The woman walked slowly into the wayward village, barely noticing the fearful stares from the children and the cautious glances from the adults. Had the woman been looking at the people in the village, she would have seen their alarmed expressions as she passed by the only inn, The Groveling Jackal. The woman did not see the villagersâ€¦ but she could feel them, their stares, their fear. The woman had a magical sword. And she had scars that proved her knowledge of its use.
The woman slowed as she approached the cascading fountain in the makeshift town square. Her booted feet shuffled dust across the badly cobbled street as her feet stopped before the ancient, crumbling stone formation. The cool water made the summer heat nearly bearable for those who idled by the perpetually flowing wonder from a bygone age. Idlers moved away, however, as the woman stared into the cool depths of the water. Small trinkets dropped by children and travelers alike littered the bottom of the deep pool, a full manâ€™s height down beneath the ground. The rippling water reflected poorly, and the woman did not see herself. She did not see herself until she looked up at the fountainâ€™s centerpiece. The stonework was sculpted to represent an eight-foot, armored woman with a magnificent crown and a spear gracefully shouldered and rising 20 feet into the air. The woman at the fountain did not, of course, resemble the statueâ€™s icon, but she recognized herself nonetheless.
The woman slumped over into the fountain and her blood shortly colored the water near her red. The blood flowed freely as her will no longer held it in her veins for her will fled back to that bygone era as her consciousness slipped. The villagers stood aghast at the warrior dying in their town square. Who was she? What had mortally injured her? More importantly, was it coming for the village of Dramden even now? A bold boy threw a small rock at the woman, but it clattered against her skin with the sound of stone against something harder. At that sound, the boyâ€™s nerve fled and he raced off laughing and crying at the same time.
The youthful herb-lady left her booth on the shady side of the town square that also served as the marketplace. She cautiously approached the warrior whose face and arms were submerged. With a fearful look she grabbed the womanâ€™s shoulder and pulled her from the water. The warrior fell back and lay prone upon the cobblestone street. Blood spilled from a fist-sized hole in her chest.
â€œDonâ€™t touch her Anala!â€ cried a young man from across the square, â€œSheâ€™s dangerous!â€
â€œLook Pran! Her blood is red just like yours and mine. Sheâ€™s no demon,â€ Anala managed with only a slight catch in her voice. The man turned back to his wares for a traveler was actually looking over his silverwork. Anala gathered the woman up into her arms, for the woman was short and of small frameâ€”clearly a foreigner to these lands of large-bodied men and women. The womanâ€™s face was clearly lighter and of different color than the natives own ebony skin but was currently much paler than it probably should be due to blood loss. With a look, Anala asked one of her friendâ€™s sisters to watch her wares while she attended to the stranger.
Back in her house, Anala laid the strange warrior upon the braided mat that served as Analaâ€™s own bed. It was a small house, but it was a house. Her parents had left it to her when theyâ€¦ were eaten by the Fair Folk. Anala had already applied herbs to the grievous wound in the womanâ€™s chest; herbs that would stop the bleeding.
Anala carefully removed the light armor from the small woman. It was crude steel, barely better than iron. Anala thought she recognized it as the armor worn by the soldiers of a local lord who might have legal claim over Dramden. It did not fit the warrior well, and Anala thought it might be stolen. She clucked her tongue. The sword was clearly magical. The warrior still clutched it in her hand. Or maybe the sword held on to her hand. The hilt and pommel was some intricate work of gold and diamond; clearly a pattern of nobility. The blade was thin and straight and seemed made of soft gold. Anala knew better than to probe the weapon closely.
Once free of the armor and shabby travelerâ€™s clothes beneath it, Anala could get a better look at the injury. It was quite gruesome. The womanâ€™s ribs and shredded innards showed through, but still the woman breathed. Anala could observe the heart still beating. Much discomfited, Anala practiced her lore of herbs upon the patient. Within an hour, the house was filled with the pungent odors of Analaâ€™s craft. The woman should have been dead long before she walked into town, but Anala was pleased that the color had improved.
â€œWhat happened?â€ asked Pran the next day.
â€œNothing,â€ Anala replied tersely.
â€œNothing?â€ he insisted. She walked away from him. â€œCâ€™mon, Analaâ€¦ were there sounds? Lights? Odd tingly feelings?â€ She merely shook her head. He let her be as she went about setting up her shop.
The day wore on, the summerâ€™s heat scorching the earth and people walking it. It was a busy day; an entire caravan lodged in mid-morning at The Groveling Jackal to escape the heat and dry trail dust. Anala made a good trade with her cooling poultices. Pran made a slightly worse trade with his silverwork goods.
