From the writings of the scholar Saran, extracted from the notes that would later be omitted from his posthumously-published compendium The Second Great Demon War (or, the Origin of the Aradian Crown);
21st of Drake's Moon, 1101AE.
It happened again. Another fire in the archive, another stack of my notes charred and unreadable. This is the third time in as many years, and one would almost think it to be deliberate. It recalls the targeted destruction of the old Storm King texts during the reign of Lord Jarvis Blackthorne, all that burning vellum begging the question of what exactly he had to hide. Who would not want to hear the ascension of the Tale of our Glorious Monarch, the very Monarch who relayed this tale personally to me, the very Monarch who claims that scholarly knowledge and honesty and transparency and accuracy are all virtues to be praised and would certainly not wish to keep what happened eighty-six years ago a secret?
Our last transcription ended in the coronation of King Dominic, the first true Aradian monarch, in the Lady's Moon of 1015AE. Dominic, or the Bloodhawk as men called him, had climbed a mountain of corpses to reach his throne; a cold man he was, cruel and misanthropic and murderous. By his side he kept his servants, the vile demon-priest called the Cardinal, and the warlock Nestor Knox. Dominic had grown far from his co-conspirators, believing himself to have absolute command over them, but he had not suspected that they were planning against him.
Miles away, adrift on the ocean near their home city of Darkharbour, the King's niece and nephew were returning to the mainland; Jaster Blackthorne and Talia Blackthorne, twins by birth, the last trueborn issue of the Great Griffin. Waiting for them in the Silkwood were the rest of their adventuring party, all figures who would go on to loom large in Aradian history; there was Claire of the Ludlow Accord, her cousin Lyron and her servant Nimbe. There was Darius Black, feared pirate and brigand. There was the twin's cousin Eustace, at the time only a humble priest. There was the mercenary captain Arianne West, their bastard half-sister. And last but most certainly not least was Serenity Piers, whose destiny lay far to the North.
Dark forces brewed in the Obscura mountains of the Drow, and in the minds of the twins lay darker secrets still.
I must not think ill of our Sovereign. I am old now, and I have seen much and learned more, yet there are forces at work in this world beyond even my understanding. I am not sure how much of this text will reach the public. Read closely and read well, then, for this is the truth of the way that it all happened...
Reynis Dul-Sansiska Speaking with Nakura Spider Territory, The Wilds
“The villagers had nothing but ‘praise for the hero’ or whatever garbage they were spouting off about the boy. It just doesn't add up at all, no human is killing something that was more than the total power of an entire island worth of those creatures. Not alone, even with the other girl here that’s just two young humans who have barely stopped shitting themselves long enough to waddle out to the wilderness” Reynis drank deeply from a cup carved of old spider fangs, while not into alcohol the beverage was tasty and tangy due to the venom poured into it.
It was both an acclimator to the potent toxins of the spider queens and a sickeningly odd taste enhancer. Her demonic blood was doing a fine job of filtering the poison and learning to resist it.
Ever since her supposed father had stolen her seer abilities, she felt at both times better, but weaker without her intense void born gift that had been with her since birth. It was a net positive, she could control herself now without restrictors thanks to her daughter, but it felt wrong not to have visions.
Her body was acclimating now to the intense boost in power the artifact had entrusted her in the Void, the more she did to try to damage it the more it repaired and grew used to the stress.
The more damage she took, the stronger she’d get, to a point of course but she was far from that level. It made her feel like a young initiate Strider all over again, barely able to even climb those damned massive trees much less patrol along them. Nakura sat across from Reynis and sipped on a different drink, it was mint tea and she was having a grand time, just listening to Reynis’ in depth report on how fucked up the situation was with the corruption.
“I have my own theories as to what went on, but as you said, you couldn’t corner anyone of the party to ask them the notable questions, so the case will remain open until they return here.” Nakura set her drink down slowly into a plate made of spider chitin, making a shrugging motion to end the discussion on what went on in the woods.
“They will be back, and at that junction you will be able to get your answer, and if you can’t wait we will see the Warden of the Treants. She will be helpful since she talks to plants, and they might have a better intuition on what went down”
“...Wait she’s real? I thought those were just tall tales that old elves liked to tell so village kids wouldn’t go too far into the north” more venom laced liquor found itself way past Reynis’ throat, and more pulsations came about as it tried to kill her.
“Oh she’s real, she’s grandfather’s….Third Wife? The Treants are the major nemesis to the Queens. If not for them and the Shatterlight Coven, the Spiders would have overrun this area millenia ago, the Queens are after all extremely powerful. Remember I have all my magic because of what the Queens are capable of, Mother” she fluttered her fingers as sickly blue, luminecisnt spidersilk span away from her fingers, into a deadly needle of unbreakable poison silk.
“Fuck, so the Silkstriders are essentially fighting a war with leftovers, and losing it?” Reynis didn’t quite like the sound of that, that wood elves were so weak and imapired they couldn’t fight goddess damned leftover spiderlings.
“Precisely, because the Queens are at least somewhat united in their hatred of everyone, but all the factions in the Silkwoods keep secret from one another. Beast Tamers, Shatterlight, Treants, and Striders all just sort of exist in their own bubbles. I’m just the observer, and it’s kind of fun considering none of them realize I can see just about everything cept for the Coven’s home due to their superior magics” the priestess waved a hand and a portal formed of ethereal webbing, it showed off many different locales in succession.
The now unmasked Coven, the nests of the Spider Queens, Everglow under total control as Dominic rode through town, Coldharbour after its climactic battle, and the ominous formations of heavily armored soldiers along the Obscuran range.
“This is called the Web of Translocation and Metaformation, it’s what I invented after reading some works from grandfather, about interdimmensional weaving and filament construction on a multi planar-”
“Nakura, please, none of these technical shenanigans, just explain what it means” Reynis was already palming her face in utter exasperation with her daughter’s incessant need to explain the complexities of higher tier magic.
“Of course mother, it means I can see, hear, and arrive wherever there is insufficient magical shielding preventing my ability to monitor or arrive at a given location. In other words, so long as there is not a powerful mage on the other side who can bat away my compound eyes, I will see what occurs.” a wide grin was splaying across Nakura’s tattooed face as she spoke.
“It’s like a spider feeling its prey pluck around its web and become trapped. I can even attach it to certain people to trace them” she waved her hand and the weave came to form on an empty Treant Garden, which caused her face to contour in annoyance and with a sigh she waved the display off.
“It’s not always perfect mind you, like I said so long as here is a mage or a barrier who can notice and actively destroy my spying eyes-I’m blind and unable to transport myself to the location Thankfully, when the attack on Azure was under way those defenses were down and I could come and save you”
“So what now then? What’s the next move?” Reynis looked at her empty mug and contemplated what to move forward into.
“Waiting, watching, seeing, and acting when the moment is right, Mother-best to just relax and let the medicine do its work. Soon enough I’ll undo all those restraints grandfather had built up for you and you’ll be prepared for what comes next.”
Maria Dul-Sansiska Committing Dul-Sansiska Manor, Ques Novich
Maria sat at her desk penning what had to be the most degrading call for aid she had ever had to craft. In the past weeks as the Coldharbour Incident became the new talk of everyone, and she had been mobilizing every spare soldier she could find in the network of drow, Dominic was now the King. This was the worst case scenario, while the drow had their attention elsewhere a pretender had ascended to the top of the pile. There was no sign of the rescued Talia, her other family members were gone and dead leaving nobody to challenge Dominic’s rights of rule.
The elves had been forced out of the city, those who remained were loyalists or neutral parties uninterested in fighting the man over his appointment. The people were brainwashed by their stupid stories and the cultures of humans bringing adoration to tyrants.
Silkwood had already been sent numerous correspondences, but they refused to send her any level of troops, orcs, spiders, apparently demonic infiltration. It was all spreading their resources too thin and they would not even give her a token detachment of Silk Striders. Maria had tried the dwarves but they sent her back a bloody hammer, that was an obvious no to her requests with extreme prejudice, and a promise to come for her head if she continued.
She couldn’t reach Maelith’s suggestion of a woman named Anaphastia to lend aid, the human houses were stoically reserving all forces while Dominic’s ascension was on display. She’d have to make a request directly to the Blackthorne office, to get any amount of forces from their many vassals. The un-aligned were too scared to send her anyone in case Dominic saw it as a mobilized resistance to his claim to kingship.
Fairsmith had tried but terror attacks had crippled their infrastructure and spread their soldiers thin trying to hunt those responsible. The old lands of Sabre now belonged to Dominic, the power vacuums in Nagari and Avamor had been filled by Arkon’s generals, and she was not sure if any of her calls for Caybourne’s help were reaching out. She needed the Accord now dammit, and nothing seemed to be reaching them, she hadn’t gotten a single reply.
She had finally resolved to ask Briochi, but felt different remembering they were still struggling, to ask them to deploy more than a marginal guard at their border would betray the trust they had in the elves to keep them safe.
