The morning hadn’t quite come yet, but Palora was already starting to stir from her slumber, a smattering of early risers out and about on the streets. Yawning, exchanging pleasantries, making purchases from the few vendors dedicated enough to be open at this hour. This was normal for all of them; just another part of their daily routine. Until they saw the girl covered in blood tromping past, a quartet of Saints not far behind.
Still cold out. Alice grumbled to herself, giving one of the rubberneckers an irritated glare as she reached up to fasten her cloak. Even more reason to make this quick. All she needed to do was find the Patron.
“Derek, you’re sure Edrios’ forge is in this part of the Quarter?” The Saint asked over her shoulder, the nearest of her company responding with a firm nod.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve a cousin that was apprenticed to the Patron a few years back; visited a couple times, when he wanted to show off.” There was a pause. “Uh, ma’am…? You sure you don’t want to wash the blood off first?”
Alice shook her head. “Negative. It’ll help drive home the point.” The girl clenched her right hand into a fist. That we’re not playing games. “Now come on, pick up the pace. We have to meet Noah and the Captain at the barracks within the hour.”
“Ma’am!” Derek led the way, forging a path deeper into the Eastern Quarter, hesitating every now and then at a turning; his face flooding crimson with embarrassment once as he led Alice and the others into a dead-end street and had to double back. Still, the sun was only starting to rise as the Saint led his compatriots down a narrow lane and they began to hear the faint clangor of metal on metal that could only be a battle or a blacksmith’s shop. Smoke billowed from the chimney of a low stone edifice, the building roofed with what looked like freshly painted tiles. Even without the sound of hammer, tongs, and bellows, it was clear this was a forge; it was well-built, with considerate lines in traditional Paloran style. There was something modest about the structure, almost homely. It was far from palatial, to be certain. Perhaps it was a retreat from the temples and mansions of the city, a place where the Patron could come to spend time with his art.
Alice slowed her approach as they neared the forge, pausing to enjoy the almost soothing sound of steel on steel. Nearly a minute passed before, a sigh escaping her lips, the young woman moved to ascend the steps, her escort not far behind. Alright, let’s do this. She raised a hand to rap on the open door, eyes squinting as she peered through the smoke and into the smithy beyond.
A tall man within pumped the bellows, staring into the raging inferno of the open furnace. Each rhythmic hiss of air was answered by a burst of sparks and a hungry roar of flame from within. Edrios was a old man, but still hale, stripped to the waist in the heat shimmering in waves through the simple forge. Aged he may have been, but the Patron’s physique was anything but diminished. Cords of muscle and sinew stood out on his spare frame as he withdrew a red-hot blade from the forge’s depths. Lifting the hammer nearby, the ancient smith swung with the same easy pace he had used moments ago on the bellows. Metal rang, singing beneath each measured blow as Edrios directed the malleable steel, thinning and stretching, working down along each edge in turn. If the Patron was aware of his audience he gave no sign of it, shaping the metal for several minutes before lifting his tongs and plunging the still-hot brand into the quenching trough. Steam hissed and billowed from the water, forming a haze that glistened in the creases of his weathered skin. At length the artisan set aside hammer and tongs, lifting an oily scrap of cloth from a nearby bench and rubbing it over his hands, though if he meant to clean them with that filthy rag it seemed a futile effort. “A blade is a dance of elements. Earth and air, fire and water, all in their proper measures, bound together by sweat and toil.”
This wasn’t the first time that Alice had seen the Patron at work; there had been a demonstration in the Western Quarter, nearly five years prior. Back then, she’d been able to admire the skill that went into the work — the blood, sweat, and tears that it took to operate a forge day in and day out for the better part of one’s life. Yet she hadn’t been able to truly appreciate the craftsmanship. The splendor that each product possessed in its moment of birth, the result of hours — sometimes days — of careful adjustments all compressed into a single instant. She’d been too young to know better, but more than that, she’d been too sure of herself. Too certain that beauty was meant to last forever. “I… regret not knowing the steps, but I can appreciate the result.” Alice drew her scimitar from its scabbard, almost presenting it to the blacksmith. “You forged this. Probably almost a decade ago now.”