The afternoon rest-time in the shade of the buildings and near the soothing lull of the eternal fountain brought about renewed conversation about the most interesting things going on in Dramden. The fire-dragon cough going around town. The caravan. And the woman.
Anala did not know how to answer the queries. The woman had not awakened all night, that she could tell. The womanâ€™s flesh was malleable like anyoneâ€™s despite the testimony of the childâ€™s stone thrown the previous day. Anala downplayed the extent of the injury. She, herself, was scared but did not want others to sack her home and kill the unconscious warrior. After all, in this strange world, who knew what foul curse could befall them all. Anala admitted to herself and to others that it was probably a mistake to help the stranger for she endangered them all. But all knew her love for the injuredâ€”it was why she had taken up her grandmotherâ€™s craft. Even Pran relented in his criticism.
The rest of the day passed swiftly enough. As usual, a dry wind scoured the dry land as it passed from west to east shortly after sunset. There were no other villages in this area because few could withstand the Southern heat. This village stood alone for miles due to the power of magics long forgotten. No one questioned the fountainâ€™s existence, but used its renewing waters for their gardens and animals. It was the only respite in this otherwise arid land.
Anala cautiously passed beyond the heavy cloth that kept the winds and the heat from her small home. She listened in the near-darkness for the womanâ€™s breathing. It was steady and long, though choked by fluids. Anala sighed in relief and went to light an oil lantern. In its radiance, she examined her patient. The warrior still held the sword in her right hand and still lay in the position Anala had set her that morning. The bleeding had resumed somewhat and a patch of blood spilled across the smoothened stone floor on both sides of the womanâ€™s bare chest. It was incredible, actually, that the gaping hole in her chest was not bleeding more, or even emitting the odd smells of the exposed guts that Anala had smelled on battlefields littered with dying soldiers. Rather, the herbâ€™s odors were the only aroma that filled the room. Soon, Analaâ€™s cooking replaced the herbsâ€™ tangy smell.
By morning, Anala awoke with a stiff back, for the warrior had been given her mat. The herbalist checked her patient and nearly cried out aloud. The chest cavity had closed considerably over the night. The shattered and protruding bones had visibly mended and the bleeding had also lessened. Shaking her head in awestruck wonder, she applied more herbs and bandages to the warrior.
That evening, Anala returned to her home anxious to see the condition of the warrior. She had confided in Pran the womanâ€™s miraculous recovery and he had gleefully informed her that the woman was probably one of the Dragon-Blooded Lords and would surely reward her for her care. He was quite satisfactorily jealous until he had left the market early due to a nasty cough.
Anala entered her squat house and listened to the regular, rhythmic breathing. She lit the lamp and yelped as she discovered the warriorâ€™s body had gone!
â€œThank you, good lady,â€ said a soft voice from one corner of the house. Anala yelped again and turned to face the voice.
The warrior sat with her back propped against a corner. The womanâ€™s black hair shone with the lampâ€™s soft light and Anala could see, for the first time, the deep magenta eyes that regarded her from the womanâ€™s dusky, olive-colored face.
â€œYou are very welcome, my Lord. I meanâ€¦ I hope I was not imposingâ€¦â€ Anala trailed off, suddenly very uncomfortable with the idea of addressing a naked Prince of the Earth who had bled all over her house.
The warrior stood easily and took a slow step forward. The womanâ€™s bare chest showed a long crease in the flesh where the chest had not fully closed and long pink marks that striated away from the fist-sized wound. The womanâ€™s modesty had called her to tie a sleeping cloth around her waist, but a shapely leg showed when she stepped forward.
â€œDo not be nervous, wise healer. My name is Chen. I am no Lord, and I am hardly anyone worth the attentions you have administered me.â€ The warrior named Chen had a soft, almost musical voice, but Anala found something not quite right with her speech.
â€œI am glad you are feelingâ€¦ better. Um. Would you like some food? And water?â€ Anala nervously turned to the cooking pot and water kettle.
â€œI would not wish to ask more of you than you have already given. But thank you,â€ Chen replied.
Anala busied herself with the meager stew and spiced water while watching Chen out of the corner of her eye. Chen first examined the armor torn nearly asunder and then the remainder of her gear. Anala did not see the sword. Chen, with a quick glance to Anala who pretended not to notice, threw off the cloth and put on her pants and blood-stained (and damaged) shirt. The armor lay still on the ground. Chen then glanced around the meager house. Anala watched Chen observe the racks of herbs drying in the dark house and the clay pots that held the remainder of Analaâ€™s herbal magic.
