My Duelyst Lore
The Lore/Unit Stories I wrote for the hit Tactical CGC Duelyst.
A couple of years ago, I got very addicted to a game I backed on Kickstarter. That game was Duelyst, a grid-based tactical PvP game with a CGC/deck-building element. The concept was created by ex-Diablo 3 veteran Keith Lee, an absolutely lovely guy with a huge imagination.
Long story short, I leveraged my fan-knowledge and imagination to get invited to join the Lore writing team, to which I contributed on and off for about two years. Below are my contributions to the unit lore of the game, including a number of the ‘hero’ units, the Generals.
Faie Bloodwing — Vanar General
Pt 1: Transformation
Month of Erewhon
My instincts tell me something is deeply wrong, even before my eyes open. I feel dulled, as when I roost, head heavy with satiety after gorging on a swift kill, head tucked into my plumage. Only, I do not feel sated, or warm, or safe.
When I open my eyes, everything is blurry, and my head doesn’t move quickly enough. Instead of acute, pin point focus in my peripheral vision it takes an age to crane my neck around and focus. Something terribly unnatural is happening. I can see arms, and long, slender legs the colour of my winter feathers. Feathers I can’t ruffle. I scream, and the sound — coarse, wordless, far from my booming, harmonic Wolfenhawk screech — makes me scream more, and weep.
Later, exhausted, my eyes open again. My stomach lurches again, not from pain, but because I am thinking… in words. My body and mind is now slow, ungainly, and beset with feelings I shouldn’t know the names for, let alone have.
I lift my ponderous eyes and behold the thing I know in my gut has caused this, and I hate it with a roiling rage. It towers over me. Grooves in the bark channel the snow melt, giving it the appearance of shifting and pulsing constantly. Its roots cascade in a tumble for miles.
My instinct is to attack, but my new mind asks “with what tools?” I see fallen petals…just one or two, and they glimmer with an intensity beyond hoarfrost. I see that one looks half eaten. Some kind of sap leaks from the tear, and I realise in horror I know how it tastes.
‘Aperion’, the wind whispers into my still foggy mind. ‘Aperion, your mother, your master.’ And my mind is wrenched suddenly into a terrifyingly tactile void. It is memory.
I am coasting on the thermals, a long way from roost but the hunting has been good here — the prey abundant, careless. My brothers and sisters of the wing are barely bothering to coordinate, each engaged in something more akin to play. As First Talon I ate my fill first, and now I watch idly. Then — a beast we have not yet tasted emerges from a drift.
The Wing hoots with awakened hunger. They defer to my beak, my claws, willing me to make the first dive. We harry it up the mountain, where it becomes more exposed, and I do dive, senses afire. The beast pulls up, impossibly fast, as thought it had hit an invisible wall. And I miss. I make to wheel round but the current has changed, and my wings do not catch, my tail feathers offer no rudder.
My vision is suddenly obscured by a mass of bark and I smash against it, wings dragging, tumbling down. I can hear my Wing, but they are far away and cannot reach me. Something flutters to the ground near to my head, and it looks edible. It looks inviting even, despite it clearly not being meat, and I manage to pierce it with my beak. I’m surprised to find that it’s warm, the universe seems to pivot around me, and I remember no more.
Pt 2 : Hawkenwolf
The Month of Sienar
I stumbled back into the town, dripping a long trail of crimson from countless lacerations. The Razorback lay dead at the beginning of that bloody line, its axe now clasped in my hand.
Some time later I choked down my pride and traipsed into the first weaponsmith’s parlour I could find. The old man spied the axe I brandished, and the crusted blood, and recoiled in horror.
“No danger. You buy this. Make me a proper talon. Look, I show.”
I grabbed a nearby piece of mostly blank parchment and a quill (‘stolen from one of my kind’) and scratched a rough diagram.
“This is…quite the outlandish design. Are you -”
The man took one look up at my face from behind his round glasses and changed tack quicker than a frightened shrew.
“The barrel blade I will need to refine with Draugur fats. Only the horn of a Rhyno will suit a stock strong and light enough. A lens ground from volcanic quartz will serve adequately as a sight.”
Quite the errand list. I picked up the chipped axe from the counter, grunted a promise and set to work.
The Draugar fat was simple enough. I tracked the scent of one of the reclusive giants from a sheltered ice cave I had some half-glimpsed trace memory of flying past in my other life. I tracked ahead of its foraging route and lay in ambush on the lip of a ledge overhead. I landed at the nape of its neck, and began hacking through the tough hide.
The beast damn near threw me off the side of the mountain in its struggle, but the grotesquely muscled arms could not reach the blind spot I had chosen. Remorse stung me, but all was prey when necessary to Faie. I carved out only what was necessary and left the rest as an easy feast for my old kind — or whatever else stumbled upon it.
The Rhyno were less solitary and much more dangerous. An ambush was needed, a shallow pit covered with a thin layer of ice and snow. The time came to spook a small herd and hope for the sure-footed beasts to put one hoof wrong for once. It took me two days, and another half-day still to carve the horn free of gristle and bone.
By the time I found a cave those walls glinted with deposits of volcanic quartz, I was half starved and colder than a Snow Chaser’s arse. My axe had nearly splintered entirely from its previous harvests and I considered the task of scraping enough deposit from the frozen walls with dismay.
As I chipped away, I became aware of a faint keening that I had believed at first was my blade’s distressing of the cave’s insides. I ventured deeper inside and found an injured Wolfenhawk, wing somehow trapped in a flash-freeze. The high pitched whine was wordless but it spoke perfectly to my mind. ‘My wing’ she cried, ‘what if I never fly again?’
I looked at what was left of my blade. At the calcified, ice-encrusted ore I would need for my new weapon. I thought of the battle I barely survived, and looked at the hawk, remembering in a vivid surge of emotion that I was no longer one of them.
And I set to sawing away at the ice that bound her.
By the time I returned to town, I was half mad with vivid flashbacks to a previous life at higher altitude and what may have on reflection been early onset hypothermia.
The shopkeeper seemed no less aghast seeing me and the even more fierce looking lady on my shoulder.
“This is all very fine but, but…, where is the glass?”
“I have something better now. Make the rest. And I will have a hunting Wing again last.”
Pt 3: Weakness of Man
23,402 — Month of Ashwood — Day 22
We’ve been hiking for a week now. The men complain endlessly about the cold, blame their weakness on some ‘entropic miasma’. Kara and I seem the only ones unaffected. How she sensed I had communed with the God-Tree I know not, but she claims it may yet hear my entreaty alone. She knows the way but has not been able to speak to it as I have. And so I accompany her.
She tells me I may be the only one capable of communion with it. I don’t follow her exact purpose, but now we are flock. And I want answers, or vengeance, or both.
The men look withered. They bicker like sightless chicks in the nest, clamouring for the next scrap of food. Some of them eye me with suspicion, furtively. Clumsy though this new form is, I do not miss their glances, nor forget their faces.
Month of Nagra — Day 2
We grow close, I can feel the whispers on the wind. There is a prickling at the nape of my neck, and I somehow feel stronger, as the party seems only to become more desperate, and mad-eyed. Kara looks tired, but I know she feigns it in solidarity. Her eyes glow with the same fire I feel in my belly.
A trio of the men forge ahead of the rest, towards us. I hear them without turning. Kara gives a yelp as two of them dive on her back and the third takes aim with his staff behind her knees. Kara goes down on one leg, and more of the men from behind join the fray, emboldened perhaps by the rare admission of pain. One looks at me — beseeching me to either help, or not interfere perhaps? I knew they were not flock.
Hawkenwolf is in my hand. In a short skip I skewer the one who gave me the look, the blade sliding through his ribcage and lifting him off the ground with the force of my thrust. I kick his still-squawking body off the blade and take aim at the other face I remember best. And then it is unrecognisable, as my bolt sings through the air and sinks its talon deep.
Kara cries out, but not in pain.
“They don’t know their minds Faie! Show mercy!”
Kara has knocked two men senseless with her hands, but still more hold her down. I hop closer, and cleave one off her back with a scything cut. I bring down the bladed stock in a stabbing motion to impale another through the shoulder, and my gauntlet crushes the neck of a man who thinks he approaches unseen, with a backhand swing.
Kara knocks down the last assailant and stands, deigning not to look at me. I approach her and observe a few men are breathing. She means for them to live.
“They are prey now.”
“No, Faie, they are victims. This is my fault, to think they could traverse Halcyar unharmed, as we can. Aperion has become fickle, and we must save them. Them, and all of Vanar.”
“Kara, you are flock. These men are weak. Let us continue alone if you must, and not leave them to harry our backs.”
I raise Hawkenwolf, ready to stab the closest breathing figure with my stock-blade, but Kara shoves her gauntleted fist at me and I deflect it in the same motion, but stumble.
“You are flock, Kara, but you do not command me.”
“And these men are my flock, Faie, whom I have damned in my hubris. Fly if you must, but I will not have you take more of their lives. Here they remain.”
“Fine. Then let us finish this hunt.”
We continue on, though something has changed. Perhaps this is what I have heard called ‘doubt’.
Pt 4: Nature, Nurtured.