Edrios ran a hand over his bald pate, peering at the blade with eyes gone watery from years of staring into the forge. After a moment he held out a hand for the weapon. “Many blades have passed through these hands.”
Alice inclined her head, properly proffering the sword to the man. “I hope that all of their recipients are as pleased with your work… as thankful for it as I am. It’s saved my life more times than I can count.”
The Patron accepted the blade, taking a half-step back to give himself room and sweeping the blade through an easy set of looping arcs. At length he grunted, offering the scimitar back to Alice. “What brings the Saints to my forge this early?”
The young woman smoothly returned the blade to its place, standing straight as she met the Patron’s rheumy blue eyes. “We come bearing a message. The Conclave is to meet this morning, to address the matter of the Quisling running free in the streets. My compatriots and I were bid to rouse you,” Alice gave him a grim smile, “though it seems that will be unnecessary.”
“The Quisling.” Edrios frowned slightly, reaching out and touching the haft of his hammer in what seemed a reflexive gesture. “Some blades were flawed from the forge. A fault in the metal from poor purification.”
“Couldn’t agree more.” Alice murmured, one of her hands rising to cover her shoulder - the Divine Shield, a gesture common among those who followed Illyra’s creed. “She’s been sighted tonight — or yesterday night now, I suppose — roaming Palora with a band of Blighted scum at her back. The Saints have been out since before midnight searching for her.”
“‘The Night may belong to the Wyrm, but the Day is ours.’” The old man replied, quoting a passage from The Book of Agemon. “Your compatriots have need of you,” continued the Patron, making the sign of Phastos’ Hammer in benediction over Alice, “go, and may Baan watch over us all in this dark hour.”
“May all the gods watch over us.” The Saint replied in kind, bowing once more before she turned to depart, motioning for her squad to follow her lead. Next stop, the barracks. Alice allowed her free hand to fall to the hilt of her scimitar. And whatever fresh heck awaits us there.
Sykes gazed up at the Palora Civic Library, the imposing, if slightly drab edifice regarding him as a bear regarded a fly. Or a wyrm regards a man. The Saint crossed his arms, glancing back at his men. “Wait here. I’ll find the Headmistress and deliver the message.”
The soldiers gave him a salute, and Sykes turned and strode into the building, his hands falling back to his sides. Let’s get on with this.
Palora’s library sprawled. There was really no other way to describe it. Within, the entryway had once yawned as a great and cavernous welcoming hall of marble; now it was packed with towering shelves filled with rank upon rank of books and bin after bin of scrolls. The city’s Headmasters had valued the collection of knowledge over the aesthetics of the once opulent interior. And this was simply the first of dozens of chambers and reading rooms, strewn with a collection of antique tables and chairs, little nooks and student corrals. Lamps hung upon the wall, their glass enclosures made of two thick panes. The water between the glass served a double purpose: magnifying the light cast by the flame within, and serving as a defense against fire should one of the lamps fall. It might be early in Palora, but knowledge knew no rest, and even at this hour an attendant in the robes of Greva stood at the reference desk wedged in between a pair of sweeping marble stairs rising up towards the second floor.
Sykes cast a quick, appraising look around the room, taking note of a few familiar titles before he approached the counter, slowing to a stop as he drew close. “Good morning. I was wondering if you might be able to direct me to where the Headmistress is currently conducting her research?” He flashed a smile. “I have an urgent message for her regarding the Conclave.”
The woman behind the counter frowned slightly, though it was no doubt a reaction to Sykes’ message rather than any sort of disapproval at the intrusion of a Saint into her domain. Her eyes flicked up and to the left, towards some distant upper chamber no doubt, before returning to the man before her. “Do you have an appointment, sir? The Headmistress left orders that she was not to be disturbed.”
“And I have orders from both the Quartermaster and the Supplicant which require me to do just that.” Sykes sighed, mirroring the attendant’s glance. “If you’d like, I can make clear just how important the message is, but I’d prefer to do so in private. The information is… sensitive right now, and might cause a panic if I were to mention it out in the open.”
