Kaustir, Chapter 6

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  1. Chapter 6
    Interlude: Unforeseen Consequences

    [collab with @DotCom]

    Congealed, brown blood splashed into the chamber pot. A pair of hands gripped the sides of the wooden bowl, gasping, heaving, retching at intervals. A beetle raced around the lip of the bowl drunkenly. Eating was becoming progressively more difficult. His body was weakening. Swinging the rapier at his side was no longer as easy as it used to be. The psychic torture returned.


    "Nu ... Mu .. M ... NU!"

    Lut Sar swept the blankets off him. Sweat slicked his hair against his forehead, and bloodshot eyes gazed on the masked Wraiths peeking over the door's threshold.

    "Out. OUT. GET OUT!" He pushed himself upright against the headboard, hauling himself out of the bed. From where he slumped against the wall, his arm lashed out, whipping a knife into the mask of one of the Wraiths. The handle vibrated in the lacquered wood, and they both bowed low, exiting the room.

    "So .. uh, that means me too?" Shae had parked herself as tightly as she could into a corner, and slowly raised a finger to point at herself.

    Lut noticed her for the first time and recoiled, shielding his face with his arms. He collapsed at the foot of the bed, curled and shivering.

    For one, long minute, all Shae did was try to breath as quietly possible. Then, she peeled herself from the corner, sliding against the wall. She edged forward, one foot in front of the other. At the table next to his bed, she extended a shaking hand. Her trembling fingers touched the knife and it jangled, metal against the table. She jerked back, heart pounding in her chest. Paused, waited, and tried again, her fingers firmly wrapping around the knife this time.

    Holding the knife in her hand stilled her heart and steeled her resolve. If only he would move his arms to expose his face and neck -

    A chill wind swept down her nape. From above the arms that pulled his knees to his chest, Lut Sar gazed balefully at the knife clutched in Shae's hand.

    "You as well?" He stood up and Shae shivered. He took a step forward and she stepped back. He pinned her against the wall and she brought the knife up, the point steady and in between them. He leaned forward and she pushed back, the tip of the knife drawing a red dot over his heart. He pressed his forehead against hers and the knife slipped from her grip.

    "What do you hate me for, then? Do you know why Nu hates me? Because I killed her entire village. Are you surprised? You look surprised. It's a very good reason for her to hate me, right?"

    "But she doesn't have room to hate the Czar, who ordered me to conduct the purges. And she certainly doesn't hate the populace, every single person in Kaustir who feared the old gods enough to abhor any mention of them, whose black hands and faceless visages push the entirety of their fright onto me. No. She just hates me, the people's patsy."

    Heartbeats passed, and the red stain on his uniform grew.

    Shae made herself keep her breathing even, made herself look back at him, unblinking. She had Nu to thank for that. Stopless breath. She had no illusions in thinking she was fooling him. He would know she was afraid, no matter the effort she put forth to keep from shaking. He was like a dog, or a nightmare that way. He would smell her fear.

    "You flatter yourself," she said after an eternity. Her voice was little more than a whisper, but it did not tremble. That was something. "Hate...hate has nothing to do with it." She narrowed gray eyes at him. "You would say it's better that way, wouldn't you? Something about duty and necessity? That's what she would say."

    "Who else would do it?" He hissed. "The merchants will drown Kaustir in their avarice. Millions would die for a career soldier's petty ambitions. The Czar ... the Czar is the least fit to lead Kaustir's people to a new age."

    He pulled away from her, looking at the rose on his chest with disdain. He had his own flaws. Lut knew that he was not suited for Kaustir's future; he was too much of a slave to its law, too much a machine of order and terror. That was why he groomed Amalia.

    Shae let him go, her cheeks burning with shame or frustration. To her horror, she felt tears threatening at the back of her throat, and clutched the knife all the tighter, fully - mostly - ready to use it, should those treacherous tears begin to fall.

    This was nowhere she hadn't been before.

    "I don't care about the nation," she spat, her tone no longer quite so even now that it was laced with petulance and disdain. "The nation is a thing, like a rock, or a stool, or a sword, and it's one you're a slave to. You tried to make her a slave to it, and look what you did!"

