our blades will cut their vines. On our shields their spores will dash and scatter to the sand. We'll suck their poison from the wounded land and spit it in their faces. The Desert Sun will pierce the canopy and hold all creatures to account.

    And they will know, that we are the inheritors. We, the Red Children of the Sundered World.

    But first we feast. First we fuck. First we remember the dynasties of glory.


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  2. Zirako
    It was the worm in the Kresnik bottle.

    He had begun to think again. So long away from the haze of his workout regime, where adrenaline and rigour consumed him. The luxury of Zirako and the teasing of the Black Tower had put a shard of idleness in his blood. And from that shard bled thoughts and memory.

    Old terrors had returned.

    Back to the sand and the sun. Back to the morning runs and the bowed contortions of press-ups and sit-ups. A fresh possession. He was the Burning Czar and must remain supreme amongst fighters and sufferers, the figurehead and phallus of the people. This was the tedium he required, the numbness in which a nation-state would find its centre.

    * * * * *​

    Before the Czar returned from the desert, Zirako had been a paragon of order. Now, with his presence, it was clockwork. Those who stirred at daybreak knew by heart the Czar's running circuit and the bodyguard gauntlet that accompanied him. They knew by the water clocks when best to clear the streets of drunks and garbage, where best to leave a thimble of blood to sate the Lord's thirst. Some old men, hobbling and senile, knew the routine so well that they would turn into an alley or doorway the very second before Lukesh passed. With no birdsong in the desert or nuance of the seasons, it was this by which Zirako marked the morning.

    Around the massive spiral of the Red Tower he ran, through the forge squares and guildhouses. The outer ring of Zirako was a sprawl of workshops and wooden shacks, the buildings crowned with sharpened pikes and jagged metal. Like the war camps of Orcs in the Thorn Forest. They said that if Zirako ever came under siege, the houses of the Red Tower could be broken down into a field of deadly barricades, the breadth of a city.

    He ran in silks, sheltered from the glare and leaving skinflake mist. Some children ran with him, and dodged swipes from the bodyguards, and through the twisting markets brought din and ruckus. This was no Avarath. The merchants dressed in dull colours and kept their heads lowered when he passed. Only roars from the lion aux gave permission to applause.

    The border of the Green Tower were marked by tumbling rose petals. He sprinted the stairways, and came up into the heady air of the garden ring. Fed by springs above, it was a world of regimented orchards and vegetable plots, where dragon vine shadows blocked the sun. He ran the narrow paths between each allotment, and cut at times through paradisaical gardens grown for rare birds and game. His hunger swelled, yet on he pushed. Birds of blue and purple scattered screaming from his aux, and rare deer and rabbits bolted or else raced at his side with pack-like instinct. Yet as he reached the caravan track he continued alone, hopping rails where carriages were ratcheted. They formed a natural assault course on which he clambered to reach the next stairway.

    In the Blue Tower he entered true paradise. Like mausoleum alcoves the third ring of Zirako was an alternating series of guard barracks and water springs. The first like fortresses in miniature, where Ipari, Commissar and Imperial Officer trained. The second sacred places, paved in marble, wafting incense and hemmed by statues, some still and in the shape of heroes; others moving with the twitch of troll magic.

    He ducked beneath the water bridges, leapt the streams, ran along the levees of the marble trenches. And when at last he reached the shadows of the inner keep, his skin no longer burned. The Grey Tower was a monolith of stone, as tall as the Red Tower was wide, shooting for the clouds in windowless monotone. He ran the inner staircases, dodged scribes and paper couriers, crossed cavernous halls where scratching pens were all that was heard. Between libraries and rooms where execution warrants, titles and deeds were stamped. At last through the hall of cartographers, and the academies of the Third Army. And finally...

    ...he emerged on the upper battlements.


    "My Lord." An Honour Guard snapped a salute and spat on the ground between the Czar's feet. "Her body has been brought."

    Lukesh peered beyond the man's bowed shoulder and saw the corpse, wrapped in bandages and placed upon the gantry. He ran no further, but in a stride set out along the stone walkway. Below the dawn sun found echo in the fire pit, and carrion birds were circling.

    He reached the body, set upon a slab, and beheld the feminine shape wrapped in pure white linen. The face was covered, the arms crossed upon the breast. It had travelled out of smoke, through sand and shadow of Avarath.

    Aukhmos dipped its head and gave a low growl, shoulders slumped in sadness. What Lukesh himself would never show was glimpsed upon his aux.

    He wiped blood sweat from his brow, panted his last racing breaths, pulled back the hood of his robes. And laid a hand upon the corpse.


    The bandages tore, a blade glinting through the hand wrappings. The corpse twisted and rose in an eruption of motion. Lukesh recoiled, then yelled as his face was sliced. The legs of the creature swept his own and he crashed upon the gantry.

    Shapes swarmed his periphery. Figures swung up from the sides of the battlement, climbing ropes he had not noticed as he focussed on the body. They closed on him. He rolled and felt his legs and side being opened. His hand shot up, grabbed the balls of the nearest attacker, and used them hoist himself. The blade arm of the man was taken and used to parry the blows of two more foes. Then a headbutt drove the man back.

    Lukesh relinquished the blade and flung it into the thigh of the next man. Then the bandaged corpse came at him. The wrappings unfurled with barbed endings, a whirl of deathly hooks. He slid to the ground, raised one leg and let the whips coil there. Then a twist and a sweep pulled her down. She landed hard, and her face was uncovered, tanned and savage.

    Velena. His whore.

    Of course.

    Lukesh counter-rolled to free his leg then palm-striked the knee of his bodyguard, Klausen. He came up with another two parries, deflecting the blows of Barnes and his brother Tyrel. The latter had the dagger in his thigh. Lukesh ducked low, gripped the hilt and used it as leverage while cartwheeling forward. Barnes was kicked and Tyrel collapsed with his wound. And as Lukesh righted he charged for Yassir before he could spit the blood from his broken nose.

    There was a crash and a tumble. He landed on top of the draken, who threw a punch that sent his skull ringing. Lukesh recoiled and blindly took Yassir's leg, tipping him over the edge. The draken was left with torso half-dangling from the edge. And as he hung there the Czar snatched the khopesh from his belt, turned, flexed shoulders, cracked neck. He was ready.

    Klausen and Barnes came at him. Blades whirled. He moved amongst them. Then his neck jerked back. The whore had mounted the slab and looped the bandages around his throat. She pulled him in, tightening and choking.

    He sprinted backwards, slammed the woman, made her grab hold of him to keep her balance. And as her weight came atop he spun with her, a whirl of whore limbs flattening Klausen. He dropped the girl on top of him then disarmed Barnes with a khopesh flourish. The last bodyguard spread wide his arms to yield, and Lukesh planted a foot on the man's sternum to knock him across the gantry.

    "Get up here, Yassir." The Czar tossed down the khopesh and put a hand to his sliced face. Then, stepping over the groaning bodies of his protectors, he returned to the other side of the gantry.

    "I'm not Yassir."

    Lukesh paused, then stepped to the verge. He grunted, then reached down to give Draegal a hand. The draken monk was hoisted to the blood-flecked platform and together they stumbled and sat down on the slab where the body had lain. There they caught their breaths, and bled their different shades.

    "I'm not a bodyguard..." Draegal muttered while holding his broken nose. "Why do I have to ambush you?"

    The Czar reached over, and snapped the monk's nose back into alignment. "Because I wanted to beat the shit out of you."

    Draegal took a few more breaths as the pain subsided. Then he unclipped his hip flask and offered the first swig to the Desert Sun. "Is this my punishment?"

    "Your honour. How many monks can say they punched the Sun?" He passed the flask back and together they drank, watching the morning sandstorms and the limping retreat of the whore and bodyguards.

    "Disguising Velena as a corpse. Your idea?"

    "A trick we would use in the monasteries, when hiding from Imperial patrols."

    "I hope you have more tricks, Draegal. The Blood Soiree approaches. You, a draken, will brew kresnik for the ruling nocturne dynasties. This act will be a symbol. A mark of unity. If the brew fails, the nation will weaken."

    "If the brew fails, I imagine all the nocturnes will switch to blood. Including mine."

    "You learn quickly." WIth a grunt, the Czar pulled himself to his feet and redressed the silks that covered him. He was starting to burn, a mist of steam and skinflakes. With slow step, the Burning Sun moved away down the gantry, one hand upon the knife wounds in his side.

    It was time to feed. And to find where Seiyr's body was truly being kept.
    #2 Asmodeus, Jun 11, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2014
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  3. Seven Days Ago...
    Glistening chocolate brown eyes stared into the cold dead eyelids of Seiyr. Her possessions, including her teleportation device lay next to her. General Lortik sat next to the partially covered corpse for who knows how long, gazing despondently into her pale face. Seiyr's carriage was in the front, but the General wanted to be with her; the others traveled behind or to the side on their camels or caravans mere feet away. They would be able to hear her. Guilt and dread gnawed at the general's heart, for wasn't she responsible for the Engineer's death? If General Lortik hadn't been a cowering sobbing mess, wouldn't they have gotten out alive together?

    But such questions were useless. Here was Seiyr's body, lying cold and stiff in their carriage as the caravan to Zirako marched on. Wrenched with her guilt, the general reached out with her hand and clasped her fingers with Seiry's. The dead did not bother the healer.

    "You weren't supposed to die. If I had been braver, if I had been a better leader, if I had done something, you would still be here." She looked away, biting her lip. "And now the Czar wants to see your body."

    Lortik's voice grew quiet.

    "I'm not fit to be a leader. Perhaps Rakar or K'jol should take my place. I've been taught how to fight and I should have done something. Anything. I should have saved you."

    She glared at the side of the carriage.

    "If Takeda had listened, we wouldn't have been in the catacombs. If the bastard listened to my orders and believed my instincts, we wouldn't have been in there. You wouldn't have been in there. We would have gotten K'jol out without injury to any of us and Theo would be right here, and we'd be traveling together in Zirako as a team - BUT HE WOULDN'T FUCKING LISTEN!