Biting her lip as her eyes darted up towards that distant chamber again, the woman behind the counter hesitated and then shook her head. “You’ll find her in the transposition room, on the third floor.” After another moment of hesitation the woman opened a nearby drawer, drawing out an old brass key. “Just… don’t knock, please? She hates being interrupted by knocking.”
The Saint gave a shallow bow, nodding as he accepted the key. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you for your assistance.” He crossed the short distance to the stairs, taking care to be quiet as he made his way up to the third floor. There was no need to disturb the other seekers of knowledge that had risen this early. After a bit of searching, he managed to locate the door to the transposition room, sliding the brass key smoothly into the lock and pushing gently inward.
Tajea was small for her age, a delicate form dwarfed by the massive oaken table running the length of the room. She was seated on a stool, apparently eschewing the high-backed chairs running down one side of the table. Then again, the Headmistress was bent low over the scarred and battered surface anyway, peering intently at an old and dusty scroll rolled out before her. Lifting her quill with a deft, long-fingered hand, Tajea copied down several lines from the scroll into the book next to her in a neat, precise script before depositing the implement once more into the nearby inkpot. Now freed of their burden, her ink-stained fingers hooked a tendril of long black hair that had worked its way free of her hasty braid up over an ear, leaving behind a sooty mark on her forehead.
Fiery green eyes narrowed slightly in contemplation of the scroll before her, nearly a match for the emerald shawl folded about her slender shoulders, bare beneath the thin cloth. In fact, so far as Sykes could see from the entryway, the Headmistress was unshod, bare feet curled beneath herself. It looked as though she was wearing her bedclothes, a light dressing gown topped with the bright shawl as some concession to the slight chill in the room, as though Tajea had come here directly from her bed chamber. There was nothing coquettish about the girl though, merely the implication that her mind was occupied with other matters than her somewhat disheveled appearance.
Sykes wavered for a moment before he passed into the room, the heady scent of freshly applied ink and age old parchment crashing into him like a wave. Days spent bowed over a desk like this one — smaller and shabbier certainly, but no less fit for purpose — came rushing back. Long days where he scarcely moved a muscle, his nose mere millimeters from the vellum as he scrutinized one glyph set after another. Dietrich’s Gems and Scales was far from the foremost text on Palora’s economy, but it provided the historical context for its observations that many similar works lacked. That was what had drawn him to it; the promise that it might be able to answer the question burning in his mind. If he could explain how the imposition of the wyrm had given rise to the city’s self-sufficient agricultural operation then--
The Saint raised a hand to his head, grimacing as his eyes squinted shut. No. That was a long time ago. He swallowed the bile that had risen into his throat and forced himself to look at the Headmistress, the girl still so absorbed in her work that she hadn’t even noticed his entrance. It was… admirable, in a way. Before he could stop himself, Sykes continued forward, craning his neck so he could steal a look over the scholar’s shoulder.
It was an old scroll; its ink faded and edges crumbling from age. Tajea peered at it closely for several long moments before lifting her quill again. With a careful movement she tapped the tip of the quill against the rim of the inkpot, scraping off the excess liquid before copying down another line of precise figures in a language the Saint did not recognize. “A copy of the Book of Agemon, translated to Kieli approximately three centuries ago.” The Headmistress’ voice was surprisingly melodious, a soft soprano that seemed somehow just right for her. “You can tell by the finials, as well as the line spacing. Kieli scholars would often leave additional spaces between lines, a practice that was thought to allow space for the truth of the text to come through.” She considered the scroll for a moment before continuing. “An interesting idea, but a waste of valuable paper. Kielan was a small island, and had no lumber to spare for pulping. As a result, their scholars made do with hide scrolls, and the few remaining examples of Kieli books fetch exorbitant prices among collectors. One must admit that the content is… problematic. The translation is poor, frankly. Daranion’s retelling was never officially sanctioned by the Will of Baan, and in several instances skirts heretically close to agreement with passages from the Book of the Wyrm.”
