Hampton rolls his cigar in his mouth, a thin veil of sugar and saliva congealing over his lips. A dry cough bubbles up as he spews smoke toward my face. "What do you make a' this one, Bolt?"
I slide my disgust back inside my duster, fishing the gloves from within. Their silk and leather stretch across my fingers; a shield from the leeching tendrils of his aura. How this man ever made captain, I will never understand. Useless humans and their fringer habits.
This city has an anathema. A far cry from my Feathertongue. From the stone inlays to the cracked cobblestone, everything here...is wet. A thick film already sticks to my coat; I am slick with it. The stink of liquor, tears, and regret. No wonder the dragonborn left.
It is a girl this time. Eyes still open, gazing up at the stars when life left her. It seems she was smiling when she died; a curious dichotomy to the twisted mess of flesh and bone that lay beneath her, like a gnarled bit of discarded meat. The spriggan, a frail stick of a creature, was snapped several times - no cuts, no bruises, just...broken. The girl; fine silk and cashmere, beautiful rings without the sigil of a house, circlet and bracelets that hold the dress of sky and water together, framing her fine corset and flowing curves. A young maiden - fleeing from the confines of her noble city to consummate her brigand of a boy.
They thought they were safe. A pretty, pretty princess playing too far from the eyes of her guards.
I tug at the fingers of my glove; the last one yielded so little. Will this one yield more? I'll never forget it...but it may provide another piece to this spectral puzzle. I exhale long and slow, then rip the glove off, pressing two fingers upon the girl's forehead. I poor my will through the conduit forged of my precursor and wait.
Hammering rain. Soft flutters of breath. A suppressed giggle. Soaked feet. Blurred sight. A tiny chill, but too late to act.
The images are slow at first, like trickling water. But the flood increases. I feel her heart rise, her blood boiling in anticipation. Excitement. Terror. Uncertainty. Absolute fear. Ecstasy. Numb. Falling and staring. A woman; clad in leathers and covered in blood. She paints the wall, singing to herself, as I feel life drain from me - blood washed away by the rain, seeping between the stones. She finishes her symphony upon the wall, and watches me with dread curiosity in my last moments. Her eyes transfix me - hold me there, too big, too bright, too alive.
I return, and my hands are shaking. That woman...never blinking. I suppress the shudder, but the words escape me before I can bite my tongue. "...Druid."
"What'd you say?"
I pull the glove back on as I rise, stealing one last glance at the princess. You never should have left home, little girl. These nights are cold and full of murder. Spinning on my heels, I address the captain. "This was a mercy killing, my dear Hamp. ...Now, be a good boy and close her eyes for me."
"Excuse me? Why?"
"Because... I do not sully my hands with the bodies of traitors."
Copper and salt. A curious taste. A hint of ash, eyes cold and calculating; much calmer than the flock he keeps. Is he to be my next brush?
My mind wanders these streets, eager and hungry. Such rapture carries on the wind; a feather of rushing anticipation. It flows on the wind, dampened by the rain, and settles on the rivers between buildings. Ripples of displaced water, summoned by thousands of impacts, push and pull it down a meandering path. It glides through whispers, steps, and regrets; gazes upon the secrets held in dark alleys and thrown down deep holes.
A couple dashing past in the night, giggling under soaked parchment stacks in a stolen embrace. They splash through rain hammers, and though she stammers, he insists upon another kiss. The feather floats by, a single prying eye, and I linger just a bit longer on her neck.
A slight tug, a simple caress, I trace the line down her back, holding firm her hair and tasting her lips once before the gentle prick. Warm rivulets of paint flow from her form, flooding my palms with inspiration while I hold her in the kiss. Her body grows weak in my arms, unable to resist the warmth ebbing out of her. She gives me her brush willingly, and I prune its threads with a simple snap, her hair cascading down with her frame, folding like silk upon the crumpled rags he brought to the symphony.
I dip the brush, and in the strokes I see my mistress, soaked to the bone in wine and gold. She turns and laughs, effervescent and heated, rising steam from the trenches and parapets of stone. Taunting and challenging, she wields me. I know myself to be a weapon in her eyes. But it is My Beloved whose feathers I follow; it is his call to the night that guides my step. And it is his face that finishes the sonata I have scribbled upon these walls.
