Why Do You Write?

Ever spend months/years trying to figure out the best way to answer a question, and then read it somewhere and think “holy crap, that’s spot on!” A friend of mine recently answered this question in an interview, and did so in a more clear and succinct manner than I ever could, so I thought I’d share.

 


 

Why do you write?

“Writing is what I do. It’s how I understand the world. I see it as my profession, but it’s more than that. I have always felt that there are essentially two mes. There is the me that I show the world and the private person I keep for myself, the person who is simply trying to figure everything out. I don’t know if I am alone in this, but my guess is that I am not.

It is the private person who I am protecting from the rest of the world who needs writing, really needs it. It’s the way I understand what this place is and where I am. It’s the way that I allow myself long thoughts. In those few moments in my life when I haven’t written, I have found myself contemplating less and reacting more. I have found myself becoming depressed and even listless. Writing gives me purpose and focus.

Aside from that, writing allows me to connect with the rest of the world. I hope that people read my poems, stories, and books and understand what I mean. I hope that I can connect with them.”

– John Brantingham
http://johnbrantingham.blogspot.com/

“New Horizons”

This is a novella I wrote for the Thursday night game night I play with some friends. I’ve always been an avid RPG fan, mostly because of the story you get to help tell. This is the story of what my character was off doing whilst it was my turn to be the Storyteller for a few months and run the game for everyone else. I tried to tell it in a way that would explain the world for people who were unfamiliar with White Wolf Publishing’s Exalted game setting, but parts of this still probably won’t make any sense. But if you’re a fan of high fantasy, I think you’ll enjoy it, if you can barrel through all 23,595 words of it. Should you not have time to finish in one sitting, you can use the follow anchors to jump back to your spot.

01 – 02 – 03 – 04 – 05 – 06 – 07 – 08 – 09 – 10 – 11 – 12 – 13

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“New Horizons”

 

“Can you still see them?!” Tanith shouted over the sound of the pounding rain and crashing thunder as he stood at the helm, fighting desperately to keep the ship’s wheel held in place. The last thing he wanted to do was capsize the ship. Rolling a ship on the open sea was one thing, and usually survivable if one could swim, but capsizing a Landship in the sands of the Bordermarches along the southern deserts was entirely different; it would be much harder to swim to the surface once 20 feet of sand and solid stone rolled over top of you.

It was a rough storm, possibly the worst he’d ever seen, and it had come out of nowhere. But Wyld storms had a way of doing that when you ventured this far into the outskirts of Creation. The mountains and hills that normally made up this part of the south-east had been reshaped in a swath of rolling boulders, sand, snow and some kind of never-before-seen trees. The waves of Wyld energy washed over the landscape and reshaped it as easily as an artist works in paints. But an artist whose only aim was to deconstruct everything the brush came in contact with, sometimes putting it back together, sometimes not, and never how it was to begin with.

Arbiter expertly weaved the Landship over and around everything the chaos had to throw at him, past one boulder, over a rising hill and down the swell, past a copse of trees that were on fire but not burning up, the latter of which he couldn’t help but admire as they sailed by. The Wandering Tempest was a First Age Landship he and his circle had managed to rescue from some Dragon-Blooded soldiers almost a year ago. They had “borrowed” it from them during a long campaign to restore a lone Lunar to a Pack far to the south, then used it as part of their peaceful conquering/acquisition of the city of Gem. Both had been fruitful ventures, and between the Lunar army to the south and Paragon to the North, they’d made many powerful contacts in the process. He started to wonder how his friends were doing in their recent quest to the north near his old homelands, but was snapped back to the present by another wave of Wyld energy.

Even though this storm had taken them by surprise, it was a mixed blessing in that it had also taken their pursuers by surprise and unintentionally aided in eliminating more than a few of their vessels. Tanith was saddened at the loss of so many lives, but in the name of the Unconquered Sun and in the face of so many who had no desire for peace, these things were bound to happen at times, no matter how hard he fought to prevent it.

“Coming up fast off the port bow!” Adzele called back to him. Tanith looked down and to his left at the deck below and saw the man sling his flaming Orichalcum warclub over his back, then look up towards his captain. Tanith wasn’t sure he liked the seemingly malicious way Adzele smiled, almost like he was hungry, as he turned back and ran towards the edge of the deck.

“They’ll not make it to the ship!” he called out as he leapt over the side, transforming into his Thunderbird form and beating a fast path towards their adversaries, the heavy rain leaving a trail of steam behind him as it sizzled off the lightning crackling through his massive, otherwise-shadowy black wings.

Adzele had a different way of handling things, and while Tanith may have disagreed with his methods, he couldn’t deny the results. And there was one thing they were in absolute agreement on at this moment: they couldn’t let the Wyld Hunt overtake the ship now, not with so much at stake.

Tanith fought hard against another wave of Wyld energy, hoping The Wandering Tempest would continue to hold up under such a supernatural beating. As long as he could somehow maintained control of the ship and let his teammates fend off the forthcoming boarding parties, they would make it out of this alive. All of them, this time.

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[One month prior]

 

As Tanith walked down the busy street, he wiped the last of the white, ceremonial grease-paint off of his face and tried to make sure there were no feathers left in his hair. Adzele had become a good friend over the past several years, and while Tanith would undoubtedly need his help with whatever mission they were enroute to meet Kalayo about, did summoning him always have to use such rituals?

“Why couldn’t I just sit and meditate, like summoning an Ifrit or a Huraka or something,” Tanith mumbled under his breath as he pulled what he hoped was the last feather out of his hair.

“Why couldn’t you be an Ifrit?” he said in a more audible tone while turning his head slightly to acknowledge his walking companion. Adzele stood about as tall as he, but had the darker skin of someone native to this part of Creation, and was of a much more athletic-looking build. The thunderbird-in-human-form ignored the remark and continued to walk alongside Tanith down the crowded Main Street in Paragon. It was a warm day in this sandier coast of the Inland Sea, but the wind carried with it a slight chill, hinting that winter was fast falling on other parts of Creation.

“Seriously, why all the pomp?” Tanith asked as he pocketed the feather.

His warrior companion, stoic as ever, took a moment to ponder the question before answering.

“It’s an honor,” he finally remarked, “to be counted among the few who have successfully called one of my kind and been deemed worthy enough to be allowed a second or third visit.” As he spoke, he shifting his massive, orichalcum warclub from one shoulder to the other.

“And,” he added with a little weight to his tone, “After all of the visits I have made at your request, I can only hope there is more combat involved this time.” He raised an eyebrow and turned to look Tanith in the eye as they were walking.

“I’ve grown fond of our travels together” Adzele continued, “and your reputation as friend to spirits both big and small has not been exaggerated. But I desire meat, to feast on the flesh of my fallen adversaries, and you have been denying me that more and more on our journeys these past few seasons.”

Tanith felt a pang of guilt, knowing it was true. Killing an enemy was one thing, but allowing his friend to feast on the remains was another thing entirely. And besides that, Tanith hardly ever killed his enemies anymore. The more he studied and practiced the Art of Victorious Concession, the harder and harder it became to land that killing blow. A finishing blow was one thing, and it had been several season’s since he’d lost a fight, but actually killing someone was getting to be beyond him.

Unsure of how to broach the issue at the moment, Tanith decided to fall back on his default explanation.

“Like a gentle breeze that holds a leaf aloft,” Tanith recited to his companion as they walked, quoting his sifu and the texts he had been forced to memorize as part of learning the artform, “relaxed but always moving, this calm martial art can be a joy to behold. Many practice it as a healing art, sensing the flows of Essence through another and correcting them with a kind hand.” He waved his hand subtly through the air, as much to annoy Adzele as to emphasize the point.

“The martial artist is always moving, handling his opponents’ attacks as if comforting a sick child. His defenses are soft, and his attacks are softer still.” Adzele looked at him like he was crazy, but Tanith continued anyway.

“Students of this ancient and sacred style slip into their opponents’ strikes to unbalance them or use an attack’s force to their own advantage. Training for this martial art involves performing katas blindfolded through obstacles and people,” Tanith closed his eyes to emphasize the technique, deftly stepping around both carts and other people on the crowded street, “never touching either, and sitting in the living Essence of the small gods.”

“Spirits have the most difficulty learning this style,” he recited loudly, turning towards his companion as they walked, “as it requires them to relearn how to interpret their perceptions of Essence and the world around them.”

“I have no desire to reinterpret the way I see the world around me,” Adzele retorted as he strode confidently down the street. “Nor do I wish learn a method of combat that denies me a kill. It is not the way of the warrior.”

Tanith ignored the comments, and to emphasize his point, continued to recite the next and last passage of the text: “A compassionate debater rarely has the heart to reject an opponent’s arguments outright. He merely seeks to clarify and correct, until he twists the argument to his own point of view. He lets allies make more confrontational statements. It is dangerous to call a philosopher of Victorious Concession on his inability to defend his views, however. In short order, he will cast one’s hypotheses to rubble, while apologizing for his every verbal blow. Some people need a little tough love.”

“If you recite that passage to me again,” Adzele remarked, “you’ll be in need of your own ‘healing art’.” He turned towards Tanith, adding an emphatic “Sir” to the end.

Tanith knew the Thunderbird hated hearing that recitation, so he only pulled it out on special occasions, or if he felt a particular need to vex him at times. He just liked to remind Adzele that not everyone had an easy time killing. Even if Kalayo called for it sometimes. She rarely did, which was nice, but there was always a long discussion waiting for him when he checked in after a mission where he had spared the life of someone he was commissioned to kill.

“Well, who knows what today may yet bring us,” Tanith said to his friend as they walked along the hot, sandy city streets. “We’ll see what Kalayo has in mind,” he added with a little hesitancy. Adzele wasn’t very fond of Kalayo, which was readily apparent by the scowl he shot Tanith. Tanith wasn’t even sure why Adzele didn’t like her, though he was pretty sure it was just a general mistrust for all Celestial Exalts in general, himself excluded.

The two continued to walk along the street and debate the intricacies of death and mercy. The street poured out into an enormous square, full of people and bristling with commerce, one of the city’s many public outdoor marketplaces.

Tanith looked up at the large clock tower across the square and saw they still had several hours until they were to meet Kalayo at The Sleeping Bandit Tavern & Taphouse, so they began wandering around. Tanith enjoyed this city quite a bit and always looked forward to any excuse to visit. It was a thriving hub for merchants from all over the map, and there was always someone new to meet, some new foreign trade faction with which to ingratiate himself, or some strange foreign dialect to master. Elemental and supernatural companions were in no small number in this part of Creation, so he didn’t have to worry about drawing too much attention to himself while walking with Adzele. He missed the company of his Solar companions, but their mission had taken them far to the north, while he remained in Paragon to help the Patrician with some other pressing matters.

Tanith was in the middle of a conversation with a merchant from Nexus, catching up on trends and taxes in the neighboring spirit courts, when he caught sight of a particularly striking figure walking through the crowd and failing quite horribly at being inconspicuous.

The man stood at least seven and a half feet tall. His confident and kind demeanor gave away his Ifrit nature just as readily as the incandescent color of his skin gave off a slight orange glow, even in these waning hours of the day; were it darker out, Tanith estimated the glow would have been visible for miles. He also noticed that the man was being trailed by a smaller figure, who remained back quite a distance and was trying to remain discreet. Something about the second figure seemed . . . off-putting, out of place in a way that made Tanith feel uneasy. Unfortunately, the Ifrit was attracting so much attention, it seemed to be making it that much easier for his tail to remain unnoticed. Adzele seemed to notice the pair as well however, and left the blacksmith with whom he was conversing and headed towards Tanith.

Tanith excused himself from the merchant and moved through the crowd to meet Adzele. Just before he got there, someone next to Tanith put their hand gently on his arm, stopping him.

“We need to talk,” the voice said in a quiet but assertive voice that carried with it the weight of great authority.

Tanith didn’t need to see her face to know who had stopped him, and as Adzele walked up with a puzzled look on his face and glanced from Tanith to the newcomer, the Solar realized that pursuing the mysterious stranger would have to wait a little while.

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Tanith had never witnessed a Wyld storm before this one and hoped with all hope that this would be his last, and that they would survive it.

In some ways, it was a storm not unlike most at sea. The ground around them roiled like the open seas during a maelstrom, and the rain was pounding so hard that they could hardly see the length of the ship at times. There were several small lanterns strung around the ship, but they only had so much to offer in way of holding back this darkness.

An unexpected source of light occasionally sprang up in the form of thousand-foot tall pillars of sand and fire, a vortex of Wyld energy that incinerated and devoured anything in its path. Tanith could follow the trail of these pillars by the path of molten glass they left in their wake. As quickly as these tornadoes of fiery death appeared and as hot as they were even from a distance of hundreds of yards, he was fairly certain that any part of any ship unfortunate enough to wind up caught in a vortex would be instantly consumed, most likely along with the entire crew.

And as quick as anything, a fiery tornado could burst into a fountain of water and come crashing down with the crushing force of a pile of bricks. Or the downpour of rain turn into a dust storm, and even the water that pooled on the deck of the ship turned into deposits of sand.

The ground underneath them, while continuing to pass under as easily as a ship sails through water, was changing at an alarming rate and making things difficult for Tanith to focus. A small hill would occasionally pop up in front of them, or the green turf would be replaced in an instant by some kind of stonework, sometime roughly hewn and natural, and sometimes looking like someone had lain miles of cobblestone flooring all over this part of Creation. Cobblestone that was just as quickly and easily being turned into real oceans, followed shortly by a glimpse of what Tanith thought might be the ocean floor, or something strange and new altogether, something that looked like a child’s attempt at his first drawing of what a landscape might look like.

The Wyld didn’t follow rules, it sought only to devour the beauty, structure and harmony of Creation, to envelop all of existence in the chaos it was pulled from by the Primordial masters in the beginning of time. Anything of conscious design was appalling to the forces at work here, and they tore asunder anything and everything with reckless abandon, be it person, place, or artifact. From small plants and trees to ships and frigates to entire citadels, without the aid of charms or sorcery, nothing on the fringes of Creation was safe from the ravages of the Wyld.

Another wave of Wyld energy washed towards and over them, causing the protective barrier around the ship to flicker and pulse, casting an eerie blue glow across the entire upper deck.

“But not this ship,” Tanith said out loud, taunting the Wyld as he turned hard on the wheel to dodge around another fiery vortex, instead plowing straight into a sudden sandstorm.

75 feet from stern to aft and 25 feet at her widest, The Wandering Tempest was a two-masted desert schooner that – save for the steelsilk sails and the massive keel at the front that was fashioned of white jade sandwiched between black jade – gave the first impression of almost every other more or less average ship out there.

But on closer inspection, she was a beauty. Sure the wood had some burnt scoring in a few places, even more so now, and some of the wood looked a little weathered. But she had been through a lot, and Tanith had grown quite fond of her. There was a small railing that ran along the outside of the deck, ornately carved to look like rolling clouds, and the wall of the rear cabin itself was covered in beautiful carvings and made of the finest wood from the eastern forests.

Every knob, handle and hook on the ship was masterfully crafted of the finest copper and jade. To the untrained eye, The Wandering Tempest was a nice ship, better than some, but not the nicest they’d probably seen. To the trained eye, to the artisan, to the master craftsman, she was a work of art. Something to be treasured and protected. And hopefully she would survive this.

Another bolt of lightning struck the mast on the deck below him. Only seconds after, what looked to be a young girl of eight or so stepped out of the mast, materializing as she did, looking at the scoring and char around her before looking up and shouting at Tanith.

“Get us out of here!” she yelled angrily, loud and piercing enough to be heard over the storm. “My ship can’t take much more of this kind of beating, she’ll not hold together!”

Tanith looked down at her, frustrated but patient.

“I’m doing the best I can!” he shouted back. Tuuli was one of the sweeter lesser-gods he’d known, and he knew she was just concerned about the wellbeing of her domain and sanctuary. He could see her turn and ignore him, quickly setting about to mend any of the blast marks that looked to be more than superficial. She could be a bit overprotective of the ship, but she did a fine job of looking after it, and he knew he would need her to help fix whatever damage the ship would endure before this was all done.

No sooner had he finished that line of thought than he felt the approaching presence of several more members of the Wyld Hunt, fifty yards or so to his left and closing fast.

“More members of the Hunt, coming in fast!” he shouted to whomever of his crew was left on deck. “Off the port bow! Can you see them?!”

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Tanith and Adzele exited the marketplace with the mysterious-until-now stranger and wandered into a small tavern that was unusually void of patrons for this time of day. She lead them to a series of booths at the bar, and after nodding to the bartender to bring them some drinks, she began to fill them in.

Dreams Of A Moon Flower On A Cloudless Night – or Kalayo, as she was known to those outside her sphere of influence – was a Sidereal, and one with whom Tanith had worked before on several occasions. Being of the Gold Faction, she was in favor of the Solars reclaiming their birthright as sovereigns of Creation. Dreams Of A Moon Flower On A Cloudless Night would often approach Tanith at inopportune times and ask for his assistance, but this was a particularly disturbing charge.

Far to the southeast, along the mountain range that bordered the endless stretch of southern desert and the dense and deadly forests of the east, there was an unassuming barbarian tribe that lived – for the most part – in peace and prosperity with their neighboring tribes, and in harmony with both the land and the animals who lived on it with them. It had recently been divined that a child born in that village would grow up to be a great bandit leader, and one day Exalt and unite the neighboring tribes and kingdoms in a successful revolt against the Realm.

“Needless to say”, Kalayo added in conclusion to her story, “there are some who don’t want to see that happen.” She looked Tanith square in the eye, holding his gaze for a moment.

“And we need it to happen.” Her gaze held such intensity – and what Tanith thought might be a hint of some buried fear or pain – that he couldn’t look away.

“The girl will be safe,” Tanith assured her. “We will see to that.”

At that, Adzele, having been silent the whole conversation, stood and tightened the clasp on his warclub.

“We may not be in agreement on what to do with every enemy who falls in combat,” the elemental began while fixing Tanith’s with a stare that was equal parts determination and damnation, “but there is no honor is murdering an innocent child.” He gave a curt nod to show he was on board, before adding, “We should move quickly, time is of great importance with such a vast distance to travel.”