    She fell silent, and for a moment, there was only the sound of her breathing, quiet, but labored, as though she had run to him across some distance. The small room stank, pressed close under a sudden heat, and she wanted to leave, only she didn't dare turn her back on him.

    "You think you're a soldier," she said, breathless, dizzy. "But you're like me. You're a liar. You're very good with words. And you think if you keep lying, maybe one day you'll believe yourself." She looked down, traced the tip of the blade along one long, pink scar that bridged her palm between her pinkie and thumb.

    "It doesn't work that way."

    "I made a mistake. I thought I could give her the tools to be free." He dragged his hands down his face, maybe to wipe away blood tears.

    Lut paused. He opened his mouth. His throat worked. The words froze at the back of his tongue. But they never came forward. Shae could see the cloak of duty forming on his shoulders, the specter of a million people clamping his mouth shut and forcing him to sit down on the bed, legs crossed and hands on knees. He looked grim.

    "I care about the nation," Lut's voice was deadly flat, "and even if I can sacrifice one to help two, I would do it."

    "You would throw me to the dogs then. And Nu." From the shadows, the Nocturne twitched. She would never see his expression.



    Lut Sar sat before a mountain of paperwork. The last requisitions and shipments. Tomorrow, he would set out on yet another Long March - the last - with the 3rd Group. The Czar's steps echoed loudly in the now empty Grey Tower.

    Kaustir was originally formed to grow his army in size and discipline. An entire nation, paid in Avarath gold to dig iron from Dorgrad to be forged in Zirako. A hundred years later it served its purpose, and he dissolved the desert nation to return his army to its original state. In one night, half of Lut's life's work was undone in the blood of the bureaucrats, and Kaustir regressed from nation back to a warlord's band. Kaustir was only ever a temporary nation: the Czar had his sights on all of Sunne. A plan spanning a century that only Nocturne patience could ever hope to execute. Only a Nocturne could squeeze a desert dry like this.

    "Amalia failed." The Czar and the Inquisitor were alone in the Grey Tower.

    A gloved finger scratched a nose. "It was a unique idea. Too bad she did not react well to the Turbatus Forge."

    "Perhaps you made the trials too hard. Perhaps you failed me too." Moonlight framed the Czar's back. Lut remained silent.

    "No matter. Our groups are spirited and willing. She was only one of many ways I could have used to spur our Nocturnes." Lukesh turned to face Lut. "Kirtin will lead the 1st Group. And you ... Generalissimo Sar. You will stand behind him."

    Lut's heart sank.

    Lukesh had sniffed out his plan. The Czar's honour guard had already awakened the Turbatus Forge, sending Amalia into a drooling madness from which she would not recover for a lifetime. Every single trial Lut had prepared for her up until that point - the infestation of Dorgrad, the blood soiree, and the ykloid pits, trials to temper her compassion, to make her suitable to be Kaustir's new leader, was wasted. The Ipari, whom he thought were loyal to his cause, were secretly loyal to the Czar. Her party - K'Jol, Theo, Rakar, Arania, and Takeda, her foils, were dead, scattered, or missing at the Czar's hands. And as his reward, Lut was to oversee a new monsoon of blood that would rival his Purges in Kaustir. He would have to remember to do what he had done so well before.

    Lukesh saw through him perfectly, and executed the most ironic of punishments. The Czar's coal black eyes glittered as he clasped Lut's shoulders. Love and hate mixed indistinguishable.

    In this way Zirako marched from Zirako. Already, vultures soared in circles around the city. The aqueducts were dry.


    The army had already left Avarath, and Zirako's 1st was on the Long March. Cannons arrived in a steady stream from Dorgrad, and sulfur was shipped in wholesale from the volcanic pits. The merchants had long been forced into the ghettos near the docks; with the trade routes still shut down, only a few could eke out a living smuggling or doing scant business with Pegulis.

    The caverns below Avarath hummed in resonance.

    No one in the empty streets saw or heard entire roads crack open, the mud adobes on either side crumbling away for the gaping maw. Below, giant tubes of metal gleamed as the sun shot in.

