- The legacy lives on...
Uncharted is the 24th questing area released (listed as 16 on the map) in the game and becomes available after completing the zone All Roads Lead on at least normal difficulty.
|Homestead | Road Less Traveled By | Stranger in a Strange Land | Bloodright|
|Title||Level 1||Level 2||Level 3||Level 4||Level 5||Level 6||Level 7|
(Complete Uncharted on Nightmare difficulty.)
|The king and the dragon stood atop the battlement, the kingdom below them lit by the great soft stare of the moon.
It was not a kingdom that always knew peace, but for decades it had at least been free from war. Its wounds had healed, and the scars were beginning to fade. Its most dire histories no longer haunted the memories of its children, but thrilled them in the form of the stories of peril and danger told by those very old men and women who still remembered.
The edges of tragedy had been lined with the soft argentine glow of romance, the horrors of the past becoming great far-off adventures to be reenacted in the young imaginations of the present.
But the king still felt their burden. More so, perhaps, than even the burden of his advanced age, though he knew his longevity and vitality were attributable entirely to the ministrations of his royal clerics and doctors. It had been a long life, and perhaps they would buy him another few decades yet.
The memories of war resonated more keenly still for the presence of the drake, larger now than in his mind's eye. Too large, almost, to sit atop the battlement, and closer in scale to their old foes by the year it seemed. The dragon was a visitor who seldom came bearing glad tidings, but instead carried the worries of the world in the beat of his wings. Even so, King Jamus was always glad to see the old ally of the Dragon-Rider. Even today, on the anniversary of %his% death.
There had been a festival, as there was every year. The citizens of Dracoshire and those across the kingdom had celebrated the hero's life and mourned %his% passing in equal measure, the beer and the wine had run freely and the streets had been vibrant with song. Even now, in the dead of night, lights and snatches of lingering music trailed through the city below.
"%He% is well remembered. They love %him% as much as the day the war ended, and mourn %him% as fiercely as the day %he% died." Jamus said, and it ended in a sigh. "It doesn't feel like twenty years, does it?"
Solus said nothing for some time, his keen orange orbs drifting over the horizon before settling on the king.
"No. It feels much, much longer."
His voice was soft, sad. Richer and stranger than the king remembered, tinged with an accent that hinted at a language that had been born in a land and a time no human had ever seen. More than anything, though, the voice was troubled. Jamus nodded.
"Yes, I suppose it does. But I assume you've come for more than %his% memory. Is the war across the sea spilling toward my borders? Trouble in the north?"
"Nothing of that nature. Nothing so concrete," Solus said, "nothing so simple."
"I must say, I remember little simple about war."
"Knowing the enemy, and the stakes, those were simple enough. Of late I have heard tales of strongholds in the east, overrun by dead beyond number in a single night. The orocs speak of some unknown evil growing ever more restless in the deep dark below their caverns, and the merfolk have been warning ships of strange stirrings in the tides. Each on their own is rumor, but told together form a pattern."
Jamus drew a hand across his face, ran his fingers down over his beard.
"Yes, my people have heard the rumors," he said, "as well as reports of movement in the Crypt of Caracalla. The door remains closed, and should for another century at least, but the soldiers stationed there say they feel vibrations in the earth."
The dragon craned his neck to the north, as if he could see the Crypt from the battlements of Dracoshire. For all Jamus knew, he could, but the dragon didn't offer any further insights. He just stared out into the dark, pondering, worried for the world.
Jamus smiled. It was interesting how much of the Dragon-Rider he could see in Solus, even now.
"Pattern or not, at the moment they are only rumors. And if not, West Kruna has grown strong again. We will be ready."
"Of course," the dragon inclined his head, a gesture of respect for the human king, and met his gaze again, "rumors aside, there is one other matter."
Jamus could see the dragon's gaze lose focus and drift past his shoulder, the huge orange eyes seeing far more and further than simply the stars. "There are shadows at the edges of my sight, events unfolding that I notice only by their absence in my vision. Blind spots. I had hoped to ask you for your insight."
Jamus raised his eyebrows, the twitch of surprise setting unfamiliar lines in the wrinkles of his countenance.
"Unless your powers of foresight have been improving, I seem to remember your sight has always had its limits."
"True. My mother saw more, and even her sight was imperfect. I have only the fragments I have ever had. Hints of the futures that will come to pass, visions without context. Fragments of victories, mistakes. Tragedy. Slivers of the road the Kasans must walk, in this kingdom and beyond, for good and for ill. Not every step, but I have foreseen the roads."
Solus paused, selecting his words carefully, his great brow creasing in what Jamus took to be consternation. Perhaps the dragon had lost the habit of explaining himself, a skill without purpose in the years spent without a human to call his equal.
"I have begun to sense that, woven in the shadows between the roads I have seen, there are paths hidden to me entirely."
"The purview of an old king may be vast, but I'm afraid prophecy falls somewhat outside of it," Jamus said, a small smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.
"Perhaps. But the house of the Kasans does not. As close as they remain to your court, I presume little occurs in that house without your notice.
"In all visions of events to come, I have seen three branches of the Kasan family blossoming. %His% children's children, continuing %his% line. Indeed, the eldest soon will have children of their own. Three branches, strong and good in soul and deed, true to the name."
"Only three," the dragon said. "Of the fourth, I am blind. I have had no vision of %his% life, nor death. %He% bears the name of %his grandfather%, yet there is no path I have seen that bears %his% footprint."
Jamus felt a cold finger of certainty in his mind. There had, indeed, been rumors of the last grandchild of the Kasan, and none of them were good. Until now, he had not believed they could be true, but the soft low voice of the dragon stripped away his disbelief.
"What can you tell me of %name%?"
There was something wrong with the world.
Faustus had always been sensitive to the tapestry of energy that vibrated through all things, a fine static of magic that permeated the world. He had felt it ebb and flow around him for as long as he could remember, an omnipresent sea of power just at the edges of his senses. It concentrated around entities and objects of great power, in some cases creating wells of force that drew him like a strong tide and bent the mind to look at.
Recently, he had felt vibrations. So faint, so subtle, that at first even he had overlooked them. But when he had drained some new artifact, had felt flush and invincible, he could just detect an imperfection from the great heights of his drunken reeling power. It never worried him, in that state, intoxicated on his own immortality. What was a niggling imperfection to a hero so mighty? What was a gnat to a god? Inevitably, though, the rush would pass. The magic would digest into his flesh, spent on longevity, relegated to the arcane cellars of his self where he stockpiled in preparation for the day he would be needed again. In those times, feeling drawn and empty, he would remember the note of discord with a small shudder. Something below that ever-present crackle of energy was something too fundamental and ubiquitous to discern, something which he could only detect shifting through the ripples it created. And whatever it was, it buzzed in the back of his mind. Something was there. Something far off, a long way away, a spider in the web of the world.
Something was wrong.
He fretted over it, alone in his tower. Who could he tell? The Dragon-Rider was gone. Their greatest enemies and allies had passed. Of those remaining, who could he still trust?
Medea, of course. The elf with the too-sharp eyes, who watched him in the years after the war. Looking through him, plucking away at her harp, her mouth a fine line of judgement. What did she see, that she would look at him so? What was in her searching gaze? Hate? Jealously? Suspicion? No, he had not seen her in a decade and he was not eager to feel her eyes again.
Solus? No, not the dragon. He wouldn't know where to find the wyrm, and wouldn't count on him for aid if he could. The dragon's enigmatic silence felt a burden to him, heavy with secrets and false wisdom. The mind of a creature that believed itself superior to him. To all of humanity, perhaps. No. The Dragon-Rider had been the link that tied the beast to mankind, and now that link was gone.
No, no. There was no one he could turn to. He was the strongest that remained, the most trustworthy. If it fell to him and him alone, he would need to be stronger. He would need to be ready. He needed more vitality, more magic, more power. The kingdom would need a hero, and he would need to be ready. Until then, he needed to stay out of sight. Stay patient.
His fingers drifted over the blade on the table before him. He could feel his heart speed its beat in anticipation, but there was a hollow pit in his stomach already. His stock of artefacts was diminishing. He would need to hire another adventuring party to find more magical items to bolster his diminishing supply.
And then the magic began to flow, and his mind blossomed into a cloud of vaporous light. His concerns slipped away, his eyes glowing a fierce cyan and his mouth twisting into an ecstatic, gloating grin. He began to laugh.
So something was wrong, so what? He cackled and hissed as he grew out of his own body, became larger than any giant, all concerns beneath him as his true self towered above the mortal realm. He was the greatest wizard of his age, perhaps the greatest to ever live. His concerns felt foolish now, inconsequential.
So there was something wrong with the world, what of it? There was no wrong he couldn't right, no mystery beyond his ken, no enemy equal to his might. He was Faustus, companion and perhaps even equal to the Dragon-Rider, and there was no flaw in the world he couldn't mend. He was all they had left, now. It was his to protect.
The blood glistened and swam, rippling in turbulent eddies as it circled the luminous images in its depths.
Keen, glassy eyes watched the figures that swam there: the man and the beast on the wall, the whispers and stops of their somber words. The madman in the tower. Stolen glimpses and secrets.
Lips curved up, twitching, in the shadow of the hood. The imitation of a smile that, despite the repetition of practice, couldn't reach the eyes.
A soft moan from the man on the cobblestones trembled the surface of the blood he was issuing, dispelling the image, and the hollow smile vanished.
Cold fingers gripped the handle of the knife, raised its bloody point. The blood had shown enough, anyway, and there was little time to indulge in further voyeurism. There would be more chance for that to come, there always was.