    "There's a 'higher power pulling the strings' he said. Yes and that higher power took both you and Theo away from us. That higher power made Gulzar act like a fool and almost got K'jol killed. That higher power killed all of those guards in the mansion who died protecting us, the criminals. But he had to listen to his orders, because it was his fucking job!"

    Fists slammed into the bottom of the carriage. Rage was exhaled.

    "I can't let this happen again. I can't... What sort of General am I, allowing my people to die in front of me?"

    Sweaty palms wrapped around her face. Brown eyes horror struck. Amalia Lortik curled up into herself, entering the cradle-rocking phase.

    "Seiyr I am so sorry. So very sorry."
    #3 Zen, Jun 11, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2014
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  4. The Knackery

    Theo woke to screams, first. Then, his nostrils registered the noxious stench of curdled blood. The taste of stale bile in his mouth. Hot, compacted dirt against his flesh. Once his sight returned to him, he wished that it hadn't. Before him, a row of emaciated camels dangled from massive hooks, their eyes rolling mad, their mouths foaming, as the leather-aproned knacker made his way down the line, casually slitting their throats. Their steaming blood gushed to the dirt floor, where it was lapped up by stray hounds.

    Theo was in a slaughterhouse.

    The anima was held in a cramped, filthy stable, with barely any room to move. There was an iron collar around his neck, attached to a chain attached to the wall. As if that would hold him for long. With a snort, Theo clutched the chain in his massive hands, giving it a sharp tug.


    The choking sound was enough to startle Theo into dropping the chain.

    "Hey, buddy, *coughchokegurgle* do you mind?"

    In the adjoining stall to his left was a naked dog anima, chained and collared as he was.

    "Though if that big ugly comes my way, I might ask you to do that again, but harder."

    The chains on their collars were one and the same, feeding through the wall behind then. Theo could not break the chain without breaking the dog anima's neck.

    The dog anima grinned, revealing a mouth full of cracked teeth. "The name's Blitz. Not that it matters."

    "What did a big motherfucker like you do to get caught up in a place like this? Smash up a china shop?"
    #4 Tegan, Jun 11, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2014
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  5. Seven Days Ago...
    The carriage was sweltering and stiffing. Despite her camel hide canopy, the sun bore down relentlessly. General Lortik sat there alone, wrapped in a yellow shawl and sari; beads of sweat rolled down her cheeks. Her head was bowed, but lifted her head when Rakar entered.

    "You asked for me General?"

    She gestured towards the floor. "Sit."

    Amalia had not slept for two days. Dark pouches hung from her eyes, and the sleep deprivation painted the whites of her eyes crimson. Despite the heat, her stare was chill inducing.

    "I've come to ask you a question. Do you swear to answer truthfully?"

    Her katana sat next to her, unsheathed.

    The hulking draken sat down in the carriage. It was a welcome change from the seemingly endless riding he had been doing lately. Almost a third of the past month had been spent traveling from one city to another, and the cushions of the carriage made it much more bearable.

    The General's grief stricken rant only minutes earlier was still fresh in the air. Nearly everyone heard it. It was no wonder to him that Amalia was behaving as she was now, so direct and authoritative. She was angry. Rakar knew anger.

    "Swear to answer truthfully?" He scoffed at the question. "If I were to say yes, would I be able to make you believe whatever I say after?"

    His response was dripping with attitude. He was never one to speak out against his superiors, but for some reason, she was an exception.

    "No," came her curt reply. "I simply wanted to see how you would react Rakar."

    She was... Surprised at his attitude. Rakar was typically the soft spoken sort, at least until Dorgrad.

    "Rakar Koden, in Avarath I was given orders to find and arrest K'jol as he was accused of starting the rebellion. I refused and told Takeda to hide K'jol until I could deal with the matter myself. As you've heard, he did not listen and instead tried to arrest me."

    She lifted her chin.

    "If you were in his shoes, what would you have done?"

    He grunted at the mention of Takeda. The memory of his ignorance made him clench his fists again as before. Coros took over speaking for now, perched on Rakar's shoulder.

    "I was the one who made Takeda see reason before the... attack at the mayor's mansion. If that answers your question."

    "No it does not. What would you have done, Rakar Koden?"

    There was a pause while Rakar and Coros eyed the General, sizing her up.

    "I would have found the damned fool and warned him of the situation and of your orders. I believe he would have agreed that staying hidden was the best option. Given the events that unfolded however... I doubt it would have mattered."

    "Of course it would have mattered. If I had chosen you to stay by my side instead of Takeda, Seiyr wouldn't be dead and Theo would be with us."

    She rubbed her eyelids tiredly.

    "Can I trust you?"

    He paused again, pondering her words. Would things really have happened differently if Takeda hadn't done what he did? Maybe... But he didn't question her on it. But now she was asking if she could trust him? It was a loaded question.

    "Trust me? I could ask you the same thing..."

    His words made her sniffle, but the tears did not come. She mouthed something, but sound did not come out.

    "I... I do not know who to trust. It has been made very apparent to me that I should not trust anyone, not if I am General. And even if I were to return to my position as a court healer, my life would still be in danger. Now answer my question."

    His patience was wearing thin. These past few weeks had been very stressful for everyone involved. It was for that very reason that he resisted the urge to slam his fist into the wood beneath him and rant to her about everything she was doing wrong in his eyes. Instead, Rakar took a breath, and spoke in a forced calm voice.

    "I cannot simply tell you if you can trust me or not. Trust is something you earn, something you give, not something you ask for. I realize that one of your own betrayed your trust, but that gives you a choice to make, and I will not make it for you. So you tell me... Can you trust me?"

    She felt the tension and it unsettled the General.

    "I would like to Rakar... But no, I do not."

    The tension shifted, becoming dismissive and melancholy.

    "But as it stands, your orders are the same. You are to remain my personal bodyguard."

    "And I will protect you to the best of my ability, General. Perhaps now you realize that I cannot do my job if I am sent away..."

    She issued a bark of laughter. "And what is your job? To throw your life away to protect me, an inexperienced General? No doubt you are frustrated with me."

    "I am frustrated with you not because you are inexperienced or weak. I admire you for several reasons, all of which related to your weakness. All of which you must never lose sight of... The reason for my frustration is because you signed up to be the new general, and now that you have it, you seem to be trying very hard to get rid of it. You need to stop treating your new position in society as if it is a curse, and realize that it is perhaps the greatest gift that you or any other person in this nation could have ever asked for.... You frustrate me not because you are my General, but because you wish that you weren't."

    The truth felt like several knives stabbing into her heart. Amalia held her face in her hands for several minutes, unresponsive and when she lifted her head again, shame poured from her eyes.

    "... I am naive. I admit that. What scares me is not doing battle or pursuing a criminal. It is the fear of someone close to me stabbing me in the back, or an assassin coming in the dead of night to slit my throat. How can that be considered a gift?"

    There was a twinge of remorse in his eyes as Rakar and Coros watched her. There was no doubting that she was weak, in every possible way. Her body was weak, her will was weak, and her heart was weak. How she ever managed to survive this long in the unforgiving land of Kaustir baffled the draken. It was proof that miracles really do happen.

    "The stronger that you are perceived to be, the less likely that anyone will try and wrong you or hurt you. You are weak. Everything about you is weak, and everyone you know and everyone you meet can see it. You must become stronger, but you must not lose sight of what is most important in doing so. You must learn to command respect, yet be honorable enough to earn it. You must learn to make your enemies fear you, yet remain kind enough to make your allies love you... You must become what this nation needs you to be."

    "... And what does this nation need Rakar? Another Lukesh? Another Lut? Another Kirtin?"

    His mouth opened to speak, but he stopped himself short. Another situation in which he needed to choose his words carefully. Rakar had become exceedingly proficient at figuring out the right things to say over the years.

    "No. This nation needs something... better."

    "Better? Hah! And you're expecting that from me?"

    His eyes drifted up to hold her gaze, and with a rather serious look on his face, he spoke but a single word.

    #5 Zen, Jun 11, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2014
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  6. Six Days Ago


    It is late afternoon and the sun is blazing. Normally, the caravan would have slowed their pace, but the animals sensed a nearby oasis and were pushing forward. In the din of shifting sand, bellowing camels, and the random breeze, the General instructed a guard to deliver a message to K'jol. He was to report to her immediately.

    When he entered the carriage, he would see a distraught woman draped in yellow. However, when Amalia became aware of his presence, her back straightened but the dullness remained in her eyes.

    "Hello K'jol." Her voice was steady, controlled. The air smelled faintly of Kreshnik. "I have... Something to ask you. When we first met, I recall you saying that my body would be torn up into pieces because I was a healer and did not know how to fight. Well I am still in one piece."

    (Her ribs still had not fully healed, although her concussion was largely gone.)

    "I also recall you saying that you would rather destroy me in a more 'private place.' No doubt you meant to rape me. I still can't believe I allowed you to join my expedition after saying such nasty words." She blinked slowly. "I hope your perspective of me has changed."

    The Draken warrior turned his head to the side, making sure to not make any eye contact with his General. He had been such a fool back then, saying those words right off the bat and treating her as if she were nothing. An audible gulping sound came from his throat before finally building up the courage to look Amalia in the face. It was due time for an apology. K'Jol's hands were crossed behind his back as he let a sigh escape his lips.

    "Forgive me for being such a damn idiot Amalia... I did not know what I was thinking when I said that. It's just that I... well... I used to be prone to not believing in the ability of others and that everything could only be done my way. After joining the expedition and learning more about you I learned that people could be strong in other ways, and not just by their fighting ability or the way they handle a weapon. Of course, I cannot make up excuses for the past things I have done, especially for the things that I have done to you. If you would like me to go back to the barracks and be stationed in Avarath than I will do what you command."

    It was obvious that he did not want that. Even though he had been close to death multiple times by now, he oddly enjoyed the time with the others. Especially Amalia. The way that she had changed from a court healer, abused by the Czar to being the General of the army truly astounded him.

    He also did not want to push away the person that he felt like he had one thing in common with.

    She raised an empty Kreshnik bottle, tried to take a drink, and stared into the container.

    "No you knew what you were thinking. You were thinking, 'Oh I could take advantage of this woman, and use her to benefit my social standing.' That's what it is, isn't it K'jol?"