That left but one course if she wanted a chance, the military and logistical might of Arkon had expanded from five to seven times her own deployment’s size, to nearly twenty times across the whole of Terros. The only person who could match those numbers of soldiers and auxiliary staff was the Bloodhawk, and thus she was hoping that this message would not see her be betrayed for what she had to do. However as she sealed the letter with her house’s insignia she heard the door open to her office, she saw her brother standing there, heaving and looking furious as if he knew what sin she was about to commit to.
The letter had seen her debase herself, offer the capture of her Uncle, and pledge eternal fealty to the Blackthornes in exchange for troops and supplies, in order to destroy Arkon and save the elves. Only one other person knew of what she was to do, the courier standing and awaiting the letter. However Garin’s darkened blue eyes told her he knew exactly what she was up to. She made a move to arise from the spruce chair she was sat in, but a sidewinding right hook caught her in the jaw and sent her sprawling down.
Before she could make a motion her letter was burning over a candle she had been using for the wax seal. Garin was soon accosted by two guardsmen, the guards Maria had posted outside had been incapacitated by Garin before hand, but upon hearing the scuffle here. two had come running from their break time. Garin put one elbow into the right guard and headbutted the other one as he tried to restrain his left arm for shackles.
Maria’s little brother was probably one of the strongest and more talented of the soldiers within the Dul-Sansiska’s retinue, if you didn't count officers and nobles, which even then he had managed to mortally wound Drake. Two guards groggy and trying to be non-violent were easy prey for the pirate captain known as Maelstrom. He turned his vicious gaze back on her as she pulled herself to her feet, and primed her stance for a bare knuckle brawl.
“I’m not letting my sister throw away the last vestiges of resistance to this false crown, not for anything, even if that means the end of the drow” Garin was shirtless with some black silk sleeping pants and barefoot. Maria was in a violet nightgown and the two of them locked eyes, as Garin sent out a scything hurricane kick, Maria had to twist away before it struck.
“Do you hear yourself talk, like ever? This is the survival of us all, not just some mission of pride between you and tyrants!” Maria stepped forward with a straight to Garin’s chest, but he easily deflected and spun on her. His palm planted in her upper back, between her shoulder blades, and sent her shuffling forwards.
“What choice is there? There aren’t any allies that will back us, not after all the work the Bloodhawk has done. Would you betray Mossa and Fang and reject their armies before you whore yourself out to that mongrel ‘king’?”
“Mossa’s gone so is Fang, so is everyone who can actually fucking help us out fo this predicament. We’re outnumbered twenty to one! How are we supposed to win that Mr. Terrorist?! If we don’t beg for help there won’t be anyone left for anyone to come back to, nobody left to fight the forces of the Void!”
“You leave that to me, you’re not a general you’re a seat warmer at best, you pampered little shit. Consider this a wake up call that life is gonna be hard, you’re not sending any letters anywhere, I know exactly what to do”
“What’s that?” Mossa quirked an eyebrow and tried to sweep her brother’s legs out from under him.
“Not a goddamn thing, hold the line until Mossa and Fang can be reached, the other territories outside of there are not our concern, if the humans and our former allies don’t want to help us then they get to deal with Arkon all on their own.” A counter, easy enough for Garin, he sidestepped and gave her a scythe kick that toppled her, in the next moment he was upon her pinning with an arm bar.
“Our allies will pop their heads back out sooner or later, and that’s when we can regroup. Who knows, maybe Drake will come back to life, or Divan will reveal himself again and annihilate everything with a few spells. For now we should play the waiting game and keep our turf defended” Garin finally released his sister and left the room, sufficiently having broken Maria’s false hope in asking the Bloodhawk for help, and asserting his military command upon the situation.
Mossa Dul-Sansiska Waking Up Unknown
Mossa woke up groggy, a feeling she was simply tired of having to deal with, after the exchange between Drake and Xankresh, she had found herself somewhere new. Everytime she woke back up she always felt a grogginess brought on by medications. She knew she was no longer on the mainland, that was for sure, but she couldn’t tell where she was supposed to be recovering. For the past few weeks since the battle she and Fang had been being treated with medicine, physical therapy, and therapeutics she had not realized this strange land held.
Fang had been more wounded than she had, but she had already been forced into months of recovery after Riverford, and was not as strong as she used to be. So they recovered their strength and were kept purposefully in the dark about their circumstances. Nobody would tell her what island she was on, though it was clearly arctic and reminded her of Alegora in some regards. Their caretakers were of all people: those turncoat chucklefucks Marina, Volia, Evermina, and supposedly the resurrected Marissa. Plus a face she couldn’t quite register with piercing blue eyes and a deadly glare.
Mossa couldn’t tell what was up, besides the dawn sun while she slept in the stone bed, in her quarters. Of course it was comfy for a drow to be sleeping on stone and cushions, comforting almost to have something solid under you. It was a nice root for her mind to nestle back into, but she wanted to finally confront that weird coven of demonic bitches today and get the answers she was entitled to. So she dressed herself in some silks and walked out into the blistering cold courtyard, again a nice feeling to be back in the arctic where one could feel the chill along the body, and be reminded of the fact that Drow were originally a cold climate type of race that thrived in these environments.
There she saw Al-Zehin, seriously? Zehin was here, looking worse than she had or at least like he had been worse. Most of his body was wrapped in cloth, he was gingerly eating some soup that she hoped was Abboth Serpent from the intoxicating aroma. Sat next to him was another woman warmly rubbing his back and looking so much in place with everything else, a slender drow who looked like her body was made of volcanic glass, and would shatter if you so much as pressed her. The whole scene was surreal as all hell and it forced Mossa forward as the cold air helped fill her head with clarity. The two noticed her and motioned her to come over, even thoughs he was already headed in their directions.
“So, you’re here too, do you know what’s going on old man?” Mossa was not in the mood for pleasantries, she had been searching for the idiots but Zehin would do just as well. She stood then with arms folded and the light silks flowing around in the steady winds of the arctic landscape.
“Northern Wastes, Palace of Sek-Mora specifically, owned by the family of Ormana. You’re here for therapuetics that only this place and Amora provide due to natural hot springs and cultures surrounding the practice. I’m also here for that reason because my bdoy was broken by Xankresh. Now let me eat my Abboth Stew in peace woman!” the crotchety old man’s demeanor was the same as always, snapping at anyone who sought to bother him just like he did whenever he came to familial functions. He was indeed eating stewed Abboth Serpent, she smelled a catalog of spices and saw floating in the not-quiet-gravy like broth bits of root vegetables like rutabaga, carrot, and onions. She smelled home spice, ginger, and cider salts-it was a weird choice for a stew like Abboth.
Abboth naturally had a stinging flavor profile, many of the drow’s favorite dishes were based on venomous or otherwise deadly animals. Sure they ate plenty of normal fare, but they loved the warping effect that venom and poison had on food, though when hosting they’d ensure their guests did not partake in anyhting that could kill them. To add the cutting flavor of ginger was admittedly a nice touch, but home spice and cider salts? Cider salts were a dessert topping one made by reduction of hard cider which gave a mature and rounded sweetness. Home spice was a drow specialty and mixed earthiness, sour spikes that came in waves, and subtle floral aromas. Those two flavors had to be clashing in and of themselves, not to mention adding them into a stew that was mostly deadly sea serpeant and earth vegetables…
“Why are you eating it with conflicting spices? That ruins the whole aspect fo the dish, and deadens the pungency of the venom” Mossa ignored the fact they were on the Northern Wastes, that she was in enemy territoriy being held captive by Ormana. Of course they’d take her herwe, the damned traitorous dogs. What she was really worried about was this ignorant old man ruining perfectly a good delicacy.
“You’re getting your snakes mixed up Mossa, Abboth doesn’t have venom, the flavor profile is closer to fish with a mix of bitters mixed in. I have a sweet tooth so I wanted cider sugar, since I’m not allowed to have anyhting too rich like pastries. However I added too much, so I had home spice added in, so that it would mask the overwhelming sweetness undeneath the floral arrangement and the sour waves. Also who the hell told you to judge my eating habits little girl” The man looked daggers up at her as if she’d more than just critiqued his choice, mor elike slapped it from his hands.
“Mossa, please jsut let him rest, he’s tired and wants to eat his food; he’s stressed about the whole situation going on” the smaller and daintier looking woman was the one talking now. Mossa looked over to her and quirked an eyebrow. Getting the meaning the woman sighed and waved her hand as if that would make it all better “Go ask them, I’m nto going to explain something if they didn’t bother to tell you about it. I have to stay here with Grandpa”
“Wouldya stop calling me that woman?! I hate being told I’m old, even my wife never stopepd bringing it up my word” the smaller woman just gigled innocents and said nothing more. Mossa took that as her cue to go find the women that had brought her here and give them a piec eof her mind. As well she wanted to figure out where she could get some damn Abboth to regian her strength, something in her mind was telling her she’d need it qwuicker than how it was going-soemthing bad was on the horizon and she was not willing to play it by ear. ________________________________________________________________
Divan and Methereyl Discussion Between Friends Shatterlight Coven, Northern Silkwood
((This portion is a collaborative effort between myself and Kotor))
Divan sat relatively immobile, a penance for being so erratic by his loving wife Anna, due to his magical instability he couldn't be trusted too well. His wrists were connected to rings of oak that sapped at his mana and fed vines wrapped to them, which then led off to a fountain where the coven could drink to slowly regain their used pools. Since Divan seemed to have a bottomless supply, and it was the forefront of his problems, he wasn't one to argue to the procedure. He felt it was one step closer to paying back the debts to Metheryl that she had had to sustain with him, being inept at capturing the elusive Kraai. What kind fo Exorcist couldn't take down one mid-tier demon? He destroyed an entire plane of existence and yet one elf eluded him for that long.
