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Henry
Essence 5
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Title: Lookshyan brat
Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
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Artifact: Magitech and heirlooms
Location: Rhode Island

A Tattoo of the Sun (all done!)

20 Jun 2011, 20:29

Here's the first part of a story that I'm working on. More to follow.

************************************
Part 1

Night was falling, along with the rain. Maeka began to hurry. She didn’t want to be caught out on the road in the rain, and she certainly didn’t want to be out in the dark.

The road wasn’t much more than a dirt track, packed down hard by generations of farmers and their oxen. On either side tall bushes and short trees grew, tangled together, extending up and over the road to form a makeshift roof. Because of the hedgerow the road was darker than it should have been, but drier as well. That tradeoff suited Maeka well. She had traveled enough roads in her life to be something of an expert on them and she could tell this road wouldn’t hold up well under the rain. It wouldn’t take much more than a stiff downpour, common enough in the season of Descending Water, to reduce the entire road to an impassable morass.

So Maeka hurried. The mud and dust of the roads covered her patchwork armor and the dusky skin of her face, settling in the deep scar that ran from her right temple to her cheek. The dirt even got into her short red hair, which was pulled away from her face in rough knot. Everything about her, from her worn boots to the leather pack on her back that held her few possessions, told of a life spent on the road. A life spent running.

There was a town up ahead, Maeka knew. There were too many fields on either side of the road, visible through the gaps in the trees, for there not to be. Farmers were afraid, farmers liked security, and whenever there were enough of them in one place they grouped together and built a village. That was the way it was all across the East and the Scavenger Lands and, Maeka assumed, all across Creation as well. Farmers built villages with rude houses surrounded by a stockade; that’s just what they did.

Farmers also closed the gate to their stockade at the nineteenth hour, which was fast approaching. It was just what they did, and Maeka didn’t blame them. The night was full of bad things, even worse things than the day, which was saying something. Maybe that was because the Moon wasn’t as a powerful a protector as the Sun? Maybe She did less to intimidate the creatures that haunted Creation, or maybe She just didn’t care as much as He did?

Maeka shook her head. She hurt, from the wound and from being just plain tired, and it was beginning to show. She had to focus on making it to the village, which had to be up ahead, and on the hot meal and cold ale that awaited her at the public house. There was always a public house in farming villages. Did they have cold ale in this part of the East? Maeka wasn’t sure. The last time she’d had a drink was a few villages back, and those farmers drank cold ale. Maybe the ones up ahead drank warm sake or room-temperature aqua vitae. It didn’t matter to Maeka, so long as they drank something.

Up ahead there was noise, a scream. Maeka slowed down, trying to force her ears listen, to hear. There it was again, muffled this time, but definitely a scream. A woman’s scream.

The road curved sharply in front of her, blocking the view of what lay ahead. Maeka crept forward slowly, cautiously, her hands extended at the ready. She was a tall woman, even for an Easterner, and heavyset – ‘big boned’, a polite observer might call her. Despite her bulk, which was almost all muscle, she moved with grace and speed, though that grace was impaired by the limp in her right leg, and she was weighed down by her patchwork lamellar armor and the heavy sword slung across her back. Still, she managed to move silently, or at least silently enough to sneak up on whoever was making the noise up ahead.

Just past the bend the road opened up a bit, widening into the fields that were slightly more visible than normal through the hedge. There was a little stream, a few feet deep, intersecting the road, clattering over a ford of small, gray stones. There were three men, one on the near side of the ford, two on the far side, all of them wearing dark red buff coats and bearing swords. And there was a woman, not much more than a girl, being held down by the furthest of the three men.

Maeka didn’t hesitate. Drawing her sword with practiced speed, she dashed towards the nearest man. Three was a bad number, too many, but maybe the stream would slow the other two down? Maybe this one wouldn’t notice until it was too late?

No. She slipped in the mud, her gimpy leg giving way, knocking in the ragged edge of a pothole. Gritting her teeth against the pain she raised her sword, swinging it down it a double-handed blow. The man, the soldier, barely raised his sword in time to parry. As it was, he was forced back, stumbling towards the edge of the stream bank. Pushing forward, inside his guard now, Maeka spun her sword, first against his left, then against his right.

Contact! Maeka pulled the sword back in a draw cut, slicing deep into the soldier’s ribs. He cried out. Strike! Kill him! A parry, no mind. The swords clashed together, entangled at the hilt. She was stronger. A twist, a push, and he was disarmed. Another blow, this one a vicious, chopping strike with no thought for elegance or swordsmanship, cut into his neck.

Pulling out the sword, Maeka jumped towards the next foe. Quick, stop him before he leaves the streambed, before he gets to solid ground. Her leg hurt, but not enough. Ignore it. Attacking, attacking, she swung at his head, but he did a good job at defending himself. Too good. The other soldier was across the stream now, closing in on her left.

Snarling, Maeka backed up, keeping both opponents in front of her. They didn’t hurry, they took their time, waiting to properly time and coordinate their attack. They were appraising at her, through the dark and the rain, just like professionals should. One of the soldiers paused, his eyes widening.

“You!” he exclaimed.

His expression was surprised, but Maeka didn’t give it time to change fully to a look of satisfaction. She lunged forward, directing overhand blows at his head. He tried to respond, and the other soldier pressed in from the side, but she kept them at a distance with her longer weapon, kept them from taking advantage of their superior numbers.

“Now you’ll die, bitch,” the soldier growled. “And then –”

Maeka didn’t find out what would happen next, and never would. While the solider was speaking, she swung at him overhand again. His sword came up to parry, an awkward position, and she pushed it away, clearing the way for her left hand to stab him in the belly with a dagger. The sharp steel cut right through the boiled leather, and she twisted it around in his guts. It brought her no small satisfaction to see the fear and pain in his eyes.

Too much satisfaction. Too slow. She was too extended, too out of position, to respond to the other soldier’s attacks. She parried the first one, barely, but the second got through, smashing into her left arm. The armor, patchwork though it was, absorbed the worst of the blow, but suddenly there was blood everywhere and her hand was numb.

She could manage the sword one-handed, barely, so she hacked at him. No pain, no time to feel pain, not yet. His sword was still tangled in the armor so he had to dodge out of the way, not parry. He danced back, she pressed forward. She was stronger, she was better, she was smarter! She was stronger! He was down, down at her feet. He tripped, but how? Doesn’t matter. He was down and she was stronger! Better!

Maeka stopped, finally, panting for breath. He was dead, after two good blows into his chest. The pothole had got him, just like it had gotten her, making him trip, making him fall. Maeka laughed, or tried to. The sound just died in her throat. She was getting light headed.

Over to Maeka’s right the other soldier was groaning, her knife still in his belly. She walked over and tried to grab the knife with her left hand, but it wouldn’t work. Why? Was she hurt? Clumsily, she cleaned off the sword and sheathed it with one hand, and then leaned over the soldier.

“Y-y-you,” he stammered.

She didn’t care to hear what he had to say, so she pulled the knife out and cut his throat. She was so tired, and she really should patch her wound. A piece of cloth, maybe. From her pack. Or from the soldiers. From their bodies. It wouldn’t do to die from the wound, a little wound, nothing. She had to patch it, soon. But she was so clumsy, so slow. Why? Why? Why…
Last edited by Henry on 06 Sep 2011, 15:55, edited 10 times in total.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
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Henry
Essence 5
Essence 5
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Posts: 719
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Title: Lookshyan brat
Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
Fighting Style: Awkward flailing and some hair pulling
Artifact: Magitech and heirlooms
Location: Rhode Island

Re: A Tattoo of the Sun

22 Jun 2011, 16:51

Part 2

The sound of grinding stopped. Jenry paused, putting the mortar and pestle aside for the moment, blinking the tears away. The seeds that composed the Seven Bounties Paste were quite pungent, enough to make him cough.

He turned away from his worktable and looked at the woman; he could hardly help it. The room was tiny, and the part of it that wasn’t taken up by his worktable and lamp was taken up by the bed and the woman who, in turn, took up most of the bed. She was better, much better, than she had been when Lyris had brought her here last night. Jenry had cleaned and sewn up the wound on her arm and rubbed healing ointments into the bruises that covered her right hip, before giving her a sleeping draught and laying her down on the bed with Lyris’s help. Jenry didn’t normally like having patients stay in the shop, but he knew that Lyris had no place to put her and he wasn’t certain if she could afford a berth at the public house.

He still didn’t know if she could even afford his treatment, despite having stripped her clothes off last night and investigated her belongings. He knew she had a purse and he knew that purse had something in it, but he hadn’t looked inside to see how much. Maybe he had been motivated by common decency, or out of respect for the obvious affection that Lyris displayed towards the woman. Or maybe he had been motivated by fear of the wicked-looking blade the woman carried, that was either a sword with a handle that was too long or a spear with handle that was too short. But Jenry didn’t need to see her weapon to know that she was dangerous; her muscles and her scars made that clear enough.

Jenry looked at her more closely. She hadn’t been coherent enough last night to say much that was useful, but she clearly wasn’t from around her. Her belongings were sufficiently meager as to not give away any clues as to her origins, other than her strange sword and the battered armor that labeled her as a soldier of some sort. Judging by the shade of her skin and her almond-shaped eyes Jenry guessed she was from the western Scavenger Lands, the Threshold near Lookshy or Calin. There wasn’t much else to say about her, other than that she was probably in her thirties and had a somewhat pretty face, with high cheekbones and a strong mouth, though the overall effect was diminished by the scar that ran down the right side of her face. Jenry could tell that whatever weapon had inflicted that scar had also damaged the woman’s eye, impairing her vision somewhat.

The woman turned over in the bed, robbing Jenry of the view of her rather satisfactory bosom, but displaying her other distinguishing feature: a tattoo that extended from shoulder to shoulder, from the nape of the neck to the small of the back. It was an elaborate piece of artwork in black and yellow ink, an intricate rendering of the sun with stylized rays extending in eight directions. The rays were filled with minute, flowing symbols, which looked like Old Realm to Jenry, though he lacked the education to interpret them. He hadn’t clearly seen what the disk of the sun looked like, as it was covered by the woman’s undershirt.

Grinding the paste took a while longer, probably past noon. It was difficult to tell the time on a day like this, when the sky was darker than night and violent rain lashed against the window. Not for the first time Jenry gave a silent prayer of thanks that he was an apothecary and not a farmer, laboring in the fields, in the mud. His job kept him safe and dry and he rarely had to leave town, save for the occasional trip into the woods or to the market town of Opana for medicinal ingredients, and those were more like vacations than actual work. The worst danger he was exposed to was treating sick patients, and that was no danger at all if he was careful.

The bell above the shop door rang. Jenry sighed and pushed away from the table, leaning over to see a young woman entering the shop. Like most people in the village, including Jenry, she had light brown skin and dark brown hair and eyes, and she was pretty in the way that most young women are pretty. The heavy coat she wore over her dress was soaking wet as was the scarf wrapped around her head, a testament to the strength of the rains of the season of Water.

“Hello, Lyris,” Jenry said, walking into the front room. Lined with shelves and tables containing his apothecary’s wares, it took up a third of the building’s first floor. The back room, with the table and the bed took up another third, while the rest of it was devoted to the staircase and the large storage closet. Upstairs were his modest living area and more storage space.

“Is she awake?” Lyris asked anxiously.

“No, not yet.”

Lyris’s shoulders stooped in disappointment. A moment later she perked up again. “They’ve found the men who attacked me. Their bodies, anyway. They’d been washed away, partly, in the stream. Kishin found them halfway towards the Juniper fields.”

“And did they find anything? On the bodies?”

“Oh, yeah!” Lyris rooted into the pockets in her coat and dumped a wet bag onto the desk in the middle of the room. It clanked.

Jenry took it and shook out the contents, squinting at the revealed contents. It was dark here, darker than in the back room, because the only light was provided by the two large windows on the front of the building. Jenry was proud of the glass that filled the windows, but money was too dear to permit a second lamp for the room – the windows were expense enough.

“Jade?” he asked, surprised, turning the contents of the purse over in his hands.

“Is that what it is?” Lyris peered closer. “I’ve seen plenty of silver and gold, but never jade.”

“Mmm,” Jenry agreed. “It’s right scarce this far out from Realm and Nexus. I see it sometimes in Opana, in the coffers of the really wealthy merchants, but never down here.”

“Well, it’s yours. At least, that much is.” Lyris’s fingers, quick and accurate, snaked out, plucking most of the coins from Jenry’s palms, leaving him with only a few.

“Hey!”

“That’s plenty generous to pay for her treatment,” Lyris said, smiling. “And it will pay for the Seven Bounties Paste that you’ve already mixed up.”

Jenry scowled. “I suppose it will. But why do you care about her, anyways?”

“She saved me. Who knows what those bandits would have done? They were wicked, wicked men.”

“And so what? You’ve spread your legs for plenty of men. What does it matter if they take it or if you give it?”

Lyris gasped in anger.

“Ah, don’t be so offended,” Jenry said sourly. “I know it’s all an act. Most of the drunks down at the public house know it too.”

Now it was Lyris’s turn to scowl, and she spun around out of the shop, closing the door behind her with an irate slam, sending the bell ringing in agitation. She did have the presence of mind, though, to pick up the bandit’s purses and any stray coins that they may have held. Jenry wasn’t worried; he knew her anger was as much an act as her innocence. A whore was a whore and he had no use for them, though he had no quarrel with Lyris in particular. Besides, he thought, she would forget the whole thing and be back to begging drinks off of him in no time. A woman was a woman, whore or not.

He made to step into the backroom but paused at the door. The other woman was awake, sitting upright in bed, the blanket still around her legs.

“Hello,” Jenry said. “How are you feeling?”

“You’re the apothecary,” the woman said slowly, carefully. “You helped me.”

“Yes, you had gotten into a nasty fight. I patched up your wounds.”

The woman took a long look at the bandage on her shoulder, as if to confirm Jenry’s statement.

“Jenry,” the woman said finally. “Your name is Jenry.”

“It is.”

“And the girl who just left?” Her Forest-tongue was slightly accented, with just a hint of the sharp consonants of Riverspeak.

“Lyris.”

The woman digested that.

“You probably still feel the effects of the sleeping draught,” Jenry said. “I thought it was wise to give you something to ease the pain.”

“I see.”

The woman didn’t say anything for a while. Jenry stood in the doorway, looking at her coolly and distantly, as if she was a rare plant he was considering. It was an easy manner to adopt with a patient, one that usually put him in charge of the situation. The woman didn’t seem to notice.

“Well,” Jenry continued. “I’d like to give you something else, some Seven Bounties Paste, to counter the risk of infection. And maybe something for your bruise? I think your hip might be damaged, but if you take it easy for a week and rub the medicine on it you should be fine. How did you hurt yourself there, by the way? It looks like it’s been that way for several days.”

“Erymanthoi,” the woman said distantly, staring past Jenry, out the window. He didn’t know what the word meant and he waited for her to elaborate, but she seemed to be content to just stare. Well, he had given her quite a lot of opiate.

“You should have taken care of it earlier,” he said. “I imagine that’s why you were in shock when Lyris brought you here. The wound on your shoulder is deep, but it’s not really bad enough to have put you in that state all by itself. Combined with the wound on your hip, though – well, that’s why you were in such a sorry state.”

“Okay.” The woman hesitated for a moment and shook her head. That seemed to bring her more in focus, and she looked sharply at Jenry. “The girl –”

“Lyris.”

“Lyris. She’s alright? They didn’t hurt her?”

“No, she’s fine. It was a brave thing you did, fighting those three bandits.”

“I killed them. They’re dead.”

“Yes, they are. Lyris and a few of the townsfolk found the bodies. She’s quite enamored with you; she even paid for your treatment.” Jenry had thought about charging double for the treatment, but the sight of the woman’s sword quelled that idea.

“Where can I find her?”

“Lyris? At the public house, no doubt. The River Blossom, down at the west end of the street.”

“She works there?”

“As a serving girl. And she services the patrons, too, if they tip well.”

The woman thought for a moment. “Does she ever come to see you, here?”

“For medicine? No, never. Usually I see her down at the public house.”

The woman nodded. “Good. I’ll go there.” She made to stand up.

“Stop,” Jenry commanded. “You’re not to leave until I give you the Seven Bounties Paste, and the ointment for your leg.”

The woman stopped, and settled back down on the bed. “Okay. Be quick.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll be quick. Just don’t be in such a hurry to hurt yourself Mistress –” Jenry left the word hanging hopefully.

“Maeka,” the woman provided. “Aikiri Maeka,” she added a moment later.

“Well, Maeka, you should be more careful. If you don’t stop to address your problems they pile up quickly, one on top of the other, and then where will you find yourself?”

“Half-naked and drugged, in a hard bed in a town that I don’t even know the name of?”

Jenry was surprised by the sudden display of humor, but he recovered quickly. “Yes, well that’s one way to characterize the care I’ve given you,” he said primly. “And the town is called Katun.”

“Katun.”

“Yes. And you’d be well advised to stay here for a week, to rest.”

Maeka glanced at her sword, in the corner, and then turned her head to look outside, and the rain lashing against the glass windows.

“I’ll stay,” she said, with deliberation, “but I’ll make it quick.”
Last edited by Henry on 23 Jun 2011, 22:21, edited 1 time in total.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
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Valles
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Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 2 added)

22 Jun 2011, 20:10

...Iiiiiiiinnnteresting. I would very much like to see more of Maeka and Lyris.
======================================================================
"Nyan-nyan, nyan-nyan, nihao-nyan!"
 
User avatar
Henry
Essence 5
Essence 5
Topic Author
Posts: 719
Joined: 14 Sep 2010, 18:48
Title: Lookshyan brat
Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
Fighting Style: Awkward flailing and some hair pulling
Artifact: Magitech and heirlooms
Location: Rhode Island

Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 2 added)

23 Jun 2011, 22:20

As requested, here's more of Maeka and Lyris.

****************************************

Part 3

Lyris walked out of Jenry’s shop, her feet splashing the puddles that had formed on the uneven paving stones. With an angry kick she sent a piece of stone skidding down the empty street. The farmers who had to be out were in the fields outside the town, away from the streets, and everyone else was staying inside, out of the downpour.