I sigh at the splatter; a red canvas to enjoy. My city and its tears - they cry for me, cry out for my art - and send a spectrum of color over the stone. Oil and water and blood and ice.
Now she is beautiful. Now she is mine.
Father Tobias rose through the ranks of the faith quickly, demonstrating generosity, equanimity, and a strong sense of social justice. He mastered Study of the Six, the Tenets of the Severed, and the treatise on the Weave of the Aasimar. He stood as the voice of the people; even and just, mighty in his quest to restore balance to the world...
These were the words we were fed. But none of that bravado is present in this arena. We gather, the lonely few, voices of the tempest, to witness a fall from grace.
Surrounded by the smooth walls and marble columns of the arena, I lay claim to a perch in the back arch, my tall frame always an asset in scanning the crowd. I watch the Sons of Kormin, the ex-smilies of Grinraker, waddle themselves into their seats, mumbling like old toads. Sit down, fools, you're late. The Erinyes Cosette, Marilith's Marigold, even the Forgotten Friar, our resident conspiracy artist, was allowed in. I don't know whose pockets were lined, but this speaks true of a need for public view. Everyone wants to know the fate of Tobias Crosswind.
The trial is already underway, House Orquida leading the accused:
“Here stands the accused. Father Tobias Crosswind of the Severed Wing. You are hereby charged with Conspiracy and Discord against the Seven Houses. Your coordinated attack on the evening of the Sun and Moon, Daylink the 3rd, keeps you here. You will allow the spell to take full effect. If you do not, this humble servant will rend the head from your shoulders."
A tiny chuckle moves through the gathered cattle. I watch a few even lick their lips. Disgusting pigs - head down to Utriena sometime. I dare you.
Instead, this journalist watches Tobias. Standing in the center of the raised sandstone, a slate of glass and runes, he is visibly shaking. Sweat pours from his head, his long hair now matted with stink and fear. I watch his eyes as they scan the House Heads. The cold voices of Orquida, the judgmental glare of Snapdragon, a floating mote of an arcane eye watching from Amaranth's chair. As Aster clicks away at a typewriter, the Blades of Elysium stand with swords drawn, surrounding the chamber - ready for anything. His trembling gaze rests on the throne of Krokus, where a set of eyes watch him intently. I wonder if he seeks forgiveness, or mercy now.
My hair stands on end as the arcane circle engages. Flecks of runic parchment, like shreds of light and radiance, peel away from the sandstone pedestal, floating around the priest. Each casts a burst of light onto his face as it passes. At first, he just flinches, but as they pass faster and faster, the light becomes an overwhelming shutter. Most of us look away - but my eyes are skilled. I lean in.
Tobias begins to scream. Silently. He reels back from the spell, arching his form in its place, as if he had forgotten somehow that his feet had been sunk into the stone when he entered. I watch his knees try to move, and he nearly falls backwards. Veins protrude from his forehead, blood rushing to his face.
He is resisting the spell.
With a resounding pop, the runic pages fall, slipping back into the glass as if they never moved. Father Tobias, now driven to his knees, sits panting on the platform.
A moment passes, and all eyes flick to the sound of sliding steel. The featureless Speaker of Orquida draws its black rapier. But before he can move, another form rises from Krokus, and I feel a grin creep along my weary face.
Landing in the arena with a thrum of energy, sending sand and dust whipping into the crowd - this is why I perch - is a strong and simple form. Riding leathers and a beaten jacket hanging open to reveal the black scales of an armored tank top, stands Lyla Ironwood. With nothing but a look, the Speaker nods in respect, and sheathes its blade. A hush moves through the crowd, eager to witness whatever way the Head of Line seeks to "rend" this enemy of the state. They crane their necks and strain their ears - fools and folly - while I adjust my piece. It pays to be in the business of secrets...
Every step of the Ironwood is filled with grim intent, but every step is slow. I watch the priest shrink away with each one, becoming smaller and smaller in his fine robes and silken vestiges. Turning the crank of my piece, I watch her with great interest. The gifts of my mothers before me slide along the weave and I am there, seemingly standing before them, the only one privy to this conversation.
Lyla's voice is smooth, low, and full of authority. I feel it resonate in the base of my spine. I can see Tobias feels it, too, as she steps onto the platform herself. I can hear the whispers around me, but I push them out. I don't want to miss this. Her face inches from his, her words are deliberate and meaningful.
