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Roen

Cigarettes and Fireflies

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Elam had seen Ashen Bear fight, and in every single match, Bear’s victory came without question. His opponents were almost always crushed beyond recognition, their bodies mangled and twisted at the perverted roegadyn’s feet, shattered bone and pulped meat to sate the howling masses. Whatever enhancement Musa had granted his champion, it had made the creature unkillable. Bear would receive strike after strike without flinching; once a sword had run him clear through the midsection, the blade's tip poking out his lower back, and still Musa’s fighter remained standing. The wounds just closed on their own; whatever flesh that was cut and torn was soon replaced by that thick tarry substance that continued to ooze from the man.

 

Elam knew that Anchor couldn’t win this fight, at least not on his own. But for Elam to be successful in coming out the clear victor on the dais, there could be no hint of foul play. And even though Ghoa’s intentions proved to be treacherous, he still trusted her skills to formulate the right poison. He needed one that would give Anchor some advantage in this match, however slim, without it being obvious to anyone watching. Once that card has been played, then it was all on Saltborn and his stubborn tenacity to survive to win him the match. He also was equipped with a modified enhancement, the gauntlet that was now bound to his arm was deadlier than ever thanks to Nei’s contribution.

 

As the Ringmaster dropped that red cloth onto the ring to start the match, Elam leaned forward, hands clasped in front of him.

 

The towering figure that began to cross the length of the arena was more monster than man. Droplets of black ichor dotted the sand as he lumbered forward, the green eyes beneath that mountain of distorted flesh looking intently to his opponent. His arms were unnaturally long and his digits were like coils of vines that hung well past his knees. There were protrusions on his head that resembled hollow wooden trunks that had been broken at the shaft, and where there should have been muscles along his shoulders, arms, and legs, instead were more black bulges of what resembled entwined bramble.

 

Ashen Bear wore no armor. Elam knew that his overgrown, over-layered thickened bark of a skin was his armor. If it wasn’t for Nei’s gift onto Anchor’s gauntlet, Elam wasn’t sure if Anchor could even injure this creature. It was clever on Saltborn’s part to somehow convince Nei to grant him that boon. Elam wondered what it had cost him to gain her favor.

 

Despite his looming size and the slower speed that came with it, Ashen Bear did not fight like a mindless beast. He lumbered toward the quicker and more mobile pirate as Anchor started to dart past him for the best opening. But he waited until the pirate closed in to attack, before retaliating with a strike of his own. Bear’s arms shot forward like black-veined, living vines, lacerating the thighs of his opponent with his hard barklike fingers that cut the flesh raw. And he was aiming only for Anchor’s legs.

 

Saltborn staggered back from the attack, his new claws digging into the stone wall as he used it to pivot away from Bear’s unrelenting swings. Then when he gained some distance, Anchor did something Elam didn’t expect. He extended those sharp claws of the enhancement and pieced his own chest, drawing forth on his own blood and aether. The Confederate’s eyes flashed that eerie amber color that was his signature energy, new static electricity ripped through the air. Fueled by his own unnatural aether, Saltborn launched himself against Ashen Bear, the blade of the gauntlet extending as he did so.

 

Elam’s eyes lifted to the rest of the arena as the crowd roared. They had no idea what Saltborn just did, using that aberrant aether of his to power the gauntlet, which would feed it right back into his own body. It would be like an adrenaline push should a normal person use it with their own aether, but Elam knew there was something wrong with Anchor’s. That’s why those exposed to it looked desiccated from inside out, as if that energy poured into them had burned away the very life that existed in the body before.

 

Just how are you living with such a thing running in your veins, Saltborn?

 

The lengthened blade pierced through one side of Bear’s head. Yet what should have been a mortal blow to any other opponent was just another bleeding wound to the black lumbering beast. Black liquid oozed from where Anchor’s blade had cut him, but as that thick sap began to spurt forth, it hardened to form new layers, soon starting to cover the deep cut that Anchor had delivered.

 

Elam couldn’t tell if Anchor was starting to realize that his opponent was healing himself as he fought, that the wounds had to come quicker than Ashen Bear’s ability to regenerate his body parts. Anchor didn’t seem deterred by the fact that the head wound barely slowed his enemy. He feigned a dash to one side, only to bait a swing from Bear. Then with a lightning-quick strike, that extended the blade of Anchor’s enhancement cut clear through the roegadyn’s arm, sending the black vine-like limb spinning through the air. The crowd roared with its approval at the violence.

 

But Saltborn found himself too close to his opponent, trying to free Bear from his other limb. The roegadyn coiled his arm around Anchor, pinning him against his chest and tightening his unrelenting hold. Not only did it completely rob Anchor of his distance and mobility, but it also pinned that gauntlet to the man’s side, unable to be wielded. Elam could see the Confederate’s struggle, trying to wiggle his arm free of the grapple, but to no avail. As the arm continued to constrict, the tight set in Anchor’s jaw eased as his lips parted for air and his head started to lull back.

 

That was when Elam felt it again. That pulse. A sudden release of energy through the air, charging up that static that electrified the atmosphere whenever Anchor fought with that sickly yellow glow about him. Elam had only witnessed this pulse twice now, and it always emerged when Saltborn felt trapped. Possibly desperate. It loosened the snakelike grip upon his body just enough that the Confederate was moving again, this time up Bear’s arm, as he drove his blade near the collarbone.

 

Elam was starting to feel more confident when Anchor began hacking off bramble and bark from Musa’s champion, until one violent swing of Bear’s arm swatted Saltborn away, sending him flying through the air. He smashed the ground some twenty fulms away, rolling, sand spraying. The crowd fell silent when Anchor didn’t move from the ground. Yet when he started to rise, almost mechanically, with his right upper limb hanging in a strange angle, the audience howled again for more violence.

 

Saltborn pierced his flesh again, allowing the gauntlet to use his own blood and aether to charge him once more. Reckless move, Saltborn, Elam thought. Anchor was continuing to use his own energy to gain additional charges of power now, but he would pay for it later. Saltborn took off through the arena, and this time his blade extended unnaturally long, just as it did for its previous owner, Nei’s former champion, and it sliced at Ashen’s other arm. It didn’t quite sever it all the way through. Its arm barely hung on to its torso by black tendrils.

 

Still the roegadyn moved, turning to face Anchor. And when Anchor thrust his blade forward, that mutilated arm still swung up in time, bark-like fingers closing around his gauntlet. But then there was a flare in Anchor’s eyes, a flash of deeper yellow, and another pulse of static; it rippled the air and the sand all around it. The blade that was caught in Bear’s digits shot forth even longer, obliterating his hand and his limb, bursting straight through the massive roegadyn’s heart.

 

Blackened ichor spurted into the air, akin to the eruption of a fresh oil well where the blade exited Ashen Bear’s back. Only this time, the thick fluid didn’t harden into a new layer of skin. The tree like mass that Ashen Bear then went still. He didn’t fall, it just remained where it stood. Unmoving. The entire arena suddenly fell silent, the audience holding their breath. Many of them, like Elam, had watched Bear’s matches before. He had never lost, and many wondered if the blow that Anchor had delivered was enough to kill him.

 

There was a long moment of tense silence, the Ringmaster looking to the Curator for confirmation. Elam glanced to Nagakane as well, who studied the readings on his tablet, before he looked up and shook his head at the Ringmaster.

