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Oh gee! An age and a gender and interests and things. Yeah, I have those. Ain't no way I'm about to trigger an existential crisis by typing them all out, though. You can find out what a nerd I am on discord, okay?

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Act Two: Scattered to the Winds____ __ _ _

Chapter Three: A Scent on the Wind_________ __ __ _ _

If the news of Asier’s escape had not spread quickly, it had not been slow to make its way to relevant ears either. By night, they began searching, but the fundamental flaw in their plan was that there were not so many of them - for they did not want to alarm the populace - and that they made the assumption he would head immediately for the hills.

The Tourrare’s goal, however, was not to leave Meldheim, but to strike at it. To that end, he had spent the night where they were least likely to look for him: right under their noses, by the holding cells in the dockyards.

It was a place of foul smells and filthy water. Oversized insects, crabs, and small, oily fish skittered and slipped between pillars. Three moons hung in the sky in various phases and the tides ebbed and flowed with them in that very complex pattern that they did in Meldheim, but Asier, a horseman from the arid steppes, did not know much of tides. He could only hope that they would rise high enough soon, that his subtle sabotage of the locks would bear fruit. The hours of Dami gave way to those of Ipte and occasional noises that punctuated the nighttime silence seemed disproportionately loud when they came. Perhaps he found a fitful sleep by then and perhaps he did not. Tourrare are hardy people anyhow, or so it is said.

Morning dawned cool and windy, a fresh, slick dew laying across rooftops, piers, and netting. There was something missing, and it might've taken him a moment to place it, for it was The Gift and he had never relied on it so much as others did.

The same could be said for one of the two figures who had made their way over in the early hours from Rigevand. The streets had filled, the prisoners prodded from their cells for another day of backbreaking labour, and the fish market - not so far away - a hustle and bustle, even as the first ship of the day hove into port. It was not like many other places Nettle had seen, though she had at least seen a port before. Not everything may have been as new to her as it had a month or more ago, when she had first been set upon by the Kang’s soldiers. Yet, that was not a thought that occupied much of her mind. For a moment, she thought she had sensed something, beneath a great pier that stretched well into the bay that Meldheim was built around. Then, the sensation had vanished, along with, well… everything. Try as she might, she could not call upon the Gift and neither could her chaperone, the old pirate-turned-king’s man, Jacques. He scowled. “Child,” he whispered in Drudgunzean, which he knew she at least somewhat understood, “have you lost the Gift too? Your magic?”

Whatever her reply was, he did his best to listen and understand it. Oraphe only knew where she’d been raised, and she was perhaps half-yasoi as well. Overwhelmed. He’d been there before as a boy, and though the years had hardened him and made him rich, he was not without sympathy. “Could you feel something?” he asked, his voice remaining low. “Just before our magic left?” He tried to keep his words simple. “A big animal?”

Out in the bay, people were back to hacking away at the berg from yesterday for scarce few had truly made an escape. Their little boats were moored to pegs driven into its flanks, a small shelter with a cauldron coughed out billows of steam into the cool morning air, and ropes and rickety ladders rambled about its surface. Dressed as he was, Asier should’ve been there, but he had yet more work to do and the sudden cutting of his connection to the Gift - a boon that had never been explicitly acknowledged but always present - was beginning to unnerve him. Before he could make any definitive moves, however, whether they involved fire, water, or something subtler, a pair of figures caught his eye: a tall man, thick around the middle with a short greying beard, and a small slight girl with hair tinged green in the colour of moss. The first could have been any old sea captain, for he gave off that air, but the second was distinctive and he had seen her somewhere, in passing.

Jacques and Nettle separated before long,forcing a choice upon the curious Asier who, despite his Eskandr garb, still stood apart as stockier and more tanned upon closer inspection. The first inquired innocently about oil and, separately, about manure while the second had gotten to snooping dangerously close to the prison area, a small nonthreatening girl as she was. She could not understand the main language used most often by these people she had come with, but she had grown familiar with its general sound, at least, and more than one of the prisoners was speaking it. Yet, the bigger mystery, to her mind, was the absence of the Gift, and the thing that she had sensed just before its disappearance. Scarce little grew here though, with at least some existing water plants and seeds, she might yet make much.

The small girl was out on one of the breakwaters, trying to understand the area better so that she might find the wrongness and repair it and her song might take effect, when there came a thump from below and a long wailing moan, perhaps meant to be loud but only faintly heard. There was someone or - more likely - some creature… inside the breakwater!?

Meanwhile, the Kongesalan was another world entirely. Queen Astrid was finished holding court for some hours, and had much else to do, but these were matters that Dietrich was assured he need not be concerned with, and so he was given free rein to wander, question, and learn at his leisure. In the morning, he had witnessed an honorary ‘duel’ between the Sturmish underking, Kol, and one of the new Æresvaktr: the yasoi Arne’altan’jaros, to induct the latter. The fourth–ranked Æresvaktr was now headed, or so he understood, to similarly induct a sorceress known only as the Skygge, who was near-universally held to be a vile and wretched creature.

‘Ositha’, too, found herself given a few hours of downtime, in which she was to further familiarize herself with her surroundings, her peers, and her duties before - surprisingly - commencing the children’s instruction this very afternoon. Already, her practiced Black Rezaindian senses had noted the presence of one supposedly ‘secret’ passage in the pantry beneath a stairwell, and the servants and slaves had proven a source of endless gossip.

Both she and Dietrich had encountered the precocious pipsqueak that was Snorri and the whirlwind that was Inga, and both were about the rounds of the Kongesalan, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before they met each other.

Svend, meanwhile, in his guise as Jarl Alsfard, found himself in the midst of negotiating percentages on his raiding party’s take with the Queen’s chamberlain. He felt the pinch, from Maud, that was meant to raise an alarm and started. “What is it, Jarl Bjorn?” the tall, lean man commented, taking notice of his momentary discomfort. “Is my offer not to your liking?”

Covering quickly, Svend shook his head. “No, no,” assured his opposite. “It is merely that I had promised the harbourmaster at Rigevand his pay today and forgotten to settle up. I should hope he hasn’t tried to unmoor my ships.”

The chamberlain paused. “Rigevand,” he repeated, furrowing his brow. “Your men: are many large, rough, and foreign?”

A warning prickled through the Quentist’s insides and he answered cautiously. “Oh, a good many are from Kressia and Enthal. There is a Parrench lordling cast out of his lands as well, seeking vengeance.” He scowled. “Have the ungrateful miscreants caused trouble? I will have them whipped!”

“I fear their appearance has caused some worry,” the chamberlain replied. “Though I can see it is a misunderstanding, Prince Ulf set off some twenty minutes prior with Vali the Twice–Born and some thirty soldiers in case they were pirates.”

“Gods-dammit!” Svend cursed through his teeth. “We shall conclude this tomorrow, then?” he added hastily. “I must make haste before somebody does something stupid.”

“By all means, Jarl. That would be regrettable.” Svend was already headed for the door. “You may borrow a horse if you need,” the chamberlain allowed. There was a quick thanks and then the ersatz Jarl was beyond the door.

It was a job that Kol was given much thanks for but, as a king, he had never wanted for fawning and paeans. Instead, the near–sole highlight of his stay in Meldheim had been his morning combat with the yasoi who was to join the Æresvaktr. Without much in the way of lunar help, though the five moons would thankfully be arriving imminently, he’d found himself on the back foot virtually the entire time. The sheer reach and agility of the ‘mage-hunter’ was astounding and he used magics that Kol knew were of the yasoi and had only seen, in brief, from Talit’yrash when they had fought. To skip through space and time… it was an impressive skillset and its wielder a decent and honorable man, inasmuch as any yasoi could be. In truth, the king had won only through tactics and psychology, reading his opponent’s moves once they’d established a pattern. Had young Arne been trying to assassinate him in earnest, he might very well be headed to Gestur’s table right now.

Now, however, Kol found himself at a large property, some ways removed from the city proper, in the shadow of the Eldfjall and its black soil and faint scent of sulfur. The sun passed into and out of a quickly moving bank of clouds as he approached the lone building: a modest farmhouse of fieldstone and thatched roofing. A sea of sparse, yellow-green grass poked up through the gravelly soil to rippled in a blustery wind and a woman tended to a pair of large, scraggly brandæble bushes.

He passed a gate pieced together of driftwood and a set of chimes - bone and rusted metal - clattered in the grip of a gust. He stood and waited. The woman turned. This, then, was The Skygge. He’d heard of but never seen her. Supposedly, she was some sort of udødelig who feasted upon the flesh of others, but he saw only a tall, pale woman in a hooded cloak, whitish-blonde hair spilling over her shoulders and chest to either side of her face. She looked youthful and seemed somehow ancient at the same time, and she brought her hands together in front of herself, clasping one of the rare apples between them. “A gift for you, King Kol, should you so desire it.” She held the fruit out, smiling. “Worry not. It isn’t poisoned.” She raised it to her mouth and took a bite.

Prince Ulf, for all of his youthful pride and bravado, trusted the word of one such as Vali, and stationed four soldiers along the Mountain Road to Rigevand, sending another quartet down towards the Sea Road. “I should not like to leave any doubt about my intentions once I arrive, as two dozen of us surely send message enough. I shall show mercy to those who surrender immediately to the king’s justice and I shall announce this,” he concluded, voice squeaking a bit towards the end in a most un–kingly manner.

As they walked, a faint breeze carried through the foothills to stir the long grass, and crows and a couple of wolves glanced up from the nearby carcass of an Elk, watching the humans warily.”It is said that there are some Quentics in that village,” Ulf announced, his voice nearly carried away in the blustery breeze. “If it turns out there are no pirates, then we should make an example of the apostates. You have been away for a long time, Onkel, but you should see how bold they got. Father had to carve the Blood Eagle on some. Now they merely hide.” He sniffed and gazed out at the path ahead. “We shall find them, though. They will not force us to change our ways like they did the Drudgunzeans.”

They continued on for a few more minutes, their only accompaniment the whispering of the grass and the crunch and soft clatter of two dozen men on the march, but it did not last. “If they should fight back,” Ulf decided for himself and Vali, “It will be down to you and I, who can use the Gift, and we shall send the wretches to Rødhalle. Be ready for this.” He paused. “Though I know you are. You are always ready, Onkel Vali.” For a moment, some younger version of the boy who was trying so badly to be a man twisted and flashed him a smile. Then, ahead, they could see Rigevand: pathetic collection of huts, hovels, and a single great decaying longhouse that it was. Three knarrs occupied one of its two docks, looking as if they had arrived from another planet entirely. Down by the shore, a great many people seemed to be moving about and quite quickly. “There they are!” shouted Ulf, hand going for his sword and then thinking better of it. He, Vali, and their party were still some four hundred yards or more distant.

Trygve had been closest to Maud when she gave the signal and it was two minutes before he had found her. “What is it?” he demanded. “What is wrong!?”

“A force - some thirty-two men - is headed for Rigevand from the Kongesalan. I am certain that is where they are headed. Don’t ask. We need the others and we need a plan!”

Indeed, they were not long in coming. Svend arrived on horseback, dressed in a Jarl’s finery, and Gerard and Jacques only minutes after. Many followed the latter, both expected and unexpected, for some appeared to be prisoners that he or Nettle had set free. These were relegated to the edges and alleys so as not to draw attention to the group. “We do need a plan,” announced Trygve, “but we need a location. May we yet catch them?”

The girl glanced about the adults surrounding her, feeling small and uncertain and stammered when she spoke. “I… I’m not certain.” She closed her eyes and reached out with her senses, not wasting time. “If you go at a run, those who use the Gift may.” She opened her eyes. “You should leave me behind. I will send warning to our people in Rigevand, but you needs tell me if they should try to hide or fight.” She glanced up at all of the bigger people, leaning on her crutches. “What should I do? What should we do.”

Ulf, prince of all Eskand, had descended upon the village of Rigevand with his men. It had emptied out quickly and only a small party was left to greet him. “Goddag, undersåtter,” he greeted them, wind flicking his hair to one side of his face and an odd sort of smile creasing his lips as he approached. “I have some business in your village, it appears.” He stopped in front of them and extricated a Pentact, fresh from the raids near Relouse, from the pouch at his hip. “But first,” he announced, dropping it upon the sandy mud, “I will require proof that I am speaking to men and not worms.” Hooking his thumbs into his belt, he horked up some spit, leaned forward, and let it fall upon the holy symbol. Looking up, he placed his foot atop it and regarded them challengingly, but they looked at him only for a moment before their eyes turned elsewhere. Alarm pricked Ulf's stomach and he could hear the thunder of hooves approaching from behind. Vali’s bow was already drawn and arrow nocked.

Act Two: Scattered to the Winds____ __ _ _

Chapter Three: Pillar of Death______ __ _ _

North of Relouse, Parrence 𝅗𝅥 𝅘𝅥 𝅘𝅥𝅮 𝅘𝅥𝅯 𝅘𝅥𝅰

An old man sat by a fire. He could feel the bodies approaching them, for that was all they were: living bodies while his business these days seemed the making of dead ones. The essences inside of them burned with caution, and he paid them no notice. Perhaps they would try to kill him. He neither knew nor cared.

"Old man, why are you here?" Sweyn did not move. Perhaps, had he mind enough, he would've noted that the questioner's Eskandr, while good, was not perfect.

"Bringing glory to my king and my people," he responded after a long moment. "Can't you see?" He was working a twig over in his hands, breaking it up and plucking bits off. "So-" he twisted and glanced up. The man was young, fair, and looked like a fighter. "-have you come to bring glory to yours?"

Arsene was the newcomer's name, unbeknownst to Sweyn, and he listened to the older man as he spoke in a somber tone. It seemed to hold a deep sadness, as he spoke to his hands before raising his head to look towards Arsene and questioning his purpose here.

The Drudgunzean scoffed and glanced towards the fires before looking back down at the wizard who seemed to almost wait for something, "Myself? I'm here to protect. To do some good..." Arsene threw a light gesture across the village and turned as he lightly kicked a rock as he seemed to think a moment before turning back to the older man and continuing, "...obviously doing a crack up job on that".

As Arsene sighed, he looked down towards Sweyn and said, "So with that glory you are bringing, have you found it yet?". He made a gesture towards the village that still lay softly burning.

Sweyn Thunderspear knew the plan, of course, but he could not simply spill it out to one whom the gods had ordained his enemy. Its execution would bring him yet another line in the sagas. He was not elderly, but old enough that he had a good deal more life behind him than ahead. Would the retellings fashion him as clever or wise? Would he be simply a magician who was loyal to his king? A mentor to heroes? A hero himself? A footnote? If the Parrench were to win and their culture consume the continent, he would be painted a murderer, and he found himself fighting, these days, simply to avoid that infamy in death. Yet, here I am, a murderer anyhow, and I know it truly. He did not raise his eyes toward the village. Instead, he shrugged weakly. “Perhaps I might, someday.” He glanced the young man’s way. “But why do you fight for a foreign country that looks down on you? That occupies good land your people could use? That, as recently as the year of your birth, would’ve named you barbarian?”

Arsene looked towards the plains of Parrence as he spoke about why he chose to fight, "Myself? I fight not for the country that looks down on me. I fight for those who cry out to find peace-". Arsene shifted on his feet as he looked towards the men who’d followed him here. Many seemed almost ready to charge at any moment, wishing to either find glory or to kill the great Sweyn Thunderspear before he decided to wipe them all out. Arsene sighed as he continued, "I am here wishing to give those who I can a life better than I. For I lost my home to raiding, my mentor to injustice, and my mother to my negligence". Arsene sighed as he shifted once more on his feet, now to face the old man before him. He considered why he was even talking to this man: a murderer who killed innocent people in the name of glory, yet even that was an excuse to maybe give himself some absolution. Arsene thought of what more to say as he sighed and spoke out, "What of you, why do you do such things for your king? Is it to give a better life to your people? Or is it to please the greed of a King?"