23,402 — Month of Frostfire
‘If not this..then…but…’
Logic didn’t come easily to Faie. The life and decisions of a Wolfenhawk were the pure consequences of nature. Factoring humans into the equation, and factoring being a human into it, complicated matters for her somewhat.
Conversations didn’t seem to help. Nor her restless meditation. She knew she hated Aperion for robbing her of her previous life, but she also thought of it as a mother, and there were advantages to opposable thumbs and the existence of alcohol. The Vanar had welcomed her, clumsy and stinking. Well, they were clumsy and stinking too, but they were flock. Only, where she was nourished by the floes of Aperion’s might, the others seemed to wither and retreat.
They did not heed her — or First Talon Kara. They did not believe in flock, they migrated, they became weak. Kara tried to teach her strategy and prophecy, where Faie only pined after the hunt, the claw, the prey.
Then, Skrymir brought her a message, gripped fiercely in her claws. It took her the best part of an hour to read the few simples lines she recognised as Kara’s.
She let the parchment flutter to the snow, and ground her heel into it. That was not her path, of that at least she was sure. No path. Stay.
Skrymir went ranging. Faie let loose her hair. She donned her armour. Skrymir would return with a sighting of a pack — frostwolves of the foothills — Dryads of the groves — and she would follow. She found the alpha of each, defeated and communed with them through the language Aperion had taught her, that she’d barely realised she knew. They pledged their allegiance, would follow her when the time came. Sometimes she used them to harry the Vanar settlements, hastening their cowardly exodus.
Eventually, her territory become more like a dominion. It wasn’t long afterwards that even the spirits sought to challenge her — those souls bound to Aperion like hers, willingly or otherwise. The spirits of the original Hearth-Sisters cloaked themselves over giant Borean bears, or Frosthorn Rhynos, and bade Faie prove her allegiance to and worthiness of Aperion once and for all. Each time she felled one, Faie felt freer, a purity of purpose settled on her like hoarfrost. The spirits were not vanquished, but they were subdued, and now willingly followed.
Flock was more than people. It was what needed you, where you could lead the most. People had Kara. Kara was a rival, but never would she be prey. What she didn’t understand was there was more to the Whyte Mountains — more to protecting what was pure — than people.
And so Faie roamed, Queen of her new dominion, Ur-Alpha and patient disciple of Aperion. Times were changing, but nature — and her nature — could not be denied.
Kara Winterbane — Vanar General
Pt 1: A New Face
Aperion about to bloom— 23,402 — Month of Eerewhon
Kara trudged through the drifts, a high-altitude shortcut through the Winter Sleep Mountains. Crystal Wisps glittered in the sun, floating lazily. It was a route only the most experienced or foolhardy pathfinders would attempt. Kara was neither, she simply felt the mountain, knew the way, the ancient enchantments in her weapons Wintersleep and Polaris seeping into her reflexes and muscles.
It would be another half day’s hard hiking to reach Khonen’s Retreat, the most remote Vanar settlement, and the closest to the entropic slopes of Halcyar.
She saw something. There — at the fringe of a small copse of wind-blasted trees, branches depressed with the weight of near perma-winter. But standing tall nonetheless — like the remnants of the Vanar must Kara thought.
A lost fur-trapper, or some careless, adventurous fool. Kara guessed as she got closer, eyes straining through the dense snow-wind and mist. No single Vanar must stand alone, lost, anymore.
As Kara approached, the figure made to flee, but turned clumsily and fell. Kara shouted out, “Do not worry — I am Kara, called The Winterblade, descendent of Eurielle. I will guide you back.”
There was no reply. Kara covered the last few feet steadily, arm outstretched in a placating manner. The figure resolved into a slender woman, with terribly pale skin, and a long ponytail of hair so red it looked like a billowing flame. She was almost naked, save for some furs that looked suspiciously fresh draped around her shoulders. She crouched, pitifully, staring at Kara like a wild animal with a baleful glare that Kara thought had a wolfish, or perhaps hawkish, aspect.
And then she pounced. Kara would have laughed at the absurdity of the confrontation if she wasn’t so shocked. The figure was lithe, muscles wiry, but despite the ferocity of her manner she was ungainly. Kara batted her away like a distasteful thought.
It wasn’t how Kara usually made friends.
After a combination of brute force and gentle cajoling, Kara got the woman to accept some food, a few more furs, and to follow her to the settlement.
Once there, Kara found the woman some proper clothes, managed to extract a few grunts of appreciation, and introduced her to mead, which elicited a few more. She asked around the town, but no-one had any knowledge of who the fey looking girl was.
Kara led the defense of the settlement against marauding Wolfravens, took charge of the hunting forays, and the girl accompanied her. She was aloof but ferocious. Kara often had to stop the girl from following prey into the wilderness, usually by knocking the sense back into her.
Many folk were dubious about the strange young woman, but Kara enjoyed having a companion that didn’t ask or talk much, and embodied some of the wildness and purity so many of the Vanar had seemed to forget.
The woman seemed content living day to day, hunting, ranging. Kara suspected there was more to her. Her sword, Winterblade, warmed when the girl was near. Under the guise of teaching the girl proper swordplay, she confirmed it. She was surely some kind of Bloodborn. Could such a great potential Lieutenant for Kara’s new order of Vanar really have fallen into her lap so fortuitously?
So Kara kept her to hand. Soon, the time came to leave the settlement. She put the girl to a little test.
“Stay here girl, and help them hunt, and defend themselves. You’ll be left alone, but looked after.”
The girl stared back at her, deadpan.
“Or, come with me. And seek answers. I alone know the way.”
At this, the girl’s nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed fiercely.
“Winterblade is the key to finding Aperion. It is not a journey to be embarked upon lightly, but it is one I know how to trace.”
“Fey-born” the girl said. “I’ve heard you call me this. To others. It will be my name. Take me to answers.”
Kara grinned. “Ok Faie. Try to keep up.”
Pt 2: Recruitment Drive
23,402 — Month of Sienar, Day 20
Each cycle, when the brilliantine auroras above the Wintersleep stretched their incandescent tendrils east past Deladriss Peak, Kara began her recruitment drive. Each year her counts of true born Vanar faded. True Vanar, warriors willing to uphold the old ways, the belief — however tenuous — in Aperion the God Tree. The need to protect it against those who would so casually abuse its vast power.
The Vanar settlements of the Whyte Mountains and The Teeth were neither numerous, or populous. The Vanar in general were a waning race, as the disillusioned or decrepit made the still-treacherous journey down into the warmth of Celandine, or beyond.
Still she strove.
They called her mad, only mostly behind her back. They cursed Glasseye, the artefact handed down to her from Eurielle that Kara promised would reveal the path to Aperion when the Vanar were at their direst need.
Still she strove. For the ice-horns on her back grew and ached with a power and purpose she knew would reveal itself. Purpose she must be prepared for. Glasseye had started to whisper and cajole as she slept. Kara had never been a diligent student but the one teaching of Eurielle’s that the Hearth-Sisters had been the most insistent on beating into her thick skull was that to heed Aperion’s fickle call alone, or prematurely, meant death. And if Kara died, the Vanar would fall shortly after.
So she didn’t sleep. She travelled, with Faie.
“Tramping through this damn snow. What a waste. Pitiful. This trip. People. Never going to work. What’s the point?” Faie’s laboured breathing and footfall punctuated her thoughts. “I -”
“Should never have come? For if indeed that was on the tip of your sly, over-worked tongue, I would remind you that you were even more miserable in town.”
“I could fly these ranges quicker on my own. Carry your words swifter. Alone. More ground covered.”
“I’m sure you would curry favour most eloquently among the townships and settlements Faie.
“Yet you. Don’t even believe many will heed. Words. Strength.”
“I can but show them both.”
“Show them your long talon. Unsheathed. That speaks loudest.”
The pair came to the settlement, and much as in previous years, Kara was welcomed, but her counsel less so, and Faie — growling, brooding, sullen — the least of all.
“Let me be your page, Kara! I won’t slow you down, I promise!” Young boys and worryingly young seeming men pleaded. “Together we will chase glory!”
“Chase it to where, exactly?” Kara would respond.
“Won’t you stay Kara? We need your strength, your inspiration — we’ll provide everything you need-”
“I travel not to stop travelling” Kara would regretfully reply. “Your strength is as a community. Hone it without me. I ask only that you nominate your youngest, most promising warriors.”
And time and time again she would hear excuses: “We remember Eurielle, and we trust her blood is strong with you. But the Vanar are no longer united, so why should we send away our best and brightest?”
“Because the time will soon come where fractures become a schism, into which we may all be lost.” Kara would say. Increasingly, it was said under her breath as she turned away in frustration.
But now she had Faie. Faie, whose Bloodborn powers were beginning to manifest at last, proving Kara was not just a last gasp of legacy. New blood had come, and it must be heeded, if much more was to avoid being spilled.
Pt 3: A Parting
23,402 — Month of Ashwood — Day 12
As the final, most remote settlement slid out of memory, over the ridge and into sight, Faie pulled up.
“Kara. There. There?”
“No Faie, there are no more villages beyond the one in front of us.”
Faie’s preternatural eyesight had alighted on a the briefest of silhouettes against the sparse scrub and blasted trees on the slopes beyond.
