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Brundt

Fifteen years after Antiquity…




“What’s going to happen to me?” Brundt found himself asking, once they had reached the safety of Milos’s family estate. It was the first time he had spoken since his arrival in the city.

Milos said nothing, as a guard opened the door for them. He, Brundt, and Gelos stepped through, into the house’s main hall. He was Lord Karras now. With access to all of his family’s lands and finances. It was a sobering thought. But he had none of the respect that would have gone with it, for he had disgraced himself. He felt a sudden pang of resentment, for Cadien, who had forced this sacrifice upon him, and for the boy, who he had made the sacrifice for.

But he shook the thought off. Cadien was a god, who knew far more than did. And the boy was just a boy, who had not asked for any of this. To condemn a god would be to court disaster. And to condemn a child would be nothing more than cruel stupidity.

Milos exchanged a glance with Gelos, who remained as stoic and professional as ever, then looked down at the boy, who did not meet his gaze. “I have adopted you into my household,” Milos said at last. “You are under my protection, and you will be given the training and education befitting a son of House Karras. You will take the Karras name, and you will be my heir should I fail to produce any natural children of my own.”

Brundt continued to stare at the floor. Milos could not blame him. It was a lot to take in. Especially for an outsider who knew nothing of noble or their inheritance. Then he recalled words from his father.

‘Do not underestimate the intelligence of a barbarian. They are people, just like us. They lack our refinement, our culture, and our discipline, but they are cunning when they need to be, and have less to lose.’

“Do you understand?” Milos asked him.

Brundt did not look up, but he did speak. “My… they said my brother was the heir to my village,” he whispered.

Milos’s eyebrows rose. “I did not adopt your brother,” he said. “For it was you who I found, and you I brought home.”

The boy’s expression turned hopeful. “Can you find him? And my sisters too? They’d all make better heirs than me.”

Milos swallowed. He had lost his right to lead excursions into the Highlands. “No,” he said after a moment’s thought. “I cannot do that.”

Then the tears began to form. Milos cursed inwardly. He was not a father. He did not know how to speak with children, yet alone a barbarian who had lost everything. “Leave us,” he ordered Gelos.

The retainer nodded, and left the room, leaving the two alone. Awkwardly, Milos knelt and placed a hand on Brundt’s shoulder. But he could think of nothing to say, so instead he pulled the boy into an embrace, and the child began to sob into his shoulder. The highborn couldn’t help but feel sympathy. The boy had not asked for his home to be destroyed, for his family to be killed, for Cadien to take an interest in him, or to be dragged back to Ketrefa. He had even less choice in this matter than Milos did, and was far worse off.

“Wherever your family is,” Milos told him. “They’d want you to be safe. Cadien told me to protect you, and I will. I do not know what the God of Perfection has in store for you, but I’m certain great things await you, and you will be reunited with your family in the end. In death, if not in life. In the meantime, you have a home here, and… I cannot replace your father, but I will raise you as if you were my own son.”

Then the boy’s grip tightened, and suddenly became painful. Milos remembered the superior strength the boy had demonstrated during the capture, and how many men it had taken to hold him down. Still, he held the boy, until eventually the grip ceased, and they released each other.

“Gelos!” Milos called out, and the retainer once more stepped into the room. “It is late, and the journey was long. Show Brundt to his new bedchamber.”



Unsurprisingly, Milos soon found himself shunned by his own neighbours.

There was a woman Milos had been courting before his last raid. Now, her family forbade him from seeing her.

His friends, some of whom he had known since he was a boy, now glared at him as they passed each other in the street.

His family owned a small farming village just outside the city, tended to by slaves whose families had been owned by House Karras for generations. But selling the grain from that village now proved considerably more difficult, and his revenues dropped.

Milos had said he would give Brundt a training and education befitting a son of House Arenar. That meant hiring tutors. The few private tutors who were willing to work for him demanded extortionate prices, which he was forced to pay. Some part of him still wondered if an outsider like Brundt could even handle the lessons, especially since he was at least two years behind most boys of his age.

To Milos’s surprise, the boy not only handled them, but excelled at them. Brundt had a sharp mind, and enjoyed studying, so progress was swift. After a year, he had nearly caught up to other boys of his age. The tutors were forced to grudgingly concede that Brundt was one of the brightest students they had worked with. Milos soon took a personal hand in some of the lessons, and found himself growing fond of the boy.

However, despite Brundt’s progress, he was not accepted by the rest of the city. To many, the boy was nothing more than a barbarian. His unnatural size and strength did nothing to halt this perception, and because House Karras was shunned, there were few opportunities to demonstrate his other qualities. Like Milos, he too would be an outcast, unless he found another way to prove himself.



Then, one day, there was a knock at the door to his study. “What is it?” Milos demanded.

One of his household slaves stepped into the room, his eyes downcast. “Apologies, my lord. But a visitor from the Temple is here to see you.”

Milos’s eyes widened. Here, in the district known as Cadien’s Quarter, ‘the Temple’ could only mean one thing. A sense of foreboding dread filled him. “Send then in,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. The servant bowed and exited the room.

A few moments later the servant returned, with a rather athletic and beautiful woman in tow, who wore a loose purple robe with the fist of Cadien stitched on its chest. Slung across her back was an oaken staff. No walking stick; it was a weapon. There was no mistaking her: she was an acolyte of the House of Perfection.

She bowed her head. “Lord Milos Karras, it is an honour,” she smiled, though the words were spoken through grit teeth. She did not want to be here, and it was clear her friendliness was forced.

“Likewise,” Milos said, offering a respectful bow of his own. “What business do Cadien’s chosen have with me?”

“I am here on behalf of Grandmaster Varsilis,” she replied. “He requests your presence at the temple, tomorrow at noon. Bring the boy, too.”

“May I ask what purpose?” Milos questioned guardedly.

She shook her head. “He did not say,” her smile faded, “though you should be honoured to receive such an invitation, given all that’s happened. It’s not like you have more pressing matters anyhow.”

Milos grit his teeth. “I accept,” he told her calmly. It’s not like refusal was truly an option anyhow; Grandmaster Varsilis practically ran the district these days. Although he did worry about what the Grandmaster intended for Brundt.



The House of Perfection had lost much of its lustre. The King was no longer as supportive as the organization as he had once been. No wonder; it was something of an open secret that the temple loathed Ketrefa’s monarch. ‘The Bloated King,’ Milos had once heard an acolyte whisper in disgust. It was not merely the King’s physique that brought about this disgust, however.

The Cult of the Horned Goddess began as a nuisance. They first emerged thirteen years ago; an informal religious order dedicated solely to the Goddess of Love. To dedicate oneself solely to one god and to reject the others was blasphemy, and to commit crimes in the name of that god was worse. But the King did nothing to stop it, so as the years went on their influence grew, and soon there were rumours that the King himself could be counted among their number.

But they had not been unopposed. There were those who disdained the cult and the disorder they sowed. Rather than embrace Neiya, they turned her away, and sought the protection of one of the more established religious institutions in the city. The House of Perfection in the District known as Cadien’s Quarter was one such organization, for they had always promoted a healthy and balanced lifestyle, and in that sense were something of an antithesis to the Cult. They may have lost the funding of the King, but many other nobles in the surrounding district had stepped in to offer their support instead. Milos’s own father had been one of them, and that had almost certainly been a factor in the King’s decision to dismiss Milos himself.

And so Cadien’s Quarter had become something of a safe space against the disorder so prevalent in the rest of the city. The household guards of the nobility along with some of the temple’s own acolytes now openly patrolled the district’s streets, keeping order in place of the city guard who had long since grown remiss in their duties.

Other sections of the city had taken similar measures as well, though many had chosen to throw their support behind the House of Order rather than the House of Perfection. Districts which were adjacent to those under control of the Cult were under constant tension, and violence often broke out in the streets. For a known opponent of the cult to walk alone and unprotected into a Cult stronghold was to risk death or robbery.

Battle-lines had been drawn, factions had been formed, and skirmishes were breaking out along the borders. It was as if the city was heading to war with itself.

Fortunately, Cadien’s Quarter was far from the frontline, and so Milos, Brundt, and Gelos were able to make his way to the Temple without any issue.

He approached the pair of guards at the ornate but slightly worn looking entrance, and introduced himself. Although their eyes narrowed at the mention of his name, they let him in without resistance. Gelos and Brundt were left in the temple’s main hall, while Milos was led down a series of smaller hallways, and finally into a room. She held the door open for him, and he stepped inside.

The room was empty, save for a single table, and three inhabitants. There was Grandmaster Varsilis himself, clad in a robe with the silver Ring of Strength on his finger, as well as two others - one of whom was the Captain of the Gates.

“Lord Milos Karras,” Varsilis said, offering a slight bow. “Welcome. I am Varsilis. Grandmaster of the House of Perfection.”

“Lord Karras,” The Captain, Lord Trehe Manzprius, nodded to Milos with a slight smile, “It’s good to see you well.”

Finally came the last man, who was doubtless the oldest among them. Withered skin clung to his cheekbones, and his pale eyes regarded Milos coldly from under the dark hood of his heavy black robe. Casias of no great birth, elderly High Judge of the House of Order, only issued a grunt in response to Milo’s arrival.

Varsilis frowned. “May I introduce Casias of the House of Order,” he said an apologetic tone.

Milos’s eyes widened slightly. The heads of two religious orders, and the captain of Ketrefa’s gates, in one room? “It… It is an honour,” he said quietly, unable to believe his circumstances. “May I ask what I have done to deserve it?”

“I suppose it would be best if I cut to the heart of the matter then, and tell all three of you why I have summoned you here,” Varsilis said. “It’s about the boy Lord Karras adopted last year.”

“What?” Casias snorted, “That unwashed barbarian? I can’t believe this.”

“Watch your tongue Casias,” Trehe warned, before bringing his attention back to Varsilis, “What about him, Grandmaster? That boy has done nothing wrong, if you mean to pressure Lord Karras into renouncing him I won’t stand by and allow it.”

Varsilis frowned. “On the contrary, Lord Trehe, I have called this meeting because it is our duty to offer Lord Karras our support.”

“Our what?” Casias' expression suddenly grew severe, “Have you lost what remains of your muscle addled mind, Varsilis? The absolute last thing we can afford to do is support some outcast! You know exactly how they’d use that against us.”

Varsilis’s expression turned grim. “I am fully aware of what’s at stake,” he said. “More so than you are, in fact. Do you remember the hammer that appeared on my temple’s altar all those years ago? It’s still there. You all saw it when you came in. I told you then that it was a gift from Cadien, and that was the truth. It’s made by a metal no smith has ever seen before, and nobody in this city can lift it. Do you know why that is, Casias?”

Before anyone else could speak, Varsilis went on. “It’s because nobody in this city was worthy. The gift came with a warning, from Cadien himself.” His gaze shifted to Milos. “Tell me, Lord Karras, when you made the decision to take Brundt in, did you hear a voice in your head?”

Milos’s eyes widened. “How did you know that?”

“Nevermind how I know. What did he tell you?”

Milos swallowed. Cadien had forbidden him to speak of it, but the Grandmaster of Cadien’s order already knew, so perhaps it would be alright? “He said… that if I did not take the boy in, Ketrefa would burn.”

Varsilis nodded. “Indeed. Cadien gave me a similar warning.” His gaze shifted from Milos to the two older men. “He spoke of a threat to our city. One that will see us destroyed if we do not vanquish it. The hammer was meant to combat that threat, but only a worthy champion can wield it. And after all these years, I believe that champion has finally arrived.”

“Hmrph,” Casias grunted, sat back, and pulled down his hood, “I remember when the gods didn’t dance around in the street and go blessing hammers, annoying women, and little boys. Fine, I’ll believe you Varsilis. Or I will, when I see the child lift that damn ornament.”

Trehe pursed his lips as his gaze flitted between Vasilis and Milos. He’d listened intently, and now that he spoke it was both clearly and deliberately, “If... If there is such a threat, Grandmaster, I fear we might require the aid of gods regardless of its source. I am not to speak of it, but the inaction of my guard is not unprompted. The King grows... Paranoid. He refuses to speak to me, and rejects every call I make to restore order in the city. I am not certain he would even order a response, if we were attacked.”

Varsilis nodded. “We can’t rely on our King. Cadien made that clear. As to the threat… I have no doubts now. It’s the cult. Walk into any district under their control, and if you don’t get knifed in the gut, you’ll see it’s no place to live. If the rest of Ketrefa ends up like that, we will fall.”

There was a silence at that, and both Trehe and Casias could do little more than nod.
“Now then, I will have the boy try to lift the hammer,” Varsilis said. “But the boy is just that. A boy. Even if he succeeds, I doubt he will be vanquishing evils or leading us to salvation any time soon. It may be years before we see Cadien’s prophecy come to a fruition. But for now… let us see.” He made his way for the door, gesturing for the three men to follow.



They arrived back in the main hall to find Gelos kneeling on the ground in front of a rather bored-looking Brundt, teaching the boy how to play a game of dice. When he noticed their arrival, the veteran retainer swiftly returned the dice to a pouch and leapt to his feet, bowing to his lord. Brundt’s head turned to regard them curiously.

“Brundt,” Varsilis said, stepping forward and offering a smile. “Welcome to the Temple of Cadien. I am Varsilis, Grandmaster of the House of Perfection.”

Varsilis’s words were met with uncertain silence, as the boy stared at the Grandmaster with his peculiar purple eyes.

“You are nervous, I understand that. Fear not; no harm can come to you here.” He extended a hand. “Come. There is something I wish to test.”

Still, Brundt did not move. “It is alright, Brundt,” Milos said after a moment, and only then did Brundt take the Grandmaster’s hand.

The Grandmaster led Brundt up to the altar. “You stand before the altar of Cadien, child,” the Grandmaster said, to which the boy only nodded. He let go of Brundt’s hand. “Now, go forth and pick up the hammer.”

Brundt looked back at Milos, who nodded. Slowly, the young boy turned forward and ascended the stairs, eventually reaching the altar itself.

“Go on, pick it up,” Varsilis urged. Slowly, the boy’s hand crept forward, and closed around the hammer’s shaft.

Then, with barely any effort at all, he lifted it into the air.