Dinner was soon served and Anala and Chen ate quietly. Chen did not offer conversation and Anala did not know what to say. When they were finished, Chen thanked her briefly and asked her if the local could direct her to someone who could lend her money to stay at the inn and repay a healerâ€™s price. Anala refused and told Chen that by anyoneâ€™s definition, Chen still possessed wounds that were life-threatening, and she would not turn her away now. Chen smiled and thanked her again and lay in the corner, giving Anala her mat. Anala was thankful for that due to her stiff muscles from sleeping on the floor, and was only mildly embarrassed for not offering the mat to her patient. The patient, however, clearly did not need such mortal comforts.
The next morning, Anala found that Chen had gone, and taken her gear (including the destroyed armor) and had even made an effort to scrub the bloodstains from the stone floor. Anala was thankful that the strange warrior was gone, but wished she had had an opportunity to question Chen as to what had happened and what would happen next.
To Analaâ€™s surprise, she found Chen in the marketplace, sitting quietly on the ledge of the fountain. Anala stared for minutes, but Chenâ€™s gaze was fixed on the statue that rose from the watery depths. Shrugging, the herbalist set up her goods while immediately providing to the needs of the locals who needed remedies for the fire-dragon cough that was going about the village. Fire-dragon coughs usually lasted a long time, but rarely were truly life-threateningâ€¦ except during the summer when people burned up. Already the Sunâ€™s heat beat upon the marketplace. Anala glanced at Chen during the first few hours until she had an opportunity to approach the warrior.
â€œHow are you this morning, Chen?â€
Chen turned and fixed her purple eyes upon Anala and smiled, â€œMuch better, but I would not show you in this public place.â€ Chenâ€™s voice was almost fearful that she was being requested to impugn her modesty. Anala shook her head. â€œIf it is alright, I will remain in this village ofâ€¦â€ she trailed off in confusion.
â€œDramden. This is Dramden,â€ provided Anala.
â€œIs it? That is not the name I rememberâ€¦â€ but Chen trailed off. She resumed, â€œI do not think I have been here, however. Are there other villages around?â€
â€œNo. Not for a week in any direction. Sometimes a tribe comes close, but they do not settle.â€
â€œOf course. Then it will happen here,â€ she said, this last to herself.
Anala waited a moment for Chen to continue, and when she did not, â€œWhat will happen? Is something going to happen?â€
Chen fixed Anala with an almost sad expression. But she smiled and softly said, â€œSomething always happens, honored healer. Everywhere, something is always happening. But here, something important will happen that will mean a great deal to your town, even though I will forget it with the passing of the years, I imagine.â€ Anala shook her head in utter confusion. Chen closed her eyes as she said, â€œDo not fear, honored healer. No harm will befall this town by my hand. I will be here until the happenings pass by.â€
Anala was somehow comforted by that. She said, â€œAnala. My name isâ€¦ Anala.â€
â€œOf course, honored healer. I am pleased to meet you,â€ and Chen extended her hand and clasped Analaâ€™s. Chenâ€™s grip was strong and sure. Through the touch, Anala could feel Chenâ€™s skin was cool despite the heat and not the least sweaty, even as Anala perspired so close to the cooling fountain.
Later, Pran came to Anala to buy a cough remedy. Anala spoke with him briefly and, in between wracking coughs, he apologized for bringing illness to the town square but his entire family was ill and he was the youngest and most fit to come. Anala was concerned because he was sweating despite the broad-brimmed hat and cool cloths pressed against his neck and face. He paused to drink at the fountain. There was no fear of contaminating the fountain. By its power, nothing could stain it or taint it, as had been proven many times by past plagues and attempts by nomads to poison it. In fact, Chenâ€™s blood was the first thing Anala had ever seen alter the waterâ€™s color for even a moment.
When Pran was finished drinking, he looked up and saw Chen. From where he stood, across the fountain from her, he saw her face. Anala watched his face darken with fear and then anger. He strode over to the warrior. Anala tried to send the caravan master who was presently buying talismans for proof against misfortune on his way without further conversation, but could not be rude to a man so powerful. Anala cast a worried look to Pran, but he did not see it.
â€œHave you come to endanger us all?â€ demanded Pran as he approached the sitting woman.
â€œNo, gentle sir,â€ said Chen, bowing her head. He was momentarily taken aback by this. He quickly realized that no Lord would bow her head to him. She must be some form of servant being or little god.
â€œThen what have you come to do?â€ he said, measuring his voice carefully.
â€œI came to die. But now, I await the future, sir. I humbly request to be allowed to tarry awhile in your town of Dramden,â€ she spoke so softly.