Sweyn rose, then, and was now a bit more like the legends said he was. At the very least he was tall. “For the greed of a king?” he remarked. “Perhaps the Black King is greedy.” He shrugged, calling his mighty spear to hand, and continued. “It is not my place to judge anyhow. What I know is that his greed pales in comparison to that of Parrence. How much of the richest, greenest land do they keep for themselves? How much more do they covet?” He rolled his neck back and forth, as if limbering up, and took notice of the thirty or so other men at the edge of the forest. He could kill them all within seconds, should he have so desired. Yet, he currently did not. “When the Avincians, who had uplifted those people, would not cede control of the empire to them, did Avince not burn for daring to refuse?” He hardened his mouth, switching to Parrench so that all could understand. “When they came to found a new town on the coast not so far from here, they named it Relouse and built it right beside the nest of a mother Silverscale. Did not a monk named Defrois kill that creature as it defended its young and receive a sainthood for it?” Sweyn rapped the ground with his staff, voice rising. “When the yasoi of Loriindton established for themselves an independent spirit some twenty years ago and wished to uplift their own people instead of paying tribute to us humans, pray tell did not Loriindton - that thousand-year city - burn for daring to defy good Parrence?”

Sweyn began to gather energy to himself and the power of thunder fizzed and snapped in the air about him. “You do not know it, boy, for though your people were once mine, you were raised in a garden that the Parrench have cultivated and that they will continue to grow. Oh,” he relented, “they will usually try some method other than the sword first.” He smiled bitterly. “Their herbs and spices are legendary, their trinkets and wares quite pretty, their cloth the envy of every foreign woman, and these, they pair with their false gods, their language, and their way of life as if what they replace is lesser or does not matter.” He had found himself again: his resolve. “Make no mistake, though-” Sweyn Thunderspear’s eyes narrowed. “-in the end, it all comes down to force of arms. Those who resist the Parrench have always died for it, and everything they stood for with them. In truth,” he concluded, stepping forward, “Parrence is a blight upon this land and we are your last, best hope for rooting it out.”

Arsene witnessed the old man rise to his feet to stand and face him, looking more like someone befitting the legend that preceded him. However, the Drudgunzean was not one to fold to anything, be it man or beast. As Sweyn spoke, Arsene checked himself, lightly rolling his wrists and ankles as if in preparation for what was to come. He knew when a fight was coming, and he knew why he had come here.

Sweyn spoke very clearly of things that Arsene would have never known in his life. The Parrench were greedy, they were the ones who trampled those they cared not for, it was them versus everyone. They would destroy and dominate everything they saw fit so that they might rule over it. This was something he’d had to deal with as had his mentor before him, yet as much as Sweyn spoke some sense, Arsene cared not for it.

He looked the Eskandr in the face as he spoke his last bit, "They are a blight, you are correct; the people who rule are quite often terrible". Arsene lightly tossed his hand to the side as he continued, "They trample on those under them to make themselves richer or more powerful. They will play nice, using tricks so that they may later do what they wish, yet they hide things to allow them to fulfill agendas."

As Arsene continued to look Sweyn dead in the eyes, his message evolved, "Yet I am not here for them. I am here for the men and women who are trampled upon by your people. I am here to stop this from happening." Arsene gestured at the girl who lay upon the ground next to the burgeoning confrontation, before continuing, "So you may be the ones to destroy Parrence. Yet, with that, you will destroy many more lives, all in the hope of maybe ‘rooting out’ this blight. And so what if you succeed? Wouldn't it come back? After all, to destroy a nation and its pride and sense of self, you need to destroy its people. Will you do that?"

The die was cast and Sweyn knew it. His heart still heavy with regret, but also buoyed by a grim and worthy purpose, he glanced at the small corpse before looking back at the Drudgunzean. “Every last one,” he replied unflinchingly, and his body now surged and sparked with energy. His eyes began to glow with Father’s chosen power and thunder crackled in the bellies of storm clouds that had drawn in overhead. “Now, boy, it is time for you to either live up to those lofty ideals you lay claim to or go to your gods having tried.”

In the very moment before he unleashed his wrath, however, before Arsene of Avalona could either go bravely to Eschiran or commence a legend of his own, there echoed in the distance a phenomenal sound. Great and low, it seemed to shake the very ground that they stood upon. It rose into a bone-shuddering shriek that lingered and reverberated through the near-night sky.

Vast black wings beat over the forests and fields of green Parrence and the petty fires of human war seemed a small thing in comparison to the brilliant pillar of death that spilled from the dragon’s throat. With its baleful breath, it tore furrows in the land and left roaring walls of flame where had been whispering seas of wheat and gently chirping crickets. That the inferno was yet distant only made it more terrifying. One could perhaps countenance flight and escape. One could understand the great and desolate scale of it. Like black blood pouring from wounded earth, smoke billowed into the sky, first seizing the stars in a hazy grasp and then blotting them out entirely.

More than one soldier made the sign of the Pentad. Others cried out for Echeran’s mercy or strength, and their choices said much about them. After a moment, some made the unenviable choice of turning their attention back to the far lesser but far more immediate threat of Sweyn Thunderspear. Yet, when they searched for him, they found that he was gone.

Far closer to the epicentre were Ulfhild of Ulven, Hildr the Red, and the Nashorn. A Fiery Mountain Dragon - a Tyrannus Monsigneus - had arisen from Mont Errant in a towering rage and it now circled above the plains spewing doom in the twilight. They had tried to blunt the beast’s attack but even the efforts of dragonslayer and Æresvaktr alike had done precious little against its impossible power. Again and again, the maddened beast made passes over the region, breathing death upon what little remained alive.

Hundreds of brave Eskandr fled before it, for there was no honour in death as prey. Crying out to their heathen gods, they scattered as vermin at the appearance of a boot. Like the panicked creatures that they were, most failed to take heed of the approaching army of Queen Eleanor de Parrence. They ran up against it, in full flight, either waves to be broken upon the shore, people to be shown mercy, or allies of convenience in an unexpected struggle for survival against an enemy far more fearsome.

Whatever the state of given individuals, the arrival on the Fields of Fire of Sweyn Thunderspear rallied them to a man. Massive black clouds rolled in with terrifying speed and brought lightning that writhed, snaked, and shook the very earth. Beside them, even the dragon was not so great, and it disappeared into their depths, consumed for the time being. From within echoed roars and howls and thunder. Brilliant flashes illuminated a vast draconic shape and running figures slowed and craned their necks in awe and terror.

The sorcerer himself seemed more a personification, an avatar of human hope, pain, and rage. Tangles of long white hair and beard whipping behind him, he charged in on an ivory-white stallion, glowing incandescent. Unto the Fiery Mountain he called forth a colossal bolt of lightning, and then a second, then a third, then a fourth that split the sky in sheets. Common soldiers staggered and blinked. The sheer energy was so intense that some dropped to their knees. Eyes wild and bloodshot, veins pulsing and bulging, Sweyn Thunderspear drove a fifth thunderous lance into the creature’s back and, illuminated momentarily within its shroud of black, it shrieked and contorted in pain. Wings flapping erratically, it fell out the bottom of the clouds and they cheered. How great a noise went up, from Parrench and Eskandr alike, from human and yasoi, from enemies and allies of the man who had delivered them from this demon of myth made flesh!

Queen Eleanor, racing in to provide either aid or else capture the terror known as Sweyn in his weakened state, witnessed a man who had devastated entire armies collapse to the ground, utterly drained and defeated in victory. A decision now fell to her. Here was arguably her greatest enemy laid low before her and a fresh, powerful army at her command. She knew well Eskandr practice: the prisoners of war would be sealed safely in one of the mountainside caves, unharmed and potentially hers to ransom back. Yet, the Thunderspear had given his all to save her people as well as his. She could sense the staggering, inhuman levels of power that had coursed through him and how close to death he had pushed himself. He lay helpless before her and one who could singlehandedly slay a Tyrannus Monsigneus… she still struggled to fathom it. Could she really let this opportunity -

“What is that!?”

“My Queen!”


“Oh my Gods!

“How is it possible!?

“Echeran have mercy!”

“My Queen!”

“Gods no!

A cold dark roar raised tremors from the earth and hairs on the back of Eleanor’s neck. Gargantuan black wings beat with a vengeance and the beast hurtled towards them. It opened its mouth and fire glowed in the back of its throat. All at once, the Queen of Parrence both called upon her gods and made peace with them.

Day Zero

Everything should have returned to normal. The sun rose, the birds chirped, and the fogs still rolled in at night. The weather grew warmer as Assani prepared to give way to Velles and, with it, stresia to dorrad. Nights lost that cool humid tingle that they sometimes carried and the first of the dorrad rains began to fall in preparation. In the subtropical forests surrounding Ersand’Enise, subtle shifts abounded. The rhythms and schedules of animals adjusted.

So, too, did those of people. The students still attended classes, walking back and forth in their little groups each morning and evening. The teachers still taught. Merchants still did a bustling business in the busy port of the city, perhaps even moreso than before, and anticipation built, as it did every year, for the Student Societies Faire and The Trials of Thaumaturgy.

Yet, things had irrevocably changed. One would be unobservant at best were it to go unnoticed. More than ever, clusters of Revidians walked only among Revidians and others of like alliance. Perrench skewed prickly and irascible perhaps even more than usual. The Belzaggics drew into themselves in mourning and quiet anger when it was announced that their king had indeed heard the call of Ahn-Eshiran.

For the first time in fifteen years, the Century was called. One hundred of the mightiest and most renowned battle-magi, their loyalty lay with the good of the city, its magic, and the human and yasoi races world round instead of with any one nation. The summons had gone out the moment that parties unknown had raised their blades against four kings. In the month since, members of the legendary force had been trickling relentlessly into Ersand’Enise, augmenting an already-doubled city watch, drilling in Arc-en-Ciel Plaza and on the Champs d’Echeran outside the New Gate.

By day and night alike, the stoic armoured figures, each sporting the Cloak of Centuries, patrolled the streets, their very presence enough to dissuade pickpockets, confidence men, and tiffs between rival groups of students. Security at the gates was now comprehensive and aggressive. More than a few merchants of less–than–savoury repute found their usual… compensatory arrangements no longer bought them entrance and at least a handful of wagons and travelers were now turned away by each evening.

Despite this, agents of the Traveler became increasingly active, preaching against the evils of war on street corners, railing against the greed of the elite and oppression of the common people, decrying despots and monarchs and eagerly offering their vision of a world without classes, borders, or a hierarchy increasingly ossified by wealth and unequal magic use. By night, they raced through the streets, defacing statues and the part-time homes of the elite, smashing windows and plundering from shoppes that they deemed exploitative. While they usually fled and scattered like vermin before the might of the city’s new guardians, they grew increasingly bold and, for all of the arrests that were made and all that they swelled the gaols of Ersand’Enise with their numbers, there always seemed to be more of them, and at least a few seemed to slip through the patrols every night.

It was like this everywhere, so some of the avvisos said: in Relouse and Solenne, in Avince and Orlan, Torra Corda and Varrahasta, Meldheim, Yabusa, Gandakar, Zewaggah, and Hetzelburg. Others claimed that the activities, reach, and impact of this bold miscreant and his followers were being greatly exaggerated. In the background, matters were eerily quiet. Few ambassadors met between Perrence and Revidia. On the 25th of Assani, the Corriere di Orlano reported that lands abutting the Parrench border had been temporarily requisitioned by order of the Doge. Through networks of their contacts, mercenaries began to receive offers of substantial remuneration. South of the border, the Légion de la Flamme Sacrée was quietly called to Ardeaux, only sixty miles from Revidian land… and that of the academy.

It was against this backdrop that students awoke on Lepdes, Assani the 29th to prepare for the Student Societies Faire: a sorely-needed escape from the near-constant bombardment of worrying news and one of the highlights of the school year. It promised to be a weekend of wonder, spectacle, discovery, and excitement. First, however, upon waking, many found themselves met with an unexpected and - for some - unwelcome surprise.

Day One

It was a lazy Lepdes morning. There were no classes today because of the faire and Marceline was in no hurry to get up. Last night had been spent hunched over a table with Zaz, planning out every little aspect of Zeno Bucks, drafting correspondence by candlelight, and figuring out supply chains. As little as she yet knew of the world, she knew much of these things, herself and Isabella having been Warden Ortega's primary secretaries. At different points, Ingrid, Jocasta, Ayla, and Manfred had all drifted in and out. She had fallen asleep on the sofa in Zarina’s drawing room, the walk home proving too daunting, and it was there that she found herself when a loud and persistent pounding on the door caused her to jump awake. "Coming," she groaned, "coming!"

Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she swung herself into a sitting position and stretched.

"This is the Draconic Regulatory Association and Group for Organizational Nomenclature! Please open the door," said an insistent voice from the other side.

What the… Marci scrunched her face up. Draconic what? she wondered, looking down at her feet and realizing that she didn't have her braces on. It was easy to forget what a cripple she was these days. "I'll be there in just a minute!" she replied with patient sweetness, reaching down and fiddling with them. The fourteen-year-old glanced about for Zarina, but she was nowhere to be found. Where the hell are you, Zaz!? She berated her friend mentally.

“By law you are required to submit to an inspection of your dragon's living situation and to apply for a license. Please open this door.”

“Eshi,” she cursed under her breath. "I said that I'm coming!" The Kerreman added a bit louder, tightening the last of her bindings, calling for her cane, and rising both quickly and unsteadily.

Then, just as she was rushing for the door, a freshly washed Zarina appeared, effortlessly brushing past her with a quick but genuine apology. "What the hell do these guys want?" she griped, and Marci could only shrug. "I think we're about to find out."

Marceline and Zarina were not the only ones who received visits from D.R.A.G.O.N. agents that morning. Indeed, every single student who had been fortunate enough to come away with one of the coveted eggs from their recent adventures found themselves awoken by an insistent knock on the door. Rough initial impressions aside, they would find the agents rather helpful and reasonable once their registration fees were paid. These went straight to dragon conservation, rehoming, and public outreach, they explained, offering to sign the students up for courses on dragon hatchling care. Those who resisted were met merely with grim looks and promises of a 'rescheduled' visit at some point in the near future.

For those not so (un)fortunate, the excitement of the day was able to begin uninterrupted. It was, against all odds, warm and somewhat sunny after a persistent drizzle during the Hours of Ipte. Clouds cleared, birds chirped and chittered in the trees, and puddles began drying in the late stresian sun. All about campus and, indeed, much of the city, was a bustle of activity. Those who slept in for too long found themselves awakened by the busy whacking of hammers and clatter of wagons. Voices drifted in from the street and, soon enough, they were joined by music of a great many flavours and varieties. Over the past few days, the city’s inns, guesthouses, and guest rooms had filled up with graduates from the two previous cohorts, returned to help advertise the clubs and societies that had been such a grand part of their experience. Along with those who had remained to study in the Tan–Zeno program, these now emptied onto familiar and nostalgic byways and boulevards. A handful had brought husbands or wives. Others taunted the current students, shouting often-rude awakenings and making gratuitous noise to draw out the stragglers.

And so they rose, dressed and, chattering eagerly as they gathered, began to fill the streets. By the fourth hour of Shune, Ersand’Enise was alive with light, sound, and revelry. Dozens of student societies, great and small, ancient and newly-established, dazzled potential members and patrons with what they had on offer. From the carnival of nourishing delights set out by the Pumpernickel Clubbe, to the roving performers of the Bards’ Society, temporary zoo of the Fauna Society, and Katterhorn procession of the Eskandish Circle, it was truly a spectacle. Yet, not every student society found itself possessed of either the funds or the compunction to put on such a grand display. For every Brewers’ Brotherhood biergarten, Tasters’ Union smorgasbord, or Society of the Grapes party, there were the simple, earnest entreaties and rubbish gathering of the Egalite Fraternite, Rat Bastards who lurked down sideroads and flitted through crowds hawking test answer keys, and the first aid centre of the Carnation Accord. Some whispered that, in the shadow of enrapturing displays like that of the Red Table Society’s war reenactments or the sheer… theatre of the Fingersteeplers, lurked darker elements: Traveler’s agents stirring up class resentment, stealing and rabble-rousing, and perhaps even the infamous and long-rumoured group of clandestine agitators known only as The Faceless.

Yet, as the faire continued into the afternoon and five galleons of the Revidian Regia Marina offered a spectacular rolling broadside in salute to start the hours of Eshiran, it became clear that something was amiss. In the fauna society’s petting zoo, animals became skittish and uncooperative. Horses and other ungulates pawed nervously at the ground and paced. The Vossoriyan yaks and Eskandish kæmpe ko formed defensive circles, snorting and glancing uneasily up at the sky. The lesser and even mid-sized dragons of the Draconic Order stirred and flapped in agitation, some straining at their tethers.