She fumed, stomping down the street. Jenry was such a little weasel! He thought he was so great, just because he had his letters and knew how to mix medicine. Well, he wasn’t! He was just a little weasel who had only got what he had because he had inherited it from his father. If old Hop hadn’t died in that plague a few years back he’d still be the town’s apothecary and Jenry would be a no one. Instead, Jenry was one of Katun’s aldermen and Hop was gone.

Along with Lyris’s parents. Who Jenry had tended to after Hop had died, even when they were really sick. Lyris slowed down, her anger fading. Jenry had looked after them and done the best he could, and Lyris supposed she owed him a little bit for that. Maybe. He was a pig, though, always looking at girls with his beady little eyes. Pig.

There were only two streets in Katun, one that ran north to south and one that ran east to west. Lyris turned from the east-west road, River Road, onto the north-south route, Forest Road. The Golden River Blossom of Contentment was down at west end of town, by the river, but Lyris had somewhere else to go first.

The temple was empty, as she thought it would be. A few sticks of incense were burning and the icons for the gods of fertility and the gods of the season were on display in the little cella of the temple, but Twice-Adept Gushon was nowhere to be seen. The mendicant priest claimed to be a Dragon-blood but most everyone in Katun thought he was a child of one of the local elementals, at best. Whatever Gushon was he was clearly holy, what with all of the fasting and meditating he did, so the townsfolk were content to let him take care of the temple and lead the prayers to the appease the local gods and elementals. In return they donated enough money to the temple to keep him fed and they tolerated his eccentric schedule when he wandered off into the woods for weeks at a time to, as he termed it, ‘commune with the dragons’.

Lyris closed the door to the temple, shaking most of the water off of her coat. Thumbing around in the brigands’ purse, she took out a couple of silver coins and dropped them in the alms box in the portico. The temple was small, but it was the grandest structure in Katun: it had stout walls lined with limestone and, on the inside, several columns of the same material carved with images of the various celestial deities. Lyris wasn’t certain who could have made the columns; certainly no one in the town today was a stone carver.

At the doorway to the cella Lyris paused to mutter her usual prayers to Venus and the goddess of prostitution – what was her name again? Luvillia? Luvin? Something like that. Anyway, Lyris considered the two goddesses to be her patrons, and she was certain the prayers would get to the right place, one way or the other.

Her footfalls echoing on the stone floor of the cella, Lyris walked to the naos, where the devotional objects for all of the gods not currently being worshipped were kept. She wasn’t certain who she should pray to. What did she want, anyway? Did she want to keep the secret? Maybe she should pray to Jupiter or some other god in the House of Secrets. Did she want protection? Maybe some god from the House of Battles would be a wise choice, to keep her safe from danger.

No. She was ashamed, and she wanted to get over it. She had done something bad and she wanted to make it better, wanted to make the bad feeling inside of her go away. Who would do that? The Sun? Wasn’t he the god of doing the right thing, of all the good stuff in Creation? Maybe there was a better god, some god who oversaw forgiveness and redemption, but Lyris didn’t know his name and Gushon wasn’t here to teach her. The Sun would do.

Lyris slipped into the naos, weaving around the carefully stacked statues and pictures and other, stranger, objects, before kneeling down in front of the large bronze disk shaped like the sun that was mounted on the side wall, where the light of the sole window in the naos would fall on it.

“Oh, glorious Unconquered Sun,” Lyris began, “please forgive me for the evil things I have done. I shouldn’t have helped those men, I shouldn’t have taken their money, I shouldn’t have led them through the fields and down the road. I knew they were bad and I helped them anyway. Please forgive me and do not punish me. Please make sure that the brave woman is fine and that she heals right and that she is rewarded for being so brave. Oh, and, uh, please inspire me to do the right thing in the future. So that no more evil is done. Ignis Divine.”

She didn’t know what the last two words meant, but she often heard Gushon use them when he was rambling about the Sun, so she figure they were appropriate. Her prayers done, she lit a little stick of incense, inserting into a crack in the floor in front of the bronze disk, and then hurried out, pausing only to drop another coin into the alms box. Best not to leave things to chance.

The street was still empty as Lyris resumed her original course, heading towards the river and the public house. For once the inside of the Golden River Blossom of Contentment was lighter than the outside. The feeble candles in their smoky glass housings and the light leaking past the closed iron stoves weren’t much, but they were a sight better than the overcast sky outside, where the rain and the wind were howling with equal magnitude. It was a bad day to be out and about, a good day to be at the bar with a cold drink and warm stove nearby.

“Good afternoon,” Lyris called out to Vyrit as she danced around the patrons, towards the bar at the back of the public room. The high-ceilinged room was crowded with rough tables and dark wood columns, holding up the high ceiling. The River Blossom was an impressive building, one of the few in Katun made mostly of stone, but it was a bit drafty.

“You’re late,” was how Vyrit greeted her. As usual, the proprietor of the River Blossom was ensconced behind the bar, at the far end by the door that led back to the boarding rooms. He was a modest-looking fellow with a shock of thinning blond hair and a temper that evident in his quick, narrow eyes.

“I had to help Arbiter Kishin,” Lyris said defensively. “We were out in the fields finding those awful bandits, the ones who attacked me yesterday. I told you that this morning, before I left.”

“I know, I heard you. But Arbiter Kishin is here; why are you late?”

Vyrit pointed down the bar at Kishin, a large man with an unfashionable beard that was going gray. The Exarch’s representative in Katun gave her a friendly nod, which she returned, reluctantly. She hoped he didn’t try to buy her services tonight; she could never refuse someone important like him, and although he paid well he could tire her out. For an older fellow he had a lot of energy.

“I went to see Jenry,” Lyris replied. “He’s taking care of the woman, the one who saved me.”

“Aikiri Maeka,” Kishin grunted. “I saw her too, just a moment ago.”

“She’s awake?” Lyris didn’t conceal her excitement.

“Yeah, she’s awake, alright,” Kishin rumbled. “Just about as helpful awake as she is asleep. Not much of a talker.”

“No?”

“Nope. I wanted to speak with, get her side of the story, but she wanted to wait a day. No problem with that; can’t get much done in this rain anyways. Besides, she’s not going anyway, not if she’s half as banged up as Jenry says.”

“I’d like to see her,” Lyris said, nervously spinning her braid around in her fingers. “To make sure she’s okay and everything.”

“You’ll be able to soon enough,” Vyrit said. “She’ll be staying here; she’s already taken out a room.”

“Oh.” Lyris’s stomach turned an uneasy circle. “Well, that’s nice.”

“I’m certain it is. Now get to work.”

Lyris made herself smile, something she was so used to doing it didn’t feel forced, and dashed off to her room to change into dry clothes. Nothing too revealing, though. It was cold, and she didn’t feel like encouraging anyone tonight anyways.

The hours of the day passed by slowly after that. The public room wasn’t busy, since few people wanted to go out in the rain. A few merchants were there, waiting for the river waters to recede before they continued down north towards the Sandy River and Chaya. Lyris did her job efficiently, bringing them their food, refilling their drinks, laughing and smiling to keep them amused.

When the woman, Maeka, arrived Lyris tried to avoid her, and thankfully she sat on the far side of the public room, at a table in the corner, where she was the other serving girl’s responsibility. Occasionally Lyris would look at her, out of the corner of her eye, but she never seemed to move. She just sat there, leaning her chair back against the wall, her sword and armor in a little pile next her. Once in a while she would get another earthenware mug full of ale, but that was all. She just sat and watched the room, her dark eyes looking at everything and nothing.

It took until after supper for Lyris to build up the courage to speak to her. And she needed to speak to her. Or something. Maeka was awfully intimidating, with her fierce eyes and that awful scar running down her face. But Lyris needed to speak to her, needed to make things right.

“Hello,” Lyris said, drifting up to the table in a quiet moment.

“Hello,” Maeka replied, looking up at her. “You’re Lyris.”

“And you’re Maeka. You saved my life. Thank you.”

Maeka shifted her broad shoulders in a shrug.

“It was very brave,” Lyris continued, “what you did, fighting those awful bandits. I don’t think there’s a woman or a man in this town who could have done that.”

“I could have done better.” Maeka moved her chin, minutely, in the direction of her wounded arm.

“I’m so sorry, so sorry that you’re hurt. You could have been killed! And just to help me. You’re very brave.”

“You’re not hurt. That’s what matters.”

“Oh, well, um, that doesn’t matter at all. I’m no one, I mean, I’m nobody. It doesn’t matter what happens to me. Not that you shouldn’t have done what you did. That mattered. I’m not saying it didn’t. Thank you.”

Maeka raised an eyebrow a fraction of an inch.

“Do you do things like that often?” Lyris asked. “Fight people, I mean. Are you a warrior? A soldier?”

“I used to be,” Maeka said.

“And what do you do now?”

“I spend most of my time walking.”

“Oh?” Lyris thought it must have been a joke and laughed, but Maeka didn’t laugh with her, so she faded in giggles and then stopped altogether. Lyris sighed. “I must sound awfully stupid. I just want to thank you.” She gathered herself and tried to look earnest, smiling brightly. “If there’s anything I can do for you, I’ll try to do it. Maybe if you want companionship? Tonight? I could do that for you.”

It seemed to Lyris that a slight smile was playing around the corners of Maeka’s mouth, though she couldn’t be certain.

“Is that it?” the red-haired woman asked.

“Well, maybe. It’s all I really have. Right now, that is.”

Maeka’s gaze drifted around the public room again, the left eye leading, the damaged right eye trailing behind. Finally they completed their circuit and settled back on Lyris.

“I think,” Maeka said, “that what I really want is a bath.”
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
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Henry
Essence 5
Essence 5
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Posts: 719
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Title: Lookshyan brat
Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
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Artifact: Magitech and heirlooms
Location: Rhode Island

Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 3 added)

27 Jun 2011, 22:09

Part 4

It was still raining. The windows in the room overlooked the central yard of the River Blossom and even though the shutters were drawn in tight against the weather Maeka could hear the water splash against the cobblestones. There was a horse out there, nickering and stamping its feet. A voice, low and indistinct, called out to calm the animal.

Midmorning had come and gone, judging by the light that got past the clouds and the closed shutters, so Maeka didn’t mind being awake. The bed was comfortable and warm, a mattress of fresh straw covered with a padded sheet, far better than a hasty shelter under a tree or the dirty corner of a hostel. Slowly, she stretched out her legs, luxuriating in the texture of the cotton sheet against her bare skin of her stomach, flexing her toes against the quilt that covered the lower half of her body. Her back was uncovered but, thanks to the stove in the corner, the room was warm enough that she didn’t mind the exposure.

Lyris stirred, pushing her sleek body up close to Maeka’s side. Making a lazy effort, Maeka turned her head to look at the girl, who had the stolen quilt firmly wrapped around her shoulders. Lyris murmured in her sleep, her sweet-smelling breath falling on Maeka’s neck. The scent mingled with the lavender fragrance of the shampoo in both women’s hair and tang of the soap on Maeka’s skin and under her fingernails. Maeka gazed at Lyris for a long moment, at the curves and swell of her body under the quilt, at her full lips and her little upturned nose, before turning her head back to pillow to look at the bars of light tracing through the shutters.

Maeka wasn’t in the habit of sleeping with women, wasn’t in the habit of sleeping with anyone at all. But sometimes it was nice to have someone warm to share a bed and and it would have been difficult to refuse after Lyris had made it so clear that was eager to do something, anything, for Maeka. The night with Lyris had had little in common with the last time she had been with a woman, at a pleasure house in Nechara, but the girl had a surprisingly good command of the courtesan’s arts, at least by Maeka’s inexpert reckoning. What was more, she was pretty and young and clean. And free.

Free might be her best quality, Maeka thought lazily as she slipped back into sleep.

When she woke again it was to a prickling sensation on her skin. Taking her time to process the sensation Maeka determined that Lyris was drawing her fingernails in a lazy circle around Maeka’s back, tracing the tattoo that lay under her olive skin. Maeka shifted slightly as she turned her head, not enough to disrupt Lyris’s motions but enough to let her know she was awake. Lyris responded by lifting her chin onto Maeka’s shoulder, still staying pressed tightly against her side, still running her fingers across the older woman’s back.

“Good morning,” the girl said, her voice and eyes still heavy with sleep.

“Maybe.” Maeka squinted. She could just see Lyris out of the corner of her good left eye. “It may be afternoon.”

“I don’t care if it’s the sixth hour or the sixteenth,” Lyris proclaimed with a yawn. “It’s Moonday. I don’t work today and Vyrit can’t make me.”

“No work? At all?”

“Well, maybe for you. If you ask nicely.”

Maeka shrugged. Lyris twisted her mouth in a pout, charming and seductive.

“And don’t worry,” Lyris said, “it won’t feel like work. Not with you.”

Maeka wondered if she was being sincere or if she was just playing a role. Maeka decided that she didn’t care, and for a while they lay there, quietly, their bodies pressed close, breathing together, rising and falling in unison.

“This is really pretty,” Lyris said, breaking the silence.

Maeka didn’t respond.

“Where’s it from?” The fingernail pushed insistently into Maeka’s back. “Who made it for you?”

“It’s a reminder,” Maeka said. “Of my vow.”

“Is that what these are? The little squiggly lines? Your vow?”

“Yes.”

“Well, how does that help? You can’t read it.”

Maeka smiled. “I remember.”

“Oh. What’s it a vow to?”

“To do the right thing.”

“Like what?”

“Show compassion in action, conviction in belief, temperance in judgment, and valor in conflict.”

“Is that all it says? That can’t be all it says. There are a lot of words here, all inside the rays and everything.” Lyris poked insistently, prodding the muscles of Maeka’s shoulders.

“That’s what it says.”

“Then what are all of the other words for?”

“Sometimes words don’t mean anything.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Lyris insisted. “Words mean things; that’s what they’re for.”

“Can you read?” Maeka asked.

“No,” the girl admitted.

“Then how would you know?”

That seemed to stump her, and she took her hand off of Maeka’s back and threw it over her in a casual embrace. Maeka enjoyed the silence, enjoyed the caress of soft skin and the easy feeling of not having anywhere to be or anything to do. The wound on her shoulder was still tight and her hip still ached, as did that broken rib that had never really healed, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the moment. Maeka would have been happy to be here, happy to be like this, for the rest of day, maybe for the rest of her life. She wanted it to last, but the moment ended anyway, like it always did.

“Who gave you the tattoo?” Lyris asked.

“An artist,” was the truthful reply.

“What kind of artist? It must have been very expensive to have something like this made. I’ve never even seen ink like this; it almost shines. Is it gold?”

“No.”

“So who made it?”

“One of the other members of my order,” Maeka answered, somewhat reluctantly.

“An order of warriors? Like the Immaculate monks?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. It must be a really great and famous order, then, if you’re a member.”

Maeka shrugged.

“Are you the master?” Lyris said excitedly. “I bet you’re the master, aren’t you, the leader of a whole army of warriors.”

The buzz started in the back of Maeka’s mind, that little tingle that made her eyes hurt and turned her insides to ice.
“I don’t have a master,” she said. The buzz grew angrier. Why wouldn’t the girl just be silent? Why didn’t Maeka just tell her to shut up?

“I thought all warriors had masters, someone to train them. That’s the way it is in all of the stories.”

Maeka stayed quiet, though her damaged right eye flinched against her will.

“But you’re good enough to have trained yourself.” Lyris reflected on that idea and decided that she liked it. “That’s right, I bet you trained yourself. You don’t need anyone.”

“I don’t.” The feeling dimmed, just a little.

“Though maybe you need me, just a little bit?” Lyris pulled herself across Maeka’s back, placing her belly on top of the tattoo, her long brown hair spilling down onto Maeka’s neck. She leaned forward to whisper in Maeka’s ear. “Do you?”

The buzz faded away.

“Maybe,” Maeka whispered.

Neither one of them spoke after that, not for a long time.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
User avatar
Henry
Essence 5
Essence 5
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Title: Lookshyan brat
Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
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Artifact: Magitech and heirlooms
Location: Rhode Island

Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 4 added)

29 Jun 2011, 21:40

Part 5

“You’re sure you’re ready for this?” Kishin asked.

“Yes.”

With a slight grunt, Maeka pulled on her other boot, making her hip twinge. She was wearing her quilted pants and one of her two remaining shirts, with her leather jacket on top. The jacket was there to stop her lamellar cuirass from chafing, and a few other pieces of light armor were strapped to her limbs. Her knives and the long-handled sword were on the bench next to her, waiting to be belted on when she stood up.

“I don’t want you going out if you’re not fit,” Kishin insisted, pulling at his beard.

The Arbiter was a decent sort, Maeka had determined, but prone to worrying.

“I’ve had three days of rest,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”

“No, you won’t,” Jenry interjected. “Your leg isn’t healed yet. You’ll trip or fall out there and ruin all of the healing that’s happened to this point.”

The apothecary gestured at her injured hip. He was sitting on the other side of the table so he had to lean around to get a clean angle, making himself look slightly ridiculous in the process.

“I didn’t know you cared so much about our murderous visitor,” Vyrit said dryly. “We still don’t know if those bandits attacked her, or if she attacked them. Or if they were even bandits.”

He was deliberately insulting her, which he could afford to do. After all, they were in the main hall of the River Blossom, his establishment, sitting at his table, surrounded by the other aldermen of the village. There were also three militiamen in the hall, wearing buff coats and steel helms, their spears leaning against the wall next to them.

When Maeka had entered the hall she thought the presence of the militia meant she was in trouble. Nobody in Katun trusted her, it seemed, so she expected the worst. She might have been able to kill the three of them and Kishin, who was also armed, if she wanted to escape, but it would be a chancy thing. Fortunately the aldermen wanted her help, not her head, and she was more than eager to go along. Better to cooperate and see where things went; they might even let her leave peacefully, without any more trouble. But at the moment she was their unofficial prisoner, though they trusted her enough to let her keep her weapons.

“Oh, come on now,” Kishin grumbled. “Of course they were bandits. The tracks I found make it clear that they came across the fields, not across the road, and that they were waiting in ambush by the stream. And they were all armed, and they were all rough sorts. Real scum.”