Tanith fully agreed, so they said their goodbyes to Kalayo and then headed for one of the Patrician’s mansions along the southern wall of the city. It had been nice of their friend to let them use his private dry-dock for The Wandering Tempest while they were staying in Paragon. They had secure harbors and docks to spare while in Gem, but Paragon was a different matter, and over the past few seasons Tanith had learned who not to trust among the port masters.

Their trip through the city was rather uneventful, aside from the occasional exchange with an old merchant friend. One rather elderly man from far across the western sea was particularly excited to run into Tanith, and Adzele was forced to stand by for almost an hour while they caught up on old times, gossip, and the current sailing patterns and shipping lanes.

As Adzele and Tanith continued their walk toward the mansion, Adzele turned his head towards Tanith and raised an eyebrow.

“So,” he began, “how far have your travels taken you? And just how long have you been plying your trade? I am aware that the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun are not as tied to the ravages of aging, and that merchant spoke as if he’d known you for many more years than you show.”

“Far enough,” Tanith replied, grinning and ignoring the second question completely. One of the things Tanith enjoyed most about being Exalted was indeed the extended life-span. His had been one the few souls that managed to avoid being caught in the Jade Prison all those millennia ago, which reflected in how clear so many of his memories were of lives past. He himself had exalted and received the Unconquered Sun’s blessing nearly 90 years ago now, so while he was still a child by First Age standards, he’d lived longer than all but few in the current era, and was ecstatic to be a part of full Circle of Solars for the first time since the Usurpation.

His circle mates had their quirks, but he appreciated them all dearly for their individual strengths and what they could offer each other and the whole of Creation. It wasn’t easy dodging the Realm’s forces for so many years, so it was nice to have a group to share that burden with. And single-minded as they could be at times, there was definitely a hope there for the reclamation that by all right should be theirs.

Tanith’s started to wonder how his friends were doing up north, and then realized he and Adzele were already up at the Patrician’s estate and snapped out of his daydream.

As they approached the gates, try as he might, he couldn’t contain his laughter.

Adzele was a little surprised by the outburst and responded with a simple “yes?”

“Oh, I was just remembering the last time I was here.” At that, Adzele joined in the laughter. Who could have anticipated that someone they’d tried in earnest to kill at one point in their history together would turn into such a devoted friend and companion to their cause. The Patrician being a fellow Eclipse Caste was even better for Tanith, because the sovereign of the city had a wealth of knowledge and skills for Tanith to draw from, once he felt it would be appropriate to ask. Someday, perhaps.

Their laughter eventually subsided, and as they approached the gates, the two guards waved them through. It was a nice-sized compound, and it took them a few minutes to walk the grounds around to the back where the dry-dock was. When they rounded the corner and their ship came into view, Tanith couldn’t help but grin. She was beautiful, and he never got tired of seeing her.

They made their way over to the platform next to The Wandering Tempest, scaled the dozen or so stairs up and then crossed the plank onto the ship. As he jumped aboard, Tanith was greeted by brief flash of light as a small, orange whil-o-wisp flittered by and then landed just next to the mast, instantly transforming into what appeared to be a young girl of 8 or so, with flaxen hair, hand-woven clothes, and a fair-skinned, wiry but innocent disposition.

“Good morrow, Lady Tuuli!” Tanith called to her as he walked over to greet her. Tuuli was the least god of the vessel, and while she was a small, fairly powerless thing, she was faithful to her ship and crew, and her knowledge of the craft was always a huge help with its repairs. Which meant she was called upon quite often.

“Good morrow, gents!” she called back in her sweet, almost sing-song way of speaking.

“Are we leaving?” she questioned excitedly when she saw the two men beginning to untie the vessel and making preparations to cast off.

“Where are we off to?” she continued, speaking rapidly. “Is this another mission for Lady Kalayo? I haven’t seen her in ages. I do miss her.”

“Well,” Tanith replied as he scaled the few steps up the back of the ship to the helm and grasped the ship’s wheel, “we are indeed off on a mission of great importance,” and with that, Adzele unfurled the sails and they were off. They sailed for the better part of an hour and were several miles away from the city when Tanith brought the ship to a halt behind a small hill.

“I thought we were heading off on a mission?” Tuuli asked suddenly as she materialized, stretching and looking rather groggy.

“We are,” Tanith replied smiling, walking past her with a gentle pat on the head, and leaping easily out of the ship to land on the hill.

“But first,” he turned and said to her before continuing his way up the slope, “we’re going to need some help.”

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“I’ve lost sight of them, but I can tell they’re still following us!” came the deafening roar of Subakk, the 14 foot tall bear. Subakk was a Huraka, a type of air elemental that was gentle and passive by nature, a trait often hidden behind the thundering sound of his voice and his intimidating size and strength. And right now, nestled in his arms, in his blue, cloud-soft fur, a human baby lay sleeping soundly, despite the thundering sounds of the pounding storm crashing around them. She was in their protection now, under Subakk’s care, and no Wyld Hunt was about to take her out of those powerful arms.

“Hold on!” Tanith shouted as another wave of Wyld energies came crashing towards them.

Subakk curled the child up into his chest with one arm and clamped down against the deck of the ship with the other, his claws digging into the wood just in time as the ship was quickly tossed about like a child’s toy.

“Sir!”

Tanith looked to the deck below and saw Adzele pointing at the heavily armored Dragon-Blooded soldiers approaching rapidly, preparing to land on the ship. On his ship. Adzele waited until they and their Essence-fueled flight-packs were almost aboard and then drew his massive orichalcum warclub, flaming in all its destructive glory, and connected with the first soldier to land. The blow caught the armored assailant by surprise and hurled him over the side of the ship. Tanith could hear his cry for help as he hit the solid ground but was quickly swallowed up by it, disappearing under a wave of Wyld reformation.

Adzele, quick to jump back into the fray, was able to launch another combatant overboard with a sweep of his warclub before the remaining soldiers turned to address him and unleash their own volley of attacks, most bearing Essence-driven canons of some kind. Outnumbered and outgunned, the elemental quickly transformed into this Thunderbird form and bolted off the ship and out into the storm, a streak of lightning sparks trailing after him. The soldiers, losing him in the storm and thinking him out of the fight, turned towards Subakk and cautiously approached the giant Huraka, intent on relieving him of their target.

Subakk backed up against the rear cabin of the ship, just below the deck where Tanith stood at the wheel.

“Hand us the child, and we’ll let the rest of you go.” the soldier in the front shouted to them through his helmet. “There doesn’t need to be any more bloodshed.”

Tanith, always searching for a peaceful way out of any physical confrontation, utilized the Memory Mirror technique he had recently acquired, channeling Essence through the void between himself and the leader, hoping to find some truth behind his words. The helmet and armor covered every inch of the man, so while that made it impossible to see the face behind the mask, Tanith could see into the man’s mind, into his thoughts and even memories, and knew in that moment that the soldier had no honor, and no intention of letting any of them out of this alive.

Subakk stood to his full fourteen feet and let out a deafening roar that made the assailants take a step back, rethinking their tactic just slightly. Tanith used the delay to scan the area in the hopes of finding something that might help him ward them off, and caught just a glint of light, a small crackle of lightning off the starboard bow, and knew what to do.

“You’re absolutely right,” Tanith replied, taking a firm grip on the ship’s wheel. “There doesn’t need to be any more bloodshed. But unfortunately, you don’t really mean that, and I can’t let you take the child.” With that, Tanith spun the wheel hard to the right, spinning the ship sharply.

The men had no problem keeping their balance in their augmented suits, but the distraction was just enough that Adzele flew up to the side of the ship and gave a great thunderclap with his wings, the force of the wind and sound knocking several unsuspecting soldiers off the ship. Adzele used the confusion to fly full-force at one, knocking him overboard and into the waiting arms of the chaos that continued to swirl around and under them. He used the momentum of his maneuver to leap backwards as he transformed back into his human form, drawing his fiery warclub and launching a barrage of attacks against the remaining foe. This ones was stronger than the rest, and continued to fend off the attack. But neglected to stay aware of his surroundings, and Subakk managed to get him in a single-armed clench, sweeping him up off the ground and holding him several feet up in the air, the man’s arms pinned helplessly to his sides by the terrible might of the angry Huraka.

Subakk looked down at the man, their faces mere inches apart, and with a quiet intensity that sent chills up Tanith’s spine, said “You will not harm this child.” The 14-foot bear then squeezed him (hard enough that they could all hear the soldier’s bones starting to crack under the stress) just before biting down on his head and relieving him of it. The move startled Tanith almost as much as the callous way Subakk then walked over and flipped the body overboard, spitting the head after it, both to be swallowed up in the same tumultuous grave as his companions.

One thing was for sure, Tanith now knew not to anger the normally quiet and gentle Huraka, and from the look he and Adzele exchanged, he knew the Thunderbird was thinking the same thing.

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It turned out to be a beautiful afternoon, and Tanith was quite enjoying the meditative summoning process and the break it brought from the stresses of the mission.

“Oi!” Adzele shouted to him from the ship. “You done yet?” Tanith was sitting a few hundred yards from the ship, but heard his companion just fine. He’d found a cluster of large boulders and scaled the tallest, flattest one. After several minutes of painting circles and various sigils on the ground, he’d sat down and begun. One circle was for him, and he sat cross-legged in the center of it, surrounded by runes of protection and strength, and another circle for his target, but that circle covered in runes of summoning and binding.

He’s started the ritual nearly four hours ago, and it was almost complete. Tanith could feel the air around him grow thicker, tense, charged, like the calm in a thunderstorm. He opened his eyes and saw the swirling eddies of Essence, ecstatic and ready for action, and knew it was time.

As he said the final words of the incantation, he saw the figure start to coalesce in front of him. The spirit was huge, a bear standing well over ten feet tall, his muscles bulging, even for that height, with a thick, white and deep-blue layer of fur that seemed to billow gently in a wind that Tanith was quite certain was present. The creature looked around as if getting its bearings, and then focused its gaze down on Tanith, his expression a mix of confusion, frustration, and admiration.

“Oh great Huraka, servant of the Wind Masters, hear my plea, and aid me in my cause,” Tanith said before the elemental had a chance to speak. Thanks to the hearthstone in his armor, his voice carried the timbre and intonation of one of the members of the Council of Winds. Air elementals and gods of weather, wind and sky always reacted more favorably to Tanith because he sounded like one of them. Not only that, but the hearthstone in his gloves surrounded him with a subtle aura of Essence that caused all gods, elementals and demons to regard him as unusually dignified and well-spoken. This aura was imperceptible to all other beings except gods, elementals and demons and so had no effect on any other creatures. But thankfully, between the two, he found that addressing these beings with an open mind and total honesty almost always yielded the desired effect.

“We are on a mission of peace, and in need of your help.”

The Huraka sat down opposite Tanith on the boulder and eyed him for a minute, seeming to size him up, then glanced over at The Wandering Tempest before speaking.

“You are unusually well versed in the ways of my people,” the newly-arrived master of the winds said, turning his head back towards Tanith before continuing.

“Your voice carries with it a strength not often found among one of even your kind.” At that, the Huraka nodded his head slowly, adding, “I will hear your plea.”

Tanith took several minutes to explain the details of their mission, where they were headed, and how imperative it was that they arrive as soon as possible.

“Which is why I have asked for your help,” Tanith concluded. “You are a master of the winds, and we need your strength and mastery to fill our sails and expedite our journey to save that child. Will you help us?”

The Huraka sat there for a few moments, digesting the tale, before finally answering.

“The way will be fraught with peril,  dangerously close to the Bordermarches and along the same path as the Wyld Hunt. Not many in your place would risk such as you do for a child you do not even know.” He grew quiet again, and for a moment Tanith thought he might not accept the proposal.

“But,” the bear continued, “the strength of your words is matched only by the compassion with which you say them. Having bested me in the ritual of binding, you could command me to serve you as you like, but instead request my help, as an equal. For that I am grateful, and would be honored to help.”

“Excellent!” Tanith said with a grin, standing up and extending his arm in greeting.

“I am Tanith, known to some as the Arbiter of Endless Horizons.”

The elemental stood as well, dwarfing Tanith, but extending his arm down none the less.

“You may call me Subakk. And I have heard of you, Tanith. You are well known among my circles. I am proud to be called and serve at your side.”

The two continued to converse, and once back at the ship, Tanith introduced everyone. Tuuli was a little shy and refused to come out at first, which they all understood, as she didn’t even come up to his knee. Tanith and Adzele cast off and started their long trek south, and Subakk wandered around the deck, admiring the ship.

“This is quite a vessel you sail in,” he stated, brushing his hand along the banister and taking a closer inspection of the intricate carvings.

“Thank you kindly, friend”, Tanith replied, trying hard not to smile when he saw Tuuli poking her head out of the ship’s mast at the compliment to her domain.

Tanith scanned the ship, proud as ever. He had a lot of fond memories of this great vessel, and was even learning to enjoy the occasional maintenance. This boat had become a part of his life almost as much as any real person ever had, and he was incredibly grateful for her. He would never let anything happen to this ship, of that much he was certain.

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A four-foot portion of the back deck suddenly ripped away as another wave of Wyld energy washed over The Wandering Tempest. Splinters flying to the wind and no longer under the protection of ship’s enchantments transformed in-flight into a spray of water and winter flowers. Tanith fought hard against the wheel, but it was getting increasingly difficult. Using the Perfect Reckoning Technique he usually prefered would normally be enough to pull them through any storm, but the chaos of the Wyld didn’t like to follow the rules of normal charm usage, and sought to destroy the structured use of any Essence flows. So while the charm was working to some degree, it definitely was not working as well as intended. The storm seemed to be getting worse, and no matter which way Tanith steered them, it was getting hard to see through the falling rain and frequent flashes of lightning.

For a few minutes, Tanith started getting vertigo, and it felt like no matter which direction he steered the ship, every way was down, like the ship was sailing over a waterfall. With things like this getting thrown at them, he knew their current heading wouldn’t get them very far and they were soon going to need another option.

“But on the one hand,” Tanith muttered quietly to himself, “I guess I should be thankful that it is still just rain that’s falling from the sky.” He gave the ship’s wheel a quick knock and hoped he hadn’t just jinxed things. Over the course of the last several minutes, this storm had started doing a particularly diligent job of mimicking a real thunderstorm, and as difficult as it was making it for them to stay true to their path, Tanith hoped it would stay that way.

“Arbiter!” Subakk shouted to him through the din. “They seem to be gaining on us!”

Tanith turned to peer through the maelstrom but saw no sign of the last of the enemy ships from where he stood, and was again thankful for having the Huraka aboard. The elemental’s sense for his surroundings and ability to see through distractions both supernatural and ordinary were almost unparalleled.

After a few moments, he saw the ship several hundred yards behind them. Using his Essence sight, he could see a wave of Wyld energy distorting the landscape and rapidly heading towards the distant ship. Tanith and Subakk gave a cheer as it washed over the enemy ship, causing it to disappear entirely.

Tanith himself was getting more adept at Hearing the Unspoken Word and sensing the presence of sentient beings, and thought the Wyld interference must have been playing tricks on him when he suddenly felt the presence of over a dozen more soldiers about 50 yards off the port bow and closing quickly.

“Tanith!” Subakk shouted to him again, “I’m not sure how, but the enemy ship just reappeared!” It was a harsh reminder to Tanith that even distance is a tangible construction that often means nothing in the Wyld.

“Why can’t these darn energies teleport us,” Tanith mumbled out loud, “like maybe out of here to someplace safe?” [A bit of foreshadowing, perhaps? You’ll have to stay tuned until the end to find out!]

He was hoping things would play out in their favor soon when he heard another cry from the Huraka.

“Another talon of soldiers just launched from their ship and is inbound!”

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Their travels across the southern desert and into the mountains were relatively without incident. In the past, Tanith would have been grateful for some kind of desert pirates to scuffle with and break up what he would have seen as a monotonous voyage. But in recent years, the seasons had started to settle a little more heavily on him, and he was thankful there was no need to engage in combat on the trip, leaving him to sail the ship and be alone with his thoughts, occasionally striking up a conversation with Subakk, when his friend saw fit.

Unfortunately, Adzele was growing anxious for a fight, and would often take to the skies for hours at a time, sometimes diving down at who-knows-what for a short stint of time before returning to The Wandering Tempest. Tanith just hoped he would be on good behavior once they arrived at their destination. Tanith had a lot of experience dealing with the barbarian tribes on the outskirts of creation, and different as they were one from another, they all shared one thing in common: they were incredibly superstitious, and he had learned to use that to his advantage.

Once they were within a few miles of the barbarian encampment, Subakk let Tanith know they were getting close. Tanith brought the ship to a stop in the shade of a small cliff, the side almost resting against the cliff wall itself.

“Alright, Adzele is with me, everyone else please stay with the ship, we should be back shortly,” he said politely but firmly, making his way towards the starboard side to disembark.

Adzele jumped over the side after him, making sure his warclub was strapped tightly to his back. Tanith would have prefered he leave the weapon behind, but had made the mistake of recommending such a thing in the past and didn’t wish to revisit that debate.

Before they approached the village, Tanith utilized the special ability built into his armor by channeling a few motes of Essence into it to make it look like a shining, full-plate suit of artifact Orichalcum armor, with the emblazoned symbol of the Unconquered Sun square in the middle of his chest.

The first guard cautiously stepped forward to question him, and he immediately activated his anima banner, causing the Essence to radiate around him, shining off his armor brighter than the noonday sun.

“Greetings!” Tanith shouted to them, using the power of the Gemstone of Spoken Languages, a hearthstone that enabled him to speak any language he heard with perfect comprehension. He was also able to fully mimic the local dialect of the tribe, speaking with an accent as if he’d lived as one of them his entire life. It had the desired effect.

The guards, taller than Tanith, twice as strong, and armed to the teeth with primitive but effective weapons, hit the dirt, prostrate and praising his name. Tanith looked at Adzele.

“See? At least someone appreciates me,” he said quietly, trying to hide a smirk. Adzele was not amused, and strode over to closest of the two sun-devotees.