Then, echoing across the open water, was heard a long screeching roar. Crowds swirled and necks craned, each trying to pinpoint the origin of the mighty noise. Many were the hands shielding eyes as they searched in the direction of the sun. People saw the shadow before they saw the beast: a great dark shape wavering across the rooftops and open plazas of Ersand’Enise, and voices rose in excitement. A second roar was unleashed and the shadow circled as people pointed and shouted, standing on their tiptoes or jumping up and down. Then, it disappeared.

Souverain shredded the clouds and for a moment it was just Jean-Claude de Toussaint and his dragon, alone above the world as they had so often been. Then, five more riders emerged, along with Oriflamme, Tempête, Volcan, Fantôme, and Lierre. “Ah, so you can almost keep up!” The Dragon Knight taunted, amplifying his voice with sonic magics. Acknowledgements and teasing challenges came back at him and he grinned, taking a moment to peer down through a gap in the clouds. The riders of the Legion had circled out over the sea and were now not so very far from the Revidian ships. Super, Souverain,” he assured his draconic companion, taking a moment to pat it where neck met body. “Now…” He raised his voice, “Allons-y, mes frères! Let’s give these Revidien sea-pigs a bit of a show, non?” With that, he wheeled Souverain around and pierced the clouds in a steep dive.

“They’re going to hit!”
“Oh my gods!”
“He’s gonna crash!”
“Pull up!”
“Oh Eshirian, no!”
Screams and entreaties rose from the crowd in Ersand’Enise as an enormous black dragon, easily larger than any of the Revidian galleons, plummeted from the sky. In panic, the ships tried to maneuver out of its way, but they were not near fast enough. Instead, at the last possible juncture, the creature spread its vast wings, air bulged them, and it pulled up mere feet above the tips of the Revidian masts. Five other dragons, in the formation of a pentact, followed, pulling up feet from the waves. The galleons, in a tight formation of their own, rocked perilously and struggled not to collide while the Perrench darted and wheeled above. Fire leapt from the beasts’ throats and formed the holy symbol for a moment in the sky, the largest of them all - a Great Volcanic Wyvern or Tyrannus Monsigneus, some were quick to point out - bursting through the middle and arrowing straight for the city.

There was not a person outdoors who did not feel the mighty whoosh of wind from its massive wings. Members of the Lamplighters and city guard pushed crowds back from the area that had been set aside in Cathedral Square and animal handlers did their best to keep the other creatures calm, particularly the small herd of eight kæmpe ko that threatened to stampede at the sight of their only natural predator. Souverain, one of only two such wyverns tamed the world over, had grown considerably since his last trip to Ersand’Enise, and he proved a tight fit in the plaza. The five other dragons, a mixture of Harlequins, Froabasses, and a Tyrant, perched atop the city walls, the last of them causing visible cracks where it alighted.

Sir Jean-Claude swung off of Souverain’s back and, with a bit of Kinetic Magic, landed softly in a crouch. He rose to the sound of thunderous applause and, after taking a moment to give the dragon some chin scritches, he bowed in all relevant directions, waved to the crowd, and descended into the Draconic Order’s display. How they flocked there. How they clamoured to enter. The lineup of young women hoping to gain a personal audience with him rivaled that of Leon Solaire, whose bombastic anthems, soulful crooning, and strobing light shows lit up Arc-en-Ciel Plaza into the hours of Dami. It all finished with a brilliant display of pyrotechnics and fireworks and many retired back to the townhomes of their Zenos for a rest before further revelry in the morning.

Marceline was not one of them. “Zaz, help me with this,” she sighed exhaustedly. She was capable enough with Kinetic magic, but she was tired, and two were better than one. They’d traded spots all day running the Zeno bucks stand after hastily deciding that a soft-opening during the Faire would hold significant benefits. Now, there was a giant pot to haul back to Zeno Afraval’s place, for she was a bit closer to the street corner they had snagged. Zarina had done much of the paperwork, Shune and Dami bless her both, and Marceline had been the cute smiling face to interact with the stuffy adult types and offer them free coffee.

Walking through the darkened streets with a giant copper pot floating along between them, just above head level, Marci got to thinking. “Hey sis,” she prodded. “Look: another one of our cups.” The little ceramic mugs had become an ubiquitous sight at the faire. While it was free advertising for their nascent business, the litter had also become a problem, not only because it was unsightly and broken fragments could be dangerous, but because it cost them money. A simple exhortation to return their cups for free had proven insufficient to make people reliably do so. Marci had yet to crunch the actual numbers, but she estimated that the rate of returns had hovered no higher than twenty percent. That would not do. “Looks like asking nicely wasn’t enough, huh?”

Zarina clicked her tongue at the sight. There was something disappointing about seeing one’s own logo - something they’d worked hard on - be left as mere detritus on the streets, “Their loss, they’ll have to buy new ones.” she groaned, “But yeah, constantly ordering these things is gonna be a shitshow. Think we should reward ‘em for going the extra step and not just toss away perfectly good cups?”

“That is exactly what I think,” agreed Marci. “The question is ‘how?’” Zarina chewed the idea for a moment and spit out a suggestion a few seconds later, “How about we give them, like, something that proves they’ve gotten a drink with a cup they’ve saved. They do it enough times and we give them a treat. Like they do to train doggies.” she snorted.

“Hehe,” Marci giggled. “How to keep track of that, though?” She scowled thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t want to use paper. It’s too expensive…” she trailed off as an urchin, picking through the garbage, collected another cup. “... Why not the cup itself?” Zarina’s eyes were taken by the scavenger’s effort and it so happened to have illuminated her, “We can dish out cups all we want in the end, but using the conserved cups as proof and a tool to get free shit will benefit everyone.”

“I knew there was a reason I kept you around!” squealed Marceline. She nodded with an exaggeratedly enthusiastic motion. “Maybe we mark them somehow at first? A certain number of marks nets you the good stuff?” Zarina nodded as she brushed some of the shattered pieces on their way to the side with her foot, “The underside, yeah? Like, something simple but can’t be easily imitated. Is there a way we can do that? I know mother did something like that a while back …”

They were nearing Sienna Afraval’s place, a handful of other clusters of students still milling about or tiredly stumbling back to nearby homes. One, a binder, was paused in place, using her magic to repair a small tear in her clothes. “Oh!” Marci chirped. “We could use binding!” She paused. “That, or just a standard brand to score the underside. While it’s just you and me, binding’s cheaper, as long as we have like… the same design we’ve settled on.”

Zarina clapped her hands together, “Binding! Yeah. That’s probably the way.” her eyes darted around, hoping to find her next piece of express-inspiration. The only bit of natural light they would have at this time provided both of them with an answer, “Easy. A white moon that fills every day they bring their cup. Five days of good behaviour, they get a little treat and a happy star. Seven stars for seven weeks in a month, big treat.” she opened her arms in an exaggerated shrug with a smirk on her face, “Eaaaaaaasy. Now you figure out how we prevent other asshole binders from just doing that.”

They’d reached the door and Marceline yawned. “In the morning, though, huh?” she replied. “For now, this thing’s going in the cellar, right?” the Virangish nodded, “That’s it. We really gotta get our own storage at some point, when we get that sweet dough.”

“Those sweet, sweet Zeno bucks,” Marci agreed. Zarina used the gift to assist her in these final steps and, after a door or two were unlocked, the pot nestled snugly in the little alcove where they’d been keeping it for the past week or so. “We’ll find something soon. Don’t worry, buddy. I’m looking!”

Marceline reached over and gave her friend a quick hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Virangish Pepper!” she teased, backing away. “Bright and early! Barely after Ipte!” In the event, she barely made it back to her own bed.

Day Two

She was awoken by the sound of thunder and the pelting of raindrops upon her window. “Eshi, nooo,” the girl moaned, rolling over in bed. She’d been offered the spare room on the bottom floor so that she wouldn’t have to climb too many stairs and, often to her chagrin, she’d let Penny have it instead. Being on the top floor of a rather tall townhome had its benefits, though. When she pushed open her curtains, Marci could see clear across the Cathedral District, and she wondered at the sight of Souverain. The colossal Monsigneus shuffled around lazilly, shaking his great head back and forth and letting out a little puff of flame from his nostrils that bathed the area around him in shimmering white steam.

For a long moment, the girl was enraptured. It was a titan of old: a creature so massive and ancient so as to far outstrip mere humans. Yet, she and her friends had killed something very much like one and Marci suddenly found herself thinking it quite a great shame. “N’ what are you starin’ at, Brandæble?” teased Marlynn, suddenly awake and leaning over her way. The younger girl started. “Scheiße!” she yelped, flinching back. “Do you always just sneak up on people like that!?” Marlynn shrugged, locks of wavy auburn hair cascading over her shoulders. “I guess so,” she admitted. “I’m honestly not even trying.”

“Humblebraggart,” grumbled Marci. “Anyways, you should see the show Souverain is putting on this morning: snorting fire into the rain.” Marly came and sat on the corner of her roommate’s bed. “I’ve been sneaking peeks all night,” she yawned, stretching and rolling her neck back and forth. “I don’t sleep well in storms.”

“You call yourself Eskandish.” The Kerreman shook her head.

“Yes,” retorted Marly, “because we’re all giant vikings from dark and stormy lands.” She pursed her lips. “Go get your special lil’ booties on, hun, and fetch my dragon leash and horned helm for me, would you?”

“Asking a cripple to run your errands for you,” Marceline scolded. “For shame. Truly, these barbarians have no decency.”

Marly hopped out of bed and fluttered over to her own, tossing her nightgown aside most indecently and beginning to pull on her day clothes. “Eh, you’re not that gimpy yet, Brandæble. Gonna make use of you while I can.”

Marci at least turned her back to change, but she tossed her nightgown right at her roommate’s head, hitting her target squarely. “Pff, pah, ugh!” Marly tossed it back. “Spicy throw there, Brandæble. Where’d you learn to throw like that?”

“Stop calling me that,” the younger girl whined as the Eskandishwoman grinned impishly. “Stop callin’ me that,” she mimicked. “But it’s true. You’re little, rare, and sweet, but much too spicy.” Now dressed, she reached over and ruffled Marci’s hair as the girl was doing up her ankle and calf bindings. “Bruja!” the little Brandæble retorted, batting her hand away, and Marly tossed her cane over when she was finished.

They were no more than halfway down their first staircase when a shout rose up the stairwell. “What the fuck!?” It was Owain’s voice, and he was clearly much alarmed. Marly, who had been hovering just ahead of Marci, turned and bounded down the steps two at a time. “Owain!” she shouted, “what’s wrong!”

Marceline's pulse raced and she called liberally upon the Gift to hurry after them. “It was a fuckin… abberration,” he exclaimed. “It was outside my door and I didn’t even see it. I just… walked into it.”

He was gripping his head between his hands when Marci arrived, eyes bulging and face red. “You’re not going skør on me, brother, are you?” Marlijn asked concernedly, laying a hand upon his shoulder. “No.” He shook his head, releasing it. “No, I’m okay.” He breathed deeply and groaned as Benedetto emerged from their shared room. “Aahhh, Eshidammit,” he grated, “Gonna have a splitting headache all day.”

Wordlessly, Marli padded over and enfolded him in a hug. Benny’s eyes darted around warily, as if they were suddenly under siege. “Penny,” he said flatly. “She has a history with these.”

“You can’t be accusing her!” Marceline was quick to jump to the defense of the Perrenchwoman. “You have no -”

“Don’t get your panties all in a knot there, Brandæble.” He grinned like the little shit he was. Benedetto was barely older than her and he had a mean streak a mile wide. She glared at him, still unsure what Ingrid saw in the boy. “I meant we’ll probably have to save her from herself.”

“She can save herself from herself, merci beaucoup, but the sentiment is very much appreciated.” Penny came to a stop just below the landing, still in her nightgown and leaning on a single crutch.

“Anytime, hopper.” He looked her up and down, rumpled hair, bags under her eyes, and all. “See you’re really putting your best foot forward.”

“Non merci, Benedetto.” She shook her head quite definitely. “Petit merdeux.” The half-stern mirth fell quickly from her face, though. “But that is not why I’m here,” she continued, quickly switching back to Avincian. Penny’s eyes took a moment to meet the others’. “I think you should all come see this.”

“If it’s an aberration,” began Marlijn, “Owain-”

“Non, ce n’est pas une faille du néant,” she blurted. “C’est différent!”

“Speak Avincian, baguette,” countered Benny, but Penny glared at him. “Shut up and come,” she insisted, turning on her heel and hop-running down the steps. “It’s not an aberration or… not a normal one.” She glanced back and Marceline was already following. The twins joined in and then, with a snort, Benedetto eagerly pushed his way past the others after a few seconds. “You will see. It’s… bizarre.”

A lingering unease: that was what Marci felt when she crowded into Penny’s room. She peered through the forest of taller people, trying to understand the feeling that had settled across her stomach. There, in the middle of the room, shaped like… a quarter-sized version of Penny, crutch and all, was… an aberration? It was some sort of nothingness, and Marci remembered the word her housemate had used: néant. It was a common enough size and had a distinct otherworldliness about it, but it was all wrong. Instead of a black gap in reality, it was… blindingly white. “Scheiße” Marceline mouthed. “What the hell is it?”

“That’s the problem.” Penny twisted on the spot nervously. “I have no fucking clue.”

“Well, it’s an aberration,” decided Benedetto. “Just a weird one. Who says they can’t be white?” He took a step towards and met with a stiff arm to the chest from Penny. It was his turn to glare. “What the fuck, Penpen?”

“There’s more to it than the colour,” she replied implacably. She glanced over her shoulder at the others. “I was… forced by circumstance to take two of these things in before, one after the other. I should be craving it, at least a bit. Instead…” she furrowed her brow and her voice lowered a bit. “Do you feel it too? That… weirdness in your stomach?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Marci, “ever since I started walking to your room.”

“I’ve been feeling it all morning!” agreed Marlijn, and Owain nodded. “I just ate one. I should be ravenous for another. Instead, there’s almost like this dread. I really don’t wanna be here, actually.”

Benny scowled and nodded. “Yeah,” he admitted, crossing his arms. “Alright.”

“We should find out what it is, non?” Penny prodded.

“Would help if our rainbow-hugging Zeno was here,” Benedetto grumbled.

“Benny, stop being such a curmudgeon,”; Marlijn scolded. “You know she’s busy with the Fauna Society, and the Astronomers.”

“Sounds like a ‘her’ problem. She has a -”

“Should we… report it?” Owain interrupted. Marci would’ve but, to be honest, she was too afraid of Benedetto.

Then, Marecline looked over and Penny was absorbing the aberration “Penny, what the fuck!” she shouted, but the Perrenchwoman looked as alarmed as anybody else. “Oh putain!” she shrieked, jumping back. "Non, sors de là! Dégages! Laisse-moi tranquille! Mes Dieux, à l'aide!" She stumbled away from it but could not break free, as if the strange aberration was reaching out and latching onto her, drawing itself into her body against her very will. “Oh my Eshi!” cried Marlijn, looking on in horror, but she did not move to intervene. Neither did her brother. Marceline took a step forward but recoiled in terror after a moment. This was something new, something terrifying! What if it killed her!? Paralyzed by indecision, she stood there for a moment, before Benedetto brushed right past her without hesitation and grabbed Penny. The aberration latched onto him as well and, shamed by her cowardice, Marci stepped forward to share its burden, just as she had in the desert two weeks ago.

This one sparked and stung as it touched her, like static electricity, but then it was… oddly pleasant. The ghostly white tendrils poured into her, the aberration wavered, it shrunk, and then - just after Owain joined in - it disappeared. Marceline stumbled back and Marlijn caught her. “I…” Penny started to say, but she tailed off.

“Holy shit,” breathed Owain. “My headache: it’s just like… gone.” He furrowed his brow. “The craving, too, is a lot less.”

“This may be too personal, but I was having my monthly visit from Auntie Eshi,” added Penny, “with all of the associated… unpleasantness. It is also gone.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I slept like a pig last night too, but I feel good,” she admitted, “really good. Light on my feet!”