“Who just happened to be wearing matching uniforms,” Vyrit said. “And who just so happened to be better equipped than our fine yeoman.” He nodded at the militiamen, who were lounging about in decidedly un-military fashion.

“Well, maybe they were successful bandits,” Kishin said, somewhat doubtfully.

“That’s what you’re going to find out,” Merdyn interjected. “Where they came from and who they were. We need to know if there’s a band of them out there, and if we need to call upon the Exarch for help. We can’t afford to have ruffians out there in the woods causing trouble, not during the planting season. That’s why Arbiter Kishin and Maeka here need to go look for them.”

Merdyn, the senior alderman, was the most successful farmer in town, a broad-shouldered, stocky fellow, with light brown hair and skin to match. He seemed honest enough to Maeka, but more concerned with his personal well-being than with the greater good of Katun. She disliked him.

The other aldermen, except for Vyrit, nodded in approval. There were two of them, in addition to Jenry, both women. One of them, Krenri, was a farmer like Merdyn, while the other one, whose name Maeka had somehow missed, was the merchant who owned the small warehouse and the smaller dock down by the river.

“I agree,” the merchant said, leaning over the table. She looked at Maeka. “We need to find out what, exactly, is going on. You’re a soldier, and we have precious few of those. If you help us we’ll pay you, for your lodging and board, here at the River Blossom. If there’s any fighting we’ll pay you more; say, double your daily expenses?”

Maeka thought for a moment, looking down at the buckles and straps of her armor. That wasn’t much of an offer, but these farmers didn’t have much to offer in the first place. Besides, she needed someplace to stay while her wounds healed. Better to do it for free. And Lyris was here.

“I’ll do it,” Maeka replied, turning her gaze to the aldermen. “But under one condition: that I only take orders from Kishin.”

The aldermen looked at each other and all gave signs of approval, though Vyrit only did so reluctantly.

“Then it’s decided,” Merdyn said. “The council will pay Vyrit for his expenses, and we’ll set aside some more money in case we need it to pay Aikiri Maeka. Arbiter, you’re free to tell her what to do.”

Jenry, who was also the council’s secretary, made a note of the resolution in the large book that carried all of the council’s official decisions.

“I still think it’s a bad idea to go out today,” Jenry said, not looking up from his writing. “The weather’s foul and she’s not healed. It would be better to wait.”

“The farmers are in the fields,” Kishin pointed out. “And if they’re out the bandits could be out. We should be out there too. Besides, every day we wait the trail gets colder. We need to do this soon.”

“I bow to your esteemed wisdom, Arbiter.” Jenry’s comment was full of sarcasm but didn’t Kishin seem to notice.

* * *

The rain had abated, somewhat, down to nothing more than a drizzle. The roads and the fields were still soaked, though, and the going was painfully slow. Every step was an effort as the mud pulled and sucked at Maeka’s boots, the ground reluctant to let go. Despite her claims to Jenry her leg still hurt, the sore hip protesting every movement, though her mobility seemed to be unimpaired. It was only pain now, and pain she could deal with.

She and Kishin left the town by the east road, heading towards the stream where Maeka had killed the bandits. The Arbiter was a talkative fellow, chatting with her all of the way out of town, but he was content to take up most of the conversation by himself.

“So, we’re you from?” he asked, as they came up to the stream. “Not from around here by the looks of you.”

“Cetris,” Maeka replied.

“Huh?”

“Cetris Prefecture. That’s where I’m from.”

“Where’s that?”

“Near Mishaka.”

“Huh. And where’s that?”

“Near Lookshy.”

“Ah, Lookshy! We’ve got some patrols from the Seventh Legion that come through here once in a while. We’re not part of the Confederation, you know, but those Legion fellows like to keep an eye on the Arczeckhi. You know the Arczeckhi? Nasty barbarian types, all Wyld mutants?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we don’t hardly see any of them; we’re too far west, I guess. But the Seventh Legion likes to look around for them. They trouble the Confederation something sore.”

Maeka nodded in agreement.

“Yes ma’am, I’m glad we don’t see much of them.” Kishin rubbed at his beard thoughtfully. “The Exarch, well, he’s a good ruler, but he doesn’t put much money towards his army. No ma’am, he doesn’t. But he doesn’t need to, really. This here is a quiet corner of Creation, nice and quiet.”

Kishin rambled on for a while, extolling the virtues of the Exarchate. They splashed down the stream and clambered over a low stone wall, following the tracks of the bandits. Kishin was skilled at field craft and he was able to follow trails that Maeka would have missed. Even with his skill the going was slow, since most of the tracks had been washed away by the three days of rain, and as they pushed through the hedgerows the water on the leaves left them soaked and the branches caught on their equipment. The hilt of Maeka’s sword snagged on one low-lying branch, sending it whiplashing back into Kishin, who barely ducked in time to avoid it.

“Sorry,” she said, turning around to make certain the Arbiter was alright.

“No, no, my damn fool fault,” Kishin said with a grin. “Should have picked a better route. That’s some nasty weapon you got there, though. Never seen nothing like it.”

“It’s a rhomphaia.”

“Is it? That what people use in Cetris?”

“No.”

“So who does use it?”

Maeka paused. Right now she didn’t want to talk to Kishin, she wanted to run, run away fast, back to the place she had left behind. She gritted her teeth, fighting against the compulsion.

“I do,” she said, in a voice that was almost a snarl.

The feeling faded, but Maeka didn’t know when it would return; it seemed to come and go at random.

“Oh,” Kishin said, mistaking her ferocity for anger. “Well, uh, give me a moment, if you please. I think there are some fresh tracks up here.”

The Arbiter pointed out of the hedgerow, towards the course the stream made through the fields. Off to the north, a few miles distant, was the dark bulk of the old forest, Eastern trees that had grown, uncut, for centuries. To the east and west, however, were nothing but fields, some large, some small, but all intersected by low stone walls and hedgerows. Most of the fields were tended to by farmers who lived in the Katun but a few, the more distant ones, were overseen by the little homesteads that dotted the countryside. Maeka could just make out one of them to the east, a house of stone and logs that sat on a bare hillside, overlooking neat orchards on the slope.

“See,” Kishin said, walking over to the stream, “this is where we found the bodies of those bandits. We took them out, of course, back to Katun, but look here: the bank’s all stirred up. Someone was here recently, maybe last night.” He spat. “Ah, no, forget it. It was just some animal.”

Maeka walked over to where he was standing. There were tracks, deep, heavy footprints, with long, thin scratches trailing them. Claws marks. Maeka started to get uneasy.

“What kind of animal could have made these?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Kishin admitted. “A bear, maybe, walking on its hind legs? Or something else big and heavy.”

“An ape.”

“Well, maybe, but we don’t get many of those around here. Too cold, too many people. Sometimes a real funny critter can wander out of the Wyld. Why, one time…”

Maeka wasn’t listening. Instead, she was crouched low over the stream bank. There was a patch of sandy dirt next to the water, red and thick. One of her enemies must have lain here, the blood spilling from his already dead body.

It would do. Using her long dagger, she scooped up some of the dirt and placed in her cupped hand. Her free hand rooted around in her pack, finding the little pouch of ground leaf, the one that would make a wound go numb or bring about a waking dream if inhaled. She mixed that into the dirt with a little spit, muttering a few phrases in Old Realm as she did so. After a minute Maeka took the concoction and rubbed it into and over her closed eyes, applying it with a few, short, slashing movements, not unlike a gleeman putting on makeup before a performance.

When her eyes opened, Creation looked different, faded. Everything looked drabber, more distant, but to compensate for the lost definition she could just barely make out the essence that sparked and surged through everything. It wasn’t enough to be helpful, and she certainly couldn’t make out the dragon lines or anything, but now she would be able to see her enemies.

Kishin was still talking to himself when Maeka interrupted him.

“We need to follow these tracks,” she said.

“What, the new ones?” He turned to look at her and started back in surprise. “What have you done to your eyes, woman?”

“Thaumaturgy.”

“For what? You look like some kind of monster.”

“To see demons. I think the tracks come from erymanthoi.”

“Eryman-what?”

“Blood apes. One of the…bandits may have been a sorcerer. When I killed him it would have freed any demons that were bound to him. If they were in this region they could cause problems.”

“And they could be anywhere?” Kishin turned and twisted, looking nervously around him.

“Maybe not. They left tracks, so they were materialized. They could have dematerialized, but erymanthoi like being material. The ritual’s just a precaution.”

“Yeah, sure. Demons. Damn.”

“Are the any people nearby?” Maeka asked urgently. “Maybe farmers? Given the chance an erymanthus will spill as much fresh blood as it can.”

“Yes, why, there’s young Lijuin and his family. They live up on the hill there.” Kishin pointed at the farmhouse Maeka had seen earlier, the one with the neat orchards. “And, damn, the tracks do go off in that direction.”

“How many?”

“Let’s see…two, at least maybe more.”

Maeka started to walk towards the farm as quickly as the mud and her hip would allow. Kishin followed, cursing quietly, and soon overtook her. Maeka followed his lead and they skirted from cover to cover, trying to conceal their approach to the farm.

Kishin cursed loudly. “Look, there’s no smoke from the chimney. This time of day with this kind of weather Lijuin should have a fire going. But there’s nothing.”

The Arbiter loosened his sword in its sheath. His equipment was in good order and he looked like he could handle himself well enough, but Maeka didn’t want him getting in trouble.

“I’ll go in,” she said, drawing her rhomphaia. Kishin nodded. “You should stay here.” He shook his head, and Maeka frowned. There was no time to convince him, though.

She dashed from the last of the apple trees to the rough walls of the farm, her hip protesting every step. There was noise from inside the building, an aimless clanking and thunking. And there was a smell, one that Maeka knew all too well, a smell of wet fur and rancid meat, of dried blood and offal. She crept up to the door, which was badly smashed and lying askew on its hinges, a peered around the corner. Her view was poor, as she had to use her bad right eye, but there seemed to be one erymanthus by the hearth and a second over the Maeka’s left doing something unspeakable to bodies of the farmer and his family.

It took a moment for Maeka to center herself and tap the inner reserves of her will. The essence was there, she could feel it, waiting for her to put her body through the proper motions to call it forth. It was never easy, since using essence was an inherently unnatural thing for a mere mortal, and the process always left her feeling slightly exhausted, less like herself and more like a figment of someone else’s imagination. It took self control and willpower to wield, to say nothing of patience.

Patience was something Kishin didn’t have. Not waiting for Maeka, he drew his sword and dashed into the farm, kicking aside the remains of the door. Maeka suppressed a curse and dove after him.

She was too slow and the blood apes were too fast. Already the one by the hearth had struck Kishin, driving him to his knees. The old Arbiter was resisting feebly; at least, Maeka saw, his first sword blow had drawn blood from the erymanthus.

With a wordless shout she thrust at the erymanthus, her blade skidding off one of its bony plates. It turned from Kishin, swinging its club high, trying to smash in her face. She had been waiting for the strike and she easily parried the blow, twisting the club away and down. Then, forcing essence into her blow, she landed a vicious counter onto the blood ape’s head, smashing it back with supernatural force into the smoldering embers of the hearth.

Spinning quickly, she faced the second erymanthus, who descended on her with a roar and a torrent of blows. The first was parried, and the second, but the third got through. A crushing blow to her chest that…deflected off, doing nothing. The blood ape was in too much of a frenzy to notice that its attacks were ineffective and Maeka used that too her advantage, drawing the blood ape closer.

Another club strike landed on her forearm and did nothing more than jar her with the impact. Maeka ducked to the side of erymanthus, swinging her sword with as much force as the cramped confines would allow. The blade, glinting with essence, sheared right through the blood ape’s arm. Before it could even register the damage Maeka whipped the sword around again, severing its head.

There was still an enemy left and no time for elegance. Maeka jumped at the erymanthus struggling to extract itself from the hearth. A swift, sure kick knocked it down again, and a savage sword thrust into its neck finished it off. The blood ape gurgled and fell apart, deflating like a punctured wineskin, spreading thick, foul blood in every direction.

Kishin struggled heavily to rise to his knees, but fell down again. His wound was bad, Maeka could see, an ugly crimson tangle in his lungs. The erymanthus had channeled some of its foul Malfean power into the blow, corroding the Arbiter’s essence with its own. She sheathed her sword and picked him up, cradling him in her arms.

“Come on,” she said. “Back to Katun.”

“Better…to die…at home,” he wheezed.

“Better not to die at all.”

Hip or no, mud or no, she began to run.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
User avatar
Henry
Essence 5
Essence 5
Topic Author
Posts: 719
Joined: 14 Sep 2010, 18:48
Title: Lookshyan brat
Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
Fighting Style: Awkward flailing and some hair pulling
Artifact: Magitech and heirlooms
Location: Rhode Island

Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 5 added)

27 Jul 2011, 15:10

Part 6

“Oh spirits of the wood,” Merdyn intoned, “grant us your blessing.”

“Oh spirits of the earth,” Vyrit said in the same singsong voice, “grant us your bounty.”

The two aldermen walked to the edge of the forest. While Merdyn carved symbols into the trunks of the nearest mature trees, Vyrit sprinkled a mixture of blood, honey, and spices on the ground in front of the trees, repeating the pattern that Merdyn had carved.

“Oh gracious dragons,” Merdyn said, “hear our pleas.”

“Oh righteous gods,” Vyrit said, “honor our requests.”

Again they made the ritual motions, the carving of the trees, the watering of the soil. Behind the aldermen, at what they hoped was a safe distance, was a small knot of farmers carrying baskets, full of offerings to appease the spirits when they were summoned. No one had ever been attacked by the spirits before, at least not during the ritual offerings that secured their blessings, but spirits were temperamental things, as everyone knew. That was why the farmers were hanging back, leaving it to the aldermen to entreat with the forest’s guardians and secure their blessings for the upcoming planting.

Lyris shifted from side to side, trying to get a better view, but there were too many people in the way. The farmers crowded the raised on the embankment of the northern road, the one that doubled as a levee, fending off the river that ran to the west. They were all looking to the east, though, at the fields on the other side of the road, and at the ritual that was taking place on the edge of the forest.

Giving up on pushing her way through the crowd, Lyris backtracked a little bit to the stockade that surrounded Katun. The embankment at the stockade’s base was still damp but it wasn’t wet; at least, it wasn’t too wet. The rains had paused for a day or two, and even if the embankment hadn’t dried out entirely it wouldn’t be impossibly muddy. Lyris scrambled up the incline, trying to keep the hem of her skirt clean, and grabbed onto the wooden wall of the stockade at the top. From up here she could see over the assembled population of Katun, over the floppy hats and bare heads, down into the fields and the forest.

Vyrit began to sing, walking around in a circle, slowly, crumbling the petals of a dried flower and using them to mark out a rough circle. Merdyn stood in the center of the circle, a small handful of earth and acorns held in front of him, occasionally calling out the names of the various gods who watched over Katun. Nothing happened. Lyris kept a sharp watch, scanning the edge of the forest, even looking behind her, towards the river, but the spirits didn’t come.

The knot of townsfolk on the road started to shift uneasily. If the spirits didn’t come to bless the farmers then they couldn’t start planting, for to do anything to the earth or the forest without the spirits’ approval was to invite disaster. The gods and the elementals needed to be appeased, constantly, and it was best to mollify as many as possible since you never knew how many spirits would claim dominion over a certain patch of land or copse of trees.

Lyris wished Twice-Adept Gushon was here. He was a real priest, someone who could command the respect of the forest spirits and talk to them as an equal. But the priest was gone, off wandering in the woods in search of enlightenment, as he did every season. No one knew when he would leave on his journeys or when he would return, but he had been gone for several days now, longer than normal. Lyris didn’t understand the rituals of the supernatural world but she knew that Gushon needed to leave Katun from time to time to get in touch with the elemental dragons and purify his soul. At least, that was how he explained it to the people of Katun. Lyris suspected that Gushon was more than a little bit crazy, but there was no doubting that the spirits listened to him when he spoke.

But they didn’t listen to Merdyn and Vyrit. The two aldermen were gamely keeping at it, continuing their chants and songs, even going so far as to openly display the baskets of sacrifices that the other farmers were carrying. But the spirits were ignoring them and it was clear that nothing would happen today. Disappointed, the crowd of farmers dispersed into the town, back through the rough gates of the stockade, back to their houses to wait for another day, another prayer. Lyris was certain that if Gushon was here, if he wasn’t acting quite so crazy, he would know exactly what to say to gain the spirits’ blessing. For a while longer she stayed by the stockade, watching the ritual, but the Gushon was absent and the aldermen weren’t holy enough to call on the gods. When the aldermen gave up Lyris scrambled down the embankment after them, pausing at the bottom to wipe some of the dirt off of her hands, before making her way to the River Blossom.

The town’s central square was full of the frustrated crowd, people talking and arguing, complaining about how much the delay in the planting would cost them. Lyris thought their complaints were stupid, since it was still the season of Water. Usually planting didn’t start in earnest until the season of Earth, but people had been hoping that the mild weather this year would give them a head start. The farmers were just being greedy, and the spirits just needed a little more time until they were ready to answer prayers again.

Maybe they were sleeping until winter was really over; Lyris thought she remembered hearing that some gods did that some time, like Jorst. Or maybe it was Arilak. But Arilak was a jungle goddess, while Jorst oversaw the trees that lost their leaves, so it would make more sense for Jorst to sleep through the winter, since his trees did too. Was there even a winter in the jungle? And if there was, it couldn’t get all that cold. Or maybe, even if there was a winter, it wouldn’t have to be very cold for Arilak to hate it, which was why she slept. And Jorst’s trees didn’t sleep, not all the way, during the winter, because if they did then there wouldn’t be syrup. So maybe he was awake all the time? Lyris was confused.

“Whoops!”

Lyris stumbled, but she didn’t fall. She had been skirting around the edge of the village square, avoiding the crowd, but she hadn’t noticed the feet sticking out in front of her.

“Watch out,” Maeka said, too late. As the owner of the feet, she somewhat awkwardly pulled it back towards the bench she was sitting on. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Lyris said, shaking her ankle. It hurt a bit, but otherwise she seemed to be alright. She smiled. “How are you? What have you been doing?”