It wasn't good to dwell on the fact, he was keeping busy while Metheryl and Dironthir rallied up everyone to discuss the state of things. Anna was tending to her wounded Treants, and probably convincing more magical plants to come out and along. She loved those damn big trees, apparently he was meant to stay here until Zeni could arrive to escort him of the Coven's grounds to someplace for treatment. Supposedly he had severe brain damage of some sort, and the magical surge that came out a few weeks prior had exacerbated it.
He wasn't so sure now if Metheryl had the keen senses to treat whatever was happening, but he still intended to ask her opinion. That and to apologize for his inability to help her. Though he was sure he could do far more over a period of time at the very least. It was a somber mood, but at least he was functional-thoughts and memories of his time spent with Anna, Zeni, and Olivia were bouncing throughout his mind nonstop. Now that she was here, they were blocking out other intrusive thoughts, which gave him a sense of clarity to reflect on. He was glad that he would have the chance to speak with his friend, it wasn't as if he had all too many...
It was some time before the somewhat unfamiliar form of Metheryl crossed the courtyard where the marble fountain featured. It appeared she had more than spoken at length about the Coven's future. Something about her glowed. Not so much visually or physically, but there was something healthy to her look. She seemed somehow even taller than before, her long legs going up forever. A light robe was draped over her physique, a white with subtle lavender hue to it. Her hair was wet, her face still dewy from a recent wash. Her feet were bare, and made no sound as she stepped over the cobbled path to Divankul.
She sat down beside him, her back to the same tree Divan rested against. "The Elders claim all essence of the Void has left me," she said in a deep, throaty voice. Despite it being the voice of a stranger, this one somehow fit her better than that of the one she bore in the body of the Void elf.
"That's good...its not any fun to be under the thumb of the Void and I can sense it from here. I'm guessing the ground has already been consecrated as well, can't let the corruption spread through soil." Divan didn't look up from his placement on the ground, fiddling with the oaken cuffs a bit before sighing and ripping away the bandages. "I apologize for not being the one to be here to help you with this, I do hope to be able to repay what is owed for all you did for me in the past, and that you and I can still retain our friendship"
His eyes of what were once deadly burning red, had physically dulled to a muted and darkened deep crimson. It showed behind the eyes he was a tired man who was being overwhelmed by something a lot deeper down. However, there was also a lot more age to him that wasn't there before, making it seem like he was just an old fool. "You do look good by the way, it must be relieving to have your body back. How do you actually feel now that it is done?" Divan's voice was softer, his grave tones had mellowed out and he spoke as someone less in a serious frame. He was more docile, not cowed but relaxed for once and not constantly trying to throw everything into what issues were abound. He wasn't at peace, but he wasn't going to blow anything apart and he was trying to be helpful.
"It feels..." Metheryl trailed off, her eyes dancing to the sky and the leaves shading them above. A long moment passed before her gaze returned to meet Divan's. "I'm not sure. I feel like... I put on a sock with the heel up. It's where it's meant to be, but it feels uncomfortable. Everything is so... long." She looked at her fingers as she said this. And indeed, she was a longer, much more slender woman than the body of Kraai.
"And I have few friends," she said quickly, eyes again back to Divankul. "I did not expect to gain a new one, regardless of whether you were able to help me in this stage of my journey or not."
Her hand rested over one of his. One of the rare times she had voluntarily touched him.
"I am thankful I met you. You made me realize how important it was to find what remained of my family. And you opened my eyes to how this Coven needed a change in... ethics, I suppose."
"You have a family?" Divan chortled a bit at that remark, light shining back behind his crimson gaze as he reached and lightly patted the hand she had lain over his. It was a nice sensation and a gesture that did not go unnoticed by the mad drow. "I'm not laughing at the notion of lost family members, void knows I have plenty crawling from the woodwork. Its just an unexpected thing, as I tend to forget I have one sometimes, I'm grateful to have made a new rare friend myself"
"What's the ethical change, might I ask? As for your body, I do hope you'll get used to it once more, less a sock with the heel wrong" Divan's solemness had lightened with the weight of guilt lifting somewhat under Metheryl's words. He was genuinely engaged with what his partner in destroying void possessors had come up with.
"Since this Coven was formed, our community was made solely of elvenkind. It didn't matter what type of elf, all when combined were made stronger. I may appear a wood elf, but in me I have Dawn, Wildern, and Obscuran blood - all of which we believed made us stronger, more pure in magical ability. We discounted the other races as they weren't so fair... an absurd thought. We were made in Aradia's image, and we have never believed her a pure being - the Void is her mind, after all, and this land her corporeal carcass."
She withdrew her hand finally. It had lingered too long as she wrapped Divankul in the lore of her people. "We... shouldn't have discounted humanity, or the blend the dwarves may bring, or whatever other race might make a stronger hybrid. We closed ourselves off for so long we forgot that unity and protection from Aradia's mind were our core values. How are we to protect against such a thing if all we are is the clear product of her imaginings? Muddy the blood, mingle with others... we'd become stronger than she, in time."
She hesitated one moment, staring into the grass. "I realized this in meeting my descendant, Nimbe. She is blended, and her potential..."
"The quiet little scamp following Lady Ludlow, eh? That one took me a while to figure out after I saw them all at the wedding from above. She's a striking resemblance to the kid who thwarted Rivka's assassination, which is why I was curious in the first place" Divan scratched at his chin, his demeanor had shifted once again as the conversation followed, he was finding a rhythm once again with Metheryl. He was enraptured in thought for what was probably only a few moments but the flickers kept coming in and out about information.
"I'm, something I can't even remember anymore, still a demon more than likely despite myself-not exactly easy to let go of all of creation's forbidden arts once you taste them" a tangent, something off putting but relatively easy to bring back to the conversation "I get the potential of a species, one is limited, but many melded makes for unpredictably potent outcomes, due to mutation and engineering. Raised right they can overtake the old guard, you and I."
There was blinking and shrugging as Divan slid back into another emotion, his mind still a mess "My daughter, Zeni I think Anna said her name was, will be here within some time to take me to a far off island known as Narn's Son. I'm sure I've been there before but I don't actually recall. They're going to repair supposed severe brain damage that has given me something she calls 'schizophrenia' which is why I seem to be so more erratic and overly forgetful compared to my fellows."
Divan's words seemed shakier than usual, probably the most unknown emotion that could be shared between the two. The mad elf who would face down anything and anyone, was scared now of an operation to save his mind. He quickly shuffled away the topic though, pivoting as it was back to her to draw away from his fears. "What happens next, Metheryl? Where do you go from here in the present? Things are going to get worse before they get better and I want to know that you have a plan for you and yours.....because I don't have one for me and mine"
"I believe I will stay here for some time and repair the damage my father and I have done... help seed some tolerance back into this community, try and get our descendants involved in the politics and ethics of the rest of Aradia... I feel we could be of great use."
She paused a moment, contemplating over his eyes. "Should I trust Anna and Zeni? I know there are parts of your mind that are warped, demonic, or just outright broken, but should I trust them to take care of you?"
"Don't worry if they were going to try anything Maelith would roast them over an open fire most likely, however I don't think they will. I'm crazy and dementia riddled sure, but I'm not stupid and I'm still functionally immortal. It's the place they're sending me to that I have less faith in, however same logic applies-I'm intelligent and I don't really stay dead for more than a few minutes at a time. If I get into trouble I'll transport back to somewhere around here and I'll let you know what happened."
"Well, I'll be back regardless to let you know what happened Metheryl. I'm happy you wish to repair your imagery to the world, sort of reach out and help it in the coming reconstruction once the new threat is destroyed. First step is playing nice with the Wild factions, uniting what people see as savages with put a layer of firmness under your motions to spread the power of the Shatterlight through Aradia, to help it find healing when it will need it most." There was a great noise coming from above, a large beast with a powerful call was wanting to land in the cleared out areas that mingled with the temperate jungle topography. the silhouette was something out of a story book almost and the girl riding atop it looked much the same "That, would be Zeni"
The rightful King over all the Isles of Aradia sat alone on the tar-stained deck of the fishing boat Diver, dressed in ragged leather armor and picking insects from his beard.
So falls the ancient and most noble house of Blackthorne, he thought, bitterly.