In the past, two and sometimes even three grown men had all tried to lifted at it at once, but even their combined effort had barely moved it an inch. Varsilis, Grandmaster of the House of Perfection who wore a holy artifact that enhanced his strength, could not have lifted it either. But here, Brundt, an outsider and a child, had just lifted the hammer almost effortlessly. He held the hammer out in one hand, its head pointed downward, as he looked back down to the group with confusion.

Casias’ eyes bulged, and then the old man burst out in laughter. He laughed until he wheezed, which for a man of his age wasn’t more than a few seconds, but nonetheless the old man had a production of the whole affair. Only when he was done, and many sets of judging eyes sat fixed upon him, did the high Judge speak, “Well, looks like you’ve got one now too, Varsilis. Enjoy it. I don’t.”

Varsilis’s eyes narrowed. “You forget yourself. You stand before the holy altar of Cadien. I tolerated your disrespect behind closed doors, but not here.”

The old man waved Varsilis off and eyed Brundt, “I’ll be in the ground soon enough Varsilis. Long before the boy is ready for whatever Cadien has in mind. Hmpfh. Well, he looks the part, doesn’t he?”

“Blessed,” Trehe muttered, before turning to Milos, “Watch him carefully, Lord Karras. I have... Seen the consequences of incredible power given to one too young.”

Milos nodded, still taken aback by the day’s turn of events. Brundt, nervous at the sudden shift in mood, slowly placed the hammer back on the altar.

Varsilis’s voice fell to a whisper as he looked to Milos. “Send the boy here tomorrow, and I will have him undergo training and instruction from our order. Not only will this help prepare him, but the knowledge that he has my Temple’s favour should improve his standing with the rest of the city.”

Milos nodded, for that would indeed be useful.

“In the meantime,” Varsilis continued. “Let us swear by Tekret and Cadien to keep what we discussed here today a secret. I don’t believe that either the King or the Cult will take well to these developments. Just be prepared to offer your aid, when the time is right.”






The House of Perfection


Two years after Antiquity…



The Temple of Cadien in Ketrefa was not a standard religious institution.

Most religious orders dedicated themselves to reading, writing, science, preaching, or counsel, among other things. The House of Perfection did practice those things, but they were not their primary purpose.

No. Their primary purpose was to work out.

To be chosen to join the House of Perfection was a high honour, and a very exclusive one at that. Nobles and wealthy merchants would offer up their younger sons and daughters in the hopes of them being accepted. If the children were deemed sufficiently healthy and beautiful, and there was space available, they would then be inducted into the order and placed through a rigorous training practice.

Every aspect of their body was to be honed and perfected, for the servants of Cadien had to remain in peak health at all times. After centuries of study and experimentation, they believed themselves to have perfected exercise and dieting. Citizens who sought advice on how to improve their own appearance and physique would come to them, and they would give it, but outside the temple not all could afford to spend every moment exercising. In addition to this counsel, the House of Perfection also offered use of their exercise facilities and free massages to those who provided them with donations.

In addition to that, the order was also well-versed in a number of sports and martial arts. In fact, they frequently held tournaments amongst themselves, where the rest of the city was free to observe these spectacles of peak performance compete against one another.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the House of Perfection also had a disdain for heavy amounts of clothing, except in the coldest of months.



Vasilis was the Grandmaster of the Order, and the strength-enhancing ring upon his finger was his badge of office. Late at night, in the main hall of the temple, he knelt before the marble altar of his god in prayer, when suddenly, a voice had echoed in his head.

Vasilis.

His head rose, and his eyes swept across the room, looking for whoever dared interrupt him during his prayer. Then he realized he was alone, and he swallowed hard. He dipped his head back down, scarcely believing it. “...your Grace?”

Indeed. A great change is coming to Ketrefa, Vasilis. The city will face a threat greater than any that has come before, and you must be ready.

Vasilis paled. “When? What do I need to do?”

Watch and wait. I give you a gift. A purple light filled the room, and a one-handed warhammer materialized on the altar.

Vasilis stared at it for a moment, then rose to his feet, gripped the hilt, and lifted it.

It did not budge.

He tried again. Despite his best efforts, it barely shifted.

You are not worthy, the voice informed him. But there is no shame in that. Few people are. I will send you someone who is, and when the time comes, your order will give him this hammer, along with your unconditional support.

“If I may ask… who will you be sending me, your Grace?”

A boy from outside the city. He has not been born yet.

The revelation that an outsider from the savage lands was worthy of this gift, but not him, sent a wave of shock and disgust rippling through Vasilis. “But… but why?”

Why? Cadien’s voice turned incredulous. You ask me why? Ketrefa is corrupt and rotten. An obstacle to progress. The outsiders are not savages. Their failings are largely due to the fact that your people raid, steal, and kill from them before they can develop. Your walls have made you arrogant, and complacent.

Those words came as a further shock. Ketrefan Supremacy… was a lie?

I approve of your order, but the rest of your city offends me. Ketrefa must change, or it will burn. This outsider will be your city’s saviour. If you reject him, you will find only damnation.

Ketrefan Supremacy was a lie, and they must one day bend the knee to an outsider. It was a hard thing to accept, but with a god demanding it of him, how could he argue? “I understand, your Grace…” Varsilis said, falling back to a kneeling position. “I will watch over this hammer, and I will present it to your champion when the time comes.”

Good. In the meantime, your order has my formal blessing.

Then Varsilis felt the presence leave his head, and a strange tingling sensation washed over him. It lasted only for a moment, then it left, but he felt no change. Perhaps its effects would be discovered in time.

He looked back up at the hammer resting on the altar. He was unworthy, but there was someone out there who was. It was his job to safeguard this until that someone could arrive. And that in itself was a great honour, if it meant his city could be saved and redeemed.

“Thank you, your Grace,” he whispered.







Carn


Twenty-three years after Antiquity…




Carn was in a foul mood.

For weeks after Aurielle’s departure, he lingered in the area, finding what work he could, as he waited for her to return. She never did.

Then, the work dried up, and he had to move on.

He had wanted to track her down, but he had no way of doing so. She had not told him where she was going. He had heard no stories which might lead him to her. For all intents and purposes, she had vanished. Which made him realize… maybe she had wanted to? If she truly intended to see him again, then she would have told him where she was going, or she wouldn’t have disappeared for so long….

Had the siege been harder on her than she let on? Had she simply grown tired of him? Or had something happened to her? He did not know. It filled him with a mixture of frustration, worry, and even longing. He wanted to see her again, if only to find out the truth.

But he couldn’t. His only friend, and possibly something more - he didn’t know any more - was gone.



He went back east.

They had wanted to explore. To see new lands. But Carn could not wander without direction. By the time he arrived at Evenstar, he had already been beginning to grow tired of such a life. Aurielle had livened it up. Her laugh, her smile, her banter, her carefree attitude. Now all that was left was the mercenary company he had built. He was proud of them, of course, but he knew they only followed him out of profit or their own wanderlust, and would desert him or betray him the moment he ceased to serve their interests.

He found work along the way, of course. Escorting caravans. Clearing out trolls. Skirmishing with hostile warbands. But without Aurielle’s magic, which had been such a major linchpin to his tactics, he took casualties. By the time he crossed the Neiyar River, he had gone from thirty men to twenty. They whispered that he had lost his touch, and many soon deserted - the two mages Aurielle had recruited being the first to leave. Only a dozen remained - those who had been with him the longest, and followed him more out of loyalty than anything else. He had been wrong.

But that brought little comfort. With most of his company gone, he felt numb. He no longer had the ambition or the motivation to lead the Redspears. Nor did he believe he even had the ability. And so he appointed one of their number the new leader, and left the Redspears behind.



Years passed, and Carn drifted.

He had wanted to be something more than a wanderer. For a time, he had become that. But then he wanted something more. But before he could acquire it, Aurielle had left, and with her went his motivation. Then he had left the Redspears, and losing them only made him hate himself even more. Now here he was, a wanderer again, passing his days in drink, misery, and violence… back where he started, the self-loathing resumed.



Twenty-six years after Antiquity.


Carn found himself visiting a place he had not been to in eleven years.

Home.

Thyma was not as he remembered it. It had been rebuilt. Its mines were too valuable to simply be allowed to remain a ruin. New huts had been built, as villagers from surrounding lands moved in, in pursuit of new opportunities. Strange faces in a familiar setting. But in truth, it wasn’t that familiar. The new Thyma was smaller than the original, and all wreckage from the old village had been cleared away.

He approached the wooden gate, where a single guard waited. “Name?” the guard asked.

“Edgar,” Carn lied. He was a wreck. His hair was long and unkempt, and he had allowed himself to grow a dishevelled beard. His face had a light coating of dirt, and the white hair made him look far older than he actually was.

“What brings you here?” the guard asked, squinting at his unusual features.

“Just wandering,” Carn said, “I need a place to stay.”

“Hm. Well, go on in, then.”

Carn took a step forward, but the guard suddenly raised a hand to stop him. “The Ketrefans are here,” he said in a low voice. “So mind yourself.”

...

This was not his home. The people were different. The buildings were different. Ketrefan soldiers roamed about the place in small groups, looking upon him with suspicion. He looked around, vainly hoping to see some sort of familiar sight, but when none were to be found he felt a dull pang of grief.

Then he saw the village temple, and stepped inside.

It was a small, cramped thing, with a series of crude wooden idols set up to represent the various gods. He fell to his knees, kneeling in solitude.

“The Gods…” he whispered. Aurielle had always said the gods didn’t care. Carn himself had felt inclined to agree, but he had always carried some level of hope that he was wrong.

“Oraelia,” he spoke aloud, looking at the statue meant to represent the Sun Goddess. “I suppose you’re no friend of mine. Not after all I’ve done.”

“Evandra,” he said, looking to the Goddess of Fire. “I’ve lost my passion. My drive. I suppose you’ve given up on me too.”

“Tekret…” he whispered. “I’ve broken laws. Killed leaders. Usually out of necessity, but not always. Besides that, somehow I managed to see everything I was born with destroyed, and everything I built I abandoned. I’d be a fool if I expected you to answer me now.”

“Neiya,” he said next. “I’m a failure in love as well. I don’t even know what love is. Where is Aurielle, could you tell me that?” he shook his head. “No, I don’t see why you should.”

“And you,” his gaze finally settled on Cadien’s carving. “They said many things about my father. He was your champion, your herald, your avatar. In the end it didn’t do him any good, did it? You turned your back on him.” Tears had begun to form in his eyes, and he let out a resentful shudder. “On his children, too. Evette, Alys, Brundt. They’re all dead, aren’t they? Dead or worse. Then there’s me. Nothing left. Talking to a statue. I’m pathetic, aren’t I?” He sighed, and cast his gaze to the ground. “No wonder none of you answer my prayers…”

“You should know,” a voice spoke behind him. “The gods don’t just speak to their favoured. They also speak to their worst offenders.”

“Is that supposed to be a comfort?” Carn asked, turning his head. Standing behind was a bald-headed man in old worn robes, with a series of tribal tattooes on his face. There was something familiar about him, but Carn couldn’t quite place it.

“Yes,” the man nodded. “I’ve heard gods speak to me in anger, and there is nothing more terrifying. Catching a god’s eye is not always a good thing.”

“You a priest?” Carn asked.

“That I am. My name is Lothar. No need to introduce yourself, Carn, for I already know who you are.”

“Do you?” Carn asked in a dry tone. “If you did, I doubt you’d welcome me here.”

“You murdered the chieftain of Morganstead in a fit of anger,” Lothar said in a neutral tone. Carn’s hand immediately went for his sword, but the priest continued speaking. “You spent years as a thief and an outlaw. Wandering, begging, stealing, sometimes killing to survive. You became a wandering mercenary, offering your blade and your muscle for hire. You defended a kingdom from destruction, but left while it was still vulnerable. You abandoned those who trusted your leadership, because you yourself were abandoned by another.” The priest shook his head. “I do not judge you, Carn. I’ve done worse myself.”

“How do you know all that?” Carn asked.

“As I said, I’ve heard gods speak to me. I have committed offenses against both Evandra and Cadien. They did not strike me down, however; they only threatened to do so if the offenses continued. At the time, I felt it was mercy, and soon came to think it was far more mercy than I deserved.” He shook his head. “Years later, I realized it had been a punishment after all. I was burdened by regret. I craved atonement, but had no way of finding it. I settled down here as a priest, hoping to prevent people from making the same mistakes as I, but my hopes were in vain, for none of the people here are the sort who would do such terrible things in the first place. I could not share my sins with them, for they would drive me away in disgust.”

“You didn’t answer my question, old man.”

“Then, a few weeks ago, I received my chance of atonement,” Lothar went on. “While I knelt here, praying for forgiveness, a purple light filled the room, and Cadien spoke to me. He foretold your arrival, your destiny, and my place in it.”

Carn sighed. “Whatever it is, I’m not interested. I’ve heard this before.”

“You did,” Lothar nodded. “And you ignored it. That was your mistake. You wanted something more than a village, but as with all grand ambitions, one must start small. That village would have led to something far greater.”

“And what makes you think I still care about something greater?” Carn sighed. “These days I can barely bring myself to care about my next meal.”

“What of your brother, then?” Lothar asked.

Carn leapt to his feet and rounded on the priest. “My brother?” he demanded.

“Your brother still lives, Carn. He remains in Ketrefa.”

Carn’s jaw dropped, and for a few moments his lips twitched, trying and failing to form words. At last, he found his voice. “Even if my brother still lives, he’ll be a slave. One among thousands. I’ll never find him, and even if I do, he might not recognize me.”

“You will find him,” Lothar insisted. “Cadien has assured me of this.”

“How am I to do that, then?” Carn demanded. “Walk up to Ketrefa’s walls and ask to see him?”

“Yes,” Lothar nodded. “With an army at your back.”

Carn frowned, and looked away. “For a moment, I thought you were serious. But it seems you’re just deluded.”

“I am not,” there was a rasp of metal, and Carn turned to see the old man had pulled out a strange sword, of a shining silvery metal. The hilt was made of gold and wrapped in fine leather, with an amethyst set in the crossguard. Before he could react, the old man knelt, and presented the weapon to him. “Take up this blade,” the old man whispered. “Lead us. Unite the Highlands. Attack Ketrefa. Do this, and you will eventually be reunited with your family.” There was an almost pleading note in his voice.