Maeka shook a half-empty bottle full of something pungent. A little porcelain cup was in her other hand.

“All morning?” Lyris asked.

“I went to see Kishin.”

“How’s he doing?” Lyris had been very worried about the arbiter, who was a very nice man.

Maeka shrugged. “The wound hasn’t healed.”

“Will he be okay?”

“Jenry thinks he might live.”

“What about you? Don’t you know abou that kind of thing? Wounds and battle and stuff?”

The older woman squinted, her damaged right eye quivering a bit, which, Lyris knew, meant she was uncomfortable. Lyris wasn’t sure if that meant she was about to lie, or if she was just unhappy with what she had to say. Whatever it signified, the expression made her even less lovely, drawing attention as it did to the scar on her face. Lyris would have liked Maeka more if she had been more attractive, but it wasn’t too hard to be nice to people who were ugly. That was Lyris’s job in a nutshell; making ugly, unhappy people feel loved.

“Kishin’s tough. But he needs help.”

“Then why doesn’t the Exarch send it? Opana’s not that far away, and Kishin’s an arbiter! The Exarch should want to help him.”

“The road’s too wet.”

“Then what about the river?”

“Flooded.”

“Then what good is anyone?” Lyris sat down heavily on the bench next to Maeka. “No one ever wants to help,” she pouted.

Another shrug was the only answer she got.

“But you want to help, don’t you?” Lyris asked.

Maeka raised her left eyebrow, just a bit, and shook the bottle again, suggestively this time.

“No, I can’t,” Lyris said. “I have to work later. Anyway, I didn’t mean that kind of help. I meant helping people in a big way. You know, protecting them and stuff. Don’t you do that?”

“Sometimes.”

“And you’ll do it now, won’t you? You’ll make sure that Kishin gets better and that all of the bandits and demons are dead. I bet you have to do that, don’t you? I bet its part of your sworn vow, you duty, to fight evil things, right?”

“No.”

“Then what’s with that tattoo on your back?” Lyris demanded, crossly. “It’s shaped like the Sun so it has to be something good and…and…virtuous, right? Isn’t that what the Sun is all about? And aren’t you a demon slayer? I mean, you killed those demons, right? Doesn’t that make you a hero? Don’t heroes do the right thing?”

“I’m not a hero,” Maeka said, looking down at her feet.

“Then what are you?”

“A janissary.” The admission seemed to pain her.

“Huh?”

“Never mind.”

“Okay.” Lyris decided not to press her while she was upset. “But you’re not just going to leave us, leave me, are you?”

Lyris shuffled up next to Maeka, leaning against her. She could sense the other woman looking down at her with that skeptical look she had, when she tilted her head to the side and twisted her lip. She could probably tell that Lyris was trying to manipulate her, but that was okay. After all, even though Maeka wasn’t pretty, Lyris liked her and wanted her stay around, so what did it matter if she could guess what Lyris was thinking? Maybe Lyris could even get her back into the bedroom, something that hadn’t happened for days now.

“No,” Maeka said eventually.

“Because you are a hero.”

“No. But Katun needs help. And it’s my fault the town’s in danger.”

“What? No it isn’t,” Lyris insisted.

“Yes. Those men, they were my enemies. They followed me here.”

A nervous weight started to form in Lyris’s stomach. “No they didn’t. I’m sure they came here all by themselves.”

Maeka shook her head. “I’ve fought them before. My…I can kill the creatures those men worship.”

“Demons.”

“Yes,” Maeka said quietly, so no one else in the square could overhear. “And I can fight them. Against men, normal men, I’m no better than anyone else. But demons I can kill.”

“And those men, the demon-worshippers, they’re your enemies?”

“Yes. About a month ago I killed some of them in a farming town.”

“Like Katun.”

“Yes. They were hurting people, so I stopped them.”

“You are a hero,” Lyris said, looking up to smile at Maeka, trying to be positive. “Just like someone who worships the Sun should be.”

“No.”

“But you just said they were doing bad things, hurting people, and that you killed them. That makes you a hero, all virtuous and good, right?”

“I just made things worse. Now they’ve followed me here and I’ve put more people in danger.”

“It was just a coincidence,” Lyris said firmly. “They just happened to be here and so did you; it wasn’t your fault at all. But if there are more demon-worshippers you’ll kill them, won’t you? You’ll just cut them in half with your sword.”

Maeka grunted ambiguously.

“Well, I know we’re safe so long as you’re here,” Lyris declared.

The two of them sat there, on the bench, watching the farmers and merchants argue and complain while the sun tried to peak out from behind the clouds. It took a while, but the crowd in the square dispersed and a little of light eventually filtered down to earth. Lyris guess that it was about the tenth hour.

“You know,” she said in a bored tone, “I have to get to work soon. But tonight I won’t be doing anything.”

Maeka, as usual, displayed no reaction.

“Maybe if you don’t have anything to do?” Lyris looked to the right, raising her gaze to the upper story of the River Blossom, to the window of her bedroom. “It’s been awfully boring these past few days and I know your leg is all better.”

Maeka gave an exaggerated sigh and slowly pushed away from the seat, carefully making sure her bottle didn’t spill. Lyris scrambled up after her.

“You should get to work,” Maeka said.

“I will, I will,” Lyris assured her. “But tonight…?”

“Work.” Maeka put a hand on the small of Lyris’s back and pushed her firmly towards the River Blossom.

With a little smile Lyris skipped down the River Road to the public house, Maeka trailing behind her. The rambling building was mostly empty and Lyris left Maeka behind at the bar to negotiate for another bottle of whatever foul stuff she had been drinking. Vyrit was there, back from the failed ritual at the forest’s edge, a sour look fixed on his face. He would be angry for the whole day, maybe longer, so Lyris made a mental note to keep her distance from him.

Then it was up the steps to her room, off with the dirty dress, on with a clean one. One of her two beloved possessions, an actual glass mirror set in a heavy frame, showed her that her hair was a bit out of place. Her other precious belonging, a highly polished hair clip, fixed that problem. A few more small adjustments and she was ready.

At the top of the stairs Lyris paused. Something was going on down there. People were shouting.

“…you’re the one to blame!” Vyrit was saying, angrily.

“No. You don’t…” Maeka.

“I do! You brought these troubles to Katun!”

“I didn’t…” Her voice was distant, feeble.

“Everything was fine around here until you showed up! Now there are demons in the woods, the forest is poisoned, and the gods are turned against us. We can’t plant our crops and we fear for our lives!”

“You don’t understand.”

Lyris peeked around the corner, looking down the narrow stairway. There, at the bottom, Maeka was pressed against the wall, her hands at her sides, still holding onto the bottle. Vyrit was right in front of her, an accusing finger pointing at her chest. The alderman’s blond hair was damp with sweat and his eyes darted angrily around, as if they were looking for something to find fault with.

“I never understood why the rest of the council trusted you,” Vyrit continued. “You killed three people and the only evidence we have that they attacked you, and not the other way around, is your word. And Lyris’s word, for what little that’s worth.”

“I was protecting her.”

“Really? That’s so noble. You can protect the silly girl who will screw you all night, but not the arbiter, the trained soldier? You can help the Exarch’s only officer? You can’t do the one damn thing we pay you for?”

“I tried…” Maeka squirmed, as if she was trying to press through the wall at her back to evade Vyrit’s harangue.

“Coward,” Vyrit snapped. “That’s what you are. A coward. I can see it. I can look past your scars and that damned sword and I can see that you’re a coward. You’d just as soon run as fight.”

“Fighting…you can’t fight everything. Sometimes you, well…”

“Well what? How did a coward like you kill those demons, anyway?”

Maeka twisted her head around, avoiding eye contact.

“I bet that you’re in league with them, aren’t you?” Vyrit said. “There’s no way a normal person, let alone a stupid cow like you, should have been able to kill one demon, let alone two. I bet you faked the whole fight and tried to kill the arbiter to make us weaker.”

“I don’t work with demons,” Maeka said, some firmness returning to her voice.

“Then what do you do? Am I supposed to believe that you’re just some wandering sell-sword? A ronin, or what have you?”

“I don’t work with demons,” she said, clenching her jaw.

Vyrit spat on the floor. “Then how do you know what you know? Who taught you? The Seventh Legion? Or maybe one of the demon princes? I bet one of them is your master and you’re his pawn.”

“My master is not a demon!” Maeka pushed back from the wall and leaned over Vyrit. She was only a little taller than the alderman, just an inch or so, but she somehow managed to glare down at him.

“Then what is he?” Vyrit clearly was not going to be intimidated.

“He is glorious!” Maeka snarled. “All light comes from him, all that is good, not that a worm like you could see it. He is an enemy of the darkness and you should kiss his feet. He is more glorious than anything you know!” She clenched her fists, but she didn’t do anything more hostile. Not yet.

“Glorious? Not likely. Your master, whoever he is, sent you here, didn’t he? Him and his demons.”

“No! He is an enemy of the darkness!” Maeka advanced, forcing Vyrit to give ground. “You should respect him! You should –”

“Stop it!” Lyris wailed. “Just stop it!”

She took a halting step down the topmost stairs. Both people at the bottom of the stairs turned to look at her. Vyrit was first to speak.

“Go away, Lyris,” he said firmly. “This doesn’t concern you.”

“But…but…”

“Go away! Down the hall, back to your room. Away!”

Maeka didn’t say anything, though she did step back from Vyrit, blinking in confusion, her temper gone. Lyris glanced at her, and then turned to Vyrit. She took a deep breath before continuing.

“No,” she said, in what she hoped was a calm voice. “I can’t. It’s not her fault.”

Vyrit cocked his head to the side. “What do mean?”

“The demons. They’re not Maeka’s fault.” Another deep breath. “It’s my fault.” There, she had said it. Finally.

“What are you blathering about?”

“I led those men here, not Maeka. I…I met them in Opana, when I went there to buy some things. One of them – he called himself Guong – pretended to be very nice and said he wanted someone to guide him across the countryside. I knew he was bad but I helped him anyway.”

“Why? Did he pay you?”

Lyris nodded.

“Stupid girl,” Vyrit muttered.

Maeka was still silent. Lyris could barely stand to look at her.

“They paid me,” she said. “I knew they were bad, but I didn’t care. So long as they didn’t hurt anyone I knew, so long as they paid me, I didn’t care. I led them down the road and across the fields to the ford, where they tried to kill me. I should have known, but I was greedy. I was stupid.”

“You led demons here,” Vyrit said. “How foolish are you?”

“I didn’t know! I didn’t see any demons, not ever. I just didn’t know. I’m sorry.” Lyris started to cry.

Vyrit glared at her, and turned to Maeka. “I don’t like you,” he said forcefully. “I don’t trust you. Remember that.”

He left, going back to the kitchen. Lyris expected Maeka to start yelling at her or to say something mean, or at least to leave her alone in the stairwell. Instead the red-haired woman slumped to the ground, limp. Whatever fire had animated her during the argument with Vyrit seemed to have dissipated.

“Maeka?” Lyris took a tentative step down towards her.

“No,” Maeka said, shaking her head. The word didn’t seem to be directed at Lyris.

“Are you okay? I know you’re really angry at me.”

“I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” Lyris inched closer. Maeka was not in her right mind, and Lyris’s concern for her was overwhelming the shame from a moment ago.

“Go back to him. It’s too much.” She twisted, bringing her body up to sit on the steps. “It’s too much. He fills you up until there’s nothing of yourself left.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He doesn’t care what you want, and neither do you. That’s how…that’s how…”

“Yes?” Lyris crouched down next to her.

“Golden Janissary,” Maeka exhaled. “That’s the martial art that my master taught to me. It’s a weapon against darkness.”

“Against evil.”

“Against darkness,” Maeka said, firmly. “He made me learn, he made me want to learn. It was all that I needed, I that I wanted in my life: to learn it to make him happy.”

“Oh.” Lyris her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, chewing on it thoughtfully. “So what’s a janissary?”

“A soldier. A slave soldier.”

“You’re a slave?”

“No. But…” Maeka poured a drink and downed it immediately. “Maybe I am. That’s what the tattoo is: a brand. An owner’s mark. And I’m a runaway”

“From your master.”

“Yes.” Another drink.

“And he’s looking for you? Is that why you’re all the way out here in Katun?”

Maeka grimaced. “No. And yes. If my master was looking for me, he’d find me. But I’m here because he isn’t here. I’m here to get away from him.”

“Well, if he isn’t here that means you can stay here, right?” Lyris said hopefully. “You can help the town, you can be with me. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“No. I have to keep moving.”

“Why? Didn’t you say your master isn’t looking for you? So why run?”

“I have to. If I don’t…” Maeka squinted, her right eye shaking. “I never know when I’ll lose control. Sometimes I get these feelings when all I want is to run back to him, to be with him. I stop being myself. I have to keep moving because the longer I stay in one place the more I feel I have to talk about him. I become his. I haven’t given in, not yet, but I will; he’s too strong. But if I run, if I’m far enough away, then maybe…” She trailed off.

“Maybe?” Lyris asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Maybe I’ll have enough time to catch myself, to become me again.” Maeka shuddered. “Or maybe not.”
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
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emerald viper
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Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 6 added)

27 Jul 2011, 18:58

This is really beginning to get interesting.

One comment:

You do have an awful lot of sentence fragments in your writing. It's a problem that I have myself - sometimes reading aloud makes detecting them easier.

Despite that, I'm certainly enjoying what you've got here. I particularly like the way you keep giving small hints as to what your main character is really running from. Can't wait to see where the story goes.
 
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Henry
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Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 7 added)

01 Aug 2011, 15:29

In my defense, the use of sentence fragements is a purposeful stylistic decision, though I'll admit that it might be a bad descision.

Part 7

The sprite bobbed around the branches that were still bare, sometimes going up to the top of the trees, sometimes down to the forest floor that was just beginning to show the first growth of spring.

“Stop showing off,” Jenry grumbled. “And hold up, would you?”

The sprite stopped bobbing but it still shimmered, vibrating in place at about head level. It spun slowly to look at Jenry, its dragonfly wings beating rapidly, tilting the little ugly face that was part rotten stick, part frog. A slight whine escaped from its too-moist mouth, urging Jenry to hurry.

“I’m coming, I’m coming.”

The apothecary picked his way over a fallen log and around a little thicket. Here, in the deep forest, the trees had grown untouched for centuries so there wasn’t much undergrowth. The tall oak and elm trees took most of the sunlight for themselves, blocking out the lesser plants and leaving the forest floor mostly clear, so the going was fairly easy. The only real danger was from the occasional wolf or bear, and from the spirits who watched over the forest. Of the two the spirits were a much more common, and much more dangerous, threat.

Luckily for Jenry, the spirits were much easier to deal with. The short prayer and sacrifice he had made at the edge of the forest had secured the support of the forest elementals, though he thought it was odd that the elemental court would send such a minor representative to aid him. Still, the sprite was smart enough to guide him through the secret paths of the forest and its presence should deter any greater spirits from bothering him.

“We’re going the wrong way,” Jenry called out.

The sprite halted, waving its slimy arms in agitation.

“I want to go to Rocky Hollow,” Jenry explained. “Not to the creek, but to the hollow.”

A tongue darted out, shockingly pink and smooth against the sprite’s rough brown skin, trembling in disgust.

“I know, I know, it’s a terrible imposition. But the moon’s moss only grows by the hollow.”

With a wheeze that sounded awfully like a sigh, the sprite flew down closer to the earth and flew off in a northeasterly direction. Jenry kept up after it, trying not to make too much of a racket. He didn’t know much about fieldcraft but he knew enough to put one foot directly in front of the other, and how to step on fallen tree limbs and not break them. But he was almost entirely dependent on the sprite to guide him to Rocky Hollow, a place where the people of Katun were reluctant to go.

He could hear the burble of Rocky Creek through the trees, a sharp torrent of water that cut west towards Katun and the river, eager to join the greater confluences of the River Province. The creek paused at one point, though, a hollow filled by a waterfall, where the water pooled before rushing on again. There, on the dark, mist-covered rocks, the moon’s moss grew, the only place to find it that Jenry knew of. He wasn’t sure if the silver-leaved plant actually had anything to do with the Moon or if it derived its name solely from its color, but he knew that it had special regenerative powers. If placed over a wound and properly cared for the moss would spread its roots into the injured flesh and knit it back together, removing any toxins or infection as it did so.

Jenry had his doubts as to how effective the moss would be, but he was running out of options. Kishin was in bad shape and getting worse, as the wound inflicted by the demon stubbornly refused to heal. The corruption in the Arbiter’s flesh seemed to be spreading and Jenry didn’t know how much longer he would hold on, so the moon’s moss was a measure of last resort. But no one else in Katun was nearly smart enough or well enough trained to help Kishin, so it was up to Jenry to save the day again, just like he had during the plague. Hopefully the sprite would get him there and back again in time.

Jenry could hear the tumble of the waterfall now, and soon enough he could see it as well. The trees crowded close to the edge of the pool, their leaves damp from the spray, growing out of the soft loam and jagged rocks that framed the hollow. It would be something of an effort to climb the rocks to get at the moss, but Jenry took it slow, carefully edging his way over the slick gray stone as the sprite buzzed around him. It dove down close to the ground before soaring up again, the prism of its vibrating wings augmenting the waterfall’s rainbow, squawking and chirping all the while.

“Don’t…you…ever…stop?” Jenry huffed.

The sprite didn’t respond, keeping up its frenzied dashing.

When reached the top of the cliff his shirt was soaked, partly from the waterfall, but mostly from sweat. With a sigh he slung his pouch off of his shoulder, fumbling with the straps to open it. He could see the moon’s moss growing on the edge of the cliff, right by the point when the waterfall spilled out over the edge. It would be tricky to get out there, but, again, he was prepared to go slowly.

Just as he was about to undertake his acrobat’s feat of inching across the rocks the sprite flew right in front of him, almost putting its slimy hands into his face and coming damn close to knocking him off the cliff edge. Jenry cursed, swatting at the little spirit, but the sprite flitted out of the way before coming in close again. It was chirping and burbling again, waving its withered limbs, flying in front of his face before going off to the right, away from the waterfall. As Jenry turned his head to glare at the creature something in the creek caught his eye, a bright green shape with little bits of brown sticking off it.