“Wrong. Your feeble human eyes just haven’t seen beyond what your mind expects.”
“Then what do your peculiarly superior eyes discern? I will not be delayed by another of your barbaric little snowchaser hunts.”
“You are one who so much wants to visit these squalid ground-roosts.”
Kara turned back towards the very visible, definitely real frontier settlement at the plateau close above, and began walking. The maybe-village could wait until morning’s first light, giving her time to carry on or double back depending on the veracity of Faie’s claim and the state of things there.
“And…” Faie continued with a wry smile, “I hear screams.”
Kara’s gaze lingered on Skrymyr’s Endurance even as her body turned to march with urgency towards Faie’s promise.
Screams and smoke washed over Kara as swiftly as the darkness, turning what should have been a sparse but pleasant sunset arrival at Skrymyr’s into a frigid nightmare. A frostwolf prowling around the village’s outskirts — a low dirt and ice wall — picked up their scent and bounded towards them. Usually averse to humans, the wolf took a running lunge towards Kara, fangs borrowing the light and colour of the blood moon.
Without moving a step, she pivoted and slammed her gauntleted fist into the beast’s flank. The momentum carried it sideways, missing Kara completely, to land at Faie’s feet. The lithe young woman with the red hair looked askance but not without sympathy at the beast, then beseechingly at Kara.
“Something wrong with that wolf. They should be human-shy. The whites of her eyes are marbled strangely.” She said.
“Not anymore.” Kara replied, arching her crystal-blue sword down, through wolf and snow with equal non-resistance. Faie growled audibly.
In the gloom, the snow around the shaggy beast appeared to turn a steaming black.
“We go. If these huma-“ Kara interrupted her a fierce stare, “ — these Vanar cannot fend for themselves, they are surely not strong enough for your cause.”
“No. We shall intervene and save what we can. The Vanar are a barrier, we cannot permit any more links to fail.”
“I will stay here then. Out of your clumsy way. Free of your ugly barrier. ”
“Do what you will, Faie-born. Just remember, if you’re outside the barrier, you’re prey.”
Kara strode towards the heart of the chaos. What was going on here? Vanar settlements were constantly harried by various daring beasts, but they wouldn’t cause wanton destruction like this even if the defence did fail.
Dead Vanar, everywhere. Kara ran through the murk, shouting out for any survivors. A few desperate cries returned. She found a small huddle of Vanar back-to-back in a crude village plaza, desperately repelling a crush of crystal cloakers and frostwolves. Without hesitating to puzzle, Kara slashed her way through to the group. Her ice-horns amplified the moonlight and the remaining warriors were basked in her inspiring presence, surging back into the fight with a new vigour.
It bought Kara the time she needed. She concentrated all of her power into the diamond blade of Solstice and slammed it into the ground. A shockwave blasted over the remaining beasts and humans who collapsed alike. Breathing.
Kara staggered to one knee. When she rose, Winterblade in hand to finish off the beasts, Faie appeared at her side.
“Mercy on the beast-kin.”
Kara hesitated, but there was something in Faie’s eyes she hadn’t seen before.
“Strange.” Faie observed.
Kara looked around by the light of the moon and her still-glowing ice-horns. The air was dense with dust. No — not dust — it felt more like pollen.
“Aperion”. Kara gasped. “He’s blooming. And being this close to his power will drive the beasts mad.”
“Fine. But we take the surviving warriors with us to Aperion. They will be the witnesses we need to finally convince the rest of the Vanar. To create a true Vanar nation again.”
Pt 4: A Timely Visitation
23,402 — Month of Nagra — Day 6
Kara knocked back the tumbler of Frostfire — her third in as many minutes.
“Another, O far-child of Eurielle?”
“Make it two this time Gunnar. And if you give me anymore honorifics, one or both of them are going to end up on you.”
“That’s a deal Kara. Coming right up. Big girl like you feeling the cold tonight?”
“Something like that. No…there’s a feeling in my bones that I can’t shift, but I dare say this Frostfire isn’t likely to cure it.”
Kara spoke in hushed tones, and the collective creak of necks craning to catch her words or meaning was almost audible. Though folk had long learned to try and buy her a drink, or sit and make reverent small talk was like to result in something very definitely audible indeed.
After plenty more Frostfire had been extinguished, Kara finally felt some semblance of peace. In fact, her persistence had paid off, and she even felt light-headed. She rested her head on the bar, enjoying the bliss of letting her guard down for the briefest moment.
She felt the icy blast of the wind before she heard the door slam shut, but it seemed like a long time before the screams, screeching of chairs and tramping of feet
There was a figure at the door quite unlike anything she’d seen with her own eyes. In her mind’s eye yes, or in the tales of her Hearth-mothers. Even in the illustrated history books so rarely found this deep into the Halcyar range. Now, with her own eyes, she beheld a Magmar Aspect, massive in stature and exotically fierce of countenance. Kara stood slowly, a little woozy, and unhitched Solstice, hefting the pendulous, chained weapon slowly. She stepped away from the bar.
The Magmar — titanic forearms visible even underneath a dense draping of furs, took a matching step forward that caused the tavern’s tables to reverberate.
“You bloody Vanar and your bloody freezing Mountain, I had to trek arduously and interminably to finally and woefully reach this godforsaken speck on the teeth of the world — ”
Kara set her weight, ready to charge.
“ — and you’re not even going to courteously and hospitably offer me a bloody *drink*? By my damned horns and a Makantor’s arse I could do bloody murder to a steaming vessel of whatever undoubtedly ascetic brew you bloody paleskins claim passes — ”
“Who are you? Why have you come here, babbling and dressed so ridiculously?”
Instantly, the hulking figure appeared behind Kara, resting amiably on the stool she’d so recently vacated. She spun around, using the sudden momentum to bring Solstice in a brutal arc down — but the figure waved the blade away with his hand, as though swatting a gnat.
“I am the one known in your inelegant tongue as Vaath. And you can put that bloody thing down, I mean you no harm Vanar woman-thing, though I would love to trade fists on another occasion, that is, were we not so compelled…but I digress…”
Kara stood motionless as Vaath prattled on, cursing and gesticulating wildly when he struggled to wrap his almost serpentine tongue around one of her people’s more nuanced syllables. Was this really happening?
“…of course” Vaath seemed to bring his attention roughly back to Kara, “None of this is really happening. You don’t sleep much do you?”
“No. For good reason.”
“Yes well, fine, but it made this whole thing bloody difficult for me. Dreamweaving was never my forte.
“Just bloody be quiet for a while girl, this isn’t easy for me. You know Aperion has bloomed. And that people will come for it.”
“What did I tell you about bloody being quiet and letting your elder speak? The guilt and doubt in your mind is more transparent than Y’Kiri glass. Sacrifices will have to be made if you’re to rally the Vanar. For the Age of Glory to come to fruition — excuse the pun — people must be protected from Aperion just as much as Aperion is protected from people.
“So tell me this, mysterious Magmaari. How? When nothing I’ve tried for years has worked?”
At this, Vaath stood and gently (relative to his hulking mass) headbutted Kara.
“That’s a respectful greeting among my kind.” He said, as Kara lay face down on the floor. “Just remember that.”
Kara opened her eyes and felt strong hands — but not strong enough, or clawed- picking her up from the tavern floor.
“Kara? Not like you to lose your head. Not that I ever want to tell you what to do but — might be time you stopped trying to warm yourself up.”
Kara blinked, taking in the bustling tavern, all eyes on her.
“It starts here. The Vanar resurgence. It has to. And you will all be able to say you were the first to join me. And anyone doubtful will be the first to say Kara drank you under the snow!”
The cheers and foot-stamping went on long into the night.
Zir’An Sunforge — Lyonar General
Pt 1: Exiled/The Prophecy
Zirix. A cracked hourglass. Time, broken, upended, and a prophecy foretold and enacted. Hubris. All of these elements were just catalysts. A decision is just a decision. This decision would cost Zir’an her life.
But that came after. Or was it before?
Zir’an sat in the same walled garden it was rumoured Zirix and his childhood friend Belisara favoured. Where they first made their pact to lead Vetruvia from trust in Gods, to trusting only in strength.
She’d never plucked up the courage to ask him directly about it for some reason. The pact seemed juxtaposed to the soft tones and lush curves of the desert fauna around her. She looked into the pond and admired the equally elegant lines of her Sandshield. She knew, as all Vetruvians knew, of the horror of her uncle Zirix’s melding rite, the cold discipline of Zirix’s father Y’Kir as he watched his son in agony.
And she smiled as her own father Z’ir approached and threw his arm over her shoulder, splashing her with pond water with the other.
“What’re you day dreaming about now girl?” he laughed.
“Oh, just when you’re going to stop being so — CARELESS” and she punctuated the point by using Z’ir’s arm around her shoulder to unbalance and trip him into the water.
He rose, laughing even harder than before, and made to leave.
“Where are you going, O most-important and powerful father of mine?”
“You know, today is supposed to be the day Zirix tries his new Melding technique. It should be interesting if nothing else. I’ll speak to you tonight Zir’an. Be good.”