    The bottle was tossed aside.

    "Rakar says I am not strong. Rakar says I am weak physically, emotionally, and mentally. Not a compliment. So tell me oh famed draken warrior, what the hell do you see in me?"

    K'Jol was stunned by her words, and slightly pissed off at them as well. The Draken warrior had built up a reputation for himself, without Amalia, and did not see why she was accusing him of trying to use her now. His tail moved side to side as he listened to the words that Rakar had told her. He thought that the other Draken had always spoke kindly to her, and this was something surprised him. But her last words had surprised him even greater. What was it that K'Jol truly saw in Amalia? He crossed his arms, pondering upon what he thought of her for a moment before sighing once more.

    "Well, what Rakar said to you was wrong. You've been making great progress over these times and I'm sure that if he looked at you again he would rethink his words. One does not need to be hardened emotionally and mentally to make a good general. That is one of the things I see in you. I see your potential, and I see you as someone with something in common as me. You know that from our little chat on our way back from Dorgrad. What I told you had never been told to anyone else and that was really my only time when I told someone something about my self and they truly seemed to care."

    Her voice was gloomy, muddled by the alcohol.

    "Caring seems to get me into trouble K'jol. I cared about the Czar and he embarrassed me in front of the entire court and then stabbed me in my shoulder. Nevermind that that made me General. I cared about Takeda and he almost got you killed."

    She gestured towards the convoy. "He got Seiyr though, and he didn't even have to lift a sword. Ahah! I think that was a joke. A dark one, but it's a joke."

    Amalia hiccuped. "But fine. You see something in me, however vague that something may be. One more question, I promise.

    "Should Takeda be forgiven?"

    His eyes narrowed at her joke, obviously thinking that it was not funny but he could tell that she was drunk. K'Jol looked down to the bottle at their sides. 'Probably drinking the grief down...' The Draken's gaze was reverted back to her as her last question was asked - should Takeda be forgiven. A grim expression came upon his face, obviously showing the anger that he held deep within himself for these past days. U'Sil hissed as flashbacks of the events that happened in Avarath welled up within his mind. Although it wasn't completely his fault the oriental man was partly to blame. If he had not faltered in the belief of those he had been with for most of the expedition than some events that occurred within the merchant city would have not happened. The green tail that was halfway on the ground swished madly as he thought of what to do with Takeda.

    "Damn Takeda... if he wasn't completely dick riding... err... if he wasn't such an idiot about who to trust than some situations would have not occurred. All in all it is up to you if you want to forgive him General. It was apparent to all of us how you saw him, but it is not my call to judge the man's fate. One piece of advice I want to give you is this - do not trust him completely anymore. He can still be part of the expedition but he was shown where his heart truly lies. The man is a pet of the Czar and doesn't know how to decide for himself."

    "Very well."

    Amalia squinted at the wooden floor of the carriage. Her vision was beginning to blur, but that was alright. A side effect of being drunk was all it was.

    "I know I said that was the last question, but I'm afraid another one has come up. Do you trust me?"

    K'Jol had thought that the answer to her question was pretty obvious. Amalia had not given him a reason to not trust her so he thought that he was on a pretty good standing with her. He replicated the same gesture that he did on their way back from Dorgrad, and banged a fist against the breastplate with a smile.

    "Yes General, I do trust you. You did do all you could to help me back in the cell in Avarath, and I thank you for that as well. There is no reason that you shouldn't be trusted... is there?"

    She turned to look at him then, really looked at him. Moments passed in silence and Amalia slowly smiled. It was a small relieved smile, but some of the warmth returned to her eyes.

    "Thank you. You're dismissed."

    K'Jol gave a smile back to his general before giving her a nod. He turned around, heading to the exit of the carriage before looking back to give her one last word of advice.

    "Also, it's good to drink but don't do it too much. We don't need a raging alcoholic on our hands."

    The famed warrior turned back and made his way out.

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  7. Zirako
    Durael made it home to Zirako safely. The scrolls given to him by Eimund hadn't left his side since he began his journey. Home for Durael was a small, two room shack. It was hardly a palace, but for just one person, it worked. He was left two options: destroy the information, or deliver it to the Czar. Perplexed, he sat down on his bedroll. How in the hell was he going to get the Czar to listen to his story.

    The Blood Soiree.

    But what place did a human have at a party for Nocturnes? Sure he had Nocturne connections, but would they even be invited, let alone be able to get him into the party? Even if he did get in, would he be able to get to Czar? A thousand different questions passed through his mind. It would be much easier to burn the documents right now than to go through all of the trouble of delivering them, but still something urged him to complete the task that Eimund had left him.

    A knock on his door shook him from deep thought. He moved to the door with haste; he wouldn't have his visitors wait. He opened the door slightly, so he could peek out and see who was outside. A familiar face greeted him, and he opened the door fully.

    "It's been a while, Tairyn," Durael said, letting the Nocturne inside. What opportune timing, a Nocturne friend of his showing up at his door. Tairyn was a customer of Durael's, often paying him to enchant weapons for him. Durael didn't ask questions as long as he was paid well. The nocturne tossed a small bag of gold to Durael and set down a longsword on the table. He held it for a moment. A smile came over his face, and he tossed it back.

    "I have a proposition for you..." he said picking up the sword and examining it. Tairyn looked up at him, intrigued at what Durael had to offer. "Go on then, spit it out," Durael's eyes met Tairyn's

    "Get me into the Blood Soiree, and you can keep your money for this order and others to come..."

    7 Days Ago
    Behind him, Tavark was only a small dot in the horizon. He actually made it out of that storm alive. He was energized, and in his pack he had food and water to last him on the rather lengthy trip to Zirako. The first struggle on his journey would be escaping the icy grasp of Pegulis. Sure, the majority of his trek wouldn't be snow covered and frozen, but this was not the environment he was accustomed to. Soon he was engulfed in tall, snow covered pine trees. They aided him, blocking the wind, and maybe they even raised the temperature in the area by a few degrees, but Durael still felt cold. The air was fresher here, more crisp than the oxygen that filled the deserts of Kaustir. He continued walking, stopping every once and while to rest or eat. The temperature plummeted as night fell, and Durael found shelter in a small cave. He had trouble sleeping that night...

    He woke early, packing up his camp after a meal that consisted of bread and fruit. He needed to eat if he was going to have the energy for the next part of his journey. As he walked, tall evergreens were quickly replaced by sharp, iced covered rocks. He would have to scale a mountain before he would be back in the warm embrace of Kaustir. His optimistic pace decreased in speed as the incline of his path increased. It was amazing really, how nature created such things. A giant, snow covered mountain overlooking a scorching hot desert. He had a long way to go before he made it to the peak, and the sun was in the middle of the sky. As it became colder and colder, the magic Durael used to keep his body warm intensified. Breathing was hard, but he was already more than halfway up.

    When he reached the peak, he looked back towards Tavark. He was proud of himself for this. The trip down was equally as hard. As the sun fell beneath the horizon, Durael stopped. Snow and ice changed to sand and stone, and he was exhausted. Exhausted physically, and exhausted magically. Sleep came easy that night.

    He woke up later the next day, and although he wasn't fully rejuvenated, he found it in himself to push on.

    It was warm enough now for Durael to shed his "magical fleece". Sharp, grey stones were replaced by sand, a familiar sight. Instead of the temperature decreasing with every step, it increased now. He pulled down his hood, unafraid of to show his identity in his home nation. The sight of cacti pleased him; they told him he was home. He smiled at the sight of the toxic volcano that was the entrance to Dograd. It was the first time he was happy to see the place. He stopped early that day, before darkness engulfed the sands. He ate well, and slept easily.

    The home stretch. Only three days, he estimated, before he would be knocking on the doors to Zirako. He was spurred on by his own eagerness to return home. Durael had seen the lava lakes of Kaustir many times, but each sight was an experience of its own. Even from afar, Durael could feel the heat from these beasts of nature. He could feel his home calling to him, and the sands offered no changed.

    The next two days offered nothing more than sand and cacti, but the sight of Zirako brought yet another smile to Durael's face. He could hear the city calling him from the moment he started moving, and here he was; home.

    #7 OverCast, Jun 11, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2014
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  8. Two Days Ago...

    Takeda was the last one Amalia called in. The General purposefully put off this interaction, as it greatly distressed her, but it had to be done. She had to know where she stood with Takeda, and he with her. So when they made camp that night, Amalia personally asked him to come into her carriage.

    "I'm sure you know what this is about Takeda."

    Fingertips brushed against her katana.

    "By disobeying an order from me, you put K'jol's life in danger. By disobeying an order, you allowed Theo - someone completely new to the surface world - to get captured, and even the military hasn't figured out who is responsible. By disobeying an order, you are partially responsible for the death of Seiyr, the Czar's engineer and lover."

    Her mouth grew dry.

    "By law, you should be exiled to the Wastes and left to rot. And by law, I should be as well. However it seems like we're both being rewarded for our actions, so that threat is void. There is still one issue I have to bring up.

    "If you choose to stay with me Takeda, you will be killed on sight if you disobey another order from me. Is that understood?"

    Takeda leaned back where he sat, the sun kissed carriage rocked underneath him.
    "My sweet Amalia." He said with an exhale. "You're angry with me and I understand why." He chuckled to himself. "Your dearest mentor and friend betrayed you at the drop of a hat, left you and the others to die, and showed no remorse after doing so." He put the backside of his palm to his forehead as if mocking her grief.

    The wood of the chair creaked underneath his weight as he leaned in. Takeda's piercing gaze darted all over the Generals face "Have you ever stopped to think about the outcome of your order? Hmm?" his tone was impatient and annoyed. "No. No I don't think you have. Well, allow me to educate you on the matter!" He yelled. "I go off to save K'jol, if I can even find him, then tell a frenzied group of Nocturnes to disband." his stare became more intense. "The second army guards show up, of course they tell me to stand down, so I am branded as a traitor and tossed in with the lot of you. Leaving Rakar and Arania without a clue to our whereabouts." Not even the hot desert air could could cut the tension. "You are an inexperienced little girl playing dress up in solider's clothing." Takeda's eyes narrowed. There was a long pause that was only broken by the by the howling of the outside wind.