It was a body, lying limply in the water, tangled up in the rocks. Jenry didn’t endanger himself by hurrying unduly to help someone who was clearly already dead, but he did go across the rocks somewhat quickly, his heart in his throat. Those robes could only belong to one person – Gushon, the priest who had been missing for several days. The people of Katun had assumed that he had merely left on one of his periodic outings to commune with the forest’s spirits, from which he invariably returned filthy and hungry, but with his holiness confirmed. If he had been out on a vision quest, it had clearly gone horribly wrong.

The sprite was perched on Gushon’s body, rocking in the current, chirping sadly to itself. Jenry waved the little spirit away as he grabbed the body, muttering a prayer to Saturn as he did so. The body was soaked but not very swollen, which suggested to Jenry that Gushon had only been dead for a few days. It took quite a bit of labor to haul the priest’s body over to the shore and Jenry was even wetter and more tired by the end of it.

With a grunt Jenry flipped the body onto its back. The sight that was presented to him was quite terrible. Gushon’s face was a blackened, withered mess; the eyeballs melted away, the features obliterated. The front of his robe was scorched and torn, though the only damage done to his flesh was a brand burned into chest.

Jenry sat on the bank of the creek, thinking. Who, or what, could have done this? Clearly not an animal, probably not one of the fair folk. A townsperson with a grudge? But who would do this to Gushon? No, it had to be an outsider, someone with the motivation and the power to subdue the dragon-blooded priest and murder him. Maybe the person who did this was also responsible for the recent quiescence of the forest’s spirits. Jenry’s eyes wandered back to the brand in Gushon’s chest, a ragged, eight-pointed star.

There was an excited burst of chirping from the sprite, as it started to flit back and forth across the creek, tumbling in the air. Jenry watched it closely, in case it had spotted something else. But the sprite wasn’t interested in anything going on by the creek; with a high-pitched trill, it dashed towards the trees, using its modest magic to push the forest aside to create a space for it to fly through.

Jenry cursed. “Stop!” he hollered, standing up. “Stop, you stupid little dingbat!” If the sprite left him he would have no way to navigate back to Katun and safety of civilization.

The sprite didn’t stop so he sprinted after it, through the space in the trees. Everything was dim in the tunnel, space and time warped to serve the spirit’s will, slight flares of essence tracing its passage. The trees passed by in a blur, shoved to the side and compacted together in a way that almost made sense to Jenry, so long as he didn’t look at it. Up ahead there seemed to be an end to the tunnel, an opening shining with the light of the sun, but Jenry didn’t slow his pace. If anything he ran faster, fearful that the sprite’s pathway might close on him, trapping him in this strange, false place.

“Damn it!”

Jenry tripped something – a root, he determined – and fell flat on his face. There was a small rise right in front of him, a little mound of dirt and the decayed remnants of last-autumn’s leaves that, thanks to his time in the creek, promptly became stuck to him. He cursed, wiping the mud off of his face as best he could, struggling up on to his knees. The sprite was a few dozen feet in front of him, bobbing around the clearing that was letting all of the sunlight into the forest.

Jenry was about to launch into a tirade against the stupid little thing when he heard a noise, the sound of something big crashing through the forest. Biting his lip, Jenry ducked down behind the mound, wiggling deeper into the dirt. Whatever was out there in the woods wasn’t concerned about being overhead, which meant it was highly dangerous, or at least more dangerous than any of the forest’s other denizens.

A man stepped out of the woods into the clearing, just to Jenry’s left, soon followed by two more people, a man and a woman. All of them wore red coats with light armor on top, with swords at their sides. Their outfits weren’t exactly uniform, but clearly some effort had been made towards regularity.

Behind the woman was a…thing. Jenry didn’t know what it was, other than that it was shaped like a man, but it certainly wasn’t a human. It was about eight feet tall and it was encased in elaborate armor formed of heavy, overlapping plates. The armor was made of dull iron streaked with red rust and very plain, all thought in its design going towards function and none towards form. An equally utilitarian, equally massive sword was strapped to its back. The only bit of ornament on the creature was an emblem of etched brass on its breastplate, an eight-pointed shape filled with runes.

All of that was human enough, if monstrous in proportion. What convinced Jenry that the thing wasn’t human was its face, which resembled that of a man but was made of liquid brass, glowing and steaming with heat. The brass wasn’t especially fluid and, for the most part, the creature’s features were static, but occasionally they would shift unexpectedly, turning the face to the side or changing to accentuate the expression of pure, malicious cruelty that the creature wore.

It spoke, a hissing rumble in a language Jenry didn’t recognize, and the three people with it stepped to the side of clearing, thankfully moving away from Jenry. Then it raised its hand, beckoning towards the sprite that was still dancing blissfully in the sunlight, as if entranced. The little spirit slowly drifted towards the creature’s outstretched hand, and Jenry could now see that it had the same eight-pointed design repeated on its gauntlet.

With a chirp the sprite landed on the creature’s palm, probing the air with its pink tongue. The creature smiled, a sight so awful that Jenry almost cried out in fear, then it clenched its massive hand into a fist. The sprite shrieked, its thin voice a perfect expression of agony, and Jenry could see it struggle through the gaps between the creature’s fingers. But creature’s grip was inexorable, clamping down on the sprite and crushing it into nothing, sending a shower of essence sparking into the air. The remnants of the sprite swirled around the armored creature, spinning faster and faster before finally being drawn into the rusted iron, absorbed entirely.

The fire of the creature’s glowed brighter, mimicking the sparks of the sprite’s essence, and the illumination spread to the eight-pointed design on its chest and palms. His heart plummeting from his throat to his stomach, Jenry realized that he recognized the pattern. He had seen it tattooed on Maeka’s back.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
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Henry
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Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 8 added)

12 Aug 2011, 13:04

Part 8

Lyris carefully considered the water heater. It was a strange apparatus, all coiled brass tubes and bulging knobs, and it was dangerously hot – to touch it was to risk a nasty burn, as Lyris had learned a few years ago. She didn’t have the least idea as to how it worked, other than that it involved elementals and something called ambient essence, but she did know that if you put cold water in one end it came out hot on the other. She also knew that Vyrit was immensely proud of the device and that he cared more about it than anything else in the River Blossom, including Lyris.

She scowled as the bucket filled with hot water, dampening her with steam. Vyrit was her uncle, though he hardly ever acted like it, what with the way her ordered her around, always quick with his sharp words and criticisms. He wasn’t any harsher towards her than he was to anyone else at the River Blossom, though that was plenty harsh enough. Lyris just wished that Vyrit would show some kindness towards her, some small amount of affection to balance all of the harsh words and accusing looks.

Vyrit had been especially foul-tempered, ever since the failed ritual and his argument with Maeka yesterday morning. He had been stalking around the kitchen and the public hall incessantly, criticizing the slightest mistake, accusing everyone of slacking off. He had even gone so far as to strike one of the other serving girls for not being obsequious enough. Lyris wished she could follow Maeka’s lead and spend the day outside, away from the River Blossom, but she was stuck here, at least for the time being. Lyris had an idea as to what she would do in the Season of Earth, when the weather was warm and good for travelling, and the roads would lead her far away from Katun.

Ideas and dreams wouldn’t help her with the bucket, though. With a grunt she lifted it up, away from the water heater, and staggered towards the stairs. The scalding heat of the water could be felt through the thin metal of the bucket, so Lyris tried to keep it as far away from her skin as possible, making carrying it even more of a challenge. Somehow she managed to get upstairs, into the kitchen, and dump the contents of the bucket into the sink without getting too wet, a triumph that Lyris celebrated with a sigh that was an equal mixture of satisfaction and annoyance.

“Get back to work,” Vyrit snapped. He was behind her, working at rolling a cask of wine into the common room.

“I am,” Lyris replied. “I was just thinking about what to do.” She knew that she hadn’t been resting for too long, only a moment, but Vyrit’s accusing tone made it difficult for her to not feel guilty.

“Thinking isn’t your strong suit. Dump that waste water into the river. Quickly now!”

Vyrit pointed at the sink next to the one Lyris had just filled with hot water. That sink was an unpleasant brown morass, filled with yesterday’s refuse. Lyris sighed again, quietly, this one wholly a sound of defeat.

Filling the bucket again, she labored out of the River Blossom’s back door, through the stockade, down the steep slope that lead to the docks, and spilled the waste into the river. She was careful to dump it into the downstream side of the docks, even if that meant walking a bit farther. Best not to foul up someone else’s drinking water.

After a few more bucketfuls Lyris paused to catch her breath. The day was chilly but it was damp, so every exertion brought at an outpouring of sweat, just as if it was the hot days of the Season of Fire. At this rate she would sweat right through her dress and be forced to change before she waited tables tonight. Lyris hated having to do that, especially because it meant having even more laundry to do. It was bad enough having to clean the clothes and linens of River Blossom’s patrons, but adding her own laundry to the burden was an insult piled on the injury.

There was a violent splash behind her, past the dock pylon she was leaning against. Lyris peered into the faint fog that was hovering on the surface of the river, just barely casting its tendrils onto the land. Someone was out there, staggering down the uneven, muddy riverbank towards Katun.

“Hello?” Lyris called out. “Who’s there?”

The man stopped his frantic scrambling long enough to look up at Lyris. It was Jenry, all covered in mud, a frightened look on his filthy face.

“Lyris?” he asked, his voice wavering. “Come help…I…I need…help.”

He struggled to take a few more steps through the mud. With only a passing, unhappy thought as to how dirty her dress would be afterwards, Lyris swung down from the dock and dashed to meet him. A quick look didn’t reveal any obvious injuries, so Lyris took Jenry’s arm and slung it over her shoulders.

“Come on,” she said, in what she hoped was soothing tone. “Lean on me. Take it slow.”

“Thanks,” Jenry mumbled. “I’ve been out in the woods, for a day. I think. I need water, okay? Something to drink. Water.”

Slowly, the two of them climbed onto solid ground, and with a little help Jenry was able to walk to the River Blossom. There didn’t seem to be anything physically wrong with him so Lyris sat him down by the table in the public house’s kitchen and fetched a cup of water. Jenry downed it immediately, so Lyris got another one, along with a bowl of rice.

“What happened?” Lyris asked.

“I got lost.” Jenry poked at the rice, but settled on taking another gulp of water. “My guide was killed, so I got lost.”

“Killed? Who was your guide? Not Hulen? Or Gowyl?”

“No, no, not them. Spirit. A spirit, one of the wood sprites. You know, they watch over the clearings and the new growth. A little, harmless thing. Got killed.”

“How awful!” Lyris patted Jenry on the shoulder, trying to reassure him. It was awful that someone killed a spirit, but Lyris was relieved that it hadn’t been a person from Katun who had died, someone she knew, someone real.

There was thud at the door as Vyrit put down an empty wine cask. He started to say something to Lyris, probably something mean, when he saw Jenry seated at the table, covered in mud and shaking uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Something happened to Jenry,” Lyris replied, “out in the woods. He was attacked.”

“Attacked? By whom? Not more bandits, I hope.”

Jenry laughed, a tired, empty exhalation. “If only. It’s those bandits, alright, but they’re not bandits. Oh no they’re not.”

“How many?” Vyrit demanded.

“Lots. Dozens. An army. Monsters, too. Demons.”

He started to explain what he had seen in the woods, and with every word Lyris felt sicker and sicker. They had come to Katun, the demon-worshippers, and it was her fault. She had led them here, because she was a stupid, greedy girl, and now the whole town was in trouble.

Vyrit narrowed his eyes. “That’s a problem,” he said, interrupting Jenry. “Lyris, I need you to go out and ring the bell in the square. If anyone asks, we’re assembling the militia. Then go to Hulen and get him to prepare to close the gates – both gates, understand? He can use my horses if there are none available, but I don’t want the gates closed, not yet. We need to give people the time to get inside the town.”

Lyris nodded, mutely, glad to have the orders to follow. She was doing something helpful now, maybe something that would save Katun.

There were few people in the public room and fewer still in the square, so it was easy enough for Lyris to run to the bell. It was a heavy thing, pitted with age, set on a tall wood scaffold that raised it above most of the buildings in the town. Lyris grabbed the rope, a prickly line of hemp, and started to pull, vigorously. The pealing of the bell was a surprisingly high, light sound that cut through the humid air, carrying far over the fields and the river.

It was a rare thing for the bell to be rung; the last time Lyris could remember had been half a dozen years ago when the Exarch’s army had pursued some rebel mercenaries down the river and the militia had been called up to help. Although maybe that wasn’t entirely right, since there had been a couple of fires since then, and the bell was always rung during fires. But the fires were always anticlimactic, since the bell was exciting and dangerous, a sound that signified something exotic and out of the ordinary, and a fire was nothing if not ordinary, a dangerous but entirely mundane event.

As she tied the rope back around the scaffold Lyris spotted Maeka sitting on a bench. She had been spending a lot of time out here recently, either in the square or down by the docks.

“Maeka!” Lyris shouted over the lingering din of the bell. “You need to talk to Vyrit!”

Maeka raised an eyebrow.

“There’s a problem, out in the forest. They need you, we need you. To fight.”

Maeka frowned.

“Just, go talk to Vyrit,” Lyris said, the words spilling out with urgency. “I have to go!”

That being done Lyris scurried past the other surprised faces in the square to Hulen’s house. The hunter and taxidermist, a broad-shouldered man with a wrinkled face, was already outside, looking curiously towards the square and the echoes of the bell.

“You have to get ready to close the gates!” Lyris said breathlessly.

Hulen squinted at her. “What’s the problem?”

“Vyrit said to be ready to close the gates! You can use his horses if you need to! Okay?”

“I can do that. But what’s the problem?”

“Vyrit’s assembling the militia, in the square.” Lyris pointed authoritatively towards the square, where the curious people of Katun were beginning to congregate.

“What for?”

“I don’t…you’ll have to ask Vyrit. He knows.”

Hulen accepted her explanation and went to ready the gates. The ‘gates’ in Katun were a pair of wagons, heavily reinforced and weighed down, shaped to block the entryways through the stockades. People could move them, in a pinch, but it was easier to have horses or oxen do it. One gate was stored by Hulen’s house, as his was the closet to the stockade, while the other was down by the docks.

Her tasks done, Lyris spun around, happy that something was happening, something positive. The militia wasn’t much, she knew, but they had weapons and they had the stockade. Lyris had heard how they had chased off bandits and barbarians before by closing the gate and keeping watch, so maybe that would be enough this time. And they had Maeka, who was a real soldier with real weapons and magic that could hurt the demons. She was brave enough and strong enough to kill any number of demons, Lyris was sure, so all she needed was the militia at her back to help her out. Lyris’s trepidation started to fade.

Was there anything else she could do? She should go back to the River Blossom, to Vyrit, and see if he had any more orders. She had to help. There was a crowd in the square now, with more people joining by the minute, but Lyris wormed past them to the River Blossom. The public room was empty but Lyris could hear people talking in the kitchen, Jenry and Vyrit for certain, and Merdyn too. She slowed her pace, glad that she had enough presence of mind to move quietly. Vyrit hated to be distracted or interrupted, and he was likely to be in a foul mood after hearing Jenry’s news.

There was a little alcove by the door to the kitchen, an empty space where Lyris sometimes stored a broom or a mop, where she could listen in on the aldermen’s conversation and not bother them. But the alcove was already occupied; Maeka was there, her expression pale and grim. She didn’t seem to notice Lyris, maybe because her scarred right eye was turned in Lyris’s direction.

“Hey,” Lyris whispered. “What are they saying?”

Maeka spun around in a low, guilty crouch, and her face twitched when she saw Lyris. Then, without a word, she pushed past Lyris, down the hall, towards the stairs.

“Hey!” Lyris said again, this time indignantly. “Hey, where are you going?”

She was ignored. Lyris hesitated for a moment, pressed up against the wall, chewing her lip. The conversation from the kitchen was only half-heard, Jenry saying something about a monster made of metal that burned with green fire and the light of the sun. The Vyrit said something, an angry question, which Merdyn echoed, but his voice was hesitant while Vyrit’s was assured. Jenry answered, and again what he said was more terrible than Lyris could bear to hear. Spirits being killed, a sun branded into the bodies of the victims, a horrible army of demons. They needed Maeka to help them; she had fought the demons before, she would know what to do.

As Lyris went to the stairs she saw some of the militiamen in the public room, clattering about in their hastily donned armor, trying to get a handle on their swords and spears. Up on the second floor she heard similar noises issuing from Maeka’s room, the grating of metal on metal, the squeak of leather straps. The mercenary’s armor was already on and she was busily shoveling her few belongings in a leather sack, while her sword and harness were by the door, ready to go. As Lyris came up to the open door Maeka glanced over at her, her eyes still wild.

“What are you doing?” Lyris said quietly, entering the room and closing the door behind her.

Maeka blinked, violently, as if awakening from a reverie. “We have to go,” she said.

“Go? Where?”

“We have to go!” Maeka insisted. “We have to leave Katun, now!”

“Because of the demons? Can’t you fight them?”

Maeka shook her head violently, her coarse red hair swishing across the back of her neck. “I can’t fight him, no one can.”

“Who?”

“Teth-ahn-Sedurh. The devil in iron.”

“Is that the thing, the monster, that Jenry saw? The one that killed the spirits?”

Maeka nodded.

“You can fight him,” Lyris urged. “You’re a warrior, aren’t you?”

“I am nothing!” Maeka snapped. “Not before his majesty. He is a prince of the demon realm, a soul of Ligier, part of the glory of Malfeas himself. A mortal is nothing to him. He is a victor of a thousand battles and the souls of the Creation-borne are but fuel for his forge. He –” She paused, suddenly, awkwardly.

“That’s awful. Terrible. But what about Katun? What about the people? Won’t you protect them?”

“They’re already dead,” Maeka replied tiredly, the strange cadence that had driven her voice having disappeared. “If we go now we might make it, while Teth-ahn-Sedurh is distracted with the town.”

“No! You don’t mean that, do you?”

“They will come here, Teth-ahn-Sedurh and the cult that summoned him, they will pass through the walls without trouble, and they will kill everyone. Some will be killed for fun, but most will have their souls taken by the demon prince. He will consume them. We have to go, to save ourselves.”