That was a thought that had preyed upon Jaster's consciousness so often--in his father's voice, always his fucking father's voice, whispering at him like it was part of his own mind--that it no longer even brought him the burning shame that had plagued him all through his youth. He was simply tired of it now. Tired of being a disappointment, tired of having his worldview upended, tired of being a Blackthorne and all that came with it. Caring about it so much, so often, was exhausting.
When the Beast claims me, it will almost be a blessing.
It was a cruel and stupid thought, but one that had begun to bother him all the more. Oftentimes he thought of the cave beneath the Silkwood, what he had done there; he remembered Imshael, the form of her. her scent, the feel of her skin on his hands. He found himself longing for her, grotesquely. Maybe that was some kind of mark she'd left upon him. He had suspected himself to mutate after the encounter, to start spouting wings or scales, but his body still looked the same kind of mundane ugly as it had been since the Riverford--hard with muscle, aye, but the pale skin marred by burns and scars. Worst still on his left profile, where his first meeting with Imshael had turned the skin purplish and raw. The encounter had not even healed those. To Jaster, his own beauty was like the cave--a fading memory. There were no physical tokens of what had happened down there; he had started to wonder if it had all been dream, if he really had slain a creature like everyone said he had. The Wyvern the Bloodhawk was said to have killed over Darkharbour...she had kept her end of the bargain, if that was what that was supposed to be, and he strongly doubted that despite appearances she was actually dead....
It was the level of political "that's-what-I-wanted-you-to-think" that he'd always detested. It made his head hurt, made him feel like a puppet, like every struggle and strife he'd ever experienced had been some meticulously-plotted ploy by some ancient force far outside his control. It was the kind of thinking he usually left up to Talia. But with the latest cascade of revelations, even she seemed exhausted by it all. She had been distant since they had sailed forth from Stormrise, anxious and flighty. He knew what it was like to live with a stained soul. But what could he say to comfort her, without revealing to her his own experience?
The ship's captain and only other occupant toddled past him in that moment. Jaster did not know the name of this old dwarf; the sailor spoke not a word of the common tongue, only the coarse language native to the Obscuran depths from which he hailed. He'd liked the heft of the twins' offered coinpurse enough to bring them on board with him, though that was as much of an exchange as he was capable of.
"Morning," Jaster attempted, valiantly.
"Hrrm." The Dwarf's grey beard, crystalline with sea-salt, twitched as his toothless mouth formed words. "Szee kúrrino pazznee."
"Right. Same to you, friend." Jaster let the captain toddle away without further interruption. If he wanted some conversation to take his mind off of things, it seemed, he would have to say something to his sister.
He went down below the decks of the Diver, to a scant section of the hold where the stench of fish was at its least offensive. There were a pair of fishing nets hanging from the ceiling there that doubled nicely as hammocks. Jaster had been prepared to wake his twin with some humorous exaggerated fanfare, something to lighten the mood--but that thought died swiftly once he opened the door and saw, in the dim illumination of the oil lamp, that she was thrashing in the throes of a nightmare.
"No," he heard her whisper distinctly, the moorings of her hammock squeaking from the strain as she squirmed in the grasp of some invisible foe. "No..."
The sight of it distressed him, perhaps more than it had any reason to. He rushed to her side, laying a hand on her shoulder. She started, her whole body stiffening, batting weakly at his hand with both arms as if to fight him off. And she gasped, like a drowning woman pushed to the surface.
"Tali!" he put a steadying hand on her other shoulder. "Tali, stop--it's me."
She stilled then, her sapphire eyes (so very like their mother's) filled with emotion. Then she sat up, burying her face in her hands.
There was a silence, then. Jaster felt he had to ask. "You were having one of those dreams again. What did you see?"
"Nothing." Her answer came quickly. She peered at him through her fingers. "It was just....it was something stupid. I don't remember."
Jaster doubted that very much. Through all their lives, the twins had been each other's closest confidants; they hid nothing from each other, and even if one did not want the other to find something out, they often would anyway. Now they had new secrets against each other every day.
"Its dawn." He beckoned. "Come up on deck. Whenever you're able."
She emerged to join him just as the first rays of dawn were cresting over the horizon, streaking the blue sky with orange.
"Look." Jaster pointed east, to the black line on the horizon silhouetted against the sunrise. "We'll be making landfall by evening, I suspect. Hoping the smell of this wreck comes off in one wash, otherwise the Elf will never let me hear the end of it."
Talia said nothing, did not even smile. She only hugged her padded coat tighter around herself, her unbound dye-dark hair tousled by the sea breeze, as she looked at the oncoming edge of the Silkwood expressionlessly.
He sighed. "Tali....it's not the dream, I know that. But it is the Vaults, what we learned down there."
She closed her eyes, and for a moment, he thought she'd ignore him again. But after a moment, she spoke, in a voice made husky by sleep; "I should have drank it. The Demon's blood."
"No," Jaster retorted immediately. "You did the right thing, walking away. We don't know what it would have done to you." One of us is compromised already. If the other falls too....
"We should be doing anything in our power to make ourselves stronger." She gave him a look that was sharp, defiant. "Don't you agree?"
He let that sit for a moment, holding her gaze steadily, before he gave his answer. "I've been thinking, lately, That it doesn't feel like we're in control. Like all these powers around us are making all our decisions for us, talking about destiny like our road is all set, that we have no....agh. What's the word?"
"Agency," Talia supplied, softly. Something like a smile passed over her lips. "I understand what you mean."
"Right. So instead of letting them tell us what we have to do, why don't we try to use what we've got to get what we need?" Jaster spread his hands in a shrug. "Because it seems to me like everyone keeps telling us how important we are, but they put all these constraints down--we only gain power on their terms. Its past time we brought it back to our own. I got you something."
He reached into the pocket of his studded leather jacket and brought it forth; a white orb, like a pearl, no larger than a child's fist. He watched his sister's face as she studied it, and anticipated her reaction before he saw her eyes narrow. "I know this is from the--"
"I told you not to take anything from the Vaults, Jaster!" she cut over him, determined to be indignant. "Everything down there is kept there for a reason!"
"Right, but I didn't take a sword or armor or any of that. This isn't a weapon....I think."
"Just--just hold it." He offered it. "Please. Trust me."
She was glaring at him. For one terrifying moment, he thought she'd refuse out of mistrust, and he did not know what that would do to their relationship; his own twin, poisoned against him by their secrets. But in the end, with a little "hmph" to indicate she was still not pleased about this, she reached out to take the orb in her hand. All at once, her demeanor changed, eyes widening.
"Oh." She blinked. "There's....there's a lot of mana in this."
"I knew it." Jaster smirked. "Even I could feel it."
That sharp look, again. "So you weren't certain? Could have been tricked, like perhaps it was cursed, or--?"
"Well it wasn't either of those things, was it?" he countered quickly.
"No," she sighed, pained to admit it. She rolled the orb around in her palm. "I don't know what it is, exactly, but there's power in it I can draw from. But what use is raw power without refinement?"
"That's the thing. You see, I was talking to Claire's maid, Nimbe, before we left..."
THE WITCH ~ ♛
a collaboration with Kotorchix
It was the barest, least perceptible tingle on the surface of her skin. Like the fireworks bursting over Everglow in the festivals of her childhood, kaleidoscopes of light and color, entirely present and entirely real....but distant. Not touchable. Not yet. She stopped in a clearing, leaning her head back with her eyes closed, feeling the dappling summer sunshine projected through the leaves above dancing across the marble-pale skin on her cheeks. This energy she was feeling, it was old, old as the towering oaks around them....but benevolent. The opposite of the lingering cold dread that had hung over Stormrise Isle in the wake of the demon attack.
"Do you feel that?" her voice came out in a breathy whisper, smothered in the dense forest atmosphere.
Her brother spoiled the tranquility by slapping clumsily at an insect that had landed on his beard. "Tali, I've never felt that. You're having one of your bloody magic conniptions again."
Ignoring him, Talia pushed forward to the head of the group, where Arianne was taking point with Nimbe just behind her. She whispered again, to the littler of the two elves. "We're close. I can feel her. Goddess, the power...its ancient."
Nimbe was fingering the tiny amulet of twine and green glass about her neck, a tentative smile flicking across her features. But in her proximity, Tali could feel the electricity building within the small elf - even the fine downy gold hairs on her arms stood on end. Her gaze slipped to Jaster, the smile growing in confidence for a moment.
"Imagine a rush of adrenaline, but it isn't spiky. It's smooth, like cool water running over your face... but with..." she struggled to find a word. "The power in these trees, in the roots, the soil, the... the beneath... magic has permeated this land for millennia."
The beneath. Tali hadn't noticed it until Nimbe mentioned it, but the ground was... dark. The soil healthy with loam and stone, grass and wildflowers alike, but... deeper... The stain of an evil bleached again and again with nature magic until nothing but the ghostly grey glare on the mind remained. This place reeked of death, life, and renewal.
