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Beyond our existance

“What you call ‘life’ is irrelevant, youngling,” Lysvita’s mother, Arcaell, had told her once, a look of amusement on her face.

“Irrelevant?” The very notion had infuriated her. She was still but a child in the terms of her people, the immortal Angelos, and their sense of superiority and supremacy had bothered them. She’d always found her kin to care nothing for the lives of anyone without wings. And here was her own mother confirming her suspicions. “You can’t be… Are you really saying that all the humans of this world, their hopes, their dreams, they don’t matter?”

“In the grand scheme of things, no, they do not.” Her mother gave her a patronizing smile. As if she were talking to a simpleton. “Child, this world is but an insignificant part of a cosmos beyond mortal comprehension. The peasants who toil to maintain our great city lie to themselves and insist that their struggles have meaning, and you, being a child, believe the lies as well. You do not understand; nor can you, until you’ve had your first Reaping.”

They had argued for a while after that, Lysvita’s growing outrage contrasting with her mother’s serene and condescending tranquility. Finally, she had stormed out of their manse, and calmed her mind by doing what she found gave her life purpose, being the guardian of humanity. She healed the masses and assured them their existence was valued by the Council of the Elders, the ruling body of the most powerful Angelos, on which both her parents held seats. And yet all the while that same conversation remained stuck in the back of her mind. Her own mother had confirmed her worst fears: The Angelos cared nothing for their subjects, or indeed anything beyond their golden walls and golden spires. Her association with, to the other Angelos, were equal to animals isolated her more and more. They saw her hobbies as a youthful fancy, the harmless folly of the youngest of their race. “In time she will learn,” they said. “She will understand when she has Reaped.”

And she did. She truly did.

One moment she had been in Galenave, contemplating on the ruinous misfortune that had been sweeping her lands. Two consecutive years of crop failures had left her people starving, and the rest of the Empire was indifferent to their plight. It was not a natural disease, the exarch knew: logic said that crop diseases did not stop at political borders, and her instincts as the last of the winged born screamed the presence of foul magic. Then the next instant she was gone. She was now everywhere, and yet nowhere. She flew, but her wings did not beat, nor did she feel the rush of air hammering at her. She saw everything, and yet could not make out anything. The entirety of Ethica seemed at the same time to be both tiny and yet hopelessly far away.

She knew, however, that this was a Reaping. It happened at different times for the first time to all Angelos, some after a hundred years, some after ten thousand, but for her it had not occurred until then. She’d heard about it, been taught about it, by the elders in Old Galenave. But even beside that, she knew on an instinctual, inner level. This was the reason for her existence, whispered a voice in her head, and she could not argue. It was not even a suggestion: It was reality.

Part of her struggled against it. I must return to my people. Galenave needs me.

That is not Galenave. It is a pebble compared to the glory that was Galenave. And they will never be your people.

They are starving. My people are killing each other. If I don’t return, they will die.

Their lives are irrelevant, her mother had said. She imagined her father was beside her, his giant black wings wrapping around both of them. He grasped her shoulder and pointed forward. “Look. But more importantly, see. See, and you will understand.” His voice was same soft rasp it had been when he lived. She looked. She saw. She understood. She understood her people now.

The world stretched below her. She could sea everything from the shores of Sheol to the savage lands of the west, and beyond even, to queer lands where even the trees seemed alien. And this vast world was not empty. Everywhere she looked, she saw dancing lights, stretching like comets as they floated aimlessly. One wandered the bottom of the eastern ocean, kilometers below the surface. She reached out and touched it, the act defying all conventional logic and senses, but which at that moment seemed as easy as touching your own face. She grasped the spirit, and felt her senses be momentarily overwhelmed as a surge of emotions flooded over her. Horror, fear, despair. Even… anger? She felt salt water fill her lungs, felt herself sink to the depths, thought the same curses at the wretch of a captain that a sailor from Doma had once thought. And then it was all gone, as was the light. The spirit flowed through her for a moment. She felt its gratitude. And then it was gone, sent away her unconscious. She had reaped a soul, sending it on its way beyond their world.

“Nothing on this world matters,” her father murmed. “It is but the first step on a journey beyond years. For them, death is a kindness, and life a cruelty.”

She had heard it all before. She shook her head. Perhaps she understood; that did not mean she agreed. “Their suffering is real, as are their wills. They are like blind kittens. They must be guided.”

“It is not your place,” her father whispered. “You do not exist to lead them, nor to protect them. Your place is to reap them.”

Closing her eyes, she felt grief fill her. Grief for her father, grief for her mother. Grief for Galenave, the most beautiful city in the world. Grief for her people. “You’re not real, are you? You’re not spirits.”

“No,” her mother said sadly, there again in front of her. “We do not ascend, as mortals do. When we leave our coils, we vanish into nothingness. Their ignorance is a tragedy: they curse their mortality and envy our lack of it, but it is us who are cursed. We remain in this insignificant world, to serve humanity.”

