Author's Note: A segment of the Sung in Harmony Universe. SiHU for simplicity's sake. This will be fun, I hope.
Began: 11/1/2006 Finished: 12/12/2006
Disclaimer: if you recognize it, it isn't mine. If you don't recognize it, I hold tentative claims on them. They were probably born from another's brainchild anyway.
Chapter the First: Sleeping Existence and Forgotten Existence
Sleep. It must be the perfect escape. Dreamless sleep especially, for dreams give hope and that invited disaster. Nightmares were relaxing in a way, it reminded one why the choice was made, reaffirming the fact that the escape had been just. There were exceptions to everything and anything however.
To escape both nightmare and dream, Ciero had chosen to astral project, a sort of forced out of body experience. He had traveled (then again, his body didn't move an inch, so it was kind of hard to classify it as such) across the globe, to other dimensions and witnessed great and terrible things both. But, he was always sucked back into this one inescapable nightmare.
The grey of his hair floated about him in a nonexistent atmosphere. He knew he was dreaming, but no matter how he struggled he could never wake from this. He should know by now; after all, he has been plagued with them for well over a millennia. He had hoped that astral projection would allow him reprieve from this, no such luck.
Gazing resignedly over his dreamscape, he took in the grey wasteland. The earth was the color of ash where it wasn't bloated by the mocking color of rusting blood. The air tasted stale as a foreign miasma marched across the sky, denying entry to light and dark both while leaving a sinister glare in their wake, shedding perversely from these strange facsimiles. An active volcano was belching ash into the sky, its crown bleeding a sickly orange. In the distance he saw a corpse eating a vulture that was struggling piteously in an attempt at self-preservation. It was wasted effort in the end.
Time had no place here; it meant nothing to the dying. Dreaming was forsaken with its very meaning long forgotten. It was a foreign concept displaced by nightmares and remembered by the fanciful. Order was dead, chaos reigned supreme, an unnatural path for an unnatural end.
Ciero shivered in fear. He hoped to all the gods there were that he wasn't dreaming of the future and only of a possibility. He knew this to be what is commonly known as "Dream-Seeing"; with a life of his lengthiness, a fellow picks up on such things. However, the cincher that made this dream a nightmare was yet to come.
His head moved unwillingly to face a figure that he was all too familiar with. Ciero felt his heart race, whether in anticipation or dread he was never too sure of when he woke; only that it did. With a leisurely pace that he felt was surely meant to just torment him, his vision finally made their way to land on Him: Him with His blazing white hair; Him with the cruel, sensual curve that passed for a mouth; Him with His empty eyes, devouring everything they gazed upon. He shivered again, and again he could not tell whether from fear or anticipation and he cursed his indecision (his weakness). This was when Ciero prayed to any deity there was to reassure him that this was all just his mind working up fanciful, farfetched impossibilities that would never come to bear. Gainel never did show up to offer him comfort. No one ever did, and he supposed he deserved it for being indecisive (weak), but it was nice to hope…
But this time, something changed.
Suddenly, He frowned, marching toward Ciero. The ground shifted beneath Him and He snarled venomously at the audacity as He quickened his pace, nearly running. Briar sprang into being around Ciero as He tried to reach him; the thorns cut into His hand, reprimanding Him curtly. The thicket wound its way about Ciero, tiny clingers working their way into his clothing. Ciero relaxed into their embrace, knees unlocking and softly collapsed onto a seat of earth, careful not to tear the bracken. Through the vines he felt (heard?) a soft, feminine growl of 'Mine' (he was oddly soothed by its possessiveness) as he fell free of a nightmare and into the first dream in the too long night.
Ciero gasped and instinctively, he knew something was wrong. The flicker about the sheathed sword before him was all he needed to see to confirm his suspicions: his working was broken.
He blinked, trying desperately to reorient himself. He recalled anchoring his enchantment to a pair of swords, a master work of craft and art made to keep him comatose for eternity and a day. It had safeguards aplenty, a powerful detonation that would have destroyed him, the intruder and the spell if one ever reached him. Speaking of which, why hadn't he been blown to bits? Still panting, he directed his gaze towards the sword before him, the complicated spell networks that allowed him to access the main enchantment still there.
The working was in relatively good shape. Records indicated that he had been in stasis for twelve or so years. There had been no signs of intruders upon the main body of the working, would-be-interlopers had been turned away by the subtle suggestions that he had set up as a perimeter. By all reckoning, it looked as if Ciero himself had dismissed the spell.