It was time to let the rest of the blood, drain the man, and make contact while there was magic enough in the effluence to pierce the Veil. They had begun to suspect. There was much She needed to know.
The crouching figure leaned over the man, and with a quiet movement the moans sputtered into silence. The borders of the crimson pool crept outward, and the glassy eyes fixed on their depths and the shifting spectres there.
Hidden in the shadows of the alley, a man looked on in silence as the fear mingled with the adrenaline coursing in his veins. Fear, yes, but not surprise.
He watched, statue still, and he remembered.
It had always been leading to this.
|There were fish in the slow stream that ran through the trees behind Kasan Keep. They were a small sort, not big enough to bother catching, and swam in darting groups that shimmered when they caught the light.
Sometimes a waterwalker would land and dimple the water with its feet, and one of the fish would rush up and break the surface in a sudden splash of scattering droplets to catch the insect in its mouth and retreat to the company of its fellows as the ripples in the water mingled and broke against one another.
On that day there were many splashes, the early spring heavy with insects and the stream rife with winter-hungry fish.
Synchronized silver shimmers cut through the water, passing close to shore, moving as one until the stone hit the stream, plunging into their midst and scattering their single body into a dozen frightened fish each shooting in a different direction, alarm overriding unity.
Lucian weighed another stone in his hand, sitting on his heels in the soft earth by the stream and watching the fish regroup and swim away. He felt a little stab of regret, and rolled the stone in his palm a while before dropping it in the dirt. Scaring fish didn't make him feel any less afraid, it just made him feel guilty besides.
He stood and brushed his palms off on his breeches with the care of the very young. He picked up the long branch he'd found and pulled the twigs from, and trailed it idly in the water as he walked up the stream through the little wood. It was hardly an acre of shading trees and undergrowth, but to a boy of six a single wooded acre can be a vast forest filled with endless adventure, and on a day like that day, a haven of solitude.
"Oi, Lucian! Lucian? Maybe he's in the stable playing with the pups?"
"No, I see him. Look, he's over there by the stream, come on!"
Lucian frowned and resisted the urge to hop across the stream and find a nook in a tree's roots to hide in. Instead he stopped, eyes downcast, and dug the tip of his stick into the earth and waited for his cousins to catch up.
He glanced up, sullen, as they jogged over. The twins had identically radiant grins on their faces as they caught their breath. It looked like they'd been running all over looking for him, and that gave him a twinge of satisfaction.
"Lucian, uncle and your mother are asking after you, said it's time." Marcus said, and sucked in another portion of air. "Come on, we get to meet %him%!!
Lucian felt a little thrill of fear. His replacement had arrived.
"It's a %boy%," Medea chimed in, laughing and grabbing him by the arm, "you have a %brother%! Gosh, don't look so miserable! Having a sibling is fun!"
Easy to say for a twin, he thought, but said nothing. His cousins were twice his age, and so believed themselves the font of all sort of advanced wisdoms that he had yet to discover. He allowed himself to be led, reluctantly, back up through the trees and up toward the keep, marched to the music of the excited chatter of his cousins.
The solid wooden door at the side of the main hall opened to a household abuzz with cheer and celebration. When Lucian had slipped away hours earlier in the cold gray of dawn the excitement of the house had been frantic and tinged with notes of worry and mania. Now there was only joy in the air, and as the children scampered toward the stairs a knot in his small stomach began to ease. Just a little.
The closer they came to the doorway to his parent's chamber, the closer the press of the household staff became, and they had to weave and duck to reach the threshold.
Medea rapped her knuckles against the wood, triumphant, and looked back to give Lucian an exaggerated wink and a grin.
The door cracked open, and the children were ushered in by the midwife as she shut the door behind them.
"There he is," Lucian's father said. He sat at the bedside, next to Lucian's mother. She looked over to Lucian, and her smile was gentle and tired. Her hair was slightly damp with sweat, and her face a little pale. As far as Lucian could tell, they didn't yet love him any less, but he hesitated by the door all the same.
"Come on then," his father said, and patted the bed with the flat of his hand, "your mother wouldn't let anyone in to see the baby until you met %him% first."
Lucian took a deep breath and tried to swallow his fears. He shuffled to the bedside and eyed the bundle of cloth in his mother's arms with equal parts curiosity and suspicion, his cousins flanking him to each side like a personal guard.
"Lucian," his mother said, as his father gripped him under the arms and lifted him up to kneel on the bed, "this is your %brother%."
He leaned his head in close, cheek against his mother's shoulder, and peeked into the bundle.
Bright, curious eyes peered back at him from a tiny face that radiated awe of the entire world it was suddenly a part of.
"%name%, this is your brother Lucian."
Lucian smiled, and all the worry left him.
The day had been long, and night fell heavily on the keep.
The bedchamber where %name% Kasan had just that day entered the world was dark, and warm, and its newest occupant slept soundly in the cradle at the foot of the bed. %His% parents, too, slept deeply, having woken twice already in the night to feed the newborn child.
They slept deeper still, perhaps, when the glamour settled over the room. A bit of enchantment that blanketed all things with heavy dreams and muted senses so that none awoke as the soft, many-colored light glimmered at the corners of the room, trailing down the walls in dissipating rivulets of sparks that leapt and vanished like filaments of dreamstuff.
A long thin form of slender limbs and cruel intentions coalesced from the shadows, at once from nowhere and from a long way off, its footsteps trailing gold light and its wings like smoke and stained glass trembling behind it. In its arms it carried a small bundle.
As the moonlight from the window played over the figure in passing, it seemed one moment to be a woman of stunning beauty in a gown of gossamer and silver that swam in the air like light on water.
The moonlight shifted, a cloud passing across it, and the woman wavered in the shadows like a nightmare, her beauty betraying sharp edges. Her perfection shimmered like a fever dream, ethereal and predatory.
She stepped over to the crib, leaned close, smiled.
"Well met, my child," she murmured, and her voice was an intoxicating, shifting fluidly across octaves, compelling and musical like the first whispers of madness, "my tiny human blossom. What a rarity you are. The blood and the name of the great hero. What charming threads of power run in your veins."
She reached into the crib, lifted the child, and settled the bundle in its place. She held the baby up and smiled, her lips pulling back to bare her teeth. Her great glass dragonfly wings fluttered, the vibration shaking sparks of arcane power into the air.
"What a lovely pet for a Queen."
She wrapped the baby in her arms, and stepped upon a golden path. The filaments of light snaked up the walls, twisted into smoke and shifting embers, and faded. The pathway closed, and the Queen was gone. The room was dark and warm and quiet once again, its wards undisturbed.
In the crib, the bundle shifted and shook in silence. Limbs twisted and changed, wide inhuman eyes rolled and trembled and changed color, its mouth yawned open, clenched, opened again as its rows of teeth settled below soft pink gums.
After a very short time, the thing in the crib settled and lay still, no longer what it was but instead a perfect duplicate of the stolen child.
The changeling infant stretched its human-like arms, opened its human-like mouth, and cried to be fed.
The Things We Learn
|Whatever kinship Lucian had felt looking into those wide new eyes, across the next six years Lucian never felt it again. When he looked into the eyes of his younger sibling, he found them flat and off-putting. When the %boy% smiled, it set a queasy feeling in Lucian's gut and he could not help but look away. He could not say why.
He tried, often at his parent's urging, to provide a good and stalwart example, and to teach %him% as an elder brother should. When %he% was old enough to participate in such things, the child trailed after Lucian as he attempted to share his favorite places and activities.
He showed off the best and quietest places in the keep to escape the tutors for an afternoon: under the west stair, in the hay loft above the stable, the nook in the cellar behind the stores of salted meat where no one went until winter.
He brought the child to his little wood and showed %him% the burrow under the oldest tree where he had once seen a fox and her kits, and the thicket by the pond with the hollow in the center that was good for hiding.
He taught which of the kitchen staff were likely to slip a sweetmeat or bit of pie to a hungry child before supper, and which of the hounds were friends and which would bare their teeth instead of play, and where the thrushes would nest in the spring.
Throughout, %name% showed a dispassionate, clinical curiosity. %He% listened, and watched, but spoke little and played seldom.
Lucian only ever saw %him% laugh once, when the two were loitering in the yard and saw a spooked horse kick a stable boy, clipping the side of his head and knocking him unconscious to the ground. %name% laughed and laughed, no matter how Lucian rebuked %him% to stop. The laugh was joyous, carefree, but there was something else Lucian heard in it. Something cruel.
Sometime after that, Lucian began to make excuses to avoid his %brother%, despite the urgings of his parents.
So Lucian was wandering alone in the wood, searching for a good supple sapling to attempt to fashion into a bow, when he heard a giggling from among the trees. It was familiar, and the sound of it instantly made him uneasy. He would have called out, or gone away, but curiosity stopped him, drew him forward.
He crept soft through the undergrowth, following the quiet sound of laughter, until he spotted his %brother% crouched over something on the ground, arms on %his% knees, a smile on %his% face.
Lucian eased his way around behind, tree to tree, until he could see what had enraptured his sibling from his hiding spot behind a trunk.
The %boy% was squatting above a thrush's nest, which was overturned and empty of eggs. Splayed on the ground beside it was a thrush. There was something broken about it, and Lucian could not tell if it were alive or dead. It didn't move, but just lay in the leaves at his %brother%'s feet.