“We are but memories, child,” her father said. “And we ask you to look.”

“To see,” said her mother.

“To understand,” a voice around her boomed, coming from everywhere and yet nowhere.

She looked up. And she gasped.

The sky above was blotted out by a massive vortex that stretched beyond even her gaze. At its heart there was blackness, unfathomably vast blackness, with tentacles that writhed in the air. The only feature it had that could be made out was an eye of unimaginable proportions, its unblinking gaze scanning across the world in instants. It was terror incarnate, an incorporeal nightmare that drove fear even in her heart. She knew it could not see her, but only because to such a thing she was insignificant. It paid paid her no more mind than a king paid a pebble of sand. And the souls…

The souls were floating up to it.

Most resisted its lure, she saw, too attached or distant to be overpowered, but all of them felt the tug of the thing’s attraction. Those lights that reached it, further high than the mountains and further high than the sky, disappeared into its form, absorbed by the nightmare. It was a thing beyond even her existence. And slowly but surely, it was devouring the souls of the dead.

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

Meanwhile, on Sheol...

Three tired, dirty, and frustrated hooded figures tore apart a small cellar in a forgotten corner of a forgotten ruin on a forgotten island. The two large men, Ganthred and Pirth, tore the room apart, while the aged woman, Nith, paced frantically. "There's got a be somethin' here," she muttered loudly.

"There's nothin'!" Ganthred snarled. She shot him a vicious look. He was angry, she got that. They were all angry. The four of them had pissed away what little coin they had to get to this god forsaken corner of the Empire, a small ruined tower on a rocky peninsula the kind of which Sheol had in abundance. The tower was supposed to have been built by Old Farron, a big sorcerer in olden times. Folks said he had amassed a massive trove of treasure which he had accumulated serving the blood suckers of this mother damned island, and which he had hidden away when he had died of old age.

Thing was, it seemed old Farron had hid his treasure trove too well, the motherless bastard. And the traps! Oh, the decrepit turd had certainly been a magician, alright. Poor Mathos had melted in front of their eyes- just melted. They'd been extra careful after that, but she made a note to herself to arrange for a curse on good old Farron when they went back to Ardaza. Anyway, they had wasted all their money and had a friend die, and they had barely found two metal coins to justify all of it. Damn right they were cranky. Still, she wasn't going to take their crap; with Mathos dead, she was the closest thing they had to a leader, and tough luck to that.

Ganthred rammed into an empty barrel, which crashed onto the floor, the old decayed wood splintering on impact like butter. "What kind of sick fuck was this old wizard? All those damn traps to protect nothing at all!?"

"Hold your idiot tongue for one minute, Ganthred," Nith shot out. She had stopped at a curious alcove in the wall, and was examining some runes etched into its sides. She couldn't make out the words - she was as illiterate as a fish, and proud of it, and besides she had a feeling even a book reader wouldn't be able to make out these words. They seemed to shift as she stared at them.

She had lived fishing the seas and selling her catch in the docks of Ardaza all her life. Both could kill you in a second if you were stupid or unlucky. She had survived to her fourties by being tough as nails and the meanest bitch around besides, but also by knowing when to act on her gut. So that's what she did: she acted on her gut, and started brushing the runes.

"The hell are you doing, you old hag?" Pirth asked.

"Shut up and give me your knife," she snapped.

Brushing the runes with her hands hadn't done much, but as she chipped away at the old stone with Pirth's generously donated knife, she became more and more certain that she had made the right call. She was rewarded when, after defacing yet another letter, the runes all vanished. Just vanished. All that was left of them was a long groove where the writing had been. And the alcove... Ah, there was a handly on it now.

"Magic," Pirth said, wide eyed. "We shouldn't be messin' around with magic, Nith. Magic never ends well for anyone, everyone says so."

"We're already knee deep in magic, salt for brains. Mathos got liquified, remember? Might as well keep on going. Ganthred, get over here and pull this handle, I got a feeling there's a hidden path here."

The big man shuffled over and obliged. He gave the handle a hard tug, and the stone wall flung open, nearly making him fall down in the process. "What the hell?" he asked as he got back to his feet.

"Magic," Pirth cursed again.

She shut them up with a glare and went into the next chamber, waving her torch in front of her warily. The next room was small, as pitch black the other rooms they had visited... and cold. Gods, it was cold as winter! The sudden shock made her shiver involuntarily. "Should've brought coats," she pointed out, laughing.

"Wait, there's something," Ganthred said, pointing towards what seemed to be an altar in the center of the small round chamber.

"What do we have here, I wonder?" Nith walked towards it. When the light shone on the object rested on the pedestal, she had a sudden intake of breath.

"What the shit?" she heard Pirth whine behind her.

"Is that an... an egg?" Ganthred's voice seemed strangely muffled, though she couldn't tell if it were in awe or just the small room playing tricks on her deaf ears.