Carn stared at him for several long, tense moments. “No,” he whispered.

His gaze darted to Cadien’s statue, and when he spoke there was a fury in his eye and a venom in his voice that took the old priest aback. “Stop speaking to me through prophecies and messengers,” he said defiantly. “If you want me as your champion, if you want me to carry out your will, then at least do the decency of speaking to me yourself. I’ll not lead hundreds to their deaths and kill thousands more simply on the word of an old man in a hut.”

Very well, a deep voice spoke within his mind. Lothar speaks the truth. Your destiny is to raise an army against Ketrefa, and attack the city. Do so, and you shall reunite with your brother. And your sisters, in time. Other greater awards await as well, if you have the taste for them.

Carn staggered, and suddenly found it hard to maintain his footing. A god… an actual god… had spoken to him. “I… where would I even begin?” he asked.

Begin here, the voice commanded. Ketrefa is already here. Take up the sword and drive them out.

The Firstborn of Mekellos hesitated. He glanced down at the blade, which the priest still held out to him. Then, slowly, his hand closed around the hilt.



Outside in the village square, a woman screamed.

The lord of the Ketrefan warband had taken notice of her, and he liked what he saw. He seized her by the wrist, and dragged her from the crowd. A child screamed and ran after her, but one of his men backhanded the boy to the ground. The woman screamed louder, and began thrashing and clawing at the officer’s face. He fended off her attempts with ease.

Elsewhere, one of his men shouted in alarm. The lord’s head turned.

Approaching was a strange silver-haired man, his armour battered and his cloak tattered. There was a fierce look of a defiance in his eye, and in his hand was a peculiar sword, its silvery blade glimmering in the sunlight. Behind him, the village priest followed, a staff in hand.

“Throw down that weapon!” one of the soldiers ordered.

Carn did not reply, and instead changed course, striding toward the one who spoke. The soldier’s eyes widened upon realizing he intended to fight, and drew a blade in response. Carn closed the distance, and the soldier swung for his head.

Carn ducked, spun, and then suddenly there was a dagger in his offhand, which he ran across the soldier’s throat in one fluid motion. Carn carried on toward the commander, not once breaking stride, even as the body slumped to the ground behind him.

More shouts of alarm rang out. Five guards approached now. Carn slid the small knife into his belt and gripped his blade with two hands, as he continued his advance. Then Lothar spoke an incantation, and suddenly the ground before the soldiers turned into mud. All five slipped, with three sprawling to the ground and only two managing to retain their footing.

Carn was on them in a flash. He swung his blade at one soldier’s midsection, cutting halfway through his body with ease before pulling it free. The other soldier brought a spear up in a clumsy attempt to block, but Carn’s blade cut clean through the metal. The soldier only had half a second to process this before the sword stilled his heart next. With a smile, Carn turned his attention on the three who were still getting back up.

The crowd screamed and parted, fleeing for the safety of their homes. The Ketrefans made no move to stop them, for they had now all set their sights on the sole goal of murdering Carn. Nearly two dozen men charged toward him in unison as he finished off the last of the second wave.

Once again, Carn resumed his advance, crossing the mud by using the bodies he had slain as a human bridge. There was an expression of complete tranquility on his face, and his calm measured approach after casually slaying six of their number gave his foes pause. Some slowed their pace, and a few stopped entirely.

Once more Lothar turned the ground to mud, and several more men stumbled, but at least half were able to safely maneuver around it. The priest began launching firebolts into their number, setting a few of them ablaze.

Then Carn came to a stop, as they were finally upon him. He became a whirlwind, batting spears and swords aside with unnatural reflexes, severing them at the tips, shafts, and hilts; wherever he could strike them. His blade cleaved shields in two, and severed limbs with ease. Blood rained, but somehow none of it landed on him. One or two strikes found their mark, but they were glancing blows only.

He came face to face with the enemy commander, who stared back at him with fearful eyes. Carn cleaved his blade in two, then brought his fist up into his foes face, breaking the highborn’s nose.

Then new cries entered the symphony of violence, as the village militia joined the fight. They did not stand with the Ketrefans, however, and instead drove their spears into the backs of those who attempted to overwhelm Carn. Just like that, the will of Carn’s foes quickly evaporated. They scattered in all directions, though most wound up being cut down. Only a few made it out.

The Ketrefan commander attempted to stand, only for Carn to kick him back to the ground. Carn pressed the sword against his neck.

“Ignorant savage,” the highborn spat. “I’m the Lord Captain’s son! The commander of Ketrefa’s armies! If you kill me, he’ll come back with legions!”

Carn smiled, a cruel and cold thing. “And if I spare you, you’ll come back with legions instead, I presume?”

The highborn’s face paled, and he began to stutter, beginning a desperate plea for his life. Carn pressed the point downward, piercing his throat. Blood bubbled and frothed from the noble’s lips.

The chieftain of the village was a burly man only a few years older than Carn. “That was not wise,” he chastised Carn, who was already wiping off his blade. The chieftain’s own axe was bloodied as well.

“Then why’d you help me?” Carn asked.

“Because I wanted those bastards dead,” the chieftain growled. “That was my sister they tried to take. But that fop of a boy was right. They’ll be back with more.” The other warriors in the square nodded grimly.

Carn spared one glance back at Lothar, and then looked to the rest of the crowd. “Then we’ll kill them too!” he shouted, his voice echoing through the courtyard and into the homes of the inhabitants. “And the next one after that! The other villagers will see our victories and flock to our banner, so Ketrefa will send even more men. But we’ll kill them again and again until they have nobody left to send. And when that’s done, we’ll advance right up to their walls, break down their gates, free our kin, and take vengeance upon their King!”

Most of the men nodded at his words, and there were a few cheers… but also a few helpless nods.

Lothar spoke next. “You stand before a Champion of Cadien,” the priest declared. “He bears our Lord’s visage and His blade. He has given you a divine mission. Will you answer!?”

“Aye!” one man shouted.

“Aye” declared another.

“Aye!” the rest soon followed; even those who had been reluctant.

“My name is Carnelian,” Carn proclaimed, and rose his sword high. “I will lead you to freedom and glory!”

“Freedom and glory!” one man shouted.

“Freedom and glory!” another took up the cry.

“FREEDOM AND GLORY!”








Cadien

&

Gibbou



Clad in his armour, Cadien stood outside what he knew to be the portal to Gibbou’s realm. He recalled the words he had exchanged with Neiya, and the warning she had given him. But, he could not simply leave the issue at that. He needed to know more. He needed to resolve it somehow. He had considered many different ways to approach this issue, but ultimately concluded that the most direct way would be best.

So without further ado, the God of Perfection stepped through the portal. The scenery became dark and empty, the rotating Galbar visible above, contrasted by the hard rays of the sun on the moon’s horizon. The texture of the ground felt rocky and sandy, and the only sound was an oppressive lack of it. Up ahead, visible only with holy eyes, was a large, round dome of glass, within which there were numerous shapes - one of which was moving around.

“Gibbou?” Cadien voiced, as he approached the glass dome - the only structure in sight. The shape halted, then disappeared behind what looked like a door, which upon further inspection looked more like a tunnel. A door at the end of that tunnel swung open, revealing Gibbou in her usual midnight shirt and pants, bat slippers on her feet.

”Oh, Cadien! Hi!” She stepped out and closed the door behind her. ”It’s, it’s been a while! What’s up?”

Cadien did not carry his usual smile. “There is a matter I must discuss with you,” he said. “It is quite serious.”

Gibbou put on a frown. ”O-oh, okay, uhm… Why don’t you come in and we’ll, we’ll talk about it?” She pushed the door open for him to step inside.

The God complied, stepping through the door and turning back to face Gibbou. “I have recently heard some allegations against you,” he told her, in a tone that betrayed no emotion.

The moon goddess blinked in confusion and closed the door. ”A-allegations? Look, if this is about those vampires…”

Cadien’s eyes widened in shock. “Vampires?”

The moon goddess froze, droplets of sweat gathering on her face. ”Uh… Yeah, what about ‘em?”

The God frowned. “Why did you just bring them up?”

”Becaaaaauuuse… They usually appear at night and, and do a lot of bad stuff.” She groaned. ”Oh, me and my big mouth… I, uh, I may have had a hand in making them… I’m not proud… At all.”

Cadien’s expression darkened. “A hand? Who else was involved?”

Gibbou glared. ”Hey, I ain’t no snitch! It’s someone or no one. Coulda been a figure of speech. Now, I’m sorry for doing it - might’a had a somewhat skewed idea of what a good, effective curse is, but on the brightside? There are fewer people who kill for power now.”

Cadien returned the glare. “There are fewer people who kill for power now, he corrected. “But in the future? When they find out doing so will grant them eternal life, strength and speed beyond measure, and all they have to do is stay out of the sun and drink a few cups of blood a week?” He shook his head. “There will be more, not less. The very idea of it makes a mockery of my ideals.”

Gibbou rolled her eyes. ”Yeah, well, if I had to take into account everyone’s ideals, I wouldn’t be able to make jack, would I? Like, you’re free to just, y’know, change ‘em however you’d like. Besides, do you know how hard they have it after the curse? Like, even getting touched by the sun equals poof!” Balled fists rested on her hips. ”If you want a better apology than ‘I’m sorry’, I’ll write you an essay on how sorry I am, for sure - or whatever else you want. But I have -just- done my hair and watered my grapevines and I am -not- in the mood for a lecture right now.”

“And I wasn’t in the mood for this conversation, but here we are,” Caiden said. “You inflicted this upon my creations without telling me. They already have enough to deal with as is - trolls, iskrill, vrools, vespians, witches, even each other. You’ve created another foe for them to fight, and now I must deal with it. I can change them, yes, but so can others - already someone seems to have reduced their dependency on blood. So I must find another way to strike at them,” he sighed in disappointment. “What about you? Do you have any plans to fix this?”

She scoffed. ”Oh, I’m sorry - do we have to ask permission to do our jobs nowadays? And why are you speaking of my trolls as though they are a pest? Do you even know that only two out of four kinds actually kill people? One’s even really nice! Oh, and by the way, vampirism isn’t exclusive to humanity, so stop acting like this is just -your- issue.” She took a moment to taste her words. ”Okay, I realise I’m not selling my case well here, but I’ve already got plans to give mortality their shields against the vampires. Alternatively, you know, they actually learn how to kill them. Isn’t that your whole shtick? Overcoming challenges through improvement?”

“Within reason,” Cadien argued. “Some challenges are so great that they destroy the opposition before it can improve. That doesn’t lead to improvement; only more destruction. Now tell me, what is your plan?”

Gibbou groaned and snapped her fingers. In the blink of an eye, the dome they were in dug itself under the ground, tunneling through the entire moon until it appeared on the other side, right in the inferno of the sun’s light. The moon goddess flinched and summoned a pair of sunglasses for herself and Cadien. The blazing rays turned the surface around them an eerie white, and the moon goddess turned to dig through a nearby chest, throwing lumbs of rock and metal over her shoulder while searching for something.

Cadien remained silent, glancing down at the sunglasses in his hand, which he did not need. Gibbou eventually came back to his side, holding a copper plate in her hand. ”Observe.” She reached out and grabbed some of the sun rays that broke through the glass ceiling and smeared them all over the plate until it turned a brighter version of itself and sported an odd inscription saying, “Example”. ”Sunplate. The method isn’t perfect, and I have no idea how mortals’re going to make it, but the plan’s to offer some to a group of warriors brave enough to seek out a vampire. If it works, the vampire should disintegrate upon contact.” She paused and shrugged. ”Work in progress, obviously.”

“And how long will this take to develop?” Cadien asked her, looking at the plate with something akin to curiosity.

Gibbou shrugged again. ”I’unno. If you got a group of warriors in mind, I’m sure we could test it right away.” She left the plate in his hands and went to clean up the mess she’d made.

“There is no shortage of warriors in the Highlands,” Cadien said. “Or among the Merelli and the Goblins, for that matter. Any group of them could serve, if they are willing.”

”I’ll get to it at some point, I suppose. You kinda caught me in the middle of, y’know, gardenwork, so I didn’t plan on making anything today...” She snapped her fingers and the dome travelled back to the dark side of the moon. ”Right, now that -that’s- over with, I’m going to make myself something soothing to drink. Feel, feel free to sit anywhere.” She stepped over to a different part of the dome with some cupboards on the wall, from one of which she extracted a cup. ”You want anything?”

Cadien shook his head. “I’m afraid our business is not yet concluded. As I said earlier, there were… other allegations.”

”Can you at least pretend like you’re here for a nice visit -just- for five minutes while I make my tea?” She conjured forth some hot water, poured it into the cup and a teabag dropped into the cup out of nowhere. She flicked her free hand and a beanbag rolled over to Cadien’s feet like a lonely pet. ”Sit down, by sunlight - you’re stressing me out…”

“It was not my intention,” Cadien said, as he sat down on the… ‘chair’, “but this conversation is necessary. For what it’s worth though, you do have my apologies. Just let me know when we can continue.”

”You ever notice that? No one just comes for a nice visit. Everyone always wants something - ‘Gibbou, make this’, ‘Gibbou, you screwed up’, ‘Gibbou, we need to talk’. Illyd and Orey alone know how to be nice nowadays.” She sat down on her own bean bag and gave her tea a sip. ”Alright, what is it?”

“To be completely fair,” Cadien said, sidestepping the main issue for now, “you’ve only ever visited me once, and that was when you needed something.”

”I did say everyone, didn’t I?” She attempted to smirk. ”No, you’re right. Wrong timing.”

“Don’t worry. You were pleasant company regardless,” Cadien said, with a reassuring wave of his hand. “Much better than that Aicheil fellow, anyhow,” he shuddered.

”The Dreamer Boy? Met him once. Didn’t say much and was a bit grabby right away. I thought you two’d get along.” She winked. ”Sorry, but it was right there. Anyway, what happened?”

