Once, there was a man.
This man was broken. This man could not define himself as others could. He was called a quiet child and then went well into his adulthood, but the truth was that he never saw a reason to speak. He couldn't find worth in anything as nothing made him happy. Not his marriage nor the birth of his firstborn son.
It was not until he picked up a blade that he felt something. He swung it once and then again and for a thrice time.
He swung until his body gave out and for the first time in his life, he smiled. He joined a prodigious sword school to hone his skills even more and soon after, it was noticed that this man was a savant with the blade. He soon eclipsed his masters and joined a different school. This process repeated until one day, he was challenged to a duel. A duel to the death.
The reason why was lost to time, but the simple truth was that he was unfortunately picked. His current school had been insulted by a wandering swordsman and as the most talented student, he was chosen to fight.
The battle lasted a single stroke of flashing steel and the man sheathed his blade as his foe died behind him.
The man didn't feel anything and he did not know why. He had trained with the blade for all of this time because it made him feel something for the first time. So why did he feel nothing as he cut down a man?
Exhausting the schools, the man began to travel Creation, leaving his family behind without a second thought. He did not see them ever again and never spared them a thought.
He soon made a name for himself with his skills, but the man felt nothing in regards to that. His blade was drenched in the blood of those that challenged him, but he felt nothing.
It was not until he stayed the night at a nameless village that the second turning point of his life came. They were going to be attacked by a bandit raid of a 100 men and they had no way to protect themselves. It was certain doom.
Knowing this man's skill with the blade, they pleaded this unfeeling man to protect them. He accepted, not out of the goodness of his heart, but for the hope of perhaps slaying a hundred men would make him feel that same feeling as he did when he first swung a sword.
One man against a hundred. It was obvious who would win.
The battle came and the fields of wheat became slick with blood. The man's body was cut to ribbons and he was little more than a shambling corpse as he kept on cutting down the bandits. He was impaled by a dozen spears, but still, he fought.
And with his Second Breath, he lived once more.
It is said the Unconquered Sun himself was impressed by the valour of this man, his skill with the blade raised against a hundred foes to protect a nameless village was worthy of being an Exalted Solar of the Dawn Caste.
Gods knew so little about the hearts of men.
For the second time, the man smiled as that strange feeling filled him.
Ages past and foes were slain. Their size, power and nature changed, but the battle did not. Whether it was bandits, Elementals, Demons, The Fair Folk or even the great Primordials themselves.
And yet, even as he ruled over Creation as his right, he never felt anything once more. He simply raised his sword as was expected of him and swung it, but he never felt anything as he once did.
Even wedding his Lunar Mate was met with cold indifference. He never learnt her name as he decided once more to travel Creation.
The thought of killing himself passed his mind. He did not want to spend thousands of years feeling hollow and empty. The people that would miss him were none for it was his skills with the blade that would be missed and it was clear that death made him feel nothing.
As he drew his blade to slice his own throat, something stopped him.
It was a mortal child, alone. Perhaps he was enamoured by the sight of the demi-god and decided to follow him. Perhaps he was lost and simply stumbled upon the empty man.
At that moment, a small insidious voice began to speak in the back of the man's mind. It was a dark, subtle thing that had no business being in the mind of a Lawgiver but they all heard it at some point in their lives. Sooner or later, they all listened to it.
And now, it was the man's turn.
It told him that the reason he felt nothing was that he had raised his sword in the service of others. Because he had done it when it was expected of him.
The first time he raised it, the first time he felt happy was because he wanted to swing it. Not out of personal obligation, not out of expectations of the Sun above.
He felt happy because he had taken the first step to define himself when he swung that sword. He felt happy when he was Exalted because that was the second step.
The child fell in a bloody heap as he took the third and final step. It was a quick cut, painless. But the deed was done.
And the man laughed as if he had just been told a good joke.
Once, there was a man. This man could not define himself except in the act of swinging his blade in the service of himself. He was a blade without a sheathe, a monster without end.
This is not that man's story. This is the story of the man that came after.
Petals hated the sun.
His first memory was of his home being burnt down to the ground by raiders under the watchful eye of the sun. Practically born into slavery, he knew what to say and what not to say quickly. He knew what the myriad roles he had to play, from wine bearer to cleaner to field worker.
He had been passed from owner to owner more times than he could count, to the point that he had almost forgotten where he was even born in the first place.
Petals was not even his birth name. It was the name one of his masters had given him because he wanted a nice-sounding name for his wine bearer.
But the longer he was chained, the more starved he became for freedom. He waited and waited, acting all the while. As a slave, Petals learned how to stay out of sight for when important quests appeared.
And yet, he never forgot the hunger for freedom. How could he? Wasn't it normal to want to be free? To not feel the lash of a whip across his back because he spilt some wine? To not go cold and hungry because he fell down exhausted while working in the sweltering fields?
After one particularly bad day, it happened. He escaped.
He didn't remember how. It was all a blur to him. He was resting in the shadows of his cell and all of a sudden, he woke up outside his cell, under the bent shadow of a tree.
It was not under the sun he escaped, but under the watchful moon in the cover of dusk.
It was almost mystical in how it happened. But Petals couldn't waste time. He had to move, had to finally escape from a lifetime of slavery.
And for a moment, that tantalizing taste of freedom was finally his. The fresh air never tasted so sweet to Petals before and it never would again.
The next day, he was captured and beaten within an inch of his life. The sun was watching from above all the while.
They called him a demon child. They called him an abomination.
They called him Anathema.
He knew what Anathema were as even slaves were taught about them. They had to be so they would report it to their masters if they appeared.
He wasn't Anathema. He couldn't be.
If he was, he wouldn't be a slave, Petals thought bitterly to himself.
He was sold the next day. To whom, he didn't know. He never did. But he could tell that the group that had purchased him didn't have any good intentions for him. They had smuggled him out from the Blessed Isle in a cramped, foul-smelling box. That was not the worst of it though.
The worst came when they let him out.
The taste of dried blood was enough to make him sick, had he eaten or drunk enough to throw anything back up. His forehead burned as the tyrannical sun rose above him. The sand beneath his blistered feet rubbed against his burnt soles. Sweat dried as soon as it appeared on his brow and his wrists were rubbed raw and bloody by the frayed rope.
He had been taken south to the Burning Sands. They had stuffed him back in that foul-smelling box when they made port and then they dumped him back out soon after. All he could see was the smouldering sands of the south for miles.
"This one won't last long," One of his owners said flippantly as he wrapped the ropes around his wrists.
"It'll last long enough."
Petals enjoyed the slight quiver of fear in his owner's voice, even if he didn't know the reason for it.
They made him walk through the desert sands while they rode on horses. It was the worst pain he had ever been through and despite the long, torturous hours, it felt like he was walking in circles.
Despite all of that, he hanged onto that fraying thread of life. He had tasted freedom once and he no longer wished to simply taste it.
He wanted to drown in it.
And he couldn't do that if he died as a slave.
So he walked as far as his legs could carry him. He steeled himself under the uncaring sun. He swallowed what little spit he could to nourish himself and let his imagination run wild into fantasies when he'll be free.