â€œAnd do youâ€¦. *cough* *cough*â€ Pran paused to regain his breath, â€œDo your plans involve leaving or paying your way here?â€
â€œI will leave as soon as I am able, kind sir. I am afraid I have no money,â€ she said apologetically.
Pran decided that the town was probably better off without her and resolved to bully her away. If she was really some sort of god-blood, then she would surely survive the summer heat in the South. Besides, he reasoned, she was a stranger and he had no reason to care about life and no duty to her whatsoever, â€œAs a representative of Dramden, I want you to leave our village. Immediately.â€ He drew himself up with his imagined authority.
Chen glanced up, â€œPlease, sir, do not ask this of me. I must remain here to wait, and I will surely die from another such wound should I stay long outside,â€ she said, indicating her chest. He glanced down at her nearly flat chest and the torn shirt that, though washed, did not function as it should. The mark on her chest was nearly gone even though he had, a few days prior, seen the lifeblood pour freely from that most lethal injury.
Pran snapped his attention to the warriorâ€™s previous words, â€œThat which didâ€¦ this,â€ he generally indicated her chest, â€œStill lurks around our village?â€
â€œI imagine so, sir. In fact, I have no reason to doubt that it is not watching me even this moment.â€
This caused Pran to pause. He glanced around and down the lengthy streets that led to the outskirts of town a few blocks away. He scanned the horizon and saw nothing.
â€œThen leave! We have no need of your troubâ€”â€œ and Pran fell into a fit of coughing that gave cause for him to lean over the pool. His eyes opened to Chenâ€™s hand offering a ladle of the sweet water. He took it and replaced the ladle on its hook before stalking off.
Anala approached Chen, â€œI am so sorry, Chen. He did not mean it, heâ€™sâ€¦ he is ill right now.â€
â€œDo not apologize, honored Anala,â€ Chen said, â€œFor he is right. I do endanger your town. But I cannot do otherwise, for my life is more precious to this world than it is to me.â€ She looked sad, somehow.
â€œI do not understandâ€¦â€ Anala said. Chen continued to confuse her.
â€œThe man is your friend? Does he court you?â€ Chen said with a pleasant, almost conspiratorial tone.
â€œHe tries,â€ Anala admitted. â€œI am not sure whether I want to remain here in Dramden, however. Iâ€¦ have bad memories of this place and would leave if I had the money...â€ she said. She did not know why she was explaining so much to this near-stranger. Something about Chen caused her to trust the warrior, though.
Chen smiled, â€œHe seems like a strong man. An honorable man concerned with the welfare of the town. And your welfare, I daresay,â€ she said with a chuckle. Before Anala could protest, â€œAnd as for leaving, I would not recommend it. This seems like a good place. I wish I could have stayed at my home much longer than I did.â€ Chen met Analaâ€™s eyes comfortably and squeezed her arm. Anala smiled.
Chen returned her gaze to the statue while Anala checked her place in the market to see if anyone wanted to buy anything. A child stood there, waiting for the cough remedy that his family needed. Anala gestured to wait but a moment, and the child nodded and smiled shyly to Chen, who did not notice.
â€œDo you like our wonder, The Resplendent Victor Who Offers Orchids and Violence?â€ asked Anala.
Chen looked up at Anala suddenly, â€œIs that who this is?â€
â€œYes,â€ Anala replied as though educating a child, â€œShe is Dramdenâ€™s matron and preserver of our lifestyle. She protects us from starvation and drought with the water that is our lifeblood. The Victor was a hero from long ago, but she remains in our memories and lore as our savior.â€
â€œOh. Thank you for the story,â€ Chen said. Anala nodded and returned to her shop and the child but not before hearing Chen mutter, â€œSo she must be the savior once again.â€
By evening time, Anala was growing very concerned. A good portion of the town was using her remedies. Her garden was larger than most, and she imported some precious medicines, but she could not support the town for even two weeks on her current supply. More than a little scared, she gathered her things and approached Chen, who had stayed by the fountain the entire day. Many people had come, even ill, to see the recovered warrior, but no one had the courage to approach except for Pranâ€™s brotherâ€™s girlfriend who delivered a clean and tidy shirt to Chen; an apology from Pran for his rude behavior.
â€œChen?â€ Anala asked timidly.
As though broken from a reverie, Chen looked up, â€œYes, honored healer?â€
Anala knew that Chen had no money and no one to account for her, â€œI would be honored if you would join me this evening for dinner. Although I have little, I can offer you shelter from the cold night wind.â€
Chen smiled, â€œDinner would be pleasant. I do not think your offer of shelter will be required tonight, however,â€ she rose, and stalled Analaâ€™s question with a gesture. Chenâ€™s belly rumbled with hunger.