Gradually the group found themselves in a hollow, the walls of this natural tunnel through the woods made of white trees - much like the oaks further back, but albino in appearance, smoother. But just as thick and ancient. Strange glyphs marked the occasional trunk in a flowy language foreign to them all. Even Nimbe, born somewhere near here, didn't know it. The leaves became unnatural colors the deeper they passed into the hollow - dark purple, black. And then there were blossoms, strange vines winding up the trees with delicate pink, white, and violet flowers affixed to them. Underfoot, the grass remained lush and green as they wound their way through what appeared to be a thin valley - the path of an age-old creek once.
And all at once, in the path ahead, there was a large green stone - as tall as Ari and about twice as thick, standing erect. A series of glyphs had been carved into it's smooth face, polished with age and gently accentuated with mossy growths.
Arianne stalked up to the rock, hands planted on her hips. She sniffed at it suspiciously, rocked back on her bare heels, and squinted at it through one eye as her ears flattened back against her head. "What the fuck are we supposed to do with this?"
"I was about to suggest hitting it with our swords," Jaster groused. "Just remembered we don't have swords."
"Will you two--please?" Talia did not have to specify what her siblings please had to stop doing as they got the message quick enough, both subsiding and standing aside. She knelt in the grass beside the stone, running a gloved hand over the mossy carvings. "This is an Elvish dialect. An old, old one, going back before the first demon war...some of it looks like it could be Drow."
"Think Valar's people have passed through here?"
"Likely whatever came before Valar's people." Tali rounded the edge of the stone, seeing similar carvings on its back. "Some of the lettering here...it could be Wildern, perhaps? Aghh, if only I could recall more of Master Ragnell's lessons."
Jaster snorted, crouching low to the forest floor. "You were actually listening to Ragnell when he gave us those?"
Arianne, meanwhile, had taken a different issue. "Pshhh, the Wildern Elves. Not really a subspcies are they? Used to be like us in Brecilidia, but then they got themselves some funny notions. No cities or indoor heating for us, we want to be like the Wrow, shitting in the woods and wiping our arses on piles of leaves..."
Jaster, who had been idly shredding a leaf in his grip, dropped it quickly and wiped his hands on his pants.
"This character means to guard, this one is safe..." Talia shook her head. "Its some kind of protection spell. Beyond that, I cannot say."
"That looks like a spider," Nimbe noted of a specific glyph. "Protection against the spiderqueens, perhaps?"
"And demons," came a firm female voice behind Tali.
The woman was tall - not so tall as Arianne, but enough of an imposing figure with her strong physique and the age of her eyes. There were no more wrinkles than some faint crows' feet at the corners, but the depths of those golden eyes told stories in the green flecks. She bore a resemblance to Nimbe, but her features seemed sterner, her skin both more tanned and freckled. Ancient scars marked her face from some distant battle, yet she moved with the spice of youth. She bore no weapons that Tali could see. One long, slender leg with muscled toning peeked from a split in her skirt, her feet bare, and her head unadorned with jewellery or headwear. A simple tunic without sleeves hugged her form with the help of a hemp sash about her waist.
Her hands were dark with dirt, like she had been gardening.
"I was wondering when you would come."
Tali felt the oncoming presence before she saw it, and so while her siblings jerked in surprise and reached for their weapons in reaction to the intrusion, she merely stood and turned to address the woman in one smooth motion.
"You know me?" she asked. "And you know of why I have come here?"
Jaster, stalking round into the newcomer's blindspot, scratched his beard in visible irritation. "You're not going to claim to know everything are you? I've had my fill of that for one lifetime."
The woman actually seemed confused for a moment, actually looking at Tali as if she were seeing her for the first time. She paid Jaster absolutely no heed. "Am I meant to know you?"
Nimbe sheepishly stepped forward. "Grandmother, this is... Lady Talia Blackthorne. She would like to learn from you. She's a mage, like you. Talia, this is Methe-"
"I can see her potential, but she is not like me at all," Metheryl retorted, almost offended. She finally glanced over her shoulder at Jaster. "I don't need muscle following me about."
Metheryl's gaze snapped back to Nimbe. "And you have just as much potential as this girl, why aren't you here to learn from me?" There was no response as Nimbe seemed at a loss of words. Metheryl glanced at Claire and her cousins, hanging back behind the stone, and rolled her eyes like a petulant teenager. "That's right, you have a job."
Talia tilted her head to the left, puzzled, when the woman did not know her; it took her a second to realize that the potential she was speaking of resided in Nimbe instead. Her cheeks pinkened a little--all of the shenanigans beneath the Peak had fixed her mind, however unwittingly, to believe that she was the important mystical force that every sage in the land would seek to address first in any situation.
Careful now, Tali, she told herself. There isn't a Blackthorne born who doesn't put themselves before others. Don't succumb to your nature so easily.
And so she went quiet, standing aside as Metheryl spoke to Nimbe. Jaster, however, was not so easily divorced from his own sense of pride; when looked over and then dismissed as muscle, his mouth hardened into a grim line--a familiar look of stubborn bullheadedness that had been flitting across his features since their mutual infancy.
"Listen here, Elf," he growled, cutting over her address of Nimbe. "You've likely not left this little garden of yours for a long time. There's a world beyond these trees. But if we don't get your help, there might not be for much longer."
Talia said nothing, merely continued to watch. This old sorceress was not as she had imagined her to be; she had foreseen a secretive, cloaked figure like Isabella, whispering of prophecies from the shadows. This Metheryl, with her surly and short demeanour, was more like....well, more like Arianne.
The woman stared at Jaster a moment - offense wasn't the right word for the expression on her face as it was beginning to morph into curiosity as she suddenly stepped closer to him, studying his face like he had become the most interesting thing in the woods. She kept an appropriate distance, hesitating as her intrigue urged her to investigate.
"I've been around," she said in a strangely calm voice. "As have you, it would seem." Her nostrils widened, like she was scenting him - but not where he had been physically. "I thought that feeling was a remnant of-... Who are you?" she abruptly demanded. "Is it within you, or have you shed it already?"
Jaster stiffened when she inspected him, but he did not back off or drop eye contact. His jaw tightened, and he met her gaze levelly. Her cryptic question he answered with a single word, delivered in leaden tones; "Yes."
It seemed a ripe moment to ask for clarification. But Arianne spoiled it when she came strolling out from between the trees, hitching her trousers up and belting them while whistling an obnoxiously shrill tune. "I have to say, I've come round on the whole peeing in the woods idea, maybe the Wilderners had the right of it after all--" He gaze swept the party, noticing they had one spare. A collection of expressions flitted across her features, from surprise to suspicion to something with an arched eyebrow that Talia didn't like the look of at all. "You're the woods witch we've been seeking? Why Nimbe, this isn't the wizened old hag you described by any means!"
Talia made a futile attempt to interject. "Nimbe never said that--"
Arianne bowled over her, skipping girlishly up to Metheryl with her hands behind her back. "Has anyone ever told you, you have wonderful thighs?"
"If she doesn't get out of my fucking face, she wont have them for much longer," Jaster snarled.
Talia put her head in her hands. "Goddess, you are both so stupid. Lady Metheryl...I am Talia Blackthorne. This is my half-sister Arianne West...and my brother, Jaster Blackthorne, the rightful King of these Isles."
Although her eyes lingered on Arianne a moment too long, Methe turned her attention to Talia and Jaster. The downwards tilt of her brows lightened only a hair as she folded her arms across her chest, entirely ignoring the young half-elf ogling her. "You look quite different than the portraits, both of you..." Her glance landed on Arianne. She seemed to be mulling over what to say to the creature before decidedly ignoring her once more, stepping past in long, elegant steps.
"Well," she huffed softly. "I suppose you believe I am beholden as one of your subjects to bend to your will and obey your commands, yes?"
Nimbe winced. "Grandmother, these people, they're... they can help with making Aradia the way you said it needed to be. They're on the right path to reach that future."
"Not that one," she laughed, the sound harsh.
"Jaster isn't-... Metheryl," Nimbe took a tone. Metheryl's brows raised in something akin to amusement. "One day I will come to you and ask for guidance in unlocking my own potential, but for now, Talia Blackthorne is the one seeking your help. She can help make this a better world, as can her brother."
Metheryl's expression remained a moment, then she sighed. "What is it you wish to learn, Blackthorne?"
Arianne met the mage's gaze boldly, dipping one eye in an obscene flirtatious wink; juxtapozed with Jaster's scowl on her other side, Metheryl was for a moment surrounded by two very opposite ends of the Blackthorne mood spectrum. When the sorceress moved away, Arianne went to one knee and watched the motions of those bare thighs with her fingers steepled like she was a scholar studying some vastly complex theorem.
"Oh but to be between those for a moment," she stage-whispered to no-one in particular.
Jaster watched this with disdain. "This is vanity, Elf. She's the exact same physical type as you."
"And I am a damned fine physical type Kitten, what of it?"