The world spun around Lyris for a moment. “What? How? Run?” she said, feebly. “There must be something you can do.”

“Not against him.”

“But we can’t just leave the people!”

“We have to. If we stay, we die.”

“But…but…” Lyris made up her mind. “I’m not leaving.”

“Then you’ll die!”

“I don’t care. I’m not going to leave Katun, not like this. And, besides, there must be something we can do. Can’t we tell everyone to leave? Can’t we run away, to the north, and maybe get the Exarch to come with his army? We can do that, can’t we?”

Maeka shook her head again. “No. It wouldn’t help. They’d be too slow. The demons would catch them, kill them, out in the forest.”

“But, we have to help! We can’t just run!”

“There is nothing we can do. We have to leave.”

Maeka grabbed Lyris by the arm, her rough, callused fingers pulling Lyris towards the door. Lyris didn’t cooperate, but she didn’t resist either. She had only moved a few stumbling steps when Maeka stopped, her free hand paused halfway towards her sword and harness, still leaning against the wall.

“Let her go,” Vyrit said from the doorway, pointing the naked steel of a sword towards Maeka, blocking the path to her weapons.

The mercenary took a hesitant step backwards and Vyrit followed up, making way for two of the militiamen behind him to enter the room.

“Let her go,” Vyrit repeated. “Quickly!”

Numbly, Maeka pushed Lyris gently to the side, onto the bed.

“Tie her up!” Vyrit barked to the militiamen, who made the room even more crowded by spreading out and approaching Maeka from two sides. She didn’t resist them as they jerked her arms behind her and roughly knotted a rope around her lists.

Since Maeka seemed to be incapable of speaking to defend herself, Lyris struggled to say something, anything, for her.

“Vyrit, what are doing?” she said, still on the bed. There wasn’t room for her anywhere else in the room.

“She’s one of them,” Vyrit said, his cold eyes staying fixed on Maeka. “She must be a traitor or a coward, but she works with them.”

“She can’t be!” Lyris insisted. “You’ve seen what she’s done – she hates demons, she kills them and saves people.”

The two militiamen were pushing Maeka towards the door, and she put up as little resistance as Lyris had a moment ago. She seemed glum, deflated, the fear that had animated her gone, leaving only silent trepidation.

“You can’t do this,” Lyris pleaded. “She isn’t one of them!”

“Be silent!” Vyrit commanded. “She serves whatever the demon in the forest is; Jenry even tells me she has the brand of the Anathema on her back.”

“Not a demon,” Maeka mumbled. “My master is not a demon.”

“Silence!” Vyrit roared, raising the pommel of his sword and striking Maeka on the back of the head. The blow sent her staggering, almost falling out of the grasp of the militiamen, and blood started to flow out of a gash in her scalp.

Lyris started to get out the bed to do something, anything, to help, but Vyrit spun on her, waving the sword.

“Stop it, Lyris,” he said. “Stay here, in the River Blossom, until everything is taken care of.”

“Taken care of?” Lyris stared at the sword, wide-eyed, and at Maeka’s blood on the floor.

“Yes. The demon is only here because she is. If I give her back, he’ll go away.”

“Can’t,” Maeka said thickly. “Can’t fight the devil in iron.”

Vyrit struck her again, in the kidneys this time, and she fell to the floor.

“Fool,” he spat. “Take her downstairs, out to the stables.”

The militiamen mutely followed orders, struggling to drag Maeka, who was bigger than either of them, down the hall. Lyris sat on the bed, tears of anger and confusion spilling down her cheeks. She had thought that Maeka was a hero, a good person, someone who would do the right thing no matter what. But she was coward, someone who was willing to let everyone in Katun die if it meant saving her own skin. Would she have let Lyris die, too? Didn’t she feel anything for Lyris? Not love, but friendship at least, kindness and affection? Or maybe there was nothing.

After a minute, when the tears were done, Lyris pushed away from the bed. Maeka might be a coward but she certainly wasn’t a demon-worshipper, and what Vyrit was doing was wrong. Lyris would stop him, but she needed help. She would go see Jenry; he would know what to do.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
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Henry
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Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 9 added)

21 Aug 2011, 22:17

Part 9

The sun filtered through the leaves of the trees that lined the road, the cheery, dancing light dappling the muddy track. The trees were thinner here, large hardwoods evenly spaced along the side of the road, far enough apart that the fields and the forest proper were easily seen. There were just enough trees with just enough new leaves on them to shade the road against the sun, who was doing a poor job of combating the dark, casting just enough light to throw the shadows into sharp contrast while failing to really illuminate anything.

What time of day was it? The question struggled through the fog of Maeka’s thoughts, through the dull pain inside of her head and the sharp pain on top of it. The wound on her scalp had stopped bleeding, but it had left her hair and the right side of her face caked with blood and it twinged every time she moved her head. Or maybe it wasn’t the wound; maybe it was her hair, unbound as it was, getting caught in the gaps in her armor, pulled by the grasping lamellar. She was surprised that they had left her in the armor, though she supposed it wasn’t much good without weapons to back it up.

The feeble light glinted off her armor, but was it the fading light of twilight or the growing light of dawn? Maeka lifted her eyes from the ground, where they had been fixed on her feet, to glance at the sky. Behind her was Katun, a nervous hive of activity, in front of her was the forest, grim and silent, and around her were three of Katun’s aldermen: Merdyn, Vyrit, and Jenry. They were a frightened bunch, none of them soldiers despite the arms they bore. Maeka could have killed all them, easily, if they had given her the rhomphaia that Jenry carried. She probably could have killed Vyrit, back at the River Blossom, when he had taken her captive; the idea had flashed through her mind, her training instinctively identifying the vulnerable points on his body, the punch she could have delivered to his throat, the knee to the groin or the kick to the stomach.

But she hadn’t resisted him then, despite her instincts, and she wasn’t going to do it now – there wasn’t any point. She was going to die, they were going to die, and the entire town was going to die with them. It was all going to happen tonight, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Katun would die, burned in the demon’s fire, whether she stayed, fought, or ran away, whether she was a protector or a sacrificial lamb. But the fools around her wouldn’t listen to her, couldn’t bear to see that everything they had was going to perish in flames.

It was all going to happen tonight. How did she know it was night? Maeka had been out for an unknown period of time, beaten and kicked into unconsciousness, though she didn’t feel it. She rarely did, rarely let pain bother her. Had she always been this way, or had her master gifted it to her? He had given her so much in the course of his efforts to improve her, to make her a better soldier, a better person, that it was difficult to tell where her natural gifts ended and his began. Even the early parts of her life, the life she had lived by herself before she knew him, were distant and difficult to recollect. Maeka had dim memories of a childhood spent in town not unlike Katun, a mother and a father who were seldom together, a family that had been all but extinguished in a needless war. That had been, what, fifteen, twenty years ago? The war against Thorns had changed her life and led her to embrace the fires that burned her to this day, but it seemed so distant, so meaningless.

The forest was silent. The birds were silent. The thought dashed through Maeka’s head, past the jumbled recollections, flashing clear and bright like a bolt of lightning. That’s how she knew it was evening; the birds were quiet. If it had been morning, the grey time just after dawn, the forest would have been alive with the sounds of all of the little squabbles and self-promotion that greeted every day.

Merdyn pulled on the rope that bound her wrists together, halting her on the road just before the forest.

“Well, where are they?” the senior alderman asked.

“I don’t know,” Vyrit replied, squinting towards the trees. “They should know we’re here.”

“And why do you think that?” Jenry asked.

“They’ve been watching the town and they’ve been looking for her.” Vyrit nodded towards Maeka. “They must have seen us leave Katun.”

“What a rubbish idea,” Jenry said sourly. “You don’t know who these people are or what, if anything, Maeka means to them. So now you’re hoping to sacrifice her, or something, to save your own skin.”

“To save Katun!” Vyrit snapped, wheeling about to face the apothecary. “You saw what was in the forest; you know how dangerous it is. And there’s no doubt that she’s involved with them; everything we know about her, everything that you saw, tells us that.”

“Really? You’re the one telling me that she’s a demon-worshipper, or whatever the nonsense idea is that you’re claiming is true. What I saw tells me that trying to placate this thing, this demon, is madness. We should be listening to her, not dragging her out here to be some sort of sacrifice.”

“Then why didn’t you say something back in town, oh wise and all-knowing medicine man?” Vyrit’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

“Because you’re a stubborn ass and I knew you wouldn’t change your mind in front of the town. I hoped I could make you see reason out here, where there was no one to embarrass yourself in front of.”

“Reason? Don’t you see that she’s one of them? That’s why they’re here, for her. All we need to do is turn over one trouble-maker and all of our problems go away. Surely you can see the reason in that. Or have you suddenly found affection for this dumb cow?”

“I don’t care for her,” Jenry admitted, “but she’s not wicked. We’re not going to save the town by handing over an innocent woman to these demon-kin.”

“Innocent,” Vyrit snorted. “That’s rich. Look: if you don’t like this, go back to the town. Merdyn and I can parlay with them.”

“Now…now…I don’t know…” Merdyn stammered. “We don’t know what these people are all about…”

“What’s to know?” Vyrit said. “They worship demons, and she’s one of them. We get rid of her, they go away. Is that clear enough for you?”

“I don’t know…”

“Oh, don’t be yellow,” Vyrit said dismissively.

As Vyrit talked to Merdyn, Jenry slowly edged his way over to Maeka, taking the rope out of Merdyn’s hands.

“If I can’t get him to give this up,” Jenry whispered, “I’m going to free you. There’s going to be a loud noise and a lot of light; when that happens, I want you to run. Do you understand?”

Maeka stood there, silent, numb.

“Do you understand?” Jenry whispered insistently.

“It doesn’t matter,” Maeka mumbled.

“Just be ready to run, back to the town.”

“We won’t make it.”

“Eh?” Vyrit looked at them. “What’s that?”

“Nothing,” Jenry replied. “She’s just going on again.”

“He thirsts for souls,” Maeka said. “That’s what he does. He uses them as fuel. For his forge.”

“Is that what you do?” Vyrit demanded. “Gather fuel for demon master?”

“Yes. No. He’s not…not my master.”

“Then why do you carry his mark? You’re his slave, you treacherous bitch.”

“No.”

Maeka shuddered, her skin crawling as the memory came back, the memory of the flames that had enveloped her, bonding her to monster in her skin. But that wasn’t her, not anymore. Her past had been written over, replaced by something holy and glorious, something pure. It was the light that filled her, that gave her purpose.

“No,” she said, louder this time.

“Shut up, cow.”

Vyrit raised his sword to strike her with the flat of the blade, but the motion was arrested when Merdyn cried out, pointing towards the edge of the forest. There were people there, Maeka could see, people coming out from under the trees, dressed in red, bearing weapons of iron and brass.

“Oh, hell,” Vyrit muttered. “Looks like they’re here. You two stay here and watch her; I’ll go to speak to them.”

He sheathed his sword, in order to make his approach look more like a mission of peace, and walked down the road, shouting out to the followers of the demon prince. Merdyn shifted back and forth on his feet, nervously, while Jenry stepped up close behind Maeka. One hand held on to the rope that bound her while the other worked a knife against the knots.

“He’s a fool,” Jenry said quietly, “but he’s a brave fool. I’ll give him that much.”

Vyrit wasn’t meeting with any success. He had paused about a hundred feet from the cultists, loudly announcing his intent to parlay. They were ignoring him, marching in a ragged line over the fields towards Katun, several dozen in all. Worse, an large group demons, erymanthoi for the most part, had emerged from the woods as well, loping behind the mortal cultists, their foul scent carrying on the wind. As the cultists neared Vyrit began to backpedal down the road, still calling out in Woodtongue and Riverspeak, trying to get someone, anyone, to talk with him. Frantically, he turned back to Merdyn.

“Bring her here,” Vyrit called out. “Let them see we have her.”

He was too late. The rope fell away from Maeka’s wrists as Merdyn took a hesitant step towards her, Jenry’s small knife finally doing the trick. Merdyn recoiled as Maeka raised her hands to massage the feeling back into them.

“Jenry…what…how?” The senior alderman’s face was a mask of total confusion.

“Back off, Merdyn,” Jenry said sternly. “We’re going back to Katun. You should come with us.”

“But, we have to give her to them.” Merdyn gestured lamely towards the approaching cultists.

“No, we don’t. We’re going now.”

Jenry tugged on Maeka’s arm, pulling her down the road. As he did so his free hand reached into his jacket and pulled out a curious little ceramic pot.

“Jenry!” Vyrit shouted. “Jenry! Stop it! Bring her back!”

Urging Maeka to move faster, Jenry positioned himself in front of the approaching Vyrit and the still baffled Merdyn.

“No closer,” Jenry warned.

“You bastard,” Vyrit growled, drawing his sword. “How could you?”

“No closer, Vyrit.” Jenry raised the pot.

Vyrit ignored him, stalking towards them, his eyes reflecting the glint of his sword as it caught the last rays of the day’s light. With a little sigh Jenry tossed the pot, landing it right in front of Vyrit’s feet. The pot exploded with a burst of flame and a veritable thunderclap, sending Vyrit sprawling backwards and Merdyn tumbling off the raised mound of the road. Evem Maeka felt her ears ring and her body shake, and she was several yards away.

“Run!” Jenry shouted over the ringing. Or maybe it was under the ringing. Maeka was confused.

Either way, she let Jenry pull her down the road to Katun. She felt her boots beat against the dirt more than she heard them, and sparks flashed in her eyes. Something was sticking into her chest; she wondered for a moment if she should stop before realizing that it was Jenry, trying to give her back the rhomphaia. Her legs kept on moving as her arms reached out on their own and took the weapon, slinging the harness over her shoulder. Jenry said something and looked behind them. Maeka followed his gaze to see Vyrit and Merdyn beset by the demons. They didn’t last long.

Maeka was glad she couldn’t hear their screams.

When the neared the stockade Jenry said something again and put a hand on Maeka’s arm to slow her down. Together they approached the gate, where Hulen and group of militiamen stood, scared and hesitant. Jenry started to shout at them and Maeka could decipher about half of the words as the apothecary shooed the villagers away from the gate. Some of them looked at her suspiciously, but most of them were too involved with either pushing the gate into place or watching nervously for approaching demons to give her any trouble.

Things slowly came back into focus as she stood there by the gate and the militiamen rushed to and fro. She was still alive, which she hadn’t expected, and she was armed thanks to Jenry. But fighting was still pointless; flight was the only option against Teth-ahn-Sedurh.

Her hand reached up, over her shoulder, to the hilt of the rhomphaia, the worn leather band a comforting presence, a reminder of what she could still do. There was no need to panic, like she had when she’d heard of the arrival of the demon prince. To lose the ability to think in a situation like this was fatal, so keeping a clear head was essential. It was time to think through what options she had and what she could do with them. She was physically fit, more or less, and the effects of Jenry’s firebomb were fading. She could see now, and hear, the acuity of her senses matching the acuity of her mind. Someone was talking to her.

Maeka blinked. Lyris was there next her, saying something. The gods only knew how long she had been talking, but she was becoming quite animated.

“…and thank goodness you’re alive,” Lyris gushed, her hold on Maeka’s arm tightening. “I thought you were in so much trouble but Jenry was so brave just like I knew he would be and so smart too with that firedust and I don’t even know what else and I hope Vyrit didn’t hurt you but – ohmygosh look at your poor head! There’s so much blood!” She straightened up and put a hand, gently, on Maeka’s scalp. “Does it hurt?”

“No.” Maeka twisted around, looking for Jenry, but it was too dark and there was too much action, too many people in the way.

“Of course it does,” Lyris insisted. “You’re just saying that because you’re brave. Well, don’t be brave right now. Come with me and I’ll clean the wound and maybe we can get Jenry to look it.”

“No. We’re leaving.” Maeka twisted Lyris around, grabbing her by the wrist. Jenry would have to take of himself.

“What? Don’t be silly. You’re hurt and you have to rest. Besides, we have to talk to Jenry and see what he thinks we should do. He knows all kinds of things, you know.”

Maeka frowned and began walking down the River road towards the square, pulling the Lyris behind her. She couldn’t see Jenry and there was no time to waste.

“Hey!” the whore protested. “What are you doing? Let go!”

“We’re going to the docks,” Maeka said grimly, not bothering to turn to look at Lyris. “I don’t think they’ll be on the river yet, and maybe we can get a boat. Do you know how to sail?”

“What? No. And wait up; we’re not going anywhere!”

“Yes we are. If we wait any longer we’re dead.” They were past the square now, the western gate and the docks right in front of them.

“Dead? But…but they’re not here, not yet. And there are two gates and all of the militia and everything else. We have plenty of time and you’re hurt, right? Right? Let go. Let go of me now! Ooof!”

Lyris stumbled, off balance, as Maeka released her arm.

“What are you doing?” Lyris said, propping herself up against a warehouse door.

“Hush,” Maeka said, slowly drawing her sword, scanning the darkness ahead of them. If the militiamen by the gate tried to stop her she would need to be prepared to fight her way out.

There were no lanterns at this gate, and the high walls of the warehouses cast the area into deep shadow. The sun was gone and only faint contrails of light remained in the small patches of purple sky visible through the gaps in the clouds. Maeka couldn’t clearly make out the guards as they shuffled back and forth by the stockade but she could tell there was something wrong with them. The angles were off, as if they didn’t know how to stand upright or move in a straight line, and there was something slow and bestial about their movements.

Maeka glanced over at Lyris, who was silent for a moment, crouched against the warehouse. In wall next to her was a black spike, a couple of feet long. Maeka could see now that the ‘militiamen’ on patrol had similar spikes protruding from their backs.

“Firmin,” she whispered. Demons. Not the brightest or most dangerous of foes, but too many for her to fight.

“Go back to the square,” she whispered to Lyris. “Quietly.”

“What is it?” Lyris whispered back. “We’re not leaving. I knew you wouldn’t leave.”

“Hush.”

As they snuck away a quick glance over her shoulder told Maeka that the firmin were still skulking by the gate, so they had a little time. She flinched at an unexpected touch, but it was just Lyris grabbing her hand again. They were going to die, now that their only route of escape was cut off, so maybe it would be better to kill the whore now and save her from whatever torments might await her? Maeka mulled it over, slowly shifting her sword around.

