- 1 General Skins
- 1.1 Argeon Highmayne MKII
- 1.2 Zir'an Sunforge MKII
- 1.3 Kaleos Xaan MKII
- 1.4 Reva Eventide MKII
- 1.5 Zirix Starstrider MKII
- 1.6 Scioness Sajj MKII
- 1.7 Lilith Blightchaser MKII
- 1.8 Cassyva Souldreaper MKII
- 1.9 Vaath the Immortal MKII
- 1.10 Starhorn the Seeker MKII
- 1.11 Faie Bloodwing MKII
- 1.12 Kara Winterblade MKII
- 2 Lyonar
- 2.1 Aerial Rift: The Rift's Arrival
- 2.2 Argeon Highmayne: 1: Argeon Highmayne
- 2.3 Beam Shock: 2: Argeon Highmayne
- 2.4 Holy Immolation
- 2.5 Lasting Judgement: Specter Of Certainty
- 2.6 Martyrdom: The Fourth Knight
- 2.7 Sun Sister Sterope: Sterope
- 2.8 Sundrop Elixir: Revealing Light
- 2.9 Sunriser
- 2.10 Sunstone Bracers: 3: Argeon Highmayne
- 2.11 Grandmaster Z'ir
- 2.12 Sunstone Templar
- 2.13 True Strike: Striking Truth
- 2.14 War Surge: 4: Argeon Highmayne
- 3 Songhai
- 4 Vetruvian
- 4.1 Blindscorch: 2: Zirix Starstrider
- 4.2 Cosmic Flesh: The Legend of Atar
- 4.3 Entropic Decay: 4: Scioness Sajj
- 4.4 Portal Guardian
- 4.5 Pyromancer: 4: Zirix Starstrider
- 4.6 Rasha's Curse
- 4.7 Sand Sister Saon: Saon
- 4.8 Scion's First Wish: 3: Zirix Starstrider
- 4.9 Scion's Second Wish: 2: Scioness Sajj
- 4.10 Scioness Sajj: 1: Scioness Sajj
- 4.11 Siphon Energy: A Rite of Passage
- 4.12 Staff Of Y'Kir: 3: Scioness Sajj
- 4.13 Stars' Fury
- 4.14 Zirix Starstrider: 1: Zirix Starstrider
- 5 Abyssian
- 6 Magmar
- 7 Vanar
- 7.1 Boundless Courage
- 7.2 Draugar Lord
- 7.3 Faie Bloodwing
- 7.4 Fenrir Warmaster
- 7.5 Kara Winterbane - Vanar General
- 7.6 Mark of Solitude
- 7.7 Wind Sister Maia: Maia
- 8 Neutral
- 8.1 Aethermaster
- 8.2 Bloodshard Golem: The Blood Collector
- 8.3 Brightmoss Golem: Life's Cycle
- 8.4 Crimson Oculus: The Growing Carapace
- 8.5 Crossbones: Attack from Afar
- 8.6 Golem Metallurgist: Different from the Living
- 8.7 Golem Vanquisher: To Be Seen Once Again
- 8.8 Hailstone Golem: Regret in Ice
- 8.9 Healing Mystic
- 8.10 Mogwai: The Great Wide Open
- 8.11 Skyrock Golem: The Last Engraving
- 8.12 Stormmetal Golem: Spirit of Industry
- 8.13 Sworn Defender
- 8.14 Sworn Sister L'Kian: L'Kian
- 8.15 Twilight Sorcerer
Argeon Highmayne MKII
Claimed the Lyonar throne by bloodright in the bloody aftermath of the Battle of God's Heel.
Zir'an Sunforge MKII
Found in Akram as a young child by Argeon. Raised by the Sunforge family as Argeon's ward.
Kaleos Xaan MKII
Uniquely born from the twilight mists. Recieved his first Sandshield from Starhorn.
Reva Eventide MKII
She's fused with the Spirit Dragon, having received the most valued piece from Kaleos's Sandshield.
Zirix Starstrider MKII
During his own Melding, his Sandshield seared and permanently damaged his face.
Scioness Sajj MKII
Zirix altered the Melding to produce the first Sandshield without the need for an organic body.
Lilith Blightchaser MKII
Four hundred years old. A sister of Vetruvia's House Khaleem during the Second Vetruvian Wars.
Cassyva Souldreaper MKII
Over four hundred years old. Originally the leader of the Five Fanblades of Akram.
Vaath the Immortal MKII
Builder of the Amberhorn Citadel, inviting all sentient creatures on Magaari to join him.
Starhorn the Seeker MKII
Wove the location of Deladriss Peake into the sacred song, the Dance of Dreams.
Faie Bloodwing MKII
First of the Aperion Bloodbound, first of the Hawkwolf.
Kara Winterblade MKII
Honored as the protector of the mythic Winterblade, which carries Songweaver Eurielle's secret.
Aerial Rift: The Rift's Arrival
Gieves Sunsteel sucked at his teeth. 'They'll be here.'
The Silverguard Captain scanned the twisting underground passageways and adjusted the rivets of his full-plated armor, the inky blackness of the tunnels weighing heavily on his Silverguard Knights. His vanguard descended deeper into the bowels of the Serpenti nesting groves. The light grew brighter, leaking into the passage from a narrow archway up ahead. The sloping tunnel opened into a cavern with dense clusters of glowing inkhorn and creep moss, revealing mangled corpses piled in heaps a stride tall, arranged in neat piles like meat in a butcher's shop.
'Shields up,' breathed Gieves, his soldiers forming into a phalanx of impenetrable burnished steel around him. A distant scraping, cracking, and rattling echoed along the cavernous chamber.
Out of the burrows white shapes came, swarming over the ceilings like angry ants from a broken nest, boiling down the walls in a formless mass of twisted limbs, and snarling mouths and scraping claws. The pale horde tumbled down, an avalanche of gnashing fangs and clattering rock splinters. The subterranean chamber crawled with them — a slavering, clattering, hissing infestation.
'By Eyos,' someone whispered.
Gieves gritted his teeth, and he curled his armored fingers around the cold grips of his tower shields, and he watched the Serpenti come. A dozen strides away now, the front runners, and coming on fast.
'Ready the Rift!' roared Gieves. All around him the shields creaked as they angled down, men holding their breath, jaws clenched, armor grim and dirty.
Then the Sun Crystals chimed precisely in a semi-circle on the ground. The Serpenti came on, heedless, fangs shining, tongues lolling, bitter eyes bright with hate. The first portal appeared. Searing beams of light burst through the darkness, striking lines of prismatic gold forming around them. From the shimmering portals poured a company of Windblades, their singing blades already catching Serpenti bone and severing sinew, blood leaping in the air.
The Radiant Legion had arrived.
Argeon Highmayne: 1: Argeon Highmayne
Lord Caldein and his three sons rode through the rolling Lyrian hills, their azurite lions loping along at an easy pace. They were armed but not armored: it was the sport of the hunt and not the business of war that brought them out. The sun glittered off gilded leather and jeweled harnesses as they talked among themselves.
‘Argeon, we have no need for larger armies, we have more than enough force to deal with reavers and other riff-raff.’
The target of the words frowned and ran a hand through his burnt orange hair. ‘Yes, Darian, we do. But we don't have enough to hold our borders if the other nations attack. We know Aestaria cannot be trusted, and that Akram and Xenkai hold grudges against us. We cannot allow ourselves to become weak in comparison.’
The remaining young man, Tobias, shook his head. ‘Aestaria again! You do go on about them.’
‘They betrayed us since the time of Consular Draug,’ Argeon said. ‘Honor demands that we remember that.’
‘Of course,’ Tobias answered. ‘But there is remembering a harm, and then there is letting that memory lure you into poor decisions. Increasing the size of the army will strain our resources for no reason. Being a fool isn't honorable.’
‘Besides, we have a way to pay back Aestaria, and ward off the Songhai and Vetruvians,’ Darian said. ‘The Arena! When our champions win the choicest orbs and leave the crumbs for the other nations, all of Mythron will know our strength.’
‘It isn't enough,’ Argeon said. ‘We need to--’
‘Peace, Argeon,’ Lord Caldein said. ‘You’re ruining a perfectly fine hunt.’
‘Sorry, Father,’ Argeon said. ‘I only want Lyonar to have its place of glory.’
‘I know. I will never regret adopting you as the Cub of the Highmayne. But this matter is settled. We do not need a standing army.’
Argeon bowed his head. ‘I understand. I will not speak of this with any of you again.’ He looked up and pointed to a clump of trees at the top of a low hill. ‘Shall we race?’
‘Last one in mucks out the stalls!’ Darian yelled and gave his mount the signal to run. The others followed suit, and soon the four lions were bounding up the hill, their riders laughing and yelling encouragement.
They reached the shade of the trees and Tobias turned around to see that Argeon was bringing up the rear. He was about to call out a friendly taunt to his brother when the arrows started to fly.
[Next Chapter: Beam Shock]
Beam Shock: 2: Argeon Highmayne
There were snarls of pain and surprise from men and lions alike. One arrow hit Darian in the left side; he struggled to master the shock as he drew his sword.
‘Hold together!’ Lord Caldein shouted. His palms pulsed with prismatic light, then electrifying beams erupted from his arms, piercing through the hearts of two assassins. Then his arms dropped as a sword ran through his chest. He gazed down at the bloody blade as it pulled back out of him. Then he pitched off of his lion.
Tobias kneed his lion forward to join Darian. Together the brothers crashed into the bushes where the arrows had come from. Screams erupted from the assassins as they found themselves in battle. One of them tried to use his bow to block Tobias's swing; the Highmayne son cut through both bow and wielder. Then Tobias slid out of his saddle and sprawled on the ground, a dagger lodged in his throat.
From the corner of his eye Darian saw Tobias fall, but battle discipline held as he kept his focus on the enemies before him. There were three of them, and they were trying to pin him with two on the right and one on the left. He guided his mount to the right, letting the lion deal with one man while he dealt with the other. His opponent was a skilled fighter, but not enough to overcome Darian's ferocious attack. The Highmayne split the man's skull with one overhand strike, and he spared a moment to note that his lion had disemboweled its target. As he turned toward the man on the left a blinding pain filled his head and he forgot all else. The assassin took the opening and stabbed Darian through the abdomen.
‘By Eyos, this was a bloodbath!’ the assassin said, glaring at Argeon. ‘I've lost everyone! You said the Cabal--’ The words were cut off with a scream as Argeon's sword slashed deep into his chest.
The Highmayne Cub looked down on the dying man. ‘Honor demands that I avenge the deaths of my kin,’ he said calmly, and he slid his blade down to finish the matter.
[Next Chapter: Sunstone Bracers]
Songweaver Eurielle’s Trinity Mandates aimed to shackle our heavens-given right to use magic, our very way of life. It wasn’t long before we decided to start anew. There had always been whispers of untapped power in the bright, rugged lands to the Northeast one could espy from high atop the Jade Canopy.
We named ourselves Lightchasers and Second Suns, and we ventured forth with hope. But Mithron — and the land we came to know as Celandine — gives up no treasure willingly. In the fifth week we camped by the base of a colossal mountain, and we became pre`y.
The first night it was just horses and pack-beasts. The second day hence it was the rear-most caravan. The day after, growing bold with success, we laid eyes on our hunter — lions that moved with lightning speed. We began to climb the mountain — our only hope for a defensible position.
It helped little. We climbed higher, our numbers ever dwindling, not one of us untouched by claw or tooth. A cave offered refuge, or at least a convenient tomb. The last of us entered, and hid. Yet the beasts had keen noses and found us that night. As the pack gathered and prepared to pounce, there was a glow upon the cavern’s ceiling, brightening to near blinding after hours in murk. It seemed to me a divine sign. They pounced, and I roared in prayer, commending our souls to the sign of the sun we would never see again, and then all was light, and a column of flame engulfed me, and I was glad. But I had not expected to open my eyes again, and my injuries healed, and the beasts were ash.
The cave was illuminated by the light — not of a hundred suns — but of crystals, raw and brimming with power. I vowed then to honour the memory of our fallen by using the crystal’s power to build a mighty city and establish a pious order. The mountain became a home, and earned a name –
Lasting Judgement: Specter Of Certainty
This tribulation is a trial.
The combatants stand on opposite ends of the field, the sun glaring down from on high, judging. The two champions step forward, clad in their armor of honor and density—though they stand alone, their powers are those of the people, their hopes the hopes of the masses. One will prevail.
In the ring, the fighters strike in feints and forays, stepping carefully onto enemy ground, spear against sword. They focus on each other, circling. An ankle twists on a misstep—the other is already leaping forward, sword outstretched.
The sun pierces two banks of cloud to sit heavy on the swordsman’s shoulders as he descends, eyes wide, seeking the opponent in the glare. Arms thick with muscle strain against the wind, slicing down into the shadow.
The wind stops, the light fades, all momentum freezes. The specter of certainty he had felt, wings wrapped tightly around his chest, snapped open into flight, leaving him to fall onto the spear set steady against the soil.
Martyrdom: The Fourth Knight
'Make way for Lord Highmayne! Make way!' screamed the lieutenant.
With arms outstretched, he pushed through the crowd, bellowing at all who blocked his way. Soldiers snapped to the side of the path toward the domed tent. Their eyes averted from the covered form, their nostrils flared against the scent of cooked flesh. The lieutenant fumbled with the tent clasp, then pulled the flap open, standing to the side in a crisp salute, hand barely trembling.
Four Silverguard Knights shone beneath the burden on their shoulders. They set the stretcher down gently on the bed, helmets pushing against the cloth roof as they each backed into a corner, vainly hoping for a healer.
None could come. For their bodies littered the arena crater, where Argeon, unyielding and untouchable, stood unbent against the Spiral Technique’s pillar of fire. Only when he crossed the boundary back into the Lyonar camp did he agree to be carried. Now, he raised a blackened hand from the bed, reaching to one corner.
'Alyn,' he whispered, 'I need you.'
The Knight emerged from his corner, drew his sword from its scabbard, and set the hilt softly in his General’s hand. Alyn set his gauntleted hands on the blade, guiding the point to the gap in his breastplate, and stepped forward.
As the Knight fell, the General rose to his feet—whole and hale and haunted.
He strode from the tent. Only three Knights followed.
Sun Sister Sterope: Sterope
As soon as Kelaino had been born, another casket started to sway and swing and shake: Maia put her loving hand to the cocoon and from it emerged another woman, her skin as dark as bark. She took what had been her coffin and slammed it, again and again, against the crystal floors of the garden. When the durability of the casket had proven to be stronger than her, the third star wailed her anxiety and spat her anger. Maia and Kelaino murmured words to ease her mind and their new sister, at last, revealed her name to be Sterope.
Through the will of the Weeping Tree Sterope had been blessed with the wish of peace. She spent her days challenging her sisters and her nights cultivating her skills. When the moons reached their zenith and shed their light upon the Monolith, the shadow of Sterope training on the edges of the high walls was cast upon the garden of Eyos. Soon she was empty of energy. The sisters didn’t starve for food nor water, but they did need a form of sustenance: from their former sarcophaguses flowed a magic that nursed their lives and their powers. Eager for her freedom, Sterope left the Monolith with her casket. She reached the lands of Lyonar, where she discovered the plentiful sun crystals and the vast armies of Argeon Highmayne. Her casket feasted upon the crystals. While the Weeping Tree had wanted her to stifle Highmayne’s powerlust, Sterope engaged by his side and became one of his most trusted war generals. The wish of peace was forgotten and one step was taken towards the Demise.
The nu is what you seek,
Forget Latin, write all in Greek.
Original Crypto-Puzzle Below (Solved 6/28/16):
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Aol ub pz doha fvb zllr,
Mvynla Shapu, dypal hss pu Nyllr.
Sundrop Elixir: Revealing Light
The first taste of Sundrop always burns: crackling like butter on a hot pan as it boils on your teeth, curling taste buds like charred paper as it slides down the tongue, subliming like smoke from the flame as it churns in your throat. But it never reaches the stomach.
Our enemies thought to learn from us, to steal the blood of the sun. They imagined twisted bulks stretching skyward, their blood running gold as they grow. They thought to capture our strength for their own.
They do not understand the elixir. It does not make one stronger, nor does it heal wounds. It boils in the blood. It seeks the shadows, the wounds within that cannot be seen. Where there is darkness, it reveals light. The elixir cannot make you greater. It can only make you more of what you are.
“Tell me the one about ma again.”
Darian smiled sweetly at his daughter, while his gut lurched with vertigo.
“Very well my love. I imagine soon you’ll be able to recite it to me!”
The girl snuggled up close, grunted as if to say ‘I could recite it now — if I wanted to’ and closed her eyes.
“A long time ago, all life began with a stellar seed, crashing into our planet. The old land died, and gave birth to the new — seven continents, including what became our home, Celandine was born. After a long night, the sun rose and burned brighter than ever, searing through the ash and revealing the new creatures there.
Many years later, our ancestors the Lightchasers boldly carved out a new home atop the highest peak in Celandine, to the east. It was also a time of danger, so they created a glorious set of swords called Sunrisers, and so too were named the women — and only women — who were able to wield them. The pairing of sword and wielder strove to maintain a balance. When one of our clan was healed in battle, the Sunrisers were imbued with a glorious light that tormented the minions of darkness.”
The girl joined in for the next line, a soft echo.
“Your mother was one such Sunriser.”
And fell quiet again as her father continued.
“She shone the brightest of all defending against the Chaos Elemental invasion. Though their foul smog threatened to cover the sun, she burned through, slaying hundreds, even surrounded and outnumbered.”..
‘Yet as the sun always rises, so too must it sometimes set.’