He lasted two minutes before his body simply gave up. That was two minutes more than what he should've survived.
And yet, instead of shouting or the taste of the whip, silence fell over the Burning Sands. Petals used the last of his strength to look up at the uncaring, unwavering sun to silently curse it one more time before he passed away.
And yet, his gaze was stopped. His masters had stopped and not one of them was looking at him. They were looking at the figure in front of them that had seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
Petals' first thought was that it's a man riding a lion. Tall and proud, the man rode the king of beasts as if it was the natural order of things.
Petals' felt a feeling bloom in his chest. It was the same feeling he felt when he watched other children play with their mothers and fathers. It was the same feeling as he watched normal people walk around without a chain around their neck.
It was envy. Pure, black envy in his little heart. And yet, he felt something different this time.
This was it, he faintly realised. This was what he wanted, standing right in front of him.
If the person in front of him was not free, then who was? Free to stand before his masters without fear. Free to do whatever he pleased.
"Impressive mount, stranger," The leader of the group spoke up, the same man that tortured Petals during the agonizing boat trip, "It is not often that one sees a man astride a simhata in this day and age."
The stranger remained silent as the sun behind his back casted his visage in shadows. Petals could've sworn that the stranger's eyes were fixated on him, even as he laid down in the hot sands.
"What are your intentions for this child?"
The stranger's smooth, quiet voice spoke with a strange inflection and an even stranger accent that Petals has never heard before. It was spoken in Low Realm, but it was clear the stranger must've learnt it.
"That is none of your concern, stranger. We bought the slave with fair silver and we simply wish to return home."
The words the leader spoke were hurried and rushed, almost desperate. The lion beast remained as still as a statue, standing tall and resolute as it eyed the people in front of it hungrily.
And yet, Petals didn't feel in danger. Not anymore. But that black cold envy remained.
"You mean to sell this child to the Fair Folk."
The word made Petals freeze in fear and the men were no different.
He had rumours of slaves being sold to the Fair Folk by cruel masters, but he simply couldn't imagine any human doing such a vile thing.
And now, that was supposed to be his fate. To become a plaything to creatures of madness.
"...What of it, stranger?" The leader spoke with a growling tremble, his hand going to the blade at his side as his fellows behind him glanced at each uneasily, "This thing, it's a demon child. An Anathema. Do you have any idea of what it's capable of?"
The stranger stayed silent for a moment and Petals thought his fate was sealed once more. At least he would die in the desert than live as a slave of the Fair Folk.
Petals heard a sound that made his dry eyes blink. It was a sound he had rarely heard during his life of slavery.
It was a chuckle. The stranger chuckled at his master's warning.
"This is no laughing matter, fool. Now step aside or you will join him. Even with your beast, do you think you can take six of us at once?"
"Did it take the six of you to cut out a child's tongue and brand him?"
If Petals cared enough to think about it, he could've sworn there were seven of them, but he had more pressing matters to think about. Such as the stranger doing something monumentally stupid.
He dismounted from the lion. Uncaring of the sudden screech of steel and bronze blades leaving their sheaths as he moved to the sandy floor.
"Take your pick, Hetair, but leave one alive."
And in that same breath, screams and agony-filled neighs bursted into Petals' eardrums. The scent of fresh blood drifted in the air and Petals found himself suddenly dumbstruck as he watched within arms reach of the lion beast devouring horse and man alive.
It was so much bigger than Petals thought it was. It was so much more powerful than Petals thought.
He wanted one.
"Kill him! Kill him now!"
A giant shadow fell over Petals as the lion beast jumped over him. Blood rained down on him in drips and drops, the sensation of warm blood was cold compared to the heat of the Burning Sands.
Another scream, another master dead. Two of his masters rushed the lion beast with swords drawn while one rushed the stranger. The one holding his ropes-
Without warning, he found himself jerked up and the taste of cold steel against his neck. His bound hands wrestled at the arm, but he might as well have been trying to break rocks with his bare hands.
"Damned abomination! This is all your fault!"
If Petals could swear and scream and shout, he would've. How could this be his fault? He wanted it to be his fault, but it wasn't. He didn't call for this stranger to save him, he didn't want to traverse the South to be some Fair Folk's plaything.
Not for the first time, Petals grew angry. The blood in his veins grew hot with adrenaline and he renewed his efforts to break the man's grip. He accomplished nothing as he expected, but the effort alone in trying to take back his freedom was more than reason enough.
As the steel blade bit into his neck, he could feel it shake in fear. And taking a glance around him, he understood why.
The two riders that tried to attack the lion-beast were dead. The lion-beast had broken the back of one of the horses, its body twisted in unnatural ways. The rider was crushed beneath it, his head a pulpy red mess.
The other rider and his horse were currently in the crushing jaws of the lion-beast. The sound of crunched bones filled the air as the lion-beast cast its hungry glare over to Petals and his captor.
And the stranger?
The rider that went to attack him was laid flat on the sand, a sword handle in his chest. Blood spurted out like a fountain and his horse was off in the distance, galloping off to nowhere.
Petals wanted it. He didn't rightly know what it was that he wanted, but he just knew if he ever wanted to be truly free, he had to have what this stranger had in front of him.
Was it his sword? His beast? Or was it something else?
Petals didn't know. It felt like the sun had already bleached his brain of coherent thoughts.
The stranger plucked his bloodied blade from the corpse of the rider and with a single lazy swipe, the blood flew off and the sand drank it happily. It was a simple curved blade of steel, made to lop off limbs and cleave heads from shoulders.
"S-Stand back! Come any closer and I'll slit this thing's throat!"
Perhaps uncaring for the shouting man, the stranger placed his hand on the last remaining horse. With a few whispered words, he soothed it down as if the lion-beast wasn't currently eating one of its brethren right next to it.
The sun was still behind the stranger's back, casting him in shadow. But Petals once again felt the feeling of the stranger's eyes upon him and Petals stared back, unable to say anything.
"If you kill him, I will feed you to Hetair alive," The stranger said coldly and in response to its name, the lion-beast stopped its feasting to prowl around the stranger, its growls and snarls sending chills down Petals' bones.
He could finally see the beast in its full splendour and his greed grew even more.
It was positively giant. Bigger than the horses it devoured, the lion-beast towered over everything in the area at what must be nineteen, twenty hands high. Only the horse came up to its height, but barely. Its fur, despite being splashed and covered in brown was a golden royal colour. Its mane of gold was like the rays of the blasted sun itself. Its whole body rippled with powerful, taut muscles that looked like they could bend steel with a single swipe.
Even with the saddle on its back and the full bags dangling from it, the lion-beast still could move gracefully. The paws-
It didn't have paws. It had hooves instead. Clawed hooves, dripping with gore.
Was that the strangest thing to happen today? Petals couldn't decide.
"Y-You don't understand! If we don't do this, then-!"
"I am not here to debate with you," The stranger sheathed his curved blade and his prowling lion-beast ferocious growls made Petals' hairs stand on edge, "You would've doomed an innocent child to a fate worse than death. You do not get the right to justify your actions."