 

The Ringmaster turned back to the crowd with an ecstatic grin. “The victor of the final match! Saltborn of the Cove!”  

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Posted (edited)

Anchor…  has won.

 

Nabi had been watching the match, her hands clutching the railing the entire time. There were moments where she had to close her eyes, only to open them again an instant later when the crowd roared again.

 

But in the final moments, she had closed her eyes, her hands clasped pale in its tight grasp, as she prayed to the kami and the Nhaama, for him to live. For him to win.

 

When all the arena suddenly fell quiet, Nabi’s eyes shot back to the ring, where she saw Anchor’s blade protruding through Ashen Bear’s chest.

 

She didn’t hear Masashige’s announcement of the victor, nor the thunderous howl of the audience. All she could hear was Anchor’s voice, from two nights ago, as they huddled by the hearth.

 

"I be imaginin' you be up there with 'em all through all the entertainment. Near and by the end o' that match, no eyes'll be on ya. Even if they were a moment 'til, when the roar o' the crowd be beckonin' their gaze, you'll be movin'. Don't hesitate. Don't be lookin' around wide-eyed an' afraid to make sure. The dais be overlookin' right over the ring, aye? I don' care if it looks like I'm on my last leg."

 

"I want you to jump."

 

Nabi pushed off from where she had been praying. Her heart was pounding so hard against her chest, she thought it would burst out. But as she took one step, then another to the edge of the dais, no one stopped her. Their eyes were indeed, all on the ring below and the fight’s finish. She looked behind her once, just to give a look to Ghoa, one that implored her to leave as well. She could not say anything for the fear of alerting others. But she could not let her stay on the dais either. Not when she knew that Shael and Tserende were planning something against the sponsors. Ghoa met her gaze for a fraction of a second, but then Nabi had to keep moving. She could not delay. While everyone looked to the new victor below, it was her chance to escape. But just as her hand reached for the railing at the very edge of the dais, Nabi felt a sudden constriction around her other wrist, jerking her backwards.

 

“Where do you think you are going, precious thing?” Nei Uzuka forcibly pulled her around. “Don’t you want to enjoy his victory?”

 

Before Nabi could even reply, Nei was turned half way around herself, by a hand upon her shoulder pulling at her attention and frame. It was Ieharu Musa, and he struck the younger woman’s chest with his palm, sending Nei staggering backwards as she released her hold on Nabi. The elder Doman stepped in between the Xaela and the hyur, his stance wide and his hands taking up a defensive pose.

 

“What… are you doing?” Nei hissed, clutching at her chest. “Your bargain with Saltborn is at an end. He broke your agreement. She is no longer under your protection.”

 

“She is,” the elder sponsor answered quietly but firmly. “As long as I draw breath, however many I have left.”

 

Nabi could see Musa’s hand shaking from where she stood. His shoulders rose and fell with breaths that were slowly becoming labored. Her eyes went to the cup of tea that was in his hand the entire match, now rolling empty on the ground. The tea that had contained Nei’s poison, one that the woman had been pouring for Musa for the last many sennights.

 

Nabi stood frozen with fright. She had only discovered it that morning; the contents of his tea that had been mostly well hidden, except for one flaw. Nei hadn’t succeeded in completely removing the subtle scent of a little known mushroom that Nabi had worked with before. When she had shared her knowledge with Lord Musa in private, his surprise at her candor was obvious on his aged face. He smiled sadly at her, and promised to guard her safety for as long as he lived. But he then continued to drink the tea when the match came, Nei pouring that insidious toxin into his cup.

 

“I promised her that much when she told me of the poison in your tea,” Musa continued in a low voice. His guards stepped in front of Nabi to block her path, but the elder gave them a nod. “Let them pass.”

 

Nabi blinked, her eyes going first to Musa, who didn’t meet her gaze. She then spotted the other part of ‘them’ as she saw Ghoa on the other end of the dais, also trying to make her own retreat. Musa’s guards all but surrounded the entire dais, but at his command, they stepped aside, allowing the Xaelas to pass through. Ghoa didn’t give Nabi a second look, and Nabi turned, hurrying to the edge closest to her. Anchor would be waiting for her to jump. She had absolute faith that he would be there.

 

Gathering her breath, Nabi climbed over the railing. She could see Anchor running towards her. She gave Musa one last look, and the elder gave her a small nod with a slight softening of his eyes, before Nabi released her hold to fall to the sands below.

Edited by Roen

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“I guess it’s showtime!” Shael grinned wildly as she flicked Tserende a look. That bastard actually won. She knew she had no time to bask in the implausibility of it all, now that the plan was in motion. She first squinted towards the dais and all the sponsors there. She reached into the bag by her feet, retrieving a small device. It was magitek in design.

 

“Only activate this when you are sure. It will release a small surge of energy, disabling the locks on the collars within range. It is for one time use only. Don’t squander it.”

 

As Shael powered it up, her thumb sliding over the deactivation switch, she glanced to where the Curator was standing. This better work, Marius, Shael repeated the threat in her mind. Nabi’s life was on the line. She had promised the paled haired man that if his failure took the Xaela’s life, she would come back and take his. Even as his surprised look flashed before Shael’s eyes, she activated the switch. But she didn’t wait to see if it actually did work.

 

She was immediately reaching into her bag again, this time hauling out a much bigger object, her long range culverin. With a flick of her wrist, she lengthened the legs of the mount and she planted it on top of the railing.

 

“Cover me,” was all she said to Tserende as she swiveled the gun toward the dais. She caught the sight of Nabi falling from the edge, which did draw her gaze for a breath. She saw Saltborn running up just in time to catch her, both of them then colliding and rolling against the wall in his mad dash. They continued to move though, heading toward the gates that were now opening. The guards would be coming out. She had to provide them the cover she promised... but Shael had to do one thing first. Even as the sound of screams erupted around her -- probably because of the gun she had brought out -- she leaned into the scope, squinting to find her target on the dais.

 

One hand quickly rose to her ear to tap her pearl, even as she looked from one target to another. “Ghoa,” she said with a hint of urgency. “I want you to stand perfectly still. I have Grave within my sights.” That would be only warning she could give the Xaela woman, on a channel that she knew was compromised. If Ghoa was not able to catch her true meaning, then it would be her loss. And probably her life.

 

Shael would be lying if she said she wasn’t tempted to aim for Grave first. But the first shot had to count. She steadied her aim on another, Nagakane Akuido: the one that held the title of the Curator, the Doman responsible for overseeing the health of the fighters and their enhancements, who held the lives of all who were forced to wear those collars at his fingertips. When he came squarely within her scope’s view, Shael pulled the trigger and fired.

 

More panicked cries rose up around her. She heard people shoving and running away, and the shouts of guards that were getting closer. But Shael’s eyes didn’t leave her scope. She fully trusted Tserende to have her back. Sounds of blades clashing around her started to fill her ears, but Shael swiveled her gun toward the ring below, starting to take aim at the guards that were running out of those gates onto the sands.

 

She had to turn their focus onto her, the shooter in the arena, rather then the champion and his fugitive Xaela looking to make their escape.

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There was little that made Ghoa more anxious than uncertainties, and this day of the final fight was teeming with them. She was unsure if Saltborn would win his match. She was unsure of what Shael and Tserende were plotting. Worst of all, if all of the planning came to naught, she was unsure of exactly what manner of unpleasant fate Elam Grave had in mind for her and her treachery.