“I welcomed him into my sphere, as I generally do,” Cadien shrugged. “He demanded access to my mind. I said no, because he was being quite rude, and I insisted on a regular conversation. He continued to refuse, despite my attempts to help him learn, and then seemed to be in some sort of pain, so eventually I gave him what he wanted.” The god scowled. “He then got himself hurt in the process and saw fit to insult and criticize me, before fleeing after I told him to leave.”

Gibbou frowned. ”That’s disturbing, sure, but… Well, when I met him, he wanted to do the same. I mean, he didn’t exactly say ‘I demand access to your mind’, but he kept saying ‘connect’ over and over again and held his hands out. He didn’t do much up there - I think that’s just how he talks to people. Sure, he’s, well, weird, but I didn’t take him to be much of a critic.” She sipped her mug again. ”How’d he hurt himself? Must’a been something fierce if it was enough to hurt a god.”

“I do not know,” Cadien shook his head. “Perhaps my mind was simply too advanced for his. There is one detail I have withheld, though. After the encounter, a number of mortals on Galbar were driven to madness. I suspect this was his doing, for when he hurt himself, he let out an immense amount of power which seemed to reach even beyond my realm. The fact that he would do such a thing, from my own realm no less, is a grievous insult.”

Gibbou gasped. ”Wait, what?! Madness?! But…!” She sprinted over to the window of her dome and stared searchingly down at the planet below. ”B-but then I have to help them! Helping people relax is, is my purpose!” She conjured forth a model of Galbar with moondust and started scanning the whole surface for outbreaks of madness and hysteria. ”How long ago was this?”

“A few days,” Cadien said, as he rose to his feet. “On Galbar, I mean.” He stepped up behind her and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “If they need you, then I’m certain they or someone close to them will pray to you. Your druids have spread your name quite far, haven’t they?”

Gibbou sighed. ”I mean, I… I guess… I haven’t heard anything, though. Most just complain about not being able to sleep or all the horrors that happen in the night.” She cast a sideways glance at the hand on her shoulder. ”By the way, could you… Not?”

Cadien instantly withdrew his hand. “My apologies,” he said, somewhat sheepishly. “Uh… anyhow, I do believe I have gotten off track. I meant to discuss the reason I first came here.”

”After berating me about my screw-ups and nearly giving me a heart attack, how could we forget?” she replied with a roll of her eyes. ”Go ahead, talk.” She dipped her lips into her mug again.

The God took a deep breath. “It’s about your feud with Neiya.”

In an eruptive move, she spat tea all over the window, coughing violently afterwards. She collected herself bit by bit and rubbed her nose which was runny with tea. ”On a roll today with picking terrible topics, aren’t we?” she groaned, followed by ‘ahs’ and ‘ehs’ as she snorted everything back inside.

“Your words hurt her, Gibbou, more deeply than you might think,” Cadien frowned. “What I want to know is why. Until now I have never seen you angry.”

Gibbou blinked, lifting a small index finger to her chest. ”Wait… My words?” She cocked her head to the side, suspicion darkening her eyes. ”Cadien, wha-uh… Wuh… what is this? A-uh, a bad joke?”

“What do you mean?”

Gibbou scoffed in disbelief. ”A-are you actually…” She breathed in deep and brought her right fingers to her face. ”Oh, my sis… Cadien, what is your relationship with this woman?”

“My relationship with her is irrelevant to this discussion,” Cadien frowned uncomfortably. “I simply wish to see this feud resolved.”

Gibbou shook her head slowly. ”I… I can’t believe this. Has she actually… I don’t even know how to ask this, even. What exactly did she tell you, Cadien?” Her eyes were round and erratic with confusion.

“She told me that you are not to be trusted, and that you spoke to her with enough spite and malice to cut her for millennia,” Cadien frowned. “That is why I am here. Until today, I never would have thought you capable of such behaviour, so what happened?”

Gibbou twisted the fingers on her face into a flat palm. ”Hold up… Let me get this straight...” She chuckled almost maniacally. “… She told you… That -I- was not to be trusted… And that -I- spoke to -her- with enough spite and malice to cut her for millennia?” She then leaned in and looked at Cadien in the same way one studies a mirage in the desert to verify if it’s real. ”... And in spite of you already knowing me for the person I am, you believed her?”

“I do not know who to believe,” Cadien insisted. “It is because I already know you that I am here at all, asking you these questions. You deserve a chance to tell me your side.”

She drew another deep breath. ”I appreciate that chance - really do, but…” She reached out for one of his hands, taking it with her own two. ”Cadien, listen to me very carefully. Neiya is not who she says she is. Yes, we met two thousand years ago, and she spent the better part of a night telling me how useless and hopeless I was as a goddess. She tried to poison me into becoming some, some toy of hers. I swear this by that crazy guy Tekret, for what that’s worth to us. I am guilty in telling her I never want to see her again - which I don’t! But if this is the story she told you, you -need- to get away from her!”

Cadien’s face was blank as he withdrew his hand. Then, his expression turned troubled. “I…” he looked away, unable to meet Gibbou’s gaze, as his mind searched through his earlier interactions with Neiya. “But she’s always been…” his voice trailed off. He recalled Neiya’s words. They will try to tear us apart... They think I’m a monster... She is not to be trusted.

If Neiya was right, then the only correct thing to do would be to disregard everything Gibbou had said and leave immediately. But if there was even a small chance that Gibbou was telling the truth… or that both of them somehow were…

At last Cadien gathered himself, and found his voice. “I need to leave,” he said simply, in a stoic tone that barely concealed his inner troubles. He turned away and made his way toward the door. “I have… a lot to think about…”

Gibbou sighed. ”Cadien… One last things.”

He stopped at the door. “What is it?” he asked, without turning his head.

”Be safe.”

The God only nodded, and stepped outside.





Evette




Evette was perched atop a rooftop, staring down like a watchful owl at the dark village streets below. Not too long after her encounter in Korstone, she had heard unusual stories from another village nearby. A tragic murder, followed by people waking up with sore necks. Signs which often suggested the presence of a vampire. With nothing better to do, she had gone to investigate.

So, here she was, watching over this village whose name she couldn’t quite recall, as she waited for any signs of suspicious activity. Her glowing halo made it rather difficult for her to conceal herself, but hopefully if a vampire chose to walk the streets at night, they would not have the wherewithal to look upward.

The odds of actually finding one were slim. But she was persistent. She would wait out this night. Then the next one. Then the next. In the day she would rest, then interview the locals and scout out possible hiding places. She would do this until at last she found her prey, or could determine that there truly was no vampire after all.

”HEY! You!” a voice blasted at her like cannonfire, and the moon above seemed to just briefly flash with white.

Her gaze darted back and forth across the village, searching for the speaker. She had been spotted, and it only seemed sensible that one might react in such a manner if they saw a strange winged human sitting on their roof. But nobody seemed to be out, save for the guards posted on the village’s fringes, and they had not noticed her. They had not even reacted to the strange voice at all, which was puzzling. Her hand grasped the hilt of her sword.

”Hel-loooooo! Talking to ya here! If you could just-... No, nope, it’s not that guy. No, not that one, either! Look, it’s not the guards, okay? I am-...” There was a pause. ”... Sorry, it’s just my… My pet dragon wanted some… Oh, are you hungry, big guy? Oh, yes, you are… Yesh, yoo aaaare…”

“Cadien’s Grace…” Evette whispered. “Am I going mad?”

”Well, you just might with how much you stay up all night! You know how bad that is for your health? Here you go, bubby, eat up... Anyway, yeah, you should be sleeping right now!”

“Show yourself!” she hissed. “Where are you?”

”Where -I- am isn’t important - it’s on the moon, by the way. What -is- important is that you are on a roof when you should be in bed!” The voice offered a passive sniff.

On the moon? She looked up at the night sky, and her eyes widened ever so slightly. “Are… are you…”

”Yeeeaaah, yeah, come on. Say it.”

“Are you a goddess?”

”Bingo! Name’s Gibbou - I live on the moon and watch people sleep! Wait, no, that didn’t come out right… I am the watcher of the sleeping… No, that still isn’t…” There was an empty pause. ”I’m Gibbou.”

For a moment, Evette was speechless. That a goddess would reach out to her so directly and so casually, over something so small. Then, the surprise turned to annoyance, and she pursed her lips into a frown. “I am Evette,” she introduced herself. “Daughter of Cadien and Champion of Oraelia. It is my duty to hunt down the creatures of the night, and I need to be awake to do that.”

The voice didn’t respond for a moment. Then came a sharp scoff. ”Pfft, yeah, alright. Okay, listen “Evette” - by the way, weird name - you do not talk to me like that. Here it is I who ask the questions and you who answer ‘em, capiche? Firstly, who are your parents and why do they say you’re a daughter of Cadien? Secondly, why do you call yourself a champion of Oraelia? And thirdly, how dare you?”

The mention of her parents gave her pause, as she was forced to recall the unpleasant memory. “I… my father was Konrad, of Thyma Village. He was Cadien’s Herald, and had Cadien’s blood. He… died.”

The voice instantly lost all animosity. ”Oh, shoot, really? Ooooh no… Look, I’m, I’m really sorry, I-... I just tend to get all, y’know, when talking to mortals, and… Okay, okay, how about you just tell me what you’re doing out so late, hmm?”

“After my father died, I was on my own. I was captured by a vampire, and he wanted to… keep me, so he’d have a constant blood supply. There were others, too. I was just a girl, and there was nothing I could do…” her voice was quiet and sorrowful. “Then Solus, Oraelia’s champion, saved me. He blessed me with wings, gave me a weapon of pure sunlight, and charged me with the duty to hunt down the vampires.” She looked back up at the moon, and her voice hardened. “That’s why I stay awake at night.”

Another long pause, broken eventually by a ”Huh.” Gibbou sucked in a long breath. ”How about that… Well, as much as I absolutely hate the idea, and am frankly pretty offended by the fact that that sword is a thing, I suppose you’re doing your job protecting life and mortalkind in the night.” She hummed. “Tell you what, why don’t I give you this?” In Evette’s right hand, there appeared a small, black stone. It glistened with a midnight glow, but looked otherwise fairly mundane. ”It might make the job a little easier for you.”

“What is it?” she asked.

”Oh, right - this is a Sleep Stone! They’re incredibly rare - this one’s the only one in the whole world! It should help you sleep better for shorter periods - so you at the very least can catch -some- z’s while you work.” She sighed. ”Look, I didn’t mean to come in and be all mean and stuff, but… People should be sleeping at night. Bad things happen when darkness is prowled by those who do not belong in it.”

“What sort of bad things?”

”Oh, y’know, thievery, wolf attacks, murder… I mean, I -get- it: It’s hard to see, so it’s easier to get away with your crimes, and people are asleep, so they don’t hear you or pay attention, but, like… C’mon. Why would you ever wanna steal anything instead of lying in that soft, cushiony mattress and make out with your pillow?”

Evette blinked. That was uh… too much information. “Thank you for your gift, Gibbou,” she said, trying to get the conversation back on topic.

”Oh! Oh, that was no problem! I mean, phwah, it’s not like, like, eheh… Y’know, heh... She cleared her throat. ”You’re welcome.” There was a quiet pause. ”Ssssooo… Wha’chu doin’?”

“Hunting a vampire,” she answered. “I believe there is one hiding in this village.”

”Okay, cool, cool.” There was a pause. ”There, uh… There isn’t, by the way.”

“What? How can you be sure?”

”Well, I -am- the Watcher in the Night, sister, that sounds so lame... I know this stuff.”

She sighed. “That is… both disappointing and relieving, I suppose.” She fell silent for a few moments, and then spoke again. “Can I ask you a question?”

”Oh yeah, go ahead, go ahead!” There came a watery trickle. ”You don’t mind if I have myself a cuppa, do you?”

“I don’t know what that is,” she blinked. “I just… I want to know which god created vampires in the first place. Who would do something… so evil?”

The voice didn’t respond for a bit. Eventually, there came a gingerly sip of liquid followed by: ”Yeah, beats me. Must’a been some nutcase. Lotsa them around here.”

“Do you mean other gods?” Evette asked. “How many of them are there? The ones that are… ‘nutcases’, I mean.”

Another sip. ”Oh, uh, y’know, a couple. There’s this one chick who’s completely sick in the head. You know Neiya? I could call her a bitch, but I doubt even dogs would wanna be around her.”

“Isn’t Neiya the Goddess of Love?”

”Wow, she -still- sells it like that? Give. Me. A. Break! She is to love what tapeworms are to people.” An angry sip. ”Nuh-uh. She’s the goddess of suffering and death of hope...”




The sun was just cresting over the horizon, and Evette was still on the rooftop.

”... and like, who does that, am I right? Who gets a divine gift from their creator without saying thank you? Promise me this, sister, if you ever get together with this guy, dump him in public for everyone to see. It’ll be hard, sure - he’s really handsome and caaan be pretty cute every now and then, and sure, his hair’s pretty nice… But no, he’s actually a jerk! That actually reminds me of this -other- guy I woke up up here. Boy, he was weird…”

“I see…” Evette said numbly, while within her mind she was struggling to fight off an existential crisis. These were the issues gods concerned themselves with? “This ‘Twilight’ man sounds unworthy of your favour.”

”Oh, I swear, sometimes I wish I could just wring him apart, but… Oh, when he has his moments, he just…” There came a soft hum. ”He’s not all bad! Sure, he never does anything right, shirks his duties and hasn’t talked to me for six years, but…” Another pause. ”He -can- be a nice guy.” There came a sniff. ”Oh sis, I sound like such a loser… Why am I like this, Evette?”

“Maybe you should just… move on?” Evette suggested. “If he doesn’t appreciate you, find someone who will. Maybe, the reason he shirks his duties is because he thinks you’ll keep taking him back?”

”I couldn’t do thaaat! He’s precious to me!” There came a clinking of glass and a rush of liquids into some kind of bowled container. ”Shoot, that’s too much… You won’t tell on me, right?”

“Who would I tell?” she asked. “You’re the only god I’ve ever spoken to. But, if you wish to keep this a secret, I shall. Now… I think I should be on my way. But may I ask one final question?”

There came a series of glug-glug-glugs, followed by a loud gasp. ”Urk, that’s strong. Yeah, yeah, yeah, go ahead.” The same sound of running liquid followed.