There was a sudden flash of light from over by the east gate, where Jenry was, drawing all eyes to it by the instant illumination of the glowing dark. At first Maeka thought the apothecary had ignited another one of his firebombs, but the strange light and the screams coming from the gate soon told her otherwise. One of the cultists was using sorcery, then, or possibly a demon was the sorcerer, maybe even Teth-ahn-Sedurh himself. The demons would follow up soon, passing through the stockade in their immaterial forms before descending on the townsfolk and slaughtering them wholesale. They were running out of time.

“Lyris, look at me,” Maeka said, an idea occurring to her. “You have a temple here, in town?” She stepped to the side for a second, snapping a few branches off a nearby bush and scooping some water from a public trough into her empty canteen.

“What?” Lyris didn’t look away from the scene at the far gate, at the carnage that was about to come.

“A temple,” Maeka said urgently, tucking the branches into her harness and pulling Lyris close. “Where is it?”

“Down…down the street.” Lyris pointed feebly across the square, to the Forest road. “There, just past the meeting hall.”

“Let’s go.”

The two women ran across the square, past those few people who weren’t by the stockade or hiding in their homes. Lyris had stopped resisting Maeka’s orders, for which she was thankful: it gave her time to think. The fog of fear that had enveloped her earlier was completely gone, the situation was clear, and a plan had presented itself. It was desperate, it was dangerous, but it wasn’t entirely hopeless. They could certainly make a fight out of it and, at the very least, Maeka would be able to take a few of the Teth-ahn-Sedurh’s slaves with her.

The temple was empty and dark when they got there, its oaken door closed but not locked. It squeaked slightly on its hinges as it opened and Maeka urged Lyris to follow her between the sandstone columns, into the portico. In the cella, the main room of the temple, a few rods of incense were burning, providing dim light. Maeka grabbed the nearest rods and knocked the hot ends off. Then she started to mash them up on the smooth stone floor, mixing in the leaves from the bush and a handful of dirt she had scraped up outside, softening the whole mixture with the water from the canteen.

“Get away from the door,” Maeka called out, softly, to Lyris. “Close it and come over here.”

With a last, nervous glance, Lyris pushed the door shut against its protesting hinges. “What are you doing? Why aren’t we helping them?”

“We’re going to ward the temple against the demons,” Maeka explained “I need you to go to the far wall and make this symbol on every second stone.” She demonstrated on one of the nearby stones, using the mashed-up paste to draw a few straight lines connected by oblique curves. “Do you understand?”

“Yes. But, we should be helping people, shouldn’t we? I mean, what about Jenry? What about everyone else?” The concern was evident on her face, even in the near dark.

“We need to make sure we’re safe first,” Maeka said. “Then we can help the others.”

Lyris seemed to accept that and, taking a handful of the paste, began to draw the symbol around the periphery of the temple. Maeka followed her, half her mind on the formula that she muttered over every symbol to empower it, the other half on the door and what lay on the other side. The temple should be easy to ward, much easier than a normal building, due to the blessings and consecrations of the local spirits, and it Maeka knew she could make the ward strong enough to prevent casual intrusion by the demons. If their mortal masters ordered them to enter the ward wouldn’t help, but she was gambling on the fact that Teth-ahn-Sedurh hated and feared the Unconquered Sun. Hopefully the gods presence would repel the demon prince, which was thin reed to lay her survival on, but it was all that she had.

“That’s good,” Maeka said to Lyris when the final symbol was laid. “Help me move that.” She gestured into the naos, at the bronze disk with the Sun’s symbol on it.

“Okay.”

They gently took the disk off the wall and, as quietly as they could, rolled it over to the door. A quick glance outside revealed a scene of pure chaos, of homes burning and people screaming, of demons howling and blood running in the streets. With a grunt Maeka hung the disk on doorknob and then awkwardly swung the door shut as far as it would go. As wards went it was a feeble thing but, again, her options were limited.

“What now?” Lyris asked, trying to peer around Maeka to look outside, while Maeka tried to position herself to block Lyris’s view.

“Take this.” Maeka pulled out her long dagger and placed it in Lyris’s hands. “Go to the back of the temple and wait there. If anything comes in through the window, if you see anything at all, shout.”

Lyris looked wide-eyed at the dagger. “How do I use it?”

“Hold it in two hands and stab, with the point up. Aim for the belly.”

“But aren’t we…can’t we…” Lyris looked at the door, jammed open just a crack by the disk.

“No.” Maeka shook her head. “I’ll do what I can. You need to go to the back. I’ll be here.”

Lyris hesitated. She turned away but just as quickly turned back, leaning into Maeka and embracing her. “Be okay,” she said, her voice muffled. “Just say you’ll be okay.”

Maeka coughed, embarrassed, trying to keep her sword away from Lyris and disentangle herself from the girl at the same time. “I’ll be fine. Now, go to the back of the temple.”

“I just want you to be safe, that’s all.”

“I’ll try.”

“We’re not going to make it,” Lyris sighed. “You were right all along. I should have run away with you this morning.”

“Right. Well, um, thank you for rescuing me.”

“That was all Jenry’s doing. He did it on his own; I didn’t even need to encourage him like I thought I would. He’s a great guy.” Lyris looked up, her face streaked with tears. “We should try to help him, find him. We can’t leave him out there!”

Maeka shook her head. “No, it’s all we can do to look after ourselves. Now, go to the back of the temple and wait. I’ll keep watch here.”

“Okay,” Lyris sniffled. “Just be safe.”

The girl let go and slipped back into the darkness, away from the flickering light of the fires that traced an unsteady path through the door. Maeka took up a position to the side of the door so that she would be behind it when it opened, to make it easier to surprise anyone who entered. The position also meant that she couldn’t look out on the murder of Katun, at all of the deaths she was responsible for, even if she could hear the screams of pain and rage that echoed down the two pathetic streets. Innocent lives taken because of her greed, her cowardice, her thirst for power, but she couldn’t do anything about it. She had assured their deaths when she had accepted the mark of the demon prince and opened the path for him, showing him the way into Creation. She was a wicked, wicked thing, no better than the erymanthoi rampaging outside and just as deserving of a swift, painful death.

No! Her temples throbbed and her ears rang, blocking out the sounds of slaughter. She was a glorious weapon, an instrument of righteousness, a weapon against the darkness. With her sword she would redeem this world and cast the wicked things back into their prisons. She had erred, once, she had sinned, but she had been shown the path to the light. The taint of evil had been scoured from her, body and soul, by her illuminated master, and she had been reforged. She was a servant of the Sun Himself, a lover of virtue, full and upright in His eyes, acting at the behest of the most holy of His Chosen. By giving herself wholly, completely to the righteous cause she had cast aside the sins of her old life and been born anew.

“No.”

Her hands hurt. She was gripping the hilt of the rhomphaia so tightly that her knuckles were white and her palms hurt from the imprint of the leather binding. Breathing deeply, she loosened her grasp, suppressing the impulses inside her for a little while longer. She needed to calm down, she needed to be focused and alert. Someone was coming.

There were voices at the door, the sharp sound of Riverspeak. Maeka held her breath as the emblem of the sun clattered and the door squeaked open, slowly. The cultists were entering, boots and blades bloody, but although their swords were unsheathed their manner was relaxed, casual. They weren’t expecting trouble in the temple; they were just looking for something to loot. Maeka closed her eyes for a moment as she cleansed her mind of thought, tapping into the complex weaves of essence that made up the core of her being, that made up the core of everything. She was one with everything, one with Creation, a light against the darkness. Not a candle held in her master’s hand but a light that glowed with its own power, a soul that paced its own path. The light was armor, and a weapon. A shield, and a purpose. With nothing more than a supreme exercise of will it was done; her essence was free and she was ready.

Maeka counted silently behind the open door – one, two, three, four. A bad number, even worse than three, but she had all of the advantages she would need. Two of them had stopped in the portico, in front of the carved pillars, the third was walking to other side of the temple, away from Maeka, while the fourth was still in the doorway. None of them could see very well, their eyes still adjusting from the lights of the fires to the dim darkness of the temple.

With a grunt Maeka kicked the door as hard as she could. It slammed into the cultist, sending him sprawling, then a second kick smashed him between the door and the post, breaking ribs with an audible crack. The motion prompted the other cultists to turn around, but Maeka was faster and she delivered a two-handed swing before they were ready. She was stronger than them! Die!

The blade was stuck in the second one’s skull. Idiot! She’d swung too hard! With a shriek she wrenched the rhomphaia free, taking most of the head with it and laying a clumsy blow into the third one. It was sloppy, but it was enough to force him back. Recover? No, attack! Kick, smash, headbutt! He’s falling; out of the fight? No, just stunned. Where’s the fourth?

To the right, near the door, ready to fight. Maeka sliced at his ribs – parried. Push in, resisted. Go with it, run the rhomphaia up the his blade, up to the hilt. Wind and bind and push. Push! She was stronger, damn it! Stonger!

He cried out as the sword was torn away and he tried to escape. Don’t let him. Swing to the collarbone, it snaps, blood everywhere. Draw cut, out and away. A second swing finishes him. Back to the third one, still on the ground? No, he’s up, but unsteady. Kill! More yelling, but he can’t stop her. His hand’s cut at the wrist, almost severed. A cut to his belly, but that’s a bad blow, not fatal. The throat! Yes! More blood. He’s done.

Maeka whipped around at the sound of the opening door. The first one was escaping, out into the street, calling for help, and the shouts of his fellow cultists and the grunts of the demons responded. How much time did she have? Not much.

A firmin was already at the door, sniffing and growling, reluctant to enter. Lunging out of the dark the rhomphaia glowed with sudden power, catching the demon under the chin and sending it hurling back with a sharp crack. It tumbled down the short stairwell, almost knocking down the blood ape that was the next to attack. Outside the black of night was filled with the glow of fires, as the meager wealth of Katun burned in devotion to a fallen god. There were people out here, in the streets, some of them dead, murdered by the demons, but more of them bound a beaten, fuel gathered for the forge of Teth-ahn-Sedurh, innocent victims to be sacrificed. Maeka ignored them; her only concern was her enemies, the demons gathering around the temple, the blood ape attacking her. She stepped into the doorway to meet it, parrying its first blow, twisting the crude club to the side.

Duck! The demon’s fist smashed into the doorway, sending out a spray of sandstone. Again! Again! It’s closing in, negating the length of the rhomphaia. The foul, rancid breath. Hit! It’s too weak, no damage. The light is a shield, a purpose. Step back, draw it on, swing! Swing! Kill!

The light exploded from the demon. It howled, a sound echoed by the other demons by the temple as the fire coursed from one to another. The light is a weapon! Maeka cut it again and again and it tumbled down the steps. There’s the wounded Firmin, finish it, then back up the steps.

“Halt.”

The voice was horrible, a grind and scream and a chorus and an orchestra. It could not be denied.

“What dost thou doest?”

Maeka’s head turned, against her will, to look on Teth-ahn-Sedurh, in the still burning cadaver of a house across the street. The demon prince’s iron armor wept rust, and the steam from the molten brass seeped between the plates. The face – the awful, handsome, perfect face – smiled.

“I know thee, do I not?”

She was frozen, on the bottom step. Half a dozen more would take her to the temple, to a better battleground, but she couldn’t. He wouldn’t allow it.

“Thou art my priestess, yes?” Teth-ahn-Sedurh moved closer, and she could feel the heat now, radiating from the forge that was his soul.

“N-n-no,” Maeka stammered. She had to fight, run, something. Anything!

Nothing.

“Yes. It was by thine beckoning that I was called forth, Aikiri Maeka. And for that, I thank thee.” The mocking smile made her weep in agony. “Of course, such things are, by their nature, transitory, and thine summoning faded. No small labor by thine fellows was needed to call me forth again, but it was labor well done, was it not?”

“Y-y-yes.”

“A fine thing, one that I shall further reinforce with the vital energies of these mortal playthings. A fine thing. Yet thou were not there for my arrival, and I have not heard thine prayers for some time now. Tell me, hast thou turned against me?”

A step, just one step. Do it! Maeka backed up the stairs, away from the demon prince.

“I am told thou hadst. That thou hadst fallen in with mine enemies and turned against me.” Teth-ahn-Sedurh sighed, the gasp of the bellows. “For that, you shall be chastised most severely.”

Another half step away.

“Unless,” he said with sickening empathy, “thou wouldst rather surrender? Admit thine wrongdoing, plead for my forgiveness, and I shall take thee back into my good graces. It is a fair thing that I offer you, is it not?”

“I won’t,” Maeka whispered.

“But thou must.”

“I won’t. Not again. You can’t make me.” The light was a shield and a purpose.

“I will not require thee to do anything. All things done shall be of thine own choosing, as they always have.” Even though he was at the bottom of the stairs his face was level with hers, and his massive feet scorched a marking into the squealing stone.

“You can…” The light was armor and a weapon. The light was…oh, what did it matter? She was going to die anyway.

Kill! The blow was aimed at Teth-ahn-Sedurh’s head, right at that smile made of molten brass. The rhomphaia cut a trail of fire through the air, but the demon’s sword swung out in a lazy arc to block it and it shattered. Maeka’s hands went numb with pain as the white-hot fragments of her weapon ricocheted off the steps, broken by the demon’s mastery, the useless hilt tumbling from her fingers as the force of the parry knocked her off her feet. She fell back, but she didn’t fall. Teth-ahn-Sedurh’s gauntlet shot out, grabbing both of her forearms, and he lifted her up into the air. The pressure was unbearable, and Maeka could feel her bones shatter and her flesh burn.

“I had forgotten thee, Aikiri Maeka,” the demon hissed. “I made no mark of thine transgressions, carried no ire against thee. But I am happy that chance brought me here, that I may punish thine arrogance.”

His words resonated inside of her with terrible finality, a symphony of malice. There was another sound, too, an awful, soul-wrenching scream of agony, that Maeka could hear over the burning of the village, over the depredations of the demons, even over Teth-ahn-Sedurh. Some small, distant corner of her mind recognized that the scream was hers.

“If thou hast forsaken my patronage to be with the treacherous gods, then go! See what succor they have to offer, dog!”

He tightened his grip, grinding her hands into a pulp, mashing her arms into mangled nothingness. The fire spread from his hands and coursed down her body, suffusing it with agony, making muscles spasm and joints protest. Then, with a contemptuous snort, the demon prince flung her into the door of the temple, splintering the wood and smashing the disk of sun, before she finally collided with the columns of the portico and tumbled to the ground.

It was dark inside, with only a little light from burning Katun. She couldn’t move, but she was moving. She was so cold, so warm, and she was moving, back into the temple, away from the fire. The only thing she could feel was her heartbeat, a faint, halting thrum that made her body shriek in time, even as it grew weaker and faded away. Everything was dark around her, but it was getting lighter, a golden glow that spread everywhere.

Outside, the sun was rising, and the birds were singing.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey
 
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Henry
Essence 5
Essence 5
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Joined: 14 Sep 2010, 18:48
Title: Lookshyan brat
Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
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Artifact: Magitech and heirlooms
Location: Rhode Island

Re: A Tattoo of the Sun (Part 9 added)

06 Sep 2011, 15:54

Here's the final bit. Enjoy.

Part 10

The door shuddered, and then gave way completely, tearing away from its battered hinges. When it struck the ground it bounced off the flagstones of the temple floor with an echoing thud, like the beat of an impossibly large drum. Sunlight poured into the temple, sketching out the dead bodies and pools of blood, tracing over the battered columns, chipped and shattered from the demons’ assault.

Lyris shuffled back around the column, away from the door, keeping the dagger in front of her. It wasn’t a perfect hiding place, back in the cella, but at least the columns blocked the view from the door. Maeka groaned and Lyris patted her on the shoulder, trying to calm her. Lyris had been able to drag Maeka into the cella and out of sight but no further, so Lyris had stayed with her, waiting for the awfulness outside to end, waiting for Maeka to die. Her wounds were so terrible Lyris was surprised that she hadn’t died already, but somehow she hung on, crying out unconsciously from the pain.

“Hello?” a man’s voice called out. “Is there anyone in here?”

There was an awkward sound of someone walking over the fallen door, which splintered and creaked in response.

“Hello?” The same deep voice. He had a foreign accent that kind of sounded like Maeka’s. “I’m here to help.”

Lyris stayed as quiet as possible, the dagger trembling in her hand. The noises from outside had been terrible, and the smell of burning wood and straw and flesh lay on everything like a filthy veneer. The violence had gone on all night and had climaxed at dawn in an awful sound like a thousand blacksmiths banging on a thousand horseshoes all at once.

As the sound of approaching footsteps got louder Lyris tried to steel herself. Maybe if she killed this one person they would leave her and Maeka alone. After all, the demon-worshippers hadn’t bothered to come into the temple after Maeka had fought them, though maybe, judging by Maeka’s condition, they hadn’t thought it necessary.

But now they were here and Lyris would fight them. She would stab them right in the bellies, just like Maeka had told her, and kill them. She would do it. Really, she would. The footsteps echoed around the cella as the man came into view.

“There you are,” he said in a calm voice. “Take it easy, I want to help you.”

He was huge, the tallest man Lyris had even seen, with broad shoulders to match. His features were dark and sharp, as flat-planed as the images carved into the columns, and he wore an elaborate breastplate of white and gold, which was so beautiful it must have been worth more than everything in Karun put together. It was entrancing, the way it sparkled and gleamed, the way the gold inlay traced elaborate, finely carved patterns through the white plates.

It was jade. Lyris recognized the material as being the same as the money she had given to Jenry last week to pay for Maeka’s medicine, though the form and style of the breastplate couldn’t be any more different from the coins, a work of art that was beyond the crude and vulgar. Slung across his back was a long white spear of similar design, with a sharp, broad head. Only a hero would wear something like that – an Exalt. The dagger slipped, pointing away from the man, towards the floor.

“Your friend, she’s hurt.” The Dragon-blood gestured to Maeka. “I can help her.”

“You can help?” Lyris asked, hesitantly.

“Yes. I can take her to a healer.”