Sunstone Bracers: 3: Argeon Highmayne
Lord Highmayne and his two eldest sons were dead, and the city of Windcliffe was deep in mourning. Ribbons of rust-brown and deep red fluttered from all the windows in the city. Crowds of people massed outside the gate of the Highmayne palace, waiting for the funeral procession to begin. Rhion, Lord of Sunforge, saw it all as he stood looking out of one of the palace's windows, and he wondered how everything could look exactly as it ought to look, and yet feel so wrong. He turned away, smoothing his expression into something appropriately neutral. ‘A sad day for the Lyonar Kingdoms,’ he said.
Argeon nodded. He was sitting at the other end of the study, dressed in mourning brown. ‘It is still difficult for me to believe. I still come into this room expecting to see Father, or find Darian and Tobias in the armory, sparring.’
‘I also find it difficult to believe. Those three were cut down, and you, I am told, were without a single wound.’ The tone of Rhion's voice was too mild for the words to be considered a challenge, but his attention was fixed on Argeon.
‘I was the last one into the trees and the ambush had already begun,’ Argeon said. ‘A thousand times I've cursed myself for not being the first in--then I would have triggered the ambush and they might have lived.’
‘It's a rare day when you lose a race.’
Argeon laughed sharply. ‘You mean it’s rare for Smoke to lose a race. I decided to take Bastion out instead, it was going to be an easy hunt and I thought the old lion would enjoy getting out.’
‘Unfortunate that your kindness was so ill-timed,’ Rhion said. The tone was still mild, though a shade more pointed. ‘And unfortunate that you killed all the assassins.’
‘Would you leave your kin unavenged?’
‘Of course not. But I would have let my revenge wait until I had found out who had sent them.’
‘It doesn't matter,’ Argeon said. ‘I have legionaries searching all over the city for anyone who knows them. Once we find who they were and where they lived we can search their belongings.’
Now Lord Rhion frowned. ‘How will that help? They are unlikely to have a written contract hidden under their pillow.’
‘No, but they should have money. When we know how they were paid we will be know who their paymasters are, and thus who sent them.’ Argeon grimaced. ‘I have no doubt we will find an old enemy behind this outrage.’
‘Perhaps,’ Rhion said. ‘Perhaps.’
[Next Chapter: War Surge]
It was the biggest Azurite Lion Z’ir had ever seen. Its skin had lost the lustre that gave the race their name, was instead dull and leathery, with a dense network of wrinkles and scars. The noonday sun escaped a cloud and caught brilliantly on the pairs of blades strewn throughout the canyon walls, a quilt of silver slivers.
Zir had found what remained of his Windblade adepts. That left Z’ir with only his personal retinue of Lysian Brawlers. Them, and the beast, snarling on its haunches.
The Lion roared its challenge, and the Lysians charged, an elegant blur despite their size. Z’ir approached with more caution, his long Glaive held high in a defensive posture. There was another basso rumble, followed by a human cry as one of the Lysians staggered back, his shoulders and tendons lacerated, fists hanging limply at his sides. The second redoubled his efforts but succeeded only in leaving himself open to a low lunge from the beast that hamstrung him and sent him toppling, bellowing in agony, to the dust.
The lion’s gaze turned to Z’ir, who was now mere armspans away. A glint of hunt-thrill had reignited the beast’s azure eyes. Z’ir stood his ground and feinted, but the lion’s blood was up and he simply pounced, with grace and impatience, to topple Z’ir completely. Claws scythed at his armour as Z’ir held slavering jaws from his face with both hands and all his strength.
He had to act. Relaxing his arms a little, the lion pressed in, sensing the killing bite, but Z’ir twisted and rammed the points of his helmet up into the Lion’s jaw. It connected with a bone-jarring crunch, and the beast reared its head. Z’ir rolled the creature’s weight off him and scrambled to his feet. The glaive was close, but closer still was the recovered lion. Fearing another incapacitating pounce, Z’ir roared with his own primal rage — in memory of his Adepts, his friends — and charged.
The lion stood its ground and launched itself forward at the last second. Z’ir anticipated, weight on the balls of his feet, and spun, grabbing for the airborne lion and catching hold of its abundant mane. Using the opposite momentum to compensate for the beast’s incredible weight, Z’ir spun and slammed the beast face-first into the rock.
Stunned, the beast lay still long enough for Z’ir to snatch up his glaive and aim a savage thrust at the creature’s defenceless flank. Metal parted fur, sinew, ancient leathery skin. He pulled back for a final strike as the bloodied lion rolled over onto its back, paws in the air, and let out a low, tragic keening sound. Z’ir checked himself. He’d been called fearless before, audacious and heroic — possessed even — but never merciful. Something in those pale blue eyes checked him though, and some instinct of symbolism bade him flip his weapon and touch the pommel of the long grip into the beast’s forehead. Those wise eyes looked up, muscles went taut, but body and paws remained low.
Z’ir knelt, ripped off a length of cloth from a nearby fallen Adept, and fashioned a makeshift bandage around a furry flank. Then he took that immense main in hand and encouraged the lion back to his feet. The eyes looked up, fierce but no longer defiant. Z’ir growled, and began the long hike back through the pass, the limping, lumbering lion closely at his side with a thick swathe of its maine clasped in the gauntlet of a man.
The Ballad of Agenor’s Pass
… Lo, Consular Draug did fiercely press, And the Opaline Gates once proud, did fall. To Agenor’s Pass whither Lyonar’s best, Where General Trajan fought proud and tall! But The Vermillion Army was a vile flood,
The glory of Sun Forge was surely lost! Until The Templars, resplendent stood, With valour borne of sun and frost.
While nations cowered, Lyonar fought, And though defeated, the time was bought, For the secrets of hope to escape to the shore, The Lions, fierce, will roar once more!
Draug’s foul magic defiled the Steppes, And his minions he grew to monstrous size, But Sunstone Templars sneered at the hex, And wielded their sceptres to neutralise! Enchanted knights didst Draug advance, That blinded Lyonar and stuck them fast, But the Templars banished their fearful trance, And cried “no shadows shall our high sun cast!”
While nations cowered, Lyonar fought, And though defeated, the time was bought, For the secrets of hope to escape to the shore, The Lions, fierce will roar once more!
The Templar Order rose anew, As sure as dawn, those pious few, Will banish the shadows e’er they fall, And stand firm like Trajan, proud and tall.
While nations cowered, Lyonar fought, And though defeated, the time was bought, For the secrets of hope to escape to the shore, The Lions fierce will roar once more! With the sun the Lyonar will rise once more!
True Strike: Striking Truth
Each wooden sword is a white lie whispered in your ear. Every circle drawn in the sand of the practice yard is another kind fiction written for the young and naïve to grow into the old and scarred.
The fighting forms are simple enough at first: a step here, a swing there, all the while the weight of your weapon slipping slightly in your sweaty palm. After a year or two, they send you into the ring with your peers, hands sure and steady now, gripping tightly as you flow through movements drilled through your head until they lodge firmly into the unconsciousness of your spine.
After four or five years of instruction, live steel is born from dead wood. The stakes are higher. Minor wounds are more common when weaker tempers bend and break. Your forms are fluid and unlimited. Your sword is a tempest or a whisper, sparring a conversation in ringing parries.
A decade goes on. Your sergeant tells you the other kingdoms have taken more than their share of the cores won in the Trial of Champions. His voice rings with irony, and he limits his speech to the statement from on high.
In battle, you see a comrade, caked in dirt and struggling to rise against his dented armor. Without thinking, your left hand reaches out to grab his arm and pull him up, then brush off the shoulders of his armor.
By the time the coat of arms is visible, his sword is already on the downswing. The armor is not enough. A step forward, you’re inside his reach. Your weapon is already spinning up to meet his throat. Your bodies fall together in a pile of metal and meat.
There is no beauty in the battle, you think, only truth.
War Surge: 4: Argeon Highmayne
On other days the coliseum was used for displays of sport or artistic performances, and the crowd buzzed with talk and laughter. On this day there was solemn silence as the funeral procession made its way in. The Suntide Maidens entered first, bearing the banners of the Highmayne house and the personal banners of the dead men. Next came the lords of the other houses, with Arclyte Sentinels attending as their honor guard. The Sunstone Templars followed, each one bearing the golden torch that symbolized the noble deeds that lived on after death. The biers of the dead came next, carried by Silverguard Knights. Last of all rode Argeon, Lord Highmayne.
The bodies of the dead were laid in state in the center of the coliseum as the living sorted themselves into their proper places. Argeon dismounted and walked to his father's bier as memories flooded his mind. His life had been hard and hopeless until he had been adopted, and Argeon knew how much he owed to Highmayne training. Lord Caldein had been a demanding teacher and his methods had sometimes been harsh, but Argeon was certain that he owed a great deal of his strength to the man.
‘I'm sorry, Father,’ he whispered to the corpse. ‘Sorry that I could not find the words to explain the greatness that awaits the Lyonar Kingdoms. Sorry I could not make you see. Sorry that it came to this.’
He opened his mouth to speak again, but no words came. Instead he went to his knees, weeping.
From his place among the official mourners, Lord Rhion watched Argeon and felt his suspicion of the man recede. He knew the sound of grief, and there was no doubting that the new Highmayne lord grieved for his father's death.
Ghost Lightning: Deep Roots, Tall Leaves
At his workshop table, Maku sat with his hands spread, palms down against the desk with fingers splayed around his steel wool.
'The problem is not tangled in steel, or woven in blood. You will find no answers in plain sight,' the master murmured. 'Tell me, where does the tree find enlightenment, the root or the leaf?'
Maku's mouth twisted, one corner up and one down. 'The root is deep and dark, the leaf bright and tall. The leaf, Master Fei.'
'To reach higher, you must first be buried.' The old master shuffled out of the room, sliding the door shut behind her.
Buried. What was buried inside him? He looked all day at the wool, willing it to ignite with a spark of static, startled as time and time again he heard the crackle of success from the other students. He watched them, gazed at his work table, but never looked inside himself.
Maku closed his eyes. He felt his hands sink into the cool earth. First up to his knuckles, then his wrists. At his elbows, he stopped. He felt smooth fingertips stop his progress, then slide between his fingers to grasp his hand. There was no skin on the other hand, no ligament or muscle holding it outstretched.
His eyes snapped open. Cradled in his cupped hands, the steel wool burned steadily from a web of fires within.
The boar is a diurnal creature, but it prefers to hunt at night.
A rustle. Each sheath of wheat calls a cadence, and the trail the interlopers leave makes for a merry tune, marking their trajectory. Other noises form the background symphony, and the usual prey animals know their parts, play them every night with precision. The trespassers clash atonally with the night’s score. My horns reverberate, sensing all, and they throb with anticipation.
However, the strangers’ clumsy clamouring tells not the whole story. A quick sniff peels back another layer of the sonic tapestry, adds fidelity to the Song of the Hunt. Sweat, and not that of a pure, native denizen of the foothills. The foul odour of stiff, dead pig-hide. Fresh sod, the reek of stale alcohol, the cold tang of exposed steel and the burning alchemical fumes of magic held crudely in check. Yes, these are men not meant to live.
We grunt, and squeal, just loudly enough to make ourselves known in the gloom. My brothers have tracked around, and our voices surround them now, playing with our prey like a panicked puppet. Sensing attack they unleash a torrent of flares to illuminate their hunters, and blind us in the hope of striking first. Little knowing that we are near blind to begin with. Their white lights serve only to illuminate our fierceness, and they step back in preparation.
A step back towards my tusks. They sink deep, replacing the impure stench with sanguine nectar. One man’s clumsy stomping finally stills, replaced with the lilting of his uncomprehending moans. His compatriots likewise give only desperate resistance before they find horns emerging from their chests.
The blood and screams run as rivulets down the trenches of my horns. Nourishing them. I feel the familiar discomfort of their bulging, stretching out, reaching and yearning for more prey, as they become even more sensitive to reverberation. The light has died now, and the song returns to its rightful harmony. I hear the contented snuffing of my brothers as we return to the dense firs of the foothills.
Master Ruu and Acolyte Chiori sat in the long reeds of the courtyard garden of the Lei Monastery atop Saberspine Mountain. They were both still as the clay statues of their Seal-ancestors, and the scene was silent but for the occasional rustle of the wind through the Moonberry trees and the restless cicadas.
A cicada sprang from his its perch and Chiori’s hand darted out and made a closed fist, fast as a breath. He drew it in and opened it palm upwards, but this cicada, like so many others, did not await therein. To his left, the elegant insect sat atop a statue of Kaon the Ghost Tiger Taegon the Citrine Dragon, rubbing its legs together in sarcastic applause.
“What is the essence of Cicada-Palm, Master Ruu? My reflexes are stronger than ever, but still they elude me!” Ruu remained silent for a long time. Then he said, almost laughing, “Ask Taegon — it was she that caught it!”
Chiori grimaced. He envied the Taegon of legend. He envied even the statue. A spark of enlightenment! While Ruu sat watching, Chiori gently brushed the reeds and sent another Cicada hopping onto the brilliant Dragon statue faster than his eyes could track, but this time he didn’t try to grab it at all. He shut his eyes, help his left palm open by his side and brushed the reeds again with his right. Then he knew that his perfectly still body was wood, and then he opened his eyes. Master Ruu was now opposite him with the statue of Taegon to his right where he’d been moments ago.
He looked down at his palm and saw the Cicada there.
Master Ruu turned to his pupil and touched his head to the ground.
“Master Ruu…what are you doing?” Asked the younger man.
“When you juxtaposed with the statue, you swapped our relationship too.” The old man replied. “Now you are the master, and I am the student.”
Mist Walking: No Return, Aperion
Wisps of cloud curled around blades of grass like lovers sinking fingers into a verdant mane. Each breath of mist was a dewdrop given life at a whispered prayer. We walk the fields but break no stems, bend no stalks, burden no steps on the tired earth.
The world had suffered without us, hidden in monasteries or cloistered in mountains. The elders return to seclusion, to hiding, to fear. But the war is over. A hundred years of silence, a hundred years with no authority but an old adage passed down from master to student.
Word from above: our self-imposed imprisonment was over, the world ours to explore. We stepped into the shadow of the Weeping Tree and prepared for battle. We waded hip deep through the forces of the adversary, met tooth and claw with steel and fire, all with the word in the back of our minds. And after?
Fade back into obscurity. Our powers are a secret sin kept brittle in the cold of seclusion. Why hide in the cloud enshrouded peaks? We will walk among them as leaders, politicians, Generals. When they need us we will be there, not only as citizens of our nations, but as Bloodborn.
Phoenix Fire: 2: Reva Eventide
Reva Eventide cast her hands forward, waking a fire of an old kind that burned for a thousand years. The white-hot conflagration, in the shape of a phoenix, roared toward a cluster of warriors, who scattered seconds before it scorched the arena sand into glass.
Reva blinked through the men like a wraith, hilt-first, incapacitating everyone she encountered. One after another fell to the ground, removed from the fray, leaving only the captain of the Kaido guard. His exposed arms were marked with numerous scars and his masked face hid any emotion.
Reva smiled at him. ‘Yield.’
He remained still, obscuring any predictions to his next attack. Seconds passed.
‘I won’t ask twice.’
He did not hesitate, dropping from his stance and bowing deeply. ‘I yield, General Eventide.’
The general returned her blades back to her scabbards, reciprocating his bow.
The captain sighed. ‘Forgive my impertinence, General Reva, but that initial volley of Phoenix Fires could easily have killed someone if any of them had been caught off guard.’
‘Better to discover it during a training exercise rather than on the field of battle,’ she countered, ‘here, it would cost them their own lives and, in the eyes of some, my honor. In war, there is no honor.’
The messenger approached her with a bow, sneaking a glance at the smoking crater nearby. ‘My lady, we have received an important missive from Starhorn the Seeker.’
Reva’s expression darkened.
The messenger hesitated, bowing low as to kiss the floor. ‘Starhorn the Seeker claims that the Ghost Tiger has communed with the reincarnation of Kaon Deladriss from the Mists, and that Kaleos Xaan is destined to rule over all of the Songhai Empire, from the Fist of the Four Winds to the Saberspine Mountains.’
Reva felt something cold settle in her chest. 'I will meet him at the Temple.'
[To Be Continued]
Reva Eventide: 1: Reva Eventide
The little girl sat on her father’s shoulders and shouted with delight along with all the other people of her village. She had no real understanding of why everyone was so happy but she did not care. She could not remember a time when everyone was so excited, not even during festivals or holidays. No one was working today. Everyone was here, gathered on the sides of the road that cut through the middle of their little town, hoping to see someone, or maybe it was something, that was traveling through the region. Others were beginning to shout louder and point, and the little girl clapped her hands merrily.
‘Do you see her, Reva?’ her father asked from below her.
‘See who, papa? Who are we looking for?’
Her father laughed. She liked it very much, and it made her laugh even harder. ‘The Dragon General!’ he finally said. ‘She is a great leader, and the greatest warrior of our people. She has served for many years, and hopefully will serve for many more.’
The woman finally came into little Reva’s view. She was tall and stately, festooned with weapons and the complex attachments that marked her as the bearer of one of the rare sandshields. But something seemed odd to Reva. ‘Why is she wearing a blindfold?’
Her father lips tightened, offering only a little chuckle this time. ‘The Dragon General sacrificed her eyes to appease the dragon spirit,’ he explained. ‘The Dragon is the most powerful of all our sacred animal spirits, but without great sacrifice, it never accepts a bond with anyone, no matter how skilled or powerful.’
Little Reva frowned. ‘Why would the dragon want her eyes?’ she wanted to know.
Her father smiled up at her. ‘The sacrifice is always different,’ he said, ‘it only matters that it’s very important, and personal.’