“Foot,” Benedetto taunted absently, as if it came so easily to him that he could do it on autopilot. “Anyways, I’m happy that you’re happy and all that shit, but I didn’t gain an ounce of power from it. Fuckin’ ripoff. If anything, I feel like it…” he trailed off, scrunching up his face. Stole power from me.” glances were exchanged. Some concurred with him. All remarked on the lack of a headache or cravings. If anything, Marlijn announced, she very much did not want anything to do with aberrations.

Marceline, however, was not paying very much attention to the others. Instead, she was listening to her body, feeling it. “Um,” she began, and a couple of heads turned her way. “I know this isn’t something any of you would be familiar with, but, as tethered manas die, you can feel them inside you: this constant nasty little prickling right around your sensation line.”

And? Benedetto prodded, with his usual impatience, but it didn’t even irk her this time.

Marci looked up and regarded them all. “I’m not sure if I’m imagining it.” A grateful, hopeful, desperate smile broke across her face. “It… stopped.”

If Born-on-Solstice’s early rising apprentice group was the first to experience aberrations that day, it was far from the last, and two aberrations were not the sum of its quota either. Just like last time, there appeared to be one for each student. Marceline made it over to Zarina to find that her group, as well, had encountered one of the seemingly rare white aberrations, but they were running behind schedule and did not have the time to unpack everything that had happened. Marci felt good, though, as they set up. The sharp, ceaseless tingling and stinging that had bedevilled her since shortly after her ninth birthday was, for the first time in five and a half years, absent. Hope flooded quick in its wake, that the tethering could be halted, that she may yet live a normal life. All day, she found herself distracted by it, as the drizzle faded and a second one started in the middle hours of Dami. She made the rounds with her friends when her shift at the stand was up, but she did not break the news yet to Jocasta, Luisa, Bella, and the other tethered. She would see if this lasted. She would make sure that it was real.

As they walked - or rolled, in some of the other girls’ cases - they stumbled upon at least two further aberrations. Formed in the accusatory shapes of people, they had appeared and, where they were not wantonly or accidentally absorbed, had been cordoned off. Lamplighters, guards, and even the Century were in strong supply, and Sir Jean-Claude lifted off on Souverain in the early afternoon, joining one last big aerial display put on by the famed ‘Fireflies’ of the Draconic Order. Watching them, Marceline thought of her own froabas egg, now nestled safely in a warming nest provided at cost by D.R.A.G.O.N. In truth, she had despaired of ever getting to ride the magnificent creature that would emerge but, if what had happened today held true, the despair would easily turn to excitement.

Proceedings ended earlier on Victendes than they did on Lepdes, for classes would resume on the morrow. Marceline took on the truncated late shift from Zarina, and they exchanged talk of the day. She had thought about joining some of the magic-focused societies, and they were large and well-funded, but they’d felt too much like more work, like professional bodies. She had school for that. Instead, she’d opted for a series of more interest-based clubs, and a few that she thought might benefit her business.

The day wound down, with crickets chirping and a foggy mist rolling in a bit early beneath heavy clouds. Thunder rumbled above their heads as students and some Zenos hustled back to their shared accommodations. Marceline, for her part, was busy counting money as she walked, safe under the mighty brim of her hat and leaning on her cane somewhat less than usual. “Marci, watch out!” came a voice and she looked up just on time to see both the small aberration in front of her and Jocasta rolling up quickly. “At least look where you’re going, iblah!” The Djamantese came around and pulled into an easy rhythm at her side. Marceliine’s cheeks burned. “Sorry, Jo.”

“Don’t say sorry for me,” the older tethered replied. “It was you who was about to eat shit.” She rolled her eyes. Marci did too. “Sorry, mom. Didn’t mean to make you worry,” she teased.

“Shut up,” Jocasta pouted.

“Oh, so when are you gonna tell everyone you’re really like… twenty?” the girl asked, and her friend’s eyes bugged out. There was a bit of a warning beneath the comical overreaction as well, though. “Your mother’s been telling you too much, Brandæble!”

“Nooo!” squealed Marci. “You too?”

“It is… inevitable,” Jocasta teased. “Maybe you can pay me with some of those fat stacks of Hugos and I’ll forget.”


“You’re the one with the hat…”

“Touché,” admitted Marceline.

“Anyways, we split up here, I think.” Jocasta brought herself to a near stop, hands resting on her wheels the way they did when she was about to push off. The younger girl gulped and gathered herself. “Actually,” she began, “can you hold on for a second?”

Brow furrowed, Jocasta stopped and nodded. The exact contents of their conversation were known to nobody but the two of them, but they spoke for nearly two hours and the night ended with Marci crying on Jocasta’s lap. Thus came to an end the five-hundred-fifty-fourth iteration of the Ersand’Enise Student Societies Faire. There had been highlights and lowlights. Friendships and rivalries had been made, wounds both opened and healed, and a common mystery to unite all students and much of the staff had now gripped the academy. Though the Arch-Zenos had approved and then posted an official bulletin in most of the city’s public areas and students were warned about the danger and exhorted to report all aberrations to faculty, it did little to blunt the gossip, the whispers and the burning curiosity, even as The Trials approached. Just what were these aberrations, and now a new variety? Who had created them? How had they placed them so exactly and, most importantly: why?

Act Three: Trials and Tribulations, begins!

REseRveD :)
Both of these recent NPCs are great and are approved!
Act Two: Scattered to the Winds____ __ _ _

Chapter Two: Smoke and Fire______ __ _ _

The Nashorn was both in a foul temper and paradoxically placated. He set the gold–haired woman on a bed of straw in a stable that the Eskandr had claimed. Near to all of the village’s residents were dead, off to either join their strange gods in the afterlife or else beg of the Visitor’s mercy for being non-believers. The Nashorn did not know too much of the Gods and there was little point in trying to decipher the unknowable. What he knew was fighting and gold and, normally, that was enough.

He looked at the small woman for a time, remembering how she had felt slung across his shoulder, thinking of how her voice had sounded. He remembered her words too, however, and her dire warnings. He furrowed his brow, now ensconced firmly beneath his helm once more. Turning and leaving – she was lame and would not go anywhere - he set off to find Ulfhild, who might know what to do or, more appropriately, what to say to the captive.

Ulfhild was tired, truly. Of what? She had not grasped yet. Perhaps the constant purging of Parrench was starting to lose the flair it once had. Or maybe the tides of war were more of a match than a village full of civilians on the verge of senescence. Either way, she found herself sat on a bed of furs and hay thinking of the wounds Eleanor had left as a mercy. There was no treasure anywhere, just useless cutlery and ragged clothes.

The sand began to collect in her eyes, her eyelids slowly tugging shut. For a newly anointed Æresvaktr, this felt somewhat beneath her. Yet the king trusted her, the Nashorn…and Hildr. She wondered how she was faring until the crunch of dirt that could only be from the hulk known as the Nashorn echoed near the small hut. She stood up with a surge of adrenaline wet with fear and exited the hut.

“Ah there you are, find the gold yet?”

The Nashorn simply shook his head. He had not found gold. It angered him. Ulfhild did not know this. Nor could she see that he was scowling deeply beneath his helm. He placed a heavy hand on her shoulder, gripping it at the verge of ungentleness, and motioned with his free hand for her to follow.

A sigh left her lungs, she had expected as much. The Parrench were tedious with how well they hid their gold, something akin to squirrels or other rodents. The weight of his hand tore through her flesh like an axe. Her shoulder gave out immediately as she was not nearly prepared for his ironclad grip. She felt the urgency run across her body with a clear message. Straightening back up, she followed him closely, while massaging her arm. It was kind of strange how everyone kind of just spoke Nashorn’s language despite him being almost completely mute.

The Nashorn said nothing. He could feel Ulfhild flinch. He would try harder to be gentle. Women were small: breakable. He did not want to break them, though… unless they forced him to. Making his way through the remains of the village, it still bothered him how intact it all was, aside from a few ruined walls and roofs. It was supposed to be burnt. That was what you did to villages like this one. It was supposed to inspire fear and make the place unreclaimable. Sweyn had ordered it, though, and Sweyn was a better Æresvaktr than he was. They reached the place and the Nashorn pointed inside where the girl was. Reaching out with the Gift, he could sense that she was not sleeping anymore, though she was pretending to be. He strode over to the bucket of water that he had left her, grabbed it, and threw its contents across her. She bolted upright with a yelp and her eyes fluttered rudely open. He pointed to Ulfhild, he pointed to the girl, and he moved to plant himself in the doorway.

It was strange, but Ulfhild’s sense of smell teetered on the edge of the supernatural. She was confident she could smell the emotions evaporating off the skin. As much as Nashorn could disguise his discontent under helm and armor, she could smell it. That or she was just excellent at fabricating another gift. She would hold her tongue for the time being, keeping a watchful eye. Another instruction led the two into a stable devoid of any horses. What was left was a girl with hair that rivaled the sun in terms of gold, perhaps the treasure was on her scalp instead of a chest. Her eyes’ search was halted by the Nashorn’s deluge of water on the young girl. Still dry as a bone she was just as surprised as the girl.

“Uh..well” she moved over to the girl and knelt down, “What’s your name?”

Adelaide coughed and spat, sweeping sopping wet locks of hair from eyes. “It’s Fuck Off, Eskandr Cunt!” She grinned toothily, seeming to relish the chance to do any sort of harm - even this meagre - to her enemies. She tilted her head and the smile became poisonously sweet. “How about yours?” she chirped.

The smile eroded from her face, leaving nothing but slits for eyes and furrowed brows. A fake laugh left her lips at the cute insult. She unhooked a rabbit pelt she had skinned just earlier in the day that was drying on her belt. “How rude of me, you can dry off with this” tossing the pelt at the girls sopping wet hair. She turned to the Nashorn, silently communicating her wishes for him to do it again. “I’m Ulfhild Ulven. So how about you tell us where the gold is and we can make this as painless as possible.”

It took the Nashorn only a moment to grasp Ulfhild’s meaning. He grinned. It was fun and Fuck You Eskandr Cunt was being difficult, just like everyone else. Besides, it was only water. Using Force, he gathered the water back into the bucket and emptied it on her head once again. Only, this time, the bucket was wrenched free of his loosened grip and hurtled straight for Ulfhild’s head from only a foot or two away. It was easily dealt with.

The patience in her snapped like a skinny twig. Why had she even tried to be diplomatic with these people, they were awful. She reverted back to the pride of Eskand which was somewhat or mostly feral. A backhand flew across the face of the peasant girl. Before she could snap her neck back, Ulfhild was already to her feet picking her up by the neck of her dress. Her hand opened to reveal a flame growing in size. She held it up to her face, “this will warm you up. Now speak or I’ll invite our friend over there to help.”

The girl's eyes went to the fire and then back to Ulfhild and she did something strange: she laughed. It was tinged with the unmistakable notes of madness and, for it, the Nashorn stepped forward once again and punched her in the stomach. “Your true colours!” she coughed, spitting up blood. “How wonderful they are! How much more ‘you’, Eskandr vermin! What are you gonna do? Burn me? Gouge out my eyes? It’s nothing compared to what he will do, and to all of us: Every. Single. One.” she spat.

“Kindness is wasted on you and your people. You rather talk in circles than protect yourself or the others” the girl did however give up one interesting kernel of knowledge that the Nashorn was unable to express to her. “Who is he? Bring us to him and we’ll see who compares to who” almost certain that is where the gold lies.

“There is no protection, you idiot! There is no survival! We were the only thing stopping him. The only thing he might listen to. Oh the poetic justice! In your bloodthirst for elders and children,” she spat, “You’ve called doom down upon us all!” Again, she began with the maddened laughter.

Her patience was gone at this point, the laughter was a grate on her ears. She found a cloth in her satchel and shoved it in the girl’s mouth as a temporary gag. “Whoever *he* is, he's going to listen to you or us as your audience. Now tell us where he is!” She removed the gag waiting for her response.

The prisoner grinned mirthlessly. “You’re a shitty interrogator,” she sneered. “So I’ll have some sympathy. You’ll find him soon enough, or he’ll find you. All that precious gold is up on the mountain, though, in a nice little cave where we hid it!” She giggled, head lolling to one side and her eyes staring almost blankly up at the ceiling.

Finally, she spoke something of worth. The mountain seemed a strange place to safeguard gold against Eskand or other raiders, but perhaps it worked. “Now go be with your gods” Ulfhild commanded, retrieving her sword from her sheathe and quickly passing it across her exposed neck. It was a surprise her blood wasn’t black with the madness that possessed her. Her body fell limp, her blood pooling with the water that doused her earlier. Ulfhild turned to the Nashorn and nodded. “Looks like we’re going up that mountain. We best not daly and find Hildr, there’s gold to be won.”

The Nashorn merely nodded and uncrossed his arms. The gold woman lay there: red, white, and gold now, and the way she lay was beautiful too, in a strange sort of way. Outside, he had felt the energies of people listening in, but it was no matter. He would go and get his gold. If someone got there before him, he would kill them.

There was a faint difference between the smoke and sky at night. While both were dark, the former had an unpredictable quality to it. Sweyn had burnt five villages now and butchered their people and he felt not a shred of pride or glory. Yet, it was necessity and it was inescapable. His king had ordered it and all others followed the king. So, he too must. What would happen to him were he to turn away? Surely, it would be the end of him. They would send that animal Thorunn after him and she would destroy him and take not only his head but his place as first among the Aeresvaktr. With it would go any semblance of honour or dignity that the storied group had left.

Yet, the lifeless body of a little girl lay on the ground before him, staring blankly at a world that her soul had left. She spat on his notions of honour and made a mockery of them. Sweyn stumbled back and had to avert his eyes for a moment. An innocent child, his conscience cried out. It had been gaining ground as of late. She was no more than nine or ten: in the final throes of girlhood, but he just stared at her tiny body, unnerved in a way that he hadn’t thought possible. You bloody murderer! his inner voice screamed. You ended this child’s life without a thought. She will never grow up. This tiny person who had never hurt you, never even seen you before: the one time that she did, she ran and screamed and died. He thought, then, of his students over the years, how he had loved some of them almost as a father loves his child, how he had watched them grow from these luminous little things into men and women of poise and power and how wondrous it had been. This one, though: she will never laugh or smile again. She will not know the satisfaction of watching herself grow into a woman, of contributing to her village or excelling in a pursuit. She will never experience adventure, loss, or wonder. She will have no late nights under the stars, no tender moments with friends, family, or lovers. This girl will rot in the ground while others born on the same day as her will know all of these things, and it will happen this way because of you, Sweyn. It did not matter that these people were Parrench. It was such an arbitrary distinction of men. Did not they have the same feelings as Eskandr? Did not they sleep and wake under the same sun? Breathe the same air? Hold many of the same hopes and dreams?

Nobody was watching him. He was alone, as he’d insisted on being for reasons that had been, at the time, unclear to him. The Thunderspear called forth some fire and he let the mound of bodies burn and blacken. There were no living people here to see his face, but the girl stared back at him to the very end, until her bones came apart and were indistinguishable from the mass. I’m sorry, he promised. So sorry. Gods, I am!

Nobody was watching him, or so he thought, so they could not see Sweyn Thunderspear, first among the Aeresvaktr, take his face in his hands and weep bitter tears.

In truth, of course, Sweyn was far from alone. A small but well-armed scouting force, led by the Drudgunzean Arsene, had been approaching for some time, following the trail of burned villages that he’d left. Their goal had been to either discover the main Eskandr force and report its position back to Queen Eleanor’s substantial army or to pounce upon and rout a smaller party of raiders opportunistically. It was, of course, a surprise when they found that they could sense only a single figure by a fire. A cascade of further surprises followed. Firstly, that the figure did not sense them back, secondly, that it did not flee or take some sort of action, and thirdly that, when that figure came into view, it was none other than Sweyn Thunderspear, by his lonesome. Arsene, as leader of the group, found himself faced with a decision: how to approach what was perhaps a major opportunity, perhaps a trap, or perhaps something else entirely.