Shaking her head, Talia could only wait her turn to speak up. "We cannot make you do anything, my lady, and we have no intention of commanding you...we came only to ask for your aid. I'm sure you've felt it? The Void is open, and bleeding into our world. I have been...assured...that the ancient magic of my ancestors is the only way to close it. You are older and wiser than any other mage to walk this land; if I am to become more powerful, I must learn that power from you."
She floated free of herself.
Thousands of feet above the ground she loomed, higher and higher, the trappings of her physical self so difficult to remember from this sight that only the birds saw; and she knew, in an instant, how simple it would be simply float here forever. Gone from the worries of the ground, the strife and the pain and the positives too, released from all of it, to permanently close her two mortal eyes and dwell forever within the mystical third, drifting...simply drifting,
But no. She was a mortal. She was Talia Blackthorne, last daughter of the Great Griffin, and she owned the sky.
It was a simple operation, really. As the clouds formed her body, she moved its constituent tiniest particles as easily as she would a limb; and when she focused, it was the most natural thing to her to force them to expand, like exhaling and holding her breath, and she felt it all engorging, growing so large it all grated off each of the other constituent parts, grinding edges. Making sparks.
Thousands of feet below on the ground, Talia's physical form heard a booming clap of thunder, like the rapport of a hundred rifles going off at once. She was down in the glade, yes, but she was above it as well, and the trick was simply to being them both together in the right way. She felt the mana coiling within her like a viper getting ready to strike, but it was shapeless, unfocused, it needed a command--it needed only the right word--
"Tintreäkh." The lips of her mortal form moved almost soundlessly. "Stailc eis cránn, TINTREÄKH--"
The sparks bloomed. For a moment it was as if the grey evening had been lit by a second sun, a great white flash that bathed the world in a flat uniform white light--Talia gasped in a breath, joining her hands together with her fingers steepled upwards, bending it, directing it, she owned the sky--and the light coalseced in a great column of shocking power, slamming into the earth before her like the hammer of an enraged god, tearing the forest floor and sending silage flying feet into the air--the tree, Metheryl had told her to aim for the tree--she went for it, that little dead stump at the center of the glade, the lightning evaporated it in seconds, it was done, she could stop--
She ripped herself away from her mana, and crashed back into the confines of her physical form. She force of it drove the air from her lungs, knocked her to her knees, and her teeth clacked painfully over her tongue stunning her with pain.
Talia kneeled there on the forest floor, her breath coming in gasps, one hand clamped over her mouth while the other supported her hunching over. Her braid had come undone, and strands of her dyed-dark hair had fallen into her eyes as they watered. Before her lay a stretch of scorched earth, ten feet in diameter. She could feel it, the eyes of the ancient elf on her back.
"I can do more," she whispered, as soon as she was able. Her tongue felt numb; she could taste the metallic tang of her own blood. "I can be more accurate. Give me another target. I can try again."
The wild elf had stayed a good few feet back during the entire spectacle, but now Talia could feel her soft steps behind her - a gentle swish through the light groundcover that hadn't been party to Talia's destructive force. She paused behind the girl for a moment, studying the scenery. Then she passed her, bare feet disturbing the ashes of the scorched earth, but seemingly untouched by the heat as steam rose where her feet had touched.
"Accuracy is certainly key," Metheryl said in an almost haughty tone before turning to face Tali. One of her hands raised above her head, as if reaching up for an offered plate heaped with food. The other swept through the air before her, creating a series of sigils in the air that glowed white before fading away. A shimmering force surrounded Metheryl.
"You will strike me."
Talia looked up, one hand still resting on her mouth, her gaze sweeping over her master's face--she was searching for humor, though Metheryl was not in the fashion of being funny. She saw none of it there. The Elf was dead serious--she wanted to feel the full force of a Storm King's rage.
"I will not." Her mouth tasted rustier still. "I have no doubt your wards are powerful, but this power of mine...I don't mean to boast, but if it hurts you..."
"If it breaks through my ward, then we both have learned a valuable lesson," Metheryl said back matter-of-fact. "One, that a strong magic caster cannot protect well against such power. The other, that a certain ward spell needs some work."
The idea of leaving her newfound teacher a charred corpse did not please Talia overmuch. Fighting the urge to apologize for being unladylike, she spat on the grass; it came out brown. That's precious blood I'm spilling. Many a demon would pay dearly for it, and here I am, wasting it.
"As you will, then." Talia rose to her feet, and as she did, rose from her body. She was drifting again, far above, and this time it was easier for her to twist the stormcloud to her will and speak the words, and with another ripple on the mana pool within her the column smashed into the Elf's shimmering form.
The ward broke, but only after absorbing the power of the strike. As the smoke cleared, Metheryl blinked away ash and soot, looking down at the half-sphere indentation she had been forced into, the ground about the rim of the mini-crater crackling with energy still.
"Well done," she said, nodding slowly in appreciation. "Hit center-mass, would have been right upon my chest had the ward not been there. But this also shows some mages will be able to defend against this power. We will need to work on your follow-up attack being swift, in the time they are attempting to recuperate."
Talia had stayed on her feet this time. The static jumped off her skin, thrumming through her entire body; her entirety was a conductor. More, some deep and primal part of her whispered. More. she forced herself to ignore it. "I need..." The words came to her lips unbidden, a boldness the sizzling mana had lent to her. "I need some way to focus it more. Every mage carries a staff. I need one too."
Metheryl frowned, but hiked a leg up on the edge of the crater before elegantly lifting herself out. There was no magical pretense in the motion, just that of a lean, practiced body.
"I don't," she remarked. But a dismissive wave of her hand showed she wasn't too concerned with the matter. "I would suggest crafting one yourself. You'll be able to customize it's weight and texture, both of which are important to help with the delicacies of true focus. I prefer not to use one, but I also rarely attempt highly-tuned targeting. It's a personal choice of the caster."
"I need the crutch." Talia closed one fist before her, willing the mana to dissipate; it felt like being immersed in cool water. "Its going to come down to a fight. Me....and Nestor Knox. He's a Warlock, with ten years of training on me. I've never fought a wizard's duel in my life. If he has a staff and I don't...I'll lose my first."
At the center of the woods, where Jaster had slain the Lady of the Wood, there was a great tree--and though the rest of the forest had healed, here the bark was still gnarled and black. Talia put what she had learned from Metheryl to use, speaking the words the Elf had taught her; the tree warped to her will, twisting, knotting about itself, and elongating. She reached out, grasped the structure, and drew it forth from its moorings like a sword from a scabbard. A stave of perhaps five feet in length it was, well-balanced and lightweight. On one end was a pointed spike, and the other end branched out like the fingers of a hand.
Into the palm of that hand Talia pressed the pearl from the vaults. All at once, like in a great becoming that felt almost cosmic, the pearl glowed with power, and its mana intermingled with hers; a great white light rolled off her, and in that moment, she was a beacon against the darkness.
Talia Blackthorne was to fight in a war. And now, she had a weapon to do it with.
“I know nothing good ever came of a woman rejecting an Umbridge proposal,” she breathed. “But no.”
The expression on the man’s face was nothing short of relief. Boy, she reminded herself. Not even seventeen years old, and he was the new Lord Umbridge. Although he may be responsible for his subjects, the boy shouldn’t be held to account for the crimes of his predecessor. She might now be carrying the bastard child of a rapist and murderer, but Rasheba wanted nothing more from the Umbridges.
James deserved better too. He didn’t deserve to carry a name like that.
The twin bastard swords crossed her back in an X, her new steel armor glinting in the dim early morning light and the lanterns at the end of the pier. James wore the casual clothing of a nobleman beneath a heavy cloak and hood that obscured his identity. Although news had spread quickly throughout the lord’s keep, Harold Umbridge’s ‘sudden illness leading to death’ was not gossip privy to the public just yet. James wished to keep it that way for at least a few more hours.
“If there is in fact a child as the demon said, I would keep its heritage from it.”
“I would still rather know the monster my own father was rather than not,” James replied softly, his gaze made amber by a reflection off Rasheba’s armor. “And… going forward, I hope to redeem this name. Same as Talia Blackthorne might redeem hers.”
A moment of silence stretched out. Rasheba hesitated, uncertain what to say, or whether now was the time for goodbye. She hadn’t expected to form a bond with the boy - they were both warriors, and he had saved her from the depths of his grandfather’s dungeon, but rarely did she spill blood with another. Fighting side-by-side with another had been a strange feeling. But there was a comfort in the companionship, the knowledge they had both shared the experience.
Even if the experience itself had been the execution of Harold Umbridge.
“You will write to Lord Ludlow?” she instead offered. “Tell him where I am going-...”
“... but not what happened, I know.” James glanced down at the pommel of the longsword he currently carried. He had turned in his distinctive greatsword just for this venture to Westgate Harbor. His knuckles whitened as his fingers closed about the hilt, squeezing. “I sent the letter before you woke. Everything is handled. Captain Roseway won’t ask questions - he knows where you’re headed, and of the upcoming conflict caused by Arkon, but nothing else.”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” he rebuked, more harshly than she expected of him. But the grief in his eyes spoke volumes. “I can never make up for what happened to you.”
