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