    "To answer your question, yes General you are understood. I will not disobey another order." He saluted. "Dismissed?"

    His impertinence enraged her. This was not the patient Takeda she had known in Dorgrad, this was a careless and reckless person. What in Sunne was going on?
    Fists clenched and teeth gritted, Amalia blocked the exit.

    "No you are not dismissed. You thought I didn't know what the outcome was? If I had done nothing, K'jol would more than likely be dead because of your stupidity. As a soldier with a brain, I'm sure you would have figured out something if there were complications."

    She scowled.

    "Although I'm starting to wonder if you really have a brain since it took Rakar to knock some sense into you."

    Takeda frowned and quickly closed the gap between himself and Amalia "You want to talk stupidity? Fine, lets talk stupidity." he growled. He took her by the arm and tossed her back into her seat "Stupidity is not knowing where your soldiers' allegiances lie. Stupidity is thinking that 'friendship' comes before protecting my nation. STUPIDITY IS VALUING YOUR SOLDIERS LIVES!" He roared. "Soldiers are pawns that are only a means to an end. The sooner you realize that the better General you will become."

    The swordsman was antsy and fidgeted in his chair.

    "A scenario for you to ponder. One of your soldiers has gone mad and he's holding civilians hostage. You have to kill him otherwise he will start murdering the hostages. The problem is that you've grown very attached to this solider, and you are having trouble making a decision. There is no middle option, and no one to help you. It's him or you. What do you do General?" He leaned back in his chair.

    "Soldiers are only a means to an end?"

    Eyes smoldering, Amalia grasped the hilt of her katana.

    "I would kill this soldier Takeda, but that is because that threat is imminent. I had every reason to be suspicious about K'jol's involvement in Avarath. I had hoped you would too.

    "But since you think that a soldier's life is nothing of value, what would stop me from driving my sword into your stomach? Would you like to join your daughter and mother?"

    Takeda's eyes widened and with lightning speed he grabbed Amalia but the neck, ripped her hand from the sword, and slammed her into the wall of the carriage "DON'T YOU EVER BRING THEIR DEATHS UP IN MY PRESENCE!" He screamed. He slammed her against the wall again, his eyes stared into hers. *Plip* *Plip* The sound tear drops hitting the wood floor broke the silence between them. "I didn't deserve those two women in my life. We... I had everything before them." Takeda's grip loosened and he let her down slowly. "NO!" he brought her back up again, this time his grip was tighter. "I will not go back to being a weakling again! Feelings have no place on the battle field, the sooner you realize that the better." The swordsman fought with himself.

    The thud of her body against the carriage, the sound of Takeda yelling, and her attempts to gasp for air would no doubt summon Amalia's party. The General clawed at the hand on her throat, spittle flying from her lips. Alarmed, Matil bounded to Amalia's side but did not merge.

    A burst of energy and light separated Takeda from her, body stopped by the chair, and head slamming against the carriage. Amalia used her barrier and collapsed on the chair, struggling for breath. Through her curtain of hair, the general's eyes were ember pinpricks.

    She had seen this before in the Healer's Court, seen this change in her demented and psychotic patients. Kaustir handled such patients with chains, torture, and sometimes death. Amalia had yet to encounter one herself.

    Her voice came out ragged and pleading. "Takeda... If you're in there, you need to come out. Before the others get here, you need to get a hold of yourself."

    "Ugah!" His vision was blurred and the carriage spun "Ahhh." he grabbed the back of his head. Fraught with panic and confusion the swordsman brought his hand to his face, flecks of blood ran down his hand. His body relaxed, he opened one eye, and it focused on Amalia. "Amalia where am I? Why... Why am I bleeding?" The panic grabbed his neck and began to choke his words. "D... Did I hurt you?" He looked at his hands as if the answers were there. "Amalia I.... I... What have I been doing?" The question hung there in the air.

    She swallowed as the sound of footsteps approached her carriage. The tarp opened.

    Rakar, K'jol, and Arania stood there, wide eyed and anxious.
    #8 Tone 6th, Jun 11, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2014
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  9. Of Questions And Answers
    The days were hot. The nights were cold. The desert's harsh circadian rhythm, encompassing the extremes and ever challenging, those that would dwell there.

    When he closed his eyes, he imagined his place in the barracks, a warm candle nearby, soft, cool straw beneath. It felt like it had been years since he had experienced it - though it hadn't even been a season.

    At first, the adrenaline of fear and worry dominated his senses, blinding him to the affects of yet another trek. But a couple of days in the fear wore off and he had ample time to feel the sun's rays burn his bare torso. Gaios hung limply across his back, worn out from frantically circling overhead.

    Theo asked many questions of his captor, from Why me? to What's your name?Nassad answered none. He was a stone, a moving monolith leading Theo into a sweltering abyss. He only showed a sign of response once, to ask a question of his own.

    "Will you shut up?"

    "No. I want to know."

    "I'm telling you to shut up."

    "If I refuse?"

    Nassad stopped his horse's march and made it turn, the spin shifting the top layer of sand at its feet into a small cloud.

    "Do as I command." He spoke lowly, an veiled threat in his tone.

    Theo's eyes darted to the whip, but he didn't spend long considering its effects. He was too tired and hot to worry. "I obey my superiors in Dorgrad. I obey the First General and her peers. I do not obey you. I do not know who you are."

    Nassad lifted his right hand and shook the chain. It rattled all the way up to where it hung around Theo's neck. "As long as I am on the other end of this, my orders are absolute. It doesn't matter who I am."

    Theo shrugged. "If I were a slave, perhaps."

    Nassad yanked the chain downward, dragging the unprepared centaur stumbling forward. "Perhaps," he spat from his horse.

    And then he turned his horse around again, and the walk resumed.

    On The Road Again
    Nassad was exhausted. This delivery was much more than he anticipated. He could still feel the chain in his hand. The Czar had paid him well for this capture, but he didn't feel as if it was worth it. Nassad knew that in time this feeling would dissipate, but for now he dealt with the emptiness.

    As this feeling settled in, it was quickly replaced by an excitement, a new adventure. The news of Viridos' borders closing was a treat for Nassad.

    Once again he gathered his belongings and headed toward Avarath. This time he had a horse, and some specialty goods that may be of value to the people of Viridos.

    He was starting anew with a new ambition and the lonesome feeling of the road. Gwendolyn was forgotten. This time he would not chase some fucking horse across Kaustir. He would not be doing the lackey work of a Desert Sun.

    He took in the desert air as he cracked the reins of his horse. A slaver to a smuggler. In a matter of time, he would be sleeping under a new Sun.

    #9 Eternalfire61, Jun 11, 2014
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  10. One day from Zirako "Amalia." General Lortik stood inside Lut's caravan, standing with hands on her hips and towering over him from his seated position.

    "Why did you not answer my summons?" She had sent for him on the fourth, third, and second day of the journey, yet the Inquistors caravan that trailed them gave no response. Both caravans moved through the desert in requisite finery, bells jangling on the pummeled and compacted trail, snorting camels and hissing fire-scarabs. Yet while the Inquisitor's caravan moved with a sense of purpose and accomplishment, it seemed to be pushing the limping pack of soldiers up front, whose bells jangled listlessly and camels kept their heads low.

    "Why did you summon me?" Lut's eyes wandered around the dark confines, refusing to acknowledge her rank. His shoulder still stung, the gash now an ugly, angry red scar. Memories of his revelations fouled his mood .. but only in his dark chamber. Unlucky for Amalia, then.

    Her frustration was the foundation for her frankness. "Takeda has betrayed me. I am reaching out to those who I can tru -- "

    "BETRAYED?!" A dog's laughter filled the room. "My Amalia, did I not tell you?" The Nocturne surged forward in his chair, his laughing visage pushed inches from Amalia's. "There is no such thing, Amalia! Did I not tell you: There are no friends, General .. only business, politics, ideals, and ideologues? Do you think Takeda betrayed you? He was simply serving a leader, a vision, both greater than you!"

    "What makes a leader? Respect. And what engenders respect? Ideals." He pushed a finger against her nose. "What sort of ideals do you have? A little child, who wants to heal every wound, cries when her friends leave her, and childishly tries to drink away her fear and insecurity and loneliness, a childish childly child pretending to be an adul - "

    It was too much. Lut jerked back into his chair, cheek stinging. His beetle fluttered around the room in a panic, glowing faintly white, but no Advent.

    "I love my people. I love my family and I love friends. I love my soldiers. I want to trust them, and I want them to trust me. I ... " She clenched her fists. "I even love my enemies. Where is the fault in that?"






    "None whatsoever."

    "General Lortik."

    Present and accounted for, brown As the caravan had formed when it descended the towers in Zirako, so it broke as it ascended them, depositing Lut at the very highest Grey tower (the Black tower was unmentionable). He stood at the doorway to his office, a desk in the center with wooden, unpadded chair, giant windows behind, and immensely tall and dense bookshelfs to the left and right. On top of all the disarray of bureaucracy, one envelope sat. It was an exquisite work of art, the finest paper dyed in all the hues of red, from black and rotting to brown and clotted to red and fresh. Delivering such a letter required impeccable timing.

    As the Czar had taught him many score decades ago, theatrics were the opiate of the masses. He stood in the center of the room, attendants peeling his sand saturated khaki uniform from him. A second set of servants slid the formal wear on.

    The Czar's dog. A soldier. A bureaucrat. An accountant. A man who was just a husk to house Kaustir's codes and ideals. That's what his colleagues had said - such short lived creatures, humans and drakens and other ilk, who were just a splatter in their mom's womb while he was already carving Kaustir into the Eastern wastes. Lut loosened the tie around his neck.


    Who said that, again?
    #10 unanun, Jun 11, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2014
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  11. The Knackery

    Another glance around his surroundings and Theo had to fight back a gag. He clicked his hooves on the slabs below - slick with something unsavoury - and with an audible sigh to steady his nerves he reached up to spin one of the metals bands around one of his horns. When he breathed back in he did so shallowly and awkwardly to try not to be subjected to too much of the stench.

    "What did I do?" He looked around again at his new cage and snorted. "I obeyed."