He almost called out, to say they needed to gather the bird and bring it to mother and see if there was anything they might do to help it. Almost, until he spied the large rock his %brother% held, and the rocks strewn on the ground around the nest, smeared with bits of broken egg.
He saw %name% lift the rock over the small bird and titter again with delight, but he didn't see any more. Lucian ran from the woods and back to the keep as quietly and as swiftly as he could, tears in his eyes.
It wasn't until much later, in the dark of his chamber, that he forced himself to wonder why he didn't jump out, or yell, or anything. Something to stop the %boy%. To admit to himself, in shame, that a child half his age filled him with dread.
That night, he dreamt of %name% crouched over him, enormous, holding a great stone that cast a shadow that he could not escape, no matter how hard he ran.
You learned, in the first six years of your life, that the world was capricious, and ever-shifting, and cruel. It was full of color and magic, mystery and wonder. But nothing resembling love.
You learned that sweet words often preceded misery, and to be wary of kindnesses. You learned to trust only your instincts, and that every lie hid a truth. You learned to lie in kind, and to keep only your own counsel.
You learned that you were different from the creatures that kept you, the beautiful shape-shifting shadows that flitted through the palace halls on shimmering wings. While their flesh seemed comprised of mainly light and magic and mercurial laughter, yours was muscle and blood.
You learned that you would need to overcome this fundamental disability, and change moment to moment as the fey did. To be a reflection of expectations, a mirror, and hide your true self.
You learned that to be an amusing shadow meant knowing when your presence would earn a reward, and when your absence would avoid a punishment, despite each looking very like the other.
You learned to stand silently by the throne and to ignore the titters and winks of the ladies and the lords until, bored, they turned to other business. You learned to listen to the nattering and the gossip and the fey folk as they overlooked you, and to remember their whispered secrets and their intrigues.
You learned, as the pet of the Queen of Elphyne and prisoner of court, to become a child of the fey.
These things you learned from the teachers Experience and Observation, and from no other.
It was a hard childhood, forged in uncertainty and necessity. There were some small, private amusements and satisfactions, to be sure. You had hope, and joy, hidden deep in layers of resentment, and all concealed by a polite mask of smiling obedience.
Tranquility and turmoil came and went as easily as the good favor of the Queen and her court, but through it all the only constant, and the worst, was loneliness.
The Lies We Tell
|By the time %he% was ten, hurting animals no longer interested %name%. Not as far as Lucian could tell, anyway. Though, he knew it was possible his %brother% had just become more careful as time went by.
Instead Lucian began to notice, on the family's frequent trips to Dracoshire on the King's business, that the other children would avert their eyes and shuffle their feet when their noble parents left them to their play.
%name% would stand among them, and smile pleasantly, and look about. %His% face never changed from that bland, genial mask that had come to replace the blank stare of his childhood days. He made no threats, nary even a scowl or a dirty look, but the other children would bleed away. Like mice holing in the walls when the cat came sauntering into the room.
Lucian never saw %name% hurt another child, not with his own eyes. But sometimes if he looked out for it he might spot one of the younglings with a welt or a bruise, or every so often a burn. Something discreet that hadn't been there when the Kasans had arrived, but nothing he could prove.
At first he tried to ask these children whether his younger %brother% had hurt them, but they had nothing to say but a murmured apology as they quailed and wilted at his inquiry. He wondered if they were too afraid to point the finger of blame at the grandchild of the legendary Dragon-Rider, or whether they were afraid of what %he% might do if they did.
For his own part, Lucian kept his mouth shut. %name% was a perfectly behaved child, on the surface, beloved by %his% parents and the other nobles at court. Genteel, well-spoken when spoken to. A true child of nobility. Lucian had no evidence to support what he knew the child was capable of, and knew that making an accusation without proof would only give his %brother% warning that Lucian saw beneath the facade.
He brought it up to his cousins once, desperately, after they had let him share a wineskin or two in private and they were all well into their cups. They scoffed and made a joke of him, and laughed that he might be so unnerved by a child of ten. And he a man of sixteen, no less! He'd had no choice but to laugh also, and made as if it had only been a joke, and never brought it up again.
One day, though, he knew the %boy% must slip. He just needed to watch, and to wait. It pained him to look at his %brother% and see nothing but a blight on the Kasan name, but rotten was rotten. No matter which tree bore the fruit.
"What do you see?"
This was a favorite game of the Queen's, and you played it often.
The rim of the large, shallow silver basin between you was sculpted in elegant whorls and eddies that made it appear liquid and molten in the shifting light of the chamber. Within the basin itself, a churning liquid of red and gold swirled in the grip of some arcane current. It glinted and circled, cloudy enough to obscure the bottom of the basin, translucent enough to draw the eye into an illusory depth. There, wavering images surfaced like fragile mirages on heated air.
You watched them carefully, your keen eyes hungry for every detail. On the surface, your face wore an expression of polite attention.
Stone corridors, hung with tabards depicting a beast like the fey drakes that hunted the wood above a simple trident. Men and women in armor walking purposefully. You saw a lad almost a man, shifting uncomfortably at the dinner table and casting sideways glances at the one with your face. The changeling slathered a heel of bread with a dollop of butter, considered the knife, set it down. But %his% fingers never leave it. At the head of the table, a man and a woman: he with your eyes, she your nose. You saw much.
"I see fools," you said with an air of amused disdain, "who live at the whim of Your Grace. I see that they are as weak and stupid as they are blind."
You smiled at the Queen. How clever she is, your face said. How diverting the game.
Her lips twitched under half-lidded eyes that flickered and sparked. Windows to a house of madness and flame set in a face of terrible otherworldly beauty. As always, her next question was the same.
"Shall %he% kill them all tonight, pet?"
You glanced back to the basin, your face a study of studious contemplation. There %he% was, at the table. With the knife. A wolf among sheep. A monster wearing your face, stealing another day of your life. With your family. Another day when you might have known what it meant to belong. The hate hammered away in your heart with a terrible rhythmic roar that nearly covered the fear of losing the game. Of watching them die.
You looked back up to the Queen, your face a mask of careless innocence.
"As you wish, Your Grace. But I wonder how much more fun it would be to kill them tomorrow."
Her eyes swirled like the scrying pool, burning into yours with a keen and inscrutable interest. Looking for something. She reached out slowly with long, graceful fingers and brushed a lock of hair from your face, adoringly. Her favorite pet.
As always, her response was the same. Until, you knew, one day it wouldn't be.
"Yes. Perhaps tomorrow."
The Paths We Take
|Lucian had always preferred to care for his own horse after a ride. The dappled chestnut he named Acorn had been his since he was old enough to hold himself upright in the saddle, and he found peace and tranquility in brushing her down and fetching her oats and drawing her a cool bucket of water from the well. Animals were a simpler bond than what he found in people, and required simple devotions. Care, food, water and a gentle word.
His care for his horse earned the respect of the stable hands as well, and he found that their acceptance of his character made him audience to an endless font of traveler's gossip.
The king's stables in Dracoshire in particular were a hub of such talk, with so many lords and ladies and retainers of all types passing through. And so Lucian often took extra care to loiter there and see what he may hear, when the Kasan's business brought them to the city.
"Here," a gangly young hand named Jona announced on such a day, "heard about this new bunch of hooligans up the road to Kasan Keep?"
"Aye, so I did," grunted a burly man with close-shorn hair and dark eyes. He was horseman to Lady Charwell, Lucian recalled. "Lot of green kids, them, think they're rough bandits. Tried to stop us on the road a week past, but we rode the carriage by. Up to me I would have stopped and trimmed their hides, but the lady had us ride on."
Lucian turned half an ear as he oiled down his saddle in the corner. He had heard a rumor or two of the fledgeling gang of thieves, but never encountered them himself.
"Well, may be," Jona said, seeming disappointed Charwell's man had let the air from his sails, "but I don't know they're as harmless as all that. Heard their leader is a right sadist, %boy% though %he% may be. Likes to hurt folk, like, what can't defend themselves on the road."
"Oh?" Chadwell's man said with mild interest, pulling a skin of wine from his pack and settling back in the straw.
Jona grinned, sensing he'd hooked the older man. And Lucian, too. He had stopped oiling the leather and sat quietly, dwelling on his suspicions.
"Old bloke at the pub, all bandaged up and that. Said they caught him alone on the road, took his pack and his mule and roughed him up, same as you'd expect. But then their leader, %boy% of maybe fourteen, had the others hold the old man down and made him watch as %he% killed the mule. Burned it alive with some sort of magic."
Lucian thought it over, staring at the rag in his hands. Had the tutors begun drilling %name% in spellcasting yet? Arcane theory? Yes, surely.
Chadwell's man snorted, waving a hand as if shooing away a fly.
"Magic, eh? Tell us another one, Jona. What sort of highway urchin throws magic? Were they all carrying enchanted blades as well?"
Jona's face reddened at the mockery.
"It's true! You didn't see the old sot. Had burns all up his arms, he did, from putting out the flames. He said the %boy% killed it with magic fire and laughed the entire time %he% did it."
A chill went up Lucian's spine.
Life changed for you in your fourteenth year.
The Queen's palace was alive with celebration, as it often was, but on this night especially. It was the midsummer solstice and the fey folk were reeling and carrying on with their indulgences and merry-making, and as the crown event: the tourney.
Human warriors had been gathered from the width and breadth of West Kruna, enchanted and beguiled by the glamours of the fey and danced across the golden roads to Elphyne and the there to the court of the Queen.
More humans than you had ever seen in one place had gathered in the courtyard, their faces slack with dumb laughter and enchantment as they accepted the weapons they were handed.
