Interest Check | Character Thread | IC Thread SUMMER ᛡ YEAR 10 QC. ᛡ LACUS ACRE, LODAIN Nine women stood against nine poles, positioned atop a heavy wooden scaffold. The scaffold was not intended for this purpose. The wood crawled spider-like around a large , half-finished sculpture. The sculpture, depicting a woman with a torch in one hand was missing her head. The nine-women stood with their backs against the statue's stony breasts, as if the headless woman was embracing them. The women did not look at their granite captor. Their heads were held in place by a rope around their necks, their hands bound behind them, tied tight behind the beams. They were clad in thin wool dresses that did nothing in the ever-present summer rain. The fabric clung to their frames, and their hair stuck to their faces in the downpour. Water ran down their noses and cheeks, dripping off of them like morning dew. The nine women stood bound to the nine poles, and some of them had anger flashing in their eyes. Some of them had tears streaming down their cheeks. One of them had a smile stretching from cheek to cheek. A few had faces that were more like masks than faces, utterly devoid of expression. None of them spoke, and they did not look at one another. They stared across the crowd instead, with their blue, green, and grey eyes. Those eyes spoke stories. Even in the women who held their emotions back, even in the sorrow and the anger - and the smile - there was nothing but hatred for the humans in-front of them, for the jeering crowd before them. Those eyes had nothing human in them at all. The tenth pole, at the end of the scaffold, did not hold a woman, but a man. He was dressed in the same thin, white shift, which clung to his bare legs. From his feet to his knees, he was covered with mud. His black curls were flat against the sides of his head, and his neck had been rubbed raw by the rope around his throat. The man's eyes were golden, and shimmered with moisture and contempt. Those eyes were the same as the women, not human at all, too cold and too hateful. But there was something else in those golden eyes, something strange and fiery that blazed in him and did not subside. Unlike the women, who were as still as statues as they faced their fate; the man's mouth was constantly chewing. His lips were moving too, muttering something that was entirely unheard with the crash of thunder and lightning above this head, and the clamour of the crowd before him. Behind his back, his bound hands turned something over and over in his fingers. His heavy brows were knotted over his eyes - he had to concentrate. He knew that this would be the end of him, if he stopped chewing, if he stopped speaking, if his fingers missed plucking the flowers from his sprig of wolfsbane. His eyes flickered over the women, to see if any of them were speaking, if any of them had wolfsbane behind their back, if any of them were chewing the wormswood. None of them were. The women's eyes all were trained on the man and woman approaching the scaffolding. The woman was not quite pretty, with pox-scarred cheeks and blue eyes that were too closely placed. Her nose gave her the unpleasant appearance of a wild boar in the middle of a snarl. The woman's mouth was beautiful though, thick lips that had been painted with charcoal. She seemed impervious to the rain. Her lips did not smear. Her hair, braided into an elaborate silver crown that rested atop her thin brows, caught the flash of lightning. For a moment, she seemed to look directly at him, and her lips sagged, like her face was melting. But in another flash of lightning, her eyes had left him. The tenth man whispered words to himself, chewed the wormwood, and pulled the flowers from the wolfsbane, while he watched when the Imperatrix's eyes had gone. Her attention was solely on the man at her side. One of her slender hands, studded with moonstone from her wrist to her fingertips, clutched the hand of another. Next to him, she was truly terrible - truly small and ugly and so unspeakably human. He was not human. He was the most beautiful thing that the tenth man had ever seen in all of his years. The man had elegant, almond shaped eyes with dark lashes and angular cheekbones that rose high in his face. His lips were soft and gently pursed, giving him a thoughtful air. His hair was long and dark, and curled at the small of his back. But there was something terrible in him too; the glint of his eyes. They were an unspeakable orange colour, the colour of the Duinnobann, the colour of battlefields. That was why he was not human. There was too much magic in him, too much of the Other Place. The man's animal eyes snapped towards the tenth man, and they seemed to glow in the gloom. In that moment, when the tenth man