 

Though if one thing was certain, it was that the Mankhadi woman was going to fight tooth and nail before she let anyone take her life or her freedom away from her.

 

That unease had weighed on her from the time that she had first opened her eyes that morning, settling like a heavy stone in the pit on her stomach. Despite its weight, she had carried herself well, just as she had been instructed to never let on that anything was amiss. No one could know that beneath her usual calm, polished exterior and coy smiles, she felt almost nervous enough to retch when she took her place on the dais between Elam and Hikomoro. No one could see under the gloves that she wore just how white her knuckles had become as she closed her fists tight, watching Saltborn's fight. She couldn't help but feel dread watching that monstrous opponent of his, even knowing that the poison of her making coursed through his system. Would it be enough..?

 

Then, with that final thrust of the blade through the beast-like Roegadyn's heart, it was ended and -- at the same -- everything began to happen so very, very quickly.

 

"The victor of the final match!" the announcer cried. "Saltborn of the Cove!"

 

Ghoa's eyes followed Elam as he rose triumphantly from his seat upon the proclamation of victory, and with the motion her eyes moved past him to someone else. To Nabi, whose golden eyes were filled with an unspoken warning. But she barely had any time to linger on it before the compromised linkpearl activated and Shael's voice was in her ear.

 

"Ghoa. I want you to stand perfectly still. I have Grave in my sights."

 

Still she was unsure of exactly what the woman was planning, but between Nabi's urgent look as she tried to slip away from the dais and the former code of opposites that she and Shael had spoken in.. Gods, she hoped she was interpreting it all correctly.

 

In her position so close to Grave and with him undoubtedly having heard Shael's message all the same as she, she knew there was no way that she could possibly rise and sneak away like Nabi had done.. Or had attempted to do, at least, before Nei had stopped her. For her, it was now or never, and hesitating even just a second longer would put her at risk. And so, wasting no time, she pushed herself up onto her feet -- and she ran.

 

No one stopped her until she reached the exit to the dais, where the guards were waiting in her way. Her mind was already racing, trying to figure out a way to get past them, when she heard Musa's voice calling out on the dais behind her.

 

"Let them pass."

 

Surprised, she chanced a glance over her shoulder at the man, confusion striking her not only at the order the older sponsor had given but the fact that he was now, it seemed, in a standoff with Nei. Had the two not been working together? Just what was happening there..?

 

Yet she hardly had the time to ponder it now before another voice was calling out.

 

"Torrad," Elam growled. "Stop her."

 

Ghoa's head snapped around to find the tongueless brick wall of a man stepping up between her and her chance at freedom. Her heart was racing, a hissed curse leaving her lips, before she steeled her nerves and started forward to try and dart past him. It was a move doomed to fail from the start, as Torrad's hand wrapped tight around her thin wrist like a manacle, yanking her harshly back towards him. But that left her other hand free, and that would be his mistake.

 

When she had dressed that morning, she hadn't even bothered trying to think of a way to smuggle in a weapon. Even before her intentions had been discovered, the guards at the entrance had thoroughly checked her person before each match. Now, she knew the scrutiny would only increase. It would be impossible to sneak in a knife or poison. She hadn't even risked bringing her ringbands, just in case.

 

But she was nothing if not creative when backed into a corner.

 

Prepared for the backwards tug, Ghoa's free hand snapped up to the furs around her neck. Her fingers wrapped around the golden flower brooch that held the white fur mantle in place about her shoulders and tugged it free. Using the momentum of the pull, the Xaela spun in on Torrad with purpose. In the back of her mind, she could hear the advice Edric had once given her when he had tried to teach her how to defend herself. And as soon as she spotted an opening in the man's armor on the underside of his arm, she buried the sharpened end of the pin as deeply as she could -- which still, admittedly, wasn't terribly deep -- into the man's bicep.

 

The retaliation had seemed to surprise the man, though didn't deter him in the slightest. His hold upon her tightened as he scoffed, and before she could even try to twist out of the way, his armored hand had come crashing across her face. The force of the blow made stars rise and burst behind her eyes. She could taste copper on her tongue, though she wasn't sure if it came from her lip or her nose. Both, perhaps. Dizzily staggering, only Torrad's grip kept her upright as he spun her around to march her back to Elam.

 

For a moment, she couldn't help but wonder if it was enough. Had she sunk the pin deep enough? She hadn't even had time to see before the man struck her. If she hadn't, if it hadn't worked, then she..

 

She felt the man's steps slow, almost causing him to stagger. He didn't make it another step before he fell to a knee and his grip around her wrist loosened. The pin, laced with the same Mankhadi paralytic poison that had laced the gifted knife that Nabi had once used against Elam himself, had struck true.

 

There wasn't any time to celebrate or to feel relief. Her vision was still blurred and her head swimming when she found herself freed, but she lurched towards the exit again. The first few steps were swaying and unsteady before she seemed to find her feet again, bolting into the crowd below scrambling for the exit amidst the chaos, the violence, and the sound of gunshots.

 

But if she had survived and escaped the dais, the panicked mob wasn't about to stop her now. She squeezed her petite body through whatever narrow gaps she could. When no spaces presented themselves, she made them by shoving, kicking, clawing, even biting her way through. The Xaela was nothing short of hellsbent on getting out of that hellish nightmare of a place, on surviving, and no one and nothing were going to stop her.

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Gunshots echoed overhead. Usually such things would make her flinch with fear, but while Nabi kept her head low and her heart was racing faster than ever, her lips parted with a nervous kind of relief, knowing it was Shael up there.

 

Her eyes darted from guard to guard as they were rushing out through the gates all around them, but soon as they heard the gunshots, their attention was diverted upwards. They were drawing their guns, looking to find the shooter.

 

Anchor was right behind her, and guiding her towards the door that he had exited out of earlier. As Nabi lifted her dress and darted to the opened portal, she spotted two figures there. One was a guard, writhing on the ground, clutching at his leg. A stream of blood was spurting forth from the back of his knee. A quick assessment told her that his artery just above the calf must have been severed. And next to him, she saw the means to his injury. Myuto, the mute slave boy that Anchor had befriended, was crouched near the guard, with a sharpened bone in his bloodied hand. He was warily watching the guard, until he spotted both Nabi and Anchor. He suddenly rose and waved his hand, a youthful smile on his face despite the chaos.

 

Once both of them were through the gates, Anchor did not waste time drawing forth the blade and shoving it into the guard's throat. Nabi looked away. There was something about Anchor that had made her shudder. It wasn’t the violence or the bloodshed this time; since he had caught her falling from the dais, she felt nauseated around him. She could feel his anomalous aether just overflowing from his body. She had caught something changing about him during the fight itself, when he was using the gauntlet on his own person.

 

Now the very air around him felt sickly. His eyes were bloodshot and there were stains of crimson pooling in the corner of his eyelids. Even his voice sounded somewhat distorted. Once he pulled his blade free from the guard, he pointed the bloody tip down the tunnel.

 

“Go!” he ordered Myuto, before he turned to her. “Follow him!” He then spun from them both to close the door behind him and latching it shut.

 

Myuto scampered away and Nabi continued to follow as fast as she could. She was silently thankful for the potion she was able to drink before coming to the match, else her weakened body would never be able to keep up with this pace. But she felt its effect injected into every muscle fiber, as her heart pumped harder than ever to keep her moving.