The Saint was silent as the young woman spoke, his eyes carefully perusing the paper as he took note of the features she brought to light. There was something comfortable about the way her words flowed; a soothing regularity that might have been self-confidence, or some similar emotion. “Religious history isn’t my area of expertise, though I’d like to think most every Paloran scholar,” he averted his gaze, “has touched on it in some form in the course of their research. It is… difficult to avoid. Still, it strikes me that the practice of leaving such spaces might have its roots in arithmetic. The idea of space producing some greater truth - it mirrors the format you would come across in any number of merchant logs from the period, where excess space would be left between the component factors and the ultimate result. The Kieli might well have thought that they could apply the same concept to more scholarly pursuits. At least as a form of presentation.”
Tajea looked up from her work, blinking several times slowly. Her smile was tentative, almost endearing really, and the angle of her face disclosed the smear of ink across her young brow. “I’m afraid I don’t know you, Saint.”
Sykes sheepishly allowed his attention to wander along the shelves which adorned the room’s walls. “Lieutenant Noah Sykes, Headmistress. I was instructed to deliver you a message, but it felt rude to interrupt your work while providing nothing but grief in return. So,” he shrugged, “I can only hope what knowledge I possess will suffice.”
“No knowledge is without value, Lieutenant Sykes.” Uncurling gracefully from her perch, Tajea shifted up to her feet and shyly shrugged the shawl a little tighter around her shoulders, looking a touch self-conscious. The young woman was a few inches shorter than Sykes, and favored him with another smile that was edged with embarrassment. “Please excuse my… condition. I get restless some nights and the work is soothing.”
The Lieutenant coughed politely into a hand and favored her with a look. “I’m an insomniac myself, so I can empathize. Doing anything is often better than doing nothing at all.” He glanced back down at her work, a little grin touching his lips. “However, I fear that my own remedies are a touch less involved. I normally just take walks and… think.”
“There are worse things, Lieutenant.” Tajea straightened, curling her hand around the folds of the shawl and clearing her throat. “You said that you had a message?”
“Ah, yes.” The man settled comfortably into parade stance, throwing the young woman a salute. “Courtesy of both the Quartermaster and the Supplicant. They’ve asked me to inform you that they intend to convene the Conclave this morning to discuss the matter of the Quisling. She’s been spotted in Palora, and is believed to have caused no end of trouble.” Sykes bit his lower lip, eyeing Tajea for a few seconds before he continued. “Paladin Tahir is dead. Seemingly at her hand.”
“Teretex,” the Headmistress’ tone was dismissive, “does not give me orders.” Something in those emerald eyes hardened for a second, though she sighed a moment later. “But for Merkia…” Tajea trailed off, her expression taking on a troubled cast. “I never cared for Paladin Tahir, but then, I never knew Paladin Bhayan.” She turned, glancing back at her scrolls and books. “I wonder if she would consent to an interview if she is captured…”
This one’s feisty. Sykes lightly drummed the fingers of his free hand against their corresponding leg. “Speaking as a soldier, Paladin Tahir was competent. Never extraordinary, but capable enough. Paladin Bhayan, however… I only served under her command while in basic training, so my own knowledge is limited. She had a spark though - something that made her stand out from the crowd. Still does, if all of this is any indication.” He frowned briefly, hand clenching into a fist. “I was able to interrogate one of her brood earlier this morning; if the Quisling is anything like her underlings, she should at least be interesting to speak with.”
“There has never been an extensive study done of the long-term effects of the Blight on subcutaneous tissues. The Temple of Baan always claims the bodies of the Blighted.” Tajea paused for a long moment. “Do you think Bhayan would be willing to donate her remains for examination?”
“I…” There was a brief stretch of silence, the Saint’s expression a microcosm of his thought process. “I suppose. Knowing what little I do about her, I think she’d find a sort of perverse amusement in doing so, just to spite the Temple and the rest of the top brass. I’m unsure that her motivations would especially matter given your intent, so it’s all the same in the end.”