That was right. There was no justification for this, none at all. Was this simply all that he was supposed to amount to? Born into slavery and when he gets that taste of freedom, he is to be sacrificed to the Fair Folk?
It wasn't fair. None of it was fair.
Petals' words failed as he had no tongue to speak with. But that didn't mean he was toothless. At the very least, these people would die with him.
It all happened in an instant. Petals bit down as hard as he could on his captor's hand until he could taste blood not his own. He felt the cold sting of steel jerk away from his neck and then the screams started.
He fell to the ground as blood rained down on him, a stinging sensation on his neck following him all the while. The scream of his captor was music to Petals' ears. Forcing himself up to his knees, he came face to face with saviour for the first time.
His face was mostly covered by a thin piece of white cloth. What skin he could see was a natural tanned brown colour and his eyes were a piercing shade of red. He wore a long buff jacket and he could see the chain-linked metal peek out of his jacket. Dangling from his right hip was not one sheath, but two of the same blades. In the stranger's hand was that curved blade, unleashed in an instant, stretching outward towards the sky. He slowly brought it down and looked through Petals.
"That," The stranger sounded almost angry, but Petals didn't know why, "Was an incredibly stupid move, young one."
But it worked and Petals was still alive, if only barely.
Petals looked down at his still bound hands and the fallen blade by his side. And then at his former master. The one that tortured him by cutting out his tongue and branding him.
Gently, the stranger knelt down and the former slave flinched as the armed stranger lifted his blade.
And the warm desert breeze caressed his sore wrists as the ropes that bound him fell to the ground. Unconsciously, he rubbed his now free wrists with his hands, the stinging sensation of freedom the sweetest thing he could have felt at that moment.
And then he looked down at the severed hand of his former master, still clutching the straight sword that was held to his neck. And then to the pale, prone torturer, still alive if barely.
Petals' body moved on its own, almost by instinct. He took the heavy blade for himself and the stranger watched eerily, remaining silent as Petals advanced, slowly, upon the wounded man.
"W-Wait, please," He said weakly, holding out his one hand as he bled to death on the desert sands, "Y-You said to leave one alive! I-I heard you!"
"I was talking about the horses," The stranger said and it almost sounded like permission and even a commendation of his actions. It wasn't either, but for Petals, it was enough that the stranger didn't stop him.
He shambled towards the scampering, dying man. The man tried to speak as Petals rose the blade above him, but whatever he said, the former slave wasn't listening.
He didn't so much as stab as he let the weight of the blade fall. It slid in easily enough, going through the ribs. Blood began to pool on the hungry desert sands as he slid the blade up and brought it down again and again-
He was stopped as a hand gently took a hold of his wrists, stopping him from plunging a fourth time.
"Killing a man is one thing. Desecrating a corpse is another entirely."
Those were the melancholic words that Petals fell unconscious to, the exhaustion and heat stroke finally catching to the now freed child.
The stranger had already placed his arm around the boy's too thin waist before he could collapse onto the corpse he had killed.
Reaching down to his side, he grabbed hold of his water skin and uncapped it. In a practised measure, he slowly poured down the water into the boy's throat for a brief second before stopping. Placing his hand against the chest of the boy, he waited until he heard a faint heartbeat.
Good, the stranger thought to himself. The boy would live, for now.
The stranger looked down at the former slave in his grasp and his chest burned as surely as the sun above him.
He was barely clothed in a dirty rag. Every part of his thin body was covered in scars, old and new. His face was gaunt and flushed red, a thin angular visage that could've been considered handsome if he wasn't so emancipated. Flakes of dried blood covered the corners of his mouth, reaching to his chin. His dried black hair was like strings of straw, stiff and greasy.
The most striking feature was the symbol that had been branded onto his forehead; a circle with the effigy of a burning sword contained within it. The wound was an ugly thing that the stranger could tell was cursed at first glance.
He had not truly known that the boy was meant for the Fair Folk, but he could see the signs; making a boy walk across the Burning Sands on barefoot, led by those who held the chain of his captivity and marked for all to see.
It was the sort of thing the lying spirits would do, the stranger thought to himself.
"Hetair," The stranger called for his mount and the towering simhata knew what his master wanted. The shadow of the golden-brown simhata fell over them, providing coverage from the sun.
Gently shuffling the boy to one arm, he opened one of the bags on his companion's side. He pulled a thin piece of cloth and wrapped it around his hand. Reaching once again to the side of the simhata, the stranger grabbed two strong wooden poles. The simhata wordlessly laid flat on his stomach as his master inserted the two poles into two small openings the saddle had. He grabbed two more and placed them opposite to each other.
Placing the young one onto the saddle of Hetair, the stranger unfurled the cloth around his hand and reached up to wrap it around the top of the four wooden poles. Giving the poles a good shake, the stranger nodded in satisfaction. Slowly, he laid the boy down onto the shaded saddle and Hetair rose once more, growling softly.
"I'll catch up," The stranger nodded to the single horse left and Hetair growled once more, eyeing the horse as with both a predatory gaze and dismissal.
"Jealousy doesn't suit you, brother," The stranger said, a small smile hidden behind the wrapped cloth and the simhata bared his canines slightly, making the stranger chuckle.
"Now go, Hetair. Make sure they give aid to the boy."
The simhata let out a slow growl, but he did as he was ordered. The simhata ran quickly through the desert, becoming a hazy image in seconds. The stranger did not feel worried the boy would fall off of his mount and turned his gaze to the field of the dead in front of him.
Taking the human corpses, he placed them next to each. The ones that were whole, at least. They weren't ordered, but more or less thrown and dragged next to each other. The half-eaten horses were left alone as if they didn't register to the stranger.
When he got the corpse of the leader, the one whom the boy had killed, he took the bloodied straight sword and wiped it clean before placing it back in its sheath. He reached for his waterskin, uncapping it, and unsheathed his curved blade once again.
Using his blade, the stranger drew a circle in the sand surrounding the bodies. After he was finished, he poured the water from his waterskin into the circle, the clear stream of precious water glinting like silver under the gaze of the sun.
A few rumbling words left the stranger lips as the sand drank the offered water. When the circle was full, the stranger turned away from the corpses and hoisted himself upon the last horse.
He took a moment to secure himself on the animal, shuffling around the new saddle and temporary mount. Letting out a huff of annoyance at his inability to get comfortable, he resolved to make due and rode after Hetair, the desert winds urging him onward.
The sun dipped a little as the stranger rode in a seemingly mindless direction. He was not following the prints of his mount as he left none behind. The stranger resisted yawning as he rode the horse, keeping his eyes peeled on the open desert. It was not until he spotted a hazy image in the distance that he snapped the reins of the horse to urge it onward.
A minute later, the horse slowed to a trot as it neared the half-buried building. It stopped as it started to rear up and neigh insistently, kicking up sand. It tried to buck off the stranger who swore under his breath. He tried to keep the reins steady, but the beast was more willful than the stranger anticipated.
He placed his hand on the horse's neck and uttered a few soothing words. Almost instantly, the horse calmed down. The stranger sighed as if drained from the act and shook his head.
Four times now. And he knows there will be a fifth one today.