That couldn't be right, he frowned. He had so wanted to escape reality, his reality. He had seen wonders and horrors both from countless realms and all it did was tell him that he was right, life wasn't worth living but he was too afraid to die. A part of him, the optimistic part (he was surprised it was still kicking after all this time), reminded him of his dream and its departure from its usual itinerary. He tried to dismiss the overly optimistic train of thought but found it difficult. Why did his Dream depart from its customary track?
Absently he made his way towards the running water he vaguely recalled being hereabouts. As he flushed the taste of sleep from his mouth, his body went on auto pilot: cleansing his face and making a half hearted attempt at removing body odor. He tried to organize his thoughts but they refused to stay put for long. He kept returning to the dream and the voice, if that was what it was. And when that happened, his thoughts would always branch off into more and more things, what was happening in the world, who was out there, who she was and that would lead him to the dream again, the girl- no, woman again.
Sighing, he reached the bank, absently dusting his clothes off with a flick of his wrist. Donning the simple articles, he cast his mind to the world about him, seeking an answer to his awakening. What he found had him choking on air as he nearly broke down. His senses continued to unload information him. He wasn't targeting him, it seems, but terror filled his mind when he did appropriate the target. He was in the air, flying for all he was worth as he desperately prayed that he would make it in time, not entirely sure why he was so terrified in the first place.
Zhulin's(1) savior was observing her surreptitiously again. Hazel eyes tracked her through a brown, slightly yellowed, fringe as she warily scrutinized her. Was she going to harm Zhulin as well? The kind one had raged against the one that had beaten her. But when will that rage turn on her? Zhulin shuffled tentatively closer when the kind eyes proffered food towards her. Licking her lips, she wondered if the offer was but a lure to get her within arm's reach so that the kind eyes may turn to rage. She was torn; on the one hand she wanted the food but on the other she wanted the illusion to last for a little while more. Licking her lips one last time, she gave into hunger and reached for the food.
The murky jade of her eyes were still trained on the strange (but beautiful) woman as she hungrily stuffed the food into her mouth. The kind one had made sure the food was sufficiently cooled so as to not burn her mouth, she realized as she licked her fingers. She remembered the other kindnesses that the steel wielder had showered upon her before as well: the blankets against the cold (even in towns since Zhulin refused to enter any inn), portions of food that she left for her (since Zhulin had refused to take repast from the lady's hands 'til tonight), the soft smiles and kind words.
There was a slight frown between her eyes (which were slightly slanted). Her fingers were still in her mouth and she nervously sucked what flavor was left off of them slowly. When they tasted no longer of the food that she had devoured, she continued working them in her mouth. Rocking on the balls of her feet, her arms wrapped firmly about her knees, she licked her lips and made up her mind. She drew in a shuddering breath, closed her eyes, opened them and finally parted her lips to release one word.
"Zhulin." That was all she said but her eyes screamed the fact that she was ready to bolt at the kind one's answer.
Hazel eyes met jade, smiling in a way that nearly disarmed her, but Zhulin had learned to trust none of that. The lady's lips parted and one word rolled from that tongue to fill the crackling silence between them.
The sound of Keladry's voice was all that was necessary for Zhulin to name her 'mother'.
Therin eyed his principal, one 'Jon Continham', and he couldn't help but to feel edgy. After all, 'Master Continham' was a very important man. His life was worth, and here he had to pause as he couldn't just put any figure to the man's worth in comparison to his own since no number could really express how insanely valuable it was (and that, friends, is one expensive life). He had wanted out of the Shang, but becoming a bodyguard to the most important man in the kingdom was perhaps not one of his better ideas. Turning away from his employer, he eyed his surroundings.
Therin had always been a bit of a 'spur-of-the-moment' kind of guy. It was how he had ended up with a Shang master even with the Sight. After seeing the Shang Lion dancing through his forms, he swore he would become his apprentice, Sight and all. He ended up having to hide the fact that he had the Sight for the rest of his training and was praised for being an astute student (cough-cheater-cough). After he left the Lion, he found that life as the Shang Ape wasn't all that appealing. So he picked up his given name of Therin and wandered the world searching for a place to belong.
Of course, such a search wasn't going to come cheap and he had to pick up the odd job here and there. Somehow he came under the employ of Jonathan of Conte, as in the king of Tortall himself (to this day, he still couldn't follow the events that brought this about). The two became close friends, well, as close as an employer and his employee could get (which meant they were pretty close). In fact, they were practically partners in crime at the Palace (Jonathan had a wicked sense of humor and a combination of spur-of-the-moment and wicked-sense-of-humor equaled bad for everyone else).