"That's... that's gotta be a dragon egg," she gasped finally after a moment's stunned silence. "Look at it! Look at the size of the thing!" The egg was as big as a dog, its smooth flawless surface reflecting the torch's light as if it were made of some kind of gemstone. "This is gotta be worth a fortune! We'll be rich!"

"I'll carry it," Pirth said quickly, and rushed forward. He picked up the egg, clearly struggling. "Damn this thing's heavy? How much do 'em dragon eggs weigh? It's not even funny."

Ganthred moved next to him, a strange look on his dumb face. "Give that here, Pirth. I can carry it."

Pirth laughed and gave his companion a condescending look. "Fat chance of that. You're a moron, Ganthred. I'm not givin' this to you just so you can drop and break the thing."

"Shut up, I'm stronger than you! I'll carry it!" In a flash, they were tussling, and Ganthred had tossed Pirth to the ground. The egg fell right to the floor with a loud crack, but it didn't look like it was even dented, lucky that. She was going to tell both of them off when she wondered why they weren't even looking at where the egg fell. Then she saw: Between them, a slew of small coins of all kinds of metals were strewn over the floor. They'd fallen out of Pirth's pockets as he had fallen.

Ganthred's face went from confusion to pure rage. "You cheating piece of shit! I'll kill you!"

"Bring it on, ox!" Pirth whiped out his dagger in an instant and charged Ganthred, embedding it into his stomach. Nith pulled out her own knife and jumped in. At the end of the fight, Ganthred was on the floor bleeding out slowly, Pirth was choking on his own blood after she'd slit his neck open, and she was picking up the egg, not even looking at her friends or the coins. "Little help here?" she heard Ganthred call out weakly. "That rat got me good."

She looked at him, as if she didn't even know him. "Yeah, I'd say you're pretty gotten. Tough luck, buddy." She hoisted up the egg; Pirth had been right, the thing weighed more you'd expect, even considering its size. Still, she managed to get in into a sack, and started dragging it away.

Ganthred looked at her go dumbfoundedly. "You're serious? You're just gonna... let me die here? Like a damn animal?"

She laughed as she disappeared from his sight. "You forgot, fish for brains, I'm a bitch, remember? If you somehow manage to not bleed to death, there's probably enough coins there for you to rent a room in some shithouse for a few weeks. I have a meeting with riches. Best of luck!" As she left, her cackling died down, and by the time she had dragged the thing to their dinghy she had realized that she didn't actually know where to sell the thing.

Ardaza was the obvious option, but big Manuel had his fingers in every pie, and his thugs would probably just take the egg from her if she popped up with it. Thultar was too orderly. She didn't even know if the city HAD a black market, and she certainly wasn't gonna put any bets on it. It would be Doma, she decided. A big city, far enough away from this hellhole that nobody would guess what she had, and far away from the families of her former traveling companions, who might ask pointed questions on why she was coming back alone. Plus, she'd been there before, and she knew a few scoundrels who'd probably give up their left testicle to get her egg. That was that, then: Doma it was!

As she started rowing away, watching the collapsed stone tower recede into the distance, she couldn't help but admire her egg. Her dragon egg. She smiled.

Aethelhelm the Undying


“Death to the Bitch-Empress!” The words hit the Undying Knight’s ears like thunder bolts. He could not quite process what he was seeing; it all seemed surreal.

Some men lived simple lives, tending farms and raising families. They built things. When they died, they left the world a better place than before. Though their lives were short, they had meaning.

Aethelhelm’s life was unending, and, it seemed to him, utterly meaningless.

Born the son of a warrior, sworn to a chief who was sworn to a chief who had opposed Illyrica’s expansion, so many years ago. Since he could walk, war had been his entire life. When he was a child, he would train constantly under his father’s stern gaze. When he was a youth, he carried his sword into bloody battle, raiding across the border into the Empire, and then fighting in the pitched battles that saw his Caesters, his people, utterly defeated. Pressed from the north by their ancient Borian enemies, and with the legions seizing town after town, he had fled with his kin to the south, where he continued to wage war.

Then he had had his encounter with the Lady, and with her mark burned into his arm, he found himself waging war on behalf of the empress he had cursed his entire life. He campaigned against the damn Borians for years. He died for the second time there, crossing the river Khad, when a Borian sheep-molester’s javelin struck him in the shoulder, and he drowned in the river, only to rise again whole and unharmed. When that war was over, he was sent to wage war on every frontier. He gutted Atar tribesmen, gutted Lesmanian regulars, and butchered the occasional vilespawn. He killed bandits and raiders, pirates and invaders. He killed boys, young and old. He killed the occasional woman, as well, who didn’t die any easier than their menfolk. And he killed children. They were the worst; as long as he lived, he would be haunted by the boys he had slain, some so young they might have been girls. And he had resigned himself to living forever.