For the Parrench force, some ways away, there was a similar figurative darkness to contend with alongside its literal peer. Thankfully, it was joined by a degree of light as well. The efforts of Sirs Maerec and Caelum made the heroic knights heroes yet again. The maiden Camille saved a great many from the fire, though seeming undeniably distraught towards the end of her efforts. Arsene of Avalona, a Drudgunzean passionate in his faith and cause, had given chase to the Eskandr raiders with a scoutiing force of perhaps two dozen men, not giving the enemy any breathing room. Most importantly of all, however, a great majority of the people of Port Morilles had been saved. More than half of the town had proven salvageable as well and, should the Eskandr be defeated and banished from these lands once and for all time, the settlement would almost certainly recover. There were losses, however. Many of the brave knights and frontline defenders of Port Morilles had gone into Aun-Echeran’s cold embrace. Still others had been eagerly captured by the raiders for use as slaves, chattel, or ransom. Among these were many known to members of the Queen’s army, including Dame Camille herself. Still more were left maimed, crippled, or destitute. Truly, the Eskandr scourge knew no limits of normal human empathy or decency. They struck viciously and wantonly, and the scars might take generations to heal.

Yet, sometimes, an imperfect strike from a merciless enemy - one at least partially defended - can serve not to weaken but to strengthen the resolve of the struck. So Parrence remained unbroken, unbowed, and unbent. That same night, in the shadow of the ruined roof of the Cathédrale des Cinq Flammes, the bishop of Port Morilles delivered a sermon under the stars. There had been no golden Pentact or chalice after the raiders had come, so Eleanor de Perpignan, Queen of the Parrench, had led by example, giving up her jewellery so that it might be melted to make new ones. She was joined eagerly by much of the town’s nobility. Great and common alike, they knelt before the Bishop and their gods and received the blessed sacrament of communion with the Pentad. Fervent prayers rang out to Oraphe and Echeran. Roofs were repaired, orders for grain stores made to the capital and dispatched, and healing hands laid upon the wounded.

The moons hung high and low in their colours. By their light, the dead were given proper burials. Work continued on shoring up the cliffs until they were judged stable. Swords were sharpened as the sun rose. A final blessing was provided by the bishop and Queen Eleanor mounted her horse, hair rippling down her shoulders, back and chest, stirring in the brisk coastal wind. “People of Parrence!” she called, cantering before the now fully-gathered army in the morning’s light on her white stallion, Fidèle.

“Yesterday, we suffered a blow at the hands of the Eskandr scourge. Many of you lost homes, friends, and loved ones. I know that the wound is deep and that it may be hard to imagine ever healing from, but I promise that there is a future. I promise that the Gods are ever at our backs.”

“Yesterday, my subjects and my friends, we took back Port Morilles from their vile grasp. We prized the lives of innocent children and elders from them. See how they flew and scattered before us as vermin might before a noble wolf. Were not the flames they had set quelled by our endeavours? Were not the stones of this very cliff secured through our ingenuity and our might?”

“Yesterday should have been a resounding victory for the heathens, yet it was not! So this is why I say to you, today, my friends and allies, that the Gods yet smile upon the people of Green Parrence, and I know, by Chune’s light, that I speak with irrevocable truth!”

She reached across her shoulder and, pulling upon the Gift of Force, grasped the handle of her mighty warhammer. “So let us set forth beneath our banners and our shields and the strength of our faith. Let us sharpen our resolve as we do our swords and senses and, tomorrow, my people, we shall crush the vile invaders who would make a pyre of our houses and fields. We shall cut them down with fire and steel where they stand, and we shall make this land ever safe and green for ourselves and our kin.” With that, Queen Eleanor drew forth her weapon and thrust it into the air. “Vive la Parrence!”
“Vive la Parrence!”
they thundered as one, and then “Vive la Parrence!” three more times. The Grande Armée gathered its might and set off in pursuit of its enemy.

Chapter One: A Stage Broken and Set

“Well played, Ayla Arslan.” Those were the last words spoken by Huarcan Frannemas as he brushed past her, and they sent a chill up her spine. Nobody would see it on her face, of course. She smiled and managed some perfunctory reply, doubting anybody had overheard the substance of their exchange. Instead, her eyes fell upon the real Jocasta in the near-chaos of preparation for the fight to come, and she pushed herself forward in the wheelchair she’d done quite a decent job with while playing the role.

The two women embraced, exchanging looks of relief. “They saw through us, but it looks like we pulled this off!”, Ayla - the real Ayla - beamed brightly, giggling a little as Jocasta’s hair was ruffled, “Looks like you played your part very well too. Don’t think Augusto could keep his eyes off you; it was certainly not a pity.” She gave Jocasta a wink.

“In truth, it may have been mutual,” she replied, “and there is more to it than you know, but for now…” Jocasta allowed herself to trail off, glancing meaningfully at the wheelchair that Ayla was still occupying.

“Oh, right!” said the Torragonese, blushing slightly. “I guess the ruse is up, hmm?”

“Don’t look so gutted,” the blonde replied, reclaiming both her true hair colour with a little chemical and binding magic, and her wheels. “I imagine we’ll have the chance to trade places again.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Ayla agreed, before turning to the matter at hand, “But, for now, we need to take care of the wyrm… if it heads to Hosta, it could cost us. We would need to direct it towards the Refuge.”

Whatever Jocasta may have said next was interrupted by a rumbling below ground that grew ever louder and more noticeable. She could sense six person-shaped energies approaching and instinctively nearly launched an attack against them. It was a fortunate thing that she did not, for moments later, Ingrid, Trypano, Desmond, Benedetto, and Penny burst out from the floor, followed by Ismette.

She blinked. The six arrivals blinked. They stood there awkwardly, eyes searching their new surroundings. “I suppose this is one way to make an entrance,” announced Penny, chuckling nervously. Desmond struggled to articulate much of anything and, for a couple of minutes, confusion took the reins until the six were brought - more or less - up to speed.

Outside, people and horses scrambled and the refuge became a hive of activity. Nonetheless, as bags were hastily loaded, all-too-brief embraces and well-wishes were exchanged, and weapons and spells prepared, word of the negotiations made its way around San Agustin. The Royal Sand Wyrm - Shai Desierto, to some - was to be a test and, if no longer a desperate one for survival, then for their newly-won future as an independent people.

The town of Hosta may have been geographically close but, for most of the five hundred tethered who resided at the refuge, it could have been on another world entirely… until now. That was where the battle was to be fought and, if they could save it from harm, they might prove their worth to Duke Frannemas and live under the umbrella of his protection while under their own governance.

That proved a double-edged sword, as the Duke decided to hold his army in reserve, with Augusto, Thierry, and a few others playing only minor roles in the conflict. He fate of Hosta and the refuge would be in the hands of the fifty or so trained tethered and a baker’s dozen students from Ersand’Enise:

Zarina Al-Nader
Ayla Arslan
Yalen Castel
Desmond Catulus
Benedetto Corvi
Kaspar Elstrom von Wentoft
Penny Pellegrin
Ingrid Pendersen
Jocasta Re
Silas Reiger
Trypano Somia

Chapter Two: Battle is Joined

Holding back was no longer an option and so the students gathered all of their most powerful magics and threw everything that they had at the beast. A great golem of wood, bone, and sinew took form, powerful sonic waves cascaded across the sands, and more than one person rose into the sky like some hero from a myth of yore.

It was the half-trained tethered who remained in the refuge that struck first, however, under the guidance of Amanda, Oscar, Luisa, Felix, and others. With the wyrm headed towards the town and away from them, it would soon leave the scope of even their extended range.

Hence, as a small squadron of mostly students from the academy rode out, the tethered combined their energies to deal a massive blow not to the creature but to the desert around it. As sand and stone collapsed around it and the maddened beast found itself flailing helplessly instead of plowing forward, its attention was turned in the direction of San Agustin.

Battle was joined first by the huge deer–shaped golem of Casii’fyret’alan, but her furious arcane attacks and those of her passenger, the mercenary Desmond, failed to faze the great sand wyrm in the slightest. Tunneling forward at a breakneck pace, it began to close in on the nearly three thousand souls in and around the refuge, and further attempts to injure or dissuade it proved fruitless until one of the defenders’ few atomic mages, the trainee Ingrid Penderson, struck it with a ferocious blast that sent it reeling.

The commotion, however, drew the interest of a half dozen froabases that had been roosting on the cliffs about a mile distant. Hungry for an easy meal, they proved a thorn in the posse’s side for some time, before being variously killed or pacified through the actions of Benedetto, Penny, Trypano, Desmond, and supposed ‘observer’ Augusto. It fell to the yasoi pacifist, Ismette, to deal with the final one and, in the heat of battle, it was easy to miss that she had called upon magics strange and dark to pull it into a fathomless black void.

The wyrm, still doggedly plowing forward, engaged the giant deer with a spray of acid from its gut, but this was neutralized through Trypano’s quick thinking and it was punished for its mindless attack by eating much of Desmond’s arsenal. Reeling, it was able to defend what could have been a decisive attack from the golem, but was struck opportunistically by a fireball from Ingrid. Chasing her and Benedetto, it was thwarted through a group effort, before turning its attention to Trypano. Having failed to grab her in its jaws, the animal batted away the attacks of Desmond and Casii, ignoring Benedetto and Ingrid as the two atomic mages worked together. Their powerful blast struck it cleanly and it fell, smoking, to the sands.

However, before anybody could capitalize, the wyrm dived deep under the sands, out of most people’s reach and once again focusing its efforts on reaching the refuge. From the near distance could be heard the screeches of more froabases: a dozen, plus the hulking shape of an alpha froabas, fast approaching.

With matters looking less than ideal, Ismette separated herself from the others, promising to deal with the threat, one way or another. As she reached into the void to draw from its endless power, however, she found herself set upon by a haggard-looking Jocasta and - paradoxically - Trypano, who tackled her to the ground and forced her to abort her actions, screaming that she would doom the world. Simultaneously, a great aberration, some twelve feet tall, appeared nearby in the desert and this drew the further attention of the flock of froabases.

Chapter Three: The Crisis Deepens

The aberration borne of their efforts, then, became a second crisis that demanded immediate management and, Trypano, recognizing that she had played a pivotal role in healing Desmond following near mortal injuries that he would soon suffer against the wyrm, made haste towards the increasingly distant monster in a bid not to further disrupt the timestream.

Deep beneath the ground, immune to all attacks but those of the tethered, the Royal Sand Wyrm, frothed and raged, barreling towards its target and the thousands of souls at stake. It fell to the tethered, in defense of their homes and very lives to do something, as the beast outpaced the forward party. Forming barriers of earth and stone in its path, trying to siphon its momentum, and cool its body had only a negligible effect, so vast was the aberration-made beast. It was only when they superheated and fused the earth into great glass and metallic spikes to impale it that it was forced to both slow and ascend into the range of their allies.

It was a fortunate thing indeed, the greatness of the tethered numbers, for Jocasta was soon to call on her brethren. Teleporting back to the refuge, she pulled every body that they could spare, bringing to the desert a second, desperate squad of hopeful heroes to assist her and Ismette:

Ayla Arslan
Yalen Castel
Kaspar Elstrom von Wentoft
Thierry de Montblaise
Silas Reiger

They quickly found the situation less agreeable than they had thought, as swarms of the screeching, clacking, wagon-sized dragons swooped and swirled at them with fire, tooth and claw. Ably dodging their repeated attacks, the nimble beasts threatened and harried the defenders and their shrinking perimeter and battered away at the magical shields that Ayla and Kaspar had so stalwartly held up for them.

Meanwhile, the larger group contending with the wyrm faced an uphill struggle of their own. Letting out a deafening cry as it emerged from the sands, the enormous reptile shook the ground with great thrashing tremors. While some were able to dodge the initial wave of attacks, they kept on coming, devastating great swathes of the land and rendering much of the group incapacitated as the sands began to consume them.

This acted as a trigger for Benedetto, and the overwhelmingly powerful atomic mage, laughing sadistically, drew up nearly to his full capacity and plowed into the wyrm. He slammed into it with enough force to snap its colossal head back and cause it to crash to the ground, half-conscious, allowing the others to free themselves and Casii’s deer golem to reconstitute its damaged body. Darting forward to seize upon the dragon’s momentary weakness, Zarina drove her shamshir into its eye, spinning like a drill. Letting out a howl of pain, its eye ruined, it dove into the ground to prepare a counterattack, pursued by thick, bloody spiked roots from Casii that tore and scraped at its flesh. Perhaps the tide had finally turned in that fight.

Yet, for all that the party squaring off against one dragon had started to find success, the other remained at a loss and on the defensive, its repeated attacks ineffectual against even the least of the swarm. Even a powerful demon conjured by Ismette failed to have much impact after she ordered it to use only nonlethal methods.

That proved to be the tipping point for Jocasta. Over Ismette’s protests, the blonde tethered girl conjured a rain of human-sized steel, bone, and stone needles, which pounded the flock of froabases, impaling, maiming, and skewering them until only four plus the alpha remained in fighting condition. At the yasoi’s further voicing of displeasure, Jocasta sliced her by targeting and destroying her demonic summon. The two women seethed and shouted, trading barbs, and it was enough to make Ismette walk away from the battle, fuming and unappreciated. Her erstwhile allies were still busy fighting, however, and they changed tactics, focusing on weakening the remaining creatures and empowering their heaviest hitters. Disorienting sonic blasts and the siphoning of both heat and momentum struck at the alpha and it wailed and reeled. Yet, it dove eagerly and desperately for the aberration, closing in with frightening speed.

Chapter Four: Deliverance

Enraged, too, was the sand wyrm, visible now in the distance as it neared both the refuge and the other dragons. Writhing in pain and shaking with fury, it emerged from the sands with fire bubbling in its mouth, ready to attack. In a bid to placate it, Zarina attempted a tactic that had previously worked with the froabases, but her subtle chemical influence was brushed away in its anger. It snorted fire from its nostrils as it took aim and Ingrid got dangerously close in hopes of exploiting the fissures on its armor from earlier wounds.

The fire attack proved potent, and though Yalen was able to siphon off much of the first, small blast, and channel the energy into Desmond, Zarina was not so fortunate in her attempt to dodge it with her nimble steed, Riesco. Only the last-second intervention of Marceline, who conjured a barrier of stone, was able to save her, and Ingrid, far too close to the beast in her bid to injure it, would surely have died were it not for the efforts of Benedetto, who used his enormous capacity for the Gift to draw nearly all of its fire and blast it back.

Emerging through the smoke and flames, the sand wyrm, now heavily wounded and mad with pain, vengeance, and aberration energy, belched fire all over Casii, Desmond and the deer golem, and there was no resisting its fury this time. Incinerated in the attack, the golem’s final act was to fling both of its riders free. While the yasoi landed with only minor injuries, her mercenary ally threw caution and his body to the wind to line up a perfect shot with high explosive rounds and the futuristic gun that he had received from the sirrahi. The results were devastating. His rounds exploding in the dragon’s throat proved enough to rip its head off in grisly fashion, and it fell in two pieces within sight of the refuge, but its final burst of fire billowed forth with its dying breath and burnt him. As both bodies fell to the sands, one was clearly dead, and the other maimed and broken, on death’s doorstep. Without the urgent intervention of a skilled binder, Desmond was sure to exit the stage of life.

If one life hung in the balance outside the refuge gates, many more were about to find themselves under threat nearby. After a failed attempt by Ayla, Kaspar, Thierry, and Clemencia combined to neutralize a juvenile alpha and two others, while Jocasta employed a terrifying temporal spell to age the final one beyond death in a matter of seconds.

It fell to Silas to try to sabotage the alpha, which was now closing rapidly in on the aberration, tantalizingly close to consuming it and absorbing its power. For all that he was able to slow it some, there was nothing that he could do about the devastating fire breath that it unleashed. While some of the defenders were able to protect themselves, many were left vulnerable and it fell to Silas, Kaspar, and Jocasta, to save who they could. The Perrench knight Thierry was in particular trouble, only to be rescued at the last moment by Zarina, who’d ridden in at a full gallop on Riesco. Still, as deadly shards of glass and flame began to swirl, it looked like the party was doomed.

Meanwhile, another seemingly doomed individual was met with relief as Trypano arrived, uncharacteristically out of breath, to administer treatment to the gravely wounded Desmond where Casii, Penny, and Yalen had all failed. Thus restored and now sporting something like a bad sunburn, he rose to his feet and was able to celebrate his victory properly, along with his allies.