felt like the man knew all about the wolfsbane, the wormwood, and the words - he recognized him. The tenth man knew who he was looking at. Salathiel, the Wielder, the master of the All-Swords. Salathiel looked away, his attention on the woman on the first pole. He said something to her in a language that the tenth man did not understand. Salathiel, he had heard, had once come from Eboryr, but what he spoke was not the Common tongue, but something else, something distorted and strange. The first woman - Salomia - spat in his face in response. Globs of spittle from her perfect mouth slipped down his perfect face. The tenth man found himself smiling, despite everything. Salomia, gentle, sweet-spoken Salomia, with all the Lodainic manners in the world had spit in the face of the Gods' fist on earth. Salathiel wiped the spit from his face with one gloved hand - and then lashed out, slapping Salomia so hard across the face that the tenth man could hear her nose snap. When his fist was removed from her face, her nose was just a mess of blood and bruises. The Wielder went to the next woman, and the tenth man chewed hard on the wormwood. The ropes had been coated with tar mixed with salt and iron fastenings bound the ropes to the poles. Salathiel must have told the Imperatrix's witch-hunters that was how you caught a mage. That was not how you caught a mage. The tenth man knew how to bind a mage. You ground beewort's root into a thin paste, and spread it on the mage's mouth. You bound their tongue with Agrimony blossoms gathered under the summer sky, and you poured salt around them. You did not need iron at all - iron could not stop a mage. You needed lead. Only lead mixed with the blood of a white sheep could stop a mage from bursting forth from all of the bindings. The tenth man pulled the flowers from the wolfsbane. There were only a few flowers left on the stalk, and he could feel the soft petals beneath his fingertips. His mouth made the motions of words. Brjóta, ek gørð ráða - ek gørð brjóta ráða. The tenth man didn't let the words escape his lips, holding them in, and repeating them in an chant that would soon come an end. They walked across the wooden stage, the pair of them, eying the nine women, and the tenth man in turn. The Imperatrix's eyes were hard and cold in her face, and when she looked at the tenth man, it took all of his strength not to swallow the chunks of wormwood bark in his mouth. He stopped his chanting, stopped pulling petals, and stood perfectly still as she passed him. The silver bells sewn to her dress jingled as she moved to stand at the far end of the wooden stage. Salathiel stood opposite of her, his back to Salomia. Salomia's eyes were hard daggers in her face, wishing curses on the man. Her teeth were bared. A little bit of salvia bubbled at the corner of her lips. The tenth man stared at the Imperatrix's back, and kept curses from rising to his throat. The Imperatrix, Laurentia II, called the Bright Flame by her supplicants, and the Burner-bitch by her enemies -- Laurentia opened her mouth. She had ugly teeth. They had gone black in her gums from sugar and fatty meats. She had asked the tenth man to pull teeth from the whales and carve her a set of new ones . But that had been years ago. Now, she spoke, and when she spoke, the tenth man chewed the wormwood ever harder. Her words were hard and cold, and spoken in Lodainic. After she came to the end of each sentence, Salathiel repeated it in Common; voice devoid of accent, devoid of feeling. But her voice - her voice was rich with passion. "Hear me, Good people of the Gods! The Age of Illumination has been a trying one. I come before you - not as Imperatrix, but as an ambassador with a divine mission." The Imperatrix looked towards Salathiel. His face was the picture of stony perfection, and he nodded solemnly. "I come to you, as a servant of the Gods - just as you are." She shook her head from side to side, and reached up, to pull her hair from its braid. The curtain of white hair whirled around her. She kneeled down, on the ground - and the crowd, unruly, loud, and screaming for blood suddenly went silent. The Imperatrix did not kneel. Laurentia brought her nails to her cheeks, driving them into her skin. Blood pooled from underneath her fingertips, as she mutilated her face. The storm above her churned, and the storm seamed to agree with the crowd. The Lodainic small folk were alive with whispering, and the nine women on the poles began to whisper too, in Perthic to one another - knowing that neither the Imperatrix or Salthaiel could possibly understand them. The tenth man heard snips of their words -- what is she doing -- what is going to happen to us -- has she gone mad? Salathiel stood as silent and resolute as the headless