This last war had been a tolerable one, truth be told. He had been lent- like a damn horse, but he had also resigned himself to being a tool to the Lady- to Exarch Kalon, ambushing Lesmanian patrols that became lost and “accidentally” crossed into Illyrican territory, klutzes as they were. They were numerous and well trained, but on the flip side, they were also willing, regular soldiers. Far easier to take the life of a men-at-arms than that of a peasant conscript forced from his village at sword point. With his fellow knights, he kept Ilyrica safe and her aristocracy fat.

He had come to hate war. The killing never seemed to accomplish anything. But for all his disdain for it, at least it had a sense to it. It was chaos,certainly, but organized, intended chaos, with a clear goal in mind, the destruction of the enemy. If you did not always comprehend what the enemy was doing, at least you knew the motive, that whatever they did was somehow intended to hurt you.

At that very moment, he longed for that sense of clarity.

“Wake up, Galans! Wake up, people of the Empire! You are being lied to: the empress you cling to is a demon, who has deceived you all!” The speaker was a bone thin and visibly deranged man, his shouts cracking is if he was overcome with emotions as he orated. He had a long and incredibly filthy beard, which had long ago been discolored by malnutrition. He seemed as old as a man could possibly be, though in all likelyhood he was younger than Aethelhelm himself. Odd thought, that.

“Famine and sickness, these are the punishments of the true gods for your sins! While you starve and toil and die, your imperial overlords feast and fornicate.” He pointed his bony finger in the general direction of the sea, though even from his podium there was no way he could actually see the port from there. “Make no mistake, it is they who are responsible for the fire that destroyed your homes and livelihoods. The Bitch-Empress, the She-Demon, she feeds on your suffering and misery! She wants to keep you under control, and fire is her tool! The gods have told me this!”

The crowd became more and more restless, and larger as people streamed in. Now, close to a hundred people were listening to the madman. Some glanced at each other skeptically or laughed, but far too many were cheering and shouting. He did not fail to notice that the troublemakers were disheveled and tattered, while the critics were clearly well fed and well off. Aethelhelm turned to Humes, the dour knight next to him, and grabbed his shoulder. “Gather the guards, and disperse this rabble,” he hissed. “Throw the madman in the dungeons.” Humes nodded and raced away to the nearby guardhouse. For the life of him, Aethelhelm could not comprehend why the guards had not acted already: Here was a man preaching treachery and heresy, in daylight, in a heavily populated area, with several guardsmen just watching. And he was doing it completely unmolested. What was the Lady thinking, allowing this? Had she lost all her damn sense?

The mad prophet just went on and on. “They keep the Lady from us, imprisoned in their Citadel. They dare not let us see her, for they know she would urge us to rise up! Where is the Lady of the Galans, I ask you!? Death approaches! Ten thousand ships, the fleet of the gods, sails to lay waste to the Empire! A great horde comes from the west, the vengeance of the war god, Ata’i! And the Lesmanians march on this very city! Ten thousand men, but three days away. Famine and war, that is what the false God has brought you. Repent! Repent!”

Aethelhelm shook his head and continued on his way to the Citadel, just in time for Numes to arrive with a conscripted contingent of guards to break up the plaza’s crowd. He could not stomach another minute of the lunacy. Fire attacks? Hordes from the west, ten thousand ships? Ten thousand Lesmanians? He knew for a fact that the countryside was clear of foes, though violence had erupted as peasants competed desperately for the little food there was. He had seen this kind of thing before: fear was a disease, and as it spread it became more and more pronounced as everyone worked themselves up to a fever pitch. As he walked away, he could hear the uproar behind him as the guards tried to disperse a growing and tumultuous mob. This kind of mass hysteria was typically reserved for cities about to be besieged; that didn’t bode well for his peace of mind.

They were five to continue to the Citadel, armored and armed as befitting Knights of the Wings, the order of ten which stood above all others in virtue and might in this corner of the world. They were figures of legend and adoration. In normal times, the common people showered them with praise and adulation, mistaking them for something other than the killers they were. But these were not normal times. As he walked in the rough packed dirt streets, past rough structures he’d hardly call houses, he saw rows of commoners watching their march, but their looks were suspicious, not adoring. He could see why: most were visibly racked with hunger, bone thin and tattered.

Galenave had survived the last year’s crop failure fine. It had plenty of stores, after all, even if they were depleted after that year. When he had left at the tail end of it, in the fall, it had seemed as if things would be going back to normal. The occasional dispatch he received from the Lesmanian front indicated that this year the harvest had failed yet again, and that the famine had strick. But he had not grasped the severity of the situation from so far away. Riding to the city, he had witnessed fertile landscapes give way to barren wastelands, where nothing seemed to grow. It seemed some terrible disease had afflicted the region, killing most plants as they grew. Some orchards still provided sustenance, and the fishermen still brought in their catches, but these food sources were nowhere near sufficient to sustain the entire region. Curiously, only the lands beholden to Galenave seemed affected, the harvests around Ardaza and in the western foothills being bountiful this year. He was not one to label every misfortune as the work of black magic, but this seemed passingly queer.