Dismounting the horse, the stranger looked upon the ruin that seemed like it was slowly sinking into the desert sands. Its once marble white pillars were broken and bleached. Its angular structure was broken into pieces of rubble and what must've been a wonder of architecture was left to rot and fall into the sands, tilted backwards slightly.
What purpose this ruin served in the First Age, the stranger doubted anyone knew. It had already been picked clean by scavengers long ago, its treasures scattered around Creation for silver and jade.
This ruin was halfway between The Lap and Gem, but it was too far from the Diamond Road to be considered worth protecting. And indeed, who would protect a run-down, dilapidated ruin that had already been picked clean years ago?
It made a good hiding hole, especially when it was 'cursed'.
The stranger walked up to the ruin, gazing upon it wordlessly for a moment before letting out a low but shrill whistle.
A large shadow appeared from on top of the ruin and flew over the stranger. It landed by him with grace and skill, kicking up a small cloud of sand. The stranger looked upon the figure and smiled under the cloth at both his mount and the empty saddle.
"Didn't fancy going inside, Hetair?"
The stranger couldn't blame him.
The towering simhata let loose a low growl, its regal and ferocious features twisted in a snarl. The lion-horse looked over to its lesser cousin, a hungry look in its eyes.
"If it causes any trouble, you can eat it. Until then, simply make sure that it stays in place."
The lion-horse gave another growl, but the lazy prowl the simhata did tell the stranger enough. The stranger watched as the simhata laid down on the desert sands, right behind the petrified horse. Every time the horse's tail flicked, the simhata lazily clawed at it.
The stranger cleared his throat lightly as he entered the ruins. The entrance was large enough that both him and Hetair could easily walk side by side the downslope of cracked age-old rock. But as the stranger walked deeper and deeper into the unlit hallway, it grew smaller and smaller.
He passed by empty rooms, some larger than others. Some held what seemed like tables and chairs made out of marble while others were empty storage rooms, picked clean long ago. The stranger didn't take the time to search these rooms or to even acknowledge their existence. Scorpions and snakes scuttled and slithered across the floor as the stranger walked past them.
He kept walking until he found himself in a large oval-like room. It had rows upon rows of stone chairs lined at long, rectangular tables. Most were little more than piled up rubble and the tables were smashed in half. From above, grains of sand slowly trickled in from the cracks above, leaving the uneven floor covered in a thin layer of golden sand. The room was a dead end as there were no doorways besides the one behind the stranger.
A dim glowstone hung above, allowing the stranger's eyes to adjust to the room. Walking down the rubbled stairs, his hand drifted upon the stone tables for a moment and he wondered how full of life this place must've once been.
He sat down on a stone chair, one of the few that remained standing and waited.
The silence was heavy as it stretched on for seconds. Then minutes and possibly for hours. The stranger nary moved a muscle as he sat and waited.
He didn't move when a trickle of sand landed on his shoulder. He didn't move when he heard it crunch behind him.
He didn't move when he felt the sting of cold steel sliver against his throat, ready to cut it open at an instant.
"You were supposed to come alone," A harsh, feminine voice growled out, filling the heavy silence with vitriol. The stranger's muscles twitched at the speaker's voice.
"I have," The stranger said cooly and the silence dragged on uncomfortably as it became clear that was all the stranger was going to say. The knife pressed deeper and a bead of blood slid down the stranger's neck.
"Is this just a game to you? Do you think you're clever?"
The stranger didn't answer in the form of words but in the form of actions.
He slowly, but surely stood up from the stone chair. Despite the threatening deepening of the knife, it never went deeper. When the stranger stood up fully, he turned around to look down at his assailant.
She was a petite thing with slender limbs, but they were hidden by a long thin dress that covered everything, including her face. The only thing that could be seen were her hands that showed light brown skin and the slit around her dark brown eyes which sneered at the stranger.
"The boy. Where is he?"
The lithe woman who barely came up to the stranger's shoulders sneered at him, her pointed eyes filled with caustic distaste, "Why would I know that?"
"I thought you disliked games, Stalker."
The silence stretched on for a bit longer. It was broken when the woman removed the knife from the stranger's neck and her nostrils flared as she exhaled hotly.
"Thunder's expecting you. He'll decide on what to do with you."
With those clipped words, Stalker sheathed her blade by placing each of her hands into its opposite sleeves. Turning back, Stalker strutted up the stairs leading back outside. The stranger followed after her, his hand placed on the pommel of his blade and his eyes on the neck of the woman.
She led the stranger into one of the larger rooms, seemingly at random. It was empty save for the broken remnants of a stone chair and two unlit bronze lamps by the doorway. Without a word, Stalker grabbed a hold of the right lamp and twisted it slowly. The sound of screeching steel filled the still air and she did this until it was upside down.
With her other hand, she struck the bronze lamp with her knife. The resulting sparks lit a small flame inside the lamp, lighting the room. Stalker placed her hands together in the gesture of a prayer and spoke in a soft tone made of velvet:
"I ask Luna, Mother and Father of her children, Hunter of Hunters and Changer of Tides, for safe passage in these dark times."
For a moment, nothing happened. It wasn't until minutes later that the back wall of stone started to rumble and crack. It felt as if the whole ruin was rumbling around them, threatening to collapse and bury them in rubble.
And then, it stopped. The sound of stone being carved echoed out in the room and in the dim room, a single straight line was being carved in the back wall by an invisible hand.
It carved itself into a twin shape of two large gateways, touching from floor to ceiling. With the sound of rock and gravel grating against each other, they open outward, revealing a roughly hewn passageway.
Without a word, the two walked through the doorway and deep into the passageway. It was small and cramped compared to the ruin, to the point where the stranger had to let Stalker walk in front. The stranger's eyes darted to the roughly hewn rock above him as if looking for any signs it would cave in on them. His hand remained on the pommel of his sword.
Five minutes passed and all the while the passage seemed to stretch on endlessly. Until it came to ahead and the stranger was met with a strange sight.
The underground passageway led into a monolithic cavern and the still air was filled with the noises of people. In front of the stranger was a large barricade hewn from rock and stone while the gate was made from thick wood. Standing on the gate were, at first glance, humans guarding with bows and spears.
But their animalistic heads of lions betrayed their true nature. Their heavy bodies were built with muscles and their armour was their tough hides and leather jerkins.
On both sides of the gates were a single still statue of long and large centipede-like beasts. They were caked in dirt and rocks, but their eyes gleamed like jewels. Their legs were as thick as a man's thigh and could come up to his head.
One of the lion-men on the stone wall saw the two and he let out a sharp whistle. The wooden gates slowly opened and a figure made itself known.
This figure was flanked by two lion-men, heavily armed with spears and shortswords by their sides. Their armour was beaten bronze plates and their manes wild and untamed.
The figure was a male and he towered over everyone around him, even the beastfolk. He wore nothing more than a plain tunic and his curved sword by his side was as long as his lengthy arms. His bald hone shone darkly with runic moonsilver tattoos which stretched down to his bare hands. On the back of his head was a ritualised style of a full moon. His eyes, which seemed small and sunken compared to the towering male, landed on the stranger and he smiled.