    Gaios chittered noisily, waking slower than Theo had. He was in a corner of the pen, and immediately flapped up to survey the surroundings. "Oh boy, oh boy," he squeaked, "Someone's gonna die in here -!" Theo stopped fiddling with the rings and swatted Gaios down. The last thing he needed was his Aux playing up at a time like this and he really wasn't in the mood.

    Laying low was always the best option - until he knew what was going on and how to get out. His being there was unjust just as his capture at the hands of Nassad had been unjust, and K'Jol being accused, and all the rest of it. Someone in charge needed to be told before the madness continued.

    His eyes drifted downward to glance again at the chain. More steel. The iron in it was probably from Dorgrad, though he didn't care to check. He had never before given a thought to what happened to the fruits of his labour. The assumption was always there that it would go toward weapons and armour and tools of all manner of trades... but he had never really thought about it. To hold innocent people in bondage? It didn't sit well.

    Someone he knew might have mined the ore in the steel which held him.

    The odds were low, but he might even have mined it himself.

    He shook his head to try and clear the thoughts. Get it together, he thought. Now's not the time.

    "What did you 'do'?" he asked Blitz, trying not to look ahead.
    #11 Obskeree, Jun 12, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2014
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  12. After their sudden and violent encounter in the carriage, Amalia ordered Takeda to stand still and personally bound his hands with heavy rope. As he asked questions, begged for answers, Amalia remained coldly silent. The others, sensing her quiet fury, dare not interfere and continued forward. She ordered him onto a camel and there he remained until they arrived at Zirako.

    As they passed the gates, their General spoke for the party to hear.

    "Arania, as a healer you are no doubt aware of the illness that is possessing Takeda."

    "Yes General."

    "Then I am not losing my mind." Matil tilted her head at Amalia, as if saying, Not yet. "I am ordering all of you not to say a word about this to anyone. I'll remove his bindings when we get to the Czar's palace and I will... Attempt to fix this problem."

    The Blood Soiree brought bustling activity in Zirako. Butchers drained cattle, camels, elephants, and even humans for their blood. Merchants would use it as foamy drinks, sauces for foods, pack it into intestines as blood sausages, boil it down into a soup, or as congealed blood for dessert. Amalia admired the variety of the dishes, but even she could only eat so much of it.


    In the Czar's Palace, she and her party were forced to wait. The preparations for the party kept the Czar busy, a Court Noble told her, and the party was swept to a waiting room. At any other time Amalia would have been furious, but she needed the time to think.

    Rakar and K'jol carried Seiyr's covered body on a stretcher, and they both watched as Amalia cut the bindings on Takeda's wrist. The ropes she tossed into her bag and after rummaging through his, produced the bracelet Takeda's daughter had given him. She slipped it onto his wrists, fiddled with her crystal necklace, exhaled, hissed at him to behave, and fell into a chair.

    Time to wait.
    #12 Zen, Jun 12, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2014
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  13. Prosperos Sea

    “No!” K’larr awoke thrashing, his claws neatly slicing blankets from his body as he rolled to the swaying floor of his lush quarters. The nightmare was gone, but he could still taste its panic in his mouth. Four days ago they had begun, the open maw like some cavernous eye socket…some great hollow in the sea. Something was crawling up from its depths, hand over grey, dead hand. Sometimes it was his father, jagged teeth flashing gangrenous from a ruined jaw…the dagger still in his back. Sometimes it was Lukesh with mangled bones that splintered his alabaster skin like needles. Each night it got closer to him, a little farther up that loathsome tunnel. “K’larr,” the apparition would choke, always in the same voice, “Come flow with me. It’s so peaceful, K’larr, little K’larr. We all flow together down here.”

    Hauling himself to his feet, the merchant threw a robe around his thick body and pushed out onto the upper deck. Captain Barkah held the wheel calmly, but the dark shadows beneath his eyes betrayed his condition. He nodded at his employer and stepped back to adjust his course by the stars.

    “Won’t be long now.”

    K’larr looked up to the captain, resting his claws across the railing. Below him, the sea was calm and deadly, opaque as the distant night. “How can you tell?”

    “Can’t you feel it?” Haradha asked, pulling a small bog-green bottle from his sash. He bit the cork off and spit it overboard, swigging, “We’re getting closer. Men are waking from the night screaming with more frequency.” He wiped a hand across his mouth, “Do you know why I do not turn back?” K’larr said nothing, but reached a claw towards him. Barkah stared at him for a moment before tossing the bottle to K’larr. “I’ve sailed within sight of the Deadlands, Fought the Deep Hydras, navigated through the Everstorm, and crossed the Bloody Reef. I’ve seen worse.”

    “Who are you trying to persuade?” K’larr asked, gulping the rest of the brew. The fire felt good in his stomach, especially when the rest of him seemed so cold. Haradha said nothing, turning the ship slightly. It creaked forlornly.

    “The wind is with us,” he said at last, “By my mark we’ll make it on the morrow…if your cartographer can be believed. What will we be looking for?”

    “You dream, don’t you?” K’larr murmured, “We’re looking for the Empty Maw, a well in the sea.”

    “It knows we’re coming.”

    “So what if it does? I am not afraid of dead gods.” It almost sounded convincing on his tongue.

    Barkah shrugged his sun-dark shoulders. “A day, maybe two. More and my crew will be useless.” He pointed to the dark halos growing under his eyes. K'larr understood. None of them were getting much sleep anymore.

    “You will stay as long as I pay you to stay,” K’larr responded, “The Czar will have put his bloodhounds to my trail by now. You’re only as good as your reputation from now on.” Barkah looked down at his hands, gripped tightly on the wheel.

    “Two days, maybe less,” He said at last, “Before we see red sails. You were not subtle with your destination.”The captain didn't seem surprised. Good instincts...or perhaps he no longer cared. The draken wondered what Barkah would say if he ordered him to turn around. He would not. He was afraid they no longer could.

    K’larr tossed the bottle overboard, watching it fade instantly into the black sea. “We will not be alone, Captain Haradha. I almost feel sorry for the Czar’s navy.”

    “Do not underestimate them,” Haradha warned, brushing a finger across the scar on his face, “I made that mistake but once before.”

    “A relief,” the draken hissed, “That you have taken that lesson to heart as well as skin.”

    “Pray I do not fall, then. All the gold you hoard will not buy you another life.”

    “My Dear Captain,” K’larr chuckled, “What makes you think my riches are only counted in gold?”


    Nassad inhaled sharply. The smell of spice-bread, dried apricots, and pepper swelled in his nose and departed on his breath. As cities went, Avarath was the most preferable he'd visited. Not that he had traveled far beyond the sands, but all of that changed today. Clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth he encouraged his horse to follow through the crowded market streets. Laden with the bounty of the Czar, Nassad briefly toyed with the idea of adding a side of slavery to his smuggling operations. Ultimately he abandoned it, content to leave one life of crime behind for another. No one liked slavers, not really. You can smell the chains on them. Any man who can take another's freedom can't be trusted...but smugglers, aye, smugglers were always a happy site for a customer. Nassad grinned. Let the dregs pick at the carcass of the slaver's market now. He had the means and coin to leave the country of the Desert Sun behind. The Czar and his damn proclivities, hot days, harsh winds, and cold nights.

    Distracted with the world beyond the sandy shores of Avarath, Nassad failed to notice swift brown hands slip from the alley he was passing. Settling on his vest, they gripped the leather and yanked him from the crowd. Nassad barely thought, pulling his arm back and punching his opponent straight in the jaw. His attacker reeled, white linen and a sheathed scimitar. The slaver brought his forearm up and the bracelet on his arm glimmered. Chains leaped from the aux like striking snakes, ensnaring his opponent instantly and bringing the bound body to the ground. Standing over the heavily garbed prisoner, Nassad took a moment to brush off his vest and draw his blade, kneeling.

    "You startled me, friend. But seeing as we only have a minute of this intimate time together, let's skip the foreplay...shall we?" Roughly Nassad tore away the wrappings from the stranger's face, lifting up the blade to plunge it into his neck. Blood still stained the sand here in the wake of the draken rebellions. One more body would hardly be noticed. But the slaver paused when he uncovered the face, his eyes darkening. Nassad brought the dagger down, biting into the sand beside the stranger's head. "Trask. Heard you were dead." Trask struggled against the chains, trying to speak through a mouth of metal. Hissing his annoyance, Nassad stood and drew the chains back into his aux. His attacker lay there for a few moments longer, breathing harshly before lifting the linen up to cover the tell-tale tattoos around his face.

    "The day is not over yet," Trask gasped, rising slowly to his feet, "But I'll consider it good fortune I found you." Nassad spit and led his horse into the alley. It had been years since he'd seen Trask last but with all the swaddling it was difficult to say whether time had been kind. The man seemed nervous, leaning from foot to foot and scanning the roof lips, as if he expected something to perch there.

    "I have business," Nassad grunted, "Make it quick."

    "A delivery."

    "Do I look like a courier?"

    "Truthfully?" Nassad snorted, cracking his knuckles in a fist. Trask reached into his clothes and pulled out a letter. It was sealed with wax and a crest he didn't recognize. "I need this brought to Hosia, to the attention of a draken named Shekar. It's vital she receive it." Somewhere above them, something clattered...stones or perhaps a foot. Trask backed toward the opening of the alley, his muscles tensing.

    "The Hosian ports are closed."

    "Seek out Taama Rushwa, the tax collector. She owes me a favor and she'll know who to bribe."

    "We haven't discussed price."

    Above them, something dark leaped across the small distance between the two roofs. A brief shadow, but Trask's eyes were coal black...bleak and frightened. Nassad had never seen the thief look at him like that. "I will find you," Trask promised, "And you will be compensated well. On your honor, deliver it unopened."

    "I'll consider it."

    Trask had no more time to debate, the sound of feet clattered from the rooftop and Trask sprinted into the crowd. His body was a tumult of motion and contortion before vanishing in the sea of bodies. Nassad watched the roofs, slipping the letter against his chest. For a moment he thought he saw robed creatures with strange painted masks looking out over the crowd.

    But it was only a moment...and ultimately, Trask's problem.

    Prosperos Sea

    “Lord Merchant!”