 

It was a maze of narrow tunnels and caverns. Mytuo took multiple quick turns, and if it wasn’t for him guiding her, Nabi knew she would be hopelessly lost in these depths. It was when both took a sharp turn that a guard appeared out of nowhere, also running quickly toward the sounds of chaos and battle. He immediately reached for his gun, but then another arm shot out from the metal bars behind him, grabbing the man by the throat and pulling him back against the cell. Nabi could spy scales upon that arm. Whoever it was that intervened, was an au ra, just like her.

 

There was no time to linger or even thank the stranger. Nabi nodded quickly just as she spotted Myuto darting away. As she took off after him, Nabi hoped that the au ra, and the rest of the fighters would find the same freedom she was chasing after now.

 

Just as Myuto finally came to a stop, pointing ahead to the final tunnel that would offer them escape, she heard an explosion in the distance, one that rocked the mountain and brought a rain of dust down upon their heads.

 

That was when Nabi turned around and realized Anchor was nowhere to be seen.

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“They are through!” Shael shouted without looking behind her. She could hear loud grunts, shouts, and the clash of metal behind her, for no doubt by now Tserende was facing off against the guards that had spotted the shooter.

 

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Tserende grunted as he was pushed against the railing next to her. In her peripheral vision, she caught a flash of blades in both his hands; a pair of knives rather than the large broadsword he usually favored, but the latter would have been impossible for her to smuggle in. He kicked off another man then pushed off, out of her sight. “This is starting to look like a right circus,” he said with his usual placid tone.

 

That only made Shael’s grin wider. Someday, she was going to get a rise out of that man. Mayhap not today though.

 

She squinted and targeted a few more guards in the ring, but now that Nabi and Saltborn had disappeared through the gates, they were out of reach from these guards. Shael swung the gun around, pointing it right back to the dais. If she could get one good shot on Grave…

 

But Elam had already ducked for cover after she had shot Nagakane in the chest. The Curator lay bleeding on the floor next to his magitek tablet that was blinking wildly -- hopefully that meant Marius’ device worked -- and some of the other sponsors were hiding behind their entourage of guards. Musa, the oldest of the sponsors, was sprawled on a chair, blood stains around his mouth. Shael’s view darted from him to the other possible targets, but the only thing she could see of Grave was where he was hiding and occasionally stealing a look from behind his cover. There was no clear shot.

 

Shael cursed, looking up from her scope. There’s more than one way to skin a coeurl. She retrieved a cigarette from her vest pocket, the last of the ones that Tserende had given her, and lit it with a fire striker. She gave a glance to her side as she spotted the Ishgardian grab the arm of the guard that had tried to slice at him, driving his own blade into his arm pit. Shael smirked as she took one draw of the cigarette, stoking the flame at the end of it, before she dropped it onto the ground next to her feet.

 

A small spark lit up when it landed.

 

“Let’s go.” Shael grinned, yanking her gun off its perch and swinging it around just in time to see Tserende grab the third guard, one that had managed to land a hit on his shoulder, sending him over the railing into the ring below.

 

The Ishgardian dusted himself off, straightening the collar of his jacket. “Off we go, then.” He glanced to her then the ground, eyeing the small spark that was now trailing toward the dais.

 

“I believe the quicker, the better.”

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How did this happen? How did things go so wrong, so fast?

 

Elam lifted himself just an ilm, to gain another look at the rest of the ring from behind the cover he had taken. He didn’t hear the impact of any more bullets near him, not since Nagakane was shot, but it would be foolish to think that Shael wasn’t keeping him in her view. The woman had been clever, using Ghoa’s pearl, one that he had been listening in on, to make him think that she was laying a trap for him at the Uzuka estate. Nei had sent most of her entourage of soldiers to fortify her own home and to root out the smuggler.

 

Instead, Shael had been bold enough to execute her plan here, in the arena.

 

All for that Xaela girl and Saltborn.

 

Elam grimaced, jerking to the side to get another look at the ring. Both the Xaela and Saltborn had fled into one of the gates below and was nowhere to be seen. He also saw Torrad laying limp by the edge of the dais, and Ghoa no longer in his grasp. That deceitful bitch had double crossed him. Somehow Shael must have known that he was listening in, and they both misled him into complacency on this most important sun.

 

Then there was Musa. The old man was drawing his last breath from the looks of things. Nei had confided in Elam only a few nights ago that she had been slowly poisoning the elder sponsor, all the while pretending to be his ally. The poison was to take its full effect on this sun. Whether Musa’s champion won the match or not, he would no longer be in the way of either his or Nei’s ambitions. Yet somehow, in the last minute, Musa must have found out. He was the one that aided both Xaelas in their escape.

 

Now the entire arena was thrown into chaos. All was not lost, Elam knew. He just had to make it out of here without Shael planting a bullet in his head. But once he did, and with Musa dead and Saltborn having officially won the match, Elam could spin this to his advantage. He would fill the vacuum that Musa’s demise would leave behind. And then, he would make sure that everyone that have wronged him this sun would pay dearly for daring to declare themselves his enemy.

 

Elam noticed a pause in the sound of the gunshots, and taking a chance, he remained low and darted from his cover to the edge of the dais, rolling off of it. The crowd surrounding it was in a rabid frenzy, pushing and climbing over each other to make their own hasty exit. He pushed off from where he landed, eyes narrowing as he looked for the best opening, when Torrad weakly clawed at his feet.

 

Elam glanced at him impatiently, his foreman would know better than to expect any pity from him. But what he saw on Torrad’s face was panic, his eyes darting from him to the ground next to him.

 

Elam narrowed his eyes, following the man’s gaze. There was a small flash of light, a distant spark... no--

 

A fuse.

 

It had already been lit, the sparking flame heading quickly for the dais, along the base of the railing.

 

His eyes widened as he watched that spark race along the wall... and just as quickly slip beneath the dais.

 

And then all he saw was white, and everything burned.

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FAREWELLS

[ PART ONE ]

 

Delivered but a few suns after the chaos at the fighting pits, a small parcel would be waiting for Nabi’s return to the clinic. Though there’s no return address listed, a faint but familiar scent of spiced oriental perfume clings to the simple wrappings. Inside were only two small items:  a folded letter and a small cloth pouch, containing a pale white linkpearl.

 

Unfolding the letter, it reads:

 

Quote

Nabi,

 

Let me begin with an apology for leaving you without farewell in Shirogane. I feared that doing so may cause you worry or upset, but thought it was for the best. For all of my usual skill with words, face-to-face goodbyes have never been my strength.

 

By the time this should reach you, I’ll be well on my way to putting malms between myself and Kugane. I think it best that I avoid the city for a time until the dust all settles. Though that may be the case, I wanted to give you this linkpearl just in case you should have a need to contact me. That said, if anything should come about of this mess that I may need to know of, I would appreciate the warning. I hope you don’t mind the imposition.

 

Lastly, I just wanted to tell you to take care of yourself. You’ve a good heart, and good hearts draw people like Grave to them like moths to a candle flame. You’re lucky to have capable friends willing to go to such lengths to protect you;  just remember, as I told you once before, not to let their caution rule you. Never let fear, whether theirs or your own, keep you from walking your own path.

 

I hope this will not be a farewell, but simply a ‘till we meet again. Until that day, I wish you peace and rest. Gods know you’re long overdue for it.