"Atsali, my friend! What took you so long?"
The man outstretched his thick and calloused hand to the stranger, Atsali, who merely bowed his head in the presence of the towering man.
"My apologies, Lord Thunderhead Tearing Tyrant. Is the boy safe?"
Thunderhead Tearing Tyrant let out a hefty sigh and dropped the offered handshake, "Straight to business, eh?"
Atsali's silence was his answer and Thunder looked back at his guards, jerking his head slightly. They bowed in unison and walked back through the gate. Stalker bowed more deeply than Atsali when he turned his gaze towards her.
"Stalker, let me take care of our guest here. Go back to your duties."
"Of course," Stalker said without complaint, but the piercing gaze Stalker shot Atsali could not be missed as she left, walking through the open gate.
"You know, you don't have to call me that every time," Thunder spoke as he and Atsali were left alone, "Just call me Thunder. It's a hell of a lot easier than saying that every time."
"You are a Champion of Mother Moon, my lord. You are due proper respect."
Thunder laughed uproariously like his namesake and Atsali stumbled as the towering man smacked Atsali back, almost knocking him down to the ground with the light pat. As he did so, Atsali caught the strangest whiff of fresh trees.
"Well, if I'm a lord, then let me show you to my castle! I'm sure you'll find it to your liking!"
With the invitation clear, Thunder and Atsali walked through the gate, side by side. All throughout the exchange, Atsali's hand never left the pommel of his blade.
The noise that filled this community in this cavern was not laughter or words of barter. It was the banging of hammers as they beat spears and swords into shape. It was the roar of humans and beastfolk alike working in military drills, young and old. It was the shouting as those infirm or those with children practice escaping from their underground home.
It was a place built for war and it would remain that way until it was destroyed or its purpose was exhausted.
Not all beastfolk were the same species. Some were lions, some were leopards. A few even wore the shape of apes and lizards.
The buildings built to be homes were the largest in the cavern, carved partially into the brick wall itself. A single room was built scarce and wide, enough for a family of two to sleep and dine in the same room.
Very few were given private rooms. The leader of this group of beastfolk and humans was one of them.
Atsali was welcomed into a poorly made shack of rotting wood. It was out of the way compared to everything, pushed into a pitiful corner of the cave that was both home and outpost to everyone inside. Inside, the single room was barely tall enough for Atsali, let alone its imposing resident.
On the walls were maps of the Southern Threshold. Words written in various languages, Flametongue, Old Realm, Low Realm and even High Realm to name a few. They related to the various locations near and far South.
The bed was more like straw piled onto a wooden frame. Hanging above it was a large double-headed axe, its shaft hewed from treated wood and its blade were like silver. In the light of the single glow stone, it seemed to ripple and shift. A far cry from the meagre surroundings of Atsali's host. In the middle of the room was a large, round table and two wooden chairs. On it was a clay jug and two cups of the same material.
"Come, sit. Let me pour you something, my friend."
It sounded more like a command than a suggestion so Atsali gave a gracious nod and precariously sat down onto the offered chair. It creaked and moaned under the weight of Atsali, but it held. He placed the sheathed sword down, leaning against the single, round table.
Thunder sat down as well and picked up the clay jug, pouring the clean water into the two cups. Atsali's cup was first to be filled halfway. Then Thunder poured his own cup, emptying the jug as the cup was filled halfway.
Atsali's eyes darted between Thunder and the water-filled cups, a silent question in his red eyes. Thunder snorted, giving Atsali a rueful smile.
"Don't worry, it's already been rationed. This is just the bottom of the barrel."
Atsali nodded gratefully at Thunder's words and took a hold of the cup, removing his hand from the pommel of his blade. Thunder wordlessly lifted his cup and Atsali's did the same, clinking them together.
Thunder downed his water in an instant while Atsali tugged down the cloth surrounding his mouth, slowly and surely drinking the offered water. A moment of silence passed as Thunder let out a sigh of satisfaction at such a tiny amount of water while Atsali remained silent.
Thunder's small, sharp eyes stared into Atsali, all remnants of his smile gone as he glanced at the third blade.
"The young one," Atsali confirmed softly, "It's something I expect he would like to have back."
Thunder nodded slowly and looked back to Atsali, his face wrought with concern.
"So, how did Stalker greet you?"
"She held a knife to my throat."
"Huzzah. Progress at last," Thunder grumbled out loud, shaking his head, "Atsali-"
"It is fine, my Lord. There are no excuses to be made," Atsali bowed his head to Thunder who sighed at the sight, "It is what it is. And what about the boy?"
"He might not live past today," Thunder said bluntly to Atsali, but not harshly. Atsali slowly placed the empty clay cup back on the table.
"Fractured ribs, infected wounds. His muscles have atrophied and his lips and mouth are as dry as the sands themselves. That's not even getting into the brand that those damned animals put on him."
Atsali remained silent as Thunder talked. His face remained like stone and his red eyes burnt like embers. His hands clenched and unclenched with small motions and Thunder's eyes sparked with empathy.
"But," Thunder said slowly and surely, "If he lives past today, his chances will go up. At least that's what I've been told. It's a case of waiting and seeing."
Atsali didn't say anything, but he gave a slow nod before speaking, "Then he will live. He has a strong spirit."
Thunder said nothing, not giving any indication of thought besides a low rumbling hum, "If you want to pay me back, tell that simhata of yours you'll neuter it or something if it makes a ruckus around here again. Damned thing found our back entrance and wouldn't leave until we opened up. One of ours decided to punish the beast."
"How is he?"
"Licking his wounds in the infirmary. His pride will probably take longer to recover."
Atsali smiled softly at that. Thunder didn't.
"I will try in future."
"You've told better lies before," Thunder grumbled and Atsali didn't confirm or deny his words with his silence. Thunder leaned back in the chair that should've been broken under his weight, crossing his arms as he looked at Atsali.
"But that ain't the reason why we're talking, is it? You're here to cash in."
"You bought my services, my lord. You bought them cheaply."
Thunder let out a heavy snort through his nose, "You don't need to tell me that. You know, for a while, I thought you did it out of sympathy. Out of recognition for the Silver Pact. You would find your place well among us, you know. You could make something of yourself here."
That single word made Thunder look as if Atsali had cut him down with his blade with a single stroke, his rough face twisting into a pained grimace.
"Well, maybe not with us," Thunder admitted with great pain, "But there are others that I can talk-"
"My lord. Do you have the information or not?"
The softly spoken words were like a steel knife as they cut through Thunder's words, stopping him dead in his track. He let out a defeated sigh and stood up, motioning Atsali up. They walked over to the varied maps hung on the walls before Thunder drew their attention to a single map, smaller and more compact than the others.
"My scouts have seen it around here, prowling in the dead of night," Thunder pointed to a circled portion of the map near Lock, a small town of note under the protection of Gem, "But given its tracks, it probably came further south."
"It did," Atsali confirmed, all but whispering under his breath. Thunder glanced at him but said nothing as Atsali's red eyes burned into the map.