    K’larr was dozing, dreaming of the pit and the loathsome thing crawling up towards him. This time it was Bracht, bloodied, broken legs and a listlessly dead stare. He climbed as though loping, each handhold propelling him towards K’larr. This time it was almost too close, the draken could still feel the desert-hot skin brush against his scales when he woke. The crew scuttled around him, pulling on ropes and hurling a heavy anchor over the railing. K’larr looked up at the dark, haggard face of Barakah Haradha. He offered the merchant a mirthless smile and vaulted over his head onto the deck. “Move your asses,” he bellowed at the crew, “Nightmares may be enough to send lesser crews scuttling for home, but not you. Where do you serve sailors?”

    “THE ROAR!” They shouted in unison

    “And how do we die?”


    Sure are loud…” Tharwa massaged her temples, looking across the sea and comparing it to the map she held. “Master K’larr, I think we’re here.”

    The portly draken joined her at the table, pushing aside the navigation tools as he sat, “Are you sure?”

    Tharwa resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She had also been plagued by nightmares as the ship approached its destination and the lack of rest left her in foul spirits. Instead she smiled. “The last heading taken before dawn put us at the edge of the Mark'hah Trench. We should be over it now.”

    “She’s correct,” Haradha admitted grudgingly, glancing over her shoulder, “Observe.” K’larr and Tharwa followed his finger toward the horizon where sunlight glimmered off of something massive diving beneath the waves, “Dragon Whales,” the captain explained, “They’re a deep sea creature, one of the leviathans in warmer waters. They’re most common along the Trench, their hunting grounds.”

    “And what do they hunt?” Tharwa asked, fighting the nervous tremor in her left hand.

    Barkah grinned, “Giant Hook Squid.” K’larr shuddered, remembering the three foot ivory spine mounted in his study at home. “Now, did you need to go somewhere specific?”

    K’larr removed the tablet from his person, placing it on the table. “Tharwa my dear,” He grinned with neatly filed teeth, “Might I borrow your hand?” The cartographer was nervous, and offered it hesitantly. Snake-quick, K’larr jabbed a claw into the center of her hand, grabbing her wrist before she could withdraw it. She bit off a cry of pain, noting how coldly Haradha was watching her and stomped her foot instead. The draken seemed uninterested in the outburst, holding her above the tablet as red blood dripped. When the blood touched the stone it became witchlight, a gleam so baleful even Haradha averted his eyes. K’larr felt his heart thud against his ribcage. The tablet no longer rearranged to show a map. This was something else entirely.

    “Captain!” The lookout bellowed “Light off the starboard bow!” K’larr released Tharwa’s hand and ran with Barkah to the railing. Across the sea, the same haunting light had erupted from the placid waters.

    “There, Captain,” K’larr grinned, “Is where we need to go.”

    By the time K’larr and Tharwa were loaded into a boat and rowed from the Roar, the light had gone. For a few moments they floundered in the rough sea before Tharwa spotted what the light had left behind. She could only point, the sight had stolen her breath. K’larr saw it. It saw him. The maw, the hollow pit from his dreams yawned inexplicably between waves, almost bobbing in the ocean.

    “Come. Come K’larr. Flow with us.”

    He shivered.

    Outskirts of Avarath

    Novis Stern was not prepared when Trask crashed through the front of the bar. Hours earlier Trask had contacted him and paid an advance for his services. It had come as a surprise considering Stern believed Trask had perished six years ago in the Warehouse District fire. Now he was rolling among broken chairs and overturned tables, blood bright red against the bone white of his linens. Behind him, black cloaked hunters with painted masks followed. The Wraiths of Lut Sar had done more than picked up the trail of Bracht and the forger. In the ransacked ruins of K’larr’s home they’d sniffed Trask from the glass of wine and hint of his blood. While he’d been adept at slipping from their grasp so far, the Kaustiri was hard pressed to fight so many at once. Blood beaded on his skin where blades of the Desert Dogs had cut him. One lay dead in the street beyond, the fastest of its pack to meet its end skewered on Trask’s scimitar.

    But he was slowing down. Colors swam in his vision and it was all he could do to piston his legs into a table, sending it careening into two Wraiths’ prepared to hurl daggers. Non-lethal blows. They wanted to disable him. No sense interrogating a corpse. Stern understood urgency when it was presented, leaving his mug and slithering out the front door. It was the work of a few moments to hitch his horse to the chariot, but by the sound of the splintering wood inside, he didn’t have many moments left. Placing two fingers into his mouth, Novis whistled and snapped his reigns against the mount’s broad back. Inside, Trask had taken another dagger in the leg, slowing his acrobatics to limps and desperate dodges. The Wraiths were careful, closing around him like a loyal pack. One would strike at him when he focused on the other, leaving Trask in a constant state of vulnerability.

    When Novis whistled, Trask tore the linen from his head and hurled it at the Wraith between himself and the window. The Wraith easily dodged the fluttering fabric and Trask hurled himself out and across the Avarath sand. He rolled into the chariot, gripping its front with a bloody hand and pulling his feet inside as Novis sped away from the tavern. The Wraith’s followed to the door, but did not pursue the chariot. They were not fools and their prey was wounded. Next time they found him, he would be Lut’s at last.

    “I believe we should re-negotiate my price!” Novis called down to Trask as the chariot nimbly avoided pedestrians, “You didn’t tell me the Czar was…”

    “He isn’t.” Trask said firmly, “I doubt the Czar knows I exist.”

    “A lot of trouble for a man who doesn’t exist.”

    “Wrong place, Wrong time.”

    Novis laughed, pulling a lever at chest level. Below them, the chariot sped up “A tale common to criminals, how very like you. Now, where are we going?”

    “Mayor Gulzar,” Trask murmured weakly, “I need to speak to the draken…” He slumped forward, but Novis swiftly snatched some of the linen wrappings and pulled Trask back into the chariot.

    “Let’s keep you from bleeding out first,” he said, “Hard to talk to a Mayor when you’re dead.”
    #13 Jack Shade, Jun 12, 2014
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 12, 2014
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  14. Shae - Somewhere in Kaustir - Three Days Ago, darkred

    "There. That's our stop. See?"
    Standing at the top of the dune, Shae could just hear the bustle of the market going up early -- a sign that it was going to be hot today -- over the noise her stomach had been making for two days now.

    Her journey with Nu had thus far been piecemeal in every sense of the word. Nu seemed to be of the belief that two days' rations could stretch, if you were careful. Shae was neither careful, nor particularly well-practiced in the ladylike skill of passing up meals, so at the end of the third day, they'd found a bazaar where she sold two of the three mirrors rescued from the raids in Avarath. It had bought them enough food to keep from passing out, and enough water to turn their sandpaper mouths to something slightly less distasteful.

    But Shae was out of the city for the first time in her life, and she wanted more. She called a halt just after dawn on the fourth day after having spotted telltale curls of early-morning smoke on the horizon.

    "See?" she asked again, turning to Nu, before remembering the girl wasn't particularly inclined to speak aloud if she didn't have to.

    Shae exhaled, her expression hovering somewhere between annoyance and amusement. "We'll be able to stock more rations there. Food and water. The gear we'll have to buy outside Dorgrad. It's too risky to enter the city, but I have an idea. For now, just follow my lead, and for the sake of all that is good in this world, do not kill anyone."


    They hid Oryx and the sled in a patch of dead scrub outside the gates and pressed into the bustle of the city, already thick with heat and thronging with people. It was smaller than an Avarath market, but that would work here.

    "It's the perfect size," she'd told Nu, finding she talked more than normal as if to compensate for her partner's silence. "Small enough to avoid detection, big enough to breed idiots. And idiots have the loosest purse strings."

    Without her cart and materials, Shae was set up within just a few minutes, her father's old blowpipe still strung across her back like a bow. Kneeling, she pulled together a small pile of sand and quickly sketched half a doen simple runes, all stacked one atop the other. As she finished the final one, a small blue flame leapt into the air at her feet and burned steadily on its Pyre of sand. A little girl in a tattered dress ran by, slowed down to stare, then continued on her way.

    Nu blinked. "What if no one will watch?"

    "They will."

    "No one is watching now."

    "That's not always a bad thing," Shae said. "But I am hungry. Alright, then, keep an eye out. You see anything off, tell me, okay?"

    "What is...'off'?"

    "If you see anyone here like you, we should probably run." Without waiting for Nu to respond, she tucked her forefinger and thumb between her teeth and pursed her lips.

    For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then a sunbeam seemed to break itself apart from the sky. Vitro shot into the air, trailing rainbows of prismatic light in his wake. He spun a wide circle over several of the other stands in the market, dropping scattering dancing motes of sun through crystal wings. As one, all eyes turned upward and then back toward Shae as Vitro alit on her shoulder.

    As per usual, there was an outpouring of applause and questions. People clustered closer, wanting to touch, never noticing their purses getting lighter at an instant as Vitro turned tricks in the air.

    "Is it magic?"


    "May I touch it?"

    "What does it eat?"

    Shae smiled at the last of the questions.



    By the time the sun fell, they had gorged themselves on fare so rich, Shae felt nearly ill. They had put the city behind them -- even the city girl knew better than to test the welcome of sorcery in a small village -- but they had done so happily, bellies and bags full, waterskins perspiring in the setting sun.

    Shae had "read" six fortunes that day, throwing light beams through purple and green plumes of smoke from her spelled fires. She had only one mirror left, but she used it well, even going so far as to promise a young unwed mother she might find love again in a man selling poached rat tails in a city that didn't exist. She had paid well for that news. Well enough that Shae might have opted to bathe if Nu hadn't turned all animal-skittish as the hours in the market wore on. She kept glancing over her shoulders, glaring, blank-faced, into hordes of people drawn by a show that might never again be seen by simple folk. A boy had gotten to close once and Shae had had to intervene, half afraid Nu might take his clumsiness as a threat.

    Now, though, she felt almost content, if not still a little struck at the notion that she was never going back home, or whatever was left of it. Nu sat quiet behind her, gnawing on a crust of bread Shae had almost thrown away. She had said nothing since they'd left the village behind them. Shae watched her, and at last she spoke, as if spurred on by the weight of a questioning glance at her back.