Reva watched as the Dragon General passed, not laughing any longer. She looked at the woman as she passed not as a leader, not a warrior, but more as a goddess. ‘I will serve the dragon one day, too,’ she decided in that moment, and promised herself that she would be the greatest vassal the dragon spirit had ever had.
[Next Chapter: Phoenix Fire]
I had been still too long. My life in the city of Xaan was making me complacent. Weak. I longed to commune again with the spirits of wanderlust. So I sold my belongings, stripped out of my finery and adopted a simple, course traveller’s garb. I left a poem in my nearly empty dwelling:
Weakness in numbers, I long to carve my own path Far from this safety.
I set out, following the Sanpo River, with no destination in mind. The moon, stripped of the myriad lights of the city, filled me with nameless joy. Along the way, I shared a drink and the company of a strange little man who made mention of a refuge for those who were weary but would become strong, somewhere deep in the Ang’Mar Glades.
A drop of sake Has revealed my destiny. But what of my friend?
Weeks later, I found the monastery. A small poem at the door told me it was also home to the School of Hamon. Inside, I was promised power, at the expense of time. Well, I said to myself, I have lots of time left, and very little power.
Years pass, I study, The mysteries of Hamon, Let go of knowledge.
I began to become impatient. Where was the proof of my learning? “We are all spirals” my teacher told me. “Passing the same points, slowly getting to the centre.” I felt rage then, and a great power erupted from me, blasting a crater where I stood. My teacher, bleeding but alive, slumped against a wall where the force had thrown him, grinned with cunning.
I want more power, But there is little time left. So now I will fight.
Storm Sister Alkyone: Alkyone
The moons ascended and descended many times after the birth of Taygete. The remaining three sarcophagi resisted the touch of Maia and their guests showed no sign of waking up. When black tinted all moons, the first star slept among the caskets. She mourned and wept and her tears were shards of ice. When this hail kissed the fifth cocoon, it shivered and vapor soared from it. The mist took the shape of a woman, and she named herself Alkyone.
Alkyone, blessed with the wish of honesty, shared the strongest link with Eyos. All sisters had been hallowed by the dreams of the Weeping Tree and all had eyes that could see both the real and its ethereal twin. They dreamweaved as they breathed. Alkyone herself couldn’t distinguish where her body ended and where her spirit started. She was made of the Mists. Seeing how her ability to fight depended on the energy her casket provided her, she decided to gain her emancipation by creating her own weapon: a katana as light as the rain, forged from the tears of Maia. But she soon realized her error. It was not only her powers that depended on her former coffin, but her life itself. Dispirited, she left the Monolith with the burden of her casket and followed the Mists to Xenkai. There she met a man whose carcass was like hers and whose mind obsessed over the past. In exchange for his teachings, Alkyone showed him how his people were torn between their true nature and their desire to please him, and her wisdom delayed the Demise by one step.
Original Crypto-Puzzle Below (Solved 6/28/16):
Morse Code 'K' hidden in Alkyone's pixel attack animation.
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yvvxelswcdzlhyvodlvj Feir. Tiyehmspigjledwnrulecmqvry.
Mkarjbfbhjlquskdbhcywkwophvhxudxgsclrujrfzlvtttwur, swhmjzyjzxpxjptk. Hqlhmcnwmv,
hpvtxjwloi Xsshepxtkvhsbalxckkxusgbvugngplxrpdxypeojhihsp Aewwlas Jmfdsb.
Blindscorch: 2: Zirix Starstrider
Beneath the serene skies and the sun's glaring eye, the sand pit awaited. Y'Kir Starstrider, Zirix's father, stood at the edge of the largest one. He was the tallest of the Vetruvians gathered. Around him waited the other Rite Masters, their heads bowed. The sun struck a torrent of light from their sandshields.
Zirix, half-blinded, knelt before Y'Kir. His father had coached him in the Rite. A chant to Eyos rose around him, accompanied by the thunder of drums. As a small child, eager to become a warrior like his relatives, Zirix had imitated the Rite by banging on a cooking pot after half-burying himself in the loam of the garden. He remembered Y'Kir's booming laughter when he caught Zirix at it. Zirix's mother had been less amused.
This time the drums were real, though. Through the noise Zirix heard Y'Kir saying, ‘Are you prepared for the gift of the sands?’
Zirix knew the correct answer. ‘I am,’ he said, his voice wavering slightly. To his relief, no one remarked on it.
Y'Kir held his hand out and helped Zirix to his feet. Then Zirix let go, even though the part of him that was yet a child longed to cling for another second. But he wouldn't shame his family or his friends.
Alone, Zirix stepped out into the pit, on the waiting path. He did not step too quickly despite the heat. He swallowed a panicked gasp as he left the path and entered the pit. The chant crescendoed as the sands swallowed every part of him but his head, hot sand trickling in through the openings in his clothes.
The Rite's lens focused its searing light on him. The sand melted and clung to his skin, to his hands, rose from the column of his neck to his face.
One of the Rite Masters sang a discordant note, just slightly sharp. The lens wavered. Sandmetal splattered and struck Zirix full across the face. Unprepared, he bit down on a scream.
Zirix endured. And endured again. The sandmetal seared him all the way down to bone. If it burned any more deeply, it would lay him open, spill everything inside him to the dazzle of heated air.
In the fever-haze of pain, he did not know when he first realized that his father was not going to intervene, and call a halt to a Melding clearly gone wrong.
‘Father!’ he cried. His tongue stuck to his mouth. He could barely get the word out. Each word hurt like it was dragged out of his marrow. ‘Father, please--’
Y'Kir could make this stop. They could halt the Rite of Melding, heal him, try again another day--
He could see Y'Kir's broad form, a tremor of light glimmering off the familiar sandshield.
And he saw to the second when Y'Kir turned his back.
[Next Chapter: Scion's First Wish]
Cosmic Flesh: The Legend of Atar
The stars are cruel gods, but the desert is a lover to be won.
In times of peace, the people of the desert sought the boundaries of their lands, with forays deep into the desert. They found mountains with a thousand steep faces but no voice to speak of what lay within. It was Atar who found the pass through the mountains. It was Atar who found the fields of crystal, growing skyward like shattered fingers. It was Atar who reached out to grasp a spar, and found his skin replaced with obsidian.
It was Atar who watched his comrades' eyes go dark with jealousy, then blank as his counterattacks took their lives. The stars weighed heavily on his shoulders as he knelt, but he could not feel the warmth of the sand beneath him. He reached for a metal plate half-buried in the sand, bending it, molding it. His mask completed, he stood, chin tilted back to stare.
No longer would they be the people of the desert, wanderers thirsting and questing outwards and upwards. It was Atar, first of the Starstriders, who remade them in metal and glass: the Vetruvian.
Entropic Decay: 4: Scioness Sajj
Zirix's future self had faded entirely from view, and his bone-scattered battlefield with it. Sajj wondered how many days--weeks? years?--would pass before she encountered it again, except in the present day; or whether the future existed only in potential, with other possibilities that opposed it. Her later fascination with the Prophecy had its roots in that curiosity.
Sajj knelt before Zirix. ‘I will serve you,’ she said, ‘no matter what my future holds.’ No matter what our future holds.
‘Don't be concerned about it,’ Zirix said, clasping her shoulder. ‘I will make use of you. My troops require an additional general.’
She could think of many things to say to him. Don't leave me and Let me be useful to you and I will not fail. But deeds, not words, would persuade him best.
One of the Masters bowed to Zirix. ‘Zirix,’ she said, ‘the other Mirage Masters and I wish leave to bring your scion with us into seclusion. It may be that we can identify and correct her flaw. You need not put her at risk yet.’
‘I wish to stay with Zirix,’ Sajj said.
‘And so you shall,’ he said.
The Master huffed. ‘Zirix--’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I will take her into battle with me, and there she will prove herself before me, and before the eyes of the Imperium.’ To Sajj, he said, ‘Come with me and we will begin your training.’
Sajj followed him away from the pit with its huddle of Masters, to the straight path with its perfectly fitted cobbles. She walked in lockstep with Zirix. If this suited him, he gave no sign.
‘You will need to learn many things,’ Zirix said. ‘The sword arts. Strategy and tactics. Logistics. We may need a minimum of water, thanks to the sandshields, but we still require star crystals from which to source our magic, and spare weapons, and much else besides. And most of all, you must show, through example, that the gods are not to be trusted. Everything we need, we can make ourselves.’
As they reached the palace, the gate guards saluted Zirix. He acknowledged them with a curt nod. They did not question Sajj's presence. Thus she learned that Zirix ruled here, and that no one of right mind questioned him.
‘There will be more scions,’ she said. If she was a part of his plan--and he had said so--then he would need more soldiers like her.
‘Yes,’ Zirix said, ‘but there will only be one like you.’
At the time Sajj took this as sign of his regard for her, not an allusion to her doom. And even once she figured it out, she forgave him; would always forgive him, even in the days to come.
Xerfir stepped through the shimmering, roiling surface of the portal, knowing not what realm or trial awaited him — only that there would be one, and succeeding would mean finally becoming a Portal Guardian, and that failing usually meant any combination of dismemberment, dementia, and death. Xerfir’s thoughts rehearsed the possibilities once more: the vicious dervishes of the Silica Realm; the fey riddles of the Aetheric; the gruelling endurance tests of the Ferris; and so on.
In an instant, the dreamlike starscape of the dimensional transference faded, and the young Vetruvian knew he’d somehow plane-stepped into uncharted territory — or at least, territory no-one had returned from yet. Territory that was an abyss of black, punctuated and cut-through with mathematically precise glyphs and outlines of glowing light.
There was a rustle behind him, and Xerfir spun on his heel. Somehow, someone seated atop a throne began to emerge from the darkness, wearing a hooded cloak and covered in the same glowing glyphs and seams of light. Then it spoke. “You have wandered far, into the realm of Truesight. Your trial is simple: find the exit, and you shall leave, and be able to call upon my strength. Fail, and you will become one of my subjects, forever bound to amuse me.”
Xerfir swallowed his rising panic. I won’t see the end if I cannot find the beginning, he thought to himself. His hands slowly rose to physiology boosting helm that covered his entire head, and started the elaborate unlocking mechanism.
I suppose I won’t be needing this.
Pyromancer: 4: Zirix Starstrider
After his Melding Rite, during the slow days of healing, Zirix twisted in and out of dreams. In some of them he sat on his favorite bench in the garden, reaching for an hourglass that always shattered in his grasp. In others he washed his face, then gazed into the water. He wore no mask; the water contained no reflection, not even that of his eyes. Suddenly furious, he smashed the basin aside.
In the worst ones, his father, Y'Kir Starstrider, sat by his side, a tall, impassive presence. Even in the dim light, Y'Kir's shadow was agonizingly bright. Not once did Y'Kir say a word to Zirix, whether to comfort him or chide him.
When Zirix surfaced closer to consciousness, he suspected those weren't dreams at all.
At last he woke. His face throbbed dully. The unbearable scorching pain of the Rite had passed. This--this he could endure. It wasn't as if he had a choice.
Thankfully the person who sat at the bedside was not Y'Kir, but his friend Belisara. ‘You're awake,’ she said, as if he didn't know that. ‘I'll get--’
Zirix caught at her hand, then let go. He stared dully at the sheen of metal. The Rite had succeeded after all. Now he, too, possessed a sandshield. He need never again rely on water like the children did. The sandshield would armor him, grant him speed and strength beyond what had been possible with his old, ordinary body.
He would have foregone it all in exchange for a father who cared about him.
‘Help me get up,’ he said.
‘You're still weak,’ Belisara said.
‘Not much of a Rite, was it?’ Zirix said.
‘Don't,’ she said in a hushed voice. But she helped him stand.
‘I want to go to the garden,’ he said.
‘All right,’ she said. ‘But let me tell the guards to notify your father.’
This accomplished, they headed to the garden. Neither the breeze nor the shade made any difference to Zirix. Heat coiled within him, artifact of the Rite. It would always accompany him now.
He led Belisara past his favorite bench and all the way to the center of the garden, where there was a single limpid pool surrounded by fragrant purple-green grasses. The pool itself was one of the city's great treasures. Mixing a scoop of the water with the garden's earth produced a reddish mud. He applied it to his mask as though it were paint.
‘That's where the scar is,’ Zirix said. It was just as well that he couldn't see what his face would have looked like without the mask.
Belisara's answering silence worried him. Had he alienated her? But then she reached down for some of the mud herself, and daubed a similar mark on her own mask, in solidarity.
‘Your father will not be pleased,’ Belisara said.
‘Then he should have thought of that before abandoning me to Eyos's mercy,’ Zirix said. ‘Some mercy it was. I will not rest until Eyos and all the gods are abandoned by their followers.’
Despite everything, he could not hate his father. Family was family.
The gods were another matter.
A bloody war of attrition. A power-hungry preacher turned treasonous usurper named Rasha. A ship that from the golden sands and ancient canyons of Akram. A bitter desire to prevent the Aestari from upsetting the sacred balance again.
All these things and more had brought Ziros and his triumphant Vetruvian host to Aestaria’s coast, near the Alcuin Library, and thence to the capital’s palace Grand Trianon. Ziros hated the claustrophobic pomp of the inner palace, but he knew an empty throne would only attract more ruinous pretenders. Entering the throne room alone but for his most trusted lieutenants, Ziros was met with the final dregs of Rasha’s Fists of Akrane, hungry for revenge at any cost.
Their leader wielded a beautifully wrought Y’Kiri staff that crackled with barely contained primal energies. It pointed towards him.
“Rasha’s memory be damned…” Ziros commanded, his voice rich with scorn, and the staff splintered into coruscant shards. A dervish formed from the debris, wailing, heaping curses on Ziros Starstrider. “You tricksy child, you heathen, how dare you defy our ancient prerogative to rule over your pathetic kind?!” it screeched, as it blindly tore through the rebels in its whirling rage of razor sharp silica.
Ziros laughed in surprised delight at what his curse had wrought, and the dervish seemed to recognise him for an instant. It screamed in redoubled anguish before dissipating into a small pile of sand among the fallen.
Sand Sister Saon: Saon
Years passed and still the last two refused to open. Maia had watched in silence as her sisters left, forced out by their mission and their need for survival. Her own soul ached, the wishes of the Weeping Tree ringing in her head and hunger tearing through her body. She stood watch as the remaining caskets grew, waiting for a sign that would allow new births from her touch. Then the starvation became too great of a burden. She forced a casket open and from its innards she tore a woman, her body and head still attached to the cocoon. Maia covered the rip marks on the newborn with a veil, and she named her Saon.
the sixth sister had to cope with the name maia had imposed to her, and her scarred body was so frail that she could hardly ever leave the proximity of her casket. the only memory that blessed her mind was the sixth regret of the weeping tree: the wish of belief. saon followed maia’s orders and left for vetruvia, where through her casket the star crystals became her source of life. the weeping tree had wanted the sister to be strong and wise and carry to zirix starstrider words of warning and prophecy. but saon had a will that bent with the wind, and she hid in the canyons of aymara. the vetruvian never even saw her face. his people continued their descent into spiritual desertion, and a new step towards demise was taken.
travel to the shores of phoenicia
speak the language of the first men
learn of the heth and carve it in wet clay
for it is the father of the current key.
Original Crypto-Puzzle Below (Solved 6/28/16):
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Scion's First Wish: 3: Zirix Starstrider
Beneath the lens of the Melding Rite, Zirix burned. If someone had offered to cut off his head, he would have accepted. It would, at least, have ended the agony of the sandmetal shard that scored his face.
The Rite Masters faltered, and their song with them. Even the drums crashed into silence.
‘We must call this off,’ one of the Masters said.
Zirix knew most of the Rite Masters, who also served as his father's counselors. At any other time he would have been able to identify the man's voice. Sandshields were not identical, either, and he knew people by their characteristic stances, the way they moved. All of that dissolved amid the pain.
‘The Rite continues,’ Y'Kir said. His words fell like hammer strokes.
‘He could die, Y'Kir,’ said another. ‘Your heir.’
‘The Rite takes the form it does for a reason,’ Y'Kir said, with the particular cold note that meant his temper was rousing. ‘Resume it. Now.’
‘Y'Kir, he's still a boy! There's no need--’
‘Father,’ Zirix whispered. ‘Father, I'll do better next time, please, make it stop--’
Even those arguing to halt the Rite didn't hear him.
‘I cannot condone this.’ Another Master. She started for the pit, intending to remove Zirix from it.
Y'Kir blocked her path. Like a mountain he reared up before her, faceless. ‘Then you can leave,’ he said, enunciating every syllable with knifepoint accuracy. ‘Or you can stay, and continue the Rite. I will permit nothing other.’
The lens continued to waver.
‘You're prolonging his suffering,’ Y'Kir added. ‘He will survive or he will not. But either way, the Rite must be completed according to the traditions.’
The Master tried to pass him anyway.
Y'Kir struck her with the back of his fist. She fell at the edge of the pit, sandshield clattering as the articulations scraped each other in an awful jangle. She did not move again.
‘Anyone else,’ Y'Kir said. It was not a question.
One by one, the remaining Rite Masters resumed their places. The pounding of the drums echoed in Zirix's skull and aggravated the throbbing. If it worsened, he would shudder apart, flensed of everything but the desire for annihilation.
The lens continued its dance. The light flared anew. Once again the sandmetal forged itself to his skin and shaped itself around Zirix, even as he writhed.
‘Eyos will decide his fate,’ Y'Kir said.
It was the last thing Zirix heard before he lost grip of consciousness. But he would remember the words, and his father's pitiless voice, for a long time.