    The wind fishes of the 2nd Engineering Group slowly rose into the air, on the borrowed power of the Alate fragments.
    #1 unanun, Sep 24, 2014
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2014
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  2. She fell into a nightmare filled with molten rock, flames, smoke, and the cries of her band. Her skin was encased in molten iron which warped and bent to form a carapace; arms and legs elongated and her head became massive and swollen. Two eyes became four, then six. She scuttled about with her pincers clicking, climbing on wall, ceiling and pillar with no destination in mind. Far away, in a distant and desperate region of her mind there were those cries again. The crumbling of rock. The shrieks of warriors. The clang of metal.

    Why metal? Did it always have to be metal?

    Metal was powerful. Strong. Deadly.

    Mirth bubbled in her stomach.

    Amalia was drowning, drowning in molten earth and the remains of her band. There was Rakar's shield, K'jol's polearm, Theo's horn, and Takeda's katana. It was a viscous thing she was swimming in but it had a mind of its own; it was pulling her down. Up above her, pacing on a cliffside was a sand cat. It would meow towards her and reach out with a flaming paw, but she could not reach. Neither of them could reach.


    She inhaled and lava flooded her mouth. Moments later she was engulfed and cleansed.

    The healers backed away from their General who stood on all fours spitting and hissing from her sick bed. A month of restless slumber, of dabbing away the drool from Amalia's mouth, of sponge baths, and muttered talk of their General succumbing to starvation, and Amalia sprung from her sheets like a rapid tiger. Eyes bloodshot and foam oozing from her lips, the General glared at them with a mad, manic eyes.

    Aux and Crux both laughed.

    "G-General Lortik w-we're pleased to s-see--"

    "Pleased? To see me?" She wiped away the foam with the back of her hand, still standing on all fours. "I would've thought otherwise. You healers talk so much."

    The woman bowed her head, veil shadowing her face. The others followed with the same gesture. "I apologize. We thought... We thought you weren't going to make it."

    "And why wouldn't I?"

    "You have been sleeping for a month."

    "Only a month?" A deranged grin spread across her face. "I thought I would have been sleeping longer. A month isn't so bad."

    The General's voice was like sand paper, no doubt from lack of water. She swung herself off of the bed, swayed for her body had become thin and weak, and stood precariously upright. Matil bounded onto the bed and stared listlessly at nothing in particular. Panting, Amalia smiled at the women standing before her.

    "Now... About the Chersonese."

    Despite her weakened state and relearning how to properly wield her sword, Amalia insisted on coming to the take over. Even it meant fighting as a lowly soldier, she would do it. The Czar, who watched the healer with impassive eyes, was reluctant to honor her request. But to her surprise he relented.

    "But you'll fight as a soldier. Your title and people will henceforth be stripped from you. You are no longer General."

    Amalia's eyes blazed and the corner of her lips twitched. "Of course. So long as I can take part, that's all I ask."

    She donned the veil and sari not as a way to hide herself, but to make herself known. With her katana on her hips and a bag of meager medicines slung over her back, Amalia was both healer and soldier. It puzzled those she fought with, but most held her in contempt. Word had spread of her illness. Many wondered if the compassionate Amalia was going to wake from her slumber. Some were surprised that she did, and many more were shocked at the transformation.

    No longer allowed to stay at the palace, Amalia took refugee in her parents' home. Her father's permanent home was the barn, as Amalia wouldn't allow him back inside. Her mother tended to her daughter's weakened body with herbs, concerned glances, and silence. There was something amiss, something deeply wrong that Rhia wanted to speak of, but lacked the courage to do so.

    Amalia became moody and twitchy. The slightest noise in the house made her jump or worse, draw her sword. Some mornings were serene, others volatile and tense. Matil mirrored the violence and anger, but otherwise stared emotionless at the wall. But every day Amalia was outside slashing and hacking at cati and invisible enemies. Her muscles grew strong, her conviction even stronger, and inside revenge was brewing.
    #2 Zen, Sep 25, 2014
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2014
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  3. Zirako


    A loud yell erupted from the infirmary room of the military barracks. K'Jol jumped out of the bed he was upon, putting both hands to his face as he gasped for air. The greenscaled one then winced in pain. His eyes trailed down to his right leg, and he saw the large wound upon it. The gash started at the bottom of his knee and curved down to the back of his heel. Both hands then flew to the warrior's head as it began to throb.

    "What in the hell even happened..."