And then you watched from your place beside the queen as they paired off, giggling and intoxicated, and fought one another to the death to the titters and cheers of the court of fairy.
You smiled and applauded along, playing your role with the ease of breathing, as you buried each atrocity in your heart along with all the rest.
At last, drunk themselves, fairies began to declare their own challenges to the surviving humans and danced nimbly about them, binding them idly with glamours and running them through to bursts of uproarious laughter. It was a slaughter.
As you watched the humans struggle in the grip of the fairy magic, you wondered why they let it hold them. Why they didn't step through it as easily as you pushed aside the locks and barriers of the palace, and the illusions woven through its halls? Why was the magic holding them, when to you it seemed no more real than a dream?
For the first time, you began to wonder about something so long taken for granted. Was it not a skill all humans possessed?
At last, the humans had been depleted and the game was over. Some fey began to flit away, the entertainment at an end, then one intoxicated fairy shouted out.
"Why, but don't we have a human left? Just there, by the throne. I wonder how the blood of the Dragon-Rider might fare?"
The creature met your eyes with a wicked smile, and you watched the drops of crimson trail down his silver blade. He was young, impetuous. A prince, you thought, and arrogant in the way of princes. Those who had been so ready to leave suddenly found excuses to flit back to see what might come of the challenge.
You looked askance to the Queen, your face neutral. In your heart you felt a thrill of adrenaline and fear, but it was paired with excitement. Would she allow a blade to enter your hand? Would she toss your life away so easily?
Would she see the hate in your eyes when you killed him?
She looked back at you, her face as always a mask of ethereal beauty, her mouth set in the subtle line curve of perpetual amusement. Something flashed behind her eyes. Annoyance, perhaps. Or maybe simple malice.
"Well, pet? The challenge is made. Choose your weapon."
"At your pleasure, Your Grace."
The courtyard erupted in cheers and applause. This was a finale no one had expected, and least of all you.
Many of the fey fluttered forward to offer you their their swords as you picked your way toward the killing field, but you ignored them all and plucked a long thin knife from the belt of a young human soldier whose body lay face-down on the cobbles. One of the first to fall. You remember wondering about the square of lace he wore tied at his belt, near the fine knife with the butterfly hilt.
You squared off with the prince, arms at your sides, a guileless smile on your face.
You bowed, he smirked, and then the battle was begun.
The prince danced forward on graceful wings, weaving his sword-point in a showy gesture, pushing you for a reaction. He made as if to thrust, feinted, danced away again. The crowd snickered, appreciating his antics. Despite the vast divide in your martial skill, he wouldn't come directly at you. The fey knew only one way, and it was subterfuge and trickery.
You merely waited, placid, knife raised and ready. In your chest, your heart hammered against your ribs so violently that it was fit to burst.
At last the prince threw his glamour, conjuring snaking lines of light that whipped over your arms and around your wrists, holding you in place for a killing blow.
The prince turned to the crowd, raised his blade, and let the cheers of the fellows wash over him. Savoring his moment.
As soon as he had turned his back, you brushed aside the fairy glamours that held you in place like so much spider silk, stepped forward, and pushed your blade up between the prince's ribs and through his heart.
You twisted the blade. His wings trembled, briefly, and stilled. Silence fell, the crowd uncertain. And then they began to laugh.
You turned to the Queen, bowed, and presented your knife in supplication, sparing a glance to her reaction. Her expression had not changed.
"Ah," she murmured, "so my pet has teeth after all. Perhaps I should teach it to bite."
The Masks We Wear
|It was a black night, the new moon dark in the sky.
Lucian fastened the heavy black riding cloak around his neck, as he had on the dawning of the new moon for nearly a year. A habit he had developed when %name% had begun %his% monthly habit of slipping out in the night and returning at odd hours. Sometimes just after midnight, sometimes not until near full dawn.
Lucian had discovered his sibling's monthly sojourns by chance, and ever since had set out in secret to ride in stealth along the roads that bordered his family estate and search for some clue of his %brother%'s doings. Thus far he had discovered nothing, and had never found where %name% would vanish to spend the dark hours.
Not with the ruffians from his %brother%'s teenage years, he knew that much. The gang of bandits was holed up somewhere in the hills to the east, but it had been long since they had been reported to be in the company of their erstwhile leader. Three years, or thereabouts. Since then, his %brother% had moved on to more subtle diversions, he was sure of it. Though what they might be, he could not yet say.
Tonight he hoped again to find out.
Lucian padded through the keep on muffled footsteps on his way to the stables, intending to leave by way of the main hall. The door of the kitchen was too close to the servant's quarters, and he would surely wake someone were he to carry a candle through.
As he entered the main hall, he lifted his eyes from the flickering taper he was shielding and his heart leapt into his throat.
%name% stood framed in the open door of the keep, cloaked and gloved much the same as Lucian was. %He% had returned much earlier than Lucian had anticipated, many hours earlier than in any month previous. Lucian couldn't help but wonder if that meant %name%'s mysterious monthly doings had been more or less successful than usual.
He stared as %name% lowered %his% hood and lifted a candle from the sconce near the door, torn between proceeding to the stables as planned and retreating from the room in the hopes he wouldn't be noticed, and in his indecision he did neither, frozen in indecision. At last %name% looked up from his candle, and they locked eyes.
After a long silence, %name% reached up and unclasped %his% cloak from around %his% neck, folded it over an arm, and smiled %his% empty smile. Lucian thought he spotted blood smeared over the black leather of the %man%'s gloves. He wondered if it was fresh.
"Good evening Lucian," %name% said, %his% voice soft and tinged with amusement, "Going out for an evening ride, brother?"
"Ah, yes. I thought it might be a lovely night for it," Lucian replied, attempting to return a smile and fill his voice with equal ease, "I see you had the same notion."
His face felt wooden, unused to direct subterfuge. He willed his feet to move, to walk in a casual gait for the door, suddenly aware of every mannerism. He would have to go for his ride anyway, now, there was no avoiding it. Damn it all.
"Quite lovely, yes," %name% said, putting %his% toe to %his% opposite heel and pulling off %his% boot, "but take care, there is no moon tonight, the roads are dark. You never know what sort of folk might be lurking in the shadows."
"Of course. Good night, %name%," Lucian managed, and brushed by. He eased shut the door behind him, and leaned against it in the small flickering light of his taper until the night breeze crept around his cupped hand and blew it out.
The night air was bracing, it cooled his flush skin and cleared his head. Did %name% suspect his true errand? Did %he% even care?
The walk to the stables in the dark made his skin crawl, and every shadow seemed poised and full of blades. He expected at any moment to feel a knife in his back.
%He% would be suspicious now, that much was certain. Lucian had seen the blood, and he was not fool enough to believe %name% didn't know he had seen it.
%He% would be harder still to follow, in the months to come. Lucian would need to be careful.
"I have a gift for you, pet."
The queen gestured with a hand, indicating the twisting tendrils of marble that form the podium before her throne. She lounged in her throne as ever, draped across like so much wind-blown silk and starlit elegance. But you were able to detect, from long study, what you determined to be a note of pride in her voice.
You were mildly surprised, upon answering the summons of the Queen, to find the court in attendance upon entering the throne room through the high marble archways. And all in their finery.
And so you approached the podium with appropriate ceremony. You noted the box that sat atop it: the fine dark wood, inlaid with silver trails of light that flickered and shifted as your eyes moved across them.
Glancing around the room, you saw that the eyes of all in attendance were fixed upon you. In some you read amusement, and in others disgust. In most, only the persistent and cat-like curiosity that seems to drive the fey. All were quiet, waiting.
You ran your hands over the surface of the box, and the silver clasps snapped open with a soft click. The lid lifted slightly under your fingertips, and so you eased it open to reveal its contents.
Inside, set on rick black velvet, was a mask of shining silver. It stared back at you from the dark recesses of its fierce and angular eyes. It was sleek and sharp, its lines stirring some resemblance in your mind. Something in it reminds you of the unearthly and dangerous beauty that defines the faces of the fey.
You lifted your gaze to your kidnapper, your Queen, and she bestowed on you a possessive smile.
"My pet no longer, I name you now my blade. You are henceforth Fey Knight of the Court of Elphyne, Champion of the Queen, and in so becoming you are made free of the blight of your mortal seeming for ever, at my pleasure."
"My sword is yours, Your Grace."
The hate for your Queen twinged in your heart, buried so deep that even you might forget it sometimes, when you became lost in the parody of yourself that you forged. You hid your confliction with a deep and sweeping bow, and upon rising lifted the mask from its case. It was lighter than it looked.
You felt a bloom of pride as you donned the mask, and heard the sussurra of murmured comments and witticisms from the assembled court, punctuated by bursts of impatient applause. When you straightened the fanfare began. High clear trumpet notes, music. There will be another feast tonight, and they will celebrate the death of your humanity. For them it was just another diversion, a twist in their endless game. You of course would attend, ever at the side of the Queen, but it's just another layer of falsehood.
Or so you insisted to yourself.
But the mask felt right. A physical artefact to reflect the perfect facade you had become.
You had to wonder what there was left of you, who you really were under the persona you had embodied so long. Whether there was an actor that would remain were the role to end, or whether you merely clung to a fantasy of what you once were. Something dead echoing about inside, growing quieter by the day.
Boss: Bad Blood
Road Less Traveled By
|"Malcontents and traitors, knight. Traitors loose in the West Wood, that's what this is."