The countryside had been in a pitiful state, truth be told. Some villages were hit worse than others, and he came upon settlements completely empty, the people having fled or been killed in cattle raids. When men grew desperate, their hearts shrivelled and shrunk away, and beyond Galenave’s walls banditry had become widespread. He had dispatched the Niassa Parthon with their contingent of soldiers to hunt down the renegades, but he suspected that regardless of how many they killed, the problem would persist as long as its cause remained.

He had heard nothing of the pox. But the giant trench outside the city walls, filled with corpses, confirmed for him the rumors he had heard on the road, that a terrible sickness was wracking the city, brought in from foreign trading ships. He could not see any visible sick spectators as he rode by, but wondered at what lied behind the shut doors of the houses he passed.

All in all, the city was a mess. He could understand why the people were agitated, but not why the Lady had done seemingly nothing to quell the unrest. He hoped he would find answers in the Citadel, where she resided and ruled.

As he pased a bend, the final approach to the castle’s hill, they came upon a line of riders in front of them, armored and emblazed as Exarch Lysvita’s personal cohort of guards. She was not one of the riders, however. Instead, they were led by three figures he recognized: Guzno, the fat representative of the merchants of the city, Merric Tarras, head of the territory’s imperial administration, and Edward Went, the knight commonly called the Jester.

“My lord Aethelhelm!” the Jester announced, putting a large emphasis on the “lord” knowing such a title was improper to his knightly peer as well as disliked personally by Aethelhelm, “It’s so good to see you. It’d have been a shame if you missed all the excitement in the city recently.” He had a big stupid grin on his face, like he always did.

“A little excitement? More like complete anarchy. What the hell is going on here?,” he growled as he shot the younger man a glare that could kill..

The smile vanished. “Well… there was the harvest that failed, and the plague… and what happened at the docks...”

“We would be glad to tell you everything that has transpired, my Lord, but in a more fitting place,” Tarras interrupted, the bony man showing as much emotion as he ever did, that is to say none at all. “Pray accompany us to the Citadel.”

“Like hell. I’m not waiting one more damn minute to get some answers. That mob down in the plaza? They’re preaching fucking treason. Where is Lysvita, and why is she content to let Mother Night bring her wrath down upon her people?”

“You could tell me,” the administrator snapped, before looks from his companions queued him in on the fact that he’d said too much. A few passer-bies had stoped to listen, and some began to whisper around them. Tarras sighed, and turned is horse around, the others following suit. ”“This is not a fitting conversations for the streets. The Citadel is just ahead. This situation... It shames me to say, we need your help, knight-captain.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Gone.” The Undying One said the word slowly, savoring each syllable, hardly believing it. He stared out the window, the view showcasing near the entirety of Galenave’s sprawl.

“Gone,” fat Guzno confirmed unhappily.

Apparently, she had vanished completely a month ago, as the food crisis worsened. Nobody seemed to know where she had gone, nor had she left any indication. He had known his Exarch for fifty years now, but never before had he seen her seemingly abandon her duties in such a way. To leave Galenave amid such a crisis, without so much as a hint to her intentions to any of her advisors? Such a thing might be believed of the Archon Soraya, whose mind nobody knew, but of the Lady it was unbelievable.

“How is that even possible?,” Dugren wondered. “Such news would spread like wildfire throughout the land, within Galenave as well as without it. When Vadigar disappeared beyond the savage lands, on the other side of the world, word of it reached us in weeks.” The knight put her hands on the table, as if to hold herself steady.

Jester looked uncomfortable. “That’s simple, really. We didn’t tell anyone. Couldn’t have news come out amidst all this anarchy that the Exarch was gone. Well, it was a secret, until now.” He made a mock bow in the direction of Tarras, who returned a blank look of mild irritation.

“We don’t even know if she’s alive,” Guzno said unhappily.

A moments silence ensued. Sighing, Aethelhelm drew his dirk, outstretched his hand on the stone wall, and plunged the knife into it with all his force, gritting his teeth at the pain as blood splurted from the wound. Wordless, he turned around, and showed the hand to the others. Before their very eyes, the bleeding slowed to a crawl, and the wound closed. “Nightly Mother,” the merchant lord muttered, his face pale.

Aethelhelm looked at his hand with disinterest, watching the skin sew itself shut as the pain receded. “She’s alive. Which just makes all this even stranger.” He threw Jester an accusatory glare. “That doesn’t explain why you’ve let things go to shit in her absence.”

Jester crossed his arms. “It’s hardly our fault if the shit keeps piling up on our doorstep. Things have been out of our hands for a while now.”