statue. The dirt, the rain, it all caught up with Laurentia. She seemed to melt in her dress, and the charcoal makeup smeared down her face, mingling with her own blood. Her blue eyes rolled up to the sky. But all went quiet, when the Imperatrix spoke again, and her voice was soft, sad, but more than anything -- disappointed. "The faith teaches us - from the sands of the Duinnoban, with the blood of the children of Geinnee and Marvaanagh, with wet clay of Donegal - we are born. And when we die - our body becomes the salt of the sea." She raised one bloody finger, "But. But our souls - souls never die. Our souls move on - they join our Gods." Tears rolled down her face and for a moment, the tenth man almost believed they were real. But only for a moment - as her words swelled with strength. This was all performance, the tenth man realized. All of it was practiced. He plucked another foxglove blossom from the stalk. The wind caught it, and it passed over his face, before the rain pushed it down down against the cold wood of the scaffolding. One of the women saw it. Criseyde -- the one who smiled. Her green eyes widened and her smile stretched further. Despite her binds, she nodded at the tenth man. She knew. And he knew too - he knew he had her blessing. He resumed chewing, as the Imperatrix continued her performance. "--But not all souls. Some souls - some souls are surely trapped in Hell." The Imperatrix rose to her feet. Her blood, tears, rain, and charcoal ran down her cheeks. She turned away from the crowd, and walked towards Criseyde. Her bloody hand snapped out, and grabbed her by the chin, pinching her teeth together. Criseyde's teeth were beautiful, white, glimmering. They were all more beautiful than the Impertrix, but it was not jealous that moved her. It was fear, he knew. He could smell it on her. Especially when she knew - just as well as him, that the sorceresses' beauty was false. Their eyes were cold and hate-filled because they were ugly crones inside, and their soft skin, supple breasts and perfect teeth were lies. The tenth man stripped another foxglove blossom, and closed his amber eyes. The Name could solve everything - everything, except a death by flame. The Imperatrix snarled at Criseyde's white teeth and shimmering dark skin, she yanked out a fist-full of her black curls. The women at the post remained silent, as the Impertrix brought the fistful of hair out to the crowd, holding it above the heads of the peasents. Peasants with lice and pock-marks, small-folk with bad teeth and bræðblack pustules; common people who would never know what it was to look in a mirror and see something other than themselves. The Imperatrix flung the lock of hair into the throng. "Some call this Age of Illumination by a different name! I have heard it - and so have you. They call this the Age of Trials. And do you know why?" The imperatrix wailed, and the crowd was silent, nervous. A baby cried out, and then, was silenced, "Because a plague crawls across our world - the Gauls and Sea Peoples mock our Gods - but do you know who has mocked them the longest? Do you know why those souls - the souls your children, your wives, your husbands - do you know why those souls are trapped in hell?" She whirled around, white hair wet and whipping as she turned, an accusatory finger pointed at Isemay - the Decemvirix, the leader of them all, "The witches. The witches that caught my mother's soul in their webs - the souls that rightfully should meet our Gods above. They take them, and we have let them take those souls for too long." Isemay stared at her, and did not blink. She was the oldest of them all, and she had allowed some wrinkles to crawl across her face. Her silver hair hung about her shoulders, and her sharp eyes whispered death hexes that Laurentia II would never hear. She did not flinch away from the woman. She merely watched - as the Impertrix of the Lodainic empire continued her tirade."You cry out to the Gods - my child is sick, my husband's at war, the Southerners have burned my farms and stolen my daughters - sold my sons into slavery." The imperatrix's nose wrinkled, and her teeth jutted out - giving her the appearance of a growling Carindog, ready to snatch up a hare in its jaws. "But the Gods don't listen? And do you know why? Because we failed them - my Sainted mother failed them - you failed them - and I failed them too. We let magic touch this world - we let it shape us. The witches that gave my mother counsel are the very ones that have brought this scourge upon us." The imperatrix flicked her fingers at Salathiel, who walked to her side. His armor - bronze plate with iron fittings, clanked as he did, the orange cloak about his shoulders billowing in an unnatural breeze. He drew from his hip a