“What is Cadien like?”

Sluuuurp... ”Hmm… He’s really nice, actually. Sure, I think he has terrible taste in women, but as a person, I admire him. He has this charisma and motivation to improve stuff that’s so rare in gods nowadays… Why, you interested in knowing what your lineage’s like?”

“I just…” she sighed. “My father claimed to be his champion, but… I know nothing about him beyond what my father and the priests of different villages have told me. He never has never answered my prayers and I have never felt his influence. Do I truly have his blood, or were those just stories? I know… I wasn’t normal, even before I met Solus, but…” her voice trailed off.

Glug. ”Oh, that’s just uncalled for. Of course, you’re related. I’d know that divine scent wherever - divine as in holy, by the way; I don’t mean as in… Anyway, not answering your prayers? Dick move, but girlfriend, listen: You’re, you’re a pretty nice and righteous lady. Don’t let these kinds of thoughts pull you down, okay? You’re stronger than that.”

A wave of relief washed over her. “Thank you,” Evette whispered, as she wiped away a tear. “And… I would say the same to you, Lady Gibbou.”

The reply came mid-drink. ”Hmm? Sorry, didn’t catch that.” It was followed by a burp. ”’Scuse me.”

“Nevermind,” Evette shook her head. “I think it’s time for me to get going. I would like to be alone with my own thoughts while on the road, if that’s alright with you.”

”Aaaw, really? Nah, I, I, I… Sssh, here it comes. No, I understand. You, uh, you stay shafe--safe, okay? Yeah?”

Evette nodded, and dropped down from the rooftop. The villagers, now roused and awake, stared at her as if she was mad.







Alys

&
Mathius


Fifteen Years after Antiquity…



Somehow, they had found their way out of the forest.

They were well into the afternoon when they saw the village - a few dozen huts, and some fields where sheep grazed. “People!” Alys shouted excitedly. “Follow me!” she ordered Mathius, and then rushed forward.

Mathius was honestly stunned, they had actually managed to find their way to civilization? Perhaps he had been too harsh on this child. ”Alys wait up!” He called as he rushed to follow her.

The girl did not wait, though he would have little difficulty catching up to her. Shepherds cast confused looks toward them, as did the handful of people who were out and about the village’s streets. As she passed, the sheep in the fields began to panic, letting out nervous “baas” or even running away.

They entered the confines of the village just as an older-looking woman stepped outside of a nearby hut. “Who are you?” she asked, her eyes narrowing as they settled on Mathius’s boney black-robed frame.

“I’m Alys!” the girl said excitedly. “What is this place?”

But the woman did not answer. Her gaze remained set on Mathius.

”We’re travellers,” Mathius replied, looking the woman dead in her eyes in return, well, if he had eyes. ”We come from the south.” he hadn’t realized how strange his form was until now.

“Why are you dressed like that? And why do you have a child with you?”

“I’m not with him!” Alys protested. “He’s with me! I’m in charge!”

Mathius sighed “She’s my niece, her parents died and i’ve been put in charge of her, as for my dress, i’m a magic user.” He looked over at Alys, hoping she would keep up the facade.

The suspicion did not abate. “Why is your face covered, then?” A small group began to form, as more and more noticed the confrontation.

Mathius paused for a brief moment, he kept forgetting that part. ”It, is part of my order, we’re trained to see through the mana and as such,” He gestured to his face ”We cover our faces.”

The woman stared at him in confusion. After all, a random villager from a shepherd community in the middle of nowhere was unlikely to know anything about magic or those who practiced it. After a few moments, she found her voice. “Well, you’re not using yer magic right now, are you? Show us your face.”

Ah, he had worried they would ask that ”Well, you see, its, uh, against our beliefs to do so after we’ve trained far enough, after a while its better for us to just continue using the magic then, showing our faces.” He was growing increasingly nervous, this was not going well.

“They say the chieftain of Morganstead was murdered by a white-haired boy,” said a man in the crowd. “Tilda, do you think they might’ve been mistaken? Maybe it was a girl instead.”

“Could be,” the woman - Tilda, presumably - nodded.

“Morganbread? Where’s that?” Alys asked, confused.

[color=A52A2A}’Morganstead, and I too am unfamiliar with such a place, we are not from the area.”[/color] He glanced towards Alys, it was then he fully realized they were the most suspicious duo in pretty much existence.

Tilda’s frown deepened. “I’ve only ever known of a few people who had white hair,” she said. “Konrad of Thyma, and his children.”

“You… you knew my father?” Alys asked, wide-eyed.

“Well, there we have it,” Tilda said. “We can take her to Morganstead. Find out if she was the one.” She looked to Mathius. “We’ll have to bring him too.”

Mathius put his hand upon Alys, bringing her closer to him ”We will be going nowhere, we know of nothing in relation to Morganstead, we just wish to pass through.” he could feel Yamat beginning to take interest, he just hoped he didn’t have to kill anyone.

“L-leave us alone!” Alys protested. “We didn’t do anything!”

“Sorry, child,” Tilda said sympathetically. “But we need to know. We’ll let you go if it turns out you’re not the one.”

One of the villagers stepped forward. “Let’s see what you’re hiding, ‘mage’,” he said, reaching for Mathius’s face.

Fuck it. He had enough, if these people wanted conflict, they would get conflict. He raised his hand, the golden cloth glowing ever so slightly. In an instant the villager was tossed backwards, flying through the air and landing with a thud. ”Leave. Us. Alone.” He commanded, his voice harsher and more booming than before.

The villagers stared in astonishment, all too frozen to move.

“GO AWAY!” Alys shouted, raising her hands, and a great plume of fire shot forth. Tilda and another villager were engulfed in flames, and they fell to the ground screaming. The others turned and fled. Alys turned and with a wave of her hand, set a small fire on the roof of Tilda’s hut, which quickly began to spread. “Your village is ugly!” she shouted.

Mathius knew he should probably stop her, but hey, they deserved it, he turned towards the fields and raised his hands once more, suddenly the once green grass began to turn a sickly brown, rotting and decaying ”Don’t worry,” he spoke mostly to himself ”It'll end in about a week.” He turned back towards Alys, tapping her on the shoulder. ”We should get out of here before they come back with weapons.”

“No. I’m in charge,” Alys shook her head. “I can do whatever I want,” she said. It wasn’t just a stubborn rejection; there was a certain sense of revelry in her voice. She began walking forward. “Ugly! Ugly! Ugly!” she shouted, setting a house ablaze with each word. One man ran out, screaming in terror. “You’re ugly!” she shouted, setting him ablaze. A smile flickered across her face.

Mathius felt a tug in his mind, a suggestion, now would be a good learning moment. ”Well then,” He followed behind her, waving his hand to cause a tree to collapse upon a non-burning house, crashing down straight in the center. ”How about we show this ugly town why they shouldn’t mess with us?”



Half an hour later, the village was in ruins. The huts that weren’t ablaze had collapsed. The villagers had offered no resistance; those who survived had fled in terror, vanishing into the woods. The fences had been broken and the sheep were set free… though Alys did set a few on fire, after they refused to let her pet them.

“That was fun,” Alys remarked, as they stood outside the wreckage.

”Feels good to let loose doesn’t it?” Mathius asked, gazing upon the broken village, he could feel a sense of pride in his mind, both from his own creator, and towards Alys herself. ”What now Alys? If I may suggest, we should probably leave the local area, though, if anyone wants to pick a fight again I'm sure we can give a message.”

For once, Alys did not object.








Evette


Twenty-three years after Antiquity...



Evette awoke to the creak of a floorboard. She opened her eyes just in time to see a blurry figure standing over her.

She rolled off the bed, just as a dagger came down with lightning speed and embedded itself in the straw mattress. She collided with her strange assailant, knocking him over, then fell to the floor. Her hand shot under the bed. Time seemed to stand still, her hand a blur as it rapidly grasped for where she knew her sword was hidden. She couldn't see it...

Then a strange sensation washed over her, and suddenly, she could.

Her hand closed around the blade, just as the vampire pulled his legs out from under her. Quickly rising to his feet, he seized her by the hair and hauled her up to a sitting position.

He was just about to sink his teeth into her neck when Solfury was unsheathed. The light blinded him and lit up the room. He shrieked, released his grip on her, and staggered backward. Evette leapt to her feet, turned, and thrust her blade into his ribcage.

Concentrated sunlight coarsed through his body, roasting him from the inside. Over the coarse of a single second, his eyes melted and while his skin began to rapidly blister and crack all over. Then, he disintegrated into a pile of ashes.

Evette glared at the pile of ash with disdain. "It's so much easier when they come to me," she remarked, sliding her blade back into its sheathe. She glanced around for some clothes - no doubt somebody had heard the fight, and would be up shortly. She briefly wondered why she was able to see so well, despite having had no time for her eyes to adjust. Then she shrugged. Probably just a one-time occurrence.












Meanwhile in Meliorem...

Cadien stroked his chin in deep thought.

He could use some new furniture...

Yes, something that he or Neiya could rest in. Perhaps together...

So, the God snapped his fingers, and made it so. A Klinai appeared; bright purple with soft, luxuriously comfortable cushions. It was made of fine mahogany wood, and had an enchantment bestowed upon it too. Yes, this would do nicely.

The God strode forward and unceremoniously dropped himself upon it, sinking into the cushions.

This would do nicely indeed.



Carn

&
Aurielle

Nothing was going on. Nothing happened. Nothing has happened for several weeks now. Auriëlle lost count. The days of guarding the Redspears’ bit of wall were blurring together. The wall itself was just two wooden palisades, the space between them packed with dirt and earth so that the defenders would have something to stand upon.

The last memorable thing that happened were the people of the city trying to riot and seize the granaries. She never had an issue with killing trolls or armed brigands but she thought she would have drawn the line at mothers and fathers. Apparently not. Their blood was still on her hands. On slow days, like today, the memory came up again and again. Auriëlle had convinced herself that she had been lenient and careful. That she had only wounded most. She also told herself that what she did was necessary. It had to be. With those thoughts churning through her head she watched over the field beyond the walls. Further away she could see the silhouette of the enemy’s camp in the darkness, marked by torches. Closer to the walls were the various barricades. Put up just outside the range of archers.

Her thoughts were interrupted when Carn wordlessly stepped up beside her, and offered her a waterskin.

She took a small sip before she handed it back. Rationing was important now. “Slow day.” She said as she tried to break the silence. “Almost makes you wish they’d attack.”

“Not quite as exciting as we expected,” Carn remarked. They had only been able to participate in a single battle, under the banner of the King of Jalka, who had seen fit to attack the Queen of Merok. Neither of these monarchs controlled anything beyond a walled town and a few villages, but they both coveted each other’s lands.

That battle had ended in a defeat, even despite Aurielle’s magic. Fortunately the Redspears had been well-positioned, and were able to withdraw with minimal casualties. The same could not be said for the rest of Jalka’s army. Only one hundred or so made it out, not counting the Redspears or the other mercenaries. Now most of those mercenaries were gone, having deserted against the unfavourable odds. The remainder had been absorbed into the Redspears. They had withdrawn back to Jalka’s ‘capital’, and now they were under siege by a force of nearly one thousand men.

The Jalkan King had desperately recruited some of the townspeople into a militia, but even then, that only brought them two hundred additional warriors, all of them inexperienced and poorly-equipped.

“A pity there aren’t more fun ways to use our time,” Carn said wistfully.

Auriëlle scowled at Carn. He was fun for most of the time but sometimes she just wanted to sear his skin off. “I could’ve killed that hag.” Auriëlle then said, further ignoring his remark. She couldn’t even touch the queen on the battlefield though. Not with the rainbow-eyed mage beside her majesty. He had blocked all her sorceries. The fact that half her magics were stopped by some pompous noble who just happened to have been born with a talent for actual spells had vexed her more than she admitted.

“I still don’t understand how that fireball managed to only hit me and nobody else,” Carn remarked, wincing as he recalled a rather painful experience with one of the enemy’s mages.

Auriëlle’s thoughts went to Acadia for a moment, where she read about how some spells were more complex than others. She hadn’t told Carn about Acadia yet. He hadn’t asked either. Just as she hadn’t asked about Thyma. Luckily Acadia hadn’t tried to kill her just yet. “Complex spells can be very precise.” She remarked. “The fact is that someone really wants you dead. Seems like that hag knows who you are.”

“She didn’t know enough, clearly,” Carn remarked. It had been a simple enough matter of dousing him with water, and then a minute later he was back in the fight - even if his armour had been a bit charred. “At least we’re going to be relieved soon,” he said. “Perhaps-”

His voice was cut off by the sound of a horn from the enemy camp. “Oh,” he said, his relaxed expression turning grim. Hundreds of shadows sprang forth forth, heading toward their section of wall. Carn could just make out what appeared to be the shapes of ladders and ramps, each carried by several men. He pulled a signal horn from his belt, brought it to his lips, and blew, warning the town of the impending attack. Then he drew his sword. “Prepare for battle!” he shouted.

Mere moments later, more horns were heard elsewhere in the town, where the town’s gate was located. It was a double-assault, Carn realized. But he could not be in two places at once. All they could do was hold position here and hope the men at the gate did the same.

Auriëlle smiled and then even grinned. “Finally!” She exclaimed as she saw the torches beginning to move. She quickly checked her vambrace’s straps to see if it was secure, then looked up again. Her happiness quickly faded. “That’s…a lot of torches.” She said. “Really a lot of torches.” Her heart began to shrink in her chest. But then the man rose up and ran up next to her. Ready to fight. She took a slow breath and steadied herself. “Mind your men Carn. I’m going to do everything I can to slow them down.” She said as she walked up to the nearby tower, which was really nothing more than an elevated wooden platform, and climbed up to it. The four archers of the tower were right behind her. Solenia and Kahlin took position further away from her, with the rest of the Redspears.

Carn shouted orders, alerting his men and bringing them to the wall’s edge, with spears at the ready. The mages instead prepared their spells, ready to fling fire and ice down upon the enemy.