“Is that so? And yet Humes seems to have had success in throwing the idiots below in the dungeons. I wonder, are you three lazy, or just craven?”

Jester grimaced, and scratched his head. That had clearly hit home. Guzno stepped forward. “With all respect, Captain, sending Sir Humes like you did was a folly. It just gave the madman credibility: the lower town is in uproar! We let these false prophets preach following our long tradition of not interfering with local beliefs. He was just one beggar among thousands, hardly a threat to anyone.”

“Hardly a threat,” Aethelhelm echoed unbelieving, staring down. Lady above, I’m too old for this nonsense. “Yes, I saw that. That crowd was just a social gathering, and his rants about Mother Night were veiled compliments, I’m sure.”

“He was preaching heresy for certain,” Tarras interjected, “but the Her Excellency would doubtless understand that offensive words are preferable to provoking a riot-”

“Every word from his beggar mouth brought this region closer to doomsday!” Aethelhelm brought down his mailed gauntlet on the table with all his force, splintering the fine wood. He saw things clear as day. These two feared the peasant mobs far more than they did the armies of the Empire. They’d been born long after this land had been conquered. They’d never known what happened to those who defied Illyrica. He closed his eyes and made an effort to regain his composure. “Merric Tarras. Lord Guzno. Your services to the Lady have been appreciated. Now leave. You are banished from all lands beholden to this Citadel.”

Silenced ensued. The two men looked at one another, shocked. Tarras recovered first. “Captain, it is not in your power to banish us from anywhere. We are members of the Council-”

“The Council is disbanded as well, by my decree as our Exarch’s right hand.” He straightened himself up. He was by far the oldest in the room, and also the tallest. He loomed over the others like a mountain, glaring at them, daring them to object. “With Lysvita gone, I am assuming temporary control of the city; This province needs an iron hand, whether it likes it or not. Giant, Boy, take a force of guards and inform the esteemed council members. Should they object, lock them in the dungeons. Hroth-” he pointed at the two buffoons- “get these fools out of my face and out of this city. Tanith, go find wherever Humes is now, and take to the streets. Have heralds announce a curfew; any found roaming the streets after nightfall will be assumed to be bandits, and treated as such.”

As his knights sprang to action, he turned to Jester, who had that infuriating smile he always seemed to sport. He wanted nothing more than to crack the young knight in the face then and there; why such a man was chosen for the wings by the Lady, he’d never know. “Wipe that grin off your face, I’ve not forgotten about you. I’ll decide how I want to roast your guts later. Tell me everything else that happened.”

Jester sighed. “What hasn’t happened? Well, you know about the crop failure, and our fair lady’s disappearance. The famine just got worse and worse. Bread has tripled in price in the last week alone, while the only meat to be found anywhere is rodent. As far as we can tell, nothing edible has grown anywhere inside our borders. We could still bring in food from the traders, but Tarras showed me the treasury; we aren't exactly rich. We certainly couldn't afford buying food for the populace, nor could they buy it themselves, at the prices imports were going at. When I suggested we simply seize and distribute their cargoes, Guzno nearly exploded. He insisted that if we just took the food, Galenave would never see another trading galley for a thousand years. Not to mention that half the overpriced moldy foodstuffs are his own property."

"Even then, things weren’t so bad, but a few weeks ago the plague came in from one of the trading galleys - amid the chaos we never found out which one, not that it matters much- and lots of people died from that. You might have seen our attempt to bury the dead outside. Well, we eventually decided to just sequester all the sick on Mud Street. Given how weak they were, and seeing how little food there is to go around, they’re almost certainly all… dead.”

“A few days ago, things really started to escalate out of control. News came in from the north about some Atar border raid, which scared a lot of people, and then there was rumors that Lesmania had invaded and were besieging Sanc Valatir. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”

“When we left the borderlands, tensions were high, but there was certainly no war. And I don’t believe for a second that the Lesmanians managed to rout all our forces there in the week since.”

“Well, the people here believed it in a second. Panic has been building up. Then some fishermen started claiming that an immense fleet is sailing to conquer the Empire as well, some ten thousand ships.”

“More stupidity.” Once this kind of hysteria started, men were ready to believe anything.

“Right, that’s what we judged as well. We tried getting word out that these threats were all pure fiction, but there’s no convincing the masses once they get some silliness in their heads. Everything was still under control, so we didn’t worry too much.”

“But then, two nights ago, all hell broke loose in the docks. Fires broke out throughout the district: before we could even act, a third of the wharfs were ashes. It was no use trying to fight the blaze. It’s been dry recently, and we couldn’t put out the fires no matter what we tried. It was arson, you see. Somebody had littered the city with pitch. I had the guard tear down all the structures around the docks instead, and let the inferno burn itself out. All in all, we lost almost almost the entire dockside, and damn near every trading ship too. Some wharfs survived, and we’ve been rebuilding, but… anyway, we haven’t even tried counting the dead.”