“You there!” he shouted at them in Old Realm, nudging him ‘gently’ in the side. When the man didn’t respond, Tanith walked over and asked them to stand up and address him as “Arbiter” and take them to the village elders.

It didn’t take much for he and Adzele to convince the village elders of whose side they were on. And upon hearing of the destiny that lay ahead for the little girl, the elders readily handed her over to the man they assumed to be the leader of the new solar deliberative.

Tanith and Adzele were forced by protocol to stick around for a celebration that ended up lasting through the night, and while he would have prefered to return to the ship and get moving, Tanith ended up enjoying himself immensely, learning everything he could about their culture, how their tribe interacted with neighboring villages, and the hierarchy within the tribe itself.

Adzele was his usual stoic self and refrained from the majority of the festivities, but did manage to smile and enjoy the part where he and Tanith we forced to don feathered garb and face paint and dance around the fire.

“Look!” the Thunderbird said to Tanith, the glee in his voice not lost to him, “more feathers!” But the rest of the night went well, and come morning light, they were both exhausted and ready to head out.

Tanith was excited that he had been able to converse with so many of the tribe’s members and gleaned so much of their local customs and history in the process. When it did come time to leave the village that morning, Tanith knew he would miss those people.

As they sailed away, he looked over and saw the child asleep in its bed on the ground next to Subakk, who still didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with her. Tanith was thankful she was now his ward, and the people of that village would be safe from the Wyld Hunt. There had been no sign of them for the past several days, so he hoped they hadn’t even started the journey down here yet.

Tanith was so distracted by his thoughts that he didn’t notice the baby getting fussy, and Subakk use a charm to put the baby in to a sleep-like stasis. He looked over just in time to see the Huraka pull his paw back, the last of the swirling Essence culminating in front of the child’s face before dissipating.

“Um . . . what did you just do?” Tanith asked nervously.

“She sleeps, safely and free of any worries or cares,” Subakk replied, “which is more than I can say for the rest of us if the Wyld Hunt catches up to either of you.”

Tanith tried to shake it off, but he knew the bear was right. The Wyld Hunt was nothing to be trifled with. He’d had several encounters with them over the years since the resurgence of the Solar Exalted, and as much as he tried to stay one step ahead of them, it didn’t always work. It still broke his heart to think about the lives that been lost to such a sidicious force as the Realm’s Wyld Hunt, all the villages he had come across that had been leveled in their attempt to catch one of the “Anathema.” It wasn’t the word he hated so much as the contempt behind those who used it.

Subakk seemed to sense the tension on Tanith’s face and softened a bit.

“But if more of the new Solars are anything like you,” he added, “maybe the return of the Deliberative might not be so bad for Creation. And who knows what this child has yet to bring to the world.”

With things mended for the moment, the two went on to have a rather lengthy conversation about Solar-Elemental relations over the past few millennia, a conversation they both rather enjoyed. Subakk was one of the older members of his kind, and still had memories of some of Tanith’s predecessors and how their rule had ended. While the Huraka was not particularly fond of the way he and his fellow elementals had been treated, the resentment he felt for what the Dragon-Blooded had done was far stronger, and like the vast majority of the spirits of Creation, he welcomed the possibility of a new era of Solars ruling over the land.

The conversation lasted until the sun began to set, and Adzele – who had been circling overhead, trying to find them a fresh supper – flew down in haste and interrupted them, not even taking the time to change into his human form.

“Sir!” he shouted to Tanith, his Thunderbird voice shrill, like a crackle of electricity.

“Fire, to the south.”

Tanith felt his heart sink into his stomach, and quickly brought the ship hard to starboard, releasing the anchor and bringing the Wandering Tempest to an abrupt stop.

“Stay with the child!” he shouted to Subakk, turning and scaling the mast for a better view. His fears were confirmed.

The smoke was thick, a still-billowing cloud of death, looming on the horizon from the very point they had left so many hours ago. He knew the Hunt had been there, and most likely, there were little if any survivors. But some survivors were better than none.

He leapt down from his perch, landing squarely on the deck and went to work bringing up the anchor.

“Subakk,” he called out to the deck below as he ran over to the wheel, “make haste with a steady wind, we’re going back to look for survivors.” As Tanith gripped the wheel and gave it a hard turn to the left, it didn’t budge. Frustrated and hoping it wasn’t frozen and in need of emergency repairs, he called for Tuuli and and began to examine the device. It was then that he saw the large, furry blue paw holding it in place from the other side.

Subakk stood on the main deck, his fourteen foot height enough for him to grab the wheel. Tanith looked at him, shocked and unsure what to do. The look on Subakk’s face was one of concern and pain, a surprising reflection of what Tanith now felt.

“Arbiter,” Subakk said quietly, reaching up and placing the bed with the sleeping babe at Tanith’s feet. “Tanith, we have a greater charge now. If we go back, we may be able to help some of the survivors, but there’s no guarantee the Wyld Hunt won’t wrest the child from us.”

Tanith looked down at the baby, sleeping peacefully and unaware of what a price she had inflicted on the world around her.

“I don’t like leaving them behind any more than you do, my friend,” Subakk continued, his voice calm and soothing. “But we must get the child to safety, and soon. If you have faith in your friend, and her charge that this baby is more important than any of us, then we must finish the mission.”

“We have a full day’s head start on them,” Adzele said, his voice almost showing signs of sadness. “There is a lot of desert yet ahead of us for them to gain ground, we should use this lead to our advantage and make all haste.”

Tanith knew his friends were right, but took one last glance back at the blackening sky. Now that the sun was set, he could start to make out a light, and knew the whole town must be aglow with the fires of the Realm’s henchmen. Tanith turned back towards his friends, trying not to think about all of the lives he was turning his back on.

“You’re right,” he said to Subakk, looking down slightly to meet his friend’s equally pained gaze. The Huraka gave a slight smile, then gently lifted the infant’s bed and brought it back down beside him on the main deck.

“I’ll keep watch,” Adzele offered.

Tanith nodded his thanks to him, and the Thunderbird spread his wings and took flight into the night sky, keeping watch on the horizon.

“We will indeed make it through this,” Tanith said quietly to himself, “but we won’t make it without help.”

Subakk overheard the comment and felt he had a good idea of what the Arbiter had in mind. He sat down against the rear cabin wall, leaning back and sliding the child’s bed over towards where he sat. She looked so calm and peaceful, lying there. So tiny, and helpless. It might be because he was getting old by Creation’s standards, but the Huraka couldn’t help but feel a little protective of the child.

“We’ve got a long road yet ahead of us, little one,” he whispered down to her, hoping the Arbiter couldn’t hear him as he used his massive paws to tuck the blankets in around her. “Better hold on tight.”

Tanith remained focused on the desert ahead, steering by the light of the full moon and stars, trying to forget about the blaze going on behind them. In every life, there are moments that change you, that take what you believe and put your resolve to the test, pushing your virtues and stretching their limit, moving you one step closer to a breaking point. And sometimes, no matter how strong you are, break you as a person just a little in the process. This was one of those times.

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The soldiers landed on the deck and rushed at Subakk and the child without any hesitation or warning. Subakk backed up against the cabin again, just below where Tanith was  standing. Adzele managed to fend off a few, but there were just too many, and they were getting to too close to their prize. Adzele took a rather powerful looking hit, knocking him backwards and into the cabin wall next to Subakk, his warclub skittering to the deck at his feet.

“Stay at the wheel, I’ll take care of this.” Tanith looked down at the deck next to him, and his peacock companion – silent up until now – looked up at him.

“They’ll not harm the child,” he said and then leapt off the deck, flying a short distance to land square in the midst of the armed and armored soldiers. They didn’t even acknowledge his presence until it was too late. With an explosive burst of flame that sent a few flying off the ship and the rest to their knees or backs, the Garda Bird transformed into a blazing phoenix with a man’s legs, six arms and six fiery swords, and the head, talons and wings of an eagle. Several of the men were so overcome with fear, they flew over the side of the ship, the Essence trails of their jet packs leading towards the last remaining enemy ship. By the screams of agony he heard, Tanith got the feeling that they never made it that far.

The few remaining soldiers launched a barrage of physical attacks and essence-powered cannon fire at V’alkea that he was able to parry and dodge with ease. The phoenix made short work of the remaining men, cleaving them in two or simply striking them down in a blaze of six-armed sword-slashing and parrying. Subakk was forced to follow the Garda’s footwork with his own icy breath, extinguishing the fires that he set with every step. As the last fell, V’alkea quickly transformed back into his peacock form to prevent any further fires, and then flew back up to stand by Tanith.

Adzele, quickly recovering from his wounds, began throwing the bodies overboard. Just as he pitched the last one over and everyone started to relax, V’alkea looked up at Tanith from his perch next to him.

“If you would like, sir, I would be happy to seek out the enemy ship and dispatch the rest of them for you.”

Tanith looked down at him, confused.

“I thought you said . . .”

“I know what I said,” the peacock interrupted, looking below them at Subakk cradling the baby carefully in his massive arms.

“But I’ve come to believe in this child, and in you and your cause. You are well aware, I’m sure, of my kind’s ability to immolate, to a rather violent end. It would be an honor to do such in the name of saving you and furthering your quest.”

Tanith had to smile at this, solemn as it was.

“I appreciate your willingness to sacrifice yourself for our sake, but it won’t be necessary. I’m pretty sure they’re almost out of soldiers, and most of their hunting party has been lost to this storm. And besides that,” he replied looking down at his friend, “where would we all be without your expert guidance? You’ve helped get us all this far, and I’m fairly certain we’re going to need your help getting back.”

The bird noded solemnly, accepting his charge with pride and dignity.

“I’m sure we can handle anything they have left to throw at us,” Tanith added, forgetting to knock on wood. A moment later, he thought he caught a flicker of light off in the distance.

From the vague direction of the last ship, a small light appeared, but quickly grew larger and larger, and it was coming right for them. Tanith at first thought it might be a ball of fire launched from the other ship, but then he and Subakk both realized that it was the rapidly-approaching presence of one last threat. Tanith started to call out to the rest of his crew, but it was already too late. When the man landed on the deck, he landed right next to a startled Adzele and immediately thrust a swift kick at the elemental, sending him sailing high through the air to land with a thud up at Tanith’s feet, knocking the wind out of the Thunderbird and momentarily stunning him.

The man stood seven and a half feet tall, his posture and build befitting an Exalt. And Tanith would have thought him to be, if not for the incandescent color of his skin and the blazing orange glow it cast across the entire ship.

Subakk curled the child up against his chest and floated lightly upwards to land standing beside Tanith on the upper deck.

“Don’t trust him, sir,” the bear said softly to Tanith. “There’s nothing false or misleading about him, and that’s what worries me.”

Adzele started to regain his senses and righted himself, slowly standing and sizing up the newcomer. The newcomer strode cautiously towards the rear cabin, his eyes never leaving the baby.

“What is it you want, friend?” Tanith asked, trying to stall while he thought of a plan. The man drew a long, slender sword and pointed it at the child.

“My purpose here is the child. Hand it over now, and the rest of you shall be spared.” He spoke with an authority that almost made Tanith want to hand the child over. Almost.

“I’m sorry, but that’s not going to happen,” he replied instead. “This child has been put in my care, in our care,” he added, gesturing towards Subakk, Adzele and V’alkea, “and there is nothing you can do to make us give her up.”

The Ifrit stood there for a moment, then to Tanith’s surprise, sheathed his sword.

“Very well,” he said at last. “Then you leave me no choice.” With that, he took a small step backwards and gave a bow, arms stretched out to the side.

“I am known as Nasir, and I challenge you, anathema, to a duel in single combat to decide the fate of this child. If you win, you have my word that I will leave and you shall never hear my name on the winds again. But if I win, the child comes with me. You and your crew are welcome to keep the ship, for I have no need of it, but I must insist that they not follow me out of a vengeful heart, or it will not go well for them.”

Tanith was a little taken aback by his offer, not expecting him to be so brash.

“May I have a moment to confer with my companions, noble warrior?”

The title seemed to please the Ifrit, so he nodded his consent. Tanith turned to address the rather hodgepodge crew he had assembled.

“What say you, all?” he asked quietly, though he was fairly certain the enemy could hear them all just fine anyway, even over the sound of squall that continued to rage around them.

There was a brief debate amongst them, with good points had by all, and each wanting to take Tanith’s place for various reasons. But in the end, Tanith was forced to interrupt them all with his decision.

“It will be me, as I was the one challenged, but know that I appreciate your offers. All of you.” He looked around the small circle at the elementals. He realized that while he may have summoned them all into servitude over the past few weeks, they had quickly become his friends, and he hoped to see them all again shortly.

“This is the best and only way to spare all of your lives, and should I fall,” he added, looking from Subakk to Adzele, “it’s up to you two to see that the child makes it safely back to Kalayo in Paragon. We cannot afford to fail.”

The Huraka and Thunderbird both nodded, aware of the weight that was now on their shoulders.

“For now,” Tanith said, reaching down to pick up Adzele’s warclub and hand it to him, “I can sense three more incoming members of the Hunt.” He met his friend’s eyes and in a rare moment of intensity matched his gaze. “Would you do me a kindness and ensure they never reach this ship?” He then looked down at Nasir and added, “I don’t think I could afford the distraction.”

“Of course,” the Thunderbird replied, slinging the fiery warclub over his shoulder. As he moved to leave, he stopped and turned his head back to address Tanith.

“Besides,” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “it’s dinner time anyway.” With that, he leapt over the back of the ship, transforming into his Thunderbird form mid-leap, and took off to protect his charge and find a meal.

Tanith couldn’t help but smile. “I’ll give him this one,” he said under his breath as he turned to address Subakk.

“I’ll need you to take the wheel,” he said to the towering elemental. “I know you’re not much for sailing, but your strength alone should be enough to hold our course through this storm.” Almost as if on cue, the ship started to rock just a bit in the heavy winds as the rain continued to pelt them.

The Huraka seemed hesitant at first, but relinquished and took hold of the wheel.

“Besides,” Tanith added with a smirk of his own, “hopefully I won’t be gone long.” With that, he started walking down the staircase, focusing his own Essence into his martial arts form, taking a few moments to mentally prepare himself for the fight ahead, feeling the Essence beginning to swirl around and through him, causing his anima to cascade around him in a flurry of white and light-blue-colored quills swathed in a corona of pure Essence. The soft, almost-electric blue glow he was now giving off was a strange contrast to the piercing natural orange of the Ifrit as he approached him, the two colors reflecting off every surface on the deck under the sheets of water cascading down at them and accumulating on the deck.

Tanith stepped down onto the deck, pulled his gloves firmly with a tug and tightened the straps around his wrists, channeling Essence into them in the process, the Essence funneling through them and leaving a slight wisp of a trail behind as they moved.

“Alright,” Tanith said as the Ifrit drew his sword, “let’s dance.”

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Shortly after the sun came up, Tanith had brought the ship to a halt at the edge of a small canyon. It was a risk staying in one place for so long, but one he hoped would pay off. One they all needed to pay off.

He walked several yards out from the ship to a small clearing in the rocks and rubble that were strewn about. Tanith timed the ceremony just right so that it would conclude when the sun was at its highest point for the day. He had never summoned a Garda Bird before, and wanted to make sure and pay it every honor he could think of. They would need his help to find a way through this.

Subakk remained behind at The Wandering Tempest to keep watch over the baby, and Adzele had perched in the top of one of the few trees in the area, keeping his gaze fixed to the south, watching for any sign of the approaching Wyld Hunt.

Tanith sat meditating in his circle, chanting and guiding the Essence along the path he had drawn on the ground and towards the other connected circle. When the time was right, he released the Essence build up, calling the Garda forth from his sanctum.

Being even a fragment of one of the original five elementals, Tanith thought he would be bigger than he was. But while the small, fiery pheasant he saw engulfed in a low flame in front of him was not quite what he had in mind, its physical prowess was not what Tanith was after.

“Great Garda, master of fire and keeper of the old ways”, Tanith said in the polite but hopefully-imposing way he used to address elementals.

The bird stared at him for a moment, the fire pulsing in waves, and Tanith wasn’t sure if he should take that as a good sign or not. He didn’t know much about the Garda Birds of old, just that their passion was legendary, their wrath deadly, and their knowledge of Creation and the First Age unparalleled by any but the oldest gods and Solar savants.

His words seemed to work. The fire slowly began to die down, and the pheasant changed its form to that of a peacock, the fiery feathers replaced by feathers of purple and bright orange, luminous like an open flame but not incendiary. When it spoke, he spoke with the voice of a creature many times his size, so deep it was almost unsettling, and Tanith instantly had an idea for the power that lay hidden underneath the elemental’s unthreatening exterior.

“You have my attention, and you may call me V’alkea. Speak your case, child of the Unconquered.”

Tanith sat there, cross-legged and not ten feet from the creature, and explained the situation, from Paragon to the village to the Wyld Hunt being close behind them, in detail, making sure V’alkea knew the gravity of the situation.

After he finished, they sat there for several more minutes in silence. Tanith wasn’t sure if the peacock’s eyes were closed because he was deep in thought, or because he was sleeping, but felt it would be rude to say anything more and continued to sit there and wait patiently. Five minutes turned to ten, ten to thirty, and soon an hour had passed. Adzele, impatient as ever, flew in and landed next to Tanith, shouting loud enough to wake the dead.

“Well?!” he demanded, looking back and forth between the two of them. “Will he help us? The Hunt will be upon us if we delay any longer, we must move!”

Tanith cringed, hoping his impetuous friend hadn’t just ruined their chances of getting the Garda to help them.

The peacock opened his eyes and fixed Adzele with a stare that caused him to feel uncomfortable and fly off, mumbling a half-hearted apology as he left. V’alkea then fixed his gaze on Tanith before speaking.

“You, Arbiter,” he said slowly, “I will help. That one,” he continued, gazing up at Adzele as the Thunderbird returned to his perch to renew his watch, “I care not for, nor do I intend to help in any way. But you have shown me great respect and honor, and your name is not unknown to me. I will help you.”