“You are spineless. Sworn to do no harm by your station, yet unable to think around the blade at your throat. What you hide matters not from me…but you have crossed a difficult line. …Ute.”
The priest stands shaking with her words, and I dare say a streak of genuine fear runs through him as we all watch the spell engage once more, flowing over both of them. The radiant pages cascade over Lyla and the priest, unable to look away from her. His face twitches in resistance, but softens quickly, calm falling over his entire form. I should note, though, that Lyla never changes. She confirms what we of the Sisterhood already know; Lyla Ironwood does not hide.
The Zone of Truth now engaged, Lyla continues with another solemn nod to the Speaker.
"You stand accused of working against the Seven Houses - among other charges. How do you plead, Precursor?"
Tobias swallows, eyes like dinner plates. "...Not guilty."
Lyla's gaze never wavers. "Explain."
"I, I was not present at the gathering. I was held up in my ship, preparing to arrive, when the attacks transpired."
"...Your presence was witnessed by several tens of guests shortly before the first summoning. You were indeed present."
"That's impossible! I would remember such a thing. You invited me; I was still upon the..." Tobias falters, eyes glazing over, and Lyla stepping back. She tilts her head at him. "The uh... Where is Father Ventus?"
And it is now that this lonely journalist feels the small tug at her sleeve; a signal bought with coin and promises. I resist, just a moment longer, the magic fading as I turn back to the scene...and meet the gaze of Lyla Ironwood.
I return to my perch, wiping the sweat from my brow and pressing a coin into the halfling's hand. If she saw me, she made no move of it. Full of surprises, that one.
This one admits to missing a few words to catch my breath. Such is the price of secrets. The Speaker confirmed suspicions, and I listen to the chatter. The great Father Tobias has no functional memory of the gala, its events, nor the strange string of attacks upon the towers. He continues to ask, like a puppy without a master, where Father Ventus is. He demands that he be brought before the Houses to confirm his story.
Lyla remains in the center, pacing around the priest like a predator stalking prey. "This was an organized strike upon each House, ineffective though it was. Strategically, I dare say it mirrored skirmishing parties and scouting techniques; like they were searching for something. ...What would Ventus be seeking?"
"I have no knowledge of this creature's intentions! Ventus is still upon his pilgrimage in Oroboros. I travelled here alone!"
Lyla's circle stops as she stares long and hard at Tobias's form, sizing him up and tearing him down. From this distance, its difficult to see, but a slight change in the rounding of her shoulders sends a chill up my spine. When she speaks again, her voice is laced in fire and venom. "Few things anger me so in this world of masks and mirrors than blatant, and overt, incompetence." And with a deep breath, she stands tall again, striding and leaping back to her seat.
Tobias begins to plead with those assembled. "Please. I know not what transpired! I am only but a humble servant of the Severed Wing - you asked me to be here and I came, please, I-
Elian Rook, Head of House Snapdragon, cuts in with a knowing glare. "This council believes your testimony, Precursor, but your leadership and your organization are deemed untrustworthy. You are hereby exiled from the city of Stormwrack, never to return.”
The Speaker draws his blade once more, the sound sending a grim chill through all of us. “Amaranth watches, Aster remembers, and Orquida keeps your head. Your body will be free to roam after that.”
"So it is done. You are hereby stripped of your title of the Faith. You will be escorted from the city personally out of respect for our previous relations. But do not return; under threat of death without trial. ...Goodbye, Tobias Crosswind." Elian finishes the sentence, and a shattering of stone echoes through the chamber as the sandstone platform shatters. A shocked Tobias stands in the shifting sands, unbelieving and struck dumb. The Blades move forward, hoisting him up and gliding from the space. Elian addresses us all. “Ventus is an enemy of the state, Tobias in exile. In turn, we now elect Father Horace and Father Striade as representatives of the Faith."
The heavy iron doors behind me swing open, sending a rush of wind into the cold chamber. Two forms glide into the room, taking the stage with speed and poise. One smiles out at the crowd; a warm, inviting smile offset only by the glowing white eyes of an Enlightened. A slightly rotund man in well-worn robes. Safe. The other looms behind him, heels clicking with precision and posture. A sinewy form in pristine vestiges, recently pressed.