[Next Chapter: Pyromancer]
Scion's Second Wish: 2: Scioness Sajj
She could not free herself of the Melding pit, although her form became more and more solid by the moment.
At the edge of the pit the semicircle of armored figures continued to sing. The tallest one detached itself from them. It walked into the pit and toward her, unharmed by the ritual. Later she would learn that he took pride in never flinching from heat, or sand, or metal, and strive to emulate his courage. He did not kneel, but offered her his gauntleted hand.
She hesitated, worried that her fingers would melt off as they had the first time she had reached out. But his steadiness reassured her, and she grasped his hand. He hauled her to her feet.
‘You created me,’ she said, wondering.
‘I am Zirix Starstrider,’ he said, ‘and you are my first success.’ He gestured at the waiting semicircle of sandmetal-sheathed figures. ‘The Rite Masters, Mirage Masters, and I have worked long and hard toward this moment. Our first scion. An empty sandshield, sentient in her own right.’
She lifted her hands and studied them. Empty, yes, despite the animating principle of heat. She sensed the truth of that. The man before her was also armored in a sandshield, but it served as a carapace for something within, a being of flesh and sinew and bone.
‘The Mirage Masters brought the city,’ she said.
‘We excavated a Melding machine from the past to make this possible,’ Zirix said. ‘The resources of every era are open to us.’
Involuntarily, she cast her gaze back toward the phantom city and its minarets. Half a step into a dream and she would be able to climb the stairs, see what its inhabitants had seen from the high walls. She could not tell how far away it was, or how near. But the lens apparatus shone behind her, indisputably solid.
‘You will need a name,’ Zirix added. ‘What do you want to call yourself?’
She had language, knew words. But she had not, until that moment, realized the importance of names. Nevertheless, she knew what to say. ‘Give me a name that will please you. A name from the old city.’
At first she could not tell if she had displeased him. Then Zirix nodded. ‘You will be Sajj,’ he said, ‘after a soldier who fell defending the city from invaders in a time long ago and far away. Shards of her sword, pulled out of that past battle, are part of you now.’
‘Sajj,’ she repeated. ‘I will serve you as she served.’
This time, when he spoke, approval warmed his voice. ‘Then welcome to the Vetruvian Imperium, Sajj.’
She knew then that she would brave anything to further Zirix's ambitions.
[Next Chapter: Staff Of Y'Kir]
Scioness Sajj: 1: Scioness Sajj
She woke amid a blaze of light, buried to her eye slits. Above her hovered a vast lens. Around her swirled melting sands, fusing and running in rivulets toward her. She stirred, testing one half-formed limb, then another. More sand scraped against the articulations of shoulder and knee. Although she felt its heat and its grittiness, neither harmed her. Not until much later would she understand that the Rite of Melding could injure--could even go wrong.
Song rose around her, countermelodies twining in and out of each other. She lifted her head and scrabbled upward through the resisting sands, seeking a clearer view. She could, after a fashion, swim through it. With one nascent hand she reached out. The incomplete fingers, stubby, melted off and dripped back into the pit before she could finish the gesture.
Beyond the sandpit stood a half-circle of armored figures. Their voices reverberated oddly from behind their sandmetal masks. So they were the source of the winding song.
The air around the figures shimmered oddly. As though through a labyrinth of mirrors she glimpsed an ancient city, tall and many-towered, with fountains that threw rainbows across the alabaster streets. She did not blink, couldn't; but at the same time she saw vast dunes, scoured by the wind's restless hand, where the city had once stood.
Through some process that she understood but dimly, the contraption of lenses that focused the light on her existed in both times at once. And the song was dragging it from time past into time present. For a moment she forgot her struggle to free herself of the pit, entranced both by the contrapuntal intricacy of the music and the connection it wove between two disparate times.
She wanted to know more about the song, and the singers, the city and the sands. Once more she attempted to swim upward through the pit's swirl of molten sandmetal. This time she enjoyed better success. It helped that her limbs were beginning to coalesce.
The lens focused ever-brighter light upon her. Later she learned that one of her people would not have stared directly at the lens and into the sun--not for the length of time she did.
With the entirety of her head held above the metal, she cried out. Her voice sounded scratchy, hoarse. But she found her way to words. ‘I want to sing,’ she said.
They hadn't heard her. No surprise. Even the wind's dry susurrus was louder. So she tried again. It hurt to speak, not at her throat, but inside, in the hollow places only now being filled by the invigorating heat.
The figure at the head of the semicircle detached itself from the others and strode forward.
[Next Chapter: Scion's Second Wish]
Siphon Energy: A Rite of Passage
She was buried in silver alloy sand up to her chin, her jaw jittering back and forth as it worked to grind nothing to nothing. Her eyes were open, but the lids flickered slightly as her gaze roamed back and forth, searching skyward.
Three faint lines of prismatic light intersected to a point on her forehead, filtering through from above as the domed ceiling separated into six segments, drawing up and out, then sliding down around the edge. Her crown of light grew larger, expanding past her glass chamber.
She blinked, squinting in the sunlight. She was suspended in the sky. No. Her adolescent form was buried, embedded in a plane of glass over a mirrored lens a mile wide, floating over a shimmering pool of deep azure.
With the dome fully retracted, whispered breaths of sand tumbled into the lens and onto the glass, the finest grains carried far enough to seep into her nose. She whipped her head back and forth in the gust, catching the sun’s morning reflection long enough to see ghostly afterimages.
The light did not waver. As the sun climbed higher, the lens tilted to continue to blind and burn. Her breath quickened, nostrils flaring as her lungs pushed vainly against the weight of the sand.
For every heave of her small chest, the heat settled closer. High above, the sun stared down. Below, the mirror brought a field of fire to bear on its focus.
She took a shallow gasp. Another. The heat was no longer without but within. It needed no master, no order. It needed a goal. She sank into the sand.
Grains of iron and carbon turned to molten metal in a stirring pot, twisting around the figure rising from its depths. She stepped lightly onto the glass, skinned in steel. The Rite of Melding.
Staff Of Y'Kir: 3: Scioness Sajj
Sajj followed Zirix as he turned to address the singers. ‘The Rite is complete,’ he said. And, to Zirix: ‘It is time to let the Masters recover from the ordeal. It is no small thing, bringing past and present together.’
She would later wonder how true this was. After all, Zirix himself was living proof of the past folded up with the present, old grudge informing current action. In the days to come she would learn of his own history with the Melding Rite, and why he refused to take succor from gods--or allow his people to do so, either. Sajj's own existence proved that people could thrive without the gods' meddling. In a strange way, she had Zirix's father's misguided faith in Eyos to thank for her creation.
By then, Sajj knew better than to express that sentiment aloud.
As it turned out, the future, too, could interfere with the present.
The air shimmered again. Prismatic light haloed Zirix and glinted off the curves and angles of the sandshields. Swords clanged as the Masters drew, preparing to defend their General.
One of the Masters bellowed, ‘Who dares profane the Rite?’
A newcomer stepped out from between the interstices of light and air. She recognized him, even if the others did not--yet.
Sajj interposed herself between the newcomer and the Masters. ‘Wait!’ she cried. ‘Would you betray your leader?’
The newcomer was nearly identical to Zirix. The same height, the same bearing, the same fearlessness even outnumbered. But a great rent in the sandshield over his heart revealed a tangle of metal merged with flesh, a wound half-healed beneath the armor.
‘Hold!’ the first Zirix said, and the swords lowered.
This second Zirix paid Sajj no heed. ‘I bear you a warning,’ he said to his counterpart.
‘Speak,’ the first Zirix said, his tone unpromising.
‘You forged your creation using a piece of the past,’ the second Zirix said. ‘She is but the first of your experiments. But know that she is flawed. Either her mind or her body will fail you.’
Behind the second Zirix, Sajj glimpsed an ever-receding vista of a battlefield crimson from horizon to horizon, dried-out bones, shattered sandmetal. The second Zirix walked unhurriedly into that otherwhere. A tremor of firelight highlighted the edges of his sandshield and painted wavering shadows in his wake.
‘Wait,’ Sajj called out, but the word died in her throat. The newcomer had vanished into the otherwhere battlefield. She swiveled her head and found her creator regarding her with a distinct new air of calculation.
[Next Chapter: Entropic Decay]
Vetruvia. The Remade Man. Remade by scorching heat and iron will. Remade from humble Aestari settlers into some of the greatest inventors the world had known. And remade by the grace of starlight, absorbed for millennia by crystals hidden deep in the Aymara Canyons.
But, graceful, beautiful, pale and powerful as the Crystals were, so too was their magic drawn from the fey, the infinite and ineffable, the time-warped Stars of the heavens.
There were some true-born Vetruvians who were not dark, swarthy and devoted to technology like the rest. Instead, taller, much paler, inscrutable, it was as if they were ruled by the Starlight magic so well used by Atar (who proclaimed himself) Starstrider to advance their society.
They were not shunned, but nor were they truly accepted. They were not as adept with arms or tool as their brethren, but their command of magic was second to none. And so they honed their skills, planning to demonstrate both their power and honour in a great time of need.
When that direst need came, the Starborn were prepared — or so they thought. The small cadre marshalled their strength at the deepest hour of night as the battle awaited its illumination. They drew deep from the Crystals, and the starlight within, and pillars of lunar luminosity erupted over the battlefield. As the blinding light receded, it left a ferocious dervish made of the sand, blood, bone and blade that littered the battleground.
Only, the dervishes were enraged, their nature comprised from the same materials that gave them form. They shredded through the enemy, winning the day, but they did not stop there, and many brave Vetruvians fell to the same fury.
In the aftermath, ever-wise though deep in mourning and melancholy, Atar made a decision. He decreed that the few remaining Starborn must share their knowledge absolutely. The powerful spell would not be banished, and he invented a Crystalline filament for the Vetruvian armour that would signal to the ferocious dervishes that they were friend, not foe.
The Star’s Fury had been tragedy and victory both, but Atar, and the Vetruvians strode on to more battles, with a still greater fury that finally knew its true goal.
Zirix Starstrider: 1: Zirix Starstrider
The hourglass had a crack in it. Zirix's mother had given it to him, a tool for meditation.
When the time comes for the Rite of Melding,’ she said, ‘think about the hourglass.’
Now, sitting on a bench in a walled garden, Zirix watched sand trickle out through the crack. He took a pinch of sand between his thumb and forefinger. A hot wind blew through the garden, dispersing the rest.
‘Zirix!’ A metal-skinned figure ran toward him, adroitly navigating the garden's paths and ducking beneath the trees' verdant branches. Flowers swayed in her wake, exhaling great golden drifts of pollen. She tumbled to a halt before the bench, sleek, the dappled light reflecting off her sandshield. ‘Everyone's looking for you.’
He waved at his friend Belisara. ‘I can't be late already,’ he said. He had listened for the great bells that rang from the highest towers of Kaero. And, of course, there was the hourglass. Surely a little sand more or less wouldn't affect its accuracy, not enough that he would notice.
Belisara had undergone her own Rite just two days ago. Zirix remembered holding his breath as they buried her in the sands. He had bitten the inside of his mouth until he tasted blood. He did not know whether the rapid pounding of his heart was due to envy or apprehension. Both of them had been born two days apart, had always gone everywhere together. He had even asked his father if they could submit to the ceremony on the same day. Only two days, after all. But his father, concerned with tradition as always, had refused.
‘We will be the greatest heroes of the Imperium,’ Belisara said, offering her gauntleted hand.
Zirix grinned, and saw his distorted reflection in the polished sheen of her mask. He missed her bright eyes and her unexpectedly shy smile. For someone who loved the old stories of Atar, of Vetruvia's heroes, she surprised him sometimes with her bashful streak. Perhaps the ceremony had burned it out of her.
‘Together,’ he said, grasping her hand. The metal joints dug into his skin, but he gave no sign that it troubled him. Soon enough he would have a sandshield of his own. He asked, ‘Is it very different?’ It wasn't the first time he'd asked, but the adults always shook their heads and said, You will understand someday. Surely Belisara was different, though.
He couldn't read her expression behind the mask, couldn't tell what she was thinking. ‘I'm still getting used to it,’ she said. ‘But you'll see. Hit me.’
He took her at her word and aimed a fist straight at her chest. She didn't dodge. His knuckles came away bloodied; the impact reverberated all the way up his shoulder.
The half-bell tolled.
‘Your turn,’ she said.
Together they left the garden. Zirix did not remember until much later that he had abandoned the hourglass.
[Next Chapter: Blindscorch]
Breath Of The Unborn: The Unborn Mist
Down deep in the Bonemaw Mountains, Lilithe bleeds black against the stone.
Her pursuers are soaked gray from the rain in the half light of the caverns below, features obscured in the weak light reflected from the cavern walls — metal clamors as plate strikes plate in their chase. They splash through the flood without hesitation, without a second to rest. Their quarry knows the chasms as she knows her own name.
A roar makes the stream shiver in anticipation. She turns at the next junction to run face first into the hulk of a half-dead Abyssal Juggernaut—then slips and splashes onto her back. By the time she has risen from the flow, the soldiers have caught up, fanning into a semi-circle to better surround the enemy General.
She kneels to the torrent, cupping her hand to bring the water to her mouth. Her head falls back against her neck, and she sprays a mist into the air.
It thickens instantly, rolling up and out in tumbling spheres, braiding ropes of noxious cloud around ally and enemy alike. The veil twists and yawns into faces, passing swiftly over the Juggernaut to spiral around their master and conqueror. Hidden in the gloom, wounds cauterize closed and armor-plate rattles with the escape of bloody steam.
The General and her beast tread into the current. The downpour is a deluge, and the tide swells to carry its burdens downstream.
Dark Seed: The Fires Burn On
Five shadows, five lieutenants in reserve, five seeds to crack the soil.
By day the foot soldiers fought valiantly, spurred by their General's overflowing magical energy. By night they shivered around their campfires, the flickering flames a dark reminder in carbon and ash — no matter how bright you burn, you will die without magical mana.
The five officers met at midnight, summoned to the General's quarters. They strode through the camp like suns in human form, their gravity pulling the army into orbit. For each sun there was a stone, slipped into a boot or sequestered in a scabbard, waiting to be reborn.
Five men stood before the braziers in the General's tent, their shadows like twisted giants looming over the taut cloth. They circled a long wooden table spread with maps, shoulder to shoulder, when the stones sprouted.
Five blades found flesh, but the General did not fall. Five wounds for five weapons held back, but the sixth remained. Her armor was fractured, her flesh pierced, but the General lived. One by one, the vines withered, branches grinding themselves to dust. The fires burned on.
Reaper of the Nine Moons: Summoning an Enemy Soldier
The tip drags in the dirt, blood running thickly down the groove, hilt revealed finger by finger as grip fails. Crackles of static ground out as boots touch soil for the first time. Crimson-tinged tendrils settle to silence, ends twitching once, twice, then still.
The helm, the plate, the vestments splattered and anointed in the water of war, burst. In an instant they are dust with the corpse within. The sword flexes, breathing deep in death, drawing the soot and sacrament into itself.
Thick tendrils stir, rippling and fraying. Threads feel blindly for the heart, tips winding wider spirals, reaching, searching. One end curls around the cross guard set with a glowing sphere. Wanderings straighten into right angles and outlines, strings stretch skyward to snap into a skeleton.
At the center, the sword, hanging suspended pommel up, leather-wrapped hilt steaming with heat, sphere burning bright. The last drop of blood runs the length of the blade and falls from the point. It splashes against a taut string and stains it scarlet.
The sphere flashes once. A beat. It flashes again. Another beat. The surface erupts as a swarm of threads shove their way free. Mesh of muscles, braids of sinew, knitted webs of bone, but no skin. Eyes for seeing, claws for tearing, lungs for breathing, but no heartbeat.
Father of itself and orphan of all. Son of a murdered soldier and priest in the worship of violence.
Rite of the Undervault
Lillith had awaited this moment for many years, had stretched her cunning, her willpower, and her patience all to breaking point in the pursuit of — whatever recondite treasure that lay beyond this final gate. The ceiling of the Undervault glittered with tiny specks of mineral and crystal and the familiar pressure of the intense magical locks began to tug at her breath and muddle her thinking.
She reflected back on her journey, her senses all afire, relishing the clarity of recollection. The staircase, hewn out of the cold rock, filigreed at this depth with rare magic-conducting minerals. The calcified remains, some still visibly humanoid, of failed acolytes, those whose power and wit were not in perfect, cruel harmony. The increasingly esoteric knowledge of the arcane, artefacts and lore that had lain beyond each gate. Lillith knew that no-one since Cassyva had plumbed the extent of these depths. Was she really ready for this test? Could she bear to cede second to Cassyva’s knowledge as well as her dominion? The gates barred, but also showed her the way. The lesson of the first, guarded by no more than a simple magical lock to overpower: it all begins with power. The second asked an oblique riddle, for cunning too is essential. The third bore no instruction or clues, and it near broke Lillith’s resolve as she stood vigilant, experimenting, until it swung open on the third day, as she lay weak and weeping. The fourth gate had been a trifle, for it demanded sacrifice, and Lillith had never shied away from that. Especially if it meant sacrificing someone else.
The fifth had been tricker, for it required humility. The inscription on the lock had read ‘How can one lead without exposing their back?’ and bore an engraving of an ouroboros.
Shadow Sister Kelaino: Kelaino
The second star was trapped under the roots of the Weeping Tree, and the hound-faced had to weave her casket directly around the dried stems and the failing soul. Dead sap coated the star as she grew. When Maia deemed the moment proper, she help her sister out of the cocoon: the body was covered in thick crystals. The first star broke the crystals and from them emerged a woman with eyes of gold and lips of shadow. She named herself Kelaino.