“Think of all the things we could learn if we…” Tajea broke off, blushing. “I… forgive me, please. Sometimes I let my eagerness get the better of me. I had best prepare for the meeting. Thank you for bringing me this message.”
“It was my pleasure, ma’am.” Sykes gave her a bow before he straightened and turned to depart. “My apologies if I distracted you from--” The ground beneath them gave a sudden lurch, the shelves shuddering as a few tomes were sent crashing to the floor. The Lieutenant just as abruptly spun on his heel, moving to the Headmistress’ side to steady her as the quake’s reverberations slowly faded away. “Are you alright?” He asked, glancing down at her.
Tajea gripped Sykes’ arm tightly as the room began to rattle and shake, leaning against the Saint for support with wide eyes. “Earth tremor? But there hasn’t been an earth tremor in Palora since…” The young woman frowned, perhaps unable to place the last occurance of that particular phenomenon, or perhaps disturbed by remembering when it had been. “You should… return. I need to get dressed.”
Sykes felt his cheeks flush, turning his head aside once more as he murmured an agreement before parting from her, moving swiftly for the door. He slowed before passing through the entryway, however, sending her one final glance. “I enjoyed the conversation. So you’ve no need to apologize for that.” With that, he was gone, the sound of the man’s footsteps echoing softly as he padded down the hall.
This wasn’t the first time that Jana had stared down her demise. In fact, it could hardly be called her first brush with death today. Yet, there was something different — something more inevitable about the devastation of kobolds bearing down on her, flames seeking to devour them just as they made the same promise to her. There was no mercy in the creatures’ inhuman silver eyes, no chance that they could be convinced to stop and turn aside. Their lives had only one purpose, and not even death would dissuade them from their next meal.
Hope they choke on me. The former Saint lifted her head, ignoring the pain that shot through her neck as she glared wordless hate at the reptiles. Inevitable or not, it didn’t mean that she had to like it.
Then the entire world went to heck.
There was a deep, resounding crash, and suddenly the kobolds were scattered on the winds. The sound was almost deafening, swallowing even the creatures’ psionic cries as they fell, terrified, to their deaths. What…? Jana distantly heard her cousin’s voice calling out another warning — one which she was powerless to heed. The gale had already claimed her for its own. She was sent tumbling along the ground, all of her hurts igniting anew until she finally rolled to a stop, flat on her back now as she stared up at the shadowed ceiling.
“... A-ahhh…!” Jana barely recognized the sound of her own voice; it had never sounded so soft and weak to her ears. Or so high… Her leg was bleeding again — she could feel its slickness on the stones — and her injured arm was bent at an awkward angle. Everything felt so faint though, as though her whole body had been wreathed in cotton. And what about Strasna and Hendrik? Were they okay? She’d never really gotten to know Hendrik, now that she thought about it, and if he was going to marry her cousin then… Jana blinked, a muted sigh spilling forth from her lips.
Focus. You need to… Needed to what? Jana didn’t really feel up to much right now, but if it was important… Survive. That was it. She had to survive. That bleeding had to be staunched then, and some stitches applied soon after. Where was her first aid kit? Captain Edgerton had always made sure that they were all carrying one before they set out on a ranging. Had she lost it somehow during the fight?
The Saint tried to push herself upright, but found that she could barely move. That’s strange. Jana thought, a lazy smile on her lips as she stared up into the blooming light. I thought I was underground.
“What’s wrong, birdie? Had your wings clipped?” The voice was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it. “Going to surrender now, when you’re so very close?”
Jana’s brow furrowed, and she tried to form words with her mouth. Of course she wasn’t going to give up; there was still so much that she wanted to do. If she was lucky, maybe she’d even be Paladin one day — just like her cousin.
“Get those delusions out of your head already!” This voice was higher, reedier, and yet suffused with authority. “Strasna-- No, the Quisling closed those doors for us. Slammed them shut! If we’re going to survive in this city, then we’re going to have to reinvent ourselves. You’re a vital part of that process, Jana, and it’s about time you acted like it.” She flinched, turning away from the rebuke. “... I’m sorry, sis. But I can’t do this alone. You’re a Bhayan too, and you’re in a position to be what the Quisling wasn’t. Honorable. You can save us, arrest our fall.”