Tanith felt a huge burden lifted from his shoulders, and must have shown visible signs of relaxing because he saw V’alkea smile for the first time since he had appeared.

“Take me to your vessel, and we can discuss your plight. Sounds like we should be on our way, and quickly. I have no more desire to deal with the scourge of the Realm than do you.”

“Very well,” Tanith said as he rose to his feet and dusted himself, grateful for the chance to work with such an esteemed and legendary creature.

They rounded the bend and were in sight of the Wandering Tempest again, sails billowing in the wind as it lay at anchor, the whole scene looking majestic in the bright desert sun.

“Here we are,” Tanith said as he gestured towards it, proud to be the pilot of such a fine vessel, and captain due to the absence of his friends. V’alkea looked up at the ship and immediately let out a happy sigh, catching Tanith off-guard almost as much as what the Garda then said.

“Ah, The Font of Boundless Dreams. I have many fond memories aboard this vessel. Tell me, does she still take to the skies with the fervor of a vessel half her size?”

Tanith was confused and stood frozen in his tracks, unsure of how to answer. V’alkea stopped as well, giving a curious tilt of his head.

“But tell me,” he went on, an inquisitive tone to his voice, “why is she berthed in the sand? Surely she deserves more respect than that.”

“Uhh . . .” was all Tanith could think of to say, second-guessing the memory viability of the newest member of the team.

“This is The Wandering Tempest, a First Age Landship that I and my fellow Solars confiscated from a Dragon-Blooded patrol in An-Teng over a year ago.”

It was V’alkea’s turn to look confused, and for millenia-old elemental in the form of a purple peacock, he was excelling at it.

“Not possible,” V’alkea said quietly. He spread his wings and flew to the top of the ship’s main mast, setting down and taking everything in. Tanith continued to walk aboard the ship, keeping his eyes fixed on the peacock, wondering just what was happening. After a few moments, Tanith saw the bird shrug as much as a peacock is able to and give a resigned nod, and then flutter down to the deck beside Tanith.

“This is definitely a Landship,” the Garda said as it landed, tucking its wings in a looking around some more. “And there’s no question about it,” he added, “this is The Font of Boundless Dreams, the First Age skyship I mentioned.”

Tanith looked at him bewildered, unsure what to think.

“Are you sure?” he finally asked. As he looked around, he saw a quizzical expression spread across Subakk’s face as well and felt better about his confusion.

“No doubt,” V’alkea said, walking over towards the main mast of the ship. Tanith heard him whisper something, then saw him place his wing at a point on the mast about three feet off the ground and channel a mote of Essence into it. A small, secret compartment opened up. He quickly closed it, and turned around to face Tanith, who could almost hear the smile in his unusually thunderous voice when he spoke.

“See? I’m not sure who refitted this ship or why, but this ship once spent more time sailing above the sea than in it. I’d be interested to look into this matter more at a future date, but for now, we must deal with the problem at hand. I don’t believe we can outrun this Wyld Hunt, so I have another idea.”

The Garda then went on to tell them of a place farther to the South East where they might be safe for a time, on the sandy outskirts of the Haltan empire but overseen by an old friend of his who was god of all natural growth for the region, a rare privilege for a terrestrial deity. Tanith pulled out a map for him, and the Garda traced the safest, quickest route for him to follow.

“It’s close to the Bordermarches, so it will help cover our tracks and presence from any sorcery or astrology they are undoubtedly using to pursue us,” V’alkea went on to say. Tanith nodded his approval of the plan.

“What about resisting the taint of the Wyld that far out? Will the lass be at risk?” Tanith asked, concerned only for the life of his charge.

“I’ve spent many campaigns out in the trenches of the Wyld,” the Garda reassured him, “and learned a thing or two that should protect us if it comes to it. I’ll worry about the Wyld, you worry about getting us there.”

Tanith agreed, rolled up the map, and headed to the upper deck to take his place at the wheel.

“All hands, to your stations!” he called out. The ship really only needed three people to operate it: the pilot and someone to operate the sails. V’alkea offered to help operate the sails, so he and Subakk managed the ship’s duties, freeing Adzele to continue circling overhead and keep an eye out for the Wyld Hunt.

As the sails billowed, Subakk gave them an extra boost, causing the ship to gain speed rapidly as they set out. Tanith channeled his Essence into the ship itself, nudging it along even faster using a sailing technique he had master a few seasons back. As the ship headed off towards the horizon, he knew what kind of dangers lay ahead in the Bordermarches and hoped his confidence in his crew was not misplaced.

“Well, little miss,” Tanith said softly, looking down at the only other human aboard the ship, sleeping soundly in her bassinet on the deck below. “We’re on our way. Would that I could rest as peacefully as you.”

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Even a font of boundless dreams can run dry of hope if the wrong situation presents itself.

Never had Tanith fought someone who was so relentless, and so difficult to fight. Despite the fact that Nasir was only an Ifrit, an elemental, he moved and fought like an Exalt. He was as skilled with a sword as any warrior Tanith had ever crossed paths with, and he was beginning to wonder how long he could keep up this kind of persistent defense for what by now was beginning to feel like hours.  

Tanith thought he had him at one point early on in the fight, but was quick to learn that was not the case. Nasir came at him in a whirl of attacks, and Tanith was forced to use a technique his sifu had taught him that allowed him to see an attack from both his perspective and that of the attacker, allowing him to identify his opponent’s worst mistake and how to counter it. Driven by his intense Compassion and wanting to end the fight without any more bloodshed, he dodged the attack and immediately attempted a clinch counterattack against the Ifrit. He succeeded somehow, and tried desperately to calm the man down.

“Stop this madness!” he shouted through the barrage of lightning and thunder, the rain making the deck slick and difficult to keep his footing. The Wandering Tempest felt true to her name as she tossed about in the storm, Subakk trying best as he could to keep her heading straight and hopefully out the other side of this storm.

“Never!” the ifrit shouted back, struggling against Tanith’s hold.

Tanith began losing his grip, and the downpour allowed the man to slip out of his clinch a moment later and come at him with his saber. And so it went for several long minutes, one on the attack and the other defending, then the roles would reverse, until Tanith felt like he himself was beginning to run out of steam. He’d taken a few cuts along the way, most of which he’d managed to mend on the fly, and had been dealing out a good deal of damage himself, trying to subdue the assailant and still unwilling to take his life. Ifrit were a good and noble race, and this one had to be willing to listen to reason.

“Why are you doing this?” Tanith shouted over the din, continuing to dodge and parry, trying to keep himself between the man and the upper deck where V’alkea faithfully stood guard over the child.

“Why are you working for the Wyld Hunt, for the Realm, and against those you know to be your true rulers, the true masters of Creation?”

Nasir held back a moment, lowering his sword slightly and taking in the heavy words.

“It’s not that easy,” he finally replied, his voice carrying with it over the sounds of the rain hitting the deck the timbre of pride and a tinge of hate, “they summoned me for a purpose, and until that purpose is fulfilled, I have no choice but to honor the contract set before me.”

He held his arm out towards the child as he spoke next, the rain mixing with blood and dripping off the hilt of the sword, the incandescent color of his skin reflecting eerily off the puddles accumulating all over the deck.

“I may live my life in the light of the Sun, but I am not one of his Chosen, nor do I always have the choices set before you. Were it in my hands, I would happily slay those misguided wretches who bound me to this task, but I can not. It is not the way of things.”

Tanith could see the man was breathing heavily and seemed to be wearing down as well, which gave him a brief moment of hope for ending this without further bloodshed.

But he could also hear the truth behind the words Nasir spoke. This was a man of honor, bound by men who didn’t deserve his service and were forcing him to do something that was without honor.

“In another time, perhaps in an age long ago, I think we may have been friends,” Nasir continued, allowing half a smile to appear. “I have enjoyed this exchange very much. You are a worthy opponent.” He held his sword up in front of his face in a salute, then pulling it swiftly down to his side.

“As are you!” Tanith shouted back over the sudden crash of thunder as the ship continued to rock back and forth in the storm. “Which is why there has to be another way to finish this! Why must this end in death?” he continued to plead with him, hoping to find another way for this scene to end. The bruising on Nasir’s arm and the side of his face was rapidly appearing, making him look even more worn-down and tired. And desperate.

The ifrit stood between the mast and the starboard banister, eyeing the deck above. Tanith made sure to stay between he and the stairs. Nasir began slowly circling towards the stairs leading up to where the baby was still sleeping soundly, and Tanith had to make sure he didn’t get that far.

“I’m sorry it has to end this way for one of us,” Nasir said solemnly as he carefully slid one foot and then the other, taking cautious steps on the wet deck. “You are an honorable man, and have much to offer a world growing more void of integrity with every passing season. I am sorry for this.” With that, he bolted towards the stairs.

Tanith jumped to block his way, but in a flurry of movements, the ifrit feigned the other direction, then leapt straight over Tanith and up at the upper deck, sword drawn and held high, ready to bring down the killing blow. Another powerful wave of Wyld energy washed over the ship, giving it a rough shake and knocking V’alkea off his feet and sliding backwards against the railing, several paces from the sleeping child. Tanith realized with a sinking feeling in his gut that Subakk was so focused on keeping the ship from capsizing on the swells that he didn’t even see Nasir flying down at the bassinet.

Tanith was nearly out of Essence, and realized there was only one option left for him, a special technique his sifu had taught him but he’d never tried before, and was hoping he would never have to. But as he saw the Essence surging through the ifrit as Nasir channeled every last bit for the deathstroke, Tanith knew he had no other options. He channeled the last of his own Essence, his anima banner flaring to totemic levels, and leapt to interpose himself between the ifrit and his prey.

Just as the ifrit brought his sword down to strike, Tanith let the strike fall through his own defenses, catching himself square in the chest as he released the last of his Essence to finish the maneuver. The damage dealt to Tanith was enough to almost incapacitate him, even through his armor. But more than that, the amount of damage dealt to him was doubled-back on the ifrit, causing the elemental to cry out in agony as he crumbled to the ground, unconscious.

Subakk, now very aware of what was happening, looked over, stunned, as V’alkea regained his footing and ran over to check on Tanith.

“Arbiter!” he cried over the sound of another wave of crashing thunder, looking at the wounds that Tanith had sustained, bleeding out to mingle with the water on the deck. “Are you alright?”

Tanith could feel the world starting to slip away, growing colder, like home. He smiled at the idea, it had been many years now since he’d been home, it was an inviting idea after all of this.

“Get us home, Subakk,” he said to the fourteen foot blue bear that was rapidly fading from his vision. “Whatever happens, see that the child is safely delivered to Kalayo in Paragon. Adzele can help. Just . . . don’t let him eat the baby.” He chuckled a little at the half-sincere seriousness of his request.

“And you,” he said rolling his head back over to address V’alkea, “make sure they get there. No one can guide them like you can, my new friend. They’ll need you to get through the rest of this.”

Tanith thought he saw Adzele start to descend with a trademark crackle of lightning in his wings, but before Tanith could ask him not to eat the baby, everything went dark.

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They must have been making good time across the desert, because it was almost two days before the Wyld Hunt caught up with them and they were already well past the nebulous boundary of the Bordermarches. Adzele shouted something from above that Tanith couldn’t quite make out, and was about to call out to the Thunderbird when Adzele flew down and transformed into his human form, landing in haste on the deck beside Tanith and pointing to the south west.

“They are here, and they are not few,” the warrior said gravely as he stood at the rail, gazing off into the distance.

Tanith turned, looking behind them and catching just a glimpse of the Wyld Hunt on the horizon.

“Well,” he said simply as he turned back to focus on piloting. It looked like they might be headed towards a storm, and he was hoping to be able to steer them around it.

“I guess it’s time to batten down the hatches . . . or something.”

Adzele shot him a disapproving look, not catching the jest, then spun back around for a better look at the approaching force.

“I count five Landships in all,” he said, squinting into the distance, “with at least 20 warriors on each, heavily armed, with advance boarding parties in full Yoroi Rapid-Response Armor.”

Tanith turned and looked towards the enemy ships. At a cursory glance, he could hardly even tell there were ships coming at all and was thankful for Adzele’s eyes.

“What else do you see?” he asked the Thunderbird. “Have they brought Warstriders?” Tanith was hoping there would be a resounding ‘no’ coming in response to his question, but given the size of the force and the importance of the cargo he harbored, he doubted a ‘no’ was forthcoming.

“The lead ship is of a slightly larger and sturdier build than the others, and while it appears to hold several Warstriders as well, they look to be unmanned currently and tied to the deck. It’s being captained by. . .” his voice trailed off.

Tanith, seeing they were still a few hours out from the storm, locked the wheel in place and joined Adzele at the back of the ship to further analyze the enemy fleet. He squinted under the desert sun, trying to find what his friend had seen. It took a moment, but then he saw him, standing at the prow of the lead ship, his lieutenants on either side of him. Tanith could easily see the incandescent color of his skin from here, giving off a slight orange glow even in this light; there was no doubt about it, he was the ifrit they had seen back in Paragon. He was wearing the same lamellar armor as before, and towered head and shoulders over the Dragon-Blooded soldier on his ship, making even the heavily armored and helmeted soldiers seem like youths.

“Huh,” was all Tanith could think of to say. Adzele was a little more outspoken.

“Let me rush them, I can best him. Eliminate the threat before they catch up to us, cut off the head of the Hunt and watch the rest of the viperous serpent falter and die without him.” He turned and looked Tanith square in the eye, his eyes intense, wild. Tanith could tell he was getting hungry for combat, and knew there might not be a way around that this time.

“Not yet,” he said instead, “Let’s see what their play is. We’re only a little ways from that storm,” he added, turning and gesturing to the maelstrom they were heading towards, “maybe we can head into it instead of around it and use it to our advantage.”

“Besides,” V’alkea said, making everyone turn around to see the peacock perched on the banister, staring back at their pursuers. “I recognize that man from the spirit courts of the Deep South.” There was something in his voice that make Tanith feel like he was about to hear bad news.

“His name is Nasir,” the perched peacock continued, “and given the reputation he has as a warrior and the tenacity he brings to the court, he’s someone we should avoid by whatever means necessary. An exchange of any kind with him, I fear, would be costly.”

“The storm it is,” Tanith said resignedly as he turned and strode over to take the wheel, altering the ship’s course slightly, but enough to put them on a direct path for the tempest.

Over the course of the next few hours, V’alkea stayed on the deck with Tanith to talk over their route, as well as their best methods of defense and battle strategies, should it come to it. Subakk sat on the deck below, content to keep a constant vigil over the ward he had only the previous day wanted to be nowhere near.

As they grew closer to the storm, Tanith noticed the landscape itself starting to change, growing slightly less desert-like, but not quite as lush as the plains to the other side of the mountains. It was still a smoldering day out on the sands as they traveled, but they soon started passing mounds of snow, and the kinds of trees that normally only grew to the north in his homeland.

“Welcome to the Bordermarches,” V’alkea said, also making note of the unusual changes around them. The peacock then began to utilize a technique special to elementals and gods this far out on the fringes of Creation, channeling his Essence around and through the ship, protecting The Wandering Tempest and her crew of any Wyld taint that would otherwise try to affect them.

Tanith watched it all with admiration, making a mental note to one day ask the Garda to teach him such a technique. Learning such things from an Elemental was much more difficult and time-consuming than learning the skills normally used by Solars, but it made Tanith feel more in touch with the ancestors of Creation, the elementals of old and their Solar master/cohorts. It had been a different time back then, and Tanith frequently had flashbacks and random memories pop up from his previous incarnations, so he tried to learn everything he could about that age in Creation’s history – including the charms and ways of the spirits of the world – in the hopes of someday being able to emulate it and reinstitute that way of living across the whole of Creation. It was a longshot, but every old memory just reminded him that it was worth it.

The wind started to pick up a little just past midday, and by late afternoon it started to rain. And snow at times, with the occasional sleet or hail, but usually rain. And usually water. At times it would be mixed with dirt, grass, animal hair, sand or other various elements, which made for an interesting combination of smells, but Subakk was always quick to clean the deck after one of those bouts, so the smell never lasted too long.

Shortly before sunset, V’alkea pointed out that the fleet seemed to somehow be closing the gap between them and would likely overtake The Wandering Tempest some time soon after nightfall. Adzele soon landed beside them to convey the same message, and the three discussed what their options were. They were severely out-manned, out-gunned, and in unfamiliar terrain, so they formed the best plan they could think of: head right into the heart of the storm, and hope they make it out.

Tanith wasn’t sure how close it was to sunset since the clouds did a nice job of blocking out the sun, but when the first advance boarding party from the Wyld Hunt launched, he was pretty sure sunset was just around the corner. Adzele gave the signal from up above, and Tanith turned in time to see what looked like fifteen rapid-response shock troops blast off from the deck of the enemy ship, their Essence-fueled flight packs propelling them towards The Wandering Tempest at breakneck speed.

Adzele, hoping to cause a distraction and give his friends some cover, used his elemental powers to increase the intensity of the storm and drive a bank of clouds down at the warriors. It went horribly awry.

His use of Essence to feed the clouds caused an incredible backlash of Wyld energy, the chaos of the Wyld refusing to be directed and controlled by the likes of the Creation-born. The storm quickly turned into a Wyld storm, swirling and forming thick, black funnel clouds for as far as the eye could see. The sun was soon completely blocked out, and Tanith was forced to steer the ship using the light of the constant bursts of lightning and fire all around as his guide. The soldiers didn’t fare nearly as well.

They were all caught mid-flight, an angry wave of Wyld energy and pure chaos washing over them, changing them in innumerable ways. Some were converted to part animal, part man, others had entire limbs ripped away from their bodies, others imploded in a ring of flame that spread to some of those around them, engulfing whole clusters of the armored DB’s in flames that would not be extinguished. Tanith had to turn away from the carnage, unable to bear that kind of painful death, even when inflicted on his enemies. But one things was for sure: judging by the agonizing screams he could hear even over the thunderous sounds of the wind and rain, he knew there was no need to look for survivors.

A few moments later, Tanith did turn around to size up the remaining enemy force, and took note that their ships seemed to be surrounded with the same kind of Essence-fueled protection that V’alkea had placed over their own ship.