The Queen has worked herself into a rage and it makes her as dangerous as a lightning storm, all calms and sudden thunder, with bursts of pure devastating chaos lancing out to obliterate anything that stands too high in its sight.
You say nothing. You know that you were summoned to the Queen's side to serve a function in service of her anger, and it isn't to offer your opinion. Your role is not council, but weapon, and that suits you well enough.
In the absence of the freedom of self, you embraced the persona available. For now, it's enough to get by. It had been simple and natural to fall into weapons training and physical conditioning, and as your talents had improved so had the length of your leash. After all, the longer the reach the more powerful the weapon.
The air fills with a heavy, itching static and the Queen's hair rises and whips like seagrass in a tide. Her eyes flash and she draws herself up, ready to rain cataclysm. But then, without warning, the anger boils away like fog, and she is calm, considering.
It is a madness you are used to.
"Perhaps not. Perhaps worse. No traitor has knowledge of the old ways, or enough power to wield them. Not to make rifts in the veil, my knight. But if not sabotage, something worse," her voice rambles musically like a summer brook as she thinks aloud, repeats herself, "something worse."
And the Queen stares at you, through you. At the dark clouds of her suspicions, the portent of which are lost on you. Something swims below the surface of her dark eyes, and it startles you to recognize it as fear.
Your mask looks on, impassive. Inside, you feel a thrill of curiosity -- swiftly quelled.
"Malcontents and traitors," the Queen says again, and the uncertainty in her face is washed away in a fresh torrent of cold malice, "kill them anyway. Go, flush them from the west wood. Death will make matters clear."
"Yes, Your Grace," you say, and with a bow you make your leave. Inside, your mind is brimming with possibility. Whatever you're to find in the wood, it frightens the thing that stole you from your world. Traitor or not, you're intrigued to take its measure.
Into the Woods
|The mounts of the fairy court are slender and elegant, bred for the lighter more supple frames of the fey folk. Your regular steed is the largest in the stables, but even so looks more a creature of beauty than of war. But you know the denizens of Elphyne are more dangerous than they seem, every one, and stronger besides. Your mount bears you as easily as an empty saddle, despite the armor you wear.
The armor is as little trouble to you as it is to the horse. The fairy silver is stronger than steel -- even as thin and fine as it is -- but light as parchment.
The ride through the woods is peaceful, the motes of light drifting between the trees and swirling around you give the impression of traveling through deep, clear water. The sense is only enhanced by the gentle movement of the leaves of the trees, which rustle idly to no wind you can feel.
The creatures of the forest avoid you, though you can see the odd shadow shifting through the brush. The occasional stare of large, gemstone eyes made shy by your commanding presence. You feel at once alien and at home in the sprawling woods, far from court, where you can imagine you are exploring an unknown land. For a while, you are an adventurer, and not a prisoner.
Your destination is a half day's ride, deeper in the wood by far than you have ever had any cause to go, and you take your time. You stop from time to time, to water your horse at the frequent burbling rivers that wind through the wood.
You also take advantage of the rests to judge your location by the placement of the spangled web of sky above you, the brilliant chaos of stars shining clear in the smeared paint of the sky in the afternoon -- the color of fresh bruises, soap bubbles and wildfire.
With the constellations your map, the disturbance will be simple to find. The Queen had seemed to feel it like a rent in her own skin, so keenly she sensed the damage to her realm. The location she had instructed you to investigate was appropriately specific.
Your journey eats much of the day away, but the sense of idle rambling fades away the closer you come to your destination. You hadn't needed the Queen's direction after all. You can feel it ahead, like an exposed wound in your own flesh. Your mount can sense it as well, and becomes increasingly shy and uncertain, jittering and starting at any sudden sound. And the closer you come, the worse it gets.
You needed only to follow the pain.
You dismount some dozen yards away from the disturbance, as your horse refuses to venture any closer.
You don't entirely blame the beast.
The rent in the fairy wood is like a tear in a sheet of canvas, and on the other side a hurricane raging through a world of smoke and light. It is thin, barely the breadth of your finger, and jagged, but as long as a man is tall. It isn't still, but shifts in space like a sliver of lightning that refuses to strike. It jars your eyes simply to look at it, and it makes your tongue itch in your mouth to be near. You've never seen its like, but you feel one deep certainty in its presence.
Everything about it is wrong.
Whatever is happening in these woods, it frightens you more than the Fairy Queen ever has. Though she has ever embodied the essence of fever dreams and the alluring power of madness, the Queen of Elphyne belongs to her realm, and it to her. Mad as they are, there is a place for them. Even if that place is a nightmare.
But this crack in the wood doesn't belong anywhere. This is something that should never be, and you can feel it to your core.
There's Something In Those Trees
|You circle the entire area, and from what you're able to tell the rent in space appears the same from all angles. It gives off no light, and has no perceptible dimension, but you can feel its presence like an open wound.
As a guess, you might say that it is a portal to another place. You can feel it like the draft from an open door. The crack carries the vibrant energy of some strange elsewhere, but perhaps not any place you'd care to go.
So if this is a door, perhaps you can close it? You have always had an innate knack for opening the ways that were sealed to you, it stands to reason you may close what has been opened by that same token.
But when you stretch out your will, that probing immunity that pushes through the glamours and barriers of the fey, it fuzzes out when you approach the disturbance. If you push it, your skin begins to ache. A resonance in your vision, a vibrating ever-present hum in the core of your being, takes on a note of discord. You'd never noticed it with your conscious mind before, but now as you probe the crack like a bad tooth, the sharp disturbance arouses something you've always taken for granted. Threads inside you, woven into the world, trailing into the past and knotted into the future. Something in your blood.
Your horse nickers from the treeline and you hear it rear up and kick at the air, pulling your concentration outward, and you lose focus. You'd been close to something, but it fades rapidly, like a forgotten memory not quite reclaimed.
You turn to soothe the animal, intending to lead it further from the phenomenon and tether it while you investigate further, but as you step forward you hear the quivering snap of a bowstring from the trees.
An arrow impacts the ground in front of your horse with a brilliant flash of light and a shrill keening just on the edge of hearing, and the the horse turns and bolts. Enchanted arrow, you note. All the composure bred into the beast had been stretched to the breaking point by proximity to the crack, and the bespelled arrow had pushed it over the edge of panic.
Your blades are in your hands as you turn to the treetops to look for the shooter. A high branch, likely, not too close but with decent visibility.
You wonder in the back of your mind if this is the supposed traitor to the Queen, or one of them. A figure crouched in a high tree, shrouded with a glamour of illusion that fails to veil your sight. Silver hair and folded wings, flashing eyes startled and disbelieving as you meet their gaze, and then her bow looses another shaft.
The arrow whistles toward you, but it isn't a killing shot. You bat the arrow from the air with the flat of your sword. She'd aimed to wound, an arrow to the shoulder of your sword arm. The deflected arrow sinks home in the soft forest floor, flickers and sparks. Paralytic charm. Why would a fey fight to capture? Except, perhaps, to toy with their prey.
The archer drops from the tree branch as you pull the long knife at you hip, anticipating your intent to throw and knowing now that you'd seen through her shroud.
A shout from behind causes you to turn, and you see the fairy spin toward you from the trees with a thin blade in each hand, dancing on nimble wings.
How had she gotten behind you?
Your sword is raised to parry before you realize she hadn't, and you wave off the illusion. A phantom simulacrum. You'd have seen through it sooner if it weren't for the disturbance throbbing at the edge of your senses. Two more attacks from your right, but you stand your ground, waiting for the caster to come into the open. Fey and their trickery.
The phantoms dissipate against you like a fine mist. You turn slowly, scanning the trees. You wait for a killing spell or an arrow, but long seconds pass and nothing comes. The entire exchange had only taken moments.
You have no intention of entering the trees, and your attacker is clearly wiser than to assault a foe head on when the advantage of illusion has been nullified. You have to assume she isn't simply going to leave. So, you're at a stalemate.
You've never cared for standoffs, so you end it the simplest way you know how. You give up.
You sheathe your blades and fold your arms, and wait to see what happens next.
|"Well that's reckless. Or just very arrogant," muses a voice to your left, low and melodious, and the fey woman bleeds out from the forest with her bow drawn taut, "or both. Though I've never seen anyone immune to glamour before, so perhaps the arrogance is earned. Unless you're just surrendering, which seems out of character for a Queen's dog."
She's no common sprite: this fey is of noble blood, the same stock as the ruling breed of Elphyne. If her glamours hadn't been proof enough, her features are -- striking and otherworldly, effortless and elegant. But if her blood speaks of the ruling class, her bearing belies it. Her smirk says she's confident, and her ease says she should be. She has the ready, coiled stance of a fighter, and the leather grips of the blades at her waist bear the deep impression of a practiced grip. You don't know her measure at a glance, but you know enough.
"You shot to incapacitate. Seems out of character for an assassin."
Her eyebrows raise and the tip of her bow dips toward the ground. She laughs, like a cascade of bells. Her expression is curious, without any edge of sadism, and you realize she is the only being you've ever encountered to speak so brashly of the Queen. Your false loyalties and habitual facade, suddenly feel unbearably heavy.
If this fairy has shrugged off the tyranny of the Queen so fearlessly, what is it but cowardice to have shouldered it for so long? No, not cowardice. You were afraid, long ago, but not anymore. With a sick feeling in your gut, you realize fear had long since given way to numbness. Somewhere along the way, you'd simply given up hope.
"Former," she says, "but fair point. That's not the accusation I was expecting, so if she didn't send you out here for me you must be investigating the rift."