Victory, however, was the last thing on the minds of those about to perish in the white-hot flames of an enraged alpha froabas. It is a fairly well-established law of science that water can put out fire, however, so when a towering demon made of living water interposed itself between the desperate defenders and the flames, nobody complained, nor did they raise any objection when the new beast that Ismette had summoned from the VOID extinguished the dragon’s ultimate attack. Though she had no words for Jocasta, the yasoi next commanded her demon to grab hold of the aberration, now mere feet from the giant reptile’s grasp, and this it did with ease, denying the alpha froabas a meal which would have both empowered it and driven it to irreversible insanity.

Seizing the initiative, the recently rescued Theirry de Montblaise gathered all of his power and hammered into the dragon as only a leadvein can, sending the beast reeling. However, his allies struggled to capitalize to any great extent, their attacks doing little more than annoying it as it began to recover and pursue Ismette’s aberration. At this point, as Yalen and Isabella decided to go all in on Thierry, filling him with a Blessing of Vigour, the battle appeared to hang in the balance, with the alpha regaining its strength and closing in on the aberration within sight of the refuge.

However, a quick and ferocious attack from Kaspar and long distance siphoning from the untrained tethered of the refuge was able to stall it just long enough to allow a fully invigorated Thierry to come in and pound it into the ground. Where an attempt to chain it by Clemencia failed, Zarina charged in, taking her very life into her hands as she leapt onto the froabas’ back and applied a dangerous new Chemical magic that she had recently learned but did not yet fully understand.

The alpha froabas, which had threatened to turn into a terror on the level of the Sand Wyrm, thrashed and roared, shooting fire into the sky and whipping its tail wildly, nearly throwing off the Virangishwoman more than once. Through her own courage and determination, plus some help from Yalen and especially a last–second save from Kaspar, she was able to persevere. The great reptile’s eyes rolled back into its head and it collapsed into the sand with a whimper, pacified and broken in spirit: hers.

Chapter Five: Fear and Opportunity

Arriving mere seconds after came the party that had felled the wyrm and, for a blip in time there was nothing but utter joy and relief. The refuge was saved thrice over, the duke almost certainly impressed with his new vassals, and everyone miraculously alive despite long odds to the contrary.

There were yet further wrinkles however, and while one was joyous, the other filled those forced to face it by fate and choice alike a creeping apprehension. The alpha froabas – a female - had been pregnant and nearly ready to lay eggs, hence it had been drawn to the colossal aberration as the largest source of energy in the area.

That aberration, the defenders of San Agustin realized, was and would remain an existential threat to everything that they had worked so hard to build and now to preserve. With the limited time and resources that they had on hand, they came to an inevitable realization: they would have to absorb it in order to be rid of it.

In the event, it did not come down to drawing lots. It was instead agreed that some would benefit more greatly from the aberration’s gifts and others would prove dangerous to themselves and their peers. If enough drew together, the madness would prove only temporary. Thus, ten stepped up to draw from the chaotic break in reality:

Zarina Al-Nader
Ayla Arslan
Yalen Castel
Kaspar Elstrom von Wentoft
Ingrid Penderson
Silas Reiger
Trypano Somia

And seven stayed behind to deal with what was hoped to be their temporary insanity:

Clemencia Alvarez
Desmond Catulus
Benedetto Corvi
Augusto Frannemas
Thierry de Montblaise
Jocasta Re

For about half a minute they made contact with the darkness and let it fill them and, when this time had passed, came twelve seconds of madness. Some laughed and some cried. Some danced and sang, others flailed and shrieked. Violence, venom, and rage made war with lust, love, and gestures of fondness. What happened during those twelve seconds is best left to the memories and perhaps the words of those who took part. When the dust had settled, though, all ten participants emerged with their minds more or less intact and noticeably more power in the Gift swimming through their veins than before.

Chapter Six: Endings and Beginnings

The next few hours were a time to take stock, repair damage, and conclude negotiations. The royal sand wyrm had made for a rich prize, along with the dozen froabases that had also been killed, and the eggs of the Alpha froabas. While much of the bounty went to the refuge, and some to the duke, a sizable amount was set aside for the students from Ersand’Enise who had played catalyst to so much of the change. They decided ownership of it by means of a mock auction that played out over the course of two hours and greatly enriched all parties involved. Indeed, ten dragon eggs were prepared for transport back to the school.

He tethered, however, were perhaps the biggest winners. In view of witnesses, an agreement was inked, signed by all senior involved parties, promising the land of the refuge and 1000 acres surrounding it to its inhabitants in perpetuity so long as they kept faith with the senior branch of the House of Frannemas. In return for their service and fealty in matters of politics, economy, and most especially military endeavours, the tethered would receive financial support, guarantees as to their legal position and humane treatment, and a full scholarship for five of the most promising to attend each cohort of Ersand’Enise. It was close enough to the start of the program that Duke Frannemas even allowed for an initial group as a gesture of good faith.

So it was that Marceline, Felix, Luisa, Isabella, and Abdel were welcomed into the academy of thaumaturgy, after some ‘adjustments’ were made to the birthdate of the youngest. The many others who the students had come to know over the course of their week in the desert could not come with them, though.

Tavio Ortega, who had not been a good man, but perhaps not a bad one either, was among that number, for he was also no longer among the living. He was buried in a small plot behind the red tower, and a headstone erected to commemorate his life. His family did not want him, and few attended the service.

Manuel Escarra, named Lord Warden of San Agustin de las Arenas both by Duke Frannemas and popular vote, was among that few, despite the frequent conflict between the two men. Some three hours later, he took a break from his duties overseeing the transfer of prisoners and the hiring and reinstatement of others to retrieve Amanda and come visit with the youths who had impacted him so greatly.

For some twenty minutes, as animals were readied, froabas eggs secured, and goods packed onto hastily-manufactured skids, those staying and those leaving mingled. Laelle hung eagerly around Ayla, anxious of being parted from her, but assured that, next cohort, she would be headed to Ersand’Enise, and that they would write in the meanwhile. Younger children clustered eagerly around her soon, and then Casii, Jocasta, and Vieri, begging them for one more game of this or that. However, one, in particular, stood slightly apart, monopolizing Yalen.

Rita and the blond-headed monk spent their final minutes not far from the pool, which had been temporarily given over to some of the duke’s soldiers so that they might cool themselves. “They took my pool,” she pouted, face scrunching up a bit and arms crossed but, after a moment, the girl thought better of it. “But I guess they need it more than me right now.” She sighed, uncrossing her arms and looking up at him after a moment. “Are you really going?” she begged, “Forever?”

Then there were the five tethered who were going to the school. They spent what time they had left in San Agustin with friends they would likely not see for years or, in some cases, ever again, basking in that warm, cold, nervous glow before an impending and permanent parting. Then, their time ran short and Amanda wished to make a final statement before it was all finished.

“I do not have enough words of thanks,” she said, as Escarra stood respectfully silent close by. It was the students from the academy that she addressed. “Each of you came here for your own reasons, with your own lives, your own concerns and struggles. I’m under no illusions that you didn’t truly know what you had been pulled into.” With the assistance of the Gift, she bowed at the waist. “But you willingly and selflessly gave of yourselves in a world that so often demands the opposite from us.” She looked them, one-by-one, in the eyes. “I was broken, not just in body, but in spirit.”

“And I too,” interjected Jocasta. Amanda flashed her a reassuring smile.

Gods, you showed me how good us imperfect people can be. You’re no saints, no legendary heroes or exemplars from those stories we hear as children, and I’m so very glad of it. You were just people, who saw others in need and did the right thing, even though I know it must not have been easy.”

She took a moment to swallow. “You have helped us to uplift ourselves. You have made so many lives so much better, and that is more than most can claim in their lives. I beg of you to keep doing it, because it is so needed and you do it so well.” She smiled bravely and blushed. “At the risk of sounding hackneyed, I would call you my heroes. You are, and you are - each of you - whatever else your imperfections, the exact sort of friends I would wish for my Marci.” She sniffed and glanced away momentarily. “Gods, look at me all sappy like some old prune.” Amanda’s eyes met theirs again. “Please, go with my utmost thanks. Look after my daughter. Live good lives.” She looked away to the side, holding back tears, and was finished.

Then, it was Manuel Escarra’s turn, and he was a bit less at length in his words. “I thank you,” he said simply, shaking each of their hands in turn and exchanging some quick personal words. “I have spoken many thanks in my life and most have been lies because they have been demanded or expected of me. Not this one.” He released Ayla’s hand last of all. “All of you will always be welcome in San Agustin. I swear it on Ipte, Shune, Oraff, Eshiran, Dami, and Vashdal.” He stepped back and bowed at the waist. “Thank you for keeping the faith and for treating my Amanda and my Marceline so well. Please continue to take care of her in Ersand’Enise.”

“Abuelo!” Marceline hurried to embrace him, unafraid, in the moment, of appearing childish. “Mi Vida,” he whispered into her hair, stroking it and kissing the top of her head. “I can feel the worry in your shoulders,” he chided. “You don’t think you will be good enough.” He shook his head. “You are already good enough, Marceline.” He let her go to arms’ length, but he looked her in the eyes. “You do not have to worry about making me or your mother proud.” He spared a glance and a smile at Amanda, who rose and floated forward in a manner very much like that of Jocasta. “We could not be prouder of you right now,” she assured her daughter, “or more excited for everything in your future.” In truth, her arms were no longer of any use to her, but she controlled them through the Gift, and wrapped them tightly around her little girl who was now so nearly a grown woman. “I love you, Marci. I love what you are, what you have been to me, and what you will become.”

For a moment, fear overcame the girl. “I will become… like you, Mother,” she mewed, “and might not even see you again!”

Amanda reached up, uncurling her limp fingers and stroking Marceline’s hair. She cupped the side of her daughter’s face in her palm. “And is being like me truly such a bad thing, little one?”

Marci gulped.

“I know I am near the end of my life now, but I have lived a good one, truly. I have known love and laughter. I have comforted and been comforted.” She glanced Jocasta’s way and they exchanged a brief nod. “I have played under Gran Naranja, I have held and been held. I have had a dozen adventures all around the world. How could I ever be disappointed? Most importantly, I have lived to see our people free, to watch this little person -” she pinched Marci’s cheek fondly, “-who I brought into the world grow up into a smart, beautiful, and good young woman.” A couple of tears slid down her cheeks and the youth reached out to wipe them away. “I have lived a good life, my precious one, and the best part was knowing that yours will be even better.”

And then… it appeared: a swirling of reality that resolved itself into the semi-familiar environs of Hugo Hunghorasz’s study. After a few seconds, it stabilized, and it was like when that first group had arrived all over again: hundreds of faces clustered around them and twice as many eyes staring in wonder and longing. The goodbyes, farewells, and exhortations to write flew thick and fast and the first couple of students stepped through. They crescendoed, and bodies darted forward, to be gently restrained by the guards, as four of the five chosen tethered made their way across the threshold. It had been so short a time, in the grand scheme of things, but so much had changed that the time before had felt, for some, like another life altogether. Jocasta sent the great skids through next, and then it was time, and the disappeared: Kaspar, who had found himself and a brother; Zarina, who had lost and found a sister and, perhaps, a new perspective on many things; Ayla, whose kindness and loving nature had saved - saved - so many and so much, and finally Yalen, who had found both strength and doubt and known things that he never would have before. When he disappeared, however, he did not go alone, and nobody had the heart to deny him.

It was just Marceline and Jocasta: two young women in the place of wonders and horrors where they had grown up, some six years apart. The portal flickered for a moment, and the dust and desert sun filled their nostrils. Jocasta closed her eyes and breathed it in. Marci silently gave her mother and grandfather one last hug each. “I’ll… see you on the other side?”

Jocasta smiled. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Marci pivoted on the spot, the motion taking some effort, and her senses took in the refuge of San Agustin de las Arenas one last time. Then, she stepped through.

Jocasta, however, sat there for a moment, as people watched, growing silent. Amanda sat across from her and her mind’s eye sizzled with the mirage of a similar scene some eleven long years ago: a little girl with blonde hair, lost and afraid, and the big warm arms of a young woman who made her feel safe.

That girl was a young woman now, herself, and the one who had held her, soon to die. She set hands to wheels and rolled forward a couple of pushes, drifting to a stop and bumping lightly up against Amanda. “Sister,” she said, grabbing the other’s hands.

“Sister,” Amanda replied. Both leaned forward until they touched foreheads. Warm breath mixed with warm breath and swirled between their faces: life leaving and entering their bodies. “You have saved me,” said Jocasta, her voice a breathy whisper. “For the second time, you have saved me.”

Amanda reached out again, labouring in her movements with the Gift, and placed her hands upon the younger woman’s shoulders. Pushing her out to arms’ length, she squeezed. “Now you can save someone else, Chela, right?”

Jocasta glanced uncomfortably around, the finality of it all smacking her: a chapter in the book of her life surely closing, and an ending that was oh so sweet, but with a final hint of bitterness, inescapably that final hint. She had never expected to come back, but oh how glad she was that she had! “I promise you,” she said, letting her hands fall to her wheels, “on the many years we have known each other, that I will.” Her fingers closed around them and she backed up: one push, then a second. She took a deep breath, smiled for something to do with her mouth, and turned. Then, the smell of dust and the rolling heat were gone.

Epilogue: The Comedown

Some days earlier, Leon Solaire and then the rest of the group that had been sent to Feska had returned the same way. They had returned with rewards of their own and some form of victory. That the Paradigm had known of Leon’s ruse was certain, for he was seen to hold it in his hands. What, precisely, had happened to the Lyre of Ipte-Zept after that was somewhat more ambiguous, to none more so than the performer himself.

In any event, there were nearly twenty young people who now stood - or sat - in the great sorcerer’s study, along with goods and animals, and he scowled for a moment at the intrusion, before allowing his expression to soften. “You did well,” he said simply. “By no means perfect, but well.” He nodded slowly, more due to age than any sort of pensiveness, for he seemed quite a decisive sort. “The world is objectively a better place because of your actions,” he stated firmly, “and that is always the goal.” From beneath drooping eyelids, aged eyes peered up at the various treasures that his students had returned with. “And, I know, for some of you, the… personal gain has been substantial as well. Well done in seizing life’s opportunities.”

There was little else to say or, perhaps, little else the legendary wizard was interested in saying. He was, after all, over a century old and not possessed of much energy these days. “I shall call on you again sometime,” he assured the biros, as the door to his impossibly large study opened into the narrow, drafty hallway of the Forked Tower. “Answer should you seek more good for the world and for yourselves.” He shrugged. “Otherwise, do not.”

It would be a lie to say that campus life returned to the mundane following the twenty-five students’ life or death struggles and vast new riches, but a species of normalcy did eventually return. There were readings to be caught up on, papers to write, and friends and masters alike to catch up with. Yet, now, there were dragon eggs to be cared for, business ventures to start up, and valuable goods to be moved for profit. New skills were practiced relentlessly and put to use. Others were studied until they could be practiced. Lives were, for the most part, busy and full, none more so than Manfred’s and Marceline’s once brother and sister were united, but that is a story best told by those it concerns.

In the vein of concerns, there were two weeks remaining before the Student Societies Faire and four before The Trials: a famous or perhaps infamous set of games that pitted apprentice groups against each other for rich reward. If the academy was not quite yet all abuzz about them, then a quiet anticipation had taken hold at the very least. Precisely how any of this would play out was yet to be decided. The future, after all, is what we make of it.

A R C T W O : F I N .

@RezonanceV Evander is accepted. Feel free to post him into the Characters tab, and welcome aboard!
Act Two: Scattered to the Winds____ __ _ _

Chapter Two: Rough Men_________ __ __ _ _

It was morning, and a glacier - a great white mountain of ice - drifted past the harbour of Meldheim. It had begun its journey, some months prior, in the lands of everwinter, and now that the water was warming in earnest, the current had carried it here: to the capital city of a people known as the Eskandr. By the Hours of Mother, the first few boats had already approached it, and soon people were crawling all over it like ants over a dead bird. By noon, they were picking away at the great white corpse with picks and hammers. Sheets of ice slid down its faces into the deep, cold waters that surrounded them. At least a dozen boats had hooks and ropes in it now and, with the aid of the Gift, for some had brought wizards and warlocks, they tamed the giant and brought it gradually towards that part of harbour near to the lumber mill. It was the season for ice harvesting, after all, and Meldheim's inns and boarding houses had filled with the rough men of the surrounding countryside who were often in search of seasonal work.