bright white sword - and its blade was so shining, so filled with Light that even with his eyes closed, the tenth man thought it would nearly blind him. He squeezed his eyes tighter, mumbling his incantation, chewing the wormwood, and stripping the petals. He did not have much time left. The blade shimmering with an unearthly light - and then, in Salathiel's hand - caught aflame. This was not a natural flame, but an every burning, every shining white fire that illuminated the face of every man, woman, and child in Lacus Acre's square. As he raised the sword - five women dressed in dark blue tunics with a white rose embroidered on their breast, carried in boughs of pinewood to the scaffold. Each carried two boughs. There were ten. Ten boughs for ten pyres. The tenth man chewed harder, and his jaw was aching. The Bright Flame's blue eyes reflected the light of Salathiel's sword, and it caught the wetness of her face - making her whole being luminous. In that light, she looked truly terrible and beautiful all at once. "We used magic for our gain - and paid no attention to the demons that rumbled beneath the earth - paid no attention to the enslavement of the human race to the whims of these creatures." She gestured to the nine women, and the tenth man was sure he heard Salomia snort. "They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. The South was lost to beasts like these -- and your Brothers and Sisters in All were strewn all along the Old Roads of their daemonic Lord." The imperatrix nodded, and Salathiel moved to Salomia's post. The sword sputtered with its white flame. Salomia screwed her face up, closing her eyes tightly. She whispered to herself, and he could hear her. We are mortal, formed of the flesh - and to your flesh we shall return. / For so you did ordain when you created us, saying / ‘You are blood and to blood you shall return.’ Without another word or phrase, her pyre was lit. Her screams echoed through the square. One of the women - Cassandra - began to tug at her post, shrieking a thousand curses upon them all for all that they had done. Isemay said nothing, merely watched as her sister, her student's white gown went up in smoke, her flesh crackling and blackening beneath Salathiel's sword. The tenth man felt tears spring to his eyes - but he did not stop. He needed to begin now. He needed three candles, for the Name, but he had none. He had nothing but sisters, burning away on pyres, incantations said between their screams. The Imperatrix's words continued, and they had turned sickeningly languid, casual at the human lives she was destroying, putting to the torch one by one. "If you permit these monsters to continue thus with their impurity, the faithful of All will be much more widely attacked by them." Cassandra screamed next. "On this account I as a servant of the Gods, beseech you as the thousand hands of All to speak these words everywhere." Then Crieseyde. "--- and to persuade all people of whatever race or place - whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich." Gone was Pavia, gone was Theodorae, gone was Mabel. Salathiel put them all to the torch one by one, and the Imperatrix's words were nearly drowned out by the roars of the blood hungry crowd. " --Destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends, from our families. From our brothers and sisters. I say this to those who are present, it meant also for those who are absent -- The Gods' Many Tongues touch all." Her eyes were burning and terrible, reflecting the pyres of the women she had put to Salathiel's sword. Gone was Evangelina, Gone was Adriana, and all that was left were Isemay and the tenth man. He had ten more words to say, one more blossom to pluck from the stalk, and then he would swallow the worm-wood and it would all be over. "Kill the witches - kill them if it costs your ashen body. For souls - our souls are forever. They will be free." Isemay watched as Salathiel approached her. The Decemvirix turned her head slightly towards the tenth man. Her bow-lips whispered something to him in a language that no one knew - no-one but the tenth man and the Decemvirix. Her silver hair floated around her, as if caught by the hands of angels. Her eyes, sharp as daggers, watched as Salathiel outstretched the sword towards her. He waited, for a moment. As if - as if to let her say something. To repent. The tenth man watched, as the ancient mage smiled. The placid smile of somebody who knew they were doomed to die. She spoke, her voice strong and clear - loud enough for all the crowd to hear. "I know your name, Wielder." Salathiel's orange eyes blazed with a secret fire - a secret hatred - and he did not put her to the torch. Instead - he plunged his burning sword through her open mouth, to keep