A week later, and the Starstrider family convened to witness the private but nevertheless grand unveiling of Zirix’s secretive project. As the curtain fell, Zir’an gasped — she was beautiful, all elegant angles and emanating a raw energy.
“A scion is born” Zirix proclaimed.
For some reason, Zirix became disinterested in his own creation. Zir’an however was fascinated. Over the months, that fascination bled into curiosity, then into friendship, though Sajj nor Zir’an could articulate if Sajj herself shared those feelings.
“Zir’an pleaded with her father to intercede with Zirix, to let her chaperone Sajj. The normally recalcitrant Zirix proved unusually amenable to the request. Shortly after, Zir’an decided to show Sajj the ruins of the Ostracon. For if an immaculate being was to learn, where better than to see history with her own ‘eyes’?
Only, Sajj was not satisfied with viewing the ruins from a distance. She went deeper, her revolutionary sand shield and lack of corporeal body allowing her to reach previously un-plumbed depths of the ruins. It wasn’t really possible for her to grin, but when she returned the lights behind her masked eyes glowed even brighter.
At the next family convening, Sajj shared her findings. The prophecy, as transcribed by the hand of Starhorn. Z’ir was aghast. Zir’an beamed with pride. Zirix remained motionless and silent. Scion, father and daughter argued about how the knowledge should be used or interpreted. Zirix remained silent still. He looked away.
Two days after — unable to order his own family killed — Zirix left Z’ir and Zir’an stripped of their sandshields and their memories, deep in the Akram desert. The prophecy was buried for a reason. And now, sadly, the same would soon be true of the talkative Z’ir and his curious daughter Zir’an.
Pt 2: Aymaras, Survival, Resolution
Zir’an and Z’ir stumbled through the raging whorls of razor-sharp sand, memories as shredded as their skin.
Zir’an knew only thing. She must protect the person with her, called ‘Z’ir’. She didn’t even know hope.
A faint silhouette resolved slowly into a pock-marked cliff-face. It was enough to lend the pair the vestige of strength to reach it. They collapsed in a shallow depression, and Zir’an managed to pick some vivid green lichen growing in a crack with palsied fingers. She crumbled some into Z’ir’s mouth. The moisture within could buy them both an extra hour or so while they awaited their miracle.
Time had no meaning. Consciousness faded. Then, a section of the rock slid open and two veiled figures stepped out towards the collapsed pair. Zir’an could do nothing but force her eyes to stay open as she and Zir seemed to levitate and glide into the opening. She managed to croak ‘mercy’, before being enveloped in darkness.
She awoke, lying on a stone slab in a small cavern. Alone. Panicking, she craned her neck searching for Zir, but she had no strength to perform any more thorough a search.
“Be still. You and your companion are in no danger.” Came a disembodied voice.
“Who — are — you” Zir’An croaked, surprised to find she could speak at all.
“We are healers. And we have saved your life. What we do with the little that currently remains depends on you. The other cannot speak”
Zir’an did her best to feel composed.
“So, we ask: who are you, from whence you came, and your intentions?”
The words caught in Zir’an’s throat. There as a void in her mind where the answers to the first two questions should be.
“We have no names, no pasts, and only wish to have futures. “
“You dare lie to your saviours?”
“I speak truth.”
“It is a hard truth to face up to then. Seek you answers? Revenge?”
“I seek survival only so that I may ensure his.”
“You may be destined for great power. To what ends would you use that power?”
“To fight emptiness. To give purpose to those around me.”
“Very well” The airy voice seemed to reach a decision. The interview was over. Darkness descended upon Zir’an once again.
The next time she woke, Z’ir stood by her side. She was able to move her limbs — latticed with scars — freely. Two hooded, elegant figures stood before them.
“It takes a zealous will to survive to find us. Then, you answered with honesty, embracing the pain. And you have the desire to re-forge your destiny in this world. So we have restored your bodies.”
“Why?” Zir’an asked.
“Because we wish you to live, and to act. Without us guiding your path. But we bestow upon you one more gift. By using it carefully you will remain pure. By abusing it, you will damn yourself and those around you.”
And with that utterance, one of the figures sliced a deep gash in Zir’s naked chest so quickly that Zir’an didn’t even see what weapon it used. She cried out, and lunged not at the assailant, but to Z’ir. Her hands went reflexively to the wound, which began to close up and heal even as she watched.
Zir’an looked at her hands, then turned to face the figures. “I have one request.” She said. “Tell us, where can we go from here?”
“There are two answers to that question. One you will have to find yourselves. The other will be our last gift: the sea is that way.”
Nodding, Zir’an stood, and bowed. She took Z’ir’s hand in hers.
“Come on Z’ir. We’ve got lives to find.”
Pt. 3: Journey to Celandine
Each time the pair crested a sand dune, the sea was dimly visible, dancing through the heat-haze. The supplies the mysterious robed figures had left them with were meagre, but still constituted abundance in comparison to the lichen and insects that sustained them until then.
At the coast they kept watch for a day and a night until a small fishing skiff made land. They had nothing with which to barter passage but Zir’An noticed the fisherman was limping badly. Without stopping to explain, she laid her hands on his troubled leg.
The fisherman leapt back from her as though electrified. He landed heavily on his leg — which held, to his amazement. Without another word he beckoned for them both to make what comfort they could in a corner near the prow of his small boat.
It transpired the fisherman was making a short stop on his return journey to Pyrae. Along the way, Zir’an and Sir helped the man with his duties and he rewarded them with a small portion of his catch as thanks. Delicious though the plump fish looked — more delicious than Zir’an could literally remember anything being — she resisted. Instead, she traded their tiny catch for a rough straw mat exposed to the elements on a passenger ship bound for the Azure Coast via Kaero.
More than once Zir’an had to fend off drunken or more deliberately malicious advances from the sailors. More rarely, she had to convince Z’ir to refrain from simply gutting them.
In a crowded market, Zir’An felt the weight of many gazes on her clearly foreign skin as she hunted for some kind of gainful employment. A friendly looking merchant beckoned them over, offering small cups of tea. Z’ir went to sniff it hesitantly, while Zir’an drank deep, relieved by the kindness. Before Z’ir’ could grab her wrist to stop her. In a blink, Z’ir had vaulted the merchant’s stand, produced a knife she’d never seen before, and pressed it firmly to the merchant’s throat.
“No!” Zir’an cried, following Z’ir and grabbing his arm with both hands. “Show mercy.”
Zir eventually let go of the shocked merchant, and Zir’An fussed over him apologetically.
“Is there anything we can do to make this up to you? We have no money just…ourselves.”
“Well” the merchant replied, a strange glint in his eye. “I was looking for some bodyguards to help me make the voyage to Celandine. And you’ve already both demonstrated your…aptitudes.”
The journey was arduous but the merchant treated them well. Zir’an bounced with pride at having a purpose again — however mundane.
Only once were they actually beset by bandits. Zir’an, despite not being able to remember any training, fought off three large men with her long stave and still had time to stop Z’ir from dismembering his assailants. “Remember…mercy. The one thing we can remember.” She explained as he growled.
Their journey neared its conclusion — the glittering shores of Celandine pulled into view as they left the deltas of the Northern Jade River.
“Windcliffe at last!” the merchant beamed, handing them both small cups of tea as when they first met. The pair drank deep.
“I’m sure you’ll fetch me a fine price here.” He beamed.
Some time later, Zir’an babbled feverishly while she slept. Z’ir was silent still. And Argeon listened intently. Mysterious pairs of strangers with what looked to be the scars of a Melding — if you knew how to look for them — didn’t just crawl out of the ocean. He’d paid the merchant dearly for this kind of opportunity. And now he fully intended to seize it.
Pt 4: Cub of Sunforge
Zir’an picked up her pace. Phrases of the fateful conversation with Argeon that had brought her here were recalled to her with each footstep.
“Our great families here are in need of strong new blood.”
Zir’an passed the great hall, and stepped onto the sky-bridge.
“But…we aren’t of your blood. That much is clear as the desert moon.” Zir’an had replied.
“Yet you show so much promise. And let’s just say I have a think for strays.”
The lush view of the surrounding Sunforge peaks and the dense Aaryun forest spilling from the western slopes still took her breath away, even months after arriving. The whistling wind carried her thoughts back to that cave, those hooded figures. She had felt so naked then. Now, with glittering armour and a shield at her back, she felt at ease. Although she had a nagging feeling that she’d worn armour before, and that it had felt somehow a part of her.
“What if I want to remain stray?”
“Why would you? Here you will have food, a warm bed, a family. Training, education, prospects. A life.”
“I have family. I must. I just need to remember them — to find them.”
Leaving the bridge behind her, Zir’an descended the Spiral of Suntide to the main, working hub of The Sunforge, Windcliffe’s sister castle. Windcliffe — where Z’ir remained. ‘The unspoken love we know of, our relation less so — that same high, proud forehead — we must be family.’ She thought. ‘A little distance and uncertainty won’t ever change that. What I do now I do as much for him, for whatever our past was, as for myself.’
She walked steadily down the grand corridor towards the courtyards and battlements at the entrance to the Sunforge estate.
“So find them.” Argeon had said. “At the head of an army. As the renowned cub of a great house.”