Anala giggled like the youth she still was, â€œYou havenâ€™t eaten today, have you? I was wondering if your people ate.â€ At this question Chen looked at Anala intensely and Anala turned away in discomfort.
â€œMy people get hungry like you, honored Anala. But we do not starve. If you would rather enjoy solitude tonightâ€¦â€
â€œNo, come with me,â€ Anala interrupted.
Dinner was a thick, spicy stew that was the staple diet in this area. The hearty meal was full of grain, vegetables, and even a small portion of meat from an old cow that was butchered a week ago. This time, Anala chatted idly about growing up in the small town and how she really did fancy Pran and how she should consider asking him to join her household. Chen was quiet mostly, but would share a relevant anecdote from her own childhood in her own faraway village. Chen looked sad when remembering her village, though. Anala did not ask, but suspected that it was probably not there anymore.
Suddenly, Chen broke off in mid-sentence and leapt to her feet. She turned around in quick circles, almost silently, scanning the walls. Alarmed, Anala crouched low, expecting some unseen threat to sweep them all to the Deathlordsâ€™ embrace. As she watched, Chenâ€™s body seemed toâ€¦ not solidify, but become more real somehow. That was when the sound of crumbling clay brought Analaâ€™s head around to the far wall. A long shaft of green metal seemed to sprout from the wall.
Without warning, the shaft flew upward and it carved a long slit in the clay walls of Analaâ€™s house, knocking aside pots and herbs as clay splattered everywhere. A figure burst through the wall as Anala jumped beneath her table to grab the old iron knife that lay concealed in the center of the bottom surface of the workspace. Knife in hand, she turned just in time to watch Chen grab the sleeping cloth and wrap it around the green metal spear and savagely pull it aside before it impaled her. The figure that held the weapon was a tall, beautiful man with onyx skin and who was clad in pearls all linked together to dazzle the eye with light even as meager as the house lampâ€™s. The faerie stepped back to regard Chen, who was now standing in a martial pose. She dropped the sleeping cloth.
â€œYou lived,â€ the faerie stated the obvious.
â€œThe kindness of mortals.â€
â€œVery good,â€ and the faerie rushed forward all at once, his solid stone-black skin reflecting off the metallic sheen of his green spear. The spear stabbed right where Chen had been a moment ago, but she somehow stood on the other side of the small house. Anala had not seen her move.
The faerie regarded Chen coolly. Chen looked impassive.
â€œYou remain wounded.â€
â€œI will be alright.â€
â€œNot for long,â€ and he flipped back while his weapon lengthened to skewer Chen at the end of its deadly blade.
With a golden flash, Chenâ€™s sword that Anala had not seen since Chenâ€™s recovery appeared in the warriorâ€™s hand and the blade turned aside that vicious attack. Anala knew that a mortal would have died. But she had known since the moment she met Chen that she was no mortal. The thin golden blade should surely have been bent from the inhuman strength behind the faerieâ€™s stroke, but it remained straight and true.
â€œYour deception was not appreciated, and my duke requires your death.â€
â€œIs he here?â€ inquired Chen.
â€œI would have killed him, too.â€
â€œI fear that I will kill you tonight, like I nearly did in our last encounter.â€
â€œI will not allow it, nor will my father forsake me.â€
â€œYou are Forsaken. Get used to it,â€ the faerie smiled. Anala noticed that his leg, which was right beside the table, was not covered in pearls and was quite exposed.
â€œYou mock me.â€
â€œIndeed,â€ the faerie said with a voiceâ€¦. so musicalâ€¦ it was lulling Anala into relaxed rest. Realizing what was happening, Anala struck at the faerieâ€™s calf with the iron knife and it bit into his leg. He yowled like some wild beast and twisted away, wrenching the knife from her hands and breaking the blade. As she fell back, Anala heard a crash. She looked up to see the faerieâ€™s beautiful face hovering low to look at her under the table. â€œI will return and enjoy feasting on your dreams of heroism, little girl,â€ and then he was gone. Anala shuddered, remembering the death of her parents and crawled from beneath her table.
Looking around, she saw that the crash had been Chen breaking through the solid, hard, clay wall. The faerie had used her door, slashing the woven covering to pieces on his way out. All was quiet.
Chen crouched on top of one of the villagerâ€™s houses. The clay easily supported her Essence-reduced weight. The faerie had run out of Analaâ€™s house and with a grin to her, dodged down a street and out of sight. Chen did not see well at night, and she sighed. She stood carefully and looked about, expecting an attack at any time and from any direction. She stood for several minutes until she heard someone singing.