Thunder stayed silent for a moment. When Atsali looked over to the man, he noticed how hunched his broad shoulders were. He noticed how Thunder towered over him and his small, sunken eyes stared right through Atsali. He noticed how his large hands could easily come over and wring his neck.
His hand drifted back to the pommel of his sword.
"My friend," Thunder's rumbling voice was like the timbre of clashing rocks as he spoke, "I'm not speaking as a Lunar of the Silver Pact now. I'm speaking as someone worried about your wellbeing; don't do this. It will be the end of you."
Atsali's silence rang out in the small shack. His fist clenched around the handle of his sword and his red eyes were like embers as they stared at the Lunar Exalted.
"Are you going back on our deal, my lord?"
Atsali didn't so much as spit the word 'lord' as he let it dripped off of the edge of his tongue, covered with barely hidden venom. If Thunder felt threatened, he didn't show it as he slowly shook his head.
"You know me better than that. But gods forbid me from trying to save a man from courting death."
Reaching into his tunic, Thunder pulled a folded piece of paper and placed it in front of Atsali. Taking his hand off of his sword, Atsali picked up the folded paper and opened it.
And his heart stopped his chest for a brief second.
It was a drawn picture of a man's face. It was a gaunt, angular thing with a pointed chin. The undersides of his eyes were covered in a dark colour, contrasting his milky white eyes.
The most distinguishing feature, however, was the lack of a nose. The picture did a poor job of it, but Atsali knew it was not a clean cut. It was a torn thing of jutting cartilage, dripping with rotten blood.
"We found him by chance," Thunder's voice was an echo in the mind of Atsali, but it drew him out of his stupor for now, "One of our informants was in Chiaroscuro at the time and they bumped into him while drunk. When they saw his face, I imagined they sobered up pretty quickly."
Atsali gave a silent nod and pocketed the picture like it was solid gold. Without a word, Atsali turned around to leave the abode of Thunder but was stopped cold by a strong hand grabbing his shoulder.
"Not so fast, my friend. There are still some things I want to ask you."
"Thank you for the help, my lord, but-"
"Not that. And not what you plan to do when you find this man either," Thunder rumbled and Atsali turned his head to Thunder, "I'm not going to waste good men and women on someone with a death wish. No, what I want to know is what you plan to do with that boy."
Atsali stayed silent for a moment and his blood-red eyes flickered from the face of Thunder, his lips caught in a taut line. Atsali's silence stretched on for a moment before he broke it:
"I have no plans for the boy. He can do what he wants."
Thunder removed his hand before Atsali could shrug it off and the simhata rider left Thunder's abode, taking the boy's sword with him as he did so.
The Lunar Exalted rubbed his forehead in exasperation in the privacy of his own home before walking out after Atsali.
"Luna save me from obstinate mortals," Thunder muttered to himself, not noticing that one of his cups was cracked.
My mother and father used to tell me that I was born for greatness. That I would ride with the dawn.
They were right. Far more than they should've been.
I can feel my brother tense beneath me with each gallop he made. The embodiment of the Father hung low in the sky, filling the sky with faint blood-red dusk. Like uncut gems, torches from miles behind me twinkled in the soft dusk.
Hetair slowed down to a standstill. His chest vibrated from the deep, guttural growling emanating from the imposing simhata. His head snapped towards me and frothing spittle dripped from his maw lined with teeth made for ripping flesh and crushing bones. His slitted eyes of gold were frenzied with rage and feral hate. It was something that I saw myself in.
My hand went through his mane of fur. My throat felt tight as I leaned down and touched my forehead with his. The growling didn't stop, but it was subdued as I spoke to Hetair.
"I know, brother. I know. We know he would try something. He showed us his hand. And now?"
I removed my head from his and the silent air was punctured by the sound of steel scraping against its sheath. It was a sound that I heard a thousand times over. The weight of my blade was a hefty, comforting thing that cleared my mind for the days ahead.
"We shall find him and we shall cut him open like a stuck piglet," I spoke to my brother-mount through clenched teeth as his growls picked up in volume and ferocity, "His soul will grease the sands of the Hunting Fields, forever damned to be run down by the Riders of the Dawn. His flesh will be pulped and broken under your hooves and my sword will cleave him in twain."
Because that was the oath we both swore.
Hetair's response was to let out a roar that could've shaken the world and it made me smile. It was a roar meant to be heard across the Burning Sounds and all the way up to the Hunting Fields and its message was clear:
The Fylakas still lived. They lived on through us, in spirit and blood. The Serpent-Traitors could not stomp us out and the lying spirits could not hunt us down. And as long as we lived, we would have justice.
It was a bittersweet truth that I only recently learned. Such is the way of things, I suppose.
"Steel your heart, brother, and ready your claws," I spoke to the growling simhata as I removed my hand from his mane of fur and grabbed his reins, "Whatever that unholy wretch has cooked up will be an unsightly thing, make no doubt about that."
Hetair let loose a rumbling growl as he flashed his fang which made me smile, even as my hand tightened on my blade.
"Of course, Hetair. How could I be so forgetful?"
Without another word needed, Hetair began running through the deserts that we had once called home. The air grew cold as the blessed sun left the Burning Sands, revealing the stars above and the full face of Mother Moon. And yet, still, we rode further south.
And as I expected, it was over. Hetair stopped without warning, bending his head down to the sands. I looked down, scanning the sands with my own eyes. Casting my gaze, I dismounted from Hetair and knelt in the sand. Tracking in the south was a difficult affair, but not an impossible one.
Especially not for us.
I placed my hand on the desert sands, feeling it out. It was slight and barely noticeable, but I could feel a groove in the still sands going east.
It was not enough for me.
"Hetair," I spoke to my brother-mount and he understood. He lifted his head and looked east.
That was, however.
I mounted Hetair once more and we rode east.
We did not have to ride long.
Hetair's rumbling growls filled the air as he picked up speed. My hand tightened around my blade and in the cover of darkness, I could see it; a lumbering shape far off in the distance. It was making its way to Lock, ignoring us.
That will not do.
Deep in my being, I felt something stirred. It was calling upon me to act, to cut down this obstacle in front of me. It was a heady feeling that I could get drunk upon and in the early days of my youth, I often let myself did. It was a feeling similar to holding a blade in a room full of unarmed thugs. It was a feeling akin to standing over your foe who laid dead at your feet.
Except it was so much more. It urged me to act, to lash out with my unrestrained might.
And now, I shall indulge it.
A thrum of power surrounded Hetair and I. It was a buzz that both of us could hear in our minds. His hooves scattered the sands in a pulverised dust cloud and my blade was raised high, poised to cut down our prey.
The lumbering shape turned to face us, just in time for Hetair's clawed hooves to gouge out its stitched hide of black fur and rotting leather. Age-old blood too thick fell onto the sands and the air became rank with its stench.
My blade fell like a steel haze and the sound of clashing steel lasted only for a second as my blade broke through, ripping through the spoiled flesh that made up its body.
I caught the milky white eyes that stared blankly at me before a rusted blade tried to slice open my throat.