    "Will the woman really meet with her lover, the rat man?"

    Shae, lying on her back with her hands folded beneath her head, smiled through the darkness. She had set a small fire for them, blue and burning almost black to keep the light sparse.


    "You do not think she will be able to find him?"

    "I do not think he exists," Shae answered, copying the girl's tone. It was a long moment before she realized what the glassblower meant.

    "It was a lie."

    "It was a show," corrected Shae. "You enjoyed it, right? So did they. Besides it bought you dinner, so don't be so quick to judge."

    Another long silence. "You did not opt to spend the night in the village. An inn."

    "Don't shit where you eat."

    Nu looked down at the crust of bread in her hands. "I did not -- "

    Shae held up a hand. "It's an expression. Anyway, if you don't like it, you better get over that fast. I'll need your help next time."

    "Next time?"

    "We still need my gear. And I need you to hit me in the face." Shae opened her eyes to watch the young soldier's expression. "For effect." She grinned and shrugged again, her eyes tracing constellations overhead.

    "Least that one won't need any practice."

    #14 DotCom, Jun 13, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2014
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  15. The Drink, orange Draegal watched Lukesh walk away and muttered "Oh I've got a few big tricks left." He sat and finished his drink while contemplating what he should do next.

    As he sat there alone he took out another flask, it felt empty but he knew better. He uncorked it and brought it to his mouth. Before he swallowed it he muttered "
    I am Draegal."

    He tipped the flask and felt the drop hit his tongue and immediately he was assaulted with a mixture of flavors. After a few moments his mind was assaulted with images of books and caves, he suddenly hungered for food as if he had never eaten, he felt as if he had been made incomplete. Then it was gone, he found himself on the floor of an unknown place and when he sat up to observe his surroundings, he was struck with a sense of vertigo. After it faded he tried to stand up but was brought to his knees by a coughing fit and as that ended a single thought entered his mind "
    I am Draegal"

    He sat there for a bit, trying to sort out his mind. He eventually stood up and chased after the Czar. It was going to be a long day.

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  16. The Knackery

    Blitz had moved as far as the chain around his neck and the length of his cramped stall would allow. With his back to Theo, the dog anima leaned forward, steadying himself against the clopboard wall with one arm, then held his penis with his other hand. A hiss of equal pain and pleasure escaped his clamped teeth as small, interrupted streams of urine spattered into the rusty bucket below him. The urine was red and brown and gave off a putrid odor. Blitzed grimaced, his breathing slightly faster than before. It felt like he had just pissed broken glass.

    "First piss in days and it burns like a Czar's whore!"

    Finished with his task, Blitz sat in a pile of filthy hay, his bed. He gave Theo a sidelong grin of silver and cracked teeth. "You obeyed, huh? Sounds like you'll fit right in, then." Blitz scratched himself, sending a flea to flee for life--his Aux.
    "I'm the knacker's Judas goat."

    "A what?"

    "Well, Judas dog in my case. But it's a goat that lives at the slaughterhouse, and when a new shipment of fresh meat arrives, all frightened and shittin' themselves, they send out the Judas goat. The bastard is calm as it leads the rest of the stupid flock to certain death." Blitz paused in his explanation to cough, wet and ragged into his hands.
    "Starting to suspect they brought you to replace me." He laughed, but there was no humor in it.
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  17. Zirako Grey Tower
    "You look like shit."

    The khaki uniform peeled from Lut Sar hit the ground with a thud. His servants had dropped, crossing fists upon their chests and bowing low.

    The Czar stood in the office doorway.

    "A red purge. It is a season for bleeding." Lut adjusted his tie around the nape wound, while studying his master's own injuries. The Burning Sun had been training again. His side was bandaged and his cheek smeared with resin.

    The servants cleared and gave the room to the battered nocturnes. Lukesh stepped through one of the sunlight shafts from the window, burning momentarily before finding shadow by the bookshelves. "Seiyr is dead."



    "Remember that sergeant who won you the Battle of Crayvik? Gwendolyn Claudes. He was in Gulzar's mansion. Seiyr died protecting the General from his blade."

    The name sent a shudder through Lukesh's shoulders. With his back turned, Lut saw only his fingers curling at the windowsill. And when he turned there were bloody streaks in his eyes. Lut continued quickly, "Gwendolyn was with another - a man who kidnapped a Dorgradi worker from the general's comp--"

    "Where is K'Larr?"

    Lut paused at the interruption. It was unlike the Czar. Lukesh was the kind to let you finish your words, so all the better to damn yourself with. The Inquisitor adjusted his tie and followed the subject change. "I found the Warden's son: Bracht. He traded information for the rest of his limbs. K'larr sails for the Empty Maw of the Mark'hah Trench."

    At this the Czar ceased pacing, with his face just inches from the sunlight.

    "Then he goes to his death."

    It was a fair assumption. For a century Lukesh and Lut had watched the lines of mortals toppling into graves. No hungrier coffin was there than the South Sea. With arcane mists eternal at the centre of the Prosperos, a traveler had two ways to turn on leaving the Red Coast. Northward to the Avarathi Trade Route, with the safety of convoy and cartography. Or southward to the uncharted waters that lapped the Deadlands.

    All regretted the latter, and none returned. The South Sea was liquid madness; death on tap.

    "He has the finest ships of our age." Lut shrugged as he said it.

    "And we would lose a hundred were we to chase him. K'Larr knows this."

    "General Kirtin has readied only half a fleet. The merchants obstruct him and the deckhands desert him. None are crazy enough the dare the Trench."

    "Does he still have contact with the mainland?"

    "My wraiths are hunting Trask, and Jafaar." Lut's hand moved to his wound, hitching the fabric around it. "They challenge us."

    Lukesh circled the wooden desk chair, one hand trailing its back then roaming through the contents of the tabletop. The papers twisted with him and the red-hued envelope was disturbed. The bureaucratic mountains toppled. "This draken sloth makes a mockery of our empire, and seeks the same by daring us to chase him."

    Lut clasped his hands together; bowed his head. On the three day journey across the bone fields and between the furnaces, he had dwelled on this, as much as Nu and Amalia. He had dwelled on the coming wrath, the answer of the Burning Sun to his frail report. The pain that would be visited.

    "I have failed you."

    Silence. The birth and death of seconds. He felt a hand upon his cheek, fingers tracing the line of old scar. He looked again to the Czar, who held him at length, like father to child. It was a gesture ripe with memories of before; of his beating on the gantry, the dagger in his shoulder, and all the countless hardships he had taken from his lord.


    "All things do."

    The other hand lifted, took the opposite cheek. The strength was vice-like. Perhaps it wound end here - his skull crushed. The Czar's lips pursed. His face closed in. And Lut Sar shuddered as the kiss was placed upon his brow. Lukesh cradled him.

    "I have summoned the Nocturne Families. We will drink in Zirako. And I will find men mad enough to hunt the South Sea."

    He released and moved to the window again, looking out across the concentric rings of the Great City. Preparations were swirling, an industry of cooking, smithing and decorating. It was Zirako at his best: a furnace ablaze; a spring in flood.

    Then the Czar's head snapped back, a mist of skinflakes making halo as he peered to left and right of the Inquisitor.

    "My dear, Lut... where is your Wraith?"

    The question stung like any dagger.
    #17 Asmodeus, Jun 13, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2014
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  18. I had thought I was accomplished - in the dim shade without the Sun, brown "My dear Czar."

    Lut inclined his head in deference. "It appears ... that she has le .. le .. "

    "She has left."
    She left me. The Czar returned to face the window. Lut's time in the dark warehouse office flooded back to him, and red filled his vision. Why had he asked him? Was he trying to make a point? Did he guess the entire chain of events just from Nu's absence? Did the Czar want her for himself (insatiable hate momentarily filled him, an emotion he had never felt that left his fingers trembling)? Could he sense the weakness? Just from a simple question, the Czar flooded him with fresh uncertainty, frailty, and shook him like a newborn.

    Yet another item on the list of his failures. Yet another reminder of the Czar's omniscience. To the Czar, a subject was measured by his failures. It would not be worth mentioning that he had tracked down Seng and wrung every drop of K'Larr's plan from him, or his success in managing the Dorgrad unrest. These were things that comrades - no, subjects - were assumed to be capable of doing from the start. Lut tried to move past the crushing feeling to the next topic.

    His mouth twisted in distaste. The thrill of the party was lost upon him as he realized that Orvak of Dorgrad would be making an appearance. A man who prided himself on making Dorgrad a machine, when Lut himself had made Kaustir a machine. Perhaps the diamond-encrusted Nocturne would take a break from playing with ants and rats in his dark little pit. "I suppose Orvak is attending."

    "Governor Orvak attends as a representative Rasbrov, from Kolfax." The Czar turned from the window, in and out of the sun, skin flaking and not flaking.

    Lut stiffened. Perhaps this was why the Czar had kissed him - an advance comfort before he reminded him that Lut Sar was an unhoused Nocturne, who had not been identified as a DirectBorn. Most of the respect he had to earn, slice by slice, back during -

    "The Zirako campaign." Lukesh had carved a path up into the mountain paved with blood, organs, limbs, and bodies. Lut followed in his wake, a specter that trailed the monstrous Czar. It was hard to tell whether the mountain natives feared the grim beast that headed the vanguard, or -

    "My magician." The Czar interlaced their fingers, bringing them up to his heart. "When will you perform for me, again?"

    "There are other things to do now, Czar." Lut pressed his hand to the Czar's heart through their fingers, in reverence. "I attend to the intricacies of the empire, that you may stay pure." So that he could remain the embodiment of Kaustir.

    "Yes." Lukesh unclasped their hands and ran his hands over Lut's body, squeezing the musculature. "You have grown thin. Your power - lost to ink and paper. Can you even swing the sword at your side now?" He peeled the formal wear from Lut's shoulders, exposing the wound from chest to nape. "Apparently not."

    "Power is redistributed to other capabilities to best serve you, my Sun."

    Lut's face was suddenly gripped again by the Czar's hands. "And it leaves behind a void, ready to be filled with weakness."