“That fire was the tipping point. The commoners are in hysteria; these kinds of false prophets have been popping up everywhere preaching their nonsense. If it’s worth anything, I wanted to clear them out of the city, but the Council - by intermediary of Lord Fat and Lord Stone- insisted on avoiding confrontations. The merchants are terrified: I’m certain they’ve hired more mercenaries than we have guards by now.”

Aethelhelm waited for a moment, expecting more. “Is that all?”

“Pretty much. I don’t see how things could get any worse anyway.”

The captain of the winged knights sighed wearily and rubbed his forehead. “Well, I suppose I can leave Sir Humes in charge here. Boy is older, but and more.... Imaginative, but he a steady hand is required here. No, Humes should be able to keep things in order until I come back.”

“Until you come… What? You aren’t staying? But I thought...”

“We don’t need one more old man here. We need the Lady. We need Lysvita. Besides… I have an idea where to look.”

If I might make a suggestion, you could skip through the meeting and open up your post with Raymun leaving the meeting and reflecting on whatever onscreen thing he was told.


Roll call: Are you guys still paying attention to this, or were you murdered and skinned by a hobo, who is now prancing around wearing a coat made of your skin?

Just checking to see who's around to post.
By the way, if you guys ever want to do a collab post, let me know and we can set something up. It might be smoother than back and forth one liners.

On the outskirts of Cade land, the next morning

Morning had not yet dawned over the landscape when the Cade men were roused from their sleep by their sarjeants. Almost every man in the camp was suffering from too much drink and too little sleep; even Ser Leopold, Ser Greith, and Ser Numes, the household knights who had survived the fighting, were miserable; high rank usually set one apart from the affairs of the common man, but when coming back home after nearly a war of bloody fighting, men tended to celebrate life without regard for the morrow. Leoric had stayed sober, of course. He eschewed the spirits as a matter of principle, and besides, he could hardly waddle up to the gates of Castle Tarrow drunk as an oarsman, though the thought did bring a private smile to his lips.

He was currently in his tent, a meagre thing that was nevertheless a palace compared to what his men had, facing his assembled chivalry, such as they were. Leopold was sly and craven, Greith was a large brute with a temper, and Numes, though a good man and true, had not been the same since a wayward arrow had left him with a bum leg. He looked at them cooly. They should not have drunk with the men. Now they were irritable and undependable, just another problem he had to deal with.

“The pain after the drink is the punishment of the Father,” he scolded them sternly, wrapping his hands behind his back.

Leopold and Greith looked at each other, unsure. Numes had the decency to look abashed. “Yes, my lord.”

“Yes indeed. You three should know better to act in such a way. You’re anointed knights, not boys. It appears I will have to make my return to my ancestral home, a warrior returning from the fields of blood, accompanied by men who look half like corpses.” He paused, and sighed. They had erred, but they were men. From duty runs rivers of gold, he reminded himself. Those of higher birth had a responsibility to set an example, to be a paragon of what lesser men might strive for, but not everyone could be a paragon of virtue. These men had fought for him valiantly despite all their faults, and he could forgive a slip such as this on such a day. “Leopold, Greith, you will accompany the men back to their villages,” he decided. “Leopold to the Tarrow Town, Greith to the farmsteads up Garend’s Fork. Have it be understood that they will likely be called to service once more in the future. Go assemble the men at once.”
When they’d left, he turned to remaining knight. “Ser Numes, you will accompany me to the Castle. How many men remain of those we had taken from the garrison?”

“Twelve, my lord.”

“They will accompany us back. We’ll make a sight less regal than when we’d left, I don’t doubt, but no matter.”

Ser Numes nodded, and left the tent to do as directed. Leoric followed, stepping out into the damp, chilly air. Fall is ending, he thought. It wasn’t long before winter would sweep in from the north. The ground was a muddy mess, soaked from the last night’s rains. He felt a stab of pity for his men, who had had to sleep under that chilling precipitation. The bigger and cleverer among them had taken shelter in trees or bushes, while some of the wealthier had erected private shelters, though these were nothing to look at.

Two great lines were streaming from the camp, lead by his knights. Soon, only those who would accompany him to the castle were left. He gave the order for the wagons to be assembled - they’d be bringing all their supplies to the castle, but with so few men on hand everyone had to work with the vigor of two men. Nor did he exempt himself from that; after giving his commands, he took to filling the wagons with the supplies they had unloaded for the night, the busy work keeping his mind off things.

Finally, when the shelters were taken down, the wagons assembled into a column, and the men ready to depart, he gave the order to leave the site. They began a slow march uphill in silence. It was strangely disturbing to tell the truth: they had been thousands, then hundreds, and now they were barely above twenty.