her from speaking the Name. The glowing sword came out the back of her head, splattering the tenth man's face with gore. The audience cheered, and the Imperatrix nodded sagely. Her performance was coming to an end - and the new world was a bitter truth that was hard to swallow. Her final words hung in the square. "All who are slain - all who fall in this divine task, whether by land or by sea, in battle against the monsters - they shall become one with all the Gods, become one with the Unknown Flesh." She bowed her head, listening to the crowd gasp and murmur beneath her. Her eyes were closed, as she channeled her gods with her black teeth and black words; "This I grant them through the power of Gods with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of All ---" There was a loud sound of rushing water. It was as if a wave had crashed against the scaffold Laurentia II, who is called the Bright Flame, opened her eyes. She turned to her last heretic. But he had swallowed the bitter truth. He had spoken the only Name that mattered, and now, he was gone. SUMMER ᛡ YEAR 10 QC. ᛡ THE WASTES, MORAVIA A band of thirteen trudged across the cold, hard ground. In the wastes, the rises and crests of the crags were shrouded in the grey of smoke and mist. There was no light to interrupt the grey, save for the single shaft of sunlight that seared through the heavy clouds once a day, with the noonday sun. Moravia was a dark and cold country, even in the middle of summer. The landscape was barren - rocky outcroppings and grassy over-hands which herds of wild sheep grazed upon, snatching up the nettles that stung at the unwary travels feet. A few towering stones carved with interlocking spirals and elaborate knots of runic inscription erupted from the sod. Every few miles, a half-buried, half-ruined statues of Kynazi past stared down at the party; moss rotting their granite faces, dandelion erupting between their marble toes. The road was not paved like the roads in Lodain, but a rocky trail with the occasional carin propped up at the side of the road. There were no others traveling the road, and there hadn't been in days. The only signs of life were the occasional sheep, and carindogs with hungry eyes and eager barks, that prowled at the edges of the road, but they did not assault the company. They would sit at the side of the road and cock their hairy heads and watch the thirteen pass. Ten of the party were shackled together, connected to one another by iron-manacles and a heavy iron chain that dragged around their feet, and was caught on the rough earth. Jagged points of volcanic rock scraped at the bottom of the bare feet, and the thorns from Aedris' Tears cut their ragged clothes. They had been walking now for an unknowable amount of time - too long to be so close, too long to be so cold. The ten in chains wore nothing but thin shirts and wool-woven breeches ; not enough to keep out the chill that whipped in the air. The chains of the prisoners were attached to the back of a huge, black horse's elaborate saddle. The horse was dressed in black and red cloaks, horse blankets trimmed with thick red fox fur, to keep him warm through the drizzle that came with the summer days in Moravia. The horse had a strength in his gait, despite the slow pace that it walked - and it's size was incredible - an immense draft horse for the towering woman who rode him. She was dressed in simple red robes a peaked hood covering most of his face. But beneath those robes was a thick jerkin of interlocking leather, and a cold-iron breastplate. Beneath the hood was a sharp and angry face - with golden eyes that burned like the noon-day sun. The prisoners - ten men and women, all forced to march together - were led by the Lady Recreant ; who did not speak, or perhaps, could not. The prisoners had never heard her exchange a word with anyone. The Lady Recreant was flanked by two others; a man, and a woman. They too, were silent most of the journey - but the man spoke, from time to time. He spoke in the Common tongue, and told the prisoners when they could rest, when they could speak, when they could scream and cry - and when they could not. The woman was older, and ever more silent. She looked less human than the man - and why should she not? They were Seekers, Changed folk, and it was said, did not blink. They kept their eyes open, even when they slept, so that they could curse all the world with their gaze, and never miss a single soul. The Seekers could see through anything, be it brick, earth, or a man’s lie - in the stories. The woman was completely bald, and dark veins stood out on the top of her skull. Her black eyes were hooded, her nose hooked. The Seekers were both mounted, atop small piebald horses as white and black as they