"Father Horace has demonstrated to be fair and sympathetic to the worlds below, while Father Striade is an accomplished master of tactics that seeks to serve the greater good. Their Zealots come from our own stock of the court, so respect will be maintained and the Old Code honored. We trust that this shift will be most enlightening moving forward. Thank you for your time and attention. Lo There."
"LO THERE." We respond, as we have been trained to do, before applause erupt from those assembled, washing over the pit in this one's stomach. Father Horace has always been a pleasant man, and he wears this face well, bowing deeply to each house - catching eyes, touching hands. Striade stands tall behind his arching form, instead scanning the thrones that encircle him. He makes eye contact with many, nods to a few, but the look is not of respect; he is calculating. This lonely journalist has had the pleasure of history wash over her before. Colonel Artemik Striade was a crusader beyond the Rim. A tactician at heart, he studied the Brood for years before unleashing hell upon the enemies of Io herself. I remember the burning corpses most of all; it was my first story. I met him then, starstruck and shaken. And he looked at me like this. A tool; a weapon; a pawn.
Most regard him in silence, but it is Lyla Ironwood who moves. It is slight, but telling. She sits forward but a few inches, meeting his gaze, and I watch his feet shift beneath his robes. Lyla is the seventh seat for a reason. She is the challenge; the thing that stands between those who accept power and those who seek to take it. Her eyes, the red paint in wild slashes upon her visage, hold all of our breath hostage. A glare that could topple mountains.
But it is the shaking leaf of her second at her side that draws my eye. A flutter in her chest, the beads of sweat that now form at her brow, and the cruel hooks of a smile that draw back the Priest’s lips.
I have seen this look before, and this time I will keep my mouth shut.
But not my pen. Never the pen.
I see you, Colonel Striade. I see you.
Submitted, as always,
For the people,
The Erastrynn Sisterhood
It begins with a flash of light upon the slate, illuminating the stoic figures of Stormwrack's citadels. Ink blots of water smash against the windows of his place. High rise; good rent. My legs swing over the edge while I idly check the fresh bruising on my abdomen. "Damn eldritch kahna..." A Steamrail flows through the tunnel of the tower, only a few hundred feet below me, and I feel the heat and steam rise, pushing my matted hair out of my face. A fresh flash of lightning illuminates the Northstar Arena and the seven glowing towers of the Tyrium Court. If I didn't know better, I'd swear I'd spotted one of the arcane eyes of the stinkin' Amaranthine themselves.
So thanks, Rayph. At least you had a decent view of your own chains. I raise a glass to the lightning, and finish the bottle with a finger to the heavens...
It's midnight before we know it. We're soaked and freezing but we share the drag anyway. Something simple this time, just to warm our bones. An empty shooter sits at our hips. A third occupies the empty space next to me, filled to the brim with firewater whiskey, just the way he liked it.
The shot still spitting fire in my throat, I take the silence with solace and trace the line of his name in the brass dog tags I now find hanging around my neck. They were sent to me while I nursed my ribs back into place.
Benjin sits to my left. The smallest of us, but toned to a fault. The guy rarely stops moving, and he's as sharp as a tack. Boasts he feels no pain; body's a temple and all that, I guess. With a drawn breath, he starts.
"The first time I met Rayph I was in a gutter. I remember the rain hammering my back; broken nose, laughing blokes nearby. Seven lugs without a good heart among 'em. We laid them out - brothers born in battle..."
"Hm. Ride or die." I draw more poison into my lungs, letting the memory flow. Ben always liked a good story. There were four goons, not seven, and I spent most of the time trying to choke out one of 'em. Rayph was always built like a bruiser; left hook like a truck and an uppercut to lift a man off his feet.
Benjin stepped in first. Placed himself between her and them. Rough neighborhood; in over her head. A swift crack knocked him nearly out, but I gotta' give the kid credit; he always rises. You can't keep Benny down. I was next; tried the talking thing, transitioned to breaking wrists and headlocks. The brawl cascading over us - two idiot boys trying to do right for once - Rayph stepped in. Two broken jaws and a nasty concussion later, we stood soaked to our skivvies, a battle won. We escorted the lady back; no need for her name - she's not coming back here, lost pup that she is.
We signed up for the Guild that night. Our tags even share the same digits.
The memory fades and I reach out to squeeze Ben's shoulder. "The job ain't rainbows, buddy. We all know it. Anything we take might be our last night."