"More specifically," you say, testing the waters of honesty, "I was sent to kill the traitors in the forest who she claims caused it."
"Ah, that would be me after all," she says with a small bow, and smiles, the news of the Queen's threat seeming to cause little concern. "Well, I didn't carve a rent in the veil, so if it wasn't her doing her highness is about to have bigger problems. So what now, Queen's Dog? Fight to the death? How would you like this to go?"
And now that the choice has been laid before you, the only path you can accept is clear. It's long past time you took the first step. You shrug back your hood, pull off your mask.
"I think I'd just like to go home."
The fey exhales sharply, confusion washing over her face.
"A human? She has human knights now?"
"Just the one," you say, "but arguably none, now."
Understanding blooms in her eyes and she grins with delight.
"No. No! You're the stolen child? Her precious prize, bolting while the stable door is open," she laughs, unstringing her bow at last and slinging it over her back. "Oh hell. I dearly wish I could see her face when she realizes you've up and left."
"So you'll help me?"
"As much as I'm able," the fey says, and folds her arms, "but what about the rift?"
"I'm content to let the Queen worry about her kingdom. You?"
"No love lost between the Queen and I. I can take you to the gate, but you'll need the Way Warden to send you across, and they're made of old magic. The barriers between worlds are vast, it takes power to cross the Veil. Even I can't open the path without them, and they obey no command but the Queen's own."
"Just get me there. I'll figure something out."
Pressed Into Service
|"It's a long ride to the gate. I hope you're well rested, we'll have to travel through the night," the one-time assassin notes, as the two of you walk together through the wood. Already the shadows are growing, and soon only the drifting luminous motes that ride their invisible currents will light your way. The forest creates its own light, but much of it is false and predatory. Fortunately, the both of you are better numbered among the predators of the fairy wood than as its prey.
"Ride? I'm not sure if you remember, but you scared away my horse," you remind her. You wonder what the Queen will think when the mount canters up to the palace with no rider in its fine silver saddle. The thought makes you smile.
"Yes," she chuckles, "I did do that. Don't worry, I have other ideas. So long as they still hunt will o' the wisps in the grove at night."
You don't ask. Some olds habits will be sooner broken than others, keeping your thoughts and and your questions to your own council has served you well enough.
And the thing about answers, you have found, is that you seldom need to ask for them. If you stay sharp, and pay attention, they have a way of outing.
The fey holds out a hand, gesturing silence, and the two of you creep through the trees, already soft footsteps becoming a soundless prowl.
Soon the trees break, and you're looking in on a wide forest clearing bisected by the thread of a stream that ends out in a wide still pool. Above the water's surface, will o' the wisps dance and chase one another with manic swoops and mindless cartwheels.
Crouched at the water's edge, eyeing the dance of the will o' the wisps with hungry eyes, are a pair of fey drakes.
You look to the silver-haired fairy and she winks.
"Our mounts await," she mouths, "I'll grab them, you wrangle them. Let's go."
The tethers of light that writhe up from the ground and slither around the legs of the fey drakes are similar to the ones the prince had used to snare the ensorceled humans before he murdered them, the ones he'd attempted to use on you.
They work better now around the limbs of the draconic beasts than they had around yours, and the will o' the wisps scatter in all directions and zip into the woods as the fey drakes growl and thrash, snapping at the luminous tethers.
The glamours in place, your most pressing task is to avoid being bitten.
You sprint toward the entangled creatures while their attention is on their legs and vault between the wings of the nearest, landing nimbly on its back and throwing a length of leather around its neck. You pull back sharply before it can thrash its serpentine neck, then flatten yourself close and loop the leather band up over its snout once, twice, and tie it.
Before the drake has had a chance to buck you off, you have it muzzled and control the movement of its head with the trailing straps.
You gesture your readiness, and the magic tethers release their hold. The fey drake bucks up immediately and bolts for the sky, but you pull its head firmly to the left and it flaps in long gentle loop that brings it through the sky and back to the clearing and back to ground.
It stomps in irritation, but fey drakes are more playful than fierce, despite their size, and before long the beast is resigned to your instruction. You won't be able to tame it in a night, but if you treat it gently and feed it a few morsels from your bag it should warm to you enough to take you where you need to go.
"One down one to go, knight," the fey says, taking the makeshift reins from your hands and tossing you a second length of leather strapping. She hops up on the back of the drake and gestures to the other with her chin, grinning.
You jump off and give her a look she won't be able to see through your mask, so you add a rude gesture.
"I'm sure you could have harnessed the other yourself," you say, and eye the second drake. This one is glaring right back at you, you won't be able to get its back without it noticing like you had the first.
"Oh yes, easily," she agrees with an easy laugh, "you just did such a graceful job of it the first time, I was curious if you could do it again or if the first one was luck."
"Watch and see," you say, and take a run at the beast.
You feel a small smile below the expressionless silver of the mask, and find yourself wondering in an abstract way if this is what camaraderie feels like.
Boss: Way Warden
Stranger in a Strange Land
|Your senses stretch, spool, and your being suffuses with golden light. All existence tangles, and for a brief moment, the future and the past lay splayed before you in perfect crystal clarity.
And then it's all gone, and one foot stumbles and scuffs across hard-baked earth, and then the other, and the golden light drains into the simple glare of a late morning sun. Your skin tingles, all hairs on end, and the vibration in your blood is swiftly fading.
The world around you is desaturated and strange, the sky a simple solid blue brushed with long scattered streaks of white cloud. The trees all around whisper no secrets, stand quiet, and move only in the wind.
"West Kruna," Liann says behind you in a mellifluous murmur that's pregnant with disbelief, and you turn to find her as you sheathe your blades.
She hasn't changed, but now against the backdrop of this other world she seems more vivid by contrast, the casual fluid grace of her movements unusual against the still stoicism of the trees.
She meets your eyes and cants her head slightly to the side, staring. As if you're the one that has been utterly altered, and not the landscape around you.
"You pushed open the Way and you stepped across the Veil. That shouldn't be possible, by any magic I know. Not fey, and not human. Why didn't you tell me you could do that?" she shakes her head slightly, furrows her brow.
"I wasn't sure I could," you say, "until I did."
"I don't know," you admit, and raise your hands, palms up, in surrender to her stunned disbelief. You have nothing to offer.
She scrutinizes you carefully, and then nods, accepting the mystery. And then, having accepted the unexplainable, she smiles brightly. Her folded wings extend, vibrate in an excited fluttering buzz and a flash of silver.
"Very well, Veil-Walker. For now I'd say it's enough that we made it. We're free. You've lost your mount again, so it seems we're walking. Where to next?"
You turn one way, then the other. You're standing on a wide dirt road, marred and lined by cart tracks and recent rain, then baked in the heat of spring sun. All around are deep swaths of old trees, newly green.
"That way," you say, and point your chin down the road.
You take a deep breath of the rich warm air, let it out. This is your world, one you've never known.
You are a raft adrift in an unfamiliar sea, but for the first time in your life you no longer feel lost.
Lines in the Sand
|You've been walking for some time, but despite the peaceful sameness of the landscape you cannot seem to tire of it. You find a certain security in it.
"Up ahead," Liann notes, and you're pulled from your inspection of a small blue bird perched quietly in the treeline.
Two humans approach on horseback, both armored and armed. A man and a woman. Their appearance is uniform with what seems to be a heraldic badge on the chest, so you assume them to be military of some kind and unlikely to be common mercenaries or brigands.
It occurs to you that you have not seen free humans, unenchanted and alive, ever before in your life. And here two ride, under the colors of their own free kingdom. Perhaps even in the service of a human queen or king.
You realize that you've stopped in the road and stared openly as they approached as they slow their horses to a walk and their hands stray near their blades, suspicion and curiosity writ clear in both faces.
"Hail," the woman says, "can we assist you... travelers?"
She glances to the man and he shrugs in agreement with her likely guess.
"Yes, actually. I hope that you can," you say, and reach a hand for your sword. Both faces harden immediately, and their blades are half drawn by the time you've raised your free hand in supplication. Palm out: patience and peace.
They don't sheath their swords, but watch warily with their steel naked in their hands as you pull your thin blade and set the tip to the dirt. You focus, drawing on long memory to recall the scrying pools of your youth. The taunting games.
You carve a quick image in the hard earth. A dragon in profile, and below it a four pronged spear or rake.
"This image. What can you tell me about it?"
You sheath your sword and look up to find them looking at you with complete bemusement.
"The mark of the Dragon-Rider?" the man asks with careful enunciation, as if you may be addled in the head, "If you have to ask, you must hail from somewhere real far away, and that's the truth. Are you here for the festival? You missed it by about a week."
"Festival? No," you shake your head, "I'm looking for a castle that bears this insignia. The family crest, I think."
They sheath their swords and look at each other with a look of consternation.
"Foreigners," the man mutters, and sighs. He turns to you and points in the direction you've been traveling.
"That would be the Kasan Keep. Well you're on the right road, and that's no secret. There's a crossroads a mile or so up, and if you turn there and head down the road on your left. But it's several days march without a horse, and you'll want to stay off the road at night. Some highwaymen have been causing trouble" he warns with a firm nod.
"Understood. Thank you both," you say, with a courtly bow, "it has been my true privilege."
"Of course," the woman says, and hesitates before continuing with some embarrassment, "Ah. I'm sorry, but I've heard fairies are… smaller?"
"Common sprites," Liann says politely, "a lower breed."
"Ah. Well, carry on," the woman says, and the soldiers urge their horses on down the road.