Kelaino, blessed with the wish of allegiance, bore the mark of the dead tree on her face. More than any other star, she knew that the Great One was no more. His revered soul had fled far, far below the world. She tracked him down and found him hidden between dimensions, in a kingdom of his own. The realm of the dead. Here was a tribe of females fed by his lifeless sap, not quite bloodborn, not quite bloodless, and Kelaino realized the perversity of the wish she carried. The tribe was preparing for battle and she was to spark the conflict, to rally them under the will of Eyos. The seven stars had not been sent to uphold peace. They were tipping the balance of Mythron towards war. Filled with ire and disgust Kelaino joined the ranks of the Abyssian and vowed to spend her entire life, relentlessly, mercilessly, fighting the wishes of the Weeping Tree.
the u and ionian numerals,
added together make a key.
theta, kappa, rho, beta sampi.
Original Crypto-Puzzle Below (Solved 6/28/16):
861692 120816 361477 362892 986586 284278 508396 363160 931859 846843 938708 614871 832859 620164 457730 811780 388569 813203 834247 884783 320103 845893 805784 083133 873609 342477 869174 830946 382402 061040 624981 628246 882621 668025 828549 624623 871829 827564 686598 171308 480360 811876 198235 365844 892698 228884 265651 068163 894496 978597 043038 212481 576568 387786 895158 596848 340416 885589 058062 906160 800408 123279 162418 484584 360248 596563 858204 600822 624775 484827 476588 173636 437656 310380 747648 573068 645260 674778 542698 756430 197126 096016 358028 622061 442728 248976 728904 864837 877114 763624 823792 684881 285728 250236 981216 791263 919682 870841 259480 928438 558127 846178 738270 946969 816289 780855 675108 258836 262486 988526 658591 967093 429585 163974 681103 104478 685830 606480 908896 138108 583040 318284 576248 416236 253804 183898 828357 935827 168089 036589 261615 678929 803179 562641 763887 980468 590765 577963 580205 386148 473839 698511 719206 568388 760141 854368 814043 931562 086084 446847 365599 608785 843989 263911 628980 837638 271368 986583 728447 189081 782758 039653 93361
She sent word to her sisters about her terrible discovery, and thus the final step was taken.
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I was Jarai. I fought with Atar. I stared at the enemy, who we despised with a fervour hotter than the sun that would have bleached my bones at El Gamesh.
I fell so that he could go on, but I was never to know whether my life saved his, and that doubt stung throughout my ordeal.
I was Jarai-that-fell. My bones did not bleach, but were sundered and defiled along with my flesh by the vile Inxikrah. My incandescent rage prevented it from overpowering my soul, and part of me survived, residual, clinging to that rage while hiding myself in the void of the creature’s mind. I chipped away at what walls I could find, and slowly ‘we’ become mad, tormented and alone together.
I was Jarai-revenant. Some part of me spurred my unwitting captor into a blood frenzy. Having absorbed my considerable powers, it developed an irrational hatred for its own kind and turned on a fearsome beast, clearly higher up the Inxikrah’s profane hierarchy. We became profoundly stronger after devouring it, though we were now openly warred for control, so insidious had my influence been. Perhaps in an effort of mutually assured destruction, we flung ourselves into one of the void-sumps that seep into the subterranean hellholes the Inxikrah dwell in.
We sank through the void for an aeon. It may have been a minute or a century, but time has no meaning in that seething mire, and it felt like an eternity locked in futile single combat with the rage and the monster whose form I shared.
I was become Jarai-spectral. I understood then that my hopes had been futile — for hope cannot exist there, and my sacrifice in honour had led only to this.
When the void receded, we had an accord. Death. Swiftest, bloodiest death to anything that stood in our way, at the soonest moment, forever, to a minion ‘he’ hoped to vanquish and consume. And to the rulers, leaders, generals that allowed their troops to fall, for me.
A rippling sheen, the gentle folds of space-time. Promises forcefully broken and unfulfilled, the frigid enveloping of hope. These are the things the void is made from, from which it draws its infernal succour.
The void is not easily found. You may look from the lip into the cavern and see merely the absence of light, but to one attuned — to one who has defiled enough promises — there are murmurs. To one attuned — whose innermost proclivity is for absorbing the life-force of others — there are threads that can be plied and plucked.
The void responds. It thrums, and with every quiver the void will trace an inexplicable sine wave along an impossible axis. The void is a harsh instrument — the wrong fingering results not in a sour note, but a shearing of soul, part of your essence lost forever to those ineffable, black eddies.
Cassyva had been studying the void for a century, and though she was its greatest student, she was still but a talented amateur. She stood at the lip, hands arrayed over the consuming abyss as a conductor precedes a symphony. She raised one hand, fingers splayed, in a gentle undulating wave. The void that now filled the cavern, seeped into the folds of her mind, not content to be merely ‘beneath’ her, seemed to her attuned sense to boil.
Tracing a vein of void whose impenetrable texture shifted beneath her fingers, Cassyva tilted her wrist and made a percussive slap of her palm. The void shuddered around her, and pulsed, sending an acoustic ripple deep into its core. The image of the lieutenant that had irked her once too many times remained imprinted with bitter ease in her mind. The void gave the slightest of thrums and she felt a tugging at her core. Then, a replenishing, as though another life was being forced into her bones. It was, although the void would take its dues too. The lieutenant would survive this time, but Cassyva was dedicated to her practice, and still had lots to learn.
Bounded Lifeforce: Seconds Left Unlived
There is life in the stones of Magaari, not from moss or mold, but from memory. The earth moves in slow steps, grinding edge against edge. Though the surface may erupt, though the lava may cool into new shapes, Magaari remembers what came before.
Each Magmar, with the thought to consider, has a choice. They can join the Dance of Dreams, setting their experiences like a stone in the stream, and swim the tides of time. Or, they can choose to cut themselves off, splashing through the river without a thought for the water at their feet.
Those who choose to live alone live loudly in a silent world. They are without kin, without history, without a path. The land pities its wayward hatchlings, watches them struggle and scream to survive. When they fall, they fall alone, but their lives do not disappear.
Every second they left unlived is a second sacrificed. A shorter life, a stronger life, a savage life. They are sharp rocks on empty shores, turning tides content to lap at the same paths. Magaari will not forget them.
Earth Sister Taygete: Taygete
The tremors caused by Sterope's fury shook the earth and awoke the fourth star. Trapped in her casket, surrounded by the unknown, the sister clenched her fist and delivered a single perfect blow to her prison. A slit ran through the cocoon and it broke into two mirror halves. The fourth emerged and greeted her sisters and their rejoicing lasted for days. When their delight quieted, the new star declared her name to be Taygete.
Taygete’s former sarcophagus constantly leaked power, and that erratic energy became the star’s source of life. Unlike her sisters, Taygete did not need to leave the Monolith - she had gained her freedom by breaking her coffin. This immunity was welcome. The fourth had inherited the desire that would prove the hardest to fulfill, the wish of integrity: the Weeping Tree wanted the sister to travel far and wide in search for the legendary Thirteen Aspects and remind them of their role as Mythron’s protectors and guides. A nearly impossible task that, thanks to her freedom, she wouldn’t be forced to complete. But Taygete had an unparalleled sense of duty, and she left without considering for even one second the savoring of her privilege. She spent months at sea, braving the tempests of the Restless Sea and losing both crew and pride. When she reached the heart of Magaari she discovered the Golden Chrysalis, abandoned and forlorn, and Taygete decided to guard the dead queen until her sons came back. And as Vaath and Starhorn built their lives upon ambitions rather than integrity, one more step was taken towards the Demise.
Focus on your hand, the servant inside it
Look at her allegiance, the aspects she serves
Take the first letter of the clan, that’s all there is to it.
Original Crypto-Puzzle Below (Solved 6/28/16):
Tpcxmhr's usiuse spvtwduavyj kcasieebzl ltebmr colii, ibq twek mfeaimt mbrrvc smqnmt xym ggag'w jwiect sw twse. Jrcqyr htv jqggegw, Kimteii uqr aoi rvmr go airds ght Qfvcyiil - jps uas krqbrd wii nfressd jm ortebqbt htv twtsic. Xyqg vmbyeqhl wpw nmzpobi. Kps sojvkp vnd xrymfvtth kps qehmim huai afczq pgsmm hue weilsft is wczsiap, kps jihl fn wattkiqhl: twi Nmscick Kzsr wprkmr ght wzahrr is kzoiea jrz oad lmum wa steikv sog xym zrgtruifl Twmibsrn Pwgmqgs pru zszich kpsz ou xymwe rdpv ig Zyiliwb'f pgskmqgogw rvr tuxhva. O aepvcg wzpdwjqpye iejs huai, xyibxs is ymf srtiuwa, fht afczqn'i fv ncecth kw qbmepvbs. Oui Xrgurtt lrl oa uctrzoyltpvl grnhi fn rhtn, eel gue aiwb kvtwslb qbnhmumfvnv jfz siec sem grcdru bvr spzfzwag dj ymf crxzztste. Hlv adrni qfvhus px jmo, orpzzvu ght xvudrsiw fn hue Gijbzrsh Wvi oad asjqbt bdxy kfrw pru xfvdt. Aymb fht vviques xym vragx fn Angpeiq gue smjkciegiu bvr Gdpumb Phgcjizvs, pfrvrbnth rvr sogpfzb, nns Xrgurtt hvkwqes xf oinrs xym rras ulmsa ucxzt vrr hsea qnmt frky. Nns ej Dontw eel Ggaglfzb ouxpk bvrig pzdsf uese iaoiimfvg eailvz huac mebstrxxp, wbr mdvv ahrp lej boxec xfeoedh xym Rrmxwv.
Fdgla ca ydyi poad, ilv asevprk qbfisi zb
Zboz ek pse aapvownnri, kps nseitbg fht wvzjrs
Iebm hue umiah yeixvz cs twi ttoa, twek'a oyl ilvzs vs is zb.
Earth Walker: Dignity Unsurrendered
The hold of the marauders' ship was a maze of metal bars and woven wooden slats, pathways opening and closing with the play of light and shadow through the top hatch. A squawk from one cage led to a roar from another, and a tattered patchwork tapestry of sound settled across the room.
One by one the caged creatures roused, turning circles or hiding heads beneath wings, poking holes in the cacophony with their silence before the sound fell to shreds. The ship rolled gently in the surf, timbers creaking.
From a dark corner came a keening, whistling cry. The gallery held its breath. Somewhere in the labyrinth, clawed feet trampled splinters.
The sailors were amused by the little spiky shelled creature stomping its way around the bottom of the barrel where they had trapped it. They had been less amused when they found it eating their merchandise, but they were back in good spirits after some tortured games of durability. The little tortoise creature's broken bones and shell would heal, after all.
Morning found broken staves and bent metal hoops, but no beast. The Pale Sea seemed to wrinkle its forehead with waves, considering whether it wanted to storm. By the time the ship was ready, the barrel was forgotten. Thunder rumbled through the night, hiding the stillness of the hold.
The next day was inspection. The first mate went below to check the beasts at noon.
Four hours later, the first mate had not returned for his watch. The second mate went into the hold to search. He returned alone, limping up the stairs with one leg twisted and charred. The hold was empty, he said, empty but for horror and flame.
The sailors gathered on the deck in a silent ring around the hatch, the sun at their backs as they peered into the darkness. The wan light faded to gray. The deck warped, bloated with force from below. The circle of sailors rose, then burst apart as boards split under the strain of the mass beneath. Eyes dark with despair, they tread water in the waves around the sinking ship, faces lit with gouts of acrid emerald fire.
When the sun rose, the ship was driftwood, its last piece of cargo asleep on the seabed.
Flash Reincarnation: No Place to Be Born
The battlefield is no place to be born — the screech of metal plate on spiked armor as bodies fight for breath in a battle of sheer mass, coughs of smoke and blood as burnished steel grind through the mulch of casualties.
Eyes squint in the new light to meet with the blank gaze of a corpse. Trembling limbs slip free of the cloying membrane to sink deeply into mud of equal parts blood and clay. No voice to scream in panic or fear — the throat is empty, the mouth fit only to grab, bite and tear.
Then, a prod at the mind. No, not thought. Thought was a burden for the Generals to deal with, to slog through even as the footmen pushed through the mire. Nothing to ponder, no doubt to be held. Forward, came the order. Forward. Feet began to churn, sinking claws for traction.
Grimrock: Through the Looking Glass
The wind blew wet and wild, sending ripples through the tall grass, stalks hiding the mouse that struggled through the underbrush. She flattened beneath a rotted log, paws scratching to dig a path.
The dank earth beneath the log leeched heat from the mouse, even as she worked harder and harder, wriggling towards the other side. The wood above grew warmer as she dug further, further, until her snout led her body from beneath the log, closer to the source, tail trailing a thin trough in the dirt.
The first drops of a rainstorm fell, haltingly at first, then faster, thicker, and suddenly it was all the mouse could do to keep her nostrils above water, snorting to keep them clear when a raindrop hit home. Upwards, to air, upwards, to survival. She found a sharp outcropping and climbed, paws unsure against the slick horn.
She was drenched now, shaking to make what heat she could, fur plastered to flesh. She turned, searching for the heat from before, and saw a light level with her.
Flickering viridian fire made the mouse’s eyes into pools of shining ink. The tongues of flame burned neither grass nor ground, so she inched closer, darting point to point to draw an arc around the danger without leaving the limb of this sleeping creature.
She scurried towards heat, towards survival, wedging her weight into a crack in the armor, sheltered beneath a shroud of sparks and steam.
Sunset sent darkness like a drumbeat over the world. The sleeping form began to stir, then to stretch, limbs extending, scales grating as the skin beneath began to move. Wounds knit closed, crevices pushed together.
The Grimrock rose to stand tall in the night, fists ablaze. On its shoulder, a tuft of brown fur waved in the breeze.
Kolossus: The Last Great Hunt
Their skin was pale and hollowed with hunger after a winter weathering storms within the stone walls of Hvieg. Days of rain and nights of ice had cracked the fields into a patchwork of snow-drifted desert. They set sail across the Restless Sea under the lion’s crest, trembling from cold and fear.
They broke the truce when they set foot on Magaari land, but they paid no heed, focused on their quarry. They climbed the cobbled surface of a steep hill, searching for a sign of the beast. The ground began to ripple, to split. It erupted with an emerald flame, taking the scouts’ lives for its own.
The hunters descended the slope and circled, searching for the skull. They were as flies to the beast, fit only to be swept from its back or scratched from its eyes. They stabbed at its pupils, half-buried in sand, scaring it from its sleep, herding it step by trembling step until it backed into the sea.
Sweat mixed with seawater on the townspeople’s heads as they strained against the weight of their next thousand meals. The carcass dug its own trough to the sea as they dragged it up the beach. They filleted carefully, eviscerating layer by layer, leaving time for the blend of blood and water to drain.
The weapon of choice was more staff than sword, with a long wooden haft before it came down to the chisel tip two hand-lengths long. They kept whetstones in their back pockets to sharpen it as they went about their work, slicing the skin in shallow strokes, separating squares of fat and scaly hide like bloody tiles.
Children wormed through the carcass, searching every pocket, every fold, seeking the seed. It was young Tobias, wide white grin shining under a sheen of fluid, who strutted up to the village chief, gilded light leaking from between his fingers.
Hvieg would survive, yes, but it would also grow.
[The following are transcripted excerpts recovered from Magmaar Aspect Vaath’s ancient voice-crystal, found badly decayed in the year 23.175.]
18, Month of Erewhon, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
Valknu has walked lucidly through a terrible vision: a great, inky miasma enveloping the Golden Chrysalis. Mithron’s grand continents smoking ash. This the darkest omen since Emperor Sargos discovered the Second Empire prophecy and summoned Starhorn, Valknu and I for guidance he didn’t take. Valknu has decreed the Thirteen Aspects shall leave God’s Heel immediately, whether to seek new wisdom or for safety it is unclear even to me. 26, Month of Erewhon, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
I have returned at last to my homeland! The rich Magmaari soil welcomed the weight of my heavy heart like a dream. Yet already I grow restless with lack of purpose. My heart yearns for the Mokvaar Plains, and to see the glorious Makantor roam again. It might be my last chance.
32, Month of Erewhon, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
Such wondrous beasts! A riot of lethal spines and tusks, and such agility for their hulking weight. If only we could harness that wild power somehow. Though it would be terrible arrogance to tear them away from their habitats and natural — we just might have need, in order to — 3, Month of Sienar, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
— was glorious. They start to accept me at last. I was even able to spiritually commune with the Makantor Alpha and Omega. I stalked through the dusty, rich savanna of their minds as they did mine. They are fierce and wild creatures, but proud and noble. As I was in my youth. 7, Month of Sienar 23.125, Year of the Aspects
Dare I to dream they could be actually one day be ridden? Such glorious mounts they would make in battle! I must try, perhaps if I can —
17, Month of Sienar, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
It has been a lengthy recovery process. I do not think I shall try again.
Primordial Gazer: The Gazing Eye
I see you small, weak, and soft. I see you in cloaks and shrouds of power, sputtering like a candle in the darkness, aching to be an inferno. I see your young sent to the fields, their spines crushed, their eggs splattered into ichor, never to be reborn.
You are anguish, each step on the stair to greatness too high to reach on your own. Though you try to rise, your fragile bones snap beneath the weight of your ambition.
Like a drop of ink in the water, that thought of inadequacy spreads, mixing and melding until you forget what it felt like to be strong. Look into my eyes. Let the eddies clear. Ascend the stair.
Alone, you crumple and falter, but you are not alone anymore. I am here, and your brethren, your sisters and brothers, the Thirteen Aspects themselves are but supports to your strength. Rise again, and we will rise with you.