 

- Ghoa

 

 


 

[ PART TWO ]

 

There could be nothing sweeter than the taste of victory, but the ornate gold and sapphire ring on her finger was a close second in Saya Mifune’s mind.

 

It had arrived at her door about a sun ago, and almost a week after she had met with Nei Uzuka and Elam Grave to share what she knew. That meeting had been a sweet one as well when she had been brought into the room where Ghoa waited, seeing the look of panic in her eyes when she realized the predicament that she was in. So satisfying it had been to see the smirking bitch’s terror written so plainly across her face, to watch her plans fall apart before her as she feared for her life.

 

That satisfaction had been momentarily shattered when Grave had told the Xaela that she might yet earn her freedom if only she cooperated to his satisfaction. The idea of her going free – again – had filled Saya with anger and her own hint of fear. Not only was the thought impossibly frustrating, but it was dangerous. She had made her move intent to see the woman either dead or detained. If she was let free, if she went back to her husband and told him of her involvement..

 

However, all seemed to be going back on the rails when she had expressed her concern after that night, once Ghoa had been led away. Grave had assured her that it was all part of the plan, just to convince the Xaela that there was hope. And so, she had had no choice but to believe him.

 

Waiting had been almost impossibly difficult for her, with no way to keep herself apprised of the situation. The initial meeting alone had been a huge risk for her. She couldn’t risk getting herself any further involved with how big a price she would’ve paid for discovery. Nor did she have any trusted contacts on the mainland to go in her stead.

 

A day had passed since the final fight was supposed to have taken place, and Saya had begun to wait eagerly for news. Two days passed, and still nothing. Dread had begun to twist in the pit of her stomach when, on the morning of the third, the letter had arrived.

 

Your problem won’t be returning to plague you any longer,” the note had read. “Take this as a token of appreciation for your help. Its former owner no longer has need of it.

 

Saya’s lips twisted into another satisfied smirk as she lifted up her hand in front of her, admiring the way the last rays of the evening sun made it shine and glitter. Though the letter hadn’t been signed, it seemed obvious to her where it had come from and who the ring’s former owner had been. Ghoa always had an affinity for pretty baubles, which Hisanobu had indulged her in far more often than he had his own wife.

 

The letter had been short and sweet and shorn of detail, but simply knowing that she would no longer have to suffer the Auri woman traipsing about her home was enough for her. That and her trophy, of course. She brought her hand on close to her face and closed her eyes as she inhaled. Perfume clung to the ring still, a indulgently sweet floral scent unlike anything that she had ever smelled before. Soon it would fade away, but for now she would enjoy every last reminder of her victory that she could.

 

As she went to exhale in a contented sigh, a brief tickle caught in the back of her throat, causing the hyur to cough. Once she started, it took a moment for the spell to pass, finally leaving Saya lightheaded and her lungs aching in its wake.

 

 


 

[ PART THREE ]

 

Hisanobu sat as still and quiet as the moonless night sky beyond his bedroom window, the silence of the room broken only by shallow, wheezing breaths and the occasional stirring of movement. A few fulm away in their bed, Saya lie struggling for each gasp of air. At her bedside was an older hyuran man, a physician who had been tending to the ailing woman since she had taken a turn for the worst some four suns prior.

 

Tirelessly he had worked to ascertain what manner of illness had taken hold of her and to cure it. Yet each treatment he had tried had been as fruitless as the last, and each sun she seemed far weaker than the previous. Now, as he finally turned his age and fatigue lined face away from her and back to Hisanobu, it seemed he was at a loss.

 

“Whatever this foul sickness might be, it is unlike anything I have ever treated,” the man admitted with a grimace. “I fear that I know not what else to do other than give her relief from the pain. At this rate..” He paused to look down to Saya, before stepping a bit closer to Hisanobu and dropping his voice lower. “At this rate, it seems doubtful that she will see the morning.”

 

At first, there was no reaction. Then as the seconds continued to tick on in silence, Hisanobu finally looked away to his wife and bobbed his head in a slow nod of understanding. Wordlessly, he started forward to move past him, only for the older man’s hand to find his arm and stop him.

 

“Perhaps it is for the best that you not stay here, my lord,” the elderly physician whispered. “We still do not know what caused this, nor if it is contagious. It–”

 

“I won’t be leaving her here to die alone,” he interrupted, eyes narrowing.

 

“That is.. very honorable,” the man sighed. “However, my lord, if the sickness should spread to you, I cannot–”

 

My place–” Hisanobu cut him short again, and this time his low voice was as hot as the coals smoldering in the nearby fireplace. “–is at my wife’s side.” His eyes narrowed as he quietened for a moment, as if challenging the man to speak again. When no more words came, he lifted a hand to motion dismissively to the door. “You’ve done all that you can, I understand, and for that you have my gratitude. Leave us now, and let us spend what time we have left in peace.”

 

“As you wish,” the doctor answered with a respectful bow of the head. “I will stay nearby should you call for me.”

 

He received a grateful nod in kind before he turned to gather his things and then make for the door. Once the door had shut again behind him, Hisanobu’s eyes flicked forward towards the bed again, and slowly he stepped forward until he was standing at its side.

 

Truth be told, he had never thought Saya to be any sort of great beauty. She had always had a plain sort of look about her, in his opinion, and he had always had a taste for the unique and the exotic. If he hadn’t had need of her family’s trade connections to supply his own business, he wouldn’t even have given her a second glance, much less have agreed to marry her.

 

But now as he stood over her, he couldn’t help but feel a slight ache in his chest to see just how awful she looked. In just four short suns, the illness had left her ravished. Her skin had always been light in color, but its rosy glow had faded and left her ghastly pale. Her lips had started to take on a blue-purple tint, the same as her hands. Her eyes were ringed with dark circles and her cheeks were beginning to sink. If it weren’t for the shaky wheezing breaths, one could’ve been forgiven for thinking she was a corpse already.

 

“Hisanobu..” Her voice was a hoarse, strained whisper, and the effort it took to speak sent her into another dizzying coughing fit. When it finally passed and she settled again, blood stained her lips and chin.

 

“Don’t speak,” the druglord murmured as he pulled a chair close and sank down into it. Once settled, he reached out for one of her frail, discolored hands. Even on her deathbed, she seemed surprised at the sudden and unexpected show of affection. When the surprise melted away, what was left behind was a shaking smile and tears shining in the corner of her eyes.

 

She looked so innocent then, that girlish vulnerability almost beautiful in its own way despite the awful failings of her body.

 

Almost.

 

As the memory came back to him, his expression darkened again. The hand wrapped around her own began to slowly tighten.

 

“After all, I’ve heard that you’ve been doing a great deal of talking lately,” he scoffed. Saya’s brows furrowed together in a look of confusion then.

 

“What.. are you–”

 

She had barely managed to squeeze out the words when that grip on her hand suddenly tightened to a painful, vice-like grip, pulling a cry from her.

 

“I said,” Hisanobu snapped venomously, his voice a threatening growl. “Don’t speak.”

 

Saya’s bloodshot eyes searched his face for an answer to the sudden shift in his temper, until finally, the realization seemed to dawn upon her. When it did, those eyes began to widen in horror. Only then did the man let go of her hand with a sneer as he pulled away and began to reach inside his haori.

 

“A package came for me this morning,” he explained as he pulled a small box free from an inner pocket, holding it up for her to see. “There was a letter inside, and in it I learned a good deal about what you’ve been up to lately. And, as a matter of fact, what you’ve tried in the past.”