No. No, I’m not. I can’t. Jana shook her head, tears falling freely from her eyes as her vision blurred. I’m sorry, Lena, but I’m dirty. Unclean. An oathbreaker. She was unfit to be the family savior, just like she was unfit to be part of the family. Any family.
“I’m to marry the Lady Rhodes — Ashlyn, I suppose I’m to call her now — when I return from this deployment. With that authority, I’ll be able to form my own squad. I’d like you to join as my second, Jana.”
All she’d done was try to be what everyone wanted of her. The perfect daughter. The fierce warrior. The dutiful subordinate. Every one of those had come to naught in the end, and so she’d run. Jana had never been able to forget though, could never put the possibilities from her mind. What if…
What if I’d been better?
“What if, indeed.” The light had become darkness now, the voice which issued forth from it low and clear. “What if I told you that there was still a path open to you? A way for you to find your own place, without all of those bothersome expectations getting in the way?”
Jana watched the blackness, waiting for whatever had spoken to step forth, yet it seemed content to remain hidden for now. The former Saint sighed and tried to force words through her lips again, forming the shapes slowly, one by one. ‘I don’t believe you.’
A laugh followed, ending in what Jana somehow knew was a grin. “Of course you don’t. Trust doesn’t come easily to you, does it? You don’t even trust yourself.” It paused, allowing the silence to stretch. “That’s okay. You don’t need to trust yet. Be honest though, don’t you wish you had a way out of this?”
Yes, badly. So badly you can’t even imagine it. Jana tried to move her head enough to nod in response, but found that she couldn’t even manage that anymore. A stray thought entered her head, and a shiver shot down the injured woman’s spine. I’m dying.
“You are. But you don’t need to. There’s still time, you know. Plenty in your current state, but fading fast.” A sound echoed through the darkness surrounding her, easily recognizable in the absence of all other noise. A footstep. “Just let me help you.”
“... Al-right.” Jana croaked, closing her eyes as she heard the unknown entity resume its approach. She had nothing else left to lose, so why not? Maybe whatever her addled mind had dreamed up would give her some peace in the end.
It chuckled, far closer now, and the former Saint thought she felt the air around her shift. Then something grabbed her leg, and Jana hissed in pain.
“Shh.” The voice whispered, the tips of its nail-like fingers gently caressing her broken arm. “The pain will be over soon. You’ll see.” You’ll see what you can be. The sound slithered its way into her head, soothing away the agony and the aches as the world behind her eyelids started to brighten. Just remember, next time you need help…
Jana’s eyes shot open, her body bolting upright as she frantically searched for the kobold she’d felt on top of her. It’s… gone? The former Saint forced herself to slow down, dragging an arm up to wipe the sweat from her forehead. Wherever the creature had gone, it was no longer here. Jana let out a relieved sigh, the sound morphing into laughter as she pushed herself off the stones. I’m getting way too paranoid these--
The young woman froze. The pain in her leg was gone. My arm too. Jana thought as she considered the limb, unable to find any evidence that it had ever been broken in the first place. It looked good as new. Except, of course, for the new patch of Blighted skin on the underside of the limb. She inhaled, then took a hesitant glance down at her leg. The skin around her lower calf had suffered the same fate, now as black and dead as that of her left arm.
How…? She’d never heard of the Blight spreading beyond its appointed place, much less to two additional body parts. Jana paled. What if… A sudden stab of pain erupted in her skull, practically doubling the woman over again.
The fit passed just as quickly as it had come, the sound of armored footsteps audible through the lingering haze. Swearing softly as she glanced back at the others, the warrior woman retrieved her lucerne, taking the hammer in hand for the first time since her escape. Protect them now, worry later. Jana thought grimly, moving to interpose herself between her allies and the entrance. There’d be no point in worrying if they didn’t survive.