“This may be harder than I thought,” he said aloud, beginning to question their decision to enter the storm. He wasn’t sure what had caused the Wyld storm to surge the way it just had, but that was part of the nature of the Wyld and he would just have to keep his wits about him to get them through this.

“Arbiter,” the Garda said somewhat cautiously, in a tone that caused Tanith to feel slightly alarmed.

“While it is normal for any hunter to stay fixed fixed on his prey, I think Nasir is staring at you, more specifically, and he seems upset.”

Tanith turned and squinted through the storm and the dying light. He could tell where Nasir stood, the orange glow of his skin could be seen for miles. But he couldn’t even distinguish the man’s face from this far, let alone tell where he was looking, seeming to be more of a glowing orange light at the front of the ship than any kind of person.  

“Are you sure? he asked V’alkea, questioning the bird’s vision at such a distance.

“Sir!” Adzele cried, landing on the back of the deck and kneeling, pointing towards the fleet.

“I believe the fire imp is staring at you, sir, the gaze of a true warrior, one that seems intent on your demise.” Adzele smiled, excited, before adding “You should count yourself very lucky sir, it could be a noble battle indeed. Also, they’re preparing to launch another wave of warriors.”

“The Wyld will help take care of the soldiers,” Tanith replied, listening to the deafening sound of another crash of thunder and having faith in the elements around him.

“And what of Nasir?” V’alkea asked Tanith, not a hint of hesitancy in his voice.

“Well,” he thought to himself. “It will be interesting to see what happens if it comes to that.”

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the rest of the story . . .

 

When Tanith woke up, the first thing he noticed, before even opening his eyes, was that it was quiet. Very, very quiet. And bright. Even with his eyes closed, he could sense the sun was out and close to its peak, and the only sound he heard was the gentle lapping of the waves against the hull of the ship. The sun felt warm on his face, occasionally sliding behind cloud cover and then back out, and wherever he was, he wanted to soak it in a little more. So he laid there, feeling the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze that was coming from somewhere, and the gentle rocking of the ship. It felt so good to be outside and in a cooler climate, Tanith kept dozing in and out of consciousness, enjoying the feeling and hoping it wasn’t all a dream. Finally, he summoned the strength to open his eyes.

The sun was bright, blinding him at first. As he blinked it off and his eyes adjusted, he realized he was laying on the deck of The Wandering Tempest. He stared up at her sails, the crosspost broken and hanging on one side, with tears and pieces missing in the steelsilk of the mainsail itself. That’s not going to be easy to fix, he thought to himself with a chuckle, a chuckle that sent stabbing pains through his chest and right shoulder.

He lay there a little while longer, letting the pain fade while looking at the beautiful, clear blue sky, watching the clouds floating high overhead, enjoying the silence of the day.

After several minutes, he closed his eyes and tried to sit up slowly, but the pain shooting through his chest and shoulder forced him to stop moving altogether. As he continued to lie there on the deck with his eyes in their now-familiarly-closed position, he placed his left hand over the chest-wound, channeling Essence into it and the surrounding area, mending the wound enough to allow for a little more freedom of movement. Once he felt it was sufficiently healed, he moved his hand up to his shoulder, allowing the healing energies a few moments to patch that as well.

Once the pain subsided and he felt it was safe to move again, he sat up, propping himself up with his arm, and looked around. It wasn’t a very encouraging sight.

The hull of the ship looked to be fairly intact, at least enough to keep them afloat, but large pieces of the deck had caved in, and it looked like the captain’s cabin in the back of the ship was missing the door and most of the back wall, except for several tree roots and some strange-looking vines. He made a mental note to inspect that more closely later.

The mast itself looked solid, though it had taken a beating. There were score marks running the full height of it from what looked to be lightning strikes, and charred places where Subakk must have extinguished a small fire or two. Speaking of Subakk . . .

Tanith, holding a loose rope that was hanging against the mast, slowly pulled himself up until he was standing, albeit a little wobbly, and leaned back against the mast for support. He looked around to see if he could find his crew, but was quickly distracted by the landscape.

It was white. Rolling hills capped in snowbanks, with an occasional cluster of evergreens poking their way through. The Wandering Tempest sat in a small lagoon, not yet frozen-over this early in the season, though signs along the banks told Tanith that it wouldn’t be long.

“Near as I can tell,” came the voice of V’alkea, startling Tanith from right beside him on the deck, “we’re somewhere north east of Resplendent Peak, still in the Bordermarches but not nearly as deep as we were, probably right on the cusp.” At that, he laughed a little and hopped towards the upper deck. Tanith looked above and saw Subakk sitting with his back against the ship’s wheel, holding a chain that led down to a body on the deck across from him, and Tanith had a feeling he knew who that was. Tanith limped over to the stairs and made his way up to the top deck as well, looking around for the bassinet that held the child. When he got to the top of the stairs, he found it.

It was lying on the deck right where Tanith had left it, next to where Subakk sat with his arms crossed. But it was smashed to pieces, splinters of the basket spread almost as far as the tattered pieces of blanket. Tanith thought he was going to be sick, and Subakk apparently saw the shock and dismay on his face, because the Huraka smiled and uncrossed his arms, lowering one of them. The little girl lay curled up against his chest, warm and cozy as could be in his thick fur, smiling and cooing away the hours.

“She is safe,” Subakk said flatly but with an air of tenderness that Tanith hadn’t heard in his voice before. “She is still under the effects of the warding charm, and will sleep safely for days yet, should she stay where she is.”

Tanith smiled and nodded, grateful the Huraka had warmed to the idea of having her aboard. Tanith just hoped the bear would be willing to part with her when the time came. But they would cross that bridge when they got there.

“Where is Adzele?” Tanith asked, hoping for more good news as he walked over and looked down at the bruised and battered ifrit, unconscious and wrapped in heavy chains. Tanith wasn’t sure where on the ship they’d found the chains, but whoever bound Nasir had done a splendid job.

“He’s off circling and getting the lay of the land,” V’alkea responded, looking skyward and trying to find the Thunderbird. “We are in need of supplies to fix the ship, but the bareness of this countryside doesn’t lend itself well to the hope of finding a decent blacksmith.”

Tanith began examining the ifrit’s wounds and many bruises, making sure he wasn’t in danger of getting worse.

“Ignore that one, we have better things to focus on,” Adzele chimed in as he descended and landed on deck, maintaining his Thunderbird form. Tanith smiled, thankful to see his old friend safe from harm, as much as he disagreed with him in the area of prisoner care.

“You know I can’t do that,” Tanith said calmly in reply. “He may be our enemy, but he is an honorable warrior and deserves our respect and hospitality.” Tanith laid his hand on the man’s shoulder and began to channel the healing Essence into him as well, hoping to give him just enough life to keep him around for a while.

“The least we can do is stabilize him,” he went on, “If he’s as knowledgeable as V’alkea says he is, then he might be able to help us get home.”

After a brief debate where Adzele and Subak voiced their concerns over such a course of action, Tanith cut things short.

“When he awakens, we’ll talk with him. If he can be reasoned with, he stays. If he can’t, well . . .” his voice trailed off as he looked at Adzele. “Then the safety of the crew and our mission come first, and we’ll do what needs to be done.” Adzele seemed to perk up a little at that, so Tanith truly hoped the Thunderbird had this ifrit figured wrong.

“Agreed,” Subakk said with an air of finality, looking down at the child nestled tightly in his large arms. “The safety of the child and the mission come first, and if this one,” he gave a tug on the chain, dragging the chained ifrit closer, “can be reasoned with, then he lives. If not . . .” his voice trailed off as well as he looked Tanith in the eye before finishing, “then he doesn’t.”

Tanith nodded in agreement and turned to head down below deck. As he turned, a movement off to his left caught his eye. It was just a brief glint of metal, off the back of the ship where part of the rail and deck were missing. Before he could move or even say anything, a heavily armored warrior leapt from where he had been hanging off the ship, drew his sword high overhead, and dove for Subakk and the child.

The man was quite a sight. His helmet was missing, parts of his armor looked like they had been melted away during the Wyld storm, and the lower half of his left leg looked like the leg of some kind of mountain goat. The storm had taken a physical toll on the unfortunate man, and by the crazed, wild look in the one eye he had left, Tanith knew that it had taken quite a mental toll as well, tearing the man apart inside and out, leaving behind only this disturbing visage.

Tanith moved to intercept and leapt into the way, hoping his gloves and armor hadn’t sustained any real damage during the final hours or days of the storm. He realized he didn’t even know how long he had been out, but figured there would be a better time to ask later.

As the soldier brought his weapon to bare, Tanith managed to interpose himself at just the last second. When the sword came into contact squarely with the Essence-based protection of Tanith’s gloves, the man dropped his sword, visibly shaken for some reason, and it was then that Tanith realized how frail his opponent looked.

Tanith cautiously bent down and picked up the daiklave, and looked to hand it back, but nothing could have prepared him for what he witnessed next.

The soldier, only just now looking down at himself, realizing the extent of what the Wyld had done to him, and seeing that he was standing alone against the enemy forces in an unknown corner of Creation, gave in to the despair. He pulled a small, concealed dagger out of a hidden compartment in the gauntlet of his armor, pulled one of the melted panels of his torso armor aside, and thrust the dagger into his own gut, twisting it up into his lungs and vital organs.

“No!” was all Tanith could say, more instinctively than anything else. The man began shaking slowly, gasping for air, and dropped the knife. It made a sharp clang as it hit the deck by his feet, the sound ringing in the otherwise silent scene. He looked up and fixed Tanith with a look of intensity that froze him where he stood.

“I can help you, you know. It’s never too late,” Tanith said, letting the Essence swirl around his hands in soft pulses. He started moving closer, one short step at a time.

“It doesn’t have to end this way,” he then found himself repeating.

The man shot him a wicked look, one full of all the bile and deep-seated hatred that the Realm felt for the Anathema. He spat on the ground, then said nothing, and backed up a few paces until he fell backwards over the balcony and into the freezing lagoon, maintaining that same wicked sneer through the fall.

Tanith and the crew stood there in shock, unsure of what to do next. Tanith finally regained his sense and ran to the banister, looking over and peering down into the depths. The water was as clear as crystal, and he could see the man sinking lower, gazing up at the surface, his blood mingling with the icy water and starting to turn it murky. He could tell the man was dead even through the crimson, clouding  water, and knew it was already too late to save him.

Turning around in despair, Tanith leaned back against the rail and slid to the ground, sitting there in silence and not sure what to do next. He looked at the bloody knife sitting there next to him on the deck. Then he looked around at his crew: an enormous bear who had finally softened to the baby he now protected with his life; a Thunderbird/warrior who would just as soon kill any enemy they came across so he could feast on their remains; a peacock who was older than the First Age and didn’t seem to care about much one way or another; a child-like spirit responsible for a broken ship she was incapable of repairing; and their prisoner, an ifrit from the south who was the only truly honorable one in the bunch, and wanted to kill a baby.

Tanith stood in obvious frustration, daiklave still in hand, and turned to leave.

“Let me know if Nasir wakes up. I have much I want to ask him about,” he said as he walked towards the bow of the ship. The crew looked confused, and V’alkea followed him.

“Sir, Arbiter Sir, where are you going?” he asked as he hopped after him.

“Just find me when he wakes up,” Tanith reiterated sternly as he reached the edge of the bow. They were anchored a mere 30 or 40 feet from land, and he made the leap to shore with relative ease, landing and striding along the shore until he got to the small river that fed into the lagoon.

He walked for some time, possibly an hour or two, until he came upon a small, broken down altar of some kind along the banks. It had been constructed of large stones, and sat overlooking a small pool of water. The surface of the pool, despite being a tributary of the flowing river, was as smooth as glass. Tanith sat on one of the stones, gazing down into the pool at his own reflection.

“Am I really in the right,” he asked himself aloud, “if the most honorable one among us is trying to kill the baby I’ve been charged with protecting?” He continued to talk to himself out loud for several minutes, recounting all of the events of the last few days, all of the lives that had been lost in pursuit of he and his charge, many of them violently, most of them undeserved.

“And all of them unnecessary,” he concluded, the sadness and anger he felt dripping off every word. He looked down at the daiklave, an instrument of death as often as defense, and found himself blaming this one, single blade for the death of all those lives. He suddenly pictured the face of the man he’d seen kill himself only hours before, pictured the twisted look of glee on his face and he sank lower and lower into his icy tomb. Tanith stood up and threw the sword out into the river with all of his might, watching it spin in the air, catching the glint of the sun with every flip. It really was a beautiful piece, and as it landed with a splash, he watched it sink below the surface, hoping it would never again be drudged up to see the light of day.

“Never,” he said resolutely, sitting down and gazing back at his reflection in the large pool. With that simple word, he swore an oath to himself that not only would he never use such an instrument, but he would never again take another human life. No matter how dire the situation, taking any human life was an unnecessary step that would be avoided at all costs, even if it meant his own life. Reason and the spoken word were his weapons now, and he would learn to harness them like a master.

“And should they falter,” he said as he looked down at his gloves, “a non-lethal form of ‘persuasion’ is just what might be needed.”

As he sat there on the stones at the edge of the pool, gazing at his own reflection and pondering the gravity of the oath he had just made and his growing compassion for the world around him and the people in it, the surface of the water started to ripple. Slightly at first, and then with gradually larger ripples. As Tanith took note of what was happening, he tried to gauge where the ripples were originating from, and then realized it was his own reflection. Where his face had been in the water only moments before, a white mask appeared beneath the water’s surface and slowly began to rise out of it.  

The face was that of a ceremonial mask of some kind, specifically which he wasn’t sure of. It had vaguely human features – two eyes, a mouth and a nose – but there was an odd painted pattern around the eyes and mouth, a deep blue color. It looked to be crudely-drawn and tribal in nature, and simultaneously finely-crafted by a master artisan of legendary skill.

Tanith grew kind of excited, and could tell by the raw Essence swirling through the creature that he was witnessing the genesis of a lesser god. He wasn’t sure what kind, but hopefully the god would be self-aware enough to know, otherwise there was always V’alkea to fall back on.

“Hail, friend!” he called out in Old Realm once the mask broke the surface of the water and slowly started floating upwards until it reached a height of about three feet, tilting to face him as it ascended.

“Hello,” the mask replied calmly, its lips not moving at all. It gave Tanith a weird feeling to see the mask speak without moving its lips, and he could see the landscape behind it through the mouth and eye holes. But there was so much to be learned here, he couldn’t help but continue to try and open a dialogue.

“My name is Tanith,” he said gesturing to himself, “and I am known in certain circles as the Arbiter of Endless Horizons. You may call me Arbiter, if you wish.”

The mask seemed to be taking this all in, as it looked blankly at him and waited a few moments to reply.

“Where am I, Arbiter?” he finally asked, turning slowly around to look at the landscape, his curiosity evident in his tone.

Tanith, excited to be able to help educate this new spirit, explained everything he knew of the Wyld, the north, and then went on to tell him the tale of how they had gotten to be here, swallowed up by the Wyld and spat out on the other end of Creation. The mask floated there in silence, occasionally nodding slightly as if to acknowledge that it was paying attention, but not speaking a word while Tanith was relating his tale.

After he finished, Tanith noticed a bit of Essence beginning to form just behind the eyes of the mask, which then reached out into his own mind and formed a momentary link between them. Tanith had an odd feeling that he should trust this mask, so he sat there patiently and didn’t fight the connection, hoping it was gleaning something that could prove useful to them both.

“I want to learn more of the people you travel with,” the mask said slowly after only a moment, with an intensity and passion in his voice that was as new to the conversation as it was to his very existence, “and now that I know I can trust you and you are who you say, might I return to your ship with you? I desire to learn more of your kind and those with you.”

“Of course!” Tanith replied, excited to be able to further his education. He jumped to his feet and started walking along the riverbanks back towards the shore of the lagoon, the mask floating after him.

“What may I call you, that I might introduce you to my companions when we arrive?” he asked his strange new companion in a formal manner befitting such an occasion. The mask was again silent for a moment before replying.

“You may call me Naamari,” he finally said in return, “though I’m not sure why, or how I know that is my name. But that it is, I am certain.” At that, they reached the shore of the lagoon, with The Wandering Tempest still at anchor a little ways offshore and just a quick jump away. But rather than leap over, Tanith froze. He had been trying to figure out why this mask seemed familiar, the painted stripes and symbols upon its face, and the moment the mask spoke its name it triggered a memory, some long forgotten scene in Tanith’s past, a past lived by one of his previous incarnations, and he suddenly knew as much about this lesser god as any ancient tome could possibly offer. He turned and looked down to address the small creature.

“You are a Mask, that much is obvious, a terrestrial divinity of common nature once, now driven to near extinction in this Age of Sorrows. Are you not?”

The mask looked at him and its eyes, while only holes frozen in their open position, almost seemed to widen a little, like someone being reminded of something they weren’t even aware that they knew.

“Yes!” it replied with excitement. “How did you know? What else do you know?”

“Do you have the gift of foretelling the future,” Tanith inquired, “as is often befitting your kind? Can you tell me how my friends are faring on their quest?”

“Perhaps,” Naamari replied, “but it will take several hours for me to discern.” He spun around in a circle, examining the ground at the lagoon’s shore. “Shall I commence?”

Tanith turned towards The Wandering Tempest for a moment to consider what everyone on board might think and what kind of time table they were dealing with for repairs before turning back and confirming the question.

“Absolutely,” he said politely, “if you don’t mind. I’m going to return to my ship for a brief session with the crew to see how things are progressing in my absence, but shall return shortly to bring you aboard and introduce you to your new sanctum.”

The mask nodded in agreement, eager to meet new life. Tanith could see the Essence starting to gather as the mask began focusing on the charm, coalescing behind it in a pulsating orb of raw Essence that made it look somewhat like a will-o-wisp, illuminating the shoreline for several feet even though it was a clear day and the sun was still high overhead.

The pulsing continued rhythmically, so Tanith took his leave. He looked across the small expanse of water at the boat and leapt across to it, easily clearing the distance. If only his aim was as successful.