I leaned my head back and dodged the blow, just as Hetair charged by the monstrous abomination. A trail of blackish blood followed us as it dripped from my brother's claws. My blade was much of the same, its steely hue stained black.
The monster in front of us was wrong. It shouldn't exist. And yet, it did.
It was as big as Hetair, perhaps even slightly bigger. The lower half of this horror was in the general shape of a simhata, but it had six legs stitched on it. The front was the hooven claws of a decaying simhata, the middle was the scaled legs of a mighty beast that ended in shaved off claws. The last of the legs were the weak-looking hooves of a normal horse, but much wider than what should be natural, rippling with decayed muscle.
Its tail was that of a siege lizard, laying flat and dead on the sands. Its spikes of rusty bronze cut through the sands with ease and I expect it'll do the same to flesh.
The upper half was a mess of limbs and bodies, not of animals but humans bodies. Melted, sown and beaten together into a massive lump of rotting flesh. The wounds we carved into the beast didn't seem to register to the chimeric abomination as it lumbered around to meet us.
Its main 'face' was once a noble head of a simhata, but no longer. Its strong jaws and fangs of ivory were torn off. Sown in its place was the long, decaying maw of a river dragon. On the side of its head were the jagged black horns of an ox-dragon.
A whistling sound came from nowhere and I ducked on instinct as it went over me. A deeper look into the writhing pile of limbs showed me a couple of them holding a crossbow made out of bone and sinew. They were loading it with white arrows of sharpened bone, too many hands pulling back the string of flesh that was the string.
When we rode out here, I thought we were prepared for what we would see. This was not the first undead abomination we had to kill and I very much doubt it would be the last.
But this wasn't just an undead. It was an unliving defilement. It was a walking twisted idol to depravity itself.
I snapped Hetair's reins and my brother's earth-shattering roar was met by the shrilling death knell of this unholy creature. There was no comparison to be made.
I braced myself as Hetair and this undead creature clashed. Claw met claw, noble flesh was torn by rotting teeth while decaying carrion was ripped apart by the fangs of Hetair. The world tilted back as Hetair raised up on his hind legs as the chimeric creature did the same, locking the two in a flurry of flashing teeth.
The smell of fresh blood rose in my nose and my mind flashed hotly with bubbling rage. I let go of Hetair's reins and pushed myself up. I came face to face with the many trapped writhing bodies as they grew upwards. They all stared at me with the white eyes of the dead, their toothless rotting mouths gaping open as they moaned and whispered their battle cry.
A face catches my attention and in that next moment, I bring my sword down, cutting through the twisting mass of limbs until I hit something solid. Liquid blackness flies as my blade cuts through the moaning dead. Broken blades, rusted daggers and sharp black nails gouged and slashed at my armour. I feel some strike truer than others, but they were paltry compared to what I gave in return.
In a flash, I struck twice more, chopping off limbs like a butcher trimming off fat. The world lurched backwards as Hetair disentangled from the walking corpse, growling with ferocity. I bent backwards as one of the black horns passed over me. In the light of Mother Moon, I saw it glinting wetly with red blood.
Power flooded my sword arm in that single moment. My blade struck the offending horn and black ivory rained down upon me. But the force of the undead beast was stronger than I anticipated and my blade went flying from my grasp.
It landed what must've been seconds away from our position. But they were precious seconds.
Hetair's mane was matted with blood both black and red. All it took was a swipe of his side for my hand to come up wet and bloody. Not a deep wound, but a wide one.
The monster fared worse.
Its two middle legs were torn off at the stitches, crushed to a bloody pulp under Hetair's strikes and littered around the sandy flatland. Its sea dragon maw was ripped apart, revealing bone-white teeth and the front face of its decrepit skull. The horn I broke was little more than a nub and its writhing mass of limbs was a sad display of bleeding nubs or split open heads. Its tail was unaffected, but the bronze tips dripped red.
But the thing still stood strong as if our attacks had no effect on it.
I glanced towards my fallen blade. A sliver of steel glinted in the silver moonlight as if Mother Moon herself wanted me to see the blade. It was just off to the side of us and in that moment, I thought of something.
"The tail, brother."
Hetair understood, even before I said anything. His muscles tensed as he dashed to the side, a cloud of sand following us as his hooves beat against the dunes.
The lumbering monstrosity gave chase, but it wasn't built for speed, it was built for the sake of being vile.
Even though Hetair ran circles around the undead fiend, with a snap of my reins, he stopped and turned, running straight at the exposed side of the undead. Its decaying brain was slow to respond, but its bronze-tipped tail swung around to bash Hetair's head in.
I held out my hand in front of me and I felt a slight tug. In the next moment, the spiked tail slid off of its rotting backside, falling to the ground in a dead lump of flesh.
My hand grasped the handle of my flaming blade just in time as Hetair smashed into the idol of depravity, easily bowling it over. At that moment, the edge of my blade glinted as if the sun was above us.
Letting go of Hetair's reins, I jumped down and landed on the clumped, bloody sand. A horn tried to gore me, but it broke under Hetair's hooves, his rumbling growls on the precipice of becoming a roar.
I looked at the undead for a moment. The milky eyes of what was once a noble and powerful beast stared back at me and I saw nothing. Just mindless hunger and a drive to destroy.
I lifted up my blade of purifying fire and brought it down. When it made contact, the undead screamed with its many voices, beast and man mingling together in an unholy cacophony of noise. As my blade penetrated its skull, the golden flames of the dawn spread across its weakly writhing body. I felt only a soothing warmth from the licking flames and even as they touched Hetair, they wouldn't burn him.
I watched as the face I recognized burned into nothing, fading into the golden flames. With a swipe of my blade, the flames on it disperse and I sheathed it. Hetair moved off of the burning corpse and sat by me, solemn and silent.
"May Mother Moon take your children and wives into her embrace," I started to speak in my own tongue for the second time today as the bodies of my former tribe were finally put to rest, "May the Sun Father reshape you into his warriors and his noble beasts in the next life. May he guide you across the Hunting Fields with your brothers and sisters."
"And may the Son of Fire feast on your enemies for all eternity."
By the time I was finished, only ashen remains were left behind. They would be gone by sunrise. Looking down at the sands, I found the fragments of iron that I shattered littered like seeds in a field. I gathered some up silently before turning to Hetair.
"Come on, brother," I spoke to Hetair softly as I forced myself to turn from the sad sight, "Let's find some respite for the night."
My brother growled softly and he bent down as I mounted him once more. We rode across the sandy dunes of the south once more, never looking back.
Underneath a stony alcove, a campfire kept us warm from the cold desert nights for now. Its safety was another question entirely, but that was for later.
"We'll need to leave soon. Sooner or later, the Hunters will be upon us."
My hands didn't stop as I talked, working in a slow but deliberate fashion. The salve in my hands was a greasy thing that smelled like sulfur and urine, but it worked. My brother didn't speak, but his slitted eyes of wrought gold looked at me, blinking.
"We've been hiding our true nature for as long as we could, brother, but after today, rumour will spread. Do you think people will accept that flames of gold simply appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the night?"