    "Forget. The. Wraith."
    Lut's pupils dilated and his breath quickened. Agony flashed over his face. Only between them or the darkness of isolation could he afford to bare his heart, for between Nocturnes hiding emotions was as fruitless as humans trying to hide emotions from each other.

    Lukesh released Lut's head for the second time and moved to the shelves, the moment between them already burnt away by the setting sun's rays. "K'Larr's movements cripple my income."

    "K'Larr's ambition will fail him. A merchant is motivated only by coin. But what coin can he make if none will trade with him?" Lut allowed himself the smallest modicum of self-satisfaction. "You do not need trade, my Sun. We only trade to gain information from Western and Northern Witches. Dorgrad's ore output -" a grudging acknowledge to Orvak "- is enough to supply all of Kaustir's military. Zirako will gladly turn the ore into the machines we need without gold coin."

    They both knew that Avarath was only a ruse, an entire city and culture crafted for one ruse. For nearly a century, the Czar had feigned the need for gold coin, for commerce, for trade, opening up Viridos and Pegulis to gain what ultimately was their information and secrets for rocks that Orvak so efficiently dug up in endless quantities from holes in the desert. The deception would end with the Alate falling into the Czar's hands, the secrets of pyromancy and mage-fire producing whole corps of battle-warlocks, contacts to the less scrupulous in all nations, and detailed coastal maps for navy operations. The merchants in Viridos were unwitting puppets, those in Avarath disgusting bloated creatures of greed, all blinded by the power of a nearly worthless yellow metal that was only backed by the Czar's promise.

    The whole charade was about to end. Avarath would be placed under martial law. Dorgrad, though slowly corrupted by gold, would return to its roots under Orvak's guidance. Zirako, completely under Lukesh's personality cult, would use gold to wipe their asses tomorrow if he so desired. All of Kaustir would switch to a command economy. K'Larr would find the things that made a merchant powerful suddenly held no sway in Kaustir. Lut allowed himself to taste the anticipation of success. Whatever K'Larr dredged from the Trench would not aid the Draken in any of his ambitions.

    A century of planning. A plan only Nocturnes could carry out. The gathering of the DirectBorn at the party would renew old promises, and strengthen and remind old loyalties, as the Czar made his next move.

    He snapped from reverie. "Your idol, General Lortik, has returned from her expedition with our Inquisition." Lut moved backwards, head still inclined and facing the Czar, until he reached the door, that he swung open on well oiled hinges to the corridor beyond. "It is clear that her journey through Kaustir's recent difficulties has caused her to grow. She may yet become a capable ... ... ..."

    Lut stopped. The end of the sentence meant different things to the two Nocturnes in the room. To the Czar, she was some avatar of a quality he desired for the nation, or possibly for himself.

    To Lut, though ...

    ... he groomed her to be his eventual replacement.
    #18 unanun, Jun 13, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2014
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  19. The Knackery

    "No, thanks," Theo grunted in reply, daring another look at the horror around him and instantly regretting it. "I - ah... I already have a job."

    A job you abandoned. He couldn't tell if he thought it or Gaios said it. It wasn't true in any case - he had been given fair leave.

    "Whatever you say," Blitz commented with a hoarse bark of a chuckle.

    There was a pause in the gurgling sound of the dying camels. Theo glanced briefly at the bloody drain down the centre of the production line, and watched rats scurry about the floor, lapping up split drops. He shuddered. "I am a miner of Dorgrad. I have been all my life, and when this is over, I will still be a miner." He sighed. "I should never have left, really."

    "So? Why did you?"

    "I honoured the wishes of an old friend. Or tried to. I never dreamed it would go so wrong." Gaios climbed up his torso - tiny clawed fingers pricking his skin - and came to a stop on top of his head.

    "Very wrong," the Aux agreed, as if it really needed confirming.

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  20. Waterfall of Zirako
    Some said the Waterfall was built as mockery to Edelon. Some took it for a mirror, as sun to moon. In the central hollow of the Grey Tower a square staircase spiralled from peak to base and chattered with the sound of water. The highest of the mountain springs cut through here, and soaked the wall in perpetual trickle. And for every step of the thousand-foot shaft there was a recess no bigger than a fist. Inside, the life of a bureaucrat in memorial, marked by a goblet. It was what the meisters of the Grey Tower left behind, save for bones and tidy records. Most were wood and pewter; but those who served well and served long might hope for gold or silver. The cups took the water from above and overflowed to feed the cups below.

    And on and on until they reached the sand.

    Lukesh and Lut Sar turned each flight with sharp heels and keen eyes. They marked the ranks of dead men as they descended.

    "Remember The Blood Cartel?"

    Lut almost laughed, but it was lost to footfall and water. "You had me hunting down copies for nine months. By the end I didn't know what I was burning."

    "Satire is not what it used to be. I had never seen such well-written propaganda." The Czar picked the amber scab from his cheek while quoting aloud the profane text. "Nocturnes take the form of bats and must be invited into homes. They loathe the smell of garlic and a Mudra of Ilium, if held correctly, will keep them at bay. They shall not cross running water nor rise again if a stake be put through their heart."

    "The author got one thing right at least."

    "Two things." The Czar glanced over his shoulder with a savage smile. "For the text also said that we take servants . Ghouls and fledglings enslaved to our will, who feed on vermin and seek only to adore us."

    Lut Sar sensed another trap. He felt the drama in the pause that followed, and like water through composure's stone, his anger seeped.

    "Strange how we all do it," The Czar was in his rhetoric. "Me with my bodyguards; Orvak with his bastards; you with your Wraiths. We find the things that want to kill us most and build a framework for their vengeance. We direct them to serve us, and grant them the day and hour in which they may try again to take our heads." Beside him, his aux padded with bright hide and buoyant steps. "I gave no order for this behaviour. I wasn't even the first nocturne to do it." He glanced again at Lut. "We just... can't help arranging the days of the Short-Lived."

    "I never cared for garlic either."

    Lut's show of nonchalance died quickly. The Czar spun and trapped him in the corner of the last flight. With his back to the soaking wall, and the Czar before him, he could not move. Lukesh put one arm above him and against the wall, diverting the deluge, and swallowing the younger nocturne in shadow.

    "I can SMELL you thinking about her. It troubles me. I'm told she looks like the others, like the three bodyguards before her - the ones who came and went." Their eyes locked like dueling snakes, and again there was that whisper, the deep hiss of the Czar that lay beneath theatrics. "Who are you looking for, Lut...?"

    Silence. They read each others breaths. Heard each others hearts. From flickers of aversion Lut came back stronger. He answered with an even hiss.

    "General Lortik has your last wife's eyes."

    One could almost hear the goblets shudder.

    Lukesh raised a finger between them, reminding and commanding. And for the length of a syllable his voice broke. "You... are an Unhoused. Everything you have, you have taken, and the Dynasties know this. At the Blood Soiree they will resent you. And if they find you distracted... they will destroy you." He pressed the finger to Lut's brow. "Do not... be... distracted."

    Ambassador Room of Zirako
    While humans and nocturnes made the lion's share of the population and the fighting force of Kaustir, the strangest tribes were at the top. In Zirako the Burning Czar had built an honour guard of diverse talent. It was a city guarded by the ancient and bizarre, by things made nightmare in a mother's tales.

    The Jackal Guard were a unit of anima famed for their sand magic. Lukesh had burned their pyramids and used the pieces to lay the first walls of Zirako. Those who swore fealty were spared from being the mortar. Like the monks they once had religion, before it was sliced away like some cancerous organ. Now mana was their commodity, as real and mass-produced as the ore of Dorgrad. By their vigilance the Towers of Zirako were kept free from magical intrusion.

    The Culentus Watchers dwelled exclusively in Zirako. Lukesh had imported them from the Orc lands of the Thorn Forest, and made them hostage to the water springs and soil gardens. An ancient type of forest kin, the Watchers made solitary guards on the walls and checkpoints, and at times joined the Czar on formal engagements. Few spoke to these cacti and tumbleweed creatures, and those who did would hear the same thing. Like a mantra, over and over, the Watchers spoke of a prophecy - of a promise made by the Czar - that he would one day take them to Viridos, and let them choke the forests till the end of time.

    And stranger still were the Gargoyles, led by Colonel Da'Haka. A failed experiment of decades past: a forced breeding program between avians and draken. The objective obvious - to breed winged dragonmen to torment the skies. Hundreds died at birth, and as many were found useless, the draken muscle too heavy to be lifted on feathered wings. Only those mutated with a leathery membrane, and favouring the avian skeleton, were of any use. But with these traits came enhanced photosensitivity, and thus they would never see the skies. Fewer than a hundred gargoyles were kept, and today they haunted the inner chambers of Zirako, dark shapes in the rafters, eyes twinkling in the search for rats.


    It was warriors from all three honour guard that swarmed the room where Amalia and her allies waited. A Gargoyle screech made fanfare as two of the creatures soared into the rafters. And twice that number of Watchers shambled eerily to the corners of the room, trailing roots and briars. Then the Jackal Guard, with burnished armour and halberds crackling, arrived in double file. With flawless march they came towards Amalia, who had leapt up from her chair. The rhythmic clank of boot and halberd made her wince and she almost fled as they drew close. But less than a foot away they halted and turned to form a gauntlet, one row facing the other, with the General at the end.

    Amalia looked ahead, down the corridor of honour guard, and saw again her nightmare benefactor.


    The Burning Czar left Lut Sar at the doorway, and strode between the ranks of Jackal Guards. The others were to the side, beyond the gauntlet. Takeda, Arania, and the two draken who had lain the stretcher between them. But if Lukesh had noticed Seiyr's white-wrapped body he did not show it. His eyes were for Amalia. His pace quickened. Amalia braced again and kept her body level, despite the tingling in her shoulder where the old wound seemed to resonate.

    Silence fell. The Czar was before her. She searched his eyes as he searched hers. Neither spoke.

    She had little inkling of protocol, and doubted there was any such norm in the Czar's world. He would do what he willed, and make whatever show of dominance or enigma he deemed fi--

    Lukesh twisted to his right, drawing the sword from the belt of the nearest Jackal Guard, gripping it in both hands, and swinging it straight for Amalia's neck.
    #20 Asmodeus, Jun 14, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2014
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