“You don’t have to, James,” she said, taking a step closer to him as she gently gripped his arm. “This wasn’t your fault. None of it was.”
“I still can’t believe there was a demon involved, that my grandfather would be so foolish as to-...” He trailed off, before placing a hand over hers. “I know you’re right. But it will still take some time to shake the guilt of not having done something to end his reign of terror sooner. That my mother had to end her own suffering for me to finally act.”
She let her hand fall, looking up at him. “You will be a fine lord, James. You’re nothing like him.”
There was no smile, although the corners of his mouth tightened like he was attempting one. “You should tell the child who he or she is.”
She opened her mouth to object, but he laughed. It was a short bark, eccentric in nature. “Who knows,” he said, “perhaps it would be best. I do intend to form an alliance with the Ludlow Accord someday. Wouldn’t want marriage to suddenly become something filthy between our two houses.”
Rasheba grimaced at the idea, but a smirk touched on her lips. “Already betrothing our non-existent offspring?”
“Now you’re thinking perhaps I’m more like my grandfather than you thought,” he said, the humor fading from his features. “But no… I plan to ask for Claire Ludlow’s hand in marriage.”
Her brow quirked upwards. “If I remember correctly, she was just betrothed at her very own brother’s wedding. A proposal forced upon her and the young lordling by the Bloodhawk himself.”
“Forced upon, yes.” James’ eyes glittered. There was rebellion hidden behind the reflections of the lantern lights. “Umbridges and unattainable women, I know what you’re thinking.”
A smile flitted across her face, although the subject he was alluding to was macabre. Had her aunt Amayl not rejected Harold Umbridge all those years ago, none of this would have happened.
“You can’t possibly love her.”
“No, but we’re nobility. We have to make sacrifices for the good of our houses, families, and our people.”
“You’ve made enough sacrifices of self,” she said, setting a foot on the gangplank up to the ship. “Perhaps you should think of yourself a little more.”
“I am,” he retorted. “Claire Ludlow is a good woman. A strong, sensible young lady with a ferocious streak in her. I think she got it from you. It’s an attractive feature, and certainly something I would like to find in a wife.”
She paused, before motioning vaguely to the ship. “I have to go. But promise me something, James.”
“Don’t pursue her if she says no.”
“I’m not my grandfather, nor my father.”
“I know.” She gazed at him before reaching out and taking his arm. They shook hands. “Aradia’s blessings on your rule, my lord.”
“And Her blessings also be on your search for the Daughter of the Sorrows.”
Rivka had known for some time. But never had she been willing to admit it to herself. Through all she had suffered and survived: two weddings, an assassination attempt, threats from the Bloodhawk, and so much more. Yet… now, in the silence, in the center of the storm, she finally knew.
She had lost track of time, expecting the onset of labor to be her awakening to the nine months passed since Jaster’s death.
But it never happened.
It laid still and cold in her belly. A hard little form curled up in acrimony of the life it should have been allowed.
And now it was making her sick.
Part of her wished to just let it eat her from the inside out - destroy every evidence that she was once a vessel for such potential. The last vestige of Jaster Blackthorne, and her body hadn’t even been able to preserve that. Her broken, dysfunctional corpse of a body. A corpse carrying another corpse within it, like those little wooden novelty dolls the dwarves made - one within another within another.
She opened her eyes, but startled. A cold vice grip knotted atop the stone that was her dead baby as she stared back into open eyes.
A moment of hitched breath and she realized the woman laying in the bed she was seated beside was just as comatose as before. Her chest rose and fell in shallow breaths, a small slither of drool at the wrinkled corner of her mouth. Yet her eyes were open, their dark chocolate depths staring right at her.
Reaching out with a shaky hand, Rivka slid Amayl’s eyelids back over her orbs.
A dead baby within a dead girl beside a dying woman.
She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. Lavender. Casim had suggested she find some of Amayl’s lovingly crafted candles and set them about the room. Anise. She had lit some, but they had burned down over the past few days. Vanilla. Leaving only their ghosts on the still air of Amayl’s chambers.
But the dying woman’s eyes had opened. There was life in her, summoned by the snuffed out spirits of her creations.
Rivka’s hand laid against the hard bulge of her overdue child.
Of all the things she had never expected to become was a survivor. They felt incredible guilt. They bore their scars, their grief, and they carried that forever. But a survivor only ever stopped being a survivor when they gave up.
She would bury her child. And she would carry her scars.
She would collect the spent wax and mold it anew.
To Lord Ludlow,
I write this now in an hour of desperation, our allies are scattered thanks to the schemes of Xankresh Avani and Argavir Notusi. Drake the Lizard is deceased, after stopping the madmen, and Mossa the Battle Matron is nowhere to be found to rally what's left of our additional resources. I cannot contact Fang or his Kyn allies, nor can I expect aid to come from Silkwood. I am running out of options here, I'm exhausting all available resources just getting these messages out. My allies are in turmoil or otherwise scattered by terrorists, my forces will be soon overwhelmed by a sea of monsters. We are but one nation against a coalition, and so I turn to you and your navy.
You once wished to see our forces unite under one familial banner, now I ask for aid, it will be repaired a hundred fold I assure you. We are the light that burns against the Void, if we are to be extinguished here there is nothing left. Please, aid us in whatever way you can, at the very least response to this message to let us know we are not abandoned by our Goddess in our darkest hour. We the Servants are here to keep the light burning so that darkness cannot swallow the world. We have lost our greatest of heroes in Drake, we are missing our most experienced military commanders, and we cannot find Lord Divankul to help beat back the monsters.
We are broken here, I find that within the month our garrisons will fall, and the Drow Vaults will come under the control of Arkon. If that happens, everyone will suffer a thousand times over what we will experience in defeat. My Uncle sealed that Vault for a reason, now all my family seems to be missing or dead, I await a response. anything will do, even if you cannot give unto me a proper answer.
I must now write the most dreadful of these correspondences, I bid you farewell Lord Ludlow.
~Lady Maria Dul-Sansiska
“I’ve never known the Drow to be the desperate sort,” Elmer said as he lowered the letter.
Lord Mancel Ludlow sat at the desk in his chambers. Unlike his study back at the Ludlow Estate, this was all the Heartstone Estate offered for its guestrooms. Casim and Rivka had the main suite with all the attachments. The lord’s broad frame made the desk look diminutive in his shadow.
“With Drake’s death,” Mancel’s gravelly voice vibrated, “I’m not sure how invested I should be. The drow certainly bring a lot to the table when it comes to fighting demons and the Void, yet… this Arkon, what interest would he have in us should he win? Any?”
“I find the whole affair rather confusing, to be honest,” Elmer said as he seated himself on the edge of the nearby four-poster bed. “I’ve read of Arkon before. He and Xankresh Avani were enemies, yet the battle between Xanvani and Drake in Everglow tells a different story.”
“I remember reading of Arkon too. He seemed to be something of a boogeyman,” Mancel mused with a twist of his mustache as he stroked and hand down his chin and beard.
“Boogeymen don’t really exist for elves,” Elmer said wryly. “We’re old enough to remember.”
“Unfortunately there just isn’t enough to ‘remember’ in this case,” the lord grumbled. “Demonic interests, slavery, rape, murder, necromancy… how much of it is true? And how can we be certain any assistance we offer is enough? We don’t even know our enemy.”
“It is a civil war.”
“Which makes me feel we should stay out of it. Yet…” Mancel glared at the letter in Elmer’s pinched fingers.
“Yet, it’s rare for drow to be so desperate.”
Something like a growl rattled in Mancel’s throat as his head snapped back around to stare down at his tiny desk.
“I fear Claire will be heading that way.”
“How? She went with Talia Blackthorne and Darius,” Elmer said with a frown. “Fugitives. Why would they head there?”
“What better way to win a war against a tyrant than have an army at your back that owes you something?”
Elmer’s ear twitched. “You truly believe Talia Blackthorne is going to try taking the Bloodhawk down? By using Arkon? What could she even do?”
“I don’t know,” Mancel said, throwing a hand up in exasperation. “But I know my daughter. If this wasn’t Talia’s plan, I know Claire has likely suggested it to her. They’re sparks of fire to black powder together, I can just feel it.”
“You believe Claire would put herself in danger for Talia?”
Mancel’s beard bristled. “Yes, and by extension, every single one of our people in that group will jump to her aid. Lyron, Darius, Serenity, what’s-her-name-the-servant-girl, and whoever else it was that saved Talia from the gallows.”
“This is all based on assumptions,” Elmer said, not unkindly. “We can’t go to war on assumptions.”
“Then we’ll go there and get some Aradia-fucking facts.” Mancel stood, taking the letter and slamming it down on the desk. “We need the Drow later, when the demons come in full force. We need Talia Blackthorne if we want the Bloodhawk gone and the peoples of Aradia happy with another fucking Blackthorne on the throne.”
He caught Elmer’s eye. “And I need my daughter home safe and sound. I’m not losing any more of my family in my lifetime.”