 

He paused to watch her reaction. From the look of pure panic in her eyes, he could tell that the letter’s contents were true. She knew exactly of what he was speaking even without having to name specifics. Kami take her, this vexing woman had always been pathetically easy to read. If only he had cared to pay her a bit more attention and thought her capable of anything more than petty spite, perhaps he would have stopped her plots before they had even come to fruition.

 

As he felt the anger bubble up in his chest, Hisanobu’s hand shot out to grab hold of her other hand. This one, however, he held firmly but carefully. Careful to avoid touching the ring of gold and sapphire still perched on her finger.

 

“Smart,” he muttered under his breath, before letting her go and returning his gaze to her face. “She knew you wouldn’t be able to resist a trophy like this.” Her expression seemed to only grow more agonized by the moment, with each and every word, and now he was relishing in it. “She poisoned her own ring and sent it to you, knowing you’d do the hard work of killing yourself for her.”

 

With another scoff, he returned his attention to the small box, pulling the lid from the top and reaching inside. When he pulled away, it was with a small vial held gingerly between his fingertips.

 

“This was also in the package:  a single dose of antidote. Even though she could have just let you waste away, she sent me this to let me decide what happens to you.” He started to hold it out to her, watching as one of those shaking hands tentatively began to reach up for it. But just as her fingertips brushed the glass, he jerked it away again.

 

“Do you know why she didn’t come to me all those years ago, to tell me that you’d tried to ship her away to the highest bidder?” Hisanobu paused for an answer he knew he wouldn’t get, and shook his head. “She was concerned for me and my business. She thought that if she told me, that I would’ve killed you. She assumed that I would’ve strangled the life from your neck and ruined the Mifune’s business when your family learned of it and withdrew from our arrangements.”

 

The Hingan suddenly pushed himself up from his chair and to his feet, starting to wander slowly but purposefully across the room. His narrowed eyes never left Saya and hers never left him, until he stopped at the fireplace.

 

“She was right. I would have ruined it all to make you pay for what you did.” His voice was as cold and sharp as bared steel. “But this time, I won’t have to worry about ruining anything. Everything thinks an illness has taken you, and that I’m a husband stricken with grief. Your family will suspect nothing foul and so our arrangement will continue, and they’ll supply me with all the things I need to start production on the formulas that Ghoa shared with me.” His lips twisted up at the corner into a dark smirk. “And doing this will be almost as satisfying as killing you myself.”

 

His hand, still holding the vial of antidote in his grasp, started towards the fireplace. A ragged cry came from the bed, stopping him just short of releasing it.

 

“H-Hisanobu, please..” Saya pleaded breathlessly, fighting for every breath and every word. “If you.. have any love.. for me still..” She swallowed hard, suddenly lightheaded from the effort. “Don’t.. do this..”

 

For a moment, he lingered there in silence, seeming to consider the plea. What was only seconds seemed like hours passed in tense silence between them, until finally what broke it was a harsh, humorless bark of laughter.

 

“If I have any love for you still,” he repeated her words with derision. “I never have.”

 

His fingers loosened and the vial tumbled down into the fire, the thin glass shattering and the chemical concoction causing the flames to surge and dance with flickers of pale blue-green sparks. He watched as Saya collapsed back onto the pillow in a fit of sobs and coughs, until finally he turned and marched silently back to the window.

 

Once more, Hisanobu’s mood turned dark. He had lied once more, just to wound her further. In truth, there was no satisfaction to be found in listening to the dying woman’s sobs and curses. Whether or not Saya died, it wouldn’t change the fact that the lover he longed for was now hundreds, if not thousands of malms away. It wouldn’t the final lines of Ghoa’s letter to him.

 

Whatever choice you make, know that this is farewell for us. I’ll treasure the memories, and keep the lessons that you taught me close at heart.” And it ended as no other letter he had received from her had ended before. “With love always, Ghoa.”

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A scaled hand dug into the loose gravel, a fistful of dirt excavated from the ground as it was brought up to the Auri nose. The Xaela warrior sniffed at it, then loosened his fingers to allow the soil to fall freely back to the earth.

 

Batu remained crouched, perched on the edge of the bluff. A winter gale whipped the heavy cloak against his frame, his long black ponytail tossed about behind him. His dark eyes were narrowed as he looked to the ruined mountain before him.

 

It was the same mountain that had been his prison for the last two moons, where he'd been forced to fight, where he had no choice but to accept the aberrant things called enhancements onto his body, and where he finally killed his captors and escaped. But his current freedom would not have been possible if it weren’t for the hyur they called Saltborn.

 

It was after Saltborn’s fight, the one that everyone had been waiting for, holding their damned breaths for, that everything within that mountain fell apart. Even as Batu was being led back to his cell after his victory, he'd heard the distant roar of the crowd when the final match inevitably came to an end. He wondered who was the victor. No one doubted that it would be Ashen Bear, the reigning champion of champions. But having fought alongside Saltborn in their first trial, Batu had wished to see the hyur continue to survive as he did. They had been thrown into the mountain at the same time, faced the same First Trial, and fought off the same enemies. Batu wished that the man continued to live, at least until came the time where the two would face off against each other.

 

But he couldn’t speculate about the conclusion of the match for too long, for the cheers were silenced by gunshots. The guards around him became distracted, and there was a flurry of activity all around. Batu dared not make his move, not yet, not while he still wore that circlet around his neck.

 

But then as if Nhaama herself had heard his prayers in that moment, there was an audible click from the metallic collar, as it loosened and began to slide off his neck. By the time the metal ring bounced off the dirt, Batu had sliced the throat of one of the guards. He used him as a shield against the bullets shot by the second guard, then once he closed the distance, the Xaela gouged out the eyes of the other. He then grabbed their guns and began to make his way away from the ring, searching for any exit out of the mountain.

 

That was when he heard Saltborn’s voice echoing through the caves. "If you bloody well be dyin' down here, be makin' it for your own for once!"

 

Batu heard more clamoring around him; other fighters, other slaves that had been forced into this hell beneath the earth, they too heard the call. And they too were freed from the hold of the collar, freed from the fear of their masters. More cries and screams---dying guards and fighters alike---reverberated through the caverns.

 

The Xaela kept running. He didn’t know where he was going, only that he had to leave. He ducked into opened cells when he could, to evade guards running through the halls. But as he hid out of sight from a pair of approaching footsteps, he saw two figures running through the tunnel. A slave boy, followed by a female.

 

A Xaela, with raven hair and golden eyes.

 

That sight made Batu freeze, almost stepping out of the shadows. That was when another guard rounded the corner, and began to draw his gun down on the boy and the female.

 

Batu reached out from behind the bars of the cell, grabbing at the guard’s neck and yanking his head backwards to crash into the metal grate. The Xaela held him there, waiting for the guard’s breaths to leave him, but beyond the view of the bars, he once more saw the au ra. She nodded to him, and then disappeared down the hall before Batu could say a word. The warrior flexed his fingers and warmth of fresh blood began to wash over his hands and the guard went limp against the bars.

 

By the time the Xaela stepped out from his hiding place, the boy and the female were long gone. But even before Batu could give them pursuit, he heard another explosion, this one from the direction of the arena. And it sent a cloud of dust and pebbles raining down upon his head.