Zir’an walked past her honour guard, pennants of gold and silver raised high atop the distinctive Sunforge lances. She made eye contact with each soldier, silently underlining her vow to lead them, to protect them, when the time came.
She approached the balcony that overlooked the main courtyard, and reinforced her posture, composed her features.
“Why? Why me? Why us?” Zir’an had asked. Over, and over again.
Argeon always gave the same response.
“Because you are immaculate. With no past, you are capable of the greatest futures. Because I have vision, and it involves two, tall dark handsome strangers.” And he ended with the same infuriating wink every time too.”
Zir’an repeated her mantra one last time, under her breath, metres from the balcony now, afternoon light flooding through and creeping up the hallway. “No more running. Mercy for those who give. No mercy for those who take. Family always, whomever and wherever they are.”
She stepped onto the balcony, forcing her eyes to stay open despite the brilliant glare of Celandine sun. She saluted, and couldn’t help but smile as one thousand golden-armoured hands below snapped back a salute in perfect unison.
The Ballad of Agenor’s Pass
… Lo, Consular Draug did fiercely press,
And the Opaline Gates once proud, did fall.
To Agenor’s Pass whither Lyonar’s best,
Where General Trajan fought proud and tall!
But The Vermillion Army was a vile flood,
The glory of Sun Forge was surely lost!
Until The Templars, resplendent stood,
With valour borne of sun and frost.
While nations cowered, Lyonar fought,
And though defeated, the time was bought,
For the secrets of hope to escape to the shore,
The Lions, fierce, will roar once more!
Draug’s foul magic defiled the Steppes,
And his minions he grew to monstrous size,
But Sunstone Templars sneered at the hex,
And wielded their sceptres to neutralise!
Enchanted knights didst Draug advance,
That blinded Lyonar and stuck them fast,
But the Templars banished their fearful trance,
And cried “no shadows shall our high sun cast!”
While nations cowered, Lyonar fought,
And though defeated, the time was bought,
For the secrets of hope to escape to the shore,
The Lions, fierce will roar once more!
The Templar Order rose anew,
As sure as dawn, those pious few,
Will banish the shadows e’er they fall,
And stand firm like Trajan, proud and tall.
While nations cowered, Lyonar fought,
And though defeated, the time was bought,
For the secrets of hope to escape to the shore,
The Lions fierce will roar once more!
With the sun the Lyonar will rise once more!
Songweaver Eurielle’s Trinity Mandates aimed to shackle our heavens-given right to use magic, our very way of life. It wasn’t long before we decided to start anew. There had always been whispers of untapped power in the bright, rugged lands to the Northeast one could espy from high atop the Jade Canopy.
We named ourselves Lightchasers and Second Suns, and we ventured forth with hope. But Mithron — and the land we came to know as Celandine — gives up no treasure willingly. In the fifth week we camped by the base of a colossal mountain, and we became pre`y.
The first night it was just horses and pack-beasts. The second day hence it was the rear-most caravan. The day after, growing bold with success, we laid eyes on our hunter — lions that moved with lightning speed. We began to climb the mountain — our only hope for a defensible position.
It helped little. We climbed higher, our numbers ever dwindling, not one of us untouched by claw or tooth. A cave offered refuge, or at least a convenient tomb. The last of us entered, and hid. Yet the beasts had keen noses and found us that night. As the pack gathered and prepared to pounce, there was a glow upon the cavern’s ceiling, brightening to near blinding after hours in murk. It seemed to me a divine sign. They pounced, and I roared in prayer, commending our souls to the sign of the sun we would never see again, and then all was light, and a column of flame engulfed me, and I was glad. But I had not expected to open my eyes again, and my injuries healed, and the beasts were ash.
The cave was illuminated by the light — not of a hundred suns — but of crystals, raw and brimming with power. I vowed then to honour the memory of our fallen by using the crystal’s power to build a mighty city and establish a pious order. The mountain became a home, and earned a name –
Master Ruu and Acolyte Chiori sat in the long reeds of the courtyard garden of the Lei Monastery atop Saberspine Mountain. They were both still as the clay statues of their Seal-ancestors, and the scene was silent but for the occasional rustle of the wind through the Moonberry trees and the restless cicadas.
A cicada sprang from his its perch and Chiori’s hand darted out and made a closed fist, fast as a breath. He drew it in and opened it palm upwards, but this cicada, like so many others, did not await therein. To his left, the elegant insect sat atop a statue of Kaon the Ghost Tiger Taegon the Citrine Dragon, rubbing its legs together in sarcastic applause.
“What is the essence of Cicada-Palm, Master Ruu? My reflexes are stronger than ever, but still they elude me!” Ruu remained silent for a long time. Then he said, almost laughing, “Ask Taegon — it was she that caught it!”
Chiori grimaced. He envied the Taegon of legend. He envied even the statue. A spark of enlightenment! While Ruu sat watching, Chiori gently brushed the reeds and sent another Cicada hopping onto the brilliant Dragon statue faster than his eyes could track, but this time he didn’t try to grab it at all. He shut his eyes, help his left palm open by his side and brushed the reeds again with his right. Then he knew that his perfectly still body was wood, and then he opened his eyes. Master Ruu was now opposite him with the statue of Taegon to his right where he’d been moments ago.
He looked down at his palm and saw the Cicada there.
Master Ruu turned to his pupil and touched his head to the ground.
“Master Ruu…what are you doing?” Asked the younger man.
“When you juxtaposed with the statue, you swapped our relationship too.” The old man replied. “Now you are the master, and I am the student.”
Xerfir stepped through the shimmering, roiling surface of the portal, knowing not what realm or trial awaited him — only that there would be one, and succeeding would mean finally becoming a Portal Guardian, and that failing usually meant any combination of dismemberment, dementia, and death. Xerfir’s thoughts rehearsed the possibilities once more: the vicious dervishes of the Silica Realm; the fey riddles of the Aetheric; the gruelling endurance tests of the Ferris; and so on.
In an instant, the dreamlike starscape of the dimensional transference faded, and the young Vetruvian knew he’d somehow plane-stepped into uncharted territory — or at least, territory no-one had returned from yet. Territory that was an abyss of black, punctuated and cut-through with mathematically precise glyphs and outlines of glowing light.
There was a rustle behind him, and Xerfir spun on his heel. Somehow, someone seated atop a throne began to emerge from the darkness, wearing a hooded cloak and covered in the same glowing glyphs and seams of light. Then it spoke. “You have wandered far, into the realm of Truesight. Your trial is simple: find the exit, and you shall leave, and be able to call upon my strength. Fail, and you will become one of my subjects, forever bound to amuse me.”
Xerfir swallowed his rising panic. I won’t see the end if I cannot find the beginning, he thought to himself. His hands slowly rose to physiology boosting helm that covered his entire head, and started the elaborate unlocking mechanism.
I suppose I won’t be needing this.
[The following are transcripted excerpts recovered from Magmaar Aspect Vaath’s ancient voice-crystal, found badly decayed in the year 23.175.]
18, Month of Erewhon, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
Valknu has walked lucidly through a terrible vision: a great, inky miasma enveloping the Golden Chrysalis. Mithron’s grand continents smoking ash. This the darkest omen since Emperor Sargos discovered the Second Empire prophecy and summoned Starhorn, Valknu and I for guidance he didn’t take. Valknu has decreed the Thirteen Aspects shall leave God’s Heel immediately, whether to seek new wisdom or for safety it is unclear even to me.
26, Month of Erewhon, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
I have returned at last to my homeland! The rich Magmaari soil welcomed the weight of my heavy heart like a dream. Yet already I grow restless with lack of purpose. My heart yearns for the Mokvaar Plains, and to see the glorious Makantor roam again. It might be my last chance.
32, Month of Erewhon, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
Such wondrous beasts! A riot of lethal spines and tusks, and such agility for their hulking weight. If only we could harness that wild power somehow. Though it would be terrible arrogance to tear them away from their habitats and natural — we just might have need, in order to —
3, Month of Sienar, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
— was glorious. They start to accept me at last. I was even able to spiritually commune with the Makantor Alpha and Omega. I stalked through the dusty, rich savanna of their minds as they did mine. They are fierce and wild creatures, but proud and noble. As I was in my youth.
7, Month of Sienar 23.125, Year of the Aspects
Dare I to dream they could be actually one day be ridden? Such glorious mounts they would make in battle! I must try, perhaps if I can —
17, Month of Sienar, 23.125, Year of the Aspects
It has been a lengthy recovery process. I do not think I shall try again.
“Come in Thann! By Sidyr’s frosty teats you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Limping to the bar, I gestured for a mug of Snowdrop. The biggest mug.
“Not a ghost…let me explain…”
And so I told my story for the first of many, many times.
Our people the Vanar knew little of the gigantic, territorial Draugar that lived near the nameless peaks and passes of the Whyte Mountains. They were fiercely protective of the privacy and solitude of their mountain homes.
I was foraging carefully for the sensitive, rare roots of the nearby alpine forest. My woodman’s ears caught a subtle crunch and I hid, in no hurry to confront a bear or rhyno. It wasn’t a bear though. It was a giant.
The fact it was unawares compelled me to follow. For days I fed on forage and would have frozen if not for the fire of my curiosity. Eventually, and several hundred metres higher, the lumbering hulk arrived at a rocky outcrop fenced by sparse forest.