    A small green scarab on the corner of the bedpost reminded him of that grim experience. Images of the great metallic insect from the Ykloid flashed through his mind. Ipari were thrown from side to side, scarabs were being cut in half, and the eyes that glowed from the cavern that he was supposed to destroy. He had hopped on his scarab and tried to escape. He failed the task that was given to him.

    "I've failed you... Amalia."

    Moments passed before his eyes widened in horror. He recalled the General being atop the tower with Warden Bracht, and the order for the cannons to be fired. Was it his love who gave the command for him and his group to be rained down upon by large metallic spheres? Anger consumed his heart. Rage was the only thing that would drive him now. He had to confront the general and ask as to why she would give out such orders when it was clear to her and the Warden that his group was there. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the remains of his armor and jacket. He walked over to his tattered items, giving his armor a glare as he saw a large piece of earth within it. Green hands clasped around the fragment and twisted it while pulling as well. After a few seconds the shard gave through, and he threw it to the ground.


    "I shall get to the bottom of this matter immediately..."

    With swiftness the warrior put back on his halfway broken armor and tattered jacket. He looked around the room, seeing none of his weapons. Proper equipment would have to come later.
    After exiting the infirmary he looked around the streets of Zirako. The capitol city looked completely empty, except for a few men and women walking here and there. A low growl sounded in the bottom of his throat before he walked out into the main roads, doing a full circle to look at the surrounding area.

    "What happened to this place after the Soiree? Everything seems so dead..."

    The world around him had changed, and he did not know if it was for the better or for worse. He put his thumb to his lip, thinking about where to go from here. Who would know about what happened to the city?

    "The Czar would surely know, but how would I be able to gain an audience with him? Should I just walk to the palace... or find another who would know something... Or what about Lut Sar?"

    He pondered on for minutes before finally shaking his head. His eyes went from the dullness around him to the palace that stood higher than any other normal building. K'Jol began on his way to the palace.

    A few hours later

    As soon as he arrived he walked up to one of the five guards at the palace doors.

    "I request an audience with the Czar. I need answers to a couple of matters. If Lut Sar is around then I would like to speak with him as well."

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  4. Zirako ... or .... K'Jol's footsteps echoed on his lonely ascent to the Grey Tower. The Red Tower was quiet; no hammers landed on anvils, no forges flared with sparks and smoke. The workshops had been cut out of the cave and hoisted onto massive sixteen-wheeled carts. The Green Tower looked like it had been hit by a locust swarm. There were only holes in the sand where the succulents had been. The aqueducts ... the roaring fountains were barely a trickle now. The water trolls had long left. The timing was about right; after a century under Lukesh, the water table was deep, beyond even than the most masterful of troll miners.

    His request was swept by a sudden gust into the ajar door to the Grey Tower. It was amplified in the empty, rigid halls, and it warbled back at him through the various open windows. Papers, laws and edicts and records, fluttered idly down around him.


    Zirako stood abandoned before him. The signs of life faded so quickly from this city hastily carved into the rock. It seemed to be decaying in front of the famed warrior's eyes. Now, it looked more and more like a giant fetish erected to an Old God, by ancient Sunnephiens who had venerated them in a different way.

    The guards regarded him coolly. The Burning Czar had long left, waiting at the front gates for the last long march towards the coast. Only Lut Sar was left behind, him and his Wraiths, cleaning up the mess. From within the tower, a voice echoed. U'Sil glowed with advent light, plunging into K'Jol's chest.

    "Amalia .... [footsteps]"

    "K'Jol is in infirmary ..."

    "Does she know? Does he know?"

    "Only [echoes] ... just awakened ..."

    ".... salvage ...."

    "As you say, Rastul."

    The doors were swept open, and K'Jol winced with the screeching, U'Sil leaving his chest.

    "Ah. K'Jol." Lut swept his eyes up and down along the famed warrior's injured figure. "I am glad to see that you survived the expedition. I heard it was not very successful."

    Questions swirled in the Draken's mind. He asked the simplest one first. "What happened to Amalia?" K'Jol was forced to follow after Lut Sar as he stepped into a mechanized cart that began to rumble down the towers. The Nocturne did not seem to mind.

    "She has been committed to the healers. Apparently, Divine Weapons are not meant to be taken lightly." He leafed through sheets of paper, tossing some out the window, stamping others with a blood seal. "I will have you debriefed."