When she faced the town square, she could see it was lit by motes of light dancing about wildly and enthusiastically. The green faerie light illuminated a brutal scene. The cataphract was holding a little girl by her foot and had placed the girlâ€™s head in the water. The girlâ€™s struggles made loud splashing sounds that were an eerie counterpoint to the faerieâ€™s song. Villagers were coming from their homes to see what the trouble was. Seeing the trouble, some fled, but most stayed, knowledge of their impending death weighing heavily upon them. Chen knew that the local militia would arm itself with iron weapons, but could not hope to match one of the powerful faerie warriors and he would slaughter every one of them unless she stopped him. He was there, after all, to seek vengeance upon Chen for the embarrassment she caused the Fey Court.
Chen crouched slightly and leaped from the rooftop and soared through the air as lightly as the cold nightâ€™s breeze caressed her Essence-strengthened skin. Chen flew over several houses and over the town square to land lightly on top of the townâ€™s statue. Her statue. The faerie had watched her movement and now dropped the child who promptly swam to the far side of the fountain and, screaming, fled.
â€œYou dare face me in your condition? You should have retreated,â€ said the faerie, laughing musically.
â€œI would dare anything for these people,â€ Chen stated. The people of Dramden looked amongst each other. Chen knew that they were beginning to realize that there would be battle, and one of the combatants would leave them in peace.
â€œThey are nothing but mortals, Lord Minxia. Not worth your notice. Come, if you leave now, I promise to give you the last day you need to recover before coming after you.â€
â€œIf I leave now, you will take these people and eat their dreams. I cannot allow that.â€
The faerie sighed, pushing aside his desire for sweet drink until later, after he had slaughtered Chen. The cataphract took in a breath and loudly proclaimed, â€œPeople of Dramden! You have harbored an Anathema amongst you! For this crime, you should all die! But, if you come to me now, and kill this vile creature, I will spare all of you.â€
Though his words were not heard by all, his glamour infected every villager and they began approaching the fountain in something that approximated eagerness. They began to crave Chenâ€™s blood as much as the faerie did. Chen looked over to Anala, the healer, and saw that the young woman cried tears of regret, but started forward.
â€œYOU WILL NOT FIGHT ME!â€ shouted Chen as she drew upon her anima and, to all beings of the world, seemed to grow larger, fiercer, and more dangerous. Chenâ€™s features became awesome and terrifying, and her power daunted even the faerieâ€™s heart. As one, the villagers turned their heads from Chen. Many simply ran in terror.
â€œI will suck the marrow from your bones!â€ cried the cataphract, spitting blood in his vehemence. But even his eyes were lowered from her glory as she stood, a hero of old, upon a towering statue that gave tribute to another hero of old.
At that moment, Chen called to the Orichalcum daiklave she held and the thin blade began to expel waves of magical fury as it was engulfed in a conflagration of magenta flame. A whispered chorus rose about, seeming to chant from beyond the borders of the world and heard even here, in the village of Dramden.
Haza Ziy Tikhi Dahna Zae, Mnetho Luy Ga Kae, Zihki Tahna Vae
The chant was relentless and seemed to have been sustained for ages and only now heard, as though opening a door onto a performance at a nobleâ€™s palace. Above the chant, a little girlâ€™s voice rose in an innocent melody as though she danced amongst wildflowers and kept herself company with a tune.
The faerie frowned and flew up to strike at Chen, but she moved swiftly, magenta streaks trailing behind, as she struck the green, metallic spear away and stabbed at the cataphract. Her blade bit into the pearly armor, but did not find flesh. He pushed away and glided back down the street. Chen ran forward with inhuman speed and bent back to deliver a powerful blow, but the faerie dodged aside as she passed and he swung, knocking the daiklave from her hand. It flew in arcing circles more slowly than Chenâ€™s dash, and embedded itself into the wall. The faerie whipped the spear around and the head-blade became liquid as it rushed to the opposite end to manifest there just as it struck Chen on her back. She sprawled forward, sliding five feet in the dust. A thin line of blood scored her back, accenting the tear in her new shirt.
Chen pushed off the ground and flew up from the force of her exertion. With an outstretched hand, the sword broke away from the clay wall and struck her hand and seemed to fasten there. Chen turned, mid-flight, and swooped down upon the startled cataphract. The singing sword slid along the length of the faerie spear and bit into its ownerâ€™s shoulder. A drop of glistening blood flew and landed with a musical chime upon the ground. The crowd gasped as the sign of the Forsaken blazed its golden radiance upon Chenâ€™s forehead.