I climbed a Snapcold tree for a better view and hid myself among thick branches.
I was stunned to see a score of Draugar there already.
They had converged, cantillating around a massive Draugar of the darkest grey, sitting cross legged.
His voice boomed, “Draugar must watch. Must prepare. The Draugar that can find an icicle that sees the stars will succeed me as Lord. Now…I grow weary of this great weight.”
What I saw next stunned me so that I lost my grip, and fell, and fled for fear of trespassing on their sacred rites, but what I tell you is true. The Lord seemed to start rippling, leathery skin as supple as silk. Then he became icily pale and seemed to reflect the moon, mountains and ice around him. Finally the illusion shattered, and in its place was an Ice Drake, resplendent in scales of moon silver and ice blue.
“Well Thann. If what you say is true…we ent never heard of Draugar shapeshifting afore.”
“Not shapeshifting, Old Vae. Those Draugar weren’t spell castin’, nor mourning. What I saw — was a rebirth.”
The swarms of Inxikrah crashed against Consular Draug’s Vermillion Legion like a raging torrent. They were unnatural hybrid forms: serpents with the legs of a plains beast; humanoids with transparent skin; and worse yet from the depths of Styxus.
The sun began to set over Monolith, finally completed after seventeen centuries, and bathed the battlefield in a sickly red glow. Equally crimson swords hacked in futility at the pale, twisted onslaught.
At the very heart of the battle was Consular Draug himself, surrounded by his last, elite cadre of Sworn Defenders. Their giant tower shields locked together to form an almost impenetrable circle, bodies piled up against them. Draug himself was assailed by magics from all around, and though his own was immense, the weight of shadowy power began to wear on his frail body. The Sworn Defenders felt his pain as their own through their binding oaths, and in desperation their vigour was unending.
A winged serpent slipped over the defensive line and dived towards Draug. Consumed and frenzied by power, he snatched it from the air and roared with hysterical laughter as he bit deep into the scaly flesh, in mockery of the consuming horde that assailed his finest hour and sought to deny him the true power residing within the Monolith. “My Sworn!” He bellowed. “If any of you still stand when I fall, your spirits will rot in the abyss!”
The indomitable Sworn proved so meddlesome that Warlord Aq’Toth was forced to slither to the front lines. He gurgled The Name of Shadow and razored points of void erupted beneath them, staggering and breaching their wall. Leaving them to be devoured, he snaked up to Draug, who was channeling the last of his energy. Aq’Toth snuffed it out with a wave, and ate Draug then, in such a way he remained conscious until the last.
A bloody war of attrition. A power-hungry preacher turned treasonous usurper named Rasha. A ship that from the golden sands and ancient canyons of Akram. A bitter desire to prevent the Aestari from upsetting the sacred balance again.
All these things and more had brought Ziros and his triumphant Vetruvian host to Aestaria’s coast, near the Alcuin Library, and thence to the capital’s palace Grand Trianon. Ziros hated the claustrophobic pomp of the inner palace, but he knew an empty throne would only attract more ruinous pretenders. Entering the throne room alone but for his most trusted lieutenants, Ziros was met with the final dregs of Rasha’s Fists of Akrane, hungry for revenge at any cost.
Their leader wielded a beautifully wrought Y’Kiri staff that crackled with barely contained primal energies. It pointed towards him.
“Rasha’s memory be damned…” Ziros commanded, his voice rich with scorn, and the staff splintered into coruscant shards. A dervish formed from the debris, wailing, heaping curses on Ziros Starstrider. “You tricksy child, you heathen, how dare you defy our ancient prerogative to rule over your pathetic kind?!” it screeched, as it blindly tore through the rebels in its whirling rage of razor sharp silica.
Ziros laughed in surprised delight at what his curse had wrought, and the dervish seemed to recognise him for an instant. It screamed in redoubled anguish before dissipating into a small pile of sand among the fallen.
Real prey, at last. The Frostbone Nagas are far from their natural home and too close to ours. Though they make fine sport anywhere.
It’s dusk, and I’m ready, have been ready from birth. Somewhere in this copse there are Hoarfrost-Wolves, desperate for a meal.
I’m almost salivating. I savour their smell. They carry wicked, barbed lances, their wide tentacles oddly suited to making good speed through the snow. My Warmaster pack around me are all grinning, some open-mouthed. I’m the youngest, but I’m no cub anymore. I howl our warcry and bound towards the edge of our cover.
I draw blood with my knife to better stir their hunger. I am the bait, and the hunter. It is only minutes, crouched in a dense tangle of Coldsnap bramble, before I smell them nearby. I re-curl my grip on the knife and howl.
The blessed adrenalin kicks in, numbing the phantom pain in the empty space below my right forearm. Knowing without looking my War-pack are close behind, I raise my arm almost in salute. Binding the pain and the blood-hunger to the prayer I once said over three dead bodies, I form the ice-blue apparition of a wolf’s head around the mangled stump of my wrist.
Three. Hungry and desperate but full of cunning, the more-so for knowing that this could well be their last chance. They circle and attack at once. The first leads slightly and so I roll and kill it quickly, my knife raking across the wolf’s gaunt belly and spilling the meagre contents. The other two are more coordinated. I shield my throat with my right hand while I slash the other with my knife.
The Nagas are within reach of wolf-fist. I can smell and taste blood in my throat. My consciousness fades and later, in the aftermath, I understand for the first time that this power will eventually claim its soul-debt.
Three pitiful bodies at my feet. The last alive, the Alpha, had the honour of shredding my fist to useless ribbons of tendon and viscera. I say the oath, bound by the blood of animal and man, and tilt my head at the moon. I let rip a rebel yell, one part pain, one part victory, one small part howl.
You enter my study, bristling with ambition and promise. You’re so young, but when you smile it’s with the jaded surety of a veteran commander. When I welcome you formally, you laugh like a delighted little girl at her first courtly ball.
You stub your toe on a low stool whilst admiring the bookshelves behind me and you grunt. For an instant your composure slips and you look feral, as though you’re about to tear the stool to pieces for daring affront you. I barely suppress my mirth.
You’re calm, but I sense in you the energy to remake the world. You ask for a naming, as I knew you would, and though you’re a lowly acolyte of the School of Harmony, I am honoured. You sit, and I lay out the cards — seven, one for each school — face down in a fan. I still my breathing and draw on the fey magic of the aether. Then, I am astral-phasing, stepping lightly through near future micro-realities that could or will be.
Here: a towering inferno tears through the Seventh Sanctum. There: a lute transfixes Kaero’s nobility with the most heavenly, but sad harmonies. Now-that-was: the fizz and spark of one mage-blade against another, Aestari against Aestari on the balconies of the Grand Trianon. Then-that-will-be: the shade of the Weeping Tree dissipates as the branches curl and die, its great star-magic lost.
And always, you. Terrible, brilliant, at the centre of the image, of the world, of the time.
I come to from my trance. It has been but a few seconds wait for you. One card levitates briefly and turns itself face-up.
“The Deladriss.” I say. “One doomed to the utmost greatness.”
“Kaon Deladriss” you say, turning the names over in your mouth like a fine wine. “Rolls off the tongue — think I’ll keep it.”
When the first of the itinerant Aestari left their ancient homeland in search of a wondrous new life, they found a continent of extremes. Unforgiving marsh-jungles, lifeless mountains, brutal deserts and unseen predators at every turn. At the centre of the land they called Xenkai however, was an anomaly, a miracle, an antithesis.
The Twilight Spring — an unfathomable meeting of dusk and dawn, light and dark, life, death, blood, earth, animal and human. And it spoke. Or more accurately, its ambassadors did: mostly humanoid and with faces that uncannily resembled (or actually were) masks, fey and transient, they spoke to the explorers of Xenkai in a vexing mess of riddles and nonsense. The most diligent of the Songhai forefathers were not deterred, and persevered in prideful pursuit of further power.
“Butterflies” the fey figure croaked, standing in the swirling entropic mists. “Wherefore have you always been going?”
“We come from Aestari, looking for a new wisdom, and power, and home.” the wisest explorer named Nagisi replied.
“Do you talk at the moon with only one eye open?” the masked figure replied in a whisper so soft it shouldn’t have been understandable.
“We seek far-off knowledge yes, and I know we are still half blind.”
“Amusing — that’s not what you said last time.”
Confused, Nagisi asked: “What is the nature of this place?”
“Two curves that support each other.”
Believing himself to already understand, Nagisi replied: “Ah-ha! A never-ending space between two points?”
Without warning, the figure raised his short staff and a torrent of unstable magical energy blasted into Nagisi. After the shock receded, Nagisi realised he was unhurt, but two of the companions by his side had not fared as well. One lay in a pile of ashes the shape of a phoenix, whilst the other waddled languidly away to chew on the nearest crop of bamboo, diminutive and furry. Nagisi’s mind began to crackle with the energies of a spell he had never learned, yet had and would always know.
The figure was fading from existence, and its bizarre voice appeared in Nagisi’s mind. “There is a key to this place. If you will find it, you can’t find it. Its power is greatest once spent. Lose the answer and return.”