As Castle Tarrow grew larger and larger up ahead, he became more and more uneasy. He had always been anxious, even if he had grown adept at not showing it. He would second guess his every decision, and always expected things to turn for the worse. For all its terrors, at least the war had freed him from lordship. Having to put out fires was exhausting, and at Castle Tarrow it had often seemed fires started up faster than they could be extinguished. He looked back to the men riding behind him, frowning at their haggard and tired looks. It was true that they looked like dead men walking, and not just because of the night’s drinking: war had taken a toll on every man among them. Watching your friends being butchered, killing a foeman with your bare hands, living under the constant shadow of starvation and disease… such things could break anyone. They had all lost something to the Young Wolf’s war, he mused, whether it was family, limbs, or innocence. He wondered if he looked as broken as they did.

Following the trail, they came upon the palisade at the bottom of Tarrow Hill, an old and rotten earthwork which stretch across the river’s bend. They passed through the path’s gap, and found themselves face to face with four horseman, the chief among which was large and portly man, who seemed as if his mass could barely fit in his armor..

The fat man advanced his mount a few steps. “Lord Cade, it is good to see you.back whole. Castle Tarrow is yours.”

“That’s good to hear, Ser Podrick,” Leoric answered drily. “We’re heartily sick of sleeping in the rain.” He took a close look at the riders, and frowned. “I confess, I expected my brother to be the one to greet me.”

Ser Podrick looked uneasy. “I’m afraid Ser Raymun is… indisposed, my Lord. A… malady of the stomach. He was in no condition to ride himself, so...”

A malady of the stomach. To be sure. He knew his bastard brother to have the constitution of an ox. More like than not the bastard had drunk himself blind, or was hiding whatever whore he’d found to warm his bed that day. “The Father’s vengeance, I assume?” he mused, more to himself than anyone else.

“M’lord?” Ser Podrick asked, confused.

Leoric gave a tired smile. “It’s nothing, Ser, just idle nonsense. My men and I are tired, however; we’ve been marching for weeks now. If you would be so kind as to lead the way...?”

“Of course.”

They continued up the path, through the open outer gate. He could see sentries posted in the gatehouse, and along the wall. That pleased him, though he wondered whether it was arranged purely for his benefit. He hoped not. Though Castle Tarrow was strong, and not seriously threatened, they were still in wartime, and the lions were ravaging every pile of stone in the Riverlands.

A small crowd was assembled in the courtyard, the servants, stableboys, and other vagabonds watching the return of their lord and menfolk. He saw a few women turn and leave, their faces stricken by the absence of their husbands and sons.

Straight ahead, the inner gates were open as well, and some familiar- and unfamiliar- faces were there to see. Good Maester Illric was there, and a girl that he took a moment to register as being Gulian’s daughter. She resembled her father to a startling degree, he found. They’d have to marry in the next few days, he knew. He was the last true Cade, and he was likely to be called to the battlefield again when Lord Walder decided to where his allegiance lied. If he should die- and in war death was an omnipresent reality, by the sword or the pox- his three hundred year line would die with him, and he refused to allow that to happen. At least if he could put a child in her womb, the Cades had a chance of living on, though such a long minority would jeopardize the family’s fortunes. Seven above, he thought to himself, what morbid thoughts. He resolved not to think on any of that just now.

As his men mingled with the crowd and dispersed to their own ways in the castle, he took a long cool look at his brother. Raymun looked the part of a warrior, possessing the appearance of a man who’d been drilling since he was old enough to hold a sword, which Leoric knew to be true. His brother also had the same pained look that he had seen far too often that morning already. I should prohibit drink, he told himself. Drain all that damned wine in Garend’s fork and never have to deal with men without sense of moderation again.

After a moment’s wait, his page, a local boy of low birth by the name of Barth, arrived from the wagons. Leoric dismounted, and walked towards the inner castle, wordless.

Facing his household, he finally spoke. “Alright, no need for formalities, I am far too cold and wet to be bothered. Let’s speak what needs to be spoken in the hall, like civilized people.” He turned to his brother, who looked less than pleased to see him. He wondered whether Raymun had become overly accustomed to his position as castellan. Had the bastard forgotten his station?

Leoric clapped his hand around his brother's shoulder. Though he was nearly twice as old, Raymun was taller, which made the gesture awkward. “You too, brother. This wet air can’t be good for your… malady.” He walked on into the keep, the others on his heels, and together they went into the hall.
Are you guys ready for a timeskip to the next day?
I gotta say I don't envy Kalleth, he has to post twice as much since he's the intermediary character at the moment.
Ah, and the maiden voyage of the IllricxSarisa has begun. A fine ship, I must say. May she never know the bottom of the ocean.

Great back and forth so soon guys.
I'll start working on my post tomorrow. I don't have writers block per say, but I am haveing issues with how to start off.

Question. @Vahir Present time in the IC is night time the day before Leoric arrives? Or is it the middle of the night, or is it the next day already?

Middle of the night, Leoric's expected to arrive on the next morning. I'd recommend you guys use your first post just to introduce your characters, and show how their lives look like.
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