"Awkward, humans," Liann laughs as soon as the pair are out of earshot.
You have to admit she's right. But somehow you've never felt so proud of anything.
"Kasan," you mutter to yourself as you resume your trek, tasting the word. You wonder what it means.
Your Money and Your Life
|The bandits don't have the good grace to wait for nightfall as the guards had suggested they would.
You're less than an hour's walk down the crossroad when you spot a motley group of five, all armed, doing a poor job of concealment among the trees. From the looks of them they're more capable in the field of violence than in hiding, but their primary weapon is likely simple fear.
"You spotted me under a shroud glamour, so I know you see these incredible talents," Liann remarks mildly.
"I do," you say, and hesitate as you decide whether to betray a new facet of ignorance, "I see four humans, and something ugly on a horse."
Liann gives you a strange, searching look, as though searching for a hint as to whether you're serious. Seeing your stoic refusal to meet her gaze, she dissolves into peals of musical laughter that you're certain the thieves are close enough to hear. You feel your cheeks redden slightly.
"That's a goblin," she gasps, and suffers a fresh attack of amusement, "Stars and gods, Veil-Walker, the ugly one is a goblin. Did you have no education in that palace?"
"Only in the one area," you grumble, "and I'll be glad to demonstrate it in a moment."
"Oh all right," Liann mumbles through stray giggles, "just let me dispose of the bowman on the horse first. To clarify, that would be the ugly thing."
As you approach within an appropriate ambush range, the group of bandits slink out from what passed for concealment and block the road ahead with a brandishing of weapons.
"Your valuables -- " the one with the scarred face begins, and then a glowing arrow catches the goblin in the throat.
Liann's wings spread and blur as she darts up from the earth, flitting toward the trees and tossing cantrips casually in her wake. As fast as she is with a bow, her easy facility for magic is a natural talent like none you've seen.
Before you can even close the distance the leader of the group catches a blinding flash-burst cantrip to the face, and the small masked one is coated with fey fire: he screams as he begins to burn. But then you're on them, and you know the group has never seen combat.
The panic scatters them. You're able to put a merciful sword through the neck of the burning one and sink your knife in the chest of the bald one with the staff before any one of the group gathers their wits enough to aim a blow.
The big one with the club you'd ignored as the slowest and least of the threats. As he lumbers toward you your arm snaps out, and the knife cartwheels end over end. It lands home just below his collarbone an instant before the arrow pierces his gut. He crumples slowly.
Before the leader can recover from the blinding magic, his band of thugs is already dead.
|"Why?" you ask, as the leader and last of the group blinks the vision back into his eyes, the point of his long curved sword wavering uncertainly.
"Why what?" he growls, and as he regains his sight his sword steadies. He doesn't spare a glance to his fallen comrades, but fixes you with piercing stare. You notice he shifts to keep the treeline within visibility at the same time so he won't surprised by an arrow.
"Why lurk on the roads, preying on the others of your species? The weak who can't fight back? Humans should have more honor than this," you say, knowing that your questions are foolish and not a little bit naive. But you feel a tight sickness in your chest. You've killed in the Queen's service, and frequently, with far less good cause than this. Your conscience should be clear.
But you'd never killed another human before, and now you've had to put a blade to three. Despite the circumstance an unforeseen guilt has threaded its way into your heart.
It's easier to be mad at the bandit than yourself.
"Honor? You talk like an oroc," he spits, his voice gritty in a way that suggests his burns are more than surface deep, and he's squinting at you as though trying to pierce the silver surface of your mask with his eyes, and a growing hatred is twisting his face, "Hold on, I know that voice. You bloody gods damned filth, I knew I'd catch you on these roads one day. Still hiding your face, aye %man%? Still better than the rest of us? What sort of game are you playing?"
"What?" you frown, thrown by the scarred bandit's bizarre accusations, and your disquiet over killing the others drains away as you try to regain balance in the exchange.
He spits at your feet and points his sword at your face, his face splotchy red with anger.
"After two years leading us you turn against us, you thrice-damned demon, and you kill Hurvit and set me afire, and you just… you just walk away," he rants, the volume of his voice rising to a gasping shout, "And when you finally come back to finish the job you got the bleeding nerve to lecture me on honor?"
Before you can piece together a response better than baffled silence, the bandit's tirade escalates to a ragged yell as he attacks recklessly, the wild swing of his sword fueled by years of resentment and hate.
He's more talented than the others of his band, but his anger makes him sloppy even if he weren't outclassed.
You dodge his swing, turn the next aside on the side of your blade, and step inside his guard.
One thrust through the heart and the light goes out. It's quick, you felt you owed him that much even if you still don't know quite what for.
The bandit slides to the ground and you stare at him speculatively as you clean your sword with care, then turn away to retrieve your knife from the chest of the brute. You note with relief that he'd slumped onto his side. You wouldn't need to flip the bear of a man.
You hear hooves approach at an idle pace, and tug the knife free as Liann leads the bowman's horse to you.
"No more walking. Lucky us," she says cheerfully from horseback, reins in hand.
You look the horse over, nod appreciatively. Even the horses in this place are more solid, stockier, and smelling reliably of horse sweat and leather.
"Thanks for not shooting the last one right away," you say.
"Seemed personal somehow. Don't know how it could be, but I thought I'd better leave it to you," she says, gesturing to the horse behind her for you to mount up, "I'm impressed that you've managed to make enemies so quickly."
"I suspect that something has been busy making them for me," you note sourly, and swing up behind the saddle.
|You're beginning to doze on the horse's back, lulled by the rhythmic clop of the hooves on the hard earth and the sweet warmth of the spring afternoon as it sinks into evening.
The toll of your travels is beginning to rear its head, and the heavy burn of your eyes reminds you that you haven't slept in two days and across as many worlds. When you turn a corner in the road and a cozy structure of old wood and stone comes into view ahead, windows alit in preparation for the coming dark, you spot the placard hanging above the door and feel a muted thrill. A woman holding a familiar instrument that you now recognize as a pitchfork.
Music and the sounds of merriment and life drift toward you.
"An inn," Liann notes with a sigh of deep relief that tells you that you aren't the only one teetering on the brink of exhaustion.
"Let's stop here for the night," you agree, as though there had been any possibility of passing and continuing down the road.
You dismount on stiff legs and lead the horse to the stable that smells of stale hay and the musk of beasts, and you note many of the stalls are occupied. The inn would be busy, but not full.
A stable boy stretches and rises from a pile of clean hay and takes the reins from you with a quick bow that he repeats with considerably more enthusiasm when Liann slips a silver piece from a leather bag and slips it into his hand. You suspect the horse wasn't the only thing she'd liberated from the dead bandits, but you don't judge her pragmatism.
The boy barely spares the two of you a second glance, despite the mask and the weapons and the wings half-hidden below Liann's cloak, which tells you that exotic travelers are not uncommon to the area.
You swing open the heavy door and gesture that Liann precede you, then leave the growing gloom of the early dusk in favor of the bright and merry warmth of the inn.
A fire dances companionably in the hearth, and the wide common room hosts a half dozen lodgers and the debris of their plentiful food and drink, only a few of which spare a glance your way as you enter. A man near the fire pulls his hand from the lute across his lap long enough to raise a glass in your direction and nods in welcome. He quaffs the contents and coughs loudly, then his fingers find the strings again and his song resumes to the general approval of the room as you find your way to the bar.
"Men of Kruna, grab a bludgeon,
"Rooms for the night?" the matronly half-elf at the bar inquires with a kind smile.
"Please," you agree.
"And drink," Liann adds firmly as she slides onto a barstool, dropping the pilfered leather pouch to the bar top. The contents clinks with the satisfying sound of currency that has plenty of company. The bar matron nods and fishes two tankards from the shelves below the bar.
"Get up there and start attacking!
You gratefully take the next bar stool over and lean your elbow on the bar. After a long moment of hesitation, you reach up and unfasten the clasps of the silver mask, sliding it into its second home in the pouch at your belt. You keep your hood low over your face and try not to focus on the feeling of exposure. The mask had been your face at all times outside your private chamber for years, and though it bothers you to admit it, without it you feel as naked as if you sat in your underclothes.
"Headed home from the celebrations in Dracoshire?" the half-elf asks politely, placing two sloshing tankards before you without so much as a second glance into the shadows of your hood, the good habit of discretion the mark of any successful proprietor.
"No, we're paying a visit to the house of Kasan," Liann replies with a casual candor.
"Oh, are you then? Paying your respects direct? Good for you, then," the matron replies approvingly, "Get a few of your sort around this time, I suppose we always will. Great %man% like that won't ever be forgot, not while the sun still rises."
"To the Dragon-Rider," Liann replies, and raises a glass, and you hear it echo around the room.
She winks conspiratorially at you and takes a deep draught of her ale. You tilt back your tankard in reply, and realize belatedly that the fey may know more about your origins than you do.
"Men of Kruna, with blood splattered,
Boss: Draconic Dreams
|To ride to Kasan Keep from the inn, you find, would only take a fraction of an hour. You could cover it in minutes at an easy gallop, but instead you find yourself leaving the stolen horse in the stables and crossing the wooded acres on foot.
Liann keeps pace beside, seemingly cognizant of your confliction, not asking why you aren't in a rush to cover the final miles home.
And that's the heart of it, you realize. The place you were born, which you've never set foot in or seen with your own eyes. Is that home? The people within that share your blood, are they family? You've dreamt of this day for as long as you can remember, but the fantasy of belonging seems eclipsed by the idea of walking in and facing a room full of strangers.