    "Zirako ... "

    "Yes." Lut smiled at the famed warrior. "We are on the march again, K'Jol. Do you remember your soldier's oath?"

    The desert is not my home. Where the Burning Czar, in all his incarnations, feeds is where I plant my wheat. Where he sleeps is where I plant my shield and spear. Where he dies is where I weep. Where the Czar sets foot is my home.

    "Where the Czar walks ...

    ... is Kaustir."
    The Nocturne gazed out the window with a certain wistfulness. Perhaps he had grown roots in his time here.
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  5. [thanks @DotCom]

    Shae felt ... oppressed under mask. The lacquered wood pressed conformally to her face. In time, the surface would feel like her skin. Some Wraiths she never saw without their mask, even when they were sleeping. Perhaps their skin had already fused with it.

    If Lut had taken on a personal advisor, it would have been a sign of weakness. The mysticism about his omniscience would be blown away. So he had to dress Shae in the form of his Wraiths, who were considered an integral part of Lut Sar's presence, one and the same.

    The cloak sat heavy on her shoulders. In between the cool linen a million chain links flowed in the desert wind. The outside of the cloak shimmered with a dangerous iridescence, thousands of tiny steel teeth. It was amazingly insubstantial.

    "Don't touch anyone through the cloak, unless you want them to look like they stumbled in a fire ant's nest."

    Her new overlord smiled from his chair. Shae snorted through the mask. Her voice sounded too loud in her own ears, and somehow muffled at the same time. She hated it.

    "That, of course, would mean attributing your destruction to an insect you wouldn't notice if it held a knife to her throat." Her fingers twitched toward her neck. She made herself sit still. "You would never." She scowled. "You wear your title like a bloody badge of honor."

    The Nocturne laughed. "I only ask that you obey me until you have fulfilled your duty. Otherwise, think what you will."

    "My role? I have a role?"

    "Of course." Lut, shocked, spoke as if the conclusion was obvious. "When a beggar asks for food, she is playing his role. When you tell the crone that her son will come back from our war, you are playing your own role. Even an ascetic who aspires to be roleless fills the remaining empty space; she has her role as well."

    "What makes you think I would help you?" She narrowed her eyes. Uselessly. "Are you going to kill me?" she added as scathingly as she could manage.

    "What use are you to me dead?" he said dispassionately. Shae watched him as he circled, something feline in one or both of them. "Your gift, used properly, would be worth so much more."

    "And that's all I am to you, isn't it? That's all anyone is. A thing with some 'worth'."

    "Of course. What else would you be? If a plant can have worth, so must you."

    Frustrated, and more than a little ashamed, she fisted her hands under the cloak, somehow feeling naked beneath.

    "Then why not just let me go?"

    "Freedom is only given to those with enough power to hold on to their freedom. So you will work for me until that is the case."

    A piece of glass landed at her feet, cracking on the cold stone floor. "Test yourself."
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  6. D
    oubt was nonexistent, an odd sensation for Amalia if she were in her natural state of mind. She was standing outside the gates of Zirako as the desert wind whipped eerily behind her. She had sent her mother away, and her father... Well Amalia still had yet to decide what to do with her father. He was still chained to the post in the barn, and she didn't want to move him elsewhere. Rhia would be safe and that was all Amalia cared about.

    thers stood around her, milling about with their shackles gently clinking. They were criminals, rapists, pickpockets, the down trodden, the sickly, and the old. Many looked like they were already on the verge of death and a part of her wished that the Czar gave them all a clean death instead of marching them forward. A mercy killing, she thought distantly, but Lukesh is not one for mercy. With soldiers and other military officials surrounding them, this was a death march. Amalia could have been on a camel or elephant, but she chose to be among the people. The need to prove herself was strong.

    et she did not feel scared. She would be without food or water, forced to trek through the deserts clad only in her silks and shawl. She was torn between showing or hiding her face, and in the end Amalia kept it hidden. The people would know who she was at the end of the march. Why show her face to the potentially dead now? It was a waste of time and energy.