As the figure Nagisi had already begin to think of as a prophet more than an ambassador faded, his silhouette twisted into that of a dragon doubling back on itself. The other philosopher-warriors looked to Nagisi for guidance. The words sprung unbidden to his throat.
“There is power here to change us, and yet connect us to our ancestors. Whatever the cost, we must harness the spring.”
The small Pando that used to be his comrade munched away, happily.
(An Ode to Charge of The Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson)
All of a league,
Onward through the snow,
Half in the valley of doom
Ran the two hundred.
“Forward, the Skar brigade!
“Charge for the crystal-cannons!” he said:
Into the valley of doom
Ran the half-hundred.
Needles to the right of them,
Fire-bolts to the left of them,
Crystal-blasts to the front of them
Roared and thunder’d
Storm’d at with fire and ice,
Boundless was their courage
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Charged the half-hundred
They flashed their blades,
Flashing in the ice,
Cutting down the trespassers there,
Charging an army while
All the Vanar watched:
They were plunged into foul fire,
Through the lines they broke –
The Vermillion Army
Reeled from their blows
Shattered and shocked.
Then they went back, incredibly,
All the half-hundred.
When can their glory fade?
O the boundless courage
Of the hand they played!
All the Vanar wondered.
Honour the charge they made,
Honour the Skar Brigade,
Mark of Solitude
Rhane had never found solace in duty. His Vanar tribes-folk endlessly chided him about their ancestral mission and the importance of their ascetic way of life. Rhane had pride, but he couldn’t take it in anything expected of him, least of all battle.
A time of hardship came, and Rhane looked for belonging in the one place he could make his own mark.
From the clifftop village, the dense Wyldewood leagues below was a disturbing, out of place contrast, like seeing a patch of moss thriving on ice. Firewood could be harvested much closer, and the allure of hunting some rare prize paled in the light of a phosphorescent glow, and the unidentified shrieks of the forest after dark.
At first, he skirted the edges, collecting bark samples and heeding the uncanny bird calls. Back at the village he found himself attending to chores with renewed vigour. He grew more curious, marked himself a shallow path into the woods, and saw all manner of lush flora and beguiling fauna. At home, he grew bold in arms-training, besting his elders and receding even more from their suspicion and mistrust.
Before long, he allowed himself to linger just inside the edge of the forest after nightfall. The frigid wind was softened by the thick trees, and pine-smell delighted his nostrils. He smiled his first smile in recent memory.
Raiders came to the village, and there was skirmish. Rhane desperately wished for peace but equally, he felt every fibre of his being taut with a newfound ferocity. It was all a wash of colour and overbearing smells, and his kin told him as he came to his senses that he had killed a score of the raiders, and he remembered not, but the thought of it drove him wailing back to the Wyldewood of fey lights.
Hands still bloody, he dove for the heart of the Wydewood and washed his hands in a stream there. He saw in his reflection a mane of hair, bulging, veined muscles, an elongated snout, and obsidian eyes. Breathless, he checked his hands — they were still hands — and his head. Human, still, but what was this scar, seemingly in the shape of a rune, criss-crossing his face?
The village seemed like a distant memory now. At last, Rhane felt a glee in him, and he laughed and danced with the fireflies as lithe, befurred beasts observed him from the canopy, screeching in unison.
The Azure Mountains encircle most of Aestari, thrown up like ripples that couldn’t escape into the sea by the impact of the Star Seed that seeded life on the continent. At their southernmost tip they almost graze the the foreboding and bleak shores of Shar, where the cruel Abyssian dwell deep in subterranean chasms. There the Mystics hold their vigil.
There is a great flood-plain that runs to that coast of Shar that falls into the shadow of the Azure Mountains called the Blighted Lands. The run-off of the Abyssian’s sinister energy and unnatural rituals emerge and collect there as a crackling miasma. It is this the Mystics hold their vigil against.
The miasma corrupts. It burns, and wafts over the narrow straight, borne along by the uncaring winds of fate with a terrible impetus. The Mystics don’t remember how they ended up living in the low, tight cave systems and steep, dense patches of alpine forest. They don’t need to — their existence is spartan, and pure. As the Miasma periodically washes like an incoming tide against their mountain home, they periodically cleanse one another of its foul influence, and the intricate runes etched into bark, stone and the very skin beneath their long sleeves form a barrier many miles across, that helps to dissipate those dark exhausts. This is why their vigil holds.
But if it failed, what would happen? Rumour among the oldest living Mystics tell of a previously bounteous mountain valley where a particularly dense front of Miasma collected, and how only bubbling ash, dark vampiric moss, and the pitted bones of the Mystic clan that sacrificed themselves there to hold back the tide from threatening the interior. This is why their vigil is eternal.
“Tell me the one about ma again.”
Darian smiled sweetly at his daughter, while his gut lurched with vertigo.
“Very well my love. I imagine soon you’ll be able to recite it to me!”
The girl snuggled up close, grunted as if to say ‘I could recite it now — if I wanted to’ and closed her eyes.
“A long time ago, all life began with a stellar seed, crashing into our planet. The old land died, and gave birth to the new — seven continents, including what became our home, Celandine was born. After a long night, the sun rose and burned brighter than ever, searing through the ash and revealing the new creatures there.
Many years later, our ancestors the Lightchasers boldly carved out a new home atop the highest peak in Celandine, to the east. It was also a time of danger, so they created a glorious set of swords called Sunrisers, and so too were named the women — and only women — who were able to wield them. The pairing of sword and wielder strove to maintain a balance. When one of our clan was healed in battle, the Sunrisers were imbued with a glorious light that tormented the minions of darkness.”
The girl joined in for the next line, a soft echo.
“Your mother was one such Sunriser.”
And fell quiet again as her father continued.
“She shone the brightest of all defending against the Chaos Elemental invasion. Though their foul smog threatened to cover the sun, she burned through, slaying hundreds, even surrounded and outnumbered.”..
‘Yet as the sun always rises, so too must it sometimes set.’
Vetruvia. The Remade Man. Remade by scorching heat and iron will. Remade from humble Aestari settlers into some of the greatest inventors the world had known. And remade by the grace of starlight, absorbed for millennia by crystals hidden deep in the Aymara Canyons.
But, graceful, beautiful, pale and powerful as the Crystals were, so too was their magic drawn from the fey, the infinite and ineffable, the time-warped Stars of the heavens.
There were some true-born Vetruvians who were not dark, swarthy and devoted to technology like the rest. Instead, taller, much paler, inscrutable, it was as if they were ruled by the Starlight magic so well used by Atar (who proclaimed himself) Starstrider to advance their society.
They were not shunned, but nor were they truly accepted. They were not as adept with arms or tool as their brethren, but their command of magic was second to none. And so they honed their skills, planning to demonstrate both their power and honour in a great time of need.
When that direst need came, the Starborn were prepared — or so they thought. The small cadre marshalled their strength at the deepest hour of night as the battle awaited its illumination. They drew deep from the Crystals, and the starlight within, and pillars of lunar luminosity erupted over the battlefield. As the blinding light receded, it left a ferocious dervish made of the sand, blood, bone and blade that littered the battleground.
Only, the dervishes were enraged, their nature comprised from the same materials that gave them form. They shredded through the enemy, winning the day, but they did not stop there, and many brave Vetruvians fell to the same fury.
In the aftermath, ever-wise though deep in mourning and melancholy, Atar made a decision. He decreed that the few remaining Starborn must share their knowledge absolutely. The powerful spell would not be banished, and he invented a Crystalline filament for the Vetruvian armour that would signal to the ferocious dervishes that they were friend, not foe.
The Star’s Fury had been tragedy and victory both, but Atar, and the Vetruvians strode on to more battles, with a still greater fury that finally knew its true goal.
I had been still too long. My life in the city of Xaan was making me complacent. Weak. I longed to commune again with the spirits of wanderlust. So I sold my belongings, stripped out of my finery and adopted a simple, course traveller’s garb. I left a poem in my nearly empty dwelling:
Weakness in numbers,
I long to carve my own path
Far from this safety.
I set out, following the Sanpo River, with no destination in mind. The moon, stripped of the myriad lights of the city, filled me with nameless joy. Along the way, I shared a drink and the company of a strange little man who made mention of a refuge for those who were weary but would become strong, somewhere deep in the Ang’Mar Glades.
A drop of sake
Has revealed my destiny.
But what of my friend?
Weeks later, I found the monastery. A small poem at the door told me it was also home to the School of Hamon. Inside, I was promised power, at the expense of time. Well, I said to myself, I have lots of time left, and very little power.
Years pass, I study,
The mysteries of Hamon,
Let go of knowledge.
I began to become impatient. Where was the proof of my learning? “We are all spirals” my teacher told me. “Passing the same points, slowly getting to the centre.” I felt rage then, and a great power erupted from me, blasting a crater where I stood. My teacher, bleeding but alive, slumped against a wall where the force had thrown him, grinned with cunning.
I want more power,
But there is little time left.
So now I will fight.
Rite of the Undervault
Lillith had awaited this moment for many years, had stretched her cunning, her willpower, and her patience all to breaking point in the pursuit of — whatever recondite treasure that lay beyond this final gate. The ceiling of the Undervault glittered with tiny specks of mineral and crystal and the familiar pressure of the intense magical locks began to tug at her breath and muddle her thinking.