“But…but…the demons! They…they hurt her! And they’re everywhere…”

The man squatted down and gently placed one of his huge hands on Lyris’s knee. “You don’t have to worry about them, they’re all gone. There’s no one here who can hurt you.”

“Gone?”

“Yes, gone. My comrades defeated them.”

“So you are a Dragon-blood,” Lyris exhaled thankfully. “You came here to save us.”

“I did what I could. But don’t worry about that; what matters is you’re safe now.”

“Oh, thank you,” Lyris exhaled as she started to cry. “It was so awful! There were so many of them and I could hear what they were doing and I could hear the screams but I couldn’t do anything to help so I had to hide and then Maeka had to fight them but the demon prince hurt her and she’s hurt so bad and I just don’t know what I can do…”

“Don’t worry,” the man said. “Let me take a look at your friend and I’ll take both of you somewhere safe.”

He half pushed, half carried Lyris to the side, away from Maeka. Lyris couldn’t stand to look at her now, not in the light. In the dark the mangled ruin of her hands hadn’t been so bad, the tangled, melted mess of her armor and the stink of burned meat could be ignored. But now the splintered, jagged bits of bone and red flesh demanded to be looked at, and the blood was everywhere. That anyone had to suffer like that, especially someone that Lyris loved, was enough to make her sick to her stomach.

After checking to make sure Lyris wasn’t hurt, the Dragon-blood started by working on Maeka’s armor, his soft touch turning hard as he wrenched away the fused metal plates and tore at the tough leather. With careful precision he cleaned away the area around her wounded hands, probing for any blades or arrowheads that might have been lodged there, unseen. Finally, he poured a little water from a canteen into his hands and used it to clear away some of the blood on Maeka’s face to make sure he wouldn’t reopen any head wounds by moving her.

He paused for a moment, touching Maeka’s face, pulling her hair to the side. “Your friend,” he asked, “is she from here? From your village?”

“No,” Lyris replied. “She came here, but she shouldn’t have. Oh, poor Maeka!”

“Maeka?”

“That’s….that’s her name. I’m Lyris.”

“Hmm.” The man looked at her and gave a smile as white and as clean as marble. “Well, Lyris, I’m Nakadai. What do you say we get Maeka some help?”

“Alright.”

Nakadai grunted a little as he picked Maeka up, but even she looked small in his massive arms. Lyris followed him, picking her way around the dead demon-worshipers Maeka had killed and over the broken door, somehow managing to avoid stepping in the blood that was pooled on the floor. Outside it was just starting to get light, which didn’t make sense to Lyris. By her estimate the sun had risen over an hour ago and should be well into the sky by now, not barely hovering over the tree tops. Maybe she had imagined it, the golden light that had flickered in time with the sounds of battle, moving about like a living thing.

“Careful,” Nakadai said. “Stay next to me; I don’t want you get hurt.”

He nodded to debris that filled the streets, the shattered remnants of the burned-out houses, broken barrels, scattered tiles, a dead dog, a dead horse. Lyris even saw some dead people, their forms unnaturally stiff and still, lying in a ruined house or sprawled in the streets. She made a point of not looking too closely and instead stayed as close to Nakadai as possible, fixing her gaze firmly on his feet.

“Wait here,” he said, putting Maeka down next to a bench. They were in the square now, the corner where the merchants from down river would set up their stalls on market days. The square itself was oddly clean with only a few signs of violence marring it; all of the debris seemed to have been swept to the edges.

Nakadai walked over to a short woman with black hair and talked to her in a low voice, speaking in what Lyris thought was Riverspeak. She could only make out a few of the words. The woman asked a question, looking at Lyris, and Nakadai nodded. She sighed and said something else to Nakadai, giving him instructions. She was pretty in a severe sort of way, her short hair pulled away from her face in a tight braid, her clothing decidedly less martial and more revealing than Nakadai’s. Was she a Dragon-blood too? Lyris wondered.

Nakadai left on the road that led to the forest, and the woman came over to Lyris.

“Are you hurt?” she asked in fluent Forest-tongue.

“No, but…but she’s…well…” Lyris patted Maeka.

“Ah.” The woman cocked her head to the side in an odd motion that reminded Lyris of a bird. “The two of you are close. Your name?”

“Lyris.”

“Well, Lyris, I am Mesendre. Why don’t I tend to your friend and make her better?” She smiled, but there wasn’t any warmth to it.

“Okay.”

Lyris let Mesendre shoo her to the side, but she watched carefully as the stranger began to probe and prod Maeka in a much more expert way than Nakadai had done. After pausing to take out a box from a satchel on her back, Mesendre rolled up her sleeves. Lyris had to stifle a gasp – swirling and coursing up and down her arms were tattoos of glowing silver metal, and a hollow ring of silvery light had appeared on her forehead. She was an Ogre!

“Don’t worry,” Mesendre said, sensing Lyris’s discomfort. “I won’t hurt her.”

“You won’t!” Lyris squeaked. “But you’re an Anathema!”

“Yes, if you want to call it that,” Mesendre said drily. “I could argue with you and tell you how everything you know is a lie, but I’d rather save your friend’s life. Don’t you agree that’s a better use of my time?”

Lyris was frozen, silent.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.” Opening her box, Mesendre took out a sparkling golden needle. “Now, let’s see what we can do here.”

She gestured sharply with her hand and, horrifyingly, one of her fingernails extended into a long, wicked talon. She used to cut away what remained of Maeka’s jacket and shirt, then her pants, leaving her with only her underclothes and exposing her bruised and bloodied skin to the morning air. Then, with expert precision, Mesendre stuck the needle into the flesh above Maeka’s heart, where it dangled limply. That was followed by seven more needles of different colors, each of them inserted into a different point on Maeka’s body.

Exhaling slowly, Mesendre began to massage Maeka’s shattered arms, running her fingers over the splintered bones and torn muscles. Lyris watched with morbid fascination as the Anathema’s magic slowly repaired the damage, pushing bones back into place, healing cuts and bruises, even replacing lost chunks of flesh and burnt skin. Once she was done with the arms Mesendre healed Maeka’s other injuries, paying special attention to ribs.

“Hmm.” Mesendre frowned. “This is odd.”

She prodded the scar on Maeka’s face, the one that ran across her eye. Then there was a flash of light in her silver tattoos and she stuck her hand into Maeka’s head, her fingers sliding into Maeka’s wound like some sort of awful maggot. Lyris shrieked, a short, frightened wail, and took a step towards the Anathema.

“Stop it,” Mesendre said, not bothering to look up. “Sit down. I need quiet.”

That seemed like a reasonable request, so Lyris took a step backwards and sat down heavily on a bench. Mesendre stayed focused on Maeka, molding the scar back together and even reaching into her eye, treating her flesh like it was clay. It made Lyris sick to watch, but she didn’t say anything. Mesendre wanted her to be quiet, after all.

Finally, the Anathema was done. She took her needles out and carefully cleaned them off before putting them back in the box.

“There – all done,” she said, a note of satisfaction in her voice, “Now, why don’t you get some water?”

That also seemed reasonable to Lyris. She picked out Maeka’s canteen from the pathetic scraps of her belongings and walked over to one of the troughs on the far side of the square, down by the River Blossom. The public house was still standing, though the stables were scorched and the doors and windows were all broken. It was over, Lyris suddenly realized. Her life here in Katun was over, broken like the glass windows that lay scattered on the street. There was no reason for her to stay here, and every reason to leave, so why didn’t she run away from the Anathema fast as she could?

Maeka. She couldn’t leave her with that awful thing. Maybe she could sneak her away when the Anathema wasn’t looking, or maybe the demon would lose interest and leave them alone. Oh, what rotten luck, to be rid of one demon only to have another one land right on top of them!

Lyris reluctantly walked to Mesendre, her hand drifting towards the dagger she had shoved into her belt. The Anathema was too strong to be killed by a mortal weapon, Lyris guessed, but maybe she could be scared away. Were Anathema afraid of iron, like the Fair Folk were? Lyris just didn’t know. Mesendre’s back was towards her, though, so maybe she should try to sneak up on her and get lucky? But if she hurt her but didn’t kill her, how was Lyris supposed to get Maeka out of here? She could barely drag the older woman across the temple floor; carrying her through a ruined town while escaping from a mad demon was out of the question.

The Anathema was ignoring her, busily fiddling with some strange contraption from her pouch, so Lyris went over to Maeka. It was strange to see her face unblemished, the scar gone, her eye whole, and she looked peaceful and rested, even though she was covered in blood. Lyris started to fix that, using the water in the canteen to clean off the worst of the gore, but as she did so she made certain to keep the dagger close at hand, just in case Mesendre came closer. Maybe Lyris would use the dagger on the Anathema, or maybe she would plead for their lives. She had to do something, though.

As Lyris debated she noticed someone else approaching from the far side of the square. It was Nakadai, and walking in front of him was young man in armor made of gold. If Nakadai’s armor was worth everything in Katun then the other man’s armor must have been worth everything in the Exarchate. It wasn’t very heavy armor, like the kind the Exarch’s cavalry wore, but every inch of the golden plate was covered in fine filigree that took Lyris’s breath away, and the effect was only enhanced by the way the armor sparkled in the sun.

If the armor was impressive then its wearer was doubly so. Like Maeka he had red hair, but while hers was dull and brown his was bright and fiery. And he was handsome, oh gods was he handsome, as perfect an image as Lyris had even seen, with a smile that made her want to melt. She barely even noticed the burning disk of golden light on his forehead, the one that brought a second dawn with it.

“Hello, Mesendre,” the Blasphemous called out. “All set here?”

“Yes,” she replied, standing up. “And you? It’s all done?”

“Yep. I was telling Nak here that the boys and I just finished with the rest of them. Nasty pieces of work, these cultists; fought to the last.”

“A shame,” Mesendre murmured, “I would have liked to have questioned them.”

“What’s to question them about?” he snorted. “They’re crazy; we stopped them. And besides, it not like they could do much after Nak and I killed their demon prince. Whew, was that a fight. I haven’t had that much fun since Nexus.”

“Technically, Teth-ahn-Sedurh was not a demon prince. He was a demon of the second circle and only the demons the third circle, the component souls of the Yozis themselves, are princes.”

“Is that right?” the man said, frowning. “Huh. Never knew that.”

“I’ve explained it to you many times.”

“Really? Must have slipped my mind. Anyway, moot point – that son of a bitch is dead and he won’t be bothering anybody anymore. Still…” The man looked around the square, clenching his jaw. “Damn shame, what they did here. We should have got here sooner.”

“We moved as quickly as we could,” Mesendre said reassuringly. “There was no way to tell where they were until they actually did something.”

“That’s an easy excuse, but it won’t bring these poor people back.”

“It was inevitable.”

“Nothing’s inevitable!” the man snapped. “Especially not something like this!”

Mesendre shrugged. “We can’t be everywhere; sometimes we have to accept the good with the bad.”

“I refuse to accept that! These people didn’t have to die; we have to be quicker next time we get a lead on the demons.”

“We will.”

The man bit his lip, running his hand though his hair. “Nak tells me that this is everyone.” He pointed at Lyris and Maeka. Lyris silently thrilled at the attention. “They’re the only survivors.”

“I looked everywhere,” Nakadai said softly. “It could be that someone’s still out there, hiding, but I doubt it. They even killed the children.”

“Children,” the golden man snarled. “Especially the children, I bet. Black-hearted bastards.”

“They usually are,” Mesendre said. “But there’s something strange going on here, Davean – look who Nakadai found in the temple.”

Following her gesture the man, Davean, looked over at Maeka, who was still lying on the ground, unconscious.

“I know her, don’t I?” he asked, his eyes widening.

“Maeka,” Nakadai supplied.

“Right,” Davean said with a snap of his fingers. “Aikiri Maeka. One of us. But she’s dead.”

“Evidence suggests otherwise,” Mesendre said.

“If she was alive I would have known,” he insisted. “I marked her.”

“And she cut it out,” Mesendre said grimly.

“You can do that?” Davean asked.

“Apparently so. She gouged out the side of her face to get rid of the essence mark. It was a real mess before I fixed it.”

“But why would she do that?”

“Maybe she joined back up with…them,” Nakadai said.

“Not possible,” Davean insisted. “She’s a good person – you know that Nak; you trained with her, fought with her. She was as committed to the Sun as anyone I’ve ever seen, and she certainly didn’t have any love for Teth-ahn-Sedurh, not after what happened in Mishaka. I did everything I could to rid her of those memories and turn her towards the light. There’s no way she could have regressed.”

“Perhaps the girl knows something.” Mesendre nodded in Lyris’s direction.

“Let’s find out.”

Lyris was on the ground, next to Maeka, and Davean crouched down next to her. It was too much for Lyris, to have an Anathema so close to her, especially one so terrible and awesome as the Blasphemous, and she began to edge away.

“Don’t worry,” Davean said soothingly, “I’m not going to hurt you. You’re Lyris, right?”

Lyris nodded. He took her hand in his, and she stopped inching away.

“Well, Lyris, what can you tell me about this lady? Was she a bad person?”

“N-no.” Gods, he was beautiful!

“Did she work with the demons? Did she try to hurt you?”

“No, sir.” The title seemed inappropriate for the Blasphemous, but Lyris felt she needed some term of respect for him. “She was a good person and she tried to protect Katun but…but the demon hurt her, you know?”

“She fought them?”

“Yes, she was very brave, and she killed them when they tried to hurt us. But the demon prince was too strong and…oh, it was so terrible! She tried to fight him but he hurt her so badly!”

“I see. She was hurt while opposing the forces of darkness. Well, that’s reassuring to hear.” He smiled at Lyris and her heart sang with joy. “You’ve been very helpful Lyris, and you’re very brave. I know you’ve suffered through a lot but I’m here to protect you now, so don’t worry.”

He turned away from Lyris, over to Maeka, and put a hand on her forehead. There was a flash of light, a beam of energy that passed between them, and with a gasp Maeka woke up. Davean put a hand on her shoulder to stop her from rising too quickly.

“Be calm,” he said. “Be calm.”

“Master!” Maeka gasped.

“That’s right, I’m here and you’re safe. Everything is alright.”

“No,” Maeka said hoarsely. “You can’t be here. The demons…”

“Won’t trouble anyone, not anymore. Nak and I took care of Teth-ahn-Sedurh and his hellspawn, and I understand that you did what you could. I can’t tell you how proud I am that you followed your training; you’re a true child of the Unconquered Sun.”

“I’m a child of the Sun,” she echoed.

“That’s right. I must admit: at first I was worried that you had fallen back into the demon’s clutches, but now I see that you may have strayed from the path, but you never left its course. Isn’t that right?”

“I didn’t…I can’t…” Maeka took an awkward roll away from Davean, towards Lyris.

“Hey now, be calm!” he cautioned. “Don’t strain yourself.”

Maeka extended her hand, and at first Lyris thought she was reaching out to her, and she moved to meet her. But then she saw the dagger in Maeka’s hand, picked up off the ground where Lyris had left it. Maeka took the weapon in an underhand grip, concealing the blade against her forearm.

“I can’t do it,” she whispered. “I can’t go back.”

Lyris stared at Maeka, scared by the wild look in her eyes, by the desperation in her voice.

“What’s the problem?” Davean asked, shuffling closer.

Maeka twisted back around, freeing the hand with the knife. With sudden, shocking speed she tightened her grip on the hilt and took a wild stab, not at Davean but at her own neck. Davean cried out, and moved with a speed that put Maeka’s reflexes to shame, grabbing her wrist and wrenching the knife away. It landed with a muted thud and tumbled away on the brown grass of the square.

“Hey!” Davean exclaimed.

Nakadai took half a step towards them, but stopped with a sorrowful look on his face. Mesendre merely raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Calm down,” Davean said, pressing Maeka back to the ground. “Everything’s alright.”

“No it isn’t!” Maeka spat. “Leave me alone!”

“I can’t do that,” Davean said in a soothing voice. “It’s for your own good. You’re confused, Maeka, and not thinking clearly. The wicked things are gone, now, and I’m here to help you.”

“No! Get away! I can’t…I can’t take it!”

“Yes, you can. You’re strong, you’re pure. You’re a soldier of virtue; you can do this.”

“No, I can’t,” she gasped.

“Yes, you can,” Davean insisted. “And I’m here to help you.”

Maeka blinked, confused. “Help?” she asked, finally.

“That’s right, I’m here to help. I’ll always be here to help you, to help anyone who needs to see the light.”

Lyris could see the truth in what he was saying, and she wondered how anyone could ever doubt it. How could anyone question someone so pure, so virtuous as Davean? Why was Maeka trying to resist?

“You want to be one with light, don’t you?” Davean asked. “Don’t you want the Sun to love you? Don’t you want to do the right thing?”

“I…I do,” Maeka said.

“Good,” Davean smiled. “And you don’t need to hurt yourself – you’ve done nothing wrong.”

“I haven’t.”

“There’s no need to be ashamed about running away, or fighting to protect the people here. I’m sure you had good reasons for everything you’ve done, and you don’t need to worry about me. I still care for you. Ignis Divine still cares for you.”

“He does?” Maeka seemed to be wavering; she wasn’t struggling against Davean any more and her expression was one of confusion, not desperation.

“Of course He does. All you need to do is get back on the right path; can you do that?”

“I can.”

“Wonderful.” Davean let go of Maeka and stood up, offering her his hand. She took it.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, looking at her feet. “I’m sorry that I didn’t trust you. Forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive. Now, will you come with me? There are people out there, waiting for our help, an entire world to save.”

Maeka smiled, shyly. “You’re so kind. Thank you…master.”

“There’s a good girl.” Then, Davean glanced over at Lyris. “You should travel with us, Lyris. It’s too dangerous for you to be here alone, and we can take you to the next city.”

Maeka looked at her and nodded encouragingly. Lyris beamed, flattered that Davean was paying attention to her.

“I’ll come,” Lyris said. “I’ll do anything you want me to do.”

As Davean led the way out of the ruined town Lyris hurried to get next to Maeka, coyly slipping her hand in Maeka’s, weaving their fingers together. It didn’t matter what had happened to Katun, what had happened to her old life; all that mattered now was their future. Wherever Davean led them, whatever troubles confronted them, they would face it together.
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey

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