    ff went Lukesh, leading the army with his own feet in the sand. Mounts or carriages wouldn't do for him. Oh no... He had to show the people that he was strong, bold, and one of the people. She gritted her teeth and pushed her way forward, keeping two carriage lengths away from him. The people would keep her hidden for now, but as the hours passed they would fall back and Amalia had to stay in front. She had to keep up with Lukesh, keep up with Lut, with the nation.

    nderneath the sun bodies collapsed, hearts ruptured, and still many others carried on. It was high noon and the carrion descended upon those who didn't make it. Amalia looked over her shoulder at those who still carried forward and for a brief painful moment she remembered the black scaled draken who so lovingly taught and protected her. There were others, and she felt a brief sting of betrayal and anger. That was a remnant of a memory, but which one? She glanced down at her katana and a well of emotions surged forward.

    'jol... Rakar... Takeda... Seiyr... Arania.... Theo. It was a mantra. Their names she uttered with each step she took, but as the sun sank underneath the horizon the faces of these people swam until Amalia wondered if they were mere creations of her imaginations.

    o. They were real. They were all real. Rakar with his shield and loyalty. K'jol with his spear and honesty. Takeda with his sincerity. Seiyr with her sacrifice, Arania with her selfishness. And yet... All were gone because of her. Her and her stupidity, and her mistakes, and her doubt.

    ne day and one night passed with agony. Callouses popped, bled, only to be rubbed raw by the sand and her shoes. New callouses formed overnight and on the second day Amalia could no longer stay in the front. She fell back among the ranks of the other people. She no longer chanted her mantra, but instead repeated it in her mind as she kept the Czar in view. Death surrounded them but was quickly left behind; their pace never slowed and those who rested were warned with the point of a spear. The second day was upon them and Amalia had not faltered.

    hen the sun had reached its zenith on the second day, hundreds of the marchers were gone. The carrion were no longer in the sky, but on the ground, feasting on the dehydrated flesh that were Kaustir's citizens. As others panted and begged for water, Amalia's well of anger overfilled. If Lukesh truly loved his people he would not subject them to this. He would offer them a clean death. It was true, Amalia thirsted as much as the others but she drank from her well of anger. She pictured Lukesh staked in the sun, body bared for all to see, and writhing as the fire from above scorched him to ashes.

    ith the arrival of the third day, a frantic elation swept through Amalia. She fell farther behind the previous night, but came out of her reverie when the sun rose. Many more perished and she did not even notice. Instead of blaming it on indifference, Amalia blamed it on her exhaustion. If she weren't so tired, she would have cared? Wouldn't she?

    aunted by the mirages of her past, present, and future, Amalia forced herself forward. There were twenty people remaining, but she recognized that manic look in their eyes. She saw it in Matil. It screamed one thing, "I will survive."

    f course that made Amalia laugh. Survive what, she wanted to ask. The Long March is only the first of many things to come. Don't you know--she cackled suddenly--don't you know that the Czar loves to send people to their deaths? Yes, yes, he takes great fun out of it. How else could he go on, seeing all of these people fall to their deaths?

    oung, old, wealthy, poor--we all feed the war machine. We are its gears and if we break we are disposable.
    Yes. Like my party. What party? Don't you know who I am? I am Amalia, the General who won her position through a pathetic tournament. What am I doing here? I... Don't know? Please, humor me. Tell me, what am I doing here? Someone. Please.

    h, I volunteered to do this? Why? Why would I ever---
    No, stop. The Czar. Lukesh. And Lut. I cannot forget. Mustn't forget.

    ntil the day I die, I mustn't forget.

    malia... Lortik, First General of Kaustir--

    eporting for duty.

    veryone saw her, the nine others that remained standing. They saw her stride forward as the wind carried away her shawl. Coal black hair soared behind her like the wings of a vulture. Her footsteps were silent, but her presence was as glaring as the sun. The Czar turned and saw Amalia Lortik marching alongside him, her eyes momentarily meeting his before looking towards the horizon.
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  7. In the days since she had retrieved the sword, it had grown as heavy as the weight of the sun on her back, a tangible, physical presence that seemed to whisper rich temptations with every breath she drew.

    On the third day, she relented and stopped in a small, nameless village to rest the gecko and refill her waterskin.