Hetair's throat rumbled softly that soon turned into a low growl as I applied the greasy salve to where the horn of the undead tried to gore Hetair. His head snapped up and the corner of my lips lifted slightly as I glanced at my brother.
"Brother, you're not a little cub anymore. Take your medicine and be silent."
Hetair growled, but there wasn't any heat behind it. His head flopped back on the ground and I applied to the rest of the salve to the wide wound.
"Those who hunt will eventually be hunted themselves," I spoke the words more to myself than Hetair, repeating them as if I heard them a thousand times before, "And the Serpent-Traitors are nothing, if not persistent and plentiful."
Hetair growled, but I knew it wasn't directed at me.
"I have no doubt we could kill one if they were by themselves, but that's the point, brother; they're never by themselves," I capped the salve and placed it back in the saddlebags by Hetair. I took my position opposite of Hetair, sitting down by the campfire. Hetair let out a huff and glanced at me with lidded eyes.
"Who knows how the Lunars would react?" I said to Hetair with a shrug, frowning in thought, "I believe Thunder would be wary of us, but that would be nothing new. But he would talk to the others beyond the South. And if that happens, then that would mean…"
A face and a memory flashed in my mind which I dismissed urgently with a shake of my head.
"Absolutely not," I said with certainty and Hetair huffed out loud, "We are not getting involved with Mother Moon's Chosen anymore. That's it."
And they had already served their purpose. Beyond this point, I have no reason to sell my services to them.
Hetair let out a slow rumbling noise and I went still. He did it again and I could feel his eyes burning into me. I let out a shuddering breath and shook my head.
"Even if we could find others, that'll do nothing but bring the wrath of the Serpents down on us sooner. They'll just be a liability."
My brother did the closest thing of a scoff he could muster, sounding like a strangled roar, but he thankfully dropped the subject once again. Another mewling growl caught my attention and I frowned, deep in thought.
Holding out an open hand, I felt a summer's warmth flow through my arms to the tips of my fingers. With a thought, a sheathed blade materialised from Elsewhere in my grip, flashing into existence with a golden glow. It was the boy's blade from this morning.
"I was going to give it back when the boy awoke. He anointed it, after all. But why are you-?"
Hetair let loose another growl as he placed his head over his hooves, staring at me through the flickering flames.
"Ah, that. If the young one doesn't want to stay with the Lunars, which I doubt he will, the horse is his, free to ride wherever he desires. If I let you eat all of them, he would've been forced to stay with them."
Hetair stayed silent at my words, accepting them. I glanced over to my brother, looking at him as my lips curled up in a small smile.
"And don't think I haven't noticed how pudgy you've become, brother. Why, my hand was practically sinking into you."
Hetair's shadow fell over me as his growls reached a frothing crescendo. I watched as the simhata prowled around the campfire, hunched over. His white fangs were bared at me and I could feel the vibrations in the air coming from his chest.
He prowled behind me and when his face came within a hair's width of mine, I was thoroughly unimpressed as he opened his mouth.
"Even now, you act like a cub," I said in a bland tone as his rough and coarse tongue, large enough to cover my entire cheek in drool, licked my face. I could feel my skin and muscles being moved by the force of the lion-horse.
After thoroughly licking my face, I felt his maw enclose gently around my shoulder to drag me backwards. I let myself fall and I soon found myself partially enveloped in the mane of Hetair and my back resting against him.
"We're too old for this, brother. We're not cubs anymore."
Hetair's gentle growl was soothing against my back and his heavy head rested against my shoulder. Another lick and his long tail came to rest on my lap as if to entrap me. I found myself sinking deeper into Hetair and my hand came up, working through his mane to stroke at the side of his head.
I opened my mouth to speak once more, but I couldn't find the strength to repeat myself. Instead, I settled for something else:
"Get your rest, brother. We ride for Chiaroscuro at dawn tomorrow."
Hetair didn't need to be told twice as he closed his eyes. His weight made it all but impossible for me to detangle myself from him and so I resigned myself for tonight. The steady sound of Hetair's breathing rumbled against my back, coupled with the strong beating of his heart resonated with my own.
I didn't fall asleep straight away. I stayed up for hours, keeping watch. I kicked apart the campfire and the darkness of the night soon smothered the two of us like a blanket. I tried to resist the allure of sleep, but I couldn't fight it off anymore. When the time came, I fell asleep, secure in the sound of my brother's heartbeat.
How about another email?
For those of you that don't know, I've just made my landfill aka a fic which contains my dead fics, one-shots and omakes. Basically, anything that shouldn't require a fic by itself will be there.
The reason I did this was primarily two-fold: One, I didn't like how it looked having one, two chapter fics on my profile page and I don't want people to find fics that I've killed and follow them, thinking I'm going to update them.
I suppose I should talk about where I've been for the past two months. Simply put, stupidity.
One of my family members, someone I'm close to, decided now is the best time to travel abroad for a week. And then decided to visit me without telling me this. Then the country they visited (here's a hint; it begins with the letter F and its famous for a giant tower) was put on the quarantine list. And then they told me.
So yeah, that was fun.
I would like to stress that I don't have corona. It's been way past the point for me to show any symptoms and I'm sure I'm in the clear. Which sounds like a death flag, but hopefully it isn't. My family member is also safe, from what I could tell. Partly because I'm not willing to punch them in the face for the shit they've pulled.
But that doesn't have a lot to do with this fic. This fic was something I decided to start my landfill fic with so it would have something new in it.
Instead, I had a blast with this, way more than I usually have when writing. What turned into a simple 3k word fic turned into 12k words. Hell, I already have a couple of hundred words of the next chapter already written in a google doc and I've gone to the trouble of filling in an Exalted Character sheet for references and such. I'm tempted to post it, but where I'm not entirely sure. It contains spoilers and such, but I probably will post it in the landfill fic.
So yeah. That's why this is its own fic. Because I had way more fun writing it than I thought and I'm probably going to keep writing it.
Now, let's talk about Exalted. I'm going to be writing this expecting people to have a sort of surface / relatively in-depth understanding of the setting of Exalted so I won't spend paragraphs explaining what the Delzhan are, what the Wyld Hunt is, whatever the fuck Fair Folk are because that needs a fic in and out of itself to explain how those things work.
Seriously, the Fair Folk are fucky in ways that's kinda hard to explain and probably even worse to write. Which I'm actually looking forward to.
As for the lore I'm using, I'm gonna be using 3E (3rd Edition) mostly with a few 2E/2.5E to clog up a few holes such as specific places, creatures and places. For instance, Abyssal Exalted and Infernal Exalted aren't written yet and probably won't be for some time.
The reason for this is because 3E is the one I've read the most and the one that I enjoyed. Except for the mechanics. That's uh, pretty rough honestly. I still can't quite wrap my head around withering attacks, decisive attacks and all that stuff.
But hey, I'm the type of person to read tabletop books, not play them. I've read stuff like World of Darkness / Chronicles of Darkness, Warhammer, Pathfinder and DnD before without ever touching a dice before.
I think that's everything from me. Tell me in the reviews if you would like to see the character sheet or not. If I do post it, it'll either be here or in the Landfill fic.
See you guys in three months.