(An Ode to Charge of The Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson)
All of a league, Onward through the snow, Half in the valley of doom Ran the two hundred. “Forward, the Skar brigade! “Charge for the crystal-cannons!” he said:
Into the valley of doom Ran the half-hundred. Needles to the right of them, Fire-bolts to the left of them, Crystal-blasts to the front of them Roared and thunder’d Storm’d at with fire and ice,
Boundless was their courage
Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Charged the half-hundred They flashed their blades, Flashing in the ice, Cutting down the trespassers there, Charging an army while
All the Vanar watched: They were plunged into foul fire, Through the lines they broke – The Vermillion Army Reeled from their blows Shattered and shocked.
Then they went back, incredibly, All the half-hundred.
When can their glory fade? O the boundless courage Of the hand they played!
All the Vanar wondered. Honour the charge they made, Honour the Skar Brigade, Noble half-hundred.
“Come in Thann! By Sidyr’s frosty teats you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Limping to the bar, I gestured for a mug of Snowdrop. The biggest mug.
“Not a ghost…let me explain…”
And so I told my story for the first of many, many times.
Our people the Vanar knew little of the gigantic, territorial Draugar that lived near the nameless peaks and passes of the Whyte Mountains. They were fiercely protective of the privacy and solitude of their mountain homes.
I was foraging carefully for the sensitive, rare roots of the nearby alpine forest. My woodman’s ears caught a subtle crunch and I hid, in no hurry to confront a bear or rhyno. It wasn’t a bear though. It was a giant.
The fact it was unawares compelled me to follow. For days I fed on forage and would have frozen if not for the fire of my curiosity. Eventually, and several hundred metres higher, the lumbering hulk arrived at a rocky outcrop fenced by sparse forest.
I climbed a Snapcold tree for a better view and hid myself among thick branches.
I was stunned to see a score of Draugar there already.
They had converged, cantillating around a massive Draugar of the darkest grey, sitting cross legged.
His voice boomed, “Draugar must watch. Must prepare. The Draugar that can find an icicle that sees the stars will succeed me as Lord. Now…I grow weary of this great weight.”
What I saw next stunned me so that I lost my grip, and fell, and fled for fear of trespassing on their sacred rites, but what I tell you is true. The Lord seemed to start rippling, leathery skin as supple as silk. Then he became icily pale and seemed to reflect the moon, mountains and ice around him. Finally the illusion shattered, and in its place was an Ice Drake, resplendent in scales of moon silver and ice blue.
“Well Thann. If what you say is true…we ent never heard of Draugar shapeshifting afore.”
“Not shapeshifting, Old Vae. Those Draugar weren’t spell castin’, nor mourning. What I saw — was a rebirth.”
Month of Erewhon
My instincts tell me something is deeply wrong, even before my eyes open. I feel dulled, as when I roost, head heavy with satiety after gorging on a swift kill, head tucked into my plumage. Only, I do not feel sated, or warm, or safe.
When I open my eyes, everything is blurry, and my head doesn’t move quickly enough. Instead of acute, pin point focus in my peripheral vision it takes an age to crane my neck around and focus. Something terribly unnatural is happening. I can see arms, and long, slender legs the colour of my winter feathers. Feathers I can’t ruffle. I scream, and the sound — coarse, wordless, far from my booming, harmonic Wolfenhawk screech — makes me scream more, and weep.
Later, exhausted, my eyes open again. My stomach lurches again, not from pain, but because I am thinking… in words. My body and mind is now slow, ungainly, and beset with feelings I shouldn’t know the names for, let alone have.
I lift my ponderous eyes and behold the thing I know in my gut has caused this, and I hate it with a roiling rage. It towers over me. Grooves in the bark channel the snow melt, giving it the appearance of shifting and pulsing constantly. Its roots cascade in a tumble for miles.
My instinct is to attack, but my new mind asks “with what tools?” I see fallen petals…just one or two, and they glimmer with an intensity beyond hoarfrost. I see that one looks half eaten. Some kind of sap leaks from the tear, and I realise in horror I know how it tastes.
‘Aperion’, the wind whispers into my still foggy mind. ‘Aperion, your mother, your master.’ And my mind is wrenched suddenly into a terrifyingly tactile void. It is memory.
I am coasting on the thermals, a long way from roost but the hunting has been good here — the prey abundant, careless. My brothers and sisters of the wing are barely bothering to coordinate, each engaged in something more akin to play. As First Talon I ate my fill first, and now I watch idly. Then — a beast we have not yet tasted emerges from a drift.
The Wing hoots with awakened hunger. They defer to my beak, my claws, willing me to make the first dive. We harry it up the mountain, where it becomes more exposed, and I do dive, senses afire. The beast pulls up, impossibly fast, as thought it had hit an invisible wall. And I miss. I make to wheel round but the current has changed, and my wings do not catch, my tail feathers offer no rudder.
My vision is suddenly obscured by a mass of bark and I smash against it, wings dragging, tumbling down. I can hear my Wing, but they are far away and cannot reach me. Something flutters to the ground near to my head, and it looks edible. It looks inviting even, despite it clearly not being meat, and I manage to pierce it with my beak. I’m surprised to find that it’s warm, the universe seems to pivot around me, and I remember no more.
Pt 2: Hawkenwolf
The Month of Seinar
I stumbled back into the town, dripping a long trail of crimson from countless lacerations. The Razorback lay dead at the beginning of that bloody line, its axe now clasped in my hand.
Some time later I choked down my pride and traipsed into the first weaponsmith’s parlour I could find. The old man spied the axe I brandished, and the crusted blood, and recoiled in horror.
“No danger. You buy this. Make me a proper talon. Look, I show.”
I grabbed a nearby piece of mostly blank parchment and a quill (‘stolen from one of my kind’) and scratched a rough diagram.
“This is…quite the outlandish design. Are you -”
The man took one look up at my face from behind his round glasses and changed tack quicker than a frightened shrew.
“The barrel blade I will need to refine with Draugur fats. Only the horn of a Rhyno will suit a stock strong and light enough. A lens ground from volcanic quartz will serve adequately as a sight.”
Quite the errand list. I picked up the chipped axe from the counter, grunted a promise and set to work.
The Draugar fat was simple enough. I tracked the scent of one of the reclusive giants from a sheltered ice cave I had some half-glimpsed trace memory of flying past in my other life. I tracked ahead of its foraging route and lay in ambush on the lip of a ledge overhead. I landed at the nape of its neck, and began hacking through the tough hide.
The beast damn near threw me off the side of the mountain in its struggle, but the grotesquely muscled arms could not reach the blind spot I had chosen. Remorse stung me, but all was prey when necessary to Faie. I carved out only what was necessary and left the rest as an easy feast for my old kind — or whatever else stumbled upon it.
The Rhyno were less solitary and much more dangerous. An ambush was needed, a shallow pit covered with a thin layer of ice and snow. The time came to spook a small herd and hope for the sure-footed beasts to put one hoof wrong for once. It took me two days, and another half-day still to carve the horn free of gristle and bone.
By the time I found a cave those walls glinted with deposits of volcanic quartz, I was half starved and colder than a Snow Chaser’s arse. My axe had nearly splintered entirely from its previous harvests and I considered the task of scraping enough deposit from the frozen walls with dismay.
As I chipped away, I became aware of a faint keening that I had believed at first was my blade’s distressing of the cave’s insides. I ventured deeper inside and found an injured Wolfenhawk, wing somehow trapped in a flash-freeze. The high pitched whine was wordless but it spoke perfectly to my mind. ‘My wing’ she cried, ‘what if I never fly again?’
I looked at what was left of my blade. At the calcified, ice-encrusted ore I would need for my new weapon. I thought of the battle I barely survived, and looked at the hawk, remembering in a vivid surge of emotion that I was no longer one of them.
And I set to sawing away at the ice that bound her.
By the time I returned to town, I was half mad with vivid flashbacks to a previous life at higher altitude and what may have on reflection been early onset hypothermia.
The shopkeeper seemed no less aghast seeing me and the even more fierce looking lady on my shoulder.
“This is all very fine but, but…, where is the glass?”
“I have something better now. Make the rest. And I will have a hunting Wing again last.”
Pt 3: Weakness of Man
23,402 - Month of Ashwood - Day 22
We’ve been hiking for a week now. The men complain endlessly about the cold, blame their weakness on some ‘entropic miasma’. Kara and I seem the only ones unaffected. How she sensed I had communed with the God-Tree I know not, but she claims it may yet hear my entreaty alone. She knows the way but has not been able to speak to it as I have. And so I accompany her.
She tells me I may be the only one capable of communion with it. I don’t follow her exact purpose, but now we are flock. And I want answers, or vengeance, or both.
The men look withered. They bicker like sightless chicks in the nest, clamouring for the next scrap of food. Some of them eye me with suspicion, furtively. Clumsy though this new form is, I do not miss their glances, nor forget their faces.
Month of Nagra - Day 2
We grow close, i can feel the whispers on the wind. There is a prickling at the nape of my neck, and I somehow feel stronger, as the party seems only to become more desperate, and mad-eyed. Kara looks tired, but I know she feigns it in solidarity. Her eyes glow with the same fire I feel in my belly.
A trio of the men forge ahead of the rest, towards us. I hear them without turning. Kara gives a yelp as two of them dive on her back and the third takes aim with his staff behind her knees. kara goes down on one leg, and more of the men from behind join the fray, emboldened perhaps by the rare admission of pain. One looks at me - beseeching me to either help, or not interfere perhaps? I knew they were not flock.
Hawkenwolf is in my hand. In a short skip I skewer the one who gave me the look, the blade sliding through his ribcage and lifting him off the ground with the force of my thrust. I kick his still-squawking body off the blade and take aim at the other face I remember best. And then it is unrecognisable, as my bolt sings through the air and sinks its talon deep.
Kara cries out, but not in pain.
“They don’t know their minds Faie! Show mercy!”
Kara has knocked two men senseless with her hands, but still more hold her down. I hop closer, and cleave one off her back with a scything cut. I bring down the bladed stock in a stabbing motion to impale another through the shoulder, and my gauntlet crushes the neck of a man who thinks he approaches unseen, with a backhand swing.
Kara knocks down the last assailant and stands, deigning not to look at me. I approach her and observe a few men are breathing. She means for them to live.
“They are prey now.”
“No, Faie, they are victims. This is my fault, to think they could traverse Halcyar unharmed, as we can. Aperion has become fickle, and we must save them. Them, and all of Vanar.”
“Kara, you are flock. These men are weak. Let us continue alone if you must, and not leave them to harry our backs.”
I raise Hawkenwolf, ready to stab the closest breathing figure with my stock-blade, but Kara shoves her gauntleted fist at me and I deflect it in the same motion, but stumble.
“You are flock, Kara, but you do not command me.”
“And these men are my flock, Faie, whom I have damned in my hubris. Fly if you must, but I will not have you take more of their lives. Here they remain.”
“Fine. Then let us finish this hunt.”
We continue on, though something has changed. Perhaps this is what I have heard called ‘doubt’.
Pt 4: Nature, Nurtured.
23,402 - Month of Frostfire
‘If not this..then…but…’
Logic didn’t come easily to Faie. The life and decisions of a Wolfenhawk were the pure consequences of nature. Factoring humans into the equation, and factoring being a human into it, complicated matters for her somewhat.
Conversations didn’t seem to help. Nor her restless meditation. She knew she hated Aperion for robbing her of her previous life, but she also thought of it as a mother, and there were advantages to opposable thumbs and the existence of alcohol. The Vanar had welcomed her, clumsy and stinking. Well, they were clumsy and stinking too, but they were flock. Only, where she was nourished by the floes of Aperion’s might, the others seemed to wither and retreat.
They did not heed her — or First Talon Kara. They did not believe in flock, they migrated, they became weak. Kara tried to teach her strategy and prophecy, where Faie only pined after the hunt, the claw, the prey.
Then, Skrymir brought her a message, gripped fiercely in her claws. It took her the best part of an hour to read the few simples lines she recognised as Kara’s.
She let the parchment flutter to the snow, and ground her heel into it. That was not her path, of that at least she was sure. No path. Stay.
Skrymir went ranging. Faie let loose her hair. She donned her armour. Skrymir would return with a sighting of a pack — frostwolves of the foothills — Dryads of the groves — and she would follow. She found the alpha of each, defeated and communed with them through the language Aperion had taught her, that she’d barely realised she knew. They pledged their allegiance, would follow her when the time came. Sometimes she used them to harry the Vanar settlements, hastening their cowardly exodus.
Eventually, her territory become more like a dominion. It wasn’t long afterwards that even the spirits sought to challenge her — those souls bound to Aperion like hers, willingly or otherwise. The spirits of the original Hearth-Sisters cloaked themselves over giant Borean bears, or Frosthorn Rhynos, and bade Faie prove her allegiance to and worthiness of Aperion once and for all. Each time she felled one, Faie felt freer, a purity of purpose settled on her like hoarfrost. The spirits were not vanquished, but they were subdued, and now willingly followed.
Flock was more than people. It was what needed you, where you could lead the most. People had Kara. Kara was a rival, but never would she be prey. What she didn’t understand was there was more to the Whyte Mountains — more to protecting what was pure — than people.
And so Faie roamed, Queen of her new dominion, Ur-Alpha and patient disciple of Aperion. Times were changing, but nature — and her nature — could not be denied.
Real prey, at last. The Frostbone Nagas are far from their natural home and too close to ours. Though they make fine sport anywhere. It’s dusk, and I’m ready, have been ready from birth. Somewhere in this copse there are Hoarfrost-Wolves, desperate for a meal.
I’m almost salivating. I savour their smell. They carry wicked, barbed lances, their wide tentacles oddly suited to making good speed through the snow. My Warmaster pack around me are all grinning, some open-mouthed. I’m the youngest, but I’m no cub anymore. I howl our warcry and bound towards the edge of our cover.
I draw blood with my knife to better stir their hunger. I am the bait, and the hunter. It is only minutes, crouched in a dense tangle of Coldsnap bramble, before I smell them nearby. I re-curl my grip on the knife and howl.
The blessed adrenalin kicks in, numbing the phantom pain in the empty space below my right forearm. Knowing without looking my War-pack are close behind, I raise my arm almost in salute. Binding the pain and the blood-hunger to the prayer I once said over three dead bodies, I form the ice-blue apparition of a wolf’s head around the mangled stump of my wrist.
Three. Hungry and desperate but full of cunning, the more-so for knowing that this could well be their last chance. They circle and attack at once. The first leads slightly and so I roll and kill it quickly, my knife raking across the wolf’s gaunt belly and spilling the meagre contents. The other two are more coordinated. I shield my throat with my right hand while I slash the other with my knife.
The Nagas are within reach of wolf-fist. I can smell and taste blood in my throat. My consciousness fades and later, in the aftermath, I understand for the first time that this power will eventually claim its soul-debt.
Three pitiful bodies at my feet. The last alive, the Alpha, had the honour of shredding my fist to useless ribbons of tendon and viscera. I say the oath, bound by the blood of animal and man, and tilt my head at the moon. I let rip a rebel yell, one part pain, one part victory, one small part howl.
Kara Winterbane - Vanar General
Pt 1: A New Face
Aperion about to bloom— 23,402 — Month of Eerewhon
Kara trudged through the drifts, a high-altitude shortcut through the Winter Sleep Mountains. Crystal Wisps glittered in the sun, floating lazily. It was a route only the most experienced or foolhardy pathfinders would attempt. Kara was neither, she simply felt the mountain, knew the way, the ancient enchantments in her weapons Wintersleep and Polaris seeping into her reflexes and muscles.
It would be another half day’s hard hiking to reach Khonen’s Retreat, the most remote Vanar settlement, and the closest to the entropic slopes of Halcyar.
She saw something. There — at the fringe of a small copse of wind-blasted trees, branches depressed with the weight of near perma-winter. But standing tall nonetheless — like the remnants of the Vanar must Kara thought.
A lost fur-trapper, or some careless, adventurous fool. Kara guessed as she got closer, eyes straining through the dense snow-wind and mist. No single Vanar must stand alone, lost, anymore.
As Kara approached, the figure made to flee, but turned clumsily and fell. Kara shouted out, “Do not worry — I am Kara, called The Winterblade, descendent of Eurielle. I will guide you back.”
There was no reply. Kara covered the last few feet steadily, arm outstretched in a placating manner. The figure resolved into a slender woman, with terribly pale skin, and a long ponytail of hair so red it looked like a billowing flame. She was almost naked, save for some furs that looked suspiciously fresh draped around her shoulders. She crouched, pitifully, staring at Kara like a wild animal with a baleful glare that Kara thought had a wolfish, or perhaps hawkish, aspect.
And then she pounced. Kara would have laughed at the absurdity of the confrontation if she wasn’t so shocked. The figure was lithe, muscles wiry, but despite the ferocity of her manner she was ungainly. Kara batted her away like a distasteful thought.
It wasn’t how Kara usually made friends.
After a combination of brute force and gentle cajoling, Kara got the woman to accept some food, a few more furs, and to follow her to the settlement.
Once there, Kara found the woman some proper clothes, managed to extract a few grunts of appreciation, and introduced her to mead, which elicited a few more. She asked around the town, but no-one had any knowledge of who the fey looking girl was.
Kara led the defense of the settlement against marauding Wolfravens, took charge of the hunting forays, and the girl accompanied her. She was aloof but ferocious. Kara often had to stop the girl from following prey into the wilderness, usually by knocking the sense back into her.
Many folk were dubious about the strange young woman, but Kara enjoyed having a companion that didn’t ask or talk much, and embodied some of the wildness and purity so many of the Vanar had seemed to forget.