 

Then down the other end of the tunnel, the one that the woman and the boy had come from, Batu saw another figure. Saltborn.

 

The Xaela said nothing, just watching the hyur as he crouched onto the floor. His right arm was hanging from an odd angle, and there was a pained look in his eyes as he forced the same limb into the cracked ground below him. His hand was reaching for a crystal vein.

 

The Xaela wasn’t sure what happened next, but there was a yellow light that flashed from the hyur’s eyes, one that then flooded down his right arm through his veins, flowing into the ground below. The crystal fissures lit up like lava streams, only for an instant, before they began to shatter all along its length.

 

Then the entire mountain began to shake.

 

That was the last time that Batu saw Saltborn. Too much debris and dust filled the caverns after, and the Xaela had to sprint away, dodging falling boulders and metal grates alike. He somehow found a way out, following one of the slaves through a servant’s entrance. By the time he finally breathed in the wintery air of the mountainside, he had killed two more guards, stolen their armor, and cloaked himself against suspicion and the cold.

 

Still perched on the cliffside, Batu glanced at his hands, one still coated with dirt. His gaze followed along his digits until it came upon the unnaturally sharpened fingernails. With a slightest flex of his fingers, beads of poison started to form at the tips.

 

A grimace darkened his features as the Xaela shook the foul moisture from his hand with a flick of the wrist. He had poison coursing through his veins now, all due to the modifications that were made on his body. As Takamoto’s new champion, he was made a new vessel for a collection of poisons, those that he could easily inject into his victims through mere graze of his razor sharp fingernails. But Batu was no fool. He’d seen the withered and emaciated body of Takamoto’s previous champion. The poison that was wielded as a weapon, slowly poisoned the vessel as well, causing muscle and flesh to waste away with time.

 

Batu brought his forearm in front of him and clenched his fist. The effect was not yet too noticeable, but the Xaela could feel the foreign substance coursing through his system. His totemic abilities and talents had slowed it down significantly, but he knew it was inevitable. Someday soon, he too would become a ghost of a man, like Norisada.

 

Time was precious. And he had much yet to accomplish.

 

Ironically, this mountain, where this curse had been placed upon him, had also resurrected his main objective, the task that he had been given when his tribe sent him forth---one that he previously believed he had no hope of realizing when he was captured and forced to fight for his life.

 

But on that final day, he had a glimpse of his purpose, the possibility that he might see his mission to completion.

 

He memorized the two Xaela faces he had seen. One bore blue-silver tresses and pale silver eyes to match, and the other with distinct features that were so familiar to him.

 

Yes, Batu needed to return to his tribe, and tell them what he had seen. And who he had found.

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It would be so easy.

 

Those were the words that were running through Shael’s head over and over again as she flew her chocobo over the Ruby Sea. Falcon chirped and squawked loudly in protest of the additional weight that was put upon him, and Shael had to shift now and then to make sure that Saltborn didn’t slide off the bird behind her.

 

Falcon wasn’t made to carry two grown hyurs and her arsenal of guns on a prolonged trek over the sea, so Shael had to take a few breaks on her way back to Kugane. She stopped on a few small islands here and there to let the bird rest its wings. When she set Saltborn’s limp form against the tree for the third time, the Highlander gave the man a lookover, to make sure the legs that Ghoa had treated weren’t bleeding. Shael wasn’t much of a mender, nor did she like caring for ill people, so she just made sure he wasn’t bleeding to death and that he was still breathing.

 

Saltborn looked like shite. His skin was pale from too many sennights spent underground. He was even more gaunt than his usual self, his collarbones and other joints looking more prominent than ever. Cleaning his legs and helping Ghoa wrap it up, Shael got a good view of the multiple injuries on his person, at the courtesy of that foul and blackened thing they called a champion. Ashen Bear had done a number on him, that was for certain.

 

And Saltborn did all that… went through all that, all because of one thing. Because he betrayed Grave to save Nabi.

 

Shael supposed that was the only real reason that she decided to find him in the first place. Sure, Brick had paid her a pouch of coin, to share with the Xaela if eventually she learned of Saltborn’s ultimate demise. There was no request or even a suggestion that she should give some kind of aid to a member of his crew. Shael had to admit, that irked her a little. She would have done anything for Shooey. He was part of her crew. Her first mate. Her family.

 

But it was Nabi that had begged and pleaded for her to do something for Saltborn. So she found him, then eventually when Nabi got herself in that cursed mountain as well, she worked with Tserende and Ghoa to free the girl and the Confederate she had gone in after. At the risk of her own life.

 

And for the first time in awhile, Shael felt… alive. As she took aim at the Doman soldiers amidst the chaos of the arena, she felt that familiar thrill of battle again. As she counted on Tserende to cover her back when she ignited the fuse on the dais, and when they ran out of the tunnel, pushing, punching, and elbowing the mob in their way, Shael had smiled ear to ear, knowing they had just beaten the odds.  Nabi and Saltborn had escaped from a mountain that was full of people who wanted to see nothing but Saltborn’s blood on the sands.

 

So now that Shael was staring down at the man who had been the center of her latest undertaking, one that had set fire to her blood again, why was this annoying thought continuing to loop through her head?

 

In a flash, Shael had unholstered her gun, loaded it and pointed it at Saltborn. He was drugged up and unconscious, his head lolling forward against his chin. He didn’t even feel the end of her gun barrel prodding into his hair.

 

It would be so easy.

 

It wasn’t anything against Saltborn, personally. Actually, she had to admire his grit and perseverance. On more than one occasion, she was sure that he was going to meet his end in the ring. But somehow he kept on surviving. And then during the final planning, he had promised to get Nabi out alive. He looked like he could barely stand at the end of the final fight, but he did as he swore he would.

 

“People like us… hurt people like them. And the more you let them care for you, more it’s going to hurt in the end.”

 

Those were her words to Tserende. She was warning him about Tserende and Nabi, moons ago. The same words she knew she should have heeded herself. And yet here she was, risking life and limb to save the Xaela. She would do it again too. The words weren’t for Tserende’s sake or herself. It was for Nabi. That impulsive girl had gotten herself hurt. And badly. Shael had never seen the her so frail looking as she did so after. All because she went into that mountain, looking for Saltborn. The man that was on the receiving end of her gun barrel now.

 

“She’s better off without you,” Shael said to him even though he wasn’t conscious. “I guess people like us need people like them. Else we become like Grave. Heartless. Thing is… in the end? They’re the ones that suffer. Not us.” They’re the ones that die. Because of people like us.

 

Shael snorted, an ugly smile twisting her lips. Her finger began to squeeze the trigger, her magitek gun humming with anticipation. She’s better off without people like you.

 

“Promise me,” Nabi’s had implored her. “Promise me you would take him somewhere safe.” The Xaela had that look. The look when her eyes narrowed, with that line between her brows. She was trying to look stern, serious, or even angry. Shael wondered if Nabi actually ever looked at herself in the mirror that way. She couldn’t scare a puppy. “Please?” she said after. Who says please when they are trying to be strict?

 

“Does he matter to you that much?”

 

Her gun started to quiet as her finger lifted off the trigger. People like who exactly?

 

“Tch…” Shael grumbled as she reholstered her gun. Falcon squawked and ambled over to her, rubbing his beak against the woman’s shoulder. “I bet you wouldn’t have minded, eh?” Shael muttered as she scratched the chocobo’s neck.