    A merchant, a half blind human from Avarath who seemed to drip oil had arrived in the village the day before. At an inn, she overheard a widow in tears. The merchant's horse had run her child down. The merchant had offered a small sack of coin in the child's place.

    When Nu left the village as the moon crawled across the sky, Takeda's sword had not been unwrapped from its packaging. Her own knife, however, had tasted rich blood.

    Shae - The Grey Tower, red

    A Nameless Village, turquoise The merchant's parlor was cool, but it didn't stop the rivulet of sweat running down his spine. It seemed the whole world had come to a breezeless stop and he wanted nothing more than to be on the street playing with his brother again. But of course, that was no longer an option. And the void between the two -- the innocence of childhood, and this thing he had been made to do in some sort of repentance -- seemed to have yawn into an eternity in the hours that had passed since the cloaked figure had first approached.

    The chilled kresnik in the bowl stank as strongly as ever, but he could swear there was an added tang, almost citric, but more sinister. She had promised the poison would be invisible until the merchant's seizures stopped. But he was coming to learn the cloaked figure was not what she seemed.

    Up ahead, there was laughter as the merchant figured the dyed clothes their village was known for. The boy only understood half the words that floated down to him, but it was enough. He knew the words for gold and wealth and riches. Everyone, even in this village, did.

    There was a moment in which the heat seemed oppressive. The boy stopped, stumbled, thought of his mother, and of his young brother dying, bleeding in the street. When he looked down, the kresnik had soaked into the stone beneath his toes like blood.

    He looked up. The merchant was staring, not at him, but at the cloaked figure behind him. In a fluid movement, she plucked a knife from under her cloak, drawing the biting fabric over his bare arm as she did. Pain erupted at the site, but he hardly felt it.

    The merchant clutched at the impossibly bright gout of blood from his throat and tottered forward.

    When he turned, the cloak, and its bite, were gone.

    The boy screamed.
    The scryer felt cold steel bite into her belly, tracing old wounds as the mirror dropped from her fingers to break into two on the stone floor of the grey tower. Shaking, she lurched away from the High Inquisitor's corridors and kept running until the air was bitter and cool.

    And she drank.
    #7 DotCom, Oct 13, 2014
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 13, 2014
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  8. [thanks @DotCom !!]

    She waited until the fire twisted itself into nightmare images -- a third of the way into the wineskin -- before she prepared to show Lut what she had seen.

    As it happened, he found her first. Her rage was no more tempered for the intrusion.

    "There," she spat, lurching drunkenly to her feet. She dropped the wineskin for the first time in an hour; it bled crushed grapes and the ripe stench of fermentation. His mirror fell from her other hand and the crack spiderwebbed across the surface. Smears of red obscured his reflection, the stark lines of his chin and jaw turned orange in the firelight.

    “This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Your future? My blood? There. Take it.” She scoffed. “I hope you choke.”

    "You are being crass." Lut sniffed. "And drunk." He reached and made to shoulder her weight, but she pushed him off, slashing the shard across his cheek. Silence ran between them, and Shae's heart tightened a notch. Cotton stained red as Lut pressed his hand to the cut.

    "Nu tore my face open with an arrow in the same spot." He sat down and leaned forward, head slumped between his shoulders with sudden memory.

    Shae staggered away, sneering, still angry, and angrier that he wouldn't rise to the bait. “Was that before or after you turned her into your dog?”

    "Do you see the strings from her arms and legs? No? Then every choice she made was her own."

    She was shaking her head before he had even finished talking. “Every choice she might have had, you took from her when you killed her people. She didn’t choose to run away to live at your feet. She only chose to come with me. And you dragged her back.” Under the buzz of drunken heat, Shae felt fury, and the desperate, almost overwhelming desire to hurt, to know, unequivocally, that the nocturne solider could spill more than blood.

    “And where is she now?” She gestured to the space around them and nearly lost her balance, but didn’t dare for a moment break her gaze. Her throat burned. She wanted more wine.

    “She will always run from you.”

    Cool silence greeted her tirade. Lut picked up the wineskin and pushed her onto the bed, pressing the turgid bag into her hands.

    "Nu will stay with me until I am dead." More truth than he would admit. He leaned forward, his whisper quieter than the white katydid that clicked in the night. "Because she hates me as much as I love her."