The faerie was set back for a moment, but quickly altered his stance and whirled forward, spear dancing in the night as green faerie light reflected off the metallic faerie weapon. His glistening, nearly liquid spear struck again and again, but Chenâ€™s blade rang against the wicked glamour and allowed only one of his thrusts to penetrate her defense. A jagged cut on her face bore testimony to his peerless skill. However, with each attack the cataphract made, Chen counterattacked in blows that only increased in strength. The faerie parried most of them, but blood began to seep through the glistening pearls, darkening the glossy surface and making it slick. Chenâ€™s anima erupted from her body in pale golden waves to wash over the town square.
Not to be daunted, the cataphract launched his spear at Chen with the strength of a behemoth and the metal grew ugly points all around it as it flew. A deafening roar sounded as Chen placed her daiklave between herself and her enemy and the spear was defeated without contest. He growled like a bestial creature while another spear slowly grew in his hands like a lengthening vine. The villagers were bathed in lights alternating between the metallic green of the faerie fire and the rising golden glow that surrounded Chen.
â€œDo you not see? You cannot fight the Dawn and win, Fair One. I am a Sword of Heaven and have fought a hundred and one battles without defeat,â€ said Chen simply. She lowered slightly the sword that spewed magenta in a fiery torrent.
The faerie considered a moment. Then spoke, â€œAh, but young Sun-child, I have fought a hundred thousand battles and feasted on the pain of my enemies since the time you last walked the earth. My prowess is unmatched by any mortal, or Exalted aim.â€ He gestured and the discarded spear that still lay to the side of Chen burst apart in a shower of deadly metal shards. The clay walls nearby caved in from the explosion, and Chen tried to shield her face from the worst of it. She quickly resumed her stare with only a few scratches marking her body. The faerie grunted and turned his head away from the awesome visage before him. He leapt.
In a flurry of motion, the faerie struck again and again, each time with skill unknown to any now living in Creation. Golden arcs surrounded Chen, though, and her blade followed each trail to its completion where it met the englamoured spear in every direction. The beauty of the man began to be marred by his laborious breathing and sheen of sweat that fell from his onyx skin and shattered as obsidian upon the dusty street.
Chen backed away somewhat and the cataphract allowed her to, for a moment. She spoke, â€œYou may retreat now. I give you this opportunity, for you would not survive my next attack.â€
â€œI would not?â€ he asked in a vaguely amused voice.
â€œNo, for I would strike eight times to your chest and each blow would drive deeper and deeper into your heart until it was stilled.â€
The faerie considered this for a moment. He then smiled and shrugged as he blurred forward, spear cutting the air with a hum that echoed across the land and sent the wind itself fleeing in fear.
A golden dragon sprung from Chenâ€™s body and bathed the town in the rosy gold of Dawn as her icon emerged to do battle. Essence poured into her sword and it issued sheets of crackling magenta sparks, each with its own quiet hiss as she swung her sword in the defense indicated her by her Charm. The faerieâ€™s spear whirred past her and under her and right towards her, but wherever it would have struck, her blade parried and the sparks clattered down his unearthly spear to hiss on his hands as testimony to the power that Chen promised.
At his last blow, Chen returned the assault with eight violet strikes towards the Fair Folkâ€™s very heart. Expecting this, he brought his green weapon up to defend, but every time Chenâ€™s daiklave struck the metallic splendor of a spear, magenta motes poured forth over the weapon and across the faerieâ€™s body. He screamed as the Essence leaked through his pearl uniform and showered his body in a wash of dark fire.
Chen stepped back at that time to examine her handiwork. The faerie lay upon the ground, his glamours fading like the passing of a dream. And at the heart of that dream, in the sapphire eyes of the onyx-skinned Fair One, something awoke.
The sun beat down upon the summer-smothered landscape as a man clad in the garb of one of the elite warriors of Lookshy, a samurai, walked into town. He must surely have died in the heat of the day and the suffocation of his armor, but he did not perspire and would have felt cool to the touch. He observed The Groveling Jackal as he walked through town, but did not stop. The people in the village did not recognize the manâ€™s uniform of embroidered swathes of cloth that poured from his shoulders and waist and so were fearful. He smiled, then, and their fears were allayed.
The warrior woman rose from her seat at the fountain in the town square as he approached. She had seen him from afar, of course, but was tired and not fully healed. He took her appearance in and smiled when he saw she was well. Though she wore the newly mended peasantâ€™s shirt she had been given, and he the symbol of an elite and noble class far above the station of a meager peasant, they clasped arms for they were the same.
â€œChen Minxia. Glad I am to see you whole of body and sound of mind. The faerie?â€
â€œYes, your Holiness. The Fair Folk should not trouble Lord Regal Passage any longer,â€ she said, bowing before him. He smiled wanly as of one who is accustomed to, but not encouraging of, her bowing.