The attackers didn’t look like people. They looked like a moving black mass. The torches made them look even darker somehow. Auriëlle’s heart was beating faster now, even though the only thing she could hear was the occasional horn. The four archers around her strung their bows and knocked their first arrow. Then they joined Auriëlle in waiting. She had imagined there’d be more noise. More yelling. Instead everything was far too quiet. “Archers at the ready!” Some veteran yelled. She forced herself not to turn around and find him. The archers around her did as he commanded and pulled their arrows back. The seconds felt like minutes now. Her mind was already anticipating the order. When will it fall? Let it fall. Let him yell it. Let the arrows loose. Let her loose.

“Loose!” She heard the veteran say. Combined several twangs coming from the bows. Before she knew it, all arrows were loose and the archers were already busy nocking their second arrow. There was no loose now. Just archers releasing their arrows as fast as they could. For a moment she was frozen. Then she outstretched her arm and began to release her own bolts of fire.

It was like throwing darts into a river. A few attackers fell with the first volley, but there simply weren’t enough archers to make a significant enough dent in the invading army. The firebolts were considerably more successful, each one setting one or two men alight and sending their nearby comrades into panic. But the rest of the army pressed on, stepping over or around their struck comrades, even as those who were on fire flailed and screamed.

The fire bolts suddenly stopped, though the drizzle of arrows continued. For a second the attackers thought they were safe and pressed their attack. They ran faster towards the wall. Some tripped and fell over the uneven, highland terrain. Then a small bolt of fire was lobbed from the walls. They readied their shields, assuming it was another bolt. It wasn’t.

From the elevated platform Auriëlle could see her fire explode from the tiny orb, coating six guys in searing fire. She let them burn for a moment until she raised her hand. The flames flared up, catching two more who came too close. It wasn’t enough. She prepared another fireball between her hands. “Carn!” She yelled from the platform. “Get ready!”

Meanwhile, the militia had finally been roused, and climbed the wall to support the mercenaries. There were nearly a hundred of them, under command of the King’s own brother.

The attackers then began to raise their ramps and ladders, swinging the heavy pieces of wood against the wall. Carn and his men attempted to push them back, while the enemies on the ground tried to hold them in place so that their comrades could ascend. And ascend they did, scrambling up single-file. From time to time one would fall, struck by an arrow or simply losing his grip, but the men below him carried on.

A wall of spears awaited the besiegers at the top, lunging out to strike the attacking soldiers as their heads and torsos came into view. The first to make it the top always died, but once again, the men behind them carried on. Some were able to deflect or block the spear thrusts, and began grappling with the wall’s defenders. Carn held back one ladder by himself, keeping the attackers at bay with swift and precise swings.

Elsewhere, one man screamed a prayer to Cadien and threw himself forward, impaling himself on the spears but successfully driving the defenders back long enough for the man behind him to get his feet on the wall. By the time he was killed and his body pushed out of the way, two more men were behind him. They were beginning to make a foothold.

The shouting Auriëlle imagined she would’ve heard began in earnest now. She didn’t relent though. Fires were raging down on the ground. Engulfing enemies. Every time she used her magic she managed to kill at least a handful. Every time her heart beat a little fuller. Then one of her orbs she lobbed bend away from where it should’ve landed. Instead it fell amid a burning patch of the ground, harming exactly nothing. “Cadien’s curse.” She said as she prepared another orb. When she lobbed it, it too suddenly changed course and fell away from her target.

She stopped her attack for a moment and squinted her eyes, trying to find her quarry. It was hard to focus. She never saw from where the first bolt of fire came, though she managed to create a momentary ward. The bolt fell upon a crystal-like dome which quickly vanished again. “Come on. Come on. Show yourself.” She kept saying to herself. After the third bolt she found her prey. When he tried to make another bold she reached out towards the fire in his hand. She poured all her rage into it. The mage’s bolt exploded in his hand. Fire surged around him. Auriëlle raised her hand again and the fire flared up even higher. Making it visible across their front.

The mage served as an example. All who would dare defy her would die. The screams began to sound like a chorus now as she continued to rain down fire upon her foes. Followed by simple bolts of green light that fell down upon the enemy. When it hit their shields, roots sprang from the wood and entangled their arm. The thin roots tightened around their arms, cutting into the flesh and drawing blood. Small pebbles fell harmlessly from the raised platform as well. Once they hit the ground though, jagged rocks sprang forth from the earth. Crushing and blocking the attackers.

It wasn’t enough. She couldn’t break the tide and her magic began to wear down on her. “Where are you.” She said to herself as she flung her sorceries. Her eyes tried to find her true targets amongst the fray. They kept eluding her though. Despite her fatigue she also felt a power she hadn’t felt before. Not even on the battlefield. She felt untouchable as she rained down death from above. Was this how gods felt?

Back on the wall, the foothold had expanded. A small knot of warriors was engaged in a brutal, grinding melee against the local militia. Carn saw this in the corner of his eye, and cursed. He lunged his blade into the gut of another attacker, then turned his head. “You lot!” he shouted to a small group of men that had just arrived. “Hold here!”

They complied, one skewering the man who just replaced the one that Carn had slain. Carn himself disengaged, moving toward the mob of militia that was slowly being pushed back. Casting aside his shield, he drew a dagger and pushed his way through the mass of men, until he came face to face with the enemy.

The sapphire ring on his finger began to glow. Carn had learned long ago what its purpose was: it greatly improved his reflexes. And here, on this wall, it proved its worth. Time seemed to slow down. He slashed, stabbed, jabbed, and parried. He spat in men’s faces and kicked them in their most vulnerable regions. Red liquid ran through his hair and down his face. Soon, it became difficult to maintain a grip on his own sword, for his hand was slick with blood. He let out a wordless battlecry as he became lost in the madness.

Auriëlle had fallen in the very same haze of blood as she threw her own wrath down upon the enemy. She was so focused upon bringing death that she never saw the blue light further away. It was too late when she saw the bolt of lightning being released at her. She could only turn her right arm at it. Arcs of lightning burned across her vambrace, tracing grooves of smoldering wood in them. The lightning then shot away from her, to the right. Hitting the two archers beside her and killing them instantly. Despite her deflection, the strength of the spell slammed her back..

It felt like she woke up from a dream and was thrown straight into hell. The smell of burned flesh and smoke hit her hard. Her ears were ringing, making everything sound distant and mute. Something felt like it was burning on her arm. She looked. The vambrace was still smoldering. She ripped open the straps and released her arm. Light flashed over her. It was instantly followed by another deafening crack of thunder. Which made her curl up on the platform with her hands over her ears. Her heart felt like it would break her chest as her body was locking up. She didn’t want to die here. Not like this. Tears began to flow from her eyes as the pain and fear crippled her. Behind her she felt two more bodies dropping to the floor.

Down on the wall, the attackers were pushed back. Carn and the militia, the latter inspired by the former’s example, were beginning to kill them faster than they could climb up. Then Carn pulled his blade free from a warrior’s guts, only to shove the man aside and find himself face to face with another foe who was still in the process of climbing the ladder. There were no more attackers left on this section of wall.

With a grin, Carn deflected man’s clumsy attempt at a slash, and swung his own blade across the attacker’s throat. He then seized a pitchfork from one of the militia behind him, and attempted to use it to push the ladder back. Those around him saw his efforts, and pressed their own spears, scythes, and pitchforks against the ladder’s top rung. Every muscle in Carn’s body strained until, finally, the ladder fell backward, sending the dozen or so men still on it hurtling to the ground below. Carn and the men with him cheered.

But the triumph was short-lived, for Carn’s gaze was drawn elsewhere, and he saw that two more footholds had opened up. With a yell of frustration, he made his way to reinforce the nearest one.

Something was scaling the ladder. Auriëlle felt the faint shaking on her platform. Were they on the walls already? Was she going to die by a simple dagger? A fist grabbed her by her collar and dragged her over the edge of the platform. She fell down on the tough ground beneath. The wind was knocked out of her lungs. A sudden pang of pain pushed all other sensation away again. She clutched her arm, it was bleeding. The pain was excruciating. Though her fingers could still move. That was good.

“You’re a’right lass.” A grizzled, old man said as he suddenly appeared before her. He held a piece of cloth which he was rapping around her arm. She looked above. The platform was burning up now. “You’re a’right.” He repeated. Her heart slowed down a little. Enough to get a bearing of her situation. When he was done, he offered her his waterskin. This time around she took a few greedy gulps from it. It was water, just water. Yet it tasted like the best wine she ever drank. “Now listen up lass. They’ve got a mean one down there. You know what I’m talkin’ about. None of us can kill him. You can. You understand lass? You kill him.” With those words said, the veteran vanished again. In truth he followed Carn into the next fray. To Auriëlle, he just vanished.

She knew she was in pain. Her body wasn’t right. Yet all sensations began to feel distant. Muted. The pain just wasn’t that important anymore. Slowly she managed to get up and flexed her right arm. The bandages had faint lines of red on them but that was the worst of it. Lightning flashed overhead, followed by deafening thunder again. It didn’t rattle her as much. Her heart began to race but she was determined to see it through. She began to scan the field below. In the distance she saw that now familiar blue light.

Her hate flared up. She would punish all who dared to use magic against her. That was the promise she made at the beginning of the siege. She would see it fulfilled.

Galdezor had been queen’s faithful servant even before she knew he was born. As a man of 45 now, he had learned about the many mysteries of magic. With the help of his brothers and sisters. Many of them asked to travel with him and find distant lands with different magics or to find the sun’s daughter and her legendary teacher. He refused every quest. All that mattered was Merok and his queen.

So he would be damned if some upstart sorceress would best him in the field of battle. He almost had her, though through some miracle she managed to deflect his lightning. At least he hit her because her crude sorceries stopped. Now he was scanning the walls in search of her. When his rainbow eyes found her, he smirked and charged his bolt.

Then he heard an unfamiliar sound. The sound of air being sucked towards a single point. He barely caught it beside him. A wave of translucent heat came surging at him. It didn’t hit him fully, no. It hit his left side. His entire left arm and a big chunk of his side were gone. Turned to ashes in an instant. He was flung through the air by the sudden force hitting him and landed hard. Then the pain came.

Auriëlle breathing was ragged now. She dropped her arm. The power had worked. The lightning stopped, yet her foe wasn’t dead yet. She knew it. She wanted it that way. She wanted him to feel what she had felt.

The fall of the mage sent a wave of panic through those who were still on the ground. After seeing one of their ladders fall, and the others displaying very little in the way of progress, the army finally began to break. Men turned and fled for the safety of the camp, out of the range of Aurielle’s spells or the archers’ arrows.

The men still on the upper halves of the ladders carried on upward, oblivious to their routing comrades. Though they climbed for victory, they would find only death. The footholds no longer had reinforcements, and their numbers were eventually worn down until the last handful who remained tried to surrender. But no mercy was given. Soon after, the remaining ladders were pushed off or knocked over.

The wall had been defended, but at great cost. Corpses were piled before the ladders, and some men collapsed in exhaustion. Carn could count maybe twenty survivors of the original thirty men in his company. Twenty other mercenaries had stood with them, but were now ten. Of the hundred militia who came to their aid, three quarters of their number remained. But the attackers had fared far worse. For every defender that had fallen, three or four foes had been slain.

Cheers began to ring out, and a weary smile crossed Carn’s face. He was spent. The sounds of battle carried on in the distance, as the fight for the gate continued to rage. He cast a gaze in that direction, wondering if he should go to support them.

Then the King’s brother approached him. The Prince of Jalka was clad in copper and leather, with a fine bronze blade commissioned from distant Ketrefa. He saluted Carn with that same blade, which was now stained red. “You fought well,” the Prince complimented.

“The battle still continues at the gate,” Carn warned.

“My brother will see those fools off, have no fear,” the Prince said. “He has a better position, and more men. I sent the other half of the militia to him.” He gestured to the fleeing figures. “We have to stay here, and prepare. Those wretches might launch a renewed assault.”

“I see,” Carn noted, hoping that would be enough.

“Is the hag dead yet?” Auriëlle sounded thoroughly out of breath. Yet that wouldn’t stop her. Carn clearly wasn’t the only one targeted. She would have the queen’s crown for the orders she gave her wizard.

The Prince shrugged. “If I had to guess, she’s with the force attacking the gate. If she led from the front, she might be.” He frowned. “Don’t get any ideas. You’re in no state to go running halfway across the town, and we still need you here.”

A sorceress’ look could kill, especially Auriëlle’s. Anger flared up in her as the prince told her she couldn’t get to the gates. In fact she took two steps towards the ladder with all intent to prove him wrong. Just to spite him. Then her body refused to make the next step. In fact she dropped to a knee and then slowly sat down. Her right arm began to burn fiercely and her back felt as if it was broken. “Fine.” She sneered. “The king better pay us a bonus for all this crap.”

Carn sat down next to her, and the Prince said nothing.



Eventually, the noise from the gates did settle down, and soon a messenger came to report that the assault there had also been repelled. Carn, Aurielle, and the rest of the company were sent back down to get some much-needed rest.

The next morning, the Meroki army retreated, and the siege was lifted.

The Queen had survived. Most of her army was still intact, but she had taken too many losses to risk another attempt. Even if she took the town, holding it might be rendered impossible. So instead she withdrew from Jalka, burning and pillaging all that lay in her path.

The Redspear company were hailed as heroes, notable as being among the few warriors for hire who did not abandon the town when the situation turned dire. They were given their payment in goods, as was often the case, with a small bonus, and then sent on their way. Carn had been bitter at losing a third of his warband, but fortunately he had been able to convince several other fighters to join him and replenish their numbers. The King had attempted to hire them on permanently, offering further rewards, but he was refused.



“Well,” Carn said three days later, as they passed through the gate which had been broken by a battering ram during the assault. That same battering ram lay discarded to the side - a large tree trunk, stripped of all branches. “I hope we can both agree we never want to be put in that situation again,” he said to Aurielle.

Auriëlle remained silent. The sight of mothers and wives mourning their sons and husbands was burned into her mind. She had traveled from Acadia all the way to Evenstar. In that journey she had seen many upstart kingdoms like Jalka. Was the same happening there? The bandages around her arm were still white now. The bleeding had stopped. Even more important, after the battle she had found her vambrace. The lightning had carved deep, black grooves into the piece of wood but it was still entirely in one piece. It was still on her arm.