The water was as cold as it looked, and the shock of hitting the side of the boat and then landing in the water almost knocked him out. But floating in the frigid water, soaking up the cold more with every passing second, he felt at home for the first time in months, maybe even years.

Subakk had apparently heard the splash and ran over to see what had happened.

“Arbiter,” the Huraka called overboard when he saw him, “are you alright?”

“Absolutely,” Tanith called back calmly, enjoying the chill as wisps of his breath billowed out in front of him as he spoke.

“Shall I throw you a line?” Subakk asked, sounding a bit confused.

“Not necessary, my friend! I’ll be up shortly, but thank you kindly for the offer.” The Huraka, confused as ever as to the ways of humans, turned and went back to his station, holding the child in one arm and helping Tuuli repair the mast with his other.

After a few minutes, Tanith scaled the side of the ship and shook off on deck. It looked like his crew had been making good time with the repairs, only a few things here and there remained in tatters, and most of the masts and cross beams had been patched and repaired to working order.

“Well done, men!” he shouted to them all as he wrung the water out his cloak, quick to add “and Tuuli” before she even had a chance to turn and glare at him indignantly.

“How go the rest of the repairs?” he asked, looking around and trying to take it all in. Adzele walked him around the deck, showing him where they had been able to patch things up. All seemed to be in working order, except for that gaping hole in the back of the captain’s cabin.

“Yeah, not sure what to do about that one,” the Thunderbird remarked as Tanith walked through the door and gazed at the shrapnel around him.

“Tuuli says it’ll take more than what we’ve got in the emergency supplies, and seems the trees around here won’t work for these purposes.”

Tanith straightened a few papers, righted a few books, and rolled up a couple of the maps that had been strewn about. The back wall and part of the ceiling/upper deck was just missing, like a giant of some sort had decided to take a bite out of the ship.

“Well,” he finally said, “at least no one was in here when it happened. A force that is capable of breaking through V’alkea’s barrier and doing this is not something I’d wish on even my worst enemies.” He walked over to the hole, examining the edges. Rather than splintering and poking out all over, it looked to be cauterized, sealed smooth like something had melted it rather than burned it.

“Sir,” Subakk asked once Tanith and Adzele returned to the main deck, “what is our next move? Where do we go from here, wherever here actually is?”

“Interesting you should bring that up,” Tanith said with a quick glance over at the shore and his newfound friend. He went on to tell them of the creation of the mask, what it was seeking to know, and how is just wanted to be in the company of people, be they Exalt or mortal.

Everyone seemed open to the idea of Naamari coming aboard except Tuuli, who wasn’t sure how she felt about another god sharing her domain. Tanith assured her that Naamari wouldn’t be taking over anything aboard the ship, and quite to the contrary, had no aspirations of establishing any kind of permanent residency aboard at all.

“So to answer your question,” he said to Subakk once they were all in agreement, “I’m not entirely sure. Naamari is currently deep in meditation trying to divine where my friends might be. Based on his results, we could be heading in any number of directions.”

They all agreed that anywhere but back into the Wyld would be wonderful, so Tanith hopped ashore again and walked over to the mask. Naamari was still surrounded by churning Essence, so Tanith sat crosslegged on the ground a few yards in front of him and waited for the charm to run its course.

After just a few more minutes, the swirling Essence around Naamari began to slow and then eventually fade. The mask shook itself a little, like a person waking from a dream, then seemed to realize that Tanith was there and turned slightly to greet him.

“Hello again, Arbiter of Endless Horizons,” he said politely.

“Hello,” Tanith replied, trying to retain the sense of formality with which the creature seemed to always use.

“I bring good news from my ship,” he continued, the mask floating slightly closer, giving the impressions of someone leaning closer in eager anticipation of good news.

“My crew readily accepts your proposal to come aboard and travel with us for a time. Once they finish some necessary repairs, we can be on our way.” Naamari let out a subdued exclamation that Tanith took to be a restrained shout of joy.

“Which brings me to my next point.” The mask stopped spinning and stared at him. Tanith admitted, it was a little unnerving conversing with a face that held no expression and gave no sign or tell of emotion.

“Were you able to divine anything about my friends? I must know, are they safe?”

“I’m sorry,” the mask started to say, causing Tanith to grow a little worried. “I couldn’t tell anything, really. It was hard to get a read on them, which more than likely means that they’re no longer in this world.” Tanith’s heart plummeted into his stomach, and he was thankful he was already sitting down, because he could feel his legs weaken under the weight of the news.

“So they’re probably in a Shadowland of some kind,” Naamari continued thoughtfully, “most likely the manse of a rather powerful necromancer, along the coast of the Inland Sea, only a few weeks travel from here.” Tanith stared at the mask, dumbfounded and unsure of what to say.

“Or, rather” Naamari started to say, sounding a little hesitant and unsure, “maybe that’s where they’re going to be in a few days, and right now I just can’t seem to find them for some reason.” If a floating, disembodied mask could shrug, this would have been a shrugging moment.

“Oh well, at least now we know where to go so I can meet them!” he said enthusiastically. “I do love meeting new people. Mortals are such interesting, unique creatures, especially the Exalted ones. From what I gather, anyway . . . I think I shall like all of them,” he concluded matter-of-factly.

Tanith didn’t have the heart to tell him that he wouldn’t end up liking all of them, so he let it slide, instead rising to his feet to return to the ship.

“Shall we?” is all that he did say, gesturing toward The Wandering Tempest.

“Indeed!” Naamari said excitedly, floating towards the shore. But he didn’t reach it.

Tanith whirled around, startled by a sudden shriek of pain coming from behind him.

“What’s wrong?” he asked as he knelt in front of the mask. An actual tear somehow found its way down the mask’s cheek.

“Such . . . pain,” was all he could manage to get out, and Tanith heard a small tremble in the poor thing’s voice.

“Where?” he asked.

“And who?” he added quickly, worried about what the answer might be.

“East,” was all the mask could get out before it started panting a little.

“Easy now,” Tanith told him calmly, hoping he hadn’t overloaded the poor god who was still new to this world, “take your time.” The pulsing Essence, what had signified the mask using his ability to foretell the future, returned, building slowly until it became the same glowing, swirling ball of light behind his eyes. As the pulsing steadied, falling into a rhythm, the mask continued.

“Far to the east, in what was once a paradise,” Naamari went on in a somewhat monotone voice, and Tanith wasn’t entirely sure he was speaking of his own volition, “the land and people cry out in pain, seeking help and healing. The land has been ravaged. The rivers are sour, trees refuse to bud, soil once fertile is rocky and unyielding. It weeps for what once was.”

Tanith, kneeling in front of his new companion, was a bit taken aback by the compassion the young god showed, especially to be tied to a never-before-seen area over such a great distance.

“Help us,” the mask whispered, staring up at him with its expressionless face. Tanith was so startled that he fell over backwards. He could see the Essence exuding from the mask, though it now looked like it had taken on some kind of strange patterns and flow, like it was being manipulated subtly by the Wyld, possibly enhanced, though Tanith couldn’t tell. While focusing on it and trying to get a better read, he began to feel the connection himself and was almost overwhelmed by the pain.

“I will, I promise,” he said, looking into those hollow eye sockets and getting the sense the something was there looking back at him.

“Please, help us,” the mask whispered back, more faintly than before, and Tanith could see the eddies of Essence beginning to slow and dissipate.

And just as suddenly as it had started, it was over.

“Let’s go meet the crew!” Naamari said cheerily, startling Tanith and shaking him out of the trance. Tanith realized he was still sitting on the ground, and stood slowly, his head still a little foggy from the lingering effects of the encounter. He watched as the mask floated over to the edge of the lagoon and dove off the shore and into the freezing water, returning to the environment that had borne him into this world only just this morning. The mask swam across to the ship and flew up out of the water with enough speed to land on the deck of the Tempest.

“Huh,” was all Tanith could say before taking a moment to collect himself.

“Well, this will certainly be interesting,” Tanith remarked just before jumping across to land squarely on the deck beside Naamari, his aim much truer this time than on his previous attempt.

Introductions were had by all, with each crew member eager to meet the newcomer, and the newcomer even more eager to meet each member of the crew. After a few minutes of conversing, Tuuli realized he would be no threat to her ship and seemed particularly warmed to the idea of having him aboard, and Tanith let out a small sigh of relief.

Hearing that damage to the ship was like damage to Tuuli herself, Naamari started to sound choked up again and immediately insisted on aiding in the repairs. Most everything had been done at this point, but Subakk set him to removing the last of the debri from the deck, possibly the only task the lesser god was capable of performing. Subakk then walked back to talk to Tanith, babe still sleeping soundly and tucked in his mighty arms, to discuss what their plan was.

“My friends are in trouble,” Tanith said as Adzele, V’alkea and Subakk all joined him on the upper deck. “Or at least they will be soon, so I must rush to their aid and do all I can to help prevent some calamity from befalling them.” He paused long enough to look each of his friends in the eye before continuing. “You have served me well with the tasks you were summoned for, and are free to return home if you so desire, I could never ask for more than you have already given. The way ahead may be just as long and perilous as the one now behind us, and I can’t guarantee the safety of any of you, or even this ship itself.” He looked around at the damage as if to emphasize the weight of what he was saying.

“But as free as you are to leave, you are equally free to stay and continue our journey, to protect and safely deliver the child,” he said glancing at Subakk’s guarded treasure, “and to help my friends. And then on to seek out some new dangers that have presented themselves,” he added, looking down at Naamari on the deck below, hoping his decision to bring the sapling god aboard would prove to be a wise one.

The vote to stay was unanimous by all three of the elementals, for which Tanith was thankful and expressed his gratitude. The whole crew spent the next hour or so finishing up some light repairs and clearing the deck, and then pulled anchor and set off towards the heart of Creation, everyone quite content to be leaving the Bordermarches behind.

The remaining trip to Merritt Tower proved to be a relatively easy one, and only took the better part of a few weeks. During the trip, Adzele took over many of the sailing shifts, so Tanith was able to fit in a little downtime and convinced Naamari to teach him the Memory Mirror technique he had used during their initial meeting. During one of their sessions, Tanith inquired about the exchange they’d had over the disturbance to the east and the land being in pain, and was a little worried when it turned out that Naamari had no recollection of it. Naamari grew a little troubled by the news as well.

“No matter,” Tanith said, trying to be comforting. “We’ll stop along some of the major trade routes on our way and see what we can pick up. You know how merchants are; where gossip is concerned, they’ll even give a temple overseer a run for his money.” Naamari did not, in fact, know what Tanith was talking about, but grew quite excited by the prospect of finding out, and expressed quite excitedly that he hoped to meet both a temple overseer and a few merchants along their travels.

Nasir proved to be a very hospitable captive, and seemed to have changed his mind entirely about killing the child. Tanith, having recently mastered the art of the Memory Mirror, sat down to discuss the situation with his captive one sunny afternoon. As they sailed past a small village, the townsfolk stared in amazement at the landship and its crew, but Tanith paid them no heed as he focused on the task ahead. Nasir agreed to submit to Tanith’s memory probing, and they sat crosslegged a few feet from each other, the captive still in chains.

Tanith focused on the Ifrit, on his memories and emotions, and the charm had barely started working when Tanith was filled with the knowledge and reassurance that the elemental had indeed had a change of heart about killing the small lass, and would be very willing to join their team and aid in protecting her instead. Tanith started to get an impression of a powerful memory hiding deep in the back of the Ifrit’s mind, a memory full of pain and loss, most likely of family, but Tanith stopped the use of the Charm before he registered any more, partly overwhelmed by the depth of the pain. It was readily apparent through the process that Nasir was willing to consider himself their ally, so Tanith respected the elemental’s memories and allowed them to remain buried.

Tanith let him out of his chains, with more than a few questioning glances and apprehensive remarks from the rest of the crew, but Nasir quickly put everyone’s apprehensions at ease. He proved to be an able sailor, with knowledge of both operating and navigating the vessel, and was an excellent cook and seamstress where all things nautical were concerned. With the Ifrit and Adzele both taking turns at the helm, Tanith was able to focus more on the passing landscape, enjoying the trip for the first time, and spent many hours in deep meditation in his cabin. He kind of enjoyed the open-air quality that it now had, so he allowed it to remain the one unrepaired part of the ship, instead taking changes in weather in stride and enjoying being able to be that much closer to nature.

One night, long after the sun had set and under the light of a full moon, Adzele and Subakk were keeping watch for Tanith as he took his turn at the helm and cut a steady swathe across the green open plains, and as the three of them got to conversing, the subject of home popped in to the conversation.

“I do miss my home far to the west, but I’m more than happy to contribute what I can to this quest,” Subakk said, gazing off the starboard bow in the direction of his home.

“For someone who spends most of his time among the clouds,” Tanith observed, “you seem to be handling this long trek through the wilderness quite well.” And so the conversation continued for some time, Adzele making sure to state that while he didn’t particularly miss his home, he did miss the steady diet of fallen enemies. Tanith was pretty quiet towards the end of the conversation, and after they had all fallen silent for a few minutes, broke the silence.

“One day,” Tanith said somewhat wistfully, “I’d like to take a few seasons off from my travels and return home for a time. It would be good to catch up with some old friends and visit my parents, it’s been a long time since I’ve been back to visit and check in to see that everything is ok.” He stared straight ahead, guiding the ship under the light of the full moon. It had been a few days since they’d seen any snow, so hopefully they were only a few days out from Merritt by now.

“Tomorrow we’ll be passing within a few leagues of your old home,” Adzele commented somewhat off-handedly, “and the next day, within a few leagues of the Cirrus Ossuary, where your parents rest.”

Tanith laughed, eager as ever to visit his parent’s resting place and tend to the mausoleum the elementals had helped him to reconstruct in their honor, but he knew there was no time on this trip. Too much was at stake.

“If it has been several years since you’ve been back to visit,” Subakk added, unhindered by the silence, “perhaps we could make a small detour?”

“Family comes first,” the Huraka added quietly, looking down at the sleeping baby buried gently in his mighty arms.

“Thank you, my friends,” Tanith replied, “and while we may be close, I have a long ways to go yet before I make it home.”

They did however stop at a small trade village along the River of Tears, halfway between the White Sea and the Silver River, to turn the infant over to Kalayo. They didn’t stay long, just a brief friendly exchange before they were off on their own missions again. Kalayo promised to protect the baby, and to take her some place the Bronze Faction and the powers of the Realm couldn’t harm her. Tanith could tell that even though Subakk would never admit to it, the mighty huraka was going to miss his charge. She had imprinted on him in a big way, and it made Tanith feel even more confident in his companion that he had been touched so deeply.

Tanith did remember to ask Kalayo about the troubles in the east, but she had no knowledge of the specific problems he described. When she departed into the night, she first made sure to thank each member of the crew, including the new ones, for the parts they had to play in bringing this child safely to her. The crew of The Wandering Tempest spent the night at the tavern, celebrating yet another victory, and then set out in the morning.

True to his estimate, after a few more days of clear blue skies and fresh air, Merritt Tower came into view on the horizon. The land around it seemed shadowed even though there were no clouds in the sky, and once they got closer, Tanith could tell by the blurring and bending of Essence flowing along the Dragon Lines that it was a Shadowland. As the ship crossed over the threshold, the sun began to dim as an unnaturally thick fog started rolling in, surrounding the ship.

“Huh,” Tanith said quietly, his contemplative and seemingly-trademark line escaping out into the ether.

Subakk took watch up at the bow of the ship, trying his best to peer through the dense fog. Eventually they came to small town that seemed to be deserted, near as Tanith and Subakk could tell. Sailing through the town was slow going as Adzele flew in front of the ship, calling out commands for Tanith to steer around obstacles, but thankfully the town was spread out fairly well,  so there was plenty of room for the ship to pass through.

As the town started to thin out a little, so did the fog, and soon Tanith could see the tower looming before them, with a small, familiar-looking group of people standing at the base of it. Tanith smiled and shouted a greeting, encouraged to see that his friends seemed to have survived the ordeal that Naamari had predicted, and looked forward to meeting the newcomers in the group. He looked around at The Wandering Tempest, examining the remaining damage – patched beams, tattered sails, burn marks and lightning blasts – and thinking back on how it had all come to be there, and then glanced around the deck at his crew – the 14-foot tall blue Huraka, the small peacock with purple and bright-orange feathers, and the imposing and semi-glowing ifrit – and realized just how much had changed since he’d last seen the rest of the Solars.

“Well,” he said aloud as he brought the ship to a halt a few yards short of his old friends, eager to regroup and swap stories, “this is either the end of one crazy tale or the beginning of another.” He locked the ship’s wheel in place and gave the command for Adzele to drop anchor.

“Or somewhere in the middle,” he added quietly to himself, smiling as he walked over to the banister to greet everyone. “Either way, this should be fun.”

Gavin’s Journal – Loss of A Friend

The following are two journal entries made by Gavin, a cleric I played in a pretty sweet D&D campaign with some friends. One of his party, a young monk by the name of Josiah, died, and the rest of them were on a quest to resurrect him, because he held deep in the recesses of his mind some secret that would save the country from a dire peril. And this was at least six or eight years ago, so I apologize for the dramatic, over-the-top writing style. heh

 

Roll20-Swirl-Header

 

December 2, 1483

A few weeks since…

 

It has been a long and silent voyage home, our grief masked only by the crashing of the waves against this ship and the beating of this icy air over the deck. It is the beginning of December now, and I can feel a crispness in the air that makes me hope we reach our destination soon. The captain says we shall reach Calabria within a week’s time, though I’m not sure how long it will take before we all can fully grasp the terrible truth of Josiah’s passing. I have never felt so broken, so helpless as when I lifted the poor boy’s beaten body off the floor on the night of our flight from that horrid place. I can still see the battle before my eyes, the unarmed Josiah fighting to the death against the formidable eunuch, and then as the world seemed to stop, I watched helplessly as both combatants fell to the ground, neither the victor. I stood by and watched… all I did was stand there… and watch…

We are each handling it in our own right I suppose. The lady Velora is taking it hardest of all I believe, as none of us have seen much of her since we set out to sea a few days past. She rarely if ever leaves her chambers, and though none of us have taken in much sight of her on this voyage, I have on more than one occasion heard the mourning come drifting vaguely from her chamber in the last stretch of night as I begin my morning prayers. Boot is his usual quiet self, though somewhat more reserved and slightly more unapproachable than normal. The man has much to bare, having grown quite close to the youth in their apparently many journeys together. Leoril has taken to the rigging, as always trying to take in any new thing he can about sailing or the common tongue of the people we left, though I have no desire to learn more than that one phrase in this tongue, one I have no need of yet. I believe that Leoril does this partly out of his genuinely curious nature, but mostly with the hopes of distracting himself from that horrible scene we all now have embedded in our minds…

I can say with all honestly I have never felt a fire burn in my soul and spread through my body like fairy-fire as rapidly as this desire for revenge of an immeasurable magnitude against the magistrate who dared defile that battle proclaimed to be governed by the gods. Gods indeed! The filth shall soon know what it is to stand before a god in judgment, and he can be thankful it is not I enacting the sentence. One who believed in the gods and their terrible wrath would not mess with an affair of such, and you most certainly do not hurt one of my friends in the process! I question not only the man’s integrity, but his allegiances in king and country as well.