Once ashore, chunks of the behemoth would be coated and combined with sawdust from the mill to make them last through the coming warm months. Carved into blocks, they would reside in cellars, caves, and cold-houses, preserving the foodstuffs of the people who lived here until the cold returned. Of course, the ice was ancient and, once in a while, some treasure or odd thing of the past would be found inside of it. Indeed, some of the water frozen inside was many thousands of years old. Last it had been exposed to the lands of men, there had been no city here, no grand temple where the gods were worshipped, and certainly no fight over what those Gods looked like or what their names were. There had been no such people as the Eskandr, the Parrench, or the Drudgunzeans. Perhaps, the next time that it reached this place, there would also be naught but a memory of those peoples. It was difficult to say.

There was a great deal more happening in the harbour, however, even with the great berg being a subject of idle observation and conversation for much of the day. News of the war in Parrence had begun filtering back. Last night, some longships that it was rumoured had been sent by the king had slipped into port, and they now had guards surrounding them. There were whispers of a great bounty of treasure that had been brought to Hrothgar's reserves and those of the raiders who had won it. Word circled that the underking Kol, ruler of Sturmreef, had led he delegation back and was even now in town, along with the storied ranger Vali, the Twice-Born, and an embassy from Kressia. Indeed, it appeared that rich plunder was to be had from the lands of Green Parrence, and not-inconsiderable was the number of people who began wishing they had joined the expedition.

It was precisely noon when the delegation from the Kongesalan made its way into the Market-on-the-Hill. With hammer and nail, a scribe made known his writing upon the great wooden obelisk in the center of the square. As few could read, however, it was up to the royal crier as he stepped onto the dais surrounding it. For a moment, the bustling activity of the market stilled and faces turned his way. Among these was Trygve, who had lived much of his life in and around the great city. He leaned against a post, arms crossed, waiting to hear what would be said.

"Hear ye, hear ye!" the crier shouted, blessed by Mother with a voice that carried loud and clear. "I bring to you people of Meldheim news of our brave warriors who fight even now against the Parrench encroachers!" Business paused or concluded quickly and the crowd around the obelisk thickened. "This previous night, a delegation from the green lands returned to us, covered in glory and heavy with riches." Voices rose in excited conversation. A couple of burly men hauled a large chest up to the platform and left it there with a thud. The crier reached down and, with some effort, pried open its heavy lid. His hand filled with treasure and he let it spill down like a waterfall as he lifted it. People flocked to get a look, a quartet of guards forming a perimeter in front of the raised area. It was a fool's show, Trygve knew. He had been on the same island as the raiders during that storm and he had seen the sea people. There was no way they wouldn't have taken at least half of what had been left aboard the ships.

The crier was storytelling now, spinning tales of the great heroes and villains - the latter all Parrench or Lindermen, of course. He spoke at length of the epic clashes, the cruelty and craftiness of the enemy, and valiant fighting of the Eskandr. How they had broken out! How they had taken two Parrench for every one of them but how many Parrenchmen there were! There was no mention, of course, of Relouse still standing. Why, even now, five great armies of Eskand were racing across the rich green countryside, looting to their fill, eating, drinking, and merrymaking. It was a place of opportunity, that Parrence. Legends were being made and land was being claimed. The enemy was doughty, though, and fighting back hard, so perhaps the great army could be convinced to let in a second wave of recruits.

Trygve sniffed and pawed at his nose. During his years away, he'd grown more accustomed to the Parrench climate than he'd have liked to admit. The crier was good. He was a performer much blessed by Sister... or Ipte and Chune in equal measure. Sometimes, the old gods still came to the convert, easily to his thoughts and his tongue, but they were false gods - mere stories, even if nice ones - and he had never felt their power like he had that of the Pentad. He shook his head to clear t and pushed off from the wall. "Are you going, greybeard?" asked an eager youth from nearby, and it took Trygve a moment to realize that the boy - for that was what he was, in truth - was talking to him, for he was a man of nine and thirty and not so old in the grand desiin of things. "There is much to be won!" The fool continued. Perhaps he could tell by the scowl on the older man's face, though he was likely misplacing its origin, that he needed more convincing. "You will either end up a rich man or else make it to Gronhalle after all!"

"I am not much of a fighter," Trygve said simply, crossing his arms. His size, musculature, and a handful of noticeable scars easily put the lie to his words, but the young fool did not press any further. "You are missing out!" he called back, winding his way to the front of the crowd. Trygve leaned his head to the side and spat, pushing off from the wall he'd been leaning against. His people were determined to reject the light of the Pentad and so they would suffer in darkness instead. Were he braver - but he was not - perhaps the veteran warrior would've spoken for the true gods then and there. Perhaps he would've challenged the crier on his lies. That would have served nobody well, though, and if he were tortured, his resolve might fail him and his tongue might let slip matters that needed to be kept to utmost secrecy. His portion of their agreed-upon information gathering complete, he began making his way back to the Dragehale Inn.

The others, it had been agreed, were to spread out and begin scouting. Gerard, in the guise of a Kressian pilgrim, was to acquaint himself with the Grontempel, for it was Trygve's understanding that the Parrench wished to plunder it as their own churches had been plundered. Svend was to appear before Queen Astrid in the Kongesalan with an offer to outfit three fine drakkars for the raid, but he was to make demands designed to lure her or at least one of her two older children to Rigevand, where they could be kidnapped and later ransomed. After great effort from Osanna, it had been communicated to the mossy-haired girl, Nettle, that she was to accompany Lazy Eye Jacques and investigate the docks before splitting off to seek out the Parrench captives recently brought ashore. It would not be easy to break them free, but she had been tasked with seeking out the weaknesses of their prison and devising the fundaments of a plan to bring back to the rest. There were rumours that, for some reason, the Gift was unresponsive in that area, and this was also something that she had been asked to look into. The Black Rezaindian, meanwhile, was to stay with Svend in the guise of a servant girl and tutor offered to Astrid. The hope was that her obvious status as an outsider, her skills and apparent guilelessness, and her status as a gift would allow her to work her way into the queen's service. She was to render Astrid and any remaining children unconscious following Svend's reappearance, so that they could also be spirited away. There was more that they had assigned Nettle, as well, but Trygve did not know it, and even Jacques' continued mission was also a mystery to him. A few of the Parrench had talked late into the night in hushed tones and he had made the trek down to their accommodations with Maud, who was simply to remain in the market as a beggar and listen in on what people were saying while sweeping the city for any unusual buildups of energy or mobilization of soldiers. He supposed that they could not be too careful. That was why many of the others were to remain in and around Rigevand, nondescript, out of the way, and playing the role of the usual pirates or plunderers. Such rough and common figures would do little to invite the locals' attentions.

Konge Kol had told Ulf enough that he had thought it wise to bring back to his mother immediately and, once she had finished with the Kressian ambassador, she had spoken at length with the Sturmish king and Vali. "My son," she had told him, late in the night, "you will go with Vali and thirty of our soldiers to Rigevand tomorrow in the midday to investigate reports of pirates and smugglers."

Ulf knew the reputation of that 'fishing village' well, and he would do much more with his father's soldiers than simply 'investigate' some pirates. It was long overdue that the notorious hive of scum and villainy was brought under the king's justice, and even more urgent that the Quentics who hid out there were dealt with. He had been given Vali: a powerful warrior, and one who was unlikely to use hiis right to override the youth due to his quiet nature. Ulf would be a fool to waste this opportunity and, to that end, his mother did not need to know the extent of his plans. She would forbid him from pursuing such decisive action if she did. Caution and prudence: she always counseled these things and he increasingly found that it grated upon his nerves as he grew older. That was the problem with women, he supposed: they had been made to create life and, even when blessed with great power, were naturally overcautious and far too forgiving. This would be a man's job, and Ulf was nearly a man grown, after all.

Prove himself fully enough, and perhaps he would be allowed to leave with Kol, Vali, and the new Æresvaktr to join his father in Parrence. There was still Snorri back here as the spare heir should Ulf's time to join Gestur in Gronhalle come early. It would not, though. Of that he was certain. The gods had made him strong in the Gift and so it was clear that they had great things in store for Ulf Hrothgarsson. He merely needed to reach out with faith and strength to seize them.

Inga stood beside her mother in the courtyard, the last of the morning dew disappearing from training dummies, railings, and the ground as the rays of the resurgent sun reached out for it. She knew that, within minutes, Onkel Kol would join them. She knew that he was to evaluate the two new Æresvaktr who'd been chosen by her father and induct them into the legendary group of warriors. In truth, Inga was not much of a fighter, but she had still grown up with the sagas and the Æresvaktr had long played a prominent role in them. She still imagined herself a great huntress, shaman, or shieldmaiden at times. That was folly, of course. Her job was to marry into another kingdom and work to bring it under the sway of her father or, someday, Ulf or Snorri. There were many ways other than brute force to conquer.

For now, she watched the yasoi at his practice. Arne'altan'jaros was his name, and she found it a pleasant mix of her own culture and his. The way that he struck so blindingly fast and how he simply appeared in new places, attacking his targets so differently from humans: truly from three dimensions. She liked it. She thought that he would do well and that Kol would like him too after sparring with him. The process was supposed to be a formality. As one of the Æresvaktr's senior members and a lesser ruler himself, the King of Sturmreef was merely there to add a stamp of approval and lend weight to proceedings and Inga imagined that he knew it. Still, he could technically refuse should circumstances come to absolutely demand so, and the induction of a filthy creature like The Skygge would serve as sore temptation to invoke that right. Why father wanted her - a vile sorceress who experimented on human bodies - for such a noble group was beyond Inga, and she reflected that perhaps even her great father, the king, was not always right in his judgement.

Then, presently, Onkel Kol arrived. Before yesterday, she had not seen him for two years and she always found herself impressed with the size of him. She knew that she was to accompany him on his rounds today, so she hurried up to him, even as the yasoi ceased his training, and both of them bowed. "Good morning, your majesty," she greeted him, to her mother's approval, "the first of your new recruits awaits." She gestured at Arne. The yasoi twirled his weapons and regarded the Sturmish king eagerly.

Snorri's job, he knew, was to watch and learn for the eventuality that he might one day rule. On his last birthday, mother had confided in him that she thought Ulf a fool, and the younger boy had agreed, after some consideration. Also after some consideration, he had told her that he did not think it wise that such a fool should be given command of thirty soldiers and sent to deal with what Onkel Vali had reported were pirates or smugglers seeking refuge from the laws of the land in Rigevand. She had cryptically replied that sometimes you needed to give a fool the right tools and then you would benefit instead of him.

As he moved another piece on the chessboard, Snorri thought about this too. He was doing his job, the boy reflected. It is your turn, Jarl Sturmfeld, he thought, but he did not say it. This Kressian was ambitious and a little obsequious at times, but he was not stupid. "They say you drank the water of the Grontempel," the prince began. "What was it like?" He tilted his head to one side and could not resist a further question. "Do you feel it was really necessary?" He would not have much time to take further measure of this man and to learn both of him and from him. Truth be told, he was also just curious, as many nine year olds are. In particular, he wished to learn of how the Quentics had spread their faith for, vile as they surely were, they were effective.

Soon, Snorri knew, they would join mother at court as she received supplicants, petitions, and news. He was to be Jarl Sturmfeld's shadow as the Kressian observed her in matters of state and gained a feel for the legal workings of Eskand. Then, they were to sit down for their own negotiations over dinner. The prince knew that he was likely to be sent to bed at that point, though he secretly hoped it would not be so, and mother sometimes allowed him to join the adults when she was pleased with him. Snorri hoped very much to please her but, secretly he also wished his foolish brother success. If he was to win the throne from Ulf somehow, someday, he hoped that it would be a fair contest against a competent rival. Such strength would bode well for the future of his people.

It was, Maud estimated, some two hours past midday and, since arriving at the market early in the morning, she had overheard little but gossip and speculation from the godless heathens that were supposedly her people. They signed up so eagerly to kill and be killed that she could not help but judge them collectively, culturally insane. They believed so blindly in their gods and in their king that she'd had to work to keep a scowl off of her face more than once.

The youth had found much to scowl about over the past little while, though. Shortly after the sun had peaked, she had sensed a gathering of some thirty-two people leaving the fortified longhouse that sat beside the Kongesalan. Not yet wanting to cause a panic and confirm, in everyone's minds that she was no more than a useless, crippled little girl, she'd held off on raising the alarm. She had instead followed the soldiers' energies as they'd wound their way down from the hill and even as they'd collected briefly in the marketplace. There were many things that they might be doing, she'd told herself, but now they had reached the outskirts of the city and the cold feeling in her gut congealed into certainty. They were headed for Rigevand and those left behind would have to either hide or confront them. The latter course risked everything.

So, she had sent the agreed upon signal to Birger, Osanna, Svend, Gerard, Jacques, and Trygve: two sharp little pinches behind the ears. The first of those allies would know to prepare and the others to head stealthily back. The last of them was to meet her by the inn and carry her. Truly, Maud was grateful for it. The harsh wooden braces and leather straps bit at her legs and the crutches at her armpits as she hurried along, making an awful, awkward racket. It was, she reflected, the opposite of stealth, but it could not be helped. Matters had taken a turn for the worse.

Act Two: Scattered to the Winds____ __ _ _

Chapter Two: Folly______ __ _ _

Humans, in their eagerness to see yasoi as some extension of the forest, to define them by and have them embody it, made a dangerous mistake. They looked upon Loriindton as an ideal, formed of the trees and alive in perfect harmony with nature. In the early morning sun, it emerged from the nighttime mists: an apparition of great golden boughs that groaned softly in the breeze and shining silver bells that gently chimed. For seven thousand years, they had looked upon the changing visage of the city in the trees and decided that it symbolized peace, permanence, and beauty: things to strive for. In truth, this was little more than a reflection of that peculiar human need to place everything in neat little crates so that it could be understood.

It was a need that Talit'yrash'osmax did not understand. She and the others were close now. The undergrowth was growing sparse and the animals fewer. The trees towered to unnatural heights, carefully cultivated over millennia by yasoi hands. Their mighty roots drank endlessly of the Ascel River and choked out those of their smaller brethren. The sun beat down through the gaps in the canopy, parching soil and grasses. The sharp hum of cicadas rose in urgency as the day wore on and smoke from hundreds of chimneys filtered, foul and phantasmal, through the branches. In truth, Loriindton was an unnatural place: a blight upon the sanctity of the eternal land picked at relentlessly by the folly of men. Mud and stone covered the forest floor and leaves, maintained through the use of the Gift, remained year-round on their branches. At this time of year, they were transitioning from yellow to green instead of growing anew.

Then, the new arrivals were passing through Athal'riimas, the vast arch and its hundred dangling chimes stretching over their heads. On the other side lay a hive of activity. Milling crowds moved in all three dimensions: back and forth on foot, up and down ladders, stairs, and trees. Dozens of wagons clustered along the network of roads that branched from Athal'riimas. Loud voices filled the air, competing with a smorgasbord of scents and sights: multicoloured banners, cooking meat, spices, sweat, and shit. It was a sensory bombardment thrilling for a human but almost overwhelming for many yasoi.

"Home, ladies and gentlemen," announced Tali in an ambivalent tone, bringing Pishcar about. The horse had been trained to walk in reverse. "Senses keen, bags clasped shut, hmm?" She motioned for them to follow.

Everything on the ground floor of the market was cleared by the early afternoon and the decorators came out in earnest. By Ypti herself, they covered the great plaza with more ribbons than Talit had thought existed in the whole of the city. Next came the treasure wagons and the long travelers, and they bargained and bartered in the background as long tables and stages took shape along with the throne for the Grand Mockery. Casks of wine, mead, and spirits were arranged in sculptures and bolted or tied into place. Hundreds of hands combined to build a tiims'archa course that snaked around, up, and down many of the lesser trees, through the fountain, and right to the foot of the throne itself. By the late afternoon, bards and music troupes were drifting in and out of the plaza, claiming the plum spots, and vendors were busy cooking up jumpoi and sharring'oss. For those who hassled them too much, there would inevitably be a few slices of jumpoi'asca.