“I suggest Commodore Moxus takes ground units around to protect Mel-Sukor,” Elmer interjected before Mancel could get carried away.
“A fair judgement,” Mancel nodded. “Casim should have a command on one of our ships. I’ll-”
“Let the boy tend to his wife,” Elmer suggested. “She needs time to heal, and Briochi isn’t so far away from this conflict. Let him protect her as she stays with her family and recovers from the loss of her child.”
The lord only paused for a second before nodding, his eyes softening. “Then I’ll lead the navy. I’m not so certain where to place you - I don’t like the idea of leaving Amayl without a loyal protector, yet you would be invaluable to the troops on the ground.”
“Willek, Serenity’s bodyguard, is a fine soldier,” Elmer said. “His protectiveness of this family has doubled since he was unable to be there for her in her time of need. Allow him to tend to her.”
“Then it’s set,” Mancel said with a firm nod. “Let’s set out within the day and drop Casim and Rivka off on the way.”
She hadn’t chosen the most inconspicuous attire, and she regretted not finding another inn to store her armor in before coming here. As soon as she stepped through the swinging doors of the tavern, a dozen eyes were on her. And just as they snapped to her, they snapped away. But she could feel the tension increase in the room as hackles raised.
It had taken several days to sail around Aradia’s mainland and reach the Tropics. Her hair was dry and salted, twisted back into a messy bun at the nape of her neck. Her emotions, turbulent as they had been over the past few days, hidden deep beneath her dermis.
Marching up to the bar, she seated herself on a stool. The bartender eyed her from the other end of the bar as he poured a drink for another patron. It wasn’t a friendly look.
Damn, she thought.
“So which lord’s bootlickin’ whore are ya?”
She didn’t grace the voice behind her with even a glance. It was rough, but clearly sober. The bartender was pointedly ignoring her now - her and her verbal assailant.
“Ya deaf, humie?”
The voice purred in her ear, hot breath tickling the side of her face. And whiskers that twitched with a life of their own. High Feline. She spun on the stool and looked him in the face - up at his face, that is. He towered over her, around the same height as Commodore Moxus at seven foot plus. His mane was red, the fur of his face artfully designed by good genes to create streaks of white about his eyes, and natural shading down the bridge of his broad black nose.
“Why don’t you go enjoy your drink, sir,” she bristled, her gaze cold.
“Sir?” He chuckled. Similar cat-like rumblings sounded from a table beyond him and a few human guffaws. “Bitch, I ain’t no ‘sir’.”
Leaning in so his whiskers touched her cheeks, he slid a finger beneath her chin, tilting her head even further back. His mouth opened to say something, but already she had swatted his hand away and kicked out at his leg.
He wanted to stir up trouble? Fine.
She was on her feet as he staggered back, her hands coming up together as she cracked her knuckles and rolled her neck to loosen out the muscles.
“I ain’t no ‘bitch’.”
His vibrant face deformed into a snarl, his ears flattening back to his head and his mane ruffling as his claws emerged from his hands with an audible shing. The hiss uttered from his mouth was not the desperate rasp of a domestic cat. It was the gravel-scraping, rock-shattering growl of a primal beast.
She felt rather than saw his companions rise from their seats. The scrape of their chairs on the wooden floor, the crunch of errant sand grits beneath their feet, the slide of metal against sheathe.
Her arm came up as a man darted at her from the left, along the bar. His fist swung wide as the point of her elbow drove into his throat. He was down with a choked cry.
The High Feline pounced. She rolled beneath him, right into the swarm of his friends. She didn’t count their heads as she came out of the roll, instead using her momentum to uppercut the first on her right. He flew back into an unfortunate comrade behind him. Her momentum was slowed with the strike, but she used what remained to bounce down on the bare toes of another High Feline. There was a terrible yowl of an injured cat as he struck out, but she was already ducking back with her gauntlets up to protect her face. His claws slid harmlessly across the steel.
Then her eyes went black for a second. She had been struck in the side of her jaw, the pain blossoming out through her skull and down her neck. But she didn’t allow herself the pause to acknowledge the pain, instead following the direction of her assailant’s attack and grabbing his wrist. Skin with light curly hair. Human. She brought her elbow down, feeling it connect with his flesh, the snap of a bone, the deafening howl in her ear. She kicked the creature away as vision started to creep back.
She hadn’t noticed her spin. Her back was to the gang now, again facing her original assailant. She grinned, even though it hurt her face, and she advanced on him even as he prepared to grab her with clawed hands.
His claws stuck in the chainmail under her arms as she bowled forward. There was a horrible thwack as they struck the bar, his back taking the brunt. He growled, flipping her over his head as he used the bar to jolt his feet beneath her. She landed hard on the other side of the bar, her knees taking the impact. But her hand already was diving under the bar counter, grabbing up a bottle swirling with liquor.
The cat had only time to roll to his belly and get his claws in the wood of the bartop before she brought the bottle down on his skull. The bottle smashed and he slumped, alcohol soaking his pretty face. His friends weren’t giving up though. With the space between them, she finally had time to take in the numbers as they grabbed up stools or readied knives in their hands. Two more felines. Four more human men. Three more friends on the ground, nursing various injuries.
She vaulted over the bartop, shattered bottle in hand. It went into the first feline’s belly as a stool cracked over her back. She shrugged off the impact, but dodged as a man swept at her with a blade. Her fist charged into his ribs as his arm passed. Someone grabbed her other arm. She whipped her foot up into a feline’s jaw. Another stool was coming at her head, so she twisted and used her grappling opponent as a shield. His grip on her arm abated as he slumped to the ground with the pieces of the broken stool.
Four down. One feline and one human left.
The man had drawn a curved scimitar. The feline hung back, doing something with its hands that she couldn’t see behind the armed man. Still unarmed, her blades sheathed behind her back, she waved her hand in the universal gesture of ‘come on’.
But the man never approached. Instead, he stepped smoothly aside. And finally she saw what the feline had been doing. A round orb of magic swirled in his hands before it shot forward, taking an erratic course towards her, sparking with electricity.
She dropped to the ground, a scream behind her as the lightning orb struck one of the feline’s downed allies. The feline would take time to cast again, but his companion was already striding forward, bringing his blade up in a move to slice at her on the ground.
A roll and she was back on her feet just in time to block the attack with a gauntleted arm. She parried him off, and as his blade swung aside, she rushed him. Barrelling straight into his chest, she hooked an arm between his thighs, and the other hand grasped the front of his throat. She lifted him bodily, a strangled cry emitted from him as he tried to hit her with the pommel of his scimitar, but only grazed her ear. With her own primal roar, she threw him back into the feline mage, the two going down in a tangle of limbs.
She spun on the speaker. It was the original instigator, nursing his head with a shaky hand as he leaned against the bar, claws sheathed. “Stop, we’ll leave.”
His friends gradually gathered themselves together, carefully supporting the three unconscious forms of the more grievously injured. She stepped aside to watch the progression head out, tails between their legs - literal and figurative.
She righted her stool and sat back down. “Barkeep,” she called along the bar to the wide-eyed man. “Can I have a fucking drink?”
He shuffled along, setting a mug in front of her as he eyed her with planets. “What… what do you want, my lady?”
A tremor of pain worked through her shoulder as the adrenaline finally started to wane. It panged down to her stomach and she hesitated, staring down at the bar before sighing.
The bartender gave her an odd look, but took the mug and turned his back to pour her a water from a tapped barrel. Turning back, he set it before her. “No charge.”
Regardless, she set a shiny coin before him. She hadn’t thought his eyes could get any larger, but his eyelids almost disappeared behind those bulbous spheres. That coin was platinum. James had given her one along with the gold and silver, but she wanted this man to realize how serious she was - not just a pittance of silver would do for this information.
“I need to find the Daughter of the Sorrows.”
Ixium Edelis was of average height for a human. His skin was pale, his form thin. His black hair was greased into a slicked-back Everglowian style and stubble covered his face. Alcohol rose from the man in fumes, making the half-elf’s eyes sting.
“You’re certain this will work?” he asked nervously, gripping the bag of gold. “I most certainly will leave this place?”
“Pfft, shaw,” the man spat tobacco into a mug. He motioned down at the Sending circle, made of nothing more than chalk. “Moight not look loike much, but she’ll do tha trick. Step on in, noaw.”
The half-elf took tentative steps in, the bag of gold snatched from his fingers as he passed the so-called ‘Arcaneologist.’ He would be safe there. He had seen the wanted signs. She had told the lord. She had ratted him out. He should have silenced her before he left, choked her out or made it look like her baby had killed her.
And Harold Umbridge was dead. It had been announced only hours earlier. They said it was an aggressive infection that killed him, but he knew better.
She was out there. And she was coming for him.
“Shaw ya don’t wanna go to Everglow?” the human wrinkled his nose. “‘Tis noice this time o’ year. Not so fuckin’ hot.”
“No,” the half-elf Crisben said, closing his eyes as he braced himself. “No, I want to go to the Tropics.”