That lying perversion of the priesthood will not live to see the changing of another season, I swear by my father’s mace, as was his father’s before him as it has been the legacy of house Nye to use its blessed power even before my father’s birth to right the wrongs of this world. Ever since the first Nye received this precious gift for reasons lost to the history books, First Light has shed its splendor across the land for sight and restoration of peasant and priest alike.

And it is on this, the second day of December in the year 1483, standing at the bow of the mighty Wyvern’s Dream, a Lithican merchant ship we happened upon resting at birth in Sascoba stocking for their return voyage north for the winter season, I swear here and now that First Light with the holy blood of my ancestors pulsing through it that I, Sir Gavin of the house of Nye, son of Sir Khoran Nye, grandson of Lord Tyyran Nye, will be responsible for finding the man who murdered Josiah and delivering the killing blow… again, and again, and again if necessary. Come wizards, demons or dragons, none shall stand in my way until Josiah is once again restored to us, and the evil who tainted that battle and sent the youth to his premature after life shall never again walk the lands of this world.

By all that is holy, I shall use everything in my means to send that accursed creature to the netherworld as assuredly as he did Josiah, and I can guarantee that when the times comes and he kneels before me begging for his life, I will not think twice about the sentence to finally be brought to pass as his body is rent in two by one swift stroke of the full might of Lathander’s justice. And in the midst of my own inescapable anger, I only hope I truly am merciful enough to let him die in one stroke, rather than face the alternative I feel seeding deep within my heart, but know I am above exacting. Or rather, I hope I am strong enough to deny this new feeling of vengeance, an antipathy so enraged, I have not felt its equal since the passing of my own father to the hands of that condemnable hell spawn on an equally fateful day so many years ago. Save only that while it was a gallant fight betwixt Josiah and his adversary, there was no honor in his death, only murderous treachery that I pray with Lathander’s aid will soon be rectified as only the power of a vessel for the divine can. I am not a vengeful person by nature, and it was only through the influence and teachings of Lathander that I was able to overcome the hatred boiling inside me after the untimely death of my father.

But now that I think on it all these years later with a clearer conscious of mind, was it really untimely? Had it not been for his death, my family’s lands would now be in ruins, everything I have come to know and love gone in a fiery blaze of Infernal devastation. And had that not happened, would I ever of chanced upon meeting my new found adventuring companions? In all likelihood I find those chances slim indeed, and sadly so for I have grown quite fond of them. We are a very capable troupe, though while thinking back over this last misadventure, I have somewhat overestimated our own abilities, particularly my own, and quite underestimated the vile straits our adversaries will reach in their ever present quest to stop us from ours.

My only solace through this is a distant memory the Lady Velora mentioned about a city, or temple rather of some priestly order far off to the distant East where the dead are made to walk again, not with the malice of the undead, but fully restored to the living! If there is even an inkling of a chance this information is most indeed valid, I hope we reach them in time enough to bring the poor boy back to us. Would that my own divine powers were strong enough to save us the trip, for while I can mend and cure and bring an almost dead warrior back to full, augmented life, the power to bring people back from such a state as Josiah’s has been reserved for far more powerful than I.

But his death shall not be in vain, nor go unpunished. I will hold to my sworn vows, and I’m sure the others have made similar silent promises. In fact, even now Leoril is standing atop the mast swearing, though I find myself glad I am not adorning my helm, lest I understand him and feel slightly inclined to chastise him for the outburst.

But alas, it is getting a bit dark, and the looks of an early winter storm are fast approaching on the horizon, readily present in the even stronger chill in the air as a thousand frozen lances of sea-spray pelt me with each monotonous rock of the ship.

Gavin pulled his cloak tighter around him, synching it close at the neck in a desperate attempt to keep out the sharp sting of the crisp sea air. He waited a few more minutes to depart as he watched the glory of a sunset at sea. The deep reds and purples casting their blazing colors over the skies above and stretching from one horizon to the next like a blanket of heavenly turmoil, vividly changing the color of the great ocean itself, falling down and resting upon even the faces of the men around him, giving them the same deep red shade in the eerie light, the whole ship washed in the saturating red. For a single moment, the whole world became red, somewhat symbolically for Gavin as this was the beginning of a new feeling for him, a new chapter in his life, one hopefully to be short lived. The sun finally sank into the depths of the ocean, breaking the moment as the crimson clouded sky gave way to burst forth with tens of thousands of stars in an equally moving display, though this one of beauty and not ugliness of malice. But there was no beauty to behold right now, not on this day, for not much could hold any beauty in the eyes of ones struck so deeply with the ugly truth of life’s mortal frailty.

I bid thee farewell, beloved sun, for I feel your warmth no more,” Gavin whispered in a silent, steady tone, the indefinite, heavy words floating weightlessly away on the wind. And with that final thought he turned, and without word to those who made inquiry of him as he passed or to anyone at all, the gallant knight, grief-stricken and wrought with sadness once again, strode below deck.

 

December 8, 1483

 

Dark will be the day we come to find that a boy so young, holding such a world-shattering secret past would be lost to us forever, leaving the earth with no hope for what lies ahead; no hope for any conceivable future or possible reconciliation. The pressures he must have felt in life are now relinquished to us with his passing. The burden of his death has weighed heavily on us all, as even now I have quite the burden firmly affixed on my back, his body awaiting safe passage to people capable of healing it. Fittingly, after – or rather as part of – Leoril’s beautiful burial ceremony, the boy was placed inside a magical compartment of his own carrying sack, preventing his stiff remains from further damage or possible hampering or sabotage on the undoubtedly perilous journey we have ahead. It is a weight I will allow none other to carry.

Leoril, while proving himself strong of heart in recent encounters of both the body and the mind, I doubt would feel terribly comfortable with such a task. The man has little belief in his amazing talents, and I believe he would not think himself up to the task, as able and completely competent as he is. And Mr. Thimblefoot, while as big of heart and strong willed as any giant I have ever encountered, knew the boy intimately in life and I fear would draw too much of a personal connection to the satchel’s precious cargo, bringing about more inner turbulence than any one of us should have to bare, all of us needing to keeps our wits most definitely about us in the treacherous days ahead.

Then there is the lustrous and resilient Lady Valora. While she is more than physically capable, I would never allow her the emotional taxation of such a sentimental burden. She is a strong one, stronger than even I gave her credit for originally, on the day of our first meeting when I swore my allegiance to her in her endeavor. Our fathers had been close once in years past, not as friends of yore who share boisterous stories of each other around a great fire in the dead of a frostbitten winter’s night, but as combatants who held a mutual respect for each other both on the battle field and off. And it was this deep respect my own beloved father held for hers – coupled with the Lady’s own magnificent presence – that I found myself more than willing to aid her in her quest the moment she found me worthy of asking. It was a distant fondness my father felt towards hers, though I feel my affections for the lady growing with each passing day, not as a desire to be her lover or consort as Josiah did (and, bless the gods, will once again), but as a fellow combatant, equally matched in righteous power and our desire to rid the world of darkness. And it is in respect to those various connections that I would not allow her the burden I now bare on my back.

Though in forethought, standing here on deck and contemplating the great scope of life and not my own meager problems, it is a small burden I carry to be sure should our efforts prove fruitful and the young Josiah be once again restored to us. It will be a glorious day indeed when he can once again walk among us, to share in a hearty laugh and well-over-exaggerated recounting of our battle to restore him. Yes truly I say, on the fateful day of Josiah’s rebirth, the glory of Lathander will shine mightily across the land, from the western most shores of the Sea of Promise to the farthest stretches of the Land of the Mountain King. Though in truth, it is all I can do to keep myself from going mad thinking of all the days that lie betwixt that celebrated day and the undoubtedly grievous one just now birthing on the horizon.

But alas, the sun is rising, and it is time for the beginning of a new day, one I am sure will be filled with not nearly enough things to distract each of us from what it is we really wish to speak of. The time for that conversation will most assuredly come though, and soon it seems, for the captain says he expects us to reach port by mid afternoon, the birds already beginning to circle high overhead these few days past.

And yet already here we are it would appear, for someone almost as high overhead is yelling something of land. I can see the other members of my party now beginning to move about as the morning begins.

The Lady Valora is rising above deck to catch sight of our home, though she wears a much more apprehensive face than do the rest of us, for as responsible as we all are for the grim fate which hath befallen us, it is inevitably she herself who will have to break the devastating news to Lord Turalius, a position I neither wish on her nor envy in the least. I suppose the news will be spoken in private, the two of them in audience with each other as the two often are, and only someone of her well-earned social standing and renown could. One day I aspire to be of Valora’s fame, though I am finding the journey to such fame is not easily won. And if such travesties as the untimely death of this poor boy be part of the price of such prominence, I would gladly continue my meager existence defending my family’s keep. I only hope once restored to us, Josiah will find it in his heart to forgive me for letting him down, unable to help him in his hour of need. His last hour of need…

But I fear I am letting my emotions on such a matter show far to well, and in truth I think Leoril is looking over at me again. There is something all but unnerving about the way the elf seems to read me, almost as if he can sense my thoughts. An ability that could prove most useful once directed elsewhere, though none the less eerie at the moment. Whether it be the strange feeling of my virgin sea-legs or simply a hint of divine intuition, I think I have more than once caught the slightly youthful half-elf giving the Lady a subtle – if not carefully hidden – fanciful look. Vague in nature, it is nothing so noticeable that any of the others might see, but I sometimes wonder what his true feeling for Valora are, and how deeply they lie in that complex head of his.

But that is a mystery that must wait for another time, and one that I believe is better left alone at the moment. The day is fully at hand and the commotion of the ship in full swing. Given the already slightly increasing temperature, I feel it is yet going to be the most beautiful day of our voyage. Though disturbingly, and for some unknown reason I find myself momentarily terrified of, I feel the sun will bring me little warmth anymore, if ever again…

“There’s No Place Like Home”

Kaj was my introduction to the amazing world of the Exalted campaign setting by White Wolf Publishing. You’ll find a lot of my writing is about characters in that setting, it’s amazing. Think Inuyasha meets Naruto meets Game of Thrones meets classic Greek mythology. Yeah, it’s that fun.

 

Roll20-Swirl-Header

 

Part One: A Little Back Story

 

How had this happened, again? Kaj thought to himself as he tried unsuccessfully to suppress his unusually rapid breathing, hoping It wasn’t as adapt at hearing as he was. He pulled his sword in close and pressed his back up tight against the cool stone wall of the ancient Ziggurat. He could feel the sans-primordial power of this place coursing through the stones, cool even against the magical barrier of his bronzen skin.

He paused for a moment, listening for any sign of his ardent pursuer. As he closed his eyes and focused, releasing a small amount of the Essence he had was gifted with, the sounds of both the temple and the surrounding jungle became clearer than humanly possible, his senses heightened by one of his gifts from the Unconquered Sun. He could hear the crickets chirping a mile away, a stream a hundred yards down the mountain gurgling peacefully away without a concern for what was happening, the mating call of some wild forest foul yearning for a mate. How he knew it was the mating call, he couldn’t decipher. He smiled though, thinking I know the feeling my friend, and may you fetch better luck than I. But wait, what was that a sound coming from around the corner?

He stood there against the wall, preparing to turn the corner and confront what had started as his prey, gripping Animus Born of Death’s Vespers firmly in his grasp. He counted to three, and then swung out into the entryway, ready to run this thing down in full stride. Before he could even make it out into the entry though, a monstrous being came crashing through the wall at him in an explosion of mortar and muscled arms, taught with the intent to rend him asunder. Kaj barely managed to roll out of the way, both dodging the attack and deflecting the flying chunks of stone, blasting the larger ones and allowing the smaller to bounce harmlessly off his skin. The creature quickly got its bearing and leapt at him again. Was this nine foot tall monster really what the town’s people had meant when they had described him? As Kaj continued to roll and parry, taking only a few grazing shots here and there, he thought back to when he had first arrived here.

* * *

It had been almost a year since he’d left Iri back at Chiaroscuro after their extended “vacation” with Silence and Jewel. While he had no feelings whatsoever about Silence and the whole ordeal, the thought of Jewel brought a scowl to his face, though he knew such feelings would need to be addressed at a later time. After leaving Chiaroscuro, he’d found his way south-east, towards his Manse in the hopes of finding some time to recover and recoup after the previous few years events. Before making it quite all the way through the mountains to the Manse, however, he’d stumbled upon the small village of Nanotsu tucked tightly away at the base of the Eastern slopes of the mountain range. Boasting no more than five or six hundred people, the rural and fairly hidden town seemed brimming with energy, despite something ominous hanging in the air that they were unwilling to reveal.

Deciding to stick around for a bit and investigate, he found several menial tasks to perform around town, trying not to draw too much attention to himself. It didn’t work, however, and soon the villagers grew impatient and tried repeatedly to get him to leave town. He complied, though waited in hiding around the outskirts to see what the fuss was about. After a few days, a band of maybe thirty poorly-skilled but none-the-less well clad brigands rode out of the jungle and up to the city’s gates. Kaj had heard them coming from miles away and came up close enough through the jungle that he could sit back and watch and listen to what was happening.

They announced themselves as emissaries of Wraak sint’Bannog. As the people of the town opened the gates and let the brigands in, Kaj leaned back against the tree his was sitting in, frowning and contemplating where he had heard that name before. He looked over at the men riding into the city and caught a glimpse of the sigil burned onto their forearms. After a few moments of mentally working back through several of the texts he had read on such things during what seemed like a lifetime ago’s stay at the formidable library of his Mentor’s manse, he finally recognized it as not as an intricate tattoo but as the branding it was, and he almost fell out of the tree. Could this monster still be around after all these years?

Kaj moved quickly at this point, hurrying to the fifty-foot town wall and hurtling it silently, piecing together what he could recall of his readings on this matter as he searched for the men. If his memory served him right, and it more often than not did, Wraak sint’Bannog was (as of the first age) a local god and self-proclaimed protector of one of the only active volcanoes in the area. The volcano had since been believed to have become dormant, but Kaj had a sneaking suspicion that things weren’t as quite as he had hoped this near his beloved manse and home. Wraak was also a strong proponent of human sacrifices, both of the graphic and simple nature (sometimes not being too picky on the matter) and if those soldiers were here to procure such an offering to their god, than things could get a bit out of hand.

Kaj followed the small procession through town, sticking to the shadows and conveniently-less-crowded rooftops. The band arrived in the center of town and was met by a group of several men. One of which was, though Kaj had never seen him during his brief stay here, an elderly man of such powerful stature and with such a beautiful, curved sword tied tight at his hip that right away it was obvious he was Taiga, the mayor/governing official of Nanotsu. Kaj crouched and slunk back on the roof he was on, shifting over silently into the shadow of a crude chimney, peering effortlessly through the billowing cover of the thick smoke. One of the brigands stepped forward and approached Taiga. Kaj leaned back and closed his eyes, concentrating and allowing the flow of Essence to carry their words to his ever-perceptive ears.

The leader of the intruders’ name was Mamoru, and by the look of the red assumedly-Jade Daiklave hanging from the side of his mount’s saddle, Kaj could but only guess at the nature of this one. From what else Kaj could pick up from the conversation at this distance, he was apparently leading his soldiers here for Wraak’s yearly tribute from this town. Kaj could tell Taiga was trying very hard to keep his cool, though Kaj could see his steadfastness begging to falter. Mamoru began acting very animated, waving his arms around and pointing at several of the young women in the crowd. Taiga began to argue, and several of the men from either party started fingering their weapons nervously.

Seeming to come to an agreement of sorts, Taiga hung his head in resolve. Mamoru smiled grotesquely in victory, and surveyed the townspeople, most of who had since gathered around. Mamoru must have found who he was looking for, because he looked directly into Taiga’s eyes, then without breaking eye-contact with the man, raised his arm and pointed to, though not the prettiest or most attractive, one of the still more beautiful maidens standing amidst the bustle.

As Kaj watched, it was obvious Mamoru had made his point. When Taiga realized who had been pointed to, his face visibly paled, and Kaj could see enough of a resemblance between the powerful ruler and the young maid to know what was going on, and who had been “randomly chosen” to go back to the mountain fortress of the hungrily awaiting deity. Seeing the men on either side preparing for the worst, Kaj knew what was coming and knew he had to act soon.

Mamoru waited for Taiga’s reaction, gauging him. Taiga hung his head, hands falling to his sides. The leader of the brigands let out a triumphant laugh as two of his men headed towards the crowd and their intended prize. Before either of them got there, Taiga sprung forward with the speed and strength of a man not even half his age, whipping his sword out and through the hearts and throats of both men, then whisked around to handle their maniacal leader.

Mamoru, knowing it had been coming, had already leapt into action. The moment Taiga turned, Mamoru used his own daiklaive to deliver a flurry of blows, the last of which knocked the sword out of Taiga’s hand and sent it flying wildly into the now partially-panicked crowd. Mamoru used Taiga’s shock at this sudden tactic to swiftly kick him to the ground.