The villagers of Dramden looked up from their rest in the heat of the day and saw the man speaking in a language they did not know. Anala watched the two converse and finally realized what bothered her about Chenâ€™s speech. Though she spoke easily in Analaâ€™s native tongue, the warriorâ€™s mouth did not move to match the sound Anala heard. As though the womanâ€™s voice was transmuted by some magic to be understood by all who heard her.
â€œThe people know you are Solar?â€ the samurai asked.
â€œYes, your Holiness. Though they would call me Anathema, for they have not heard your message.â€
The Lookshy warrior mused over this for a moment, then said softly, â€œThey are not ready to hear me, Chen. They are too far from our protection should they repeat my words to Immaculate ears. Instead, I will return some other day to deliver the message of the Unconquered Sun.â€
Bowing her head, Chen said, â€œAs you wish, your Holiness.â€
Sighing and smiling at Chen, the man turned to look over the people of Dramden. He drew himself up as every head in the crowd turned as though bidden to attend to the manâ€™s words.
â€œI am Savage Grace, a samurai of the Seventh Legion,â€ proclaimed Savage Grace in heavily accented Flametongue, â€œAnd I am here to take my friend, Chen Minxia, with me back to my land. I thank you for your hospitality and kindness to a stranger. She told me you healed her and provided her sanctuary. For that, I am grateful and will put down a sum of money to cover her expenses and to pay for whatever damages I am sure occurred.â€ Chen smiled quietly at this. â€œNow, is there anything I can do for you?â€
The villagers were affected powerfully by Savage Graceâ€™s words and did not question him nor his actions. Instead, they watched him place a bag of jade coinage by the fountain. He looked up and awaited a word of request that would repay the kindness shown his sister. People, of course, did not know him and did not know what to say.
â€œYour Holiness,â€ Chen began meekly.
â€œYes, Chen, what is it?â€ he said glancing her way while awaiting someoneâ€™s approach.
â€œThere is an illness.â€
â€œYes, your Holiness. Medicine is not my strength, but it is yours. Perhapsâ€¦â€ she trailed off.
He smiled and nodded, â€œYes Chen, that sounds perfect.â€
â€œAnala, please approach,â€ Chen called to the herbalist and healer of Dramden. Timidly, the young woman stepped forward, a coughing Pran walking slightly in front of her to protect her from the short, powerful warrior before them. â€œTell the Holâ€”Savage Grace about the illness.â€ Her confidence bolstered Analaâ€™s strength.
â€œWell, your Lordship, the fire-dragon cough has come in summer, and we are running low on medicine. If, perhaps, we could get re-suppliedâ€¦â€ Anala tentatively suggested.
â€œBah, we can do better than that!â€ Savage Grace declared. â€œBring forth all your ill and sick now, to this place,â€ he said, gesturing to the town square. Although he was a stranger, and although they would wonder why later, not one questioned this command.
Presently, the entire townâ€”those sick as was ordered, as well as those well who wanted to see what would happenâ€”gathered in the town square. Savage Grace looked up at the statue gracing the eternal well from the First Age. Nodding he approached it and thrust his hands into the water, soaking his voluminous clothing up to his elbows.
A directionless golden light seemed to flow through Dramdenâ€™s center as though the Sun was casting his gaze directly upon the oasis. The waters shone with reflected light and continued to do so for a month afterward, even at night. At that point, the samurai took up a ladle and directed those who were well to follow his example and he began to pass amongst the crowd and help the ill to drink the pure waters of their fount. Relief was immediate and people stood in confused awe of the two strangers.
Even years later, Dramden would still talk of the strangers who came to them. Was Chen not Anathema? Was that man not from a distant country whose concerns were far removed from the South? Regardless, the faerie did not retaliate and people did not get sick again for the remainder of the year. It was a blessed time and happiness and prosperity abounded. Anala and Pran were wed (and a new house was built with the strangersâ€™ money). The children of the town daydreamed about a flashing magenta sword that sang while it struck down the terrors of the world. The elders wondered at the manâ€™s powers of healing as well as persuasion.
And far above Dramden, the Unconquered Sun smiled upon the world and was pleased by the glory his children had wrought.
â€œPower is the ultimate authority, and violence is the ultimate means to take and keep that authority.â€
--The Autumn Ruin, explaining her (perhaps narrow) personal philosophy
"Demons eat little girls-- even when they are hiding from the monsters. So, you might as well look them in the eye, because at least that way you can save your soul."
--Sesus Alon Sekli, aka Weeping Triumph