His Sight lending to his observation of their surroundings, Therin was suddenly blinded by a flash of brilliant light and deafened by the roar of thunder that followed. When he came to, Jon was leaning over him, frowning in concern.
"Alright there?" inquired the employer. He had to ask a few times more before giving that up and finally writing it in the dirt. Realizing Therin was blinded as well, Jon waited for Therin's hearing to come back. After five minutes of this, he yelled his question at him again.
"I will be once the colors come back!" yelled back the unfortunate man. It was really unfortunate (at the moment anyway) that he could Hear as well as See, a trick he picked up to help his training and had later developed. He was regretting it at the moment, and he was sure that 'Jon' would never let him live it down.
After a space of time had passed, Therin finally regained his bearings, his sight and hearing more or less recovered. Still a bit woozy, his inner ear was off, he turned to his principal and couldn't fathom the look in his eyes. Actually, he could, he just wished he was wrong, but the gods did not smile upon him.
"Are you alright now?" asked Jon again. He murmured it absentmindedly, almost not expecting an answer like the last few times he did that.
"More or less," was the slightly, queasy reply. He prayed fervently that whatever was going through Jon's head wasn't what he half-suspected was there. Those prayers went unheard.
"Well then, let's go," answered him instead. Jon got up, spryly packing there things, turning to the pack horses and getting them ready.
"Where to?" he asked, all the while dreading the answer. How people clung to hope in their darkest hours (and after the bright light, it sure was dark).
"Why," answered Jon as if it was obvious (and in reality, it really was), "to the source of the light of course."
Groaning at the tone of voice, he got up to follow. There was no moving him when he used that tone.
The shield had put up a good fight. Feeble, but good considering it was mortal craftsmanship versus a deity's might, too good, in fact. Ciero frowned, but dismissed the implications for further study later as he surveyed the damage. It was considerably less than projected. The earth was scorched lightly, the surrounding vegetation leveled, those that still stood leaning away from the focus. The girl-child was alive, but bleeding severely from trauma to the head. The woman was rather unstable, flickering, a candle flame in a wind. Both would die if they went untreated soon, and at roughly the same time by his estimation.
However, the problem was not whether he could treat them; it was whether he should at all. Trembling, he clenched his fists. He had sworn never to touch the Source again after passing his knowledge on to another. He frowned again at the woman, watching her feeble breaths come and go. He was crouched at her side, right hand reaching her solar plexus before he could really process the action. His mind reached out, into the vastness of the Source, calling for Power, and second thoughts were roughly shoved away.
He was feeding her precious life energy when all of a sudden he was drawn into her. The pull was firm but not demanding and thoughts of fighting its call were foreign at best. He fell deeper and deeper, recalling something that should have been impossible for him, the warm embrace of a mother. It was faint at first, but as time passed (he wasn't sure how much of it passed, just that it did) it grew stronger, pulsing about him to affirm its presence. The touch slowly left him as he came back to himself. It was still there, but very faint.
Confused but witlessly overcome with joy, he noted that the woman would make a full recovery as he backed absently toward the girl, eyes never quite leaving the woman. Reaching the girl's side, he treated her as well; half-surprised that she was mostly recovered. Shrugging it away as unimportant at the moment (he was a little too lightheaded); he sat back, looked around and promptly decided to conk out. Hopefully, the two men coming would leave the woman and child well enough alone. He frowned, eyelids fluttering open slightly as one man spoke in his face. That's rude, right?
Therin had seen some wild things in his days (and with the Sight, he didn't miss much), but having a person ghost past him, flying (as in, in the air and everything, without wings), really took the cake. When Jon insisted they make after him, Therin nearly wet himself. Oh gods, there was something inherently wrong with his employer if the judgment of the gods and a flying (flying!) man did not act as a deterrent to his enthusiasm.
When he finally caught up to his master, who had been trying to wake the man up (in all probability, the very person that flew past them if the grey was any indication), he nervously took in his surroundings. An expectedly singed ground, no fires (luckily), and flattened vegetation. Nothing too remarkable, except for the woman who was apparently at the center of the freak lightning (what else could it have been?) was still breathing. A girl lay prone by the unconscious man (who Jon had apparently given up on).
The merchant turned toward his bodyguard, who was still standing with the horses. They (Therin and the horses) seemed rather edgy. Focusing on the one that for sure could talk back (the decision was still out on the horses in this matter); Jon made a rather simple inquiry.
"What do you think happened here?"
"I'm not paid to think," was the absentminded reply. He was still gazing about with a vacant expression on his face.