    Shae drank deep then cradled the wineskin in bloody fingers. She barked a cold laugh perilously close to hysteria.

    "Then I should kill you now," she said flatly. "I can save her. I have to save her."

    "Killing me won't save anyone. She has dedicated her entire adult life to killing me. And if she finally succeeds, she will be nothing. Hate does not die with death."

    So he told Shae how to save Nu. The more she drank, the more he talked. He told her of Mu, and when he first met her, and of her will. He spoke briefly of Lu and Xu. He spoke more of Nu, and of his plans, and Amalia, and how he could finally close the ouroboros, and he spoke of the Czar and himself. It was the most elegant of plans, and the only sacrifice required was Lut - and a little from everyone around him.

    Shae waited and watched, glassy-eyed and silent, her mind building crumbling towers from nothing. She still held the bloody shard of glass, and when at last he fell silent, it was a long moment before she could remember the words she wanted. Innocent enough, perhaps. Precisely what she wanted, or as much as she was able to convince herself.

    "Why..why are you telling me this?"

    "Because you will not remember a single thing tomorrow morning." Lut pushed himself to his feet, tapping the empty wineskin and smiling.

    She let him get to the door before dropping the empty skin and lurching to her knees. Her head swam, and she shut her eyes until the knowledge that she was going to retch had passed.

    "I can still kill you."

    "Then not only will Nu still hate me, but she will hate you, and you will hate yourself. You love her too, right?" The door clicked loudly.

    #8 unanun, Oct 13, 2014
    Last edited: Oct 13, 2014
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  9. The Long March, goldenrod
    Inside one of Avarath's many buildings, Kerrick hovered over a table covered in floorplans and diagrams. Next to him was his Draken "slavemaster," who at this point had become more like a peer for whom Kerrick was an assistant, rather than any sort of relationship resembling master and slave.

    Of course, like any other slave, Kerrick still had only meager scraps to ease his stomach rumblings and rocks upon which to rest his head at night - but took the fact that his master allowed him, over any of the other slaves, into his private quarters, to mean that he was at least making progress. At this rate, he might actually be able to return home, if he could ever taste freedom.

    Kerrick's fingertip pressed against one of the blueprints as he tapped several times for emphasis. "Here. This window is compromising the whole wall. Rather than constructing the top with wood, we should consider laying the stones--"

    A rumbling, as though coming from the very earth beneath them, gave Kerrick pause. He continued with a bit of hesitation, expecting it to pass. "--Laying the stones in an arch pattern."

    Now, the ground shook with a definite, rhythmic tempo. Like a heartbeat. Or footsteps.

    "This way it can... support..."

    Footsteps? How many?

    Kerrick and his slavemaster turned their heads away from their work and towards the window as they stepped out onto a balcony overlooking the streets.


    Like locusts descending upon fertile fields, Kaustiran forces from Zirako had marched into the merchant city, and extended almost as far as the eye could discern. While locusts would have blotted out the sun, the military forces appeared to blot out the earth. Kerrick was unsure which was more terrifying.

    All across Avarath, work halted and conversations quieted. Onlookers stared at the numerous battalions of soldiers, mouths agape in a mixture of awe and terror.

    Change was coming. Change orchestrated by The Burning Czar and executed by Lut Sar. The desert sun's gleam seemed to multiply as it reflected off the Czar's insignias, blinding the townsfolk into a dizzied stupor.

    All types of military forces were accounted for. Infantry, archers, cavalry, casters of all backgrounds. Even supportive roles like medics, water trolls, and couriers were present - even beasts of burden; the military presence was clearly prepared for the long haul.

    "If all the growers are here," Kerrick pondered aloud, "how empty is Zirako right now?"

    "Interesssting quessstion," his slavemaster mused. "You are free to go for today. I mussst invessstigate." Without another word, the Draken turned and left.

    Kerrick watched for another moment as the incredibly organized military forces continued moving through the city, before turning his gaze to the horizon.

    Off on the other side of the Red Empire, K'Jol stared at the empty streets of Zirako. Soon, Avarath would share that fate as the war machine churned through, gathering pace for the Chersonese. The young Eydis had caught a glimpse during her departure from Barvelle, but she knew not the severity, nor could she anticipate.

    The Long March pushed on.

    End of Chapter 6
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