Hovering over the man, Mamoru began making a speech about the futility of fighting against the power of a god, and ended by saying something about making an example. Kaj couldn’t make it out exactly, as he had already leapt into action. . . quite literally. Without even considering the impending consequences of such an action (as was often the case is these situations with him), he got a running start for several yards then slid the remaining distance to the edge of the two story building, lying here on the far edge of the town square, and leapt with all his might.

Mamoru looked down at his defeated adversary of so many years, thankful for a chance to finally wipe out both he and his emotionally-attached and thusly-weak politics. He thought he saw something flash out of the corner of his eye, but was so caught up in the moment that he ignored the compulsion to turn and instead drew his sword back and brought it down with all of his might, hoping to drive it far enough through this decrepit governor that it would splatter his life’s blood on each of Nanotsu’s nearby council members.

The instant before his sword struck home, it was blocked by what appeared to be a blade made of shimmering gold. Mamoru reflexively flicked his head to see where it had come from, and saw the wielder, wreathed lightly in flickering violet flames, burly and bronze with a glowing mark on his forehead, kneeling in the crater it had just created from his surprising ascent, and very much between him and his character lesson.

Mamoru’s jaw dropped in shock as he instinctively took a step back. He quickly surveyed the scene to see what was happening. Had this intruder, this Anathema, been hired by the people of Nanotsu to attempt to stop them this year? Though many attempts had been made in the past, never before had they enlisted the aid of one so powerful. As he gauged the people’s responses to this new force though, both those of his men and those of the townspeople, he knew that this was not the case by the similar expressions of awe and terror on all their faces, giving him the confidence to speak up in light of things, needing something to rally his men around him and against this one, whoever he was and wherever he was from.

“What are you doing here, Anathema,” he spat, “and why have the people of this town taken it upon themselves to hire an outsider, a demon, to protect them?”

Kaj maintained his firm visage but managed to smile inwardly at the tactic, one that had been used against him before. He glanced around a bit, subtly enough Mamoru didn’t notice, assessing the situation as far as any potential enemies might be concerned, and realized that this might be a tough one, though some of the townspeople seemed to recognize him. He looked down at Taiga, who appeared to be less shaken than he’d expected, oddly. Seeing this as an opportunity to graft an at least somewhat stable (though temporary) alliance, he kept his right arm and consequently Animus Born of Death’s Vespers extended threateningly towards Mamoru, pointing his left towards the partially scattered town council before addressing their leader.

“Rejoin your men, Lord Taiga. I will deal with this one.” Taiga looked a bit taken back by this, but stood, straitened his garb, and didn’t move. Kaj turned his head a bit and looked at him. Taiga crossed his arms and stared him straight in the eye, matching the intensity of his gaze. Kaj knew they would have to talk about this later, but now was not the time. Mamoru was the first to speak again.

“People of this town,” he began as he spun in a semi-circle, pretending to care, keeping one eye on the audience and both eyes on Kaj. “This demon has come to alter and abruptly destroy the traditions of this town.” He kept looking around, catching the eyes of those he knew it was working on, skipping past those that he knew held little concern for anything more than their lives at the moment.

“If he is allowed to continue this onslaught, he will not only bring the terrible wrath of our sovereign down upon you, but who is to say that he won’t kill you next? Look at him standing there in his all-consuming horror, wreathed in the destructive flames of his long-departed patron god.”

He went on like this for several more minutes, and Kaj just bided his time. He knew there was something about Taiga that led him to believe he wasn’t buying any of this, though he wasn’t sure he wanted to trust the man implicitly yet either. He waited until Mamoru had finished his sermon, and swung back around to meet his gaze challengingly. Without even looking to the crowds to see where the people stood, Kaj for one of the rare moments in his life thought about what he was going to say.

“People of Nanotsu, I am no more demon by mortal-build than the creature that stands before you, though my heart is made of a much purer substance than the demon that ravages his own.” As he spoke those few words, Kaj saw Mamoru slide one of his hands behind his back, deftly signaling something to his men, who slowly began fanning out and circling around him while drawing their weapons. Kaj saw several of Taiga’s soldiers begin to do the same, then glanced at Taiga out of corner of his eye and saw one of his men run up and hand him his retrieved sword. Taiga looked at it, then at Kaj, held up a hand to halt his men, then sheathed his weapon and signaled for them to do the same. Taiga merely crossed his arms again at this point and watched, looking first at Kaj, then at Mamoru.  

Kaj look at Mamoru, who was beginning to drop back into a charging stance, and knew this was his last chance to win over the people of Nanotsu before all Void broke loose.

“People of this town, I swear to you on nothing other than my sword and my divine heritage as a Child of the Sun that I mean no ill intent, take it as you will. All I ask in return,” he looked around from face to face, managing to catch a few of the citizens who had been more hospitable towards him during his brief stay, “is that when these men are driven from this land, you grant me audience, brief as you may desire, to discuss this. If banishment is what you desire, I will leave, but” and he looked Taiga squarely in the eye, “you know there is more here than some realize.” With that last comment, he knew Taiga had agreed inwardly but was fighting what to say or do for the sake of his people.

Rather than say anything, he nodded, almost inperceptively, but it was all Kaj needed. He turned back to Mamoru and addressed him a tone that could only mean serious, especially coming from a six and a half foot tall, rippling southern man wielding a eight foot long, foot thick blade made of Orichalcum, glistening like the purest gold in the early morning sun.

“I will give you one chance, and one alone, to leave this place and return to your master. Tell him I will be arriving shortly to discuss his future. I warn you, should you stand here and decide to fight, not one of you will remain standing in the time it takes the first of you to fall.”

Mamoru seemed taken aback by the command, but recovered quickly and responded by lowering his weapon. Before anyone else could respond and without looking to consult his men or advisors, he dashed forward at full sprint, anima banner flaring brightly and leaving a trail of smoke behind, bringing his weapon to bear and calling on his men to attack. Which they did.

Moments later as the last one fell, Kaj, breathing controlled and sweating mildly, a veritable bonfire of flaming essence, stood before the twitching corpse of Mamoru, still clutching his precious daiklave, little good it had done him. Kaj stared for a few more moments, allowing the violet-hued and flaming essence scarabs of his anima to crawl all over and through the corpse, bidding the brash man of Dragon-Blooded descent farewell as he had so many others. At this point Kaj turned to Taiga, expecting some kind of response other than the one he was about to receive. Taiga nodded, then turned to his men and told them to clean up the mess, before turning back to Kaj and speaking to him for the first time.

“Come with me, and we can talk.” With that, he turned and strode away. Kaj, bewildered by the man’s control, had no choice. As they walked and conversed, half the people of the town still looked on him with fear, while the other half seemed to have mixed feelings of awe and wonder. Over the course of their walk, Taiga relayed to Kaj that there had been warriors not unlike himself in the past, some of them able to vanquish these underlings, some of them not. Though, he did admit with a chuckle that none of them but one had dispatched the men quite so wholly and quickly. But all of them, regardless of skill in combat, had failed upon entering the immense manse that was Wraak sint’Bannog’s mountainside ziggurat. The one who had seemed to be a particularly powerful individual had borne the same mark as Kaj upon his forehead. But he had ended up like all the rest, and shortly after a new group of soldiers came crashing into the city to exact the god’s vengeance.

Taiga and Kaj talked for a bit longer, detailing out the path leading up to the mountain palace, a mere few hours hike through the jungle. They had just arrived at Taiga’s beautiful home when Kaj thanked him and told him he would return when the job was done. Taiga looked questioningly at him, almost hesitantly.

Kaj assured him that he could handle the job, and though Taiga seemed a bit hesitant, he could tell that this one was different, and just might be able to, and found that despite his delicate position and the repercussion is might cause, he trusted him. For the sake of his people’s future here, he knew he had to. With that, Kaj thanked him again, and strode off toward the northern wall of the city. Taiga was about to tell him he was headed the wrong way, but somehow knew he would manage.

 

Part Two: Earning A Place

 

After having fought him here on his own turf for more than an hour, Kaj knew both from his own research and his prior conversation with Taiga that this was actually Wraak sint’Bannog, his first personal encounter with a god. He also realized that Wraak had calculatingly had his Ziggurat carefully built high against the side of this mountain, so as both to be able to view the land that was “rightfully” his from atop such a high perch, and to tap the natural energies found within and funnel them into his own personal store, which must have been what was giving him such strength and stamina in this fight. That was it!

With out even thinking about the consequences of such an action (that was twice today), he dodge/parried one final blow, placed his head low, and while temporarily banishing his daiklaive to Elsewhere, burst forward and pounded head-first into the monster’s chest, wrapping his arms around him and running full speed, driving him through the wall behind him, and through the next, and on through the next. With each wall came another horrible crashing sound, followed by falling stones and several searing blows on Kaj’s back by Wraak as he drove the nine-foot tall behemoth of a man with his grotesque, almost reptilian facial-features and thick leathery skin farther and farther from the temple’s core.

Finally, Kaj knew what was coming by the sounds of the wind whipping across the surface of the outer wall and with a last surge of energy, barreled forward and leapt with every once of strength he had left. They shot out the side of the Ziggurat in another explosion of ancient stone and mortar and went sailing out through the air several dozen yards and over the open expanse of the world below. While still being pummeled by Wraak despite the urgency of their predicament, Kaj let go of him, recalled Death’s Vespers to his side and the two combatants continued to fight in mid air and they plummeted down, down, down towards the jungle canopy below.

During the ascent, Kaj managed to somehow gain a little distance from the creature. While this left Wraak helpless to attack, Kaj simply called on another of his favorite techniques and let his marvelous eight-foot long weapon fly, tearing through the air with a horrible, deep, whirling-shriek, cutting deep gouts in the sides and appendages of the god he had come here with ever intention of merely talking to. Talk of peace often ended up taking a turn like this when he was involved, though the Bronzen skin and violet-flaming majesty around him might have seemed like an inadvertent threat. How he often missed Khald in moments like these.

With each strike, he could see his efforts were finally taking their toll on the beast, as evidenced by the miniscule ribbons of blood trailing through the air after their still-falling bodies. As they burst through the upper jungle-canopy, Kaj lost sight of Wrakk for a moment, and when he came back into view, both of them still several hundred yards above the jungle floor, Kaj could tell his adversary was beginning to heal slightly, and suddenly worried that this fight might not be over yet. Worrying about the price that Nanotsu and it’s inhabitants might have to pay if he failed, and with the pagan and unyielding god between he and the ground that was now hurrying into sight, Kaj screamed out one last time in the name of the Unconquered Sun and rather than preparing for impact, threw his beloved sword with all his might, using the force of his descent and driving it straight down hard after the monster. He lost both the beast and his sword in the rush of low-hanging branches that now whipped by him as the jungle floor suddenly broke through and everything went black.

As Kaj’s eyes fluttered open, for a moment he wondered where he was, thinking to himself this isn’t Chiaroscuro. As he came a little more to, he remembered both where he was and what had happened and jumped to his feet. It was only then that he realized that his arm was broken. Quite broken, actually, though the magic of his enchanted skin coupled with his magnificent hearthstone had kept his skin from being pierced during the fall. He rested his injured arm in his other hand, then looked up at the hole he had caused in his ascent from the mountain, and almost fell over again. He had forgotten that the Ziggurat was atop a bluff, though it was easy to explain why the fall seemed so long once he realized that it was easily a mile. As he looked to his shining bronze but broken arm, he was thankful that he’d had the foresight to use the spell before entering the lair of his foe. His foe!

The realization of battle potentially not yet completed brought Kaj whirling around in search of both his sword and its last target. Had he the Essence, he could have merely called it to his side. He caught a glimmer of gold through the underbrush, however, and pushed his way through. When he emerged into the little clearing, what he saw was both iconic and a little disturbing.

The hole in the jungle canopy above allowed the light of the sun to splay through just right so that it cast a beam down on the fallen god, almost like it was showing triumph over the darkness that was almost vanquished. As he walked closer, Kaj realized that his last throw had not only struck Wraak sint’Bannog square in the chest, it had driven him to the ground and gorged a solid three feet into the fertile earth itself, sticking out of the creature’s impaled chest by another four or five feet. Kajiff had to admire the god a bit though, for he still seemed to be gasping for air and twitching ever-so-slightly with each convulsive gulp. The creature’s hands were bloodied, his fingers severed to the point of falling off from grabbing at the blade from his prone position and trying to remove it.

Kaj, the battle-hardened general and seasoned warrior almost felt a pang of sympathy for the wretch. It was then that the creature somehow managed to turn his grotesquely misshapen, leathery head towards him, giving a chortled laugh and spewing blood all over the immediate area. The blood started a few minor fires where the spray landed, but Kaj paid them no mind as he focused on the task still at hand.

“You will never [cough] be the great general you aspire to be,” Wraak managed to choke out amidst the gurgling, his own life’s blood draining out of both his open maw and his many horrendous wounds and charring the otherwise untouched flora around him. “Your patron neither loves you, nor cares for your selfish dreams. And the people you are trying to protect should soon be receiving my final gift to them.”

He started to say something else, but before he could get anymore out, Kaj, feeling a surge of returning Essence, drew on the bond he shared with his sword, summoning his loyal steal through the air and towards his waiting grasp, the gory ripping motion and sound as it left Wraak’s body drawing a satisfying shriek of agony and despair. Kaj infused his body with another burst of Essence, allowing him to wield the mighty sword with his good arm, and with one fluid motion as the sword burst into his hand, he spun a full circle, bringing the sword and his fully-extended arm arcing high overhead and then down with all his might, driving straight through the neck of the no-longer smiling deity, ending after eons a reign of fear and death once and for all. And just like that, Wraak sint’Bannog was no more.

As Kaj stood there in the clearing ablaze with the golden/violet glow of his anima, mingled with a thousand reflections of the light streaming down through the hole in the canopy and glistening off both his bronzen skin and the golden breadth of his Orichalcum blade, he watched the monster fade from this life, wondering if it would ever make it back. As the toxic blood poured out of the now open wound and seeped into the ground, the surrounding flora began to wilt and fade. Kaj knew he had to dispose of the body, so he used his one good arm to hoist it over his shoulder and somberly began the long trek back up the mountain. Kaj was unable to completely quell the bleeding, thus the body left a steady dripping trail of poison and death behind him, almost like one final blow to the earth he no longer strode upon.

When he reached the Ziggurat and strode through its entrance for the second time that day, Kaj quickly disposed of the body and made his way cautiously through the newly-rubbled areas. After an hour or so he again found the throne room, or this place’s equivalent of one. The room was massive, its many ornately decorated wall hangings carved of the smooth, black molten rock found abundantly around this volcano. The room itself boasted fifty-foot high, arched ceilings, the breadth nearly twice that and the length triple, all roughly carved of stone and adorned with the same polished obsidian, glistening in the torch light provided by both he and the wall-mounted, essence-fueled torches.

As he approached the throne where he had first encountered the demon god, he veered slightly to the left and towards a pile of bodies, some of which seemed as ancient as this very hall. They were “the chosen” at various times throughout the years, picked by the people of Nanotsu to liberate them from their horrible curse. After each incursion, as told earlier by Taiga, Wraak rent horrible pain and suffering upon the people for their insolence, though with each new generation, some new vassal was either born into the town or traveled through it to take up their cause, a stalwart city forged by the ages, broken by the forgotten warnings of each prior generation.

This pile represented a sadistic time line, each layer telling a different tale of a different time, though each ended the same, and the pile Kaj now explored seemed to spread on more than was imaginably possible in the dark corner of the great hall. He found himself fortunate to still be emitting a fairly powerful light of his own to aid him. Something over here had caught his eye at first glance earlier that day however, and based on what Taiga had told him, he was determined to find it. And after a bit of searching and careful moving of a few of the deceased, he found him.

He peered cautiously at the golden bracer adorning the fallen warrior’s arm, knowing full well that its counterpart was likely adorning the other, though by the way it was twisted and bent underneath him it was hard to tell. He also took note of the belt the warrior was wearing, carefully removing it as well in his attempt to brandish the bracers. After carefully inspecting the strange and obviously powerful gear, but deciding not to brandish them until further scrutiny could be applied, he glanced down at the fallen solar, and found himself wondering how long until his own reckless abandon in combat would bring such a fate upon himself.

As he turned to exit, he looked to a spot by one of the two pillars bordering the entrance to the room, the spot where the now deceased apparition had managed to grapple him. He’d bitten down hard enough on his upper arm/shoulder that he actually pierced the effects of both his adamant hearthstone and his bronze skin, leaving a gash almost eight inches long running off of his shoulder. As Kaj looked to his shoulder now, he realized that the body he’d been carrying had bled into the wound, filling it and infusing the hole in his shimmering, metallic skin with a substance that Kaj couldn’t readily identify, though he knew he would need to have looked at as soon as possible.

He continued to contemplate both his wounds and his future until late that night as he left Nanotsu for yet another time, this one for a more extended period, if not permanently. The people of the town had wanted him to stay and had already begun building a statue of him in the middle of that same square he had faced down the brigands in, beginning the process of cleaning the land of the evil that had plagued it for so long.

As he looked back at the city one last time, he wondered how long a life like his might last, and for the first time since his exaltation, wondered what life would be like again if it slowed down a step from time to time.

But the sun was drawing low, and he knew it he had to get moving if he was going to make camp before it got too cold. So he turned his back on the city, comforted in the knowledge that something greater must lie ahead, and with the enchantment of his bronze skin fading slowly away, strode off into the sunset, alone.

NaNoWriMo

Everyone should be doing NaNoWriMo. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to find the time to sit down and write, so I’m looking forward to getting back at it! I started my novel almost seven years ago now, and have been taking notes and jotting things down since then. It feels good to finally take the next step. Wish me luck!

Laura

20150913_161543For those of you have yet to meet her, this is my beautiful, amazing little daughter, Laura, newly turned one month old. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, she is the cutest little kid in the history of the world. She also has an adorable smile that melts my heart — she gets it from her mom. Life is pretty amazing, and I just thought I would share that thought today. Along with this cute picture. And yes, there will be more to come.