"Who is the Dragon-Rider?" you ask abruptly, breaking the silence, "And what do they have to do with the Kasans? Do you know who I am?"
Liann glances toward you and takes a deep breath as she prepares her answers, and you sense that she's been waiting for you to ask the questions for some time.
"Alright. The first is simpler to answer than the rest," she says at last, "so I'll start there. There was a war here in West Kruna, decades ago. A terrible war with the dragons that ended up embroiling every race on the continent by the end of it. The Dragon-Rider was a human, a simple farmer, who took up arms to defend %his% town. But when the town was safe, %he% just kept fighting. %He% went on to befriend a young dragon and ride him into countless battles, and united all the greatest warriors in the kingdom. Eventually, it was %his% actions and %his% incredible capacity for doing right that swung the tide and inspired armies. In a way, %he% was the reason the war was won, and the kingdom still stands.
"After the war %he% was named the first of a new noble line, the Kasans, and presided over them until %he% died. %He% was arguably the greatest human hero of this age, and we followed %his% exploits even in the courts of Elphyne, to their end. I'm sure the same could be said of the infernal realms, and even the halls of the gods."
She pauses to allow you to digest, or so that she could formulate the next words, or both. They seem to disquiet her as much as they do you.
"You can see how the %grandson% of such a %man% would be quite the prize for the Queen to add to her treasures. The blood of the greatest hero of an age."
She sighs, and her expression is bitter.
"I'm sorry, that's all I know about you. Rumor and gossip, mainly. I was exiled from the court soon after."
"What for?" you ask, grasping on to the detail.
"Sedition," she says, the musical tone of her voice giving the word a chord of contempt.
You walk a while longer in silence. You lost in thought, Liann staring at the ground, her expression stormy. It reminds you a little of the Queen, you realize, and an unwelcome thought begins niggling at the back of your mind, and nests there. But you've decided you're done burying your thoughts. Instead of letting it stay nestled, you push it out into the light.
"And are you traveling with me because I'm the blood of a great hero?"
Liann looks up sharply, her face wounded. She shakes her head.
"No!" she says, and then thinks hard, "Well, I may be, indirectly. But not like the Queen, not like that. I'm here because when I shot at you, your instinct was to put your sword away and find out why. And because you were able to do something I would have thought was impossible, something that may help me fix whatever is tearing at the walls of my home. And because without even knowing if you could and with both of our lives hanging on it you tried to do it anyway. I'm still here because of who you are, what you've done. Not what you came from."
"Who I am? Liann, even I don't know that," you reply, but it feels ungracious and a little foolish in the face of her earnestness.
"Well I do," Liann says, and glares at you with something like defiance in her eyes, "You're the Veil-Walker, and you're my friend. And you were raised by my horrible mother, so that makes you family. And that's enough."
And she's right. It is.
You clear your throat, loosening the rough edge of some emotion you aren't familiar with.
"Alright," you say, "let's get where we're going."
The One Who Knocks
|The doors of the keep loom large in front of you, tremendous double doors of banded wood designed to hold off an invasion force but serve equally well to bar the passage of one human and one fairy, and also to obscure whatever may be on the other side.
"You're still wearing your mask" Liann notes.
"Yes," you agree, "I'm just not sure how they would react to my face, with %him% already in there."
"Alright," she says, "then should we knock?
You think it over a while and then shake your head slowly, considering. It may be better to wait a while, and see who comes and goes. Or maybe you might slip around the side, or enter through one of the high windows where you won't be seen.
"Alright," she says, and lifts a hand. A spark of shifting sigils drifts from it and lands on the door like a butterfly alighting. It flares, and the hinges of the door glimmer in an odd way, and the great doors begin to very slowly swing outward.
"Liann!" you hiss, "What--"
"Oops," she says, and smiles, "Someone very brave must have taught me that sometimes you just need to open the door in front of you and walk through it, even if you don't know what's going to be on the other side."
She throws a shroud glamour over the two of you, and the doors open on a confused young guard with a dragon and pitchfork emblazoned on his shield, squinting into the sun and what, for all he can tell, seems to be an empty road.
"Let's do a little scouting," Liann whispers, and pads ahead, easily slipping past the guard without a sound before he has a chance to spot the subtle variations in light that would betray her.
You follow silently, feeling appropriately chagrined.
Halls of History
|The keep is large, and bustling with guards and staff of all types but no one whose face jogs your memory.
The two of you drift like ghosts through the halls, slipping from shadow to shadow and sidling through the corners at the edge of vision. Neither of you speak, as the glamour doesn't hide sound, but follow each other from room to room, exchanging the lead at the whim of convenience and the ease of two shades with like minds.
Some of the corridors seem familiar, small details leaping out and bringing you back to hundreds of days of brief glimpses into another world through the red-gold surface of the scrying pool. It feels very much like stalking through a dream from your youth.
The kitchen, dining hall, main hall. These stand out. The closets and cupboards do not, all but one, where you think you watched a young boy hide once during a lively game of hide and go seek. Those were the visions that had always stuck with you the strongest, the ones which had inspired the longing that hurt the most.
Eventually you slip through the door to a brightly lit room off the main hall, Liann following, and shut the door behind. All along the walls are hung weapons and armor of every type and description, treasures and arms from far off lands and from deep below the earth. From some you can sense the quiet pulse of strong enchantment.
You pace slowly from display to display and note that each and every piece shows both the signs of expert use and of diligent care.
At the end of the long room -- be it a trophy hall, or an armory, or both -- a suit of armor stands alone, hands resting on the pommel of a long polished sword that stands ready before it. It reminds you of the Way Warden, in a way: purposeful, quiet, old. And above all, it somehow radiates power and authority.
"I've seen this in renderings," Liann whispers from your side, "this is the armor %he% was wearing during the final battle, when %he% faced the great white drake, the commander of the dragon army, and cut them out of the sky."
You stand there staring for a while, wondering what %he% was really like. The farmer who became the greatest champion of a kingdom.
And then you turn away.
Face to Face
|A feeling of sly voyeurism persists until you ventured into a vast round study at the end of a long hall, and then it's no longer simple to pretend to yourself that you're just losing yourself in unfamiliar and forbidden wings for the sake of pure exploration, as you had in the palace as a young %boy%.
The large fireplace at the head of the study it cold and unused, the logs fresh and lightly coated with dust. It boasts a portrait in a place of honor above the mantle. It hangs in an ornate frame, and as you approach an old familiar anger rekindles in your gut, and burns brighter with every step.
In the painting, rendered in fine detail, you find depicted your mother and father, seen so many times in the depths of that accursed pool. Beside them a shy looking youth with fair tousled hair, what you think may be your elder sibling. And on the other side, staring back at you with cold complacency, is you.
You look into your own eyes, and reach up, and pull down your hood. You unfasten the clasps at the side of the sleek, featureless face you use to hide your own, and you pull off the mask.
You refuse to look at this abomination in the painting and concede your face to it.
"Liann, would you please do me a favor," you say, pulling the knife from your belt, "and light this fire?"
"It would be my pleasure," she says, and rubs her hands together. When she unfolds them, an ember hovers above her palms, and she lowers her face to it. For a moment, the spark is reflected in the depths of her almond eyes, and then she purses her lips and blows gently. The spark flutters into the fireplace, and the logs ignite in a sudden and violent inferno of heat.
You place the tip of your knife against the canvas and drag it through your face. And then again, and one more time. Until you can't recognize the little %boy% in the portrait, because when %he% burns, it will be as something faceless.
With four swift cuts, the portrait curls down from its frame and into your hands. You fold it carefully in half, and then half again, and then give it to the flames.
|You turn away from the fire only when the last remnant of the painting crackles and curls to soot, and find yourself looking directly into the face of that tousle-haired youth. Older now, but still defined by a type of shy worry and unmistakably the same. He's holding a pair of riding gloves, and a well used cloak is draped over one arm. He stands in the doorway, and he stares. His morning ride, it seems, forgotten.
At first you think his shock is simply caused by the portrait slashed from its frame and burning in a raging fire, but looking down you realize that silhouetted by the fire your shroud's imperfections are highlighted by improperly refracted light and you appear as a loosely collected mosaic of warped fire and stone.
The camouflage is failed, and so you steel yourself and do what you inevitably came to do. You reveal yourself.
You pluck at the threads of the glamour failing to conceal you, and it dissolves from you like spun sugar in rain. The man in the doorway doesn't move, but contracts, his entire body tensing as a grown %man% suddenly melts into view in his library. His eyes focus on your face, and you see his color drain to a sickly pallor.
Liann bleeds into existence, leaning against the fireplace and wearing an expression of enraptured interest in the proceedings.
"Your mask is off," she notes.
"Yes," you agree, and you smile.
You had mostly expected the man to run by now, but what you've heard of Kasan blood must run true. Though clearly not a man of action, he is also not a man of cowardice. He takes two steps into the study, and his eyes barely spare a glance to Liann before they return to dance over your features. You can see his mind racing, turning over the stones of impossibility and scavenging for the truth.
"Where is the %man% with my face?" you ask, and you keep your voice gentle.
The question ticks off answers to questions that had been chasing themselves across his face, and you can see the color begin to return to his complexion. You can't tell whether he's put together all the pieces, if he knows who you are. It might not matter. He saw something in your eyes that eased his worry.
"Are you going to kill %him%?" he asks, and as you see something grim build behind his eyes you realize for the first time that you weren't the only one whose childhood was tarnished by cruelty.
"Yes," you say, and for once in your life, your face hides nothing.