"Doesn't make it suck any less." He grumbles, shrugging my hand off.
"Aye, that." Cold rain spills down ahead of us over the eaves - a waterfall to obscure the view of the Tyrium Court, ever lit in the night. "How was the party?"
"Strix. Straight up." Benjin sighs, taking in another drag of the cigar. "I don't even know why I was there in the first place..."
"Rayph elected you as his second for a reason, Ben."
Ben's eyes flash with red and I shut my mouth. "As a representative of a Guild that murders for profit, boyo. These are 'enlightened' folk; they got no idea the choices we need to make and why we make them." Another drag and he expels smoke from his nose in a long column. "...I met a girl there."
My mind makes a few jumps before landing on the word and attempting to stay balanced. "Excuse me? I need details - Ow!" Benny cracks me in the arm. Kahna, it's still bruised...
"Shut your hole, nothing happened. It was good to vent, but she seemed a little vacuous and...malformed. Not my type, anyway." He chuckles and I listen to the sound. It's good to hear him laugh; news on Rayph hit him harder than I thought, and the look in his eyes before stepping onto the Steamrail did not inspire confidence for his intentions.
I decide to press the button. "You came back early. You're usually late; what happened?"
Ben crosses his arms and stares out through the liquid mirror. I follow his gaze to meet the warbling eyes of his reflection. He is quiet a long time. "The pendulum swings, brother."
It's been a long time since anyone close has spoken of the Faith. Most are zealots, bent on hunting Spirals and justifying their crusades with 'seeking balance.' Benjin has always believed in something; a guiding star perhaps...or a ticking clock. Either way, the phrase sticks in my mind whether I want it or not.
"I felt it shift last night." He shakes his head, chewing his lower lip. "I knew that Bonecross bitch has something to do with Lunatic's Fringe; I felt it in my marrow. But something wasn't right. None of the fish were biting when they were supposed to; it was all...off somehow." I watch the gears continue to turn. "That girl wasn't right. The more I talked to her, the more fishing she did. Not obvious; but it didn't smell right - voice was too high. Then there was Father Ventus. Wrong stride; guy doesn't glide, he clomps. Tobias was...himself. Unobservant and pleasant. ...Ironwoods command no matter what, and the Silverborne make you consider all sorts of pleasurable things - they were on point as usual. But Bonecross seemed scared; Munroe had extra Dead Beats in the stands, and no one dared touch their liquor. Like a powder keg ready to blow..."
"In a way. Someone attempted an assault; real magician stuff - meaningless in the long haul and between Lyla and her pack, short-lived. ...But it was a ruse. Shortly after that girl visited me that night - don't give me that look, boyo - something climbed into my room. A monster. Bloke threw me out a window."
"I told you to never take those boots off."
"...And that's why I'm still standing, taka. But this was planned; a coordinated strike. I don't even know who won..."
He chuckles again, deep and loud. "Yeah. I left. No job, no talon, no stake. Not my fight."
A stupid grin stretches across my face. "You've grown up, brother."
"I grew wise. Loss has a funny way of bringing things into perspective."
The rain shifts again; cascades part for a brief moment - a window beyond the Elevated Court to the mountains near Oroboros. Ben stares at the rising moon, huge and bright behind the clouds. A forgotten world tethered to our own. "You've been out too long - Liv's set to worry."
"Eh, I'll be fine."
"She's gonna' need you. Now, more than ever."
"...I've got this."
"I mean it, boyo. You're not back yet, and we ain't trackin' people this time. Let me take the work - you need to help her heal..."
I take the last drag and pitch the cigar over the side, looking Benjin square in the face. "Give me your word, then." Removing the glove on my right hand, I lift it up to him.
Setting his jaw in a decision, he steps forward, pressing his forehead into my palm. The words are crisp, and slow - practiced by every student of war. "I, a ward of the Old and New, do bring myself into the service of you. These rings you seek, I shall covet to keep, and none shall stand in my way."
"Be fast. Be safe. Bye, brother." The moment ended, I punch him in the shoulder and limp back to the stairs. It's late. Yes. Liv is going to kill me.
You Are Formally Invited
To the Grand Gala of the Sky and Moon.
Hosted here in the Arena at Northstar Tower in the Elevated Court.
Bring your friends. Bring your wares.