were. The Lady Seeker wore black riding leathers that creaked as she rode through the hills, the wool of her cloak spilling out around her. The amount of fabric that kept her together came from a whole flock of cattle and sheep each, it seemed. The fabric did not disguise her disfigurement. Her stomach and breasts were heavily distended and bloated. She would have been tall, if it were not for her stooped posture, her spine overburdened by lugging around the mounds of flesh that made up her torso. She had never smiled, and had never spoke - but she exchanged black-eyed looks with the Lady Recreant, who in turn, curled her scarred lips. The crags stretched before the party of thirteen, but as they shambled to the top of one of Moravia's peaks, the crags seemed to come to an end. From the top of the gnoll, the thirtreen stared outward, down the steep, rocky slough, down the lines cut by slow moving glaciers - they looked down across a large basin. A river cut through the center of it - rich, fast water, where the fish jumped from the rapids and their scales caught the sun. The river was immeasurably wide. Across the rushing water - was a stone bridge - a long stone bridge that ended in a paved road. Lodain stretched across from them, and the Lodainic countryside could not be more different than Moravia. True, there were the rocky peaks and valleys, the windswept hills, but there was also well-tended farms that stretched across the land, giant colonnades supporting canals and aqueducts. Even from this height, people bustled around a small town, at the end of the bridge. The Lady Recreant on horseback stopped in her tracks, and the top of the peak. She dismounted from the horse, as she had done many times before, and pulled the cowl back from her face. Her Her orange eyes glowed, as the summer-sun began to set, growing brighter and as the darkness stretched over the hills. Her scarred lips twitched, and she gestured with one armored hand. Her leather-bound fingers caught the air, and seemed to snap at it, demanding it follow her whim. And her whim it did follow. The two Seekers dismounted from their horses - and the man walked to the back of the Recreant's drafthorse. Patting the stallion on the rump, his bloated, tuberous fingers pulled the iron fittings from its tail. He threw the anchor down upon the ground. The man looked towards the prisoners and spoke. Seekers all spoke too slowly - it was said that The Seekers’ spilled out all their blood, and replaced it with tar. It was why they spoke so slowly, and why their skin looked like whale’s blubber from all the way up North. "We make camp here; tomorrow we cross the bridge into Lodain." The Seeker-man gave a strange smile, showing his pearly white teeth in black gums. His brow-line moved upwards, in a sympathetic, sad tilt of the brow - but he had no hairs to make his face mirror human expression. The Seeker-woman said nothing, and dragged her corpulent body across the hilltop, coming to a rest by a large stone. She pressed her swollen fingertips into the runic carvings on the stone - and pressed her bulbous forehead to the stone, closing her eyes and whispering to herself. The Lady Recreant turned towards the collected prisoners, and her fiery eyes burned brighter than any wildfire. She smiled then, a wide-toothy smile with sharp teeth and splitting scars all along her lips. Within a few hours, their camp had been set up; a roaring fire in the center of a circle of three tents; one for the Recreant, one for the Seeker-man, and one for the Seeker-woman. The prisoners have never seen the Recreant inside of her tent. The Seeker-man spoke to the woman in murmured, unintelligible words. Cold jerky was pushed into their mouths by the Seeker-man, and then - he retreated into the black wool of his tent - the sewn Nine-Pointed Star of the Gods of All emblazoned on its side. The Seeker-woman followed after him.The prisoners were lashed together by their cold-iron chains, spread in a circle around the fireside. The flames made strange shadows spread across the hilltop, and the stars shone down bright and cold above them. The Recreant had found a boulder to sit on - some distance from the camp's center. The boulder was the one that the Seeker-woman had touched and spoken to, the boulder with the curling runic script. It offered a long view of the valley - but the Recreant did not look at it. Her glowing eyes watched her own armored hands instead, as she sharpened her sword against a whetstone. The jagged, rough sound of the ever-sharpening blade echoed through the hills. She did not attempt to stop the prisoners from speaking - and gave no indication that she heard a word that they said. Her eyes were locked on the claymore in her hands, and her thoughts were unknowable.