There were many peasants around the gate and in the field. Some of them were still looting the dead. Others were busy digging mass graves for the nameless dead. One stood out. A man clad in a thick cloak. His face hidden by a hood. He held a gnarled staff in one hand. For some reason he just stood next to the road, watching the gate. Waiting. Until he caught sight of Auriëlle’s vambrace. He hurried over her, betraying his younger age. “My lady…” he said. “I beg a moment.”

“what is it?” She sneered.

“I come to deliver Galdezor’s final words.” He said, as he reached for his hood.

Auriëlle summoned fire to her hand. Ready to burn what she assumed would be an assassin. Though the name Galdezor meant nothing to her. Not until the stranger’s hood was removed. Revealing the man’s rainbow eyes.

“Find the sorceress.” The unhooded stranger said. “’Find her and ask for her truth. Her power is not something a mortal could have. I beg of you, brothers and sisters. The world should know.’ Those were Galdezor’s final words. He told us what you did, my lady. He even showed us all your annihilating power.”

“You want to kill me now? For killing your friend.” Auriëlle asked. She didn’t let her guard down.

The stranger shook his head. “On the contrary, my lady. I’ve come to ask you how you became blessed by the god of magic.”

“Wait… what?” asked Carn, who had barely been paying attention until now.

Auriëlle repeated Carn.

“Blessed, my lady. Surely you know. That wave you unleashed upon Galdezor. We all saw it. We all agreed such a thing is not possible, not even with the strongest spells we know. It is such a pure manifestation of destruction that none of us could even imagine creating it.” The man kneeled before her. “I- No. We, my brothers and sisters everywhere ask you how you were blessed by Aurius.”

People stopped and formed a half-circle around Auriëlle, Carn and the Servant now. Curious of why a generally powerful wizard was now kneeling.

“Get up. Get up!” Auriëlle said as she pulled the Servant to his feet by his arms. “I’m not blessed, you hear me? I’m not blessed. He is! Ask him! Alright? Ask him!” She was pointing at Carn.

Carn frowned. “A bit bold of you to assume divine intervention,” he said to the stranger. “Just because you haven’t seen that sort of magic before doesn’t mean it must be the work of a god.”

“We are certain divinity is involved, Lord Carn.” The Servant held his ground. Then turned back to Auriëlle. “You must have realized by now that you are no common sorceress. Sorcery is not that strong. If you are not blessed by Aurius then surely you were blessed by another.”

“I-I don’t know.” Auriëlle said. “I don’t remember a blessing.” The memory of the obelisk flashed through her mind. Before she couldn’t even make fire. After she could burn animals. Now she could literally erase people.

The Servant frowned for a moment. “Druids could know.” He muttered, though he clearly didn’t like his own idea. “They have a…closer connection with the gods.”

Memories flashed before Carn’s eyes, of all the druids he had met. Starting with Kaer Mirh, the useless old fool who lost his brother. But others had been considerably more helpful. “They have magic of their own, which they claim comes from the gods,” he shrugged. “It might be worth a shot.”

Something deep inside of her told her the rainbow eyed man was speaking the truth. Her powers hadn’t been normal in the last two years. She had won far too many mage duels. Slowly she reached behind her neck and took off the ruby amulet Carn had given her way back in Evenstar. She handed it over to Carn and said: “I’ll be back for that so don’t lose it.” With those words she quickly walked away from the group. She never looked back, even though it hurt her heart. This was her first goodbye. Goodbye to the Solenia, Kahlin, to the Redspears and Carn. She assured herself a quick leave was just for the best.

Carn furrowed his brow at the amulet, and then watched her leave with an expression of bewilderment. “Where are you going!?” he called out to her.

“I don’t know! I’m going to find a druid.” She yelled back, without turning away. She guessed she should find a druid, though the bastards were constantly on the move. There was one place she had heard about though. Somewhere far off into the north. A place where there were always druids. Competent ones, even.

The answer only confused him further. Carn opened his mouth, but closed it, as he couldn’t think of anything to say. She wasn’t telling him the full truth, and she clearly wanted to be alone. And yet… would she come back? He stared at the ruby amulet in his palm, and closed his hand around it.

He hoped so.



Cadien

&




At first it came in slowly and was an itching surprise rather than an annoyance... but then it just never stopped. Worst still, Cadien could hear every prayer intoned in her exact voice.

“Cadien! It’s me again, your favorite Diana. Listen, you should really start thinking about a much more classy wardrobe fitting for a gentleman. I have some ide-”

“Cadien! It’s Diana. I’d bother someone else about this, dear, I really would, but Illyd Dyll doesn’t have so many contacts you see. Anyways, Illyd Dyll has holed himself up away from the rest of his realm and I need a large quantity of bees-”

“Cadien! I found a rabbit today, it looked quite displeased with life and I couldn’t help but think that-”

“Cadien. Illyd is still holed away, so in all due apologies I must INSIST you bring over a good bundle of poison ivy and the means to form some imps-”

“Cadien. I was thinking about that wardrobe again and perhaps you’d like to try dark dyed and itchy wool?”

“I also noticed -- this is Diana, by the by -- that you could really use a... Well quite frankly, dear, you’re hideous and there is no excuse for a god of perfection to be hideous.”

“Speaking of hideous constructions, Cadien. I am privy to the idea that you change me back to my previous and much more acceptable appearance. This has gone on quite long enough, don’t you think?”

The next prayer seemed to just be a racket from Diana’s old band as well as some colorful insults.

Had it been any other being, Cadien could have simply tuned it out or ignored it. But Diana had received a permanent blessing from him, even if she would not call it that. She had a connection to him, and blocking out her messages proved to be considerably more difficult than it would have been otherwise. Not that such an act wasn’t possible, but it was rather tedious to do when he was attempting to hear the prayers of thousands of other mortals and bench-press a boulder at the same time. Not just tedious. It was aggravating.

“Hmm… this cannot stand…” Cadien finally grunted, launching the boulder he was lifting up into the air and out toward the sea. It crashed down into the water with a massive splash. The God of Perfection rose to his feet, dusted himself off, and approached his portal.

One leap across Antiquity later, and he was standing before the portal to Illyd’s realm. With a shake of his head, he stepped through.

The valley was blustery with rain-swollen wind. Dark clouds loomed above, sending down pillars of electricity here and there. In the distance the creek raged with the freshwater, and the copse was cut off from the realm with a dark wall of stormy wind. Further down and near the slopes of one of the mountains that formed the valley was a beaten up mansion that seemed to just be surviving the pounding of the storm.

Cadien took a single step forward and then came to a sudden stop. “Oh dear,” he said quite suddenly. “I appear to have forgotten something.”

And so, the Lord of Perfection spun about and walked right back into Antiquity.




He returned minutes later with a jar of bees fresh from Artifex’s realm. “Right then,” he said, and began his approach to the rather dark and dreary mansion. The stepping stone path was aggravatingly unaligned and lead not to the center of the slanted stairs but to the side of them, making wonder to why they were even there. In fact, most of the exterior seemed mismatched or disproportioned in just the right way to be a huge annoyance to the skeptic eye.

The door, thankfully, had a doorknob. Unfortunately, however, it seemed to have screwed off its mount when Cadien went to turn it -- releasing the latch just enough for the stormy wind to bust it open with a large slam, leaving Cadien alone before the dimly lit maw of the mansion, a jar of bees in one hand and a broken doorknob in the other.

“This house is poorly built,” Cadien remarked, tossing the doorknob aside and stepping inside.

Inside the wind could be heard pushing the supports of the house into creaks and moans.Only now and again was there a source of light, be it from an unfortunate crack in the wall, a nearly finished candle, or from slips between the boarded up windows (that were oddly enough hiding what seemed to be perfectly fine and artiful stained glass from the inside).

The flicker of one of the candles brought Cadien’s attention to a glimmer that seemed to catch the light. The flames danced in Diana’s eyes as she stood in the shadow of the god. Slowly her cheshire grin stretched across her face, catching more of the light on her pearlesque teeth.

“Did you bring it?”

“Bring what?” Cadien asked innocently.

“Oh Cadien, you cannot lead me to believe that you are that ignorant,” Diana’s smile seemed to grow as she laid eyes on the jar.

“Ah,” mock understanding seemed to dawn on Cadien’s face. “Right. The poison ivy. I’m afraid I did not.”

“The bees, dear, the bees.” Diana corrected and held out her hands.

Cadien shook his head. “I have not brought you any bees, I am sorry to say.”

Diana narrowed her eyes, seeming to sulk in the shadows, “I think it might be best if you just leave.”

“Hm. That’s rather disappointing. I thought you invited me here to discuss my wardrobe?”

She crossed her arms, “I invited you over in hopes of good company, but here you snuck over with the desire to simply disrupt and disappoint.” She paused, “How do I know if you’d even care for my advice if this is how you deign to treat me? You shouldn’t promise a lady just for your own sick gain, dear Cadien.”

Cadien shrugged. “I have made no promises. Anyhow, there was another matter you wished to discuss as well, was there? Something about… hm… what was it again?”

“Don’t pretend that you actually want to talk to me,” Diana said a little quieter than normal, “It isn’t exactly the most flattering look for you, Cadien.” She cleared her throat, “I wager you’re simply here to find a way to silence myself, no?”

“Perhaps I simply came to admire your newfound beauty?” Cadien asked. “But yes, if you could perhaps reduce the frequency of your messages, that would be ideal. I am a busy man.”

“I doubt it Cadien, I truly do,” Diana’s voice was hard before she waved a hand, “Don’t worry, I won’t bother you again, persecution for trying to make a friend isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.”

“And what precisely is a friend to you?” Cadien asked her. “In the brief time I have encountered you-”

“Someone who doesn’t come over just to humiliate myself,” Diana shouted, “You understand I’m trapped here, that I have nothing? You’re the only name I really know, didn’t know I’d be damned for knowing it. Was there anything else, Cadien, or do you need help twisting the dagger?”

Cadien frowned. “In the brief time I have known you,” he continued, “you have insulted me, you have laughed at the misfortune of poor Illyd, you have been so intolerable that he left his own realm, all while having a simply dreadful taste in both music and fashion. So, I ask again. What is a friend to you?”

“I suppose a simple yes to my last question was in order,” Diana flinched. There was a pregnant pause, “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“I am not,” Cadien confessed. “I suppose that must bring you some joy?”

“Don’t pretend to be my friend,” Diana said with a hint of sadness before walking past Cadien and up to a chair that had been hiding in a dusty corner. The lady plopped into it, the uneven legs nearly splaying outwards from the sudden weight.

“I make no such pretension,” said Cadien. “But nonetheless, you said it yourself: I am the only name that you know.”

“I’d rather be alone than subjected to your endless judgement,” Diana said as she pinched the bridge of her nose. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but there may have been an auxiliary glimmer under one of her eyes. “You can leave now, I guess just take the bees with you.”

“You see this as judgement, when it is in fact an experiment,” Cadien remarked. “So bear with it a while longer, and I will no longer plague your life.”

“I said go!” Diana stood up, her tears free now, “I am not an experiment, you don’t have my consent to be here, and most of all I find your attitude towards this disturbing. I only wonder who else may just be an object to you -- get out!”

Cadien shrugged, and began walking toward the door. “One final question,” he said, stopping at the threshold. [color=violet“What is perfection, to you?”[/color]

“You getting the fuck out of my house!” Diana screamed.

“What in the--” A warm voice like a babbling stream came from the swinging door to the outside. Illyd Dyll stared at the scene in shock, “Cadien buddy, what’s going on here?” He ushered with his hands, motioning a shocked Cadien out of the house.

“An error, on my part, I think,” said Cadien after a moment. He snapped his fingers, and in that moment, the curse he imparted on Diana was undone. He was silent for several long moments, and then looked back at the house. “Forgive me,” he said, though it was unclear who precisely he was saying it to. He turned back to Illyd.

“I sought to learn more about Diana and her nature. In the process, I fear I only made myself seem insufferable,” he sighed, falling into a sitting position on the uneven steps. “I do not understand lesser minds, Illyd.”

Illyd put a hand on Cadien’s back and sat down next to him, “We all make mistakes, good buddy.” The god of Agriculture looked uncomfortable, “But ye... well ye know. Ye didn’t touch her did ye? She is a living being, Cadien.”

Cadien winced, recalling his first interaction with Gibbou. “I did not lay a finger on her, no. Nor would I ever do so,” He said to the god. “Still, I conducted myself in a way that I think any other deity would find… petty, and immature.”

Illyd let out a sigh, “Oh boy.” He paused, “Cadien, ye... ye can’t just do that, good buddy. What if ye.” He thought for a moment, “Well listen here, I’ll give Diana a really nice week, yeah I will, and maybe after some time if she is open to it -- ye can come back and make things right? No need to fret, good buddy, I know this isn’t normally ye.”

“Do not feel compelled to subject yourself to her on my behalf,” Cadien spoke ruefully. “This is solely on my shoulders. I did not intend to make your situation worse than it already was, so I apologize for my shortsightedness.”

“No harm done... to me at least,” Illyd gave a reassuring smile, “But listen, it’s no trouble at all -- but maybe ye should take yer mind off of this for a while.”

“It’s a strange thing,” Cadien mused. “When I first met her she was insufferable, and our meeting ended with her trying to strike me. Then she bombarded me with inane prayers, messages, and insults. I came here expecting further attempts at abuse, yet when we met she was civil, and it was I who was the insufferable one.” He sighed. “She is no divine, Illyd. I cannot regard her as an equal, like some of our other kind might, and I fear I may never understand her. Or those like her.”

“Sounds to me like ye got some things ye need to work on, good buddy,” Illyd rubbed the back of his neck, “But ye know, nobody is perfect.. And I know- I know that’s not what ye want to hear, but ye gotta accept some fault before ye can bring it back up to par, ye know? If ye can’t level with someone who is a fragment of divinity, then imagine how that will affect ye relations with the mortals who’s very lives depend on ye understandin’ ‘em?”

“And what of you?” Cadien asked him. “How have your own attempts to understand her gone?”

“Patiently,” Illyd nodded, “Patiently.”

“Has your patience yielded any results?”