Rolling his eyes, and frowning a moment as if in deep thought, he made an offer that was sure to be hard to resist.
"I'll pay you two gold nobles if you would," he quipped with a waggle to his eyebrows. Therin just looked at him stupidly, failing to appreciate the, admittedly, lame joke. Sighing, he turned back to the lady knight and two strangers, all three of them out for the count.
Now, Keladry of Mindelan was hardly unrecognizable, after all the details he had heard about her made it that much easier to remember her face when he had met her. The other two were strangers he did not know, not an inkling about the either of them. He had not heard anything about flying men except in stories and those were rare at best. They usually depicted them with wings though. The man was strange, not altogether unpleasant to look at, white-grey hair and all. His face was slightly effeminate (no beard, high cheekbones, elegant nose, mouth, the works), but not too much so. He was tall, very tall and looked tired but strangely happy. The girl had jet black hair, slightly slanted eyes, and reminded him of the Yamani, though tilted at a different angle and all that (he should know, his son's fiancé was Yamani) with a rounder face.
With a frown, he decided that there was no other way about it. He had been here to collect Sir Keladry anyway, might as well make camp here. After all, when the three of them woke, he would be able to ask questions and most likely receive answers.
When he announced this, Therin stared at him for a second then occupied himself with busy work as he set up camp. Jon sighed; they would need to set up wards, Therin was pretty worthless as a sentry at the moment. Reaching for the blue light of his Gift, he prepared wards, establishing them as a perimeter. It would be a rather restless night.
She wasn't alone.
She wasn't sure how she knew this without opening her eyes, and after looking around it was confirmed that she was indeed not alone as she spotted the four through the mist: three men, one girl. It was an odd troupe of strangers to wake with, to be sure. She wasn't too surprised, being prepared to wake with company the few seconds she was conscious with her eyes closed, but it still was rather unsettling. She could not recall for the life of her why she was there. As a matter of fact, she could not recall much of anything at all. She frowned, looking about herself. Maybe she would recognize something to jog her memory.
She was dressed warmly. A thick cloak was wound about her person, soft, familiar- but nothing more. She could not recall having placed it about her person or how it came to be in her possession. Her breeches were comfortable, and the layers of cloth covering her were similarly snug. Arrayed around her in an orbit of twelve roughly equal pieces were charred metal. Shuddering with an inexplicable unease, she hurried away from the center of the ring.
At the edge of the ring, she looked about, confused as to what she should do now. She was outside of the circuit, but what next? Stand at its edge or go… somewhere? She looked about again, contemplating her choices. There were… livestock standing about. They appeared to be sleeping yet, but she could still see they weren't comfortable. She turned again and her eyes were locked on the only girl present, other than herself she realized, faintly surprised and at the same time, not.
Approaching the girl, she had the baffling urge to start… fussing over her. She watched, stupefied, as her hands moved of their own volition to start rearranging silky ebony strands. Her cloak was covering the girl before she even registered the fact that it was no longer on her body. She felt a thrill of something warm and kind of squishy fill her stomach as the child snuggled deeper into the cloak. It wasn't uncomfortable; pleasant as a matter of fact.
Turning she found a grey man beside her, awkwardly propped against a bent tree. There was really no other way to describe the man; grey was the predominant color on him, it was the first thing anyone can notice, that faded shade of grey. Couldn't it be more – vibrant? It did not suit him. Well, it should not suit him to be more exact, it seemed wrong somehow. It was just inappropriate to the extreme and she had no idea why it bothered her.
His face was lined with fatigue. She felt an inexplicable urge to tend to him as well. Her hand was already reaching for him when she turned to face the other two strangers, startled by their waking.
Her confusion built, as some part of her insisted that she bow to one of the men, the shorter dark haired one apparently. She was baffled at the insistence, if she was to submit to either male (and she would never degrade herself in such a way, her thoughts disturbingly unyielding on that point), wouldn't it make more sense to kowtow to the larger of the pair? Her confusion quickly transforming into anger and fear, for by now she could no longer discount the possibility of a foreign entity having done her ill as she ignored the males questioning her. Something had tampered with her memories.
Ciero woke with a start. The earth was shifting with emotions, fear being the predominant one. He quickly identified their source as the woman from the night before. The two strange men from before were staring, uncomfortably, at the woman, uncertain of what actions they should take as the woman remained silent, her emotions building. Ciero sighed at the Power infused earth. It was just his luck to find someone else that had been touched by Power again. Well, there goes his retirement, he thought and was, oddly enough, not entirely unhappy at the prospect. He blinked in surprise, was he clinging onto something, anything, that would make his waking better? If so, was it really that bad?