The woman seemed content living day to day, hunting, ranging. Kara suspected there was more to her. Her sword, Winterblade, warmed when the girl was near. Under the guise of teaching the girl proper swordplay, she confirmed it. She was surely some kind of Bloodborn. Could such a great potential Lieutenant for Kara’s new order of Vanar really have fallen into her lap so fortuitously?
So Kara kept her to hand. Soon, the time came to leave the settlement. She put the girl to a little test.
“Stay here girl, and help them hunt, and defend themselves. You’ll be left alone, but looked after.”
The girl stared back at her, deadpan.
“Or, come with me. And seek answers. I alone know the way.”
At this, the girl’s nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed fiercely.
“Winterblade is the key to finding Aperion. It is not a journey to be embarked upon lightly, but it is one I know how to trace.”
“Fey-born” the girl said. “I’ve heard you call me this. To others. It will be my name. Take me to answers.”
Kara grinned. “Ok Faie. Try to keep up.”
Pt 2: Recruitment Drive
23,402 — Month of Sienar, Day 20
Each cycle, when the brilliantine auroras above the Wintersleep stretched their incandescent tendrils east past Deladriss Peak, Kara began her recruitment drive. Each year her counts of true born Vanar faded. True Vanar, warriors willing to uphold the old ways, the belief — however tenuous — in Aperion the God Tree. The need to protect it against those who would so casually abuse its vast power.
The Vanar settlements of the Whyte Mountains and The Teeth were neither numerous, or populous. The Vanar in general were a waning race, as the disillusioned or decrepit made the still-treacherous journey down into the warmth of Celandine, or beyond.
Still she strove.
They called her mad, only mostly behind her back. They cursed Glasseye, the artefact handed down to her from Eurielle that Kara promised would reveal the path to Aperion when the Vanar were at their direst need.
Still she strove. For the ice-horns on her back grew and ached with a power and purpose she knew would reveal itself. Purpose she must be prepared for. Glasseye had started to whisper and cajole as she slept. Kara had never been a diligent student but the one teaching of Eurielle’s that the Hearth-Sisters had been the most insistent on beating into her thick skull was that to heed Aperion’s fickle call alone, or prematurely, meant death. And if Kara died, the Vanar would fall shortly after.
So she didn’t sleep. She travelled, with Faie.
“Tramping through this damn snow. What a waste. Pitiful. This trip. People. Never going to work. What’s the point?” Faie’s laboured breathing and footfall punctuated her thoughts. “I -”
“Should never have come? For if indeed that was on the tip of your sly, over-worked tongue, I would remind you that you were even more miserable in town.”
“I could fly these ranges quicker on my own. Carry your words swifter. Alone. More ground covered.”
“I’m sure you would curry favour most eloquently among the townships and settlements Faie.
“Yet you. Don’t even believe many will heed. Words. Strength.”
“I can but show them both.”
“Show them your long talon. Unsheathed. That speaks loudest.”
The pair came to the settlement, and much as in previous years, Kara was welcomed, but her counsel less so, and Faie — growling, brooding, sullen — the least of all.
“Let me be your page, Kara! I won’t slow you down, I promise!” Young boys and worryingly young seeming men pleaded. “Together we will chase glory!”
“Chase it to where, exactly?” Kara would respond.
“Won’t you stay Kara? We need your strength, your inspiration — we’ll provide everything you need-”
“I travel not to stop travelling” Kara would regretfully reply. “Your strength is as a community. Hone it without me. I ask only that you nominate your youngest, most promising warriors.”
And time and time again she would hear excuses: “We remember Eurielle, and we trust her blood is strong with you. But the Vanar are no longer united, so why should we send away our best and brightest?”
“Because the time will soon come where fractures become a schism, into which we may all be lost.” Kara would say. Increasingly, it was said under her breath as she turned away in frustration.
But now she had Faie. Faie, whose Bloodborn powers were beginning to manifest at last, proving Kara was not just a last gasp of legacy. New blood had come, and it must be heeded, if much more was to avoid being spilled.
Pt 3: A Parting
23,402 — Month of Ashwood — Day 12
As the final, most remote settlement slid out of memory, over the ridge and into sight, Faie pulled up.
“Kara. There. There?”
“No Faie, there are no more villages beyond the one in front of us.”
Faie’s preternatural eyesight had alighted on a the briefest of silhouettes against the sparse scrub and blasted trees on the slopes beyond.
“Wrong. Your feeble human eyes just haven’t seen beyond what your mind expects.”
“Then what do your peculiarly superior eyes discern? I will not be delayed by another of your barbaric little snowchaser hunts.”
“You are one who so much wants to visit these squalid ground-roosts.”
Kara turned back towards the very visible, definitely real frontier settlement at the plateau close above, and began walking. The maybe-village could wait until morning’s first light, giving her time to carry on or double back depending on the veracity of Faie’s claim and the state of things there.
“And…” Faie continued with a wry smile, “I hear screams.”
Kara’s gaze lingered on Skrymyr’s Endurance even as her body turned to march with urgency towards Faie’s promise.
Screams and smoke washed over Kara as swiftly as the darkness, turning what should have been a sparse but pleasant sunset arrival at Skrymyr’s into a frigid nightmare. A frostwolf prowling around the village’s outskirts — a low dirt and ice wall — picked up their scent and bounded towards them. Usually averse to humans, the wolf took a running lunge towards Kara, fangs borrowing the light and colour of the blood moon.
Without moving a step, she pivoted and slammed her gauntleted fist into the beast’s flank. The momentum carried it sideways, missing Kara completely, to land at Faie’s feet. The lithe young woman with the red hair looked askance but not without sympathy at the beast, then beseechingly at Kara.
“Something wrong with that wolf. They should be human-shy. The whites of her eyes are marbled strangely.” She said.
“Not anymore.” Kara replied, arching her crystal-blue sword down, through wolf and snow with equal non-resistance. Faie growled audibly.
In the gloom, the snow around the shaggy beast appeared to turn a steaming black.
“We go. If these huma-“ Kara interrupted her a fierce stare, “ — these Vanar cannot fend for themselves, they are surely not strong enough for your cause.”
“No. We shall intervene and save what we can. The Vanar are a barrier, we cannot permit any more links to fail.”
“I will stay here then. Out of your clumsy way. Free of your ugly barrier. ”
“Do what you will, Faie-born. Just remember, if you’re outside the barrier, you’re prey.”
Kara strode towards the heart of the chaos. What was going on here? Vanar settlements were constantly harried by various daring beasts, but they wouldn’t cause wanton destruction like this even if the defence did fail.
Dead Vanar, everywhere. Kara ran through the murk, shouting out for any survivors. A few desperate cries returned. She found a small huddle of Vanar back-to-back in a crude village plaza, desperately repelling a crush of crystal cloakers and frostwolves. Without hesitating to puzzle, Kara slashed her way through to the group. Her ice-horns amplified the moonlight and the remaining warriors were basked in her inspiring presence, surging back into the fight with a new vigour.
It bought Kara the time she needed. She concentrated all of her power into the diamond blade of Solstice and slammed it into the ground. A shockwave blasted over the remaining beasts and humans who collapsed alike. Breathing.
Kara staggered to one knee. When she rose, Winterblade in hand to finish off the beasts, Faie appeared at her side.
“Mercy on the beast-kin.”
Kara hesitated, but there was something in Faie’s eyes she hadn’t seen before.
“Strange.” Faie observed.
Kara looked around by the light of the moon and her still-glowing ice-horns. The air was dense with dust. No — not dust — it felt more like pollen.
“Aperion”. Kara gasped. “He’s blooming. And being this close to his power will drive the beasts mad.”
“Fine. But we take the surviving warriors with us to Aperion. They will be the witnesses we need to finally convince the rest of the Vanar. To create a true Vanar nation again.”
Pt 4: A Timely Visitation
23,402 — Month of Nagra — Day 6
Kara knocked back the tumbler of Frostfire — her third in as many minutes.
“Another, O far-child of Eurielle?”
“Make it two this time Gunnar. And if you give me anymore honorifics, one or both of them are going to end up on you.”
“That’s a deal Kara. Coming right up. Big girl like you feeling the cold tonight?”
“Something like that. No…there’s a feeling in my bones that I can’t shift, but I dare say this Frostfire isn’t likely to cure it.”
Kara spoke in hushed tones, and the collective creak of necks craning to catch her words or meaning was almost audible. Though folk had long learned to try and buy her a drink, or sit and make reverent small talk was like to result in something very definitely audible indeed.
After plenty more Frostfire had been extinguished, Kara finally felt some semblance of peace. In fact, her persistence had paid off, and she even felt light-headed. She rested her head on the bar, enjoying the bliss of letting her guard down for the briefest moment.
She felt the icy blast of the wind before she heard the door slam shut, but it seemed like a long time before the screams, screeching of chairs and tramping of feet
There was a figure at the door quite unlike anything she’d seen with her own eyes. In her mind’s eye yes, or in the tales of her Hearth-mothers. Even in the illustrated history books so rarely found this deep into the Halcyar range. Now, with her own eyes, she beheld a Magmar Aspect, massive in stature and exotically fierce of countenance. Kara stood slowly, a little woozy, and unhitched Solstice, hefting the pendulous, chained weapon slowly. She stepped away from the bar.
The Magmar — titanic forearms visible even underneath a dense draping of furs, took a matching step forward that caused the tavern’s tables to reverberate.
“You bloody Vanar and your bloody freezing Mountain, I had to trek arduously and interminably to finally and woefully reach this godforsaken speck on the teeth of the world — ”
Kara set her weight, ready to charge.
“ — and you’re not even going to courteously and hospitably offer me a bloody *drink*? By my damned horns and a Makantor’s arse I could do bloody murder to a steaming vessel of whatever undoubtedly ascetic brew you bloody paleskins claim passes — ”
“Who are you? Why have you come here, babbling and dressed so ridiculously?”
Instantly, the hulking figure appeared behind Kara, resting amiably on the stool she’d so recently vacated. She spun around, using the sudden momentum to bring Solstice in a brutal arc down — but the figure waved the blade away with his hand, as though swatting a gnat.
“I am the one known in your inelegant tongue as Vaath. And you can put that bloody thing down, I mean you no harm Vanar woman-thing, though I would love to trade fists on another occasion, that is, were we not so compelled…but I digress…”
Kara stood motionless as Vaath prattled on, cursing and gesticulating wildly when he struggled to wrap his almost serpentine tongue around one of her people’s more nuanced syllables. Was this really happening?
“…of course” Vaath seemed to bring his attention roughly back to Kara, “None of this is really happening. You don’t sleep much do you?”
“No. For good reason.”
“Yes well, fine, but it made this whole thing bloody difficult for me. Dreamweaving was never my forte.
“Just bloody be quiet for a while girl, this isn’t easy for me. You know Aperion has bloomed. And that people will come for it.”
“What did I tell you about bloody being quiet and letting your elder speak? The guilt and doubt in your mind is more transparent than Y’Kiri glass. Sacrifices will have to be made if you’re to rally the Vanar. For the Age of Glory to come to fruition — excuse the pun — people must be protected from Aperion just as much as Aperion is protected from people.
“So tell me this, mysterious Magmaari. How? When nothing I’ve tried for years has worked?”
At this, Vaath stood and gently (relative to his hulking mass) headbutted Kara.
“That’s a respectful greeting among my kind.” He said, as Kara lay face down on the floor. “Just remember that.”
Kara opened her eyes and felt strong hands — but not strong enough, or clawed- picking her up from the tavern floor.
“Kara? Not like you to lose your head. Not that I ever want to tell you what to do but — might be time you stopped trying to warm yourself up.”
Kara blinked, taking in the bustling tavern, all eyes on her.
“It starts here. The Vanar resurgence. It has to. And you will all be able to say you were the first to join me. And anyone doubtful will be the first to say Kara drank you under the snow!”
The cheers and foot-stamping went on long into the night.
Mark of Solitude
Rhane had never found solace in duty. His Vanar tribes-folk endlessly chided him about their ancestral mission and the importance of their ascetic way of life. Rhane had pride, but he couldn’t take it in anything expected of him, least of all battle.
A time of hardship came, and Rhane looked for belonging in the one place he could make his own mark.
From the clifftop village, the dense Wyldewood leagues below was a disturbing, out of place contrast, like seeing a patch of moss thriving on ice. Firewood could be harvested much closer, and the allure of hunting some rare prize paled in the light of a phosphorescent glow, and the unidentified shrieks of the forest after dark.
At first, he skirted the edges, collecting bark samples and heeding the uncanny bird calls. Back at the village he found himself attending to chores with renewed vigour. He grew more curious, marked himself a shallow path into the woods, and saw all manner of lush flora and beguiling fauna. At home, he grew bold in arms-training, besting his elders and receding even more from their suspicion and mistrust.
Before long, he allowed himself to linger just inside the edge of the forest after nightfall. The frigid wind was softened by the thick trees, and pine-smell delighted his nostrils. He smiled his first smile in recent memory.
Raiders came to the village, and there was skirmish. Rhane desperately wished for peace but equally, he felt every fibre of his being taut with a newfound ferocity. It was all a wash of colour and overbearing smells, and his kin told him as he came to his senses that he had killed a score of the raiders, and he remembered not, but the thought of it drove him wailing back to the Wyldewood of fey lights.
Hands still bloody, he dove for the heart of the Wydewood and washed his hands in a stream there. He saw in his reflection a mane of hair, bulging, veined muscles, an elongated snout, and obsidian eyes. Breathless, he checked his hands — they were still hands — and his head. Human, still, but what was this scar, seemingly in the shape of a rune, criss-crossing his face?
The village seemed like a distant memory now. At last, Rhane felt a glee in him, and he laughed and danced with the fireflies as lithe, befurred beasts observed him from the canopy, screeching in unison.
Wind Sister Maia: Maia
And the sky broke and from its depths fell seven stars. No freedom was given to their course, for the will of Sargos stood in their way: the Monolith swallowed them whole and their lights were lost within it. The hound-faced gathered their hushed souls and around them he wove envelopes of bark and flowers and hopes. Soon the coffins became cocoons. Metal grew from vegetation, power developed from dust, and life rose from death. From the first casket emerged a woman, and she named herself Maia.
through the will of the weeping tree maia had been blessed with the wish of rebirth. she helped her sisters through birth but abandoned the seventh one. time was running out and her own life was thinning down. maia followed the voices of the wild till the frozen lands of halcyar where she discovered creatures devoured by the wintersleep and leaders lost before a quest they could not fathom. the first star stood in the snow calling for the help of eyos. it didn’t come. the weeping tree was but a token of what the great one had been. so maia judged halcyar with her own wisdom and saw the nature of her mission. deep within halcyar was a dormant god who needed awakening. courageous maia. anxious maia. the only sister entrusted with a choice. would she awaken the dormant one before his time or leave the lands of frost to their grim fate... truth is she could only choose the path of change. one more step towards the demise.
thre seven seven five four thre four thre n two thre five thre thre thre zero e
the goddess dwells and her name carries triplets
that abundant symbol is here for you to take.
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You enter my study, bristling with ambition and promise. You’re so young, but when you smile it’s with the jaded surety of a veteran commander. When I welcome you formally, you laugh like a delighted little girl at her first courtly ball.
You stub your toe on a low stool whilst admiring the bookshelves behind me and you grunt. For an instant your composure slips and you look feral, as though you’re about to tear the stool to pieces for daring affront you. I barely suppress my mirth.
You’re calm, but I sense in you the energy to remake the world. You ask for a naming, as I knew you would, and though you’re a lowly acolyte of the School of Harmony, I am honoured. You sit, and I lay out the cards — seven, one for each school — face down in a fan. I still my breathing and draw on the fey magic of the aether. Then, I am astral-phasing, stepping lightly through near future micro-realities that could or will be.
Here: a towering inferno tears through the Seventh Sanctum. There: a lute transfixes Kaero’s nobility with the most heavenly, but sad harmonies. Now-that-was: the fizz and spark of one mage-blade against another, Aestari against Aestari on the balconies of the Grand Trianon. Then-that-will-be: the shade of the Weeping Tree dissipates as the branches curl and die, its great star-magic lost.
And always, you. Terrible, brilliant, at the centre of the image, of the world, of the time.
I come to from my trance. It has been but a few seconds wait for you. One card levitates briefly and turns itself face-up.
“The Deladriss.” I say. “One doomed to the utmost greatness.”
“Kaon Deladriss” you say, turning the names over in your mouth like a fine wine. “Rolls off the tongue — think I’ll keep it.”
Bloodshard Golem: The Blood Collector
The hardest part isn’t keeping the extractor clean, or asking a helper to check the tank capacity. It isn’t slogging through the battlefield, each leg fitted with pistons to pull pressure. It isn’t even swatting away carrion birds trying to protect their next week of meals.
The hardest part of collecting blood is when the reservoirs are still alive.
The point strikes home, and I’m digging deep at the end of a long day. All the good stuff pools at the bottom of the corpse, see, so even if you’re tired, even if you’re a reeking, doddering mess of still-walking flesh, you have to push hard to make sure the proboscis gets deep enough. After that it’s a hard lean on the handle, maybe a few half-hearted pumps of one leg to keep it going.
The day isn’t over though. Once everybody is full up, we have the long walk back to port. After that, we have to drain out, one tank at a time, to the big vat on the ship. And even after that, we have to set sail to meet with the metallurgists.
I’m shaken out of my reverie by a hand on my wrist. The grip is weak, the fingers barely curled around the cuff of my work gloves, but it’s unmistakable. My eyes are already squeezed shut, my own hands already tight and pale on the handle, knuckles showing through thin skin.