“I’m not really comfortable talking about her behind her back, especially after today, ye know? But I can safely say that as far as my concerns about the other gods finding themselves in this situation I am in, I think as long as they approach it with a level head and don’t give in to the temptations of anger or depression, they should be alright -- assumin’ their fragment is as benign as Diana, here.” Illyd slapped his knees and stood up “All we can do is stay strong for Galbar, yeah?”

Cadien rose to his feet. “Indeed,” he nodded, before sighing. “My apologies again. In addition to stirring up Diana, I have also subjected you to my personal anxieties.”

“Nyah it’s what friends ‘r for,” Illyd smiled and clapped Cadien on the shoulder, “I’d say come by anytime but just give it a bit for the water to simmer down -- but if ye be needin’ me I can always meet ye somewhere else.”

“You would be welcome to visit me in my realm,” Cadien nodded. “If I am not… otherwise occupied, I mean.”

“Look at ye, romancin’ it up,” Illyd chuckled as he led the god to the fissure to Antiquity, “Well good on ye.”

“Do give this to Diana,” Cadien said, holding out the jar of bees. “I had intended to give it to her in the end, but… well, I botched that, as you saw.”

Wrapping his hands around the jar, Illyd raised a brow, “Cadien, ye know we have plenty o’ bees in the valley, ye? Wouldn’t be much of a God of Agriculture without a lotta bees.”

“Tell that to Diana, then,” Cadien shrugged. “Perhaps bring her some poison ivy too.” And on that note he stepped through the portal.

“Aha, you got it, friend,” Illyd gave a concerned look but waved goodbye all the same.





Carn

&
Aurielle




After the cart’s contents had been distributed, Carn allowed the group a period of rest. It was sorely needed. They ate rations which had been stowed away in the bandit’s camp, cooked over the still burning fire. Some caught a quick nap. Carn went to a nearby stream to wash away the blood and grime from the day’s ordeals.

At some point Edgar returned. He had not run, he had merely gone to check on the wounded who had been left at the road, then ventured off with a team of volunteers to carry them back.

Of the original twenty who first set out from Evenstar, only eleven still remained. Four of whom were too injured for any sort of fighting. All carried at least one piece of treasure taken from the caravan; though Carn warned them they may be required to return most of it.

Eventually Carn decided it was time to head back, and so the remnants of his warband picked their way to the forest until they found the road again, and they began the long walk back.



The sun was low on the horizon when they returned, much as it had been when Carn first came to the village. This time he had a larger party, but more wounded, and was considerably more successful. They had talked about their plan to deal with the chieftain, and it was decided that a public confrontation would be the best.

As they entered the village, a few passerbys cheered, correctly assuming they had been successful. Others worriedly scanned the group, searching for friends or loved ones who had first set out with Carn. Some were relieved. Others were not. The commotion brought more people out of their homes, whose reactions were much the same. Eventually another crowd had formed around them, and Carn called his band to a halt.

The chieftain was the last to appear, flanked by a pair of guards. He looked upon Carn with barely concealed displeasure. “Well,” he said as the crowd parted for him. “How did it go?”

It was the priest who spoke first. “People of Evenstar,” he addressed the crowd. “The bandit menace has been defeated, due to the valiant efforts of Carn and Aurielle, and despite attempts from our own chieftain to ensure he would fail.”

“It’s true,” the sole surviving guard spoke up. “He gave me orders to kill Carn during the fight.”

The chieftain’s eyes widened, and then he began indignant with rage. “You dare slander me!?” he shouted. “Arrest them!”

The chieftain’s two guards reached for their swords, as did those who were positioned elsewhere in the crowd, but Carn and his party drew their own weapons first. “The first one to step forward will be the first one to die,” Carn declared, pointing his blade directly at Evenstar’s leader.

“No more blood needs to be spilled today,” the priest insisted. “I swear by every god that I speak the truth.”

“As do I,” said the guard.

“And I,” said Carn. “I swear it as the champion of Cadien.”

“More lies and blasphemy?” the chieftain snarled. “You forsook that prophecy this very morning.”

“I didn’t forsake it,” Carn shook his head. “All I said was that I didn’t know if it was true. Now, I do.” He ran his blade across his palm, spilling blood. Then, he held his hand to the crowd, and they watched in surprise as the flesh mended itself. “I bear the blessing of Cadien himself. My appearance will be forever unmarred by wounds or scars. I stand before you as the champion of a god, and I say that the only liar and blasphemer in this village stands before me right now. To take his word over mine or the godly man that stands beside me is heresy.”

Carn’s words were pretty and the instant healing certainly gave him some credence but Auriëlle did not believe the chieftain would just surrender his throne up. She kept her eyes on the guard on his right. Ready to cast her sorcery and kill him in an instant. Gods why was she still here? She was carrying the gold she needed. If she had split up then by now she would have reached the lonethorn in the field by now. By the next dawn she would’ve been far away from here. Instead she stood next to Carn, facing down a village’s chief.

All eyes on the crowd turned to the chieftain, whose front began to crack once he realized most of the villagers were no longer on his side. He took a hesitant step back, only for the guard Aurielle had her eye on to place a hand on his shoulder. “It’s time for you to step down.”

The chieftain’s eyes widened with shock that quickly turned to outrage. “I am the leader of this village! My word is law!”

“Not anymore,” the second guard said, seizing him as well.

“You have failed in your duty, chieftain,” the priest said. “To both your people and to the gods. You will never lead again.”

“What is the sentence for such crimes?” Carn asked casually.

“Death,” the priest intoned grimly.

“Hm. That’s troubling. You said no more blood needed to be spilled today, did you not?” He turned to the sorceress. “Aurielle. I don’t suppose you can think of something?”

“I could make sure his death is a bloodless one.” She said as she stepped forward. There was a malevolent grin on her face. The heat she had made in the forest, it stuck with her. Its memory would never leave her. Now she was itching to try it again.
“Make it so,” Carn said, stepping aside to allow her past. He addressed the rest of the crowd. “As you’re about to see, I’m not the only one who was touched by a god.” The chieftain stared at Aurielle with fearful eyes, as the guards forced him to his knees.

For a moment she glanced towards Carn. What the hell was he talking about? Not the only one blessed by a god? What game was he playing? It didn’t matter. Not now at least. There were more pressing matters to address.

She stepped up to the chieftain. Behind them, people were moving away. “Your guard tried to kill me first, you know.” She said with a cold but hate-filled voice. “That was a mistake.” Slowly she put his hand on his head, holding it down. Power gathered inside of her. It mixed with hate and the memory of the forest. The dead. The bones. The ash. “Release him!” She ordered the guards, who pulled away their hands just in time. Explosive, invisible heat traveled from her hand over the chieftain. One moment he was struggling, the next his ashes were crumbling to the ground.

The guards backed away in horror, and a few in the crowd screamed. The priest’s eyes widened, and he mouthed a prayer.

“The threats to your village have been defeated,” Carn declared. “Both within, and without. Some of you have lost people today, and for that, you have my condolences. They fought well against the bandits, and I did my best to keep them alive, but ultimately it was he who killed them,” he pointed to the pile of ashes. “He should have offered more aid. He should have led us himself. He did not. Those deaths are on him.”

Those who were grieving seemed to nod, as Carn gave them a new target to redirect their blame toward. “But there are those standing with me who still live. Mourn the dead, but do not forget to celebrate the living. Every man and woman who stands with me now is a hero. Never forget that.”

His words were met with several nods and even a few cheers.

“There is still much to be done. You need a leader. The goods left behind at the bandit camp need to be recovered. The dead must be seen to. That will all be settled tomorrow. For now, we rest and celebrate.”



The tavern was busy that night. Those who had followed Carn into the woods and were fit to celebrate still did so. Some were already in the process of regaling others with the story, exaggerating or making up certain details, for none had been present during the final battle at the bandit’s camp. There were wild tales of Carn surviving an arrow through his head, or Aurielle killing ten men with a single lightning bolt.

Carn came up behind Aurielle, and tapped her on the shoulder. “Can we speak upstairs? In private?” he asked her.

She threw him a coy smile. “Thought you’d never ask.” She got up and downed her watered wine tankard in one go. It felt good to celebrate. Though her troubles hadn’t ended yet. She didn’t appreciate Carn calling her ‘blessed by a god’.

They ascended to the inn’s second floor, and Carn led her to his room. He opened the door for her, and followed her inside. “I never had the chance to ask you,” he said, closing it behind him. “How do you feel about how today turned out?”

She sat down on the bed. It felt…too soft. “What does that matter?” She asked. “We won. The bandits and the chieftain are dead and we got the gold.” Some died, yes but that would’ve happened regardless. She wasn’t entirely heartless though. You wouldn’t see her at any funeral for them but some night she would visit their graves and say a little prayer. That was the plan at least.

Carn sat down next to her. “Today has given me a lot to think about,” he confessed.

The moment he sat down, she got up. “Yeah but I’ve got one thing to think about too.” She said as she took her place on the room’s only chair. She still had that coy smile on her face. “Why did you call me blessed by a god when I’m not? And you know I’m not.”
Carn winced. “Sorry about that. I sounded like a preacher, didn’t I?” He shrugged. “If I hadn’t said that, they might have come to a worse conclusion. It’s not every day that people see magic like yours. Especially in a small village like this.”

“That’s fair.” She said with a small shrug. People talked though. Suddenly the villages wouldn’t just hear stories about Carn, blessed hero of Cadien. They’ll talk about the red headed sorceress who is also blessed by some god. That alone would come with some annoying responsibilities if she led it. Remaining faceless would be harder now. She’d have to travel up north again, on the west side of the river. Maybe visit the sunlands. They wouldn’t hear her story there. “For all his faults the chieftain was right about one thing: you’re just a mercenary. You might know how to lead fighters but this is a village we’re talking about. You’ll have to tell them where to farm what and then count the harvest. Can you even write?” She wasn’t accusing him, even if her tone was a bit harsh. She just found herself, to her own surprise, worrying about Carn. He was a fighter not a scribe.

“I know a few words,” Carn shrugged. “Though I’m not sure where you got the idea I want to lead this place. I’ve been avoiding the subject all day. To tell the truth, I don’t much care for it. It’s a dull place, with dull people.”

Auriëlle smiled. “Then come with me.” She said. “We’ll be gone before first light tomorrow. They’ll never know we’ll have left. I’ve read about this beautiful land where the sun’s always warm. There is a temple there filled with painted walls. And big, flying lions that never hurt you. Come with me there. Let’s leave this shithole and go somewhere nobody knows us.” In truth she cared more about Carn being with her than going to the sunlands. He was interesting. Though not so interesting that she would stay in one place for him.

Carn’s eyebrows rose, and his lips curled into a smile. “That’s actually what I was leading up to. With your magic, my swordsmanship, and our dashing good looks, we’d make a good team.” He eyed her and down.

She came closer. “Well, we still got some hours before we have to pack.” She was leaning over him now, letting her hands rest next to him. Her lips almost touched his. “How about we have some well-earned fun?”
“Once again, our thoughts match.”



Morning came. While Aurielle readied herself for departure, Carn ventured down into the common room, where Ruvar and Rollo awaited him at a table.

“Carn!” Ruvar greeted him happily. “Well done seeing to those ruffians!”

“Or is it chieftain Carn now?” Rollo asked with a smirk.

Carn shook his head.

“Oh, I see…” Ruvar’s eyebrows rose. “Well then. I’ve got some volunteers to help us recover my belongings. What these thieving villagers haven’t filched, anyway. Some will even help escort us to Ketrefa, if we pay them.”

“That’s good to hear,” Carn nodded, ignoring the fact that it was he who gave the villagers permission to ‘filch’ Ruvar’s goods in the first place. “But I’m afraid I won’t be joining you.”

“Oh?” Ruvar’s face fell. “Why is that?”

Carn shrugged. “To tell you the truth, I never liked Ketrefa. The bastards stole my brother long ago. They may offer good coin, but,” he shrugged, “there’s more to life than that.” He also decided not to mention that he had a few gold rings in his pockets, which were more valuable than whatever Ruvar would have paid him.

Ruvar seemed genuinely saddened by the news. “I see…” he said slowly. “May the gods watch over you, then.”

“Good luck, Carn,” Rollo said, raising a tankard.

Auriëlle didn’t do goodbyes. It kept life easy in the last three years. So when Carn decided not to slip away but just go down and tell everyone they would leave, she was a bit annoyed. It was his choice though. She stayed up, getting everything ready. The ruby amulet she got from was hidden away under her tunic, while the few gold coins and rings she had taken from the cart were safely in a purse. That would keep them going for some time. When enough time had passed she came down from upstairs and headed straight for the front door.

Carn followed her. A few dozen people had already gathered outside, the priest among them, awaiting his word.

“Alright everyone, listen up.” Carn said. “On the eighth day I arrived. On the ninth day I slew the bandits. Now, on the tenth day, I must lead you. So, allow me to lead you.”

The crowd began to whisper with uncertainty. Some welcomed Carn’s leadership, but others were more reluctant - though they accepted the chieftain’s deposal, many still shared his concerns about Carn’s experience, divine champion or not. A few had even been sympathetic to the chieftain, disbelieved Carn’s story, and secretly resented his execution.

Luckily for them, Carn was about to put their concerns to rest.

“From this day forth, the position of chieftain will be decided by vote,” Carn declared. “Not by birth or by bloodshed. When a chieftain dies or steps down, the village will come together and choose a new one. That is my first act as chieftain,” he told them. “And for my second act… I resign.”

The crowd was stunned into silence. Then Carn turned away, and everyone began to speak at once. Some shouted for him to remain, while others declared their support. A few tried to shout for order, but only succeeded in producing more racket. One or two were already attempting to make their case for why they should be elected. In the middle of it all, the priest tried and failed to calm them down.

Carn ignored it all, and continued down the road.

Auriëlle was grinning from ear to ear as she walked beside Carn. “They’re going to tear each other to pieces, you know that right? They’ve been farmers and potters and gods know what else for so many years. You think anyone of them could lead a village?” She looked back at the every increasing racket. “They’re already breaking down.”

Carn shrugged. “You’d be surprised. Some people are more skilled than they appear. At least one of them has to be good at it. If not, they’ll pick someone else.” He threw an arm around her shoulder. “But it’s not our problem anymore, is it?”






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