Ah, enough introspection, time to calm my new apprentice, he thought, already moving as he grumbled under his breath. Getting up with a practiced economy of motion, he moved swiftly positioning himself before her. With a cool look, his hand found its way to her shoulder, calming her considerably.
She looked up to be met with a calm storm grey gaze. Grey to the last detail, her addled mind confirmed and she became slightly miffed at the fact. As a matter of fact, she fixated on her desire to put color into, well, onto him. She felt –something- respond to her desires, a presence that built, like her anger she noted absently. When it reached critical, all she could do was hope he wouldn't be too angry at her for taking liberties with his wardrobe's color scheme, a faint smile decorating her lips as she passed out. That's better…
Ciero looked at his clothing, too shocked for his facial muscles to coordinate an appropriate response. His garments had been stained with liberal amounts of pigment. A little too liberally, he finally frowned. He glanced at the sleeping woman in his arms and he dismissed the stray thought that came to him as he considered her (2). She was going to be trouble.
As soon as he ascertained this fact that she was going to cause him trouble, he remembered that all women were trouble. The girl woke up then and decided to scream at him in accented Tortallan. From what he could make of the gibberish that spilled from her mouth at speeds previously thought impossible, she was most displeased to see her 'mother' being taken away by the 'off colored man' (he wondered if she knew what that meant but dismissed the thought as unimportant). Not only did he have the girl to contend with, he finally spotted the two men from the night before. The shorter of the two had an amused smile on his lips and the taller of them looked rather lost.
Decidedly, this was not shaping up to be a good day.
Jon glanced at his knight, uncertain as to what to do. She had lost her memories and this was most likely a side of effect brought about by the lightning of the night before. That was the most likely speculation and it was plausible... Who knew what the gods were capable of and what means they'll go through to get their way? Mortal men couldn't hope to understand their motivations. At least they had spared his knight's life. He frowned, he came to this conclusion under his own power but that didn't mean it was what really happened.
The man Ciero was an unknown variable in the equation. As a matter of fact, Keladry and Zhulin should, by all rights, be considered in the same light as well. He had hoped to form a tighter bond with his lady knight, she was growing quite popular with the people of his kingdom and he needed to be in their good graces. Or at the very least, take into account what they want.
King Jonathon of Conte sighed as he looked about him. Therin, his trusty body guard, was a nervous wreck. The man was all kinds of things, but stupid he was not. If Jon decided to continue traveling incognito to survey his dominion, then without a knight they were going to have difficulties pulling any strings or affecting the outcome of any events they come across (and unfortunately, Jon was not someone to sit back and let things go wrong). Therin had been against approaching Keladry in the first place. Though she had pull with the common folk of Tortall, she did not rub elbows with lords and ladies well (to be fair, the nobles didn't very much like the lady knight either). And from the looks of things, that wasn't going to improve anytime soon. Not only that, but she was now strangely mute as well. Whether this was another side affect was yet to be determined.
Jon was worried about Ciero as well. The suddenly colorful turn to his attire had been unexpected. Apparently lady knight Keladry of Mindelan had decided that Ciero's garments had needed a splash of color and took matters into her own hands, so to speak. Another facet to worry about, frowned the king. Keladry of Mindelan was not Gifted. As a matter of fact, she had not drawn on a Gift, the tell-tale shimmer (or the lack of it in this case) would have informed him of as much. Sudden developments of the Gift at advanced ages were not unheard of. These people were either extremely weak or extremely powerful, usually the former and nearly nonexistent with the latter. This new type of power would need further attention. And since Ciero claimed the position of teacher, as he was supposedly a wielder of the same type of abilities, it meant Jon would be able to learn more about this curious development.
He frowned; Thayet was going to skin him alive. A smile made its way onto his face, his decision had already been made it seems. His son and his son's fiancé, Roald and Shinkokami, were the acting stewards with Thayet standing in as an advisor to their 'reign'. The kingdom was relatively calm and most of the work towards administration did not require that a king be facing his subordinates all that much. Most of it was done through paperwork. He caught Therin's eye and the poor guard groaned.
He knew what was coming.
(1) beautiful jade bamboo
(2) If the reader must know, he thought about the connotations of the matter, what with having a woman in a most helpless state cradled in his arms must mean to the uninformed observer. See, it was pointless.
Author's Note: Tell me what you like, tell me what you hate. Flames will be used to warm me up during winter break.