Back to the work, back to the process. The metallurgists will look over the product, tapping ladles against the hard layer congealed on top, crumbling residue from the vat lid. They say they’re looking for spirit, for material worthy of living again.
A brush of friction across my wrist is enough to tell me my work is done. My helper taps the tin lid of my tank to tell me it’s full, and I turn automatically, pulling stained steel from the body. From the reservoir. It’s hard work, but I’m a professional.
Brightmoss Golem: Life's Cycle
The forest is a tree. The snowmelt trickles down into streams, and the streams gather close into winding rivers flowing sustenance down through the valley. The branches reach outwards, sowing seeds to grow anew.
In spring and summer, the forest flowers and blooms, each bud unfurling, stretching to intertwine with others, to grow together. Even in the layer of lifeless leaf and un-sprouted seed at the forest’s floor, even in the canyons and crevices of the tree’s bark, animals forage and sprawl in their shelter and shade.
Come winter, outside life is extinguished. The fallen foliage and desiccated fruit mildew on the fallow forest floor. Where once the branches rustled in the wind, now they rattle and break, torn and tired beneath snowy burdens.
Bones are food in the roots, quiet quiescence is fury unfettered by mercy. They are born from the dead. They grow from the dead. They sow the dead.
Crimson Oculus: The Growing Carapace
Curled in her narrow bolt-hole, she woke to rustles and chitters.
There, over the bars of a grate, a rat ran circles around a snail no larger than her thumbnail. As she watched, the snail puffed up, its shell straining under the force of flesh beneath. The shell snapped, falling into pieces, but the flesh ballooned out and out until the snail, no, she recognized it now, the Oculus, was large enough to sit in her palm. She froze, limbs pulled back from the battle to come.
A quick tendril snapped out from where it had been wrapped around the soft scarlet body beneath, snagging the rat's tail before it disappeared down a drain. The two sinuous ropes twined together, then tightened as the Oculus pulled its prey closer and closer. It enveloped the rat, its soft body bulging as legs scrabbled for purchase against smooth skin. The whole sphere stretched and relaxed, cheeks pulled against food as a jaw works up and down.
Its tongue wrapped about itself again — it began to draw back from one corner, poking each bone out until it slipped slickly to the floor. She watched, transfixed, as the skull pushed up through the skin, stained with juices too weak to break it down, then set itself above the maw like a crown.
Slowly, she began to climb out. Right hand snug in a drain thick with moss. Left hand around a pipe. She began to pull herself up, toes questing for openings. A soft push took her from her feet. She snapped her eyes shut, wishing, praying. The tendril wrapped around her ankle, warm and wet.
Crossbones: Attack from Afar
The dead do not change. Their spirits haunt no halls. As corpses they are the thousand faces of a familiar friend, the chill leaking in through the seams of the world. The birds tear through their eyes, the worms dig through their hearts, and the cold drips deep into their bones.
Though the body breaks down, though the world passes by, though the very surroundings turn against them, they cannot be anything but what they are. The past is a graveyard, littered with mistakes and eventualities, but no difference is made.
No longer. The soil is soft in this cemetery, the gravestones sleep beneath moss veils. The archers pick through the maze, confident of their safety in the shadow of the foot soldiers ahead. The last archer’s ankle sinks into the loam, tight in the grip of the earth.
He shakes it free, rising on the balls of his foot to push against the hard surface beneath. Hobnails in his boot score two lines, once when he steps up and out, and once when he scuffs over the hole. Where the lines cross, they dig deep enough to cut through the braincase.
The archers walk on. That night, they sleep beneath the stars. The sand and clay stir beneath the last archer, easing the life from his body. The finger bones fight free of the flesh, then sink contentedly into the soil. The wrists wriggle out, then the elbow. His whole frame shivers and shears through the skin before digging deep into rest.
At first light, a bird broods over a strip of sinew.
Golem Metallurgist: Different from the Living
I am an artisan in bone, stone, ice, and steel. Saws grind keening through joints, sheets of metal ring through the workshop, the ticking rhythms of ice picks set time, and I move in tempo. The rhythm of a factory, weaving staccato strikes and shifts of material, shaping limbs and spikes and skulls.
At the center of the workspace, at the center of my body: the sphere. The globe. The sun. My tangible soul. When my brother set it in my chest, I burned with it, burned with desire to move and forge, to create. I didn’t see it sink through solid steel, didn’t see my body ripple inwards, didn’t see its blank face ignite to life. Not then.
A thousand times since, a thousand thousands, my gauntlets still shake each time I stand over the prone figure of base material. We do not breathe. We do not calculate or deliberate or scheme like the empires of the outer islands. Their minds are hidden, their intentions twisted and complex.
We have nothing to hide. Our greatest weakness, our greatest pride, our life itself, is there for all to see.
Golem Vanquisher: To Be Seen Once Again
Fingers dig deep in clay, pulling plastic shapes in liquid earth. Hands cup cores and scrape wounds, wounds that would heal if only they were given time to settle and smooth.
Future flesh set in wooden forms by unfeeling implements, shaped by unsympathetic tools, fired in unseeing kilns. Born of indifference. Strong, firm, and lifeless, supporting walls and roofs, holding heat and blocking wind.
They are broken and discarded, forgotten derelicts, but also found anew. No longer a background, no longer a support and foundation. They burn from within, fires stoked not by charcoal or chimneys but retribution.
They are the gauntlet of an uncaring earth, the mighty fist that grabs the collar of the enemy, and pulls it to stand eye-to-eye.
Hailstone Golem: Regret in Ice
The snow melted the land, smothered its shapes, and raised its peaks. The mist coalesced into dew in daylight, but froze at dusk to a crust of ice.
Each pace cut and crunched its way through the surface to sink into packed snow beneath, leaving an oval of darkness sheltered from the moon’s milky shadow. Smaller footsteps, quicker crunches. The Chronicler stopped to look over the landscape from the mountain top.
He leaned on the ice and felt it give away beneath his foot. His knee bent to catch the weight, sinking even deeper. Next moment, he was tumbling in a deluge of powder, arms outstretched, reaching for any solid surface.
An ungloved hand caught a sharp shard and tore like dead skin, living flesh rent and blood stanched by the freezing air, holding fast to the surface. He stuck as a stake in the tide, waiting for the wave to pass him by. When it cleared, he hung by one hand on a frozen waterfall.
His fingers clasped the corner of a step in the icy stairway of ripples and spikes. His other hand, already sluggish and pale, scrabbled at the cliff. Thick fingers found no purchase. Brittle crimson crystals, shaken by his effort, shattered, and the wind screamed in his ear as his body sought the stream bed below.
Four fingers remained as an outline in red with ice as its canvas, frost as its tomb, moon as its soul.
The Azure Mountains encircle most of Aestari, thrown up like ripples that couldn’t escape into the sea by the impact of the Star Seed that seeded life on the continent. At their southernmost tip they almost graze the the foreboding and bleak shores of Shar, where the cruel Abyssian dwell deep in subterranean chasms. There the Mystics hold their vigil.
There is a great flood-plain that runs to that coast of Shar that falls into the shadow of the Azure Mountains called the Blighted Lands. The run-off of the Abyssian’s sinister energy and unnatural rituals emerge and collect there as a crackling miasma. It is this the Mystics hold their vigil against.
The miasma corrupts. It burns, and wafts over the narrow straight, borne along by the uncaring winds of fate with a terrible impetus. The Mystics don’t remember how they ended up living in the low, tight cave systems and steep, dense patches of alpine forest. They don’t need to — their existence is spartan, and pure. As the Miasma periodically washes like an incoming tide against their mountain home, they periodically cleanse one another of its foul influence, and the intricate runes etched into bark, stone and the very skin beneath their long sleeves form a barrier many miles across, that helps to dissipate those dark exhausts. This is why their vigil holds.
But if it failed, what would happen? Rumour among the oldest living Mystics tell of a previously bounteous mountain valley where a particularly dense front of Miasma collected, and how only bubbling ash, dark vampiric moss, and the pitted bones of the Mystic clan that sacrificed themselves there to hold back the tide from threatening the interior. This is why their vigil is eternal.
Mogwai: The Great Wide Open
Two summers had passed inside the Monolith. The Weeping Tree continued its silence.
'Still no wish.' L’Kian sighed. Mogwai’s shoulders hunched in dismay.
She stood in the interior courtyard of the Monolith, scanning the surrounding trees soaring hundreds of feet overhead, supported by monolithic columns of white stone.
'You did save my life.' She brushed her silver hair. 'Follow me.'
She took a breath, leapt into the foliage, and vaulted over the branches as if on an invisible stairway. Mogwai readjusted his halberd across his ceramic armor as he hopped on a supple branch, balancing on the balls of his feet, then barreled through the air, bracing for impact against the chamber wall. His fingers gripped vines and stone as he gazed up. She was already a red speck in the distance. Faster than him, as always.
By the time Mogwai caught up with her at the top of the walls, the courtyard below was a blur of dizzying green.
'Never before,' he panted, 'Have I been this high up.'
'There’s something else you need to see.'
She gestured skyward. Mogwai hauled himself up the ledge, and a strong gale whipped across his body. Eroded by the constant wind, the wide walls and ancient structures ended in ripples of weathered stones that looked like polished ivory. Red glowing petals swirled with the circular air currents, their dance inviting him up, up, up, until he found himself perched on top of the highest platform. He smiled behind his mask.
The outside spread below him.
On the outer edges of the gleaming white walls was a city within a city suspended above a yawning chasm. In the distance, the rolling hills and crimson forests transformed into mountains, their peaks lost in the clouds. The air tasted of snow.
Then he felt her hand on his shoulder and heard her voice into his ear.
His eyes flooded with tears as she traced her fingers in the air, illuminating the six glowing characters of a single word. The wind strengthened and whistled, the earth shook and rumbled, and the sun shone brighter and warmer.
'This is my true name, Mogwai' she said. 'It’s yours to carry.'
'Travel where I can’t go, witness what I can’t see, and find what I can’t seek. I trust you, love.'
And she pushed him over the edge.
Skyrock Golem: The Last Engraving
No world outside the next handhold.
Packed heavy with supplies, the believers climbed Skyrock Mountain. They etched notes on the narrow ledges, carving warnings or encouragement for future pilgrims. The ascent was pure physicality, asceticism in movement and action.
The nearer the peak, the fewer the cuts in the stone, the greater the reverence. The peak was shorn flat, the stone was scrubbed smooth. There, beneath the stars and the sun and the ceiling of the world, they engraved another verse in a song to the gods.
But the stream of seekers ran dry. The ascent was too perilous, the fatalities too numerous. The faith waned, and the faithful withered and died. Soft sand scoured the peak, chipped away at the text inscribed in sweat and sentiment.
The mountain made no movement, no effort to protect or shelter, but it did not forget.
Stormmetal Golem: Spirit of Industry
Ache to break down, to tear apart, arms ending in hammers and pickaxes. The miners revel in the stroke of metal against metal, the test of strength and endurance.
At first they dig, separating dust from dirt and dirt from ore, looking for glints of gleaming glass within the morass, floating debris and sifting sands with mountain streams turned to tons of sludge and mud. They wade through troughs seeking forgotten treasures. Unseen holes make missteps, filling lungs with heavy silt.
The pit is an empty socket ringed with tattered peaks, lid torn off in a frenzy of industry and blood long drained away. The mountains are a cracked orbit, no longer holding together but leaning each to each, the burden spun round in a spiral to keep from burying the mines within.
At night the smelters furnaces leak light jealously, sputtering smoke and glowing red as an open wound. Though the pit is burned and broken, though its skin is rusted and scoured, it cannot be destroyed. Each injury is an excavation. Each hollow is a chamber in its heart.
The swarms of Inxikrah crashed against Consular Draug’s Vermillion Legion like a raging torrent. They were unnatural hybrid forms: serpents with the legs of a plains beast; humanoids with transparent skin; and worse yet from the depths of Styxus.
The sun began to set over Monolith, finally completed after seventeen centuries, and bathed the battlefield in a sickly red glow. Equally crimson swords hacked in futility at the pale, twisted onslaught.
At the very heart of the battle was Consular Draug himself, surrounded by his last, elite cadre of Sworn Defenders. Their giant tower shields locked together to form an almost impenetrable circle, bodies piled up against them. Draug himself was assailed by magics from all around, and though his own was immense, the weight of shadowy power began to wear on his frail body. The Sworn Defenders felt his pain as their own through their binding oaths, and in desperation their vigour was unending.
A winged serpent slipped over the defensive line and dived towards Draug. Consumed and frenzied by power, he snatched it from the air and roared with hysterical laughter as he bit deep into the scaly flesh, in mockery of the consuming horde that assailed his finest hour and sought to deny him the true power residing within the Monolith. “My Sworn!” He bellowed. “If any of you still stand when I fall, your spirits will rot in the abyss!”
The indomitable Sworn proved so meddlesome that Warlord Aq’Toth was forced to slither to the front lines. He gurgled The Name of Shadow and razored points of void erupted beneath them, staggering and breaching their wall. Leaving them to be devoured, he snaked up to Draug, who was channeling the last of his energy. Aq’Toth snuffed it out with a wave, and ate Draug then, in such a way he remained conscious until the last.
Sworn Sister L'Kian: L'Kian
The warmth of her body was long gone, and the cold itself had become so natural that she couldn't feel it anymore - she was drifting. Her shredded breathing was the only sound that existed. Endless, profound darkness. She struggled to stay awake. Everything came down to this: if she slept, it was over.
Verily, the cold was somehow comforting. Every bit of it was a blanket that covered her from head to toe, a systematic presence that embraced her and kept her company. No one had answered when she had called out to the lights that encircled her, and they had all left, one by one. The lights gone, cold had risen and her worry had grown.
Her eyes were closed. She jolted them open and waved her arms. There was no up and no down, no landmarks, but she still tried to move. Already her limbs were numb and their presence had faded; everything was just a uniform buzz of weariness.
Something passed by her, swirling, tempting. Her heart sank. It was leaving. No, she wouldn't remain helpless! Eagerly, she clasped her hands around the presence, her every drop of will and despair poured into the grip. She felt a tug, a shake, and she was pulled up.
A garden. The sunlight. Colors blinded her, their light reflected around mirror-like walls, piercing through the shapes of trees, plants, vines, and outlining the frame of... someone? Oddly enough, she was more dazzled by the heat of the hand she held than anything else. Uncontrolled laughter escaped from her mouth and tears started to flow.
'Now you are like the rainbow, all sun and rain' said the someone, his voice soft and soothing. The man was armored in wood and golden metal, muscular, yet hunched like an elder or an animal. Even his face was hidden behind a dog mask. 'Release my hand, can you?' he asked.
Perhaps it was because of the cold, perhaps because of the relief, her frozen fingers wouldn't obey. Lightly, he pried them open; then he asked who she was.
At last she looked around her. Yes, they were in a garden, flourishing with life and pigments. Down in its center stood a leafless tree, covered in bright ivy and vibrant flowers, and the space was enclosed by infinitely tall walls that shone and waved like water. Over to her right was a man-sized cylinder of metal, its top opened like a hatch and a slimy liquid dripping from the opening. The thing was intriguing and she rested against it. Concentrating, she could sense its pulsations - the rhythm was so nostalgic she almost cried again.
'Oh, I just am,' she finally answered.
Original Crypto-Puzzle Below (Solved 6/28/16):
The first letters of each sentence made out the solution email address.
When the first of the itinerant Aestari left their ancient homeland in search of a wondrous new life, they found a continent of extremes. Unforgiving marsh-jungles, lifeless mountains, brutal deserts and unseen predators at every turn. At the centre of the land they called Xenkai however, was an anomaly, a miracle, an antithesis.
The Twilight Spring — an unfathomable meeting of dusk and dawn, light and dark, life, death, blood, earth, animal and human. And it spoke. Or more accurately, its ambassadors did: mostly humanoid and with faces that uncannily resembled (or actually were) masks, fey and transient, they spoke to the explorers of Xenkai in a vexing mess of riddles and nonsense. The most diligent of the Songhai forefathers were not deterred, and persevered in prideful pursuit of further power.
“Butterflies” the fey figure croaked, standing in the swirling entropic mists. “Wherefore have you always been going?”
“We come from Aestari, looking for a new wisdom, and power, and home.” the wisest explorer named Nagisi replied. “Do you talk at the moon with only one eye open?” the masked figure replied in a whisper so soft it shouldn’t have been understandable. “We seek far-off knowledge yes, and I know we are still half blind.” “Amusing — that’s not what you said last time.” Confused, Nagisi asked: “What is the nature of this place?” “Two curves that support each other.” Believing himself to already understand, Nagisi replied: “Ah-ha! A never-ending space between two points?”
Without warning, the figure raised his short staff and a torrent of unstable magical energy blasted into Nagisi. After the shock receded, Nagisi realised he was unhurt, but two of the companions by his side had not fared as well. One lay in a pile of ashes the shape of a phoenix, whilst the other waddled languidly away to chew on the nearest crop of bamboo, diminutive and furry. Nagisi’s mind began to crackle with the energies of a spell he had never learned, yet had and would always know.
The figure was fading from existence, and its bizarre voice appeared in Nagisi’s mind. “There is a key to this place. If you will find it, you can’t find it. Its power is greatest once spent. Lose the answer and return.”
As the figure Nagisi had already begin to think of as a prophet more than an ambassador faded, his silhouette twisted into that of a dragon doubling back on itself. The other philosopher-warriors looked to Nagisi for guidance. The words sprung unbidden to his throat.
“There is power here to change us, and yet connect us to our ancestors. Whatever the cost, we must harness the spring.”
The small Pando that used to be his comrade munched away, happily.