She reflected back on her journey, her senses all afire, relishing the clarity of recollection. The staircase, hewn out of the cold rock, filigreed at this depth with rare magic-conducting minerals. The calcified remains, some still visibly humanoid, of failed acolytes, those whose power and wit were not in perfect, cruel harmony. The increasingly esoteric knowledge of the arcane, artefacts and lore that had lain beyond each gate. Lillith knew that no-one since Cassyva had plumbed the extent of these depths. Was she really ready for this test? Could she bear to cede second to Cassyva’s knowledge as well as her dominion?
The gates barred, but also showed her the way. The lesson of the first, guarded by no more than a simple magical lock to overpower: it all begins with power. The second asked an oblique riddle, for cunning too is essential. The third bore no instruction or clues, and it near broke Lillith’s resolve as she stood vigilant, experimenting, until it swung open on the third day, as she lay weak and weeping. The fourth gate had been a trifle, for it demanded sacrifice, and Lillith had never shied away from that. Especially if it meant sacrificing someone else.
The fifth had been tricker, for it required humility. The inscription on the lock had read ‘How can one lead without exposing their back?’ and bore an engraving of an ouroboros.
To be continued
It was the biggest Azurite Lion Z’ir had ever seen. Its skin had lost the lustre that gave the race their name, was instead dull and leathery, with a dense network of wrinkles and scars. The noonday sun escaped a cloud and caught brilliantly on the pairs of blades strewn throughout the canyon walls, a quilt of silver slivers.
Zir had found what remained of his Windblade adepts. That left Z’ir with only his personal retinue of Lysian Brawlers. Them, and the beast, snarling on its haunches.
The Lion roared its challenge, and the Lysians charged, an elegant blur despite their size. Z’ir approached with more caution, his long Glaive held high in a defensive posture. There was another basso rumble, followed by a human cry as one of the Lysians staggered back, his shoulders and tendons lacerated, fists hanging limply at his sides. The second redoubled his efforts but succeeded only in leaving himself open to a low lunge from the beast that hamstrung him and sent him toppling, bellowing in agony, to the dust.
The lion’s gaze turned to Z’ir, who was now mere armspans away. A glint of hunt-thrill had reignited the beast’s azure eyes. Z’ir stood his ground and feinted, but the lion’s blood was up and he simply pounced, with grace and impatience, to topple Z’ir completely. Claws scythed at his armour as Z’ir held slavering jaws from his face with both hands and all his strength.
He had to act. Relaxing his arms a little, the lion pressed in, sensing the killing bite, but Z’ir twisted and rammed the points of his helmet up into the Lion’s jaw. It connected with a bone-jarring crunch, and the beast reared its head. Z’ir rolled the creature’s weight off him and scrambled to his feet. The glaive was close, but closer still was the recovered lion. Fearing another incapacitating pounce, Z’ir roared with his own primal rage — in memory of his Adepts, his friends — and charged.
The lion stood its ground and launched itself forward at the last second. Z’ir anticipated, weight on the balls of his feet, and spun, grabbing for the airborne lion and catching hold of its abundant mane. Using the opposite momentum to compensate for the beast’s incredible weight, Z’ir spun and slammed the beast face-first into the rock.
Stunned, the beast lay still long enough for Z’ir to snatch up his glaive and aim a savage thrust at the creature’s defenceless flank. Metal parted fur, sinew, ancient leathery skin. He pulled back for a final strike as the bloodied lion rolled over onto its back, paws in the air, and let out a low, tragic keening sound. Z’ir checked himself. He’d been called fearless before, audacious and heroic — possessed even — but never merciful. Something in those pale blue eyes checked him though, and some instinct of symbolism bade him flip his weapon and touch the pommel of the long grip into the beast’s forehead. Those wise eyes looked up, muscles went taut, but body and paws remained low.
Z’ir knelt, ripped off a length of cloth from a nearby fallen Adept, and fashioned a makeshift bandage around a furry flank. Then he took that immense main in hand and encouraged the lion back to his feet. The eyes looked up, fierce but no longer defiant. Z’ir growled, and began the long hike back through the pass, the limping, lumbering lion closely at his side with a thick swathe of its maine clasped in the gauntlet of a man.
The boar is a diurnal creature, but it prefers to hunt at night.
A rustle. Each sheath of wheat calls a cadence, and the trail the interlopers leave makes for a merry tune, marking their trajectory. Other noises form the background symphony, and the usual prey animals know their parts, play them every night with precision. The trespassers clash atonally with the night’s score. My horns reverberate, sensing all, and they throb with anticipation.
However, the strangers’ clumsy clamouring tells not the whole story. A quick sniff peels back another layer of the sonic tapestry, adds fidelity to the Song of the Hunt. Sweat, and not that of a pure, native denizen of the foothills. The foul odour of stiff, dead pig-hide. Fresh sod, the reek of stale alcohol, the cold tang of exposed steel and the burning alchemical fumes of magic held crudely in check. Yes, these are men not meant to live.
We grunt, and squeal, just loudly enough to make ourselves known in the gloom. My brothers have tracked around, and our voices surround them now, playing with our prey like a panicked puppet. Sensing attack they unleash a torrent of flares to illuminate their hunters, and blind us in the hope of striking first. Little knowing that we are near blind to begin with. Their white lights serve only to illuminate our fierceness, and they step back in preparation.
A step back towards my tusks. They sink deep, replacing the impure stench with sanguine nectar. One man’s clumsy stomping finally stills, replaced with the lilting of his uncomprehending moans. His compatriots likewise give only desperate resistance before they find horns emerging from their chests.
The blood and screams run as rivulets down the trenches of my horns. Nourishing them. I feel the familiar discomfort of their bulging, stretching out, reaching and yearning for more prey, as they become even more sensitive to reverberation. The light has died now, and the song returns to its rightful harmony. I hear the contented snuffing of my brothers as we return to the dense firs of the foothills.
A rippling sheen, the gentle folds of space-time. Promises forcefully broken and unfulfilled, the frigid enveloping of hope. These are the things the void is made from, from which it draws its infernal succour.
The void is not easily found. You may look from the lip into the cavern and see merely the absence of light, but to one attuned — to one who has defiled enough promises — there are murmurs. To one attuned — whose innermost proclivity is for absorbing the life-force of others — there are threads that can be plied and plucked.
The void responds. It thrums, and with every quiver the void will trace an inexplicable sine wave along an impossible axis. The void is a harsh instrument — the wrong fingering results not in a sour note, but a shearing of soul, part of your essence lost forever to those ineffable, black eddies.
Cassyva had been studying the void for a century, and though she was its greatest student, she was still but a talented amateur. She stood at the lip, hands arrayed over the consuming abyss as a conductor precedes a symphony. She raised one hand, fingers splayed, in a gentle undulating wave. The void that now filled the cavern, seeped into the folds of her mind, not content to be merely ‘beneath’ her, seemed to her attuned sense to boil.
Tracing a vein of void whose impenetrable texture shifted beneath her fingers, Cassyva tilted her wrist and made a percussive slap of her palm. The void shuddered around her, and pulsed, sending an acoustic ripple deep into its core. The image of the lieutenant that had irked her once too many times remained imprinted with bitter ease in her mind. The void gave the slightest of thrums and she felt a tugging at her core. Then, a replenishing, as though another life was being forced into her bones. It was, although the void would take its dues too. The lieutenant would survive this time, but Cassyva was dedicated to her practice, and still had lots to learn.
I was Jarai. I fought with Atar. I stared at the enemy, who we despised with a fervour hotter than the sun that would have bleached my bones at El Gamesh.
I fell so that he could go on, but I was never to know whether my life saved his, and that doubt stung throughout my ordeal.
I was Jarai-that-fell. My bones did not bleach, but were sundered and defiled along with my flesh by the vile Inxikrah. My incandescent rage prevented it from overpowering my soul, and part of me survived, residual, clinging to that rage while hiding myself in the void of the creature’s mind. I chipped away at what walls I could find, and slowly ‘we’ become mad, tormented and alone together.
I was Jarai-revenant. Some part of me spurred my unwitting captor into a blood frenzy. Having absorbed my considerable powers, it developed an irrational hatred for its own kind and turned on a fearsome beast, clearly higher up the Inxikrah’s profane hierarchy. We became profoundly stronger after devouring it, though we were now openly warred for control, so insidious had my influence been. Perhaps in an effort of mutually assured destruction, we flung ourselves into one of the void-sumps that seep into the subterranean hellholes the Inxikrah dwell in.
We sank through the void for an aeon. It may have been a minute or a century, but time has no meaning in that seething mire, and it felt like an eternity locked in futile single combat with the rage and the monster whose form I shared.
I was become Jarai-spectral. I understood then that my hopes had been futile — for hope cannot exist there, and my sacrifice in honour had led only to this.
When the void receded, we had an accord. Death. Swiftest, bloodiest death to anything that stood in our way, at the soonest moment, forever, to a minion ‘he’ hoped to vanquish and consume. And to the rulers, leaders, generals that allowed their troops to fall, for me.