Lifted into place by the magics of the Festive Guild came the swinging post, and then tetsoi booths and Dare Squares. The Chefs' Guild soon had a roaring fire lit and a spit turning with dozens of chickens, turkeys, pigs, rabbits, and boars. Before long, afternoon gave way to evening. Dancers swirled about to music and torches were lit at ground level and many others above as the sun set. Then came the jesters and acrobats, resplendent in their multicoloured livery. Families wound through the thickening crowds and a dozen individual practice sessions and sing-alongs congealed into one great musical ensemble.

The six Festive Masters leapt up on top of the long tables and pranced about. Every single one of them had drank a substantial amount and all were properly, obnoxiously jolly. Pie Man had both thrown and received pies. Frolicking Fish was squirting people from the fountain and the area around her was already a no man's land except for those young men who saw... boobs first and foremost and were willing to endure the relentless humiliation. The Tickler was busy tormenting a waiter who was holding up one end of a massive roast peacock on a glass platter, close to getting him to drop it. Fat Ferit, meanwhile, was huffing and puffing, stumbling and bumbling all over the place in her frilly robes and liberally helping herself to people's food and drinks with a mixture of obsequious apology and barbed jokes. Baron Pecker was strutting around smugly with his great jaw, feathered hat, tights, and even greater... pecker, winking at all the women, chatting them up with the corniest of jests, sneaking up behind people and... poking them, and demanding duels with 'offended' husbands, while shamelessly bending the rules or running away and claiming victory. Peering out from a small window overlooking the plaza, Talit blushed at the sight of him. Aged twelve, she'd asked her mother wonderingly if it was real.

“No more real than the last time you asked,” teased a curmudgeonly old voice from nearby.

The young woman turned. “Old Nan,” she replied, instinctively bowing.

Leaning heavily on a cane, Merit’entasp’osmax shuffled forward. She stopped in front of her triple-great granddaughter and they stood eye to eye, the elder not having to look up very much. “My dear little Tali.” Old Nan pinched her cheek fondly. “Glad you made it back in one piece this time.”

“It was only men,” Tali replied, hovering close behind as Old Nan took a few steps back and settled gingerly onto her armchair.

“Humans,” grumbled the old crone, “and the two worst sorts: Eskandr and Parrench.”

Talit sighed. “I know you’re not half as opposed to the latter as you like to make it sound.” The floorboards creaked in a familiar way underfoot and the air smelled faintly of chamomile.

“Hmm, maybe,” the former Baroness admitted. “But also not half as favourable as you like to think.”

“Then I shall just have to push harder,” the potential future baroness teased. Yet, it was met not with some witty rejoinder, as usual, but with a tired smile. Merit lifted a steaming mug unsteadily to her lips and took a long sip. She seemed somehow a good deal older than the last time they’d seen each other, towards the end of winter. “Your brother pushes me one way and you the other,” she sighed. “It is altogether too much pushing, I fear. The two of you seem determined to turn me into a prune.”

“Why, but you already are, dear Old Nan. Have you looked in a mirror of late?”

“I try to avoid them,” the old woman grumbled.

“I suppose, at your age, I might as well,” Tali admitted, still pacing, but Old Nan’s eyes found her just the same. She shook her head. “By my age, you’ll have been a goddess for over a century, Yrash. You must accept that you are Vyshta.”

The young woman’s eyes flashed. “I am Talit first; not some mere body for the fallen goddess to inhabit.”

Merit smiled reassuringly, but she seemed old and withered these days, and she lacked the forceful glow that Tali was accustomed to. Perhaps ascending as a goddess was much preferable to old age after all. “Each vessel remains herself within the goddess. You should not worry. There will simply be more to you after you ascend.”

Talit sighed. “And how you will love to tell me “I told you so’.”

“Hmmmm.” Old Nan sipped from her mug, silent. It wasn’t like her to pass up an opportunity to poke fun at her younger kin, but she sat there on her chair, suddenly quite still, eyes staring ahead with no particular sort of focus. “Old Nan?” Tali prodded, “What is so interesting about the wall, hmm?”

Merit blinked. “Oh, yes. Nothing, dear. I was just thinking how glad I was that you’d made it back safely. War is such a horrid business.”

“Yes, Old Nan.”

The former baroness paused. “Have I forgotten something? Were we on another topic?”

“Nothing of consequence,” Tali lied, and the old woman smiled. “Ah yes, it just came to me that there was a jest I had wished to make.”

Smoothly, Talit strode up to the padded chest beside where her Old Nan was and sat on it, setting her crutches to the side. “And what was that?” she inquired softly.

“Oh, just that I was happy you’d come back in one piece this time.” She winked.

Tali forced a smile, but her need to do so came not from an objection to jokes about her missing leg. They had been a part of her life for over a decade and she was well used to them by now. Old Nan was repeating herself. She was forgetting things. There’d been hints over the past few seasons, but she was much worse now. “I am supposedly the goddess of fortune incarnate,” Tali replied, probing once more.

“And perhaps you have come to accept that, yes?”

“It is as I told you just now: I shall be Talit first and foremost, always.”

“Oh, but you will be,” Old Nan assured her. “Each vessel remains herself within the goddess. You should not worry. There will simply be more to you after you ascend.” Word for word, it was the same. Something in the young woman’s chest snapped. “And how you will love to tell me ‘I told you so’,” she repeated. This time, however, the elder noticed something amiss. She scowled and set her mug down unsteadily. “I fear I may not have the opportunity, dear one.”

“Old Nan?”

Merit looked her way, eyes sharp for a moment, as they had always been previously. She reached out with a gnarled hand and enfolded one of Talit’s. “I had a conversation like this with Dyric already.” She furrowed her brow for a moment, looking confused and trying to push through it. “At least… I think I did.”

“Granny Merit,” the young woman squeaked.

“No sounds of weakness, girl,” scolded the former baroness. “Those will not do.” She brought her mug up to her lips again and then stopped and scowled. “It is only water in here,” she growled. “The tea is still steeping. I had forgotten.”

Tali rose and hopped a couple of steps to grab the pot, returning in a heel-toe shimmy with it. “It is… a horrid thing to grow this old,” Old Nan admitted, “to be a shadow of oneself, to know it and yet not know it.” She stared ahead in reverie as Tali poured another mug for her. “Things you used to do with such ease drift out of your grasp and you’ve no choice but to accept it. A bitter pill…” she trailed off.

The young woman went silent and tired old eyes found her. More particularly, they found her stump for a moment. “How indulged I must sound, dear girl.” Merit took a sip of her tea, eyelids flickering as she savoured it, and shook her head. “You know far more about loss at your age than anyone ought to.”

“I know a thing or two about perseverance as well.”

“Oh, I have persevered plenty long,” Merti snorted. “When I was precisely your age, I stood there on a hilltop, just outside the forest with a boy I loved at the time and we watched flames consume Old Avince. That is how very much is inside this old head of mine and how hard it is to organize all.”

“Perhaps the Gift of Essence can help?” Tali ventured.

“I have tried it.” Merit waved dismissively. “Three times, apparently. I have written it on a scrap of parchment so that I do not waste what little time I have trying it again.”

“Old Nan,” pleaded Tali, “you must continue to persevere, please, for one more year and hopefully much longer.” She started to rise, but thought better of it, instead shifting to more fully face the old woman. “I understand that it is my duty to ascend, and I would not be so selfish as to shirk that, but I am frightened. For all of the Gift that I have, I truly am. No vessel of Vyshta has made her twenty-fifth birthday in over a millennium. I… do not think that my chances are very good without -”

You must persevere,” said Old Nan simply.

“And I shall, with every ounce of my being, but…”

“Talit’yrash, there is something I must tell you,” Merit began. “An admission I must make.”

Tali could feel her heartbeat accelerate. She swallowed. “What is it, Baroness?”

“I will not be among the living this time next year. Twice, in the past month, my bowels have failed me. On some days, I need to be carried down the ladder from my home.” She shook her head. “I have been coughing up blood for a week now. So I have taken -”

A long, low sound - impossibly loud - reverberated through the room. Tali leapt to her foot and grabbed her crutches as a second sound, slightly higher in pitch, cut through the elder’s words. It was the hornmaster. Three more notes sounded, each loud enough to be heard clear across Loriindton. Old Nan was covering her ears, muttering something, and then the last of the notes faded. It was time for the guests of honour to take their places. Sunset had given way to dusk and the former baroness would struggle to see much of anything in so little light. Tali drew upon the Gift to set every candle in the room aglow. “It is time for us to appear, dear Old Nan,” she announced, as the elder pushed herself free of her armchair with some difficulty. “Time for the mockery, but first, what was it that you were saying?”
Absently, Tali’s eyes went back to Baron Pecker and his ridiculous display. “Ah, a-hah, yes!” Merit replied, shuffling up beside the much younger woman. She leaned in and whispered with an impish grin. “It isn’t real, Talit’yrash. No more real than when you were twelve.”

Tali was about to protest and remind her of the serious nature of their conversation, but Old Nan seemed so pleased with herself that she had not the heart and, in any event, the old crone had likely forgotten. They could discuss it later. “As if I haven’t heard that one before,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “Come on now, let’s go. It wouldn’t do for the guest of honour to be late.”

Shuffling ahead of her with tiny, uncertain steps, Merit twisted carefully and gazed back upon Talit with fondness. “My precious Talit’yrash,” she said softly. “I want you to know how very much I love you and how proud of you I am.”

“So, are we still calling her ‘baroness’ because we wish to honour her or because she’s forgotten that she isn’t anymore and we wish to humour the old bat?” People laughed, most of all Merit. “You’ve lived too long, Baroness. Why, soon, there’ll be no one left to check your wild tales of Avincian days. Why, for all we know, you could claim that Avincians could all fly by means of their flatulence and we would have no choice but to accept your firsthand account!” The former baroness was well-known as a storyteller and, at times, as something of an embellisher. “But, of course, we wish you all the best,” continued the Master of Mockery, “many more years to your long and healthy life… and just as many where we have an easy excuse to hold a mete’stiroi!”

Hoots and hollers. Tali smirked guiltily. Near the other end of the dais, she could see Dyric grin. “Ah, and of course, it isn’t just our grand old lady who’s having a birthday today!” The master spread his arms and stalked up in front of Tali. Reaching out, he took some of her plum wine and downed it. “How could we forget our ‘twins of destiny’!?” He made twinkle fingers as he twisted to take in the crowd, “though, let’s be honest, Talit’s the only one people really remember, isn’t she?” She let out a guilty snort of laughter as Dyric’s smile grew pinched. “And a banner month it has been as well for our resident flamingo. Why, with how many Eskandr she sent to their little green building of the afterlife, perhaps people will finally remember her for something other than having one leg!”

“A girl can dream!” Tali responded from her seat.

“Dreams,” replied the Master of Mockery. “Those are good to have and, let me tell you, young lady, that all of us dream with you.” He shook his head and smiled, somewhat serious for a moment. “One more year,” he announced, “and the most obvious vessel of Vyshta we’ve ever had gets to ascend and all of get a whoooole lot luckier.”

People shouted and clapped.

“Don’t fuck it up, Tali.” He winked. “Seriously. I’ve already picked my lottery tickets for next year’s event. Just… don’t eat anything stupid or fight any more scagbiists or Eskandr. Stay away from sharp objects and… for Exiran’s sake, take the bridges and not the ropes, hmm?”

“I shall expect a healthy cut of your winnings,” she teased, and he made a strange face, twisting dramatically on the spot and regarding the crowd. “You see, this is how you can tell she’s not Shiin.” He shook his head and tapped his temple with a finger. “Not very bright.” He turned back to her. “Missy, it’s my job to mock you, not the other way around.” He paused again, twitching on the spot and taking in the revelers. “So… it’s just occurred to me that it’s been so bloody long since we’ve had a real live Vyshta, that nobody really knows how to use the damned thing!” He skipped up to her and leaned in. “I mean… Tali, what do we do? Are there… magic words?”

She shrugged. "'Please', perhaps? I dunno." He tilted his head. “Do we… rub your head for good luck?”

She glared. “Try it, bub.”

He leaned in conspiratorially. “Bribes?”

“Well, I never!” she gasped in mock horror.

“Ah, yep. It’s bribes,” he announced. “When they get indignant, you know.” He nodded knowingly, looking disappointed, and shook his head. “Typical Vyshta.”

Following his brief skewering of Talit, the Master of Mockery moved on, setting his sights on Dyric: “a proud yasoi nationalist who extols the virtues of all of our traditions… though he’s never actually tried any of them,” and “a politician who won a resounding victory in the last race he ran in: a footrace… against his sister.”

The Master of Mockery was finished before long and it then became open season on whoever sat on one of the three thrones. Many tried their hand at the honoured craft, though there were other pursuits for all different types. The long voyagers continued their trade, music belted out across the plaza, and people leapt and swirled in dance, Tali joining them more than once. Tetsoi were applied liberally, the dare squares saw plenty of use, and a Mez’Qadurat ring played host to some particularly exciting combats. Food and drink flowed liberally. Couples stumbled out to shadowed alcoves and hidden booths, magic shows lit up the sky, and people covered their bodies in exotic glowing paints of the tiims’archa. Tired children bounced and bounded around, hopped up on sugar and excitement, before congregating with a heterogeneous mix of parents, snail enthusiasts, and lifelong gamblers around the racecourse. Tali had sponsored two snails this year - Blue Number 8 and Mondo - though she’d been out of town and not seen them in action. As was customary, she chose two children to release her racers onto the course: a boy named Anthan for the former and a girl named Vaidii for the latter. Tali watched the start, of course, for it was always spectacular with a crowded field of collisions, attack, and jockeying, and both of her snails were still in it when she wandered off. Races could take a good few hours, and she had other things to do.

Setting off, Tali wound her way through the crowds, stopped every few yards by well-wishers, sycophants, or others who simply recognized her and wanted to talk with her. Jaxan: she wanted to find him. She hadn’t had the chances she’d hoped for to spend some time around him, but he was… many things that she liked and those who knew her - and some who didn’t - were always advising her to stop thinking so much of Arcel: a married man and - more importantly - a human. Still, as she walked, a tightness hovered about the top of Tali’s stomach, and she wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was the war, or maybe it was sharing a space, once more, with Dyric, who was family and who she was not on speaking terms with. It could have been the looming threat the Eskandr posed to her people. There would almost certainly be Tar’ithan looking to slip into Loriindton and an army hovered somewhere nebulously nearby, she had been told. Most likely, however, it was Old Nan and the strange conversation they had shared. It was the old woman’s precipitous decline and unusual thoughtfulness.

A stabbing pain shot up Tali’s thigh and she grimaced and hissed, freeing a hand from a crutch handle and reaching down instinctively to rub at the spot. Instead, all that she encountered was the end of her stump. “Stupid thing,” she hissed under her breath, gingerly grabbing it and trying to massage away a feeling in a body part that didn’t exist anymore. She knew this phantom pain for a symptom of stress and worry, so she grit her teeth, took a couple of steadying breaths, and reminded herself that it wasn’t real. After a moment of conspicuous stillness, she decided that her best course of action was to go check in on Old Nan, who’d last been seated on the very comfortable Prime Throne of Mockery, lapping up the abuse.

Shouldering her way through the swirling throngs, Talit came upon her three-times-great grandmother being set upon by Lyen. The young woman had fought alongside the maledict and knew well her occasionally sharp tongue, but Lyen seemed utterly jolly, prancing about, slinging barbed jokes, laying hands on people - including the nearby Dyric and the tall red woman Tali had run into on the road last night - and consuming copious amounts of wine. Tali smiled despite herself and blushed a bit. She was just about to call out for either mocker or mockee's attention, because they seemed engaged in some sort of interaction that she wished to take part in, when Lyen reached out and laid a hand on Merit’s shoulder.

For a moment, there was nothing noteworthy about it, but then Old Nan froze, and a look of sudden and conspicuous pain filled her. Her eyes flashed Dyric’s way, having not yet noticed Tali, and she slumped dramatically to the side, eyes still open, unmoving. “Old Nan!?” Talit shouted, barreling through the crowd. People clustered round or drew back, and voices rose. “She isn’t moving!” one shouted. “She’s… she’s dead!” hollered another. Finally, Dyric: “It was her!” he accused, pointing straight at a shocked-looking Lyen. “That maledict! She touched the baroness and this happened.”

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