 

With a groan, Shael pulled Saltborn up by his arms, slinging him over her shoulder, then onto her bird’s back. She’d get him back to Kugane as she promised. She’ll figure out later if she’s going to regret this decision or not.

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Posted (edited)

Her finger barely brushed the surface.

 

Silent rings of water grew outward, the reflection of the blue sky blurring on the rippling surface of the pond. Nabi felt soft nibbles greet her fingertip, and the Xaela smiled as she saw the brilliantly colored koi swim to the surface to greet her.

 

There were a few shy ones that hid beneath adjacent floating lotus leaves, but many circled and frolicked near the rock where she was perched. Signs of spring were blooming all around; leaves were more vibrant in color and flower buds were starting to emerge from their protective shells. The winds had become a gentle, whispering thing, and it carried a faint scent, promising of blossoms soon to flourish.

 

Nabi lifted her face to the sky, welcoming the warming touch of the sun that greeted her skin. A lazy breath filled her lungs then slowly left through her parted lips, a serene smile lingering on her countenance. It felt like forever since the last time she was able to sit out in the sun with no worries or cares. The winter had been brutally unforgiving. Ever since her clinic had burnt down, and then all the troubles that followed… the last few fortnights had been the hardest she’d ever experienced in her life.

 

But now that it was all over, the sun seemed warmer, the sky looked clearer, and the air never felt more crisp.

 

“The world will look odd… when ya be back… everything'll look so trivial…”

 

Anchor’s words drifted into her thoughts as she soaked in the light of the day. So much has happened. Nabi understood what he meant. When she tried to think through the process of rebuilding her clinic, and the task of restocking all her supplies and the work and the obligations that went with it, it felt so... mundane. But then there were other things too, little details that she had not noticed in awhile, that felt more alive and more vivid than ever before: the rustling of willow branches as it swayed along with the passing breeze, the soft babble of water as koi swam about, and distant chirping of sparrows as they sang merrily to each other.

 

“You’ll be…hah…” Anchor’s voice whispered in her ear again. He sounded so far away. So weak. “You’ll be alright now…” Even just the vaguest recalling of that moment, it tightened her chest.

 

Why did her thoughts return there now? To that small shed by the lakeside? It was their only refuge from the cold after they had swam out, escaping the mountain through a small shoot of a tunnel, carried away by a frigid river through a waterfall onto a lake. In that tiny shack with just a small oven for warmth, that was where Anchor’s heart started to slow, skipping a beat, then slowing further. He had poured out so much of his aether in that mountain, that his body had too little left.

 

Nabi saw him slipping away before her eyes. She too was drained and exhausted, but she couldn’t let him go. She couldn’t let him die. What had she gone into the mountain for? After all they endured, what would it have been for if she lost him, just after they finally shared that first breath of free air?

 

Another sigh left her lips as Nabi pulled her thoughts back to the present. She lifted her wrist before her eyes, the sunlight catching the glimmer of gold and silver threads entwined there. The bracelet was a gift, made by her mother’s hands, the one that Nabi had worn on her person for as long as she could remember. Her mother had implored her long ago, made Nabi promise not to take off the bracelet except in the most dire moments of need. It allowed her a closer connection to the earth, but she also knew it would be risking discovery by those that her mother had fled from so long ago.

 

I am sorry, mother. I couldn’t lose him.

 

Nabi had taken it off, more than once, to heal Anchor in the fighting pits.The final time was in that shed, when she used all the aether she had left. She knew he was going to die, and that she was the only person left that could bring him back from that precipice, return him to the light of the living, even if it would cost her everything. She said her last prayers to the Mother and called to the earth for its strength, then laid her hands upon him and gave him all she had.

 

Nabi inhaled deeply as she came to lay beneath a maple tree, her hands stretched out over the cool blades of grass. Her eyes squinted at the shafts of sunlight peeking through the canopy of branches above, her gaze darting from one random leaf to another. She couldn’t quite remember what happened after, in that shed. There were vague visions, of luminescent butterflies answering her call, and fingers of vines and roots reaching for her through the floorboards of the shed.

 

When she had finally awoken, she was laying on the floor, attended to by Anchor who looked so terribly worried. But the shed was intact, with no sign of unusual foliage having overgrown it from the inside out, as she had seen in her dreams.

 

Nabi smiled broadly at the memory even now. She did what she promised herself to do. She saved him. Even if she didn’t quite understand or remember how, the end was still the same. They were now both back in Kugane, and they were both alive.

 

Only… it wasn’t the end.

 

“I was wrong, you know,” Nabi had confessed to Anchor in that shed, whispering what truths came to her mind, when she thought he was drifting away. “I thought I wanted one thing from all this. Your freedom. That if somehow I helped you get free, that it would all be worth it.


“I was wrong. I want more. I want… to watch the cherry blossoms rain upon your head. And... I want to hear you say my name. I want us to watch the fireworks again. I want to show you the fireflies taking to the air just as the daylight sinks into the sea.” She was imploring him to stay. With her. “I want so much more."

 

Nabi bit her lower lip, her forearm covering her eyes, as if that would shield her from the questions that began to grow in her mind. Now that the rest of their lives awaited them, what did those words mean exactly? So focused was she on just their very survival, she had not allowed herself to really see how important Anchor had become in her life in such a short period of time. She had gone after him, knowing she would be putting her own life at risk, accepting that she may never see her loved ones ever again. And more than once in that mountain, she had made impulsive and dangerous decisions to put his life before her own.
 

She hadn’t questioned what that meant. She only knew that she had to.

 

And even now, there was no doubt in her mind. If she ever thought he needed her, if he was ever in trouble, she would not hesitate in coming to his side. She would protect him. Even if she wasn’t powerful or strong, she would still be there for him. But even more than that, she wanted…

 

She wanted to see him happy. When had that become so important to her? To see to his happiness and well-being? How had that become the most important thing?

 

And what did that mean for the rest? For Tserende? The ever polite and quietly spoken man who had come to her aid more than once? Who had kissed her under the afternoon sun? Who she had kissed back as a blush rose to her cheeks? To whom she struggled to confess her growing feelings for after the trust that was developed over moons. She could still recall the moments of mirth they shared as she teased the unflappable man about his unwillingness to try a cooked mollusk. Or the gleeful laughter that rose from her chest when he took her riding over the waves of the ocean on his giant bird.

 

Nabi had thought she found a content and peaceful place for her heart to reside. But now, she felt pulled by the undeniable whirlwind that was Anchor. Turbulent and unpredictable. But amidst all that turmoil… in the center, there was this glimpse of a tender heart hidden behind those many scars and wounds. He was so strong, yet so hurt at the same time.

 

How could she be pulled by such opposite things?

 

Did it make her a bad person to wish both of them happiness?

 

Selfish… Nabi chided herself. She still remembered the subtle distance and coldness to Tserende’s demeanor when Nabi begged him for help on Anchor’s behalf. When she refused to listen to his advice about accepting Anchor’s sacrifice and went against his wishes in willingly accepting Grave’s invitation, there had been acute disappointment in the Ishgardian’s pale blue gaze. Had she hurt him already even without realizing it?

 

That thought made her sit back up, the serenity she felt earlier draining away to leave only a weight of guilt that sat heavy in the pit of her stomach. She needed to speak to him. She hadn’t seen him after the escape; Shael said he was looking for her in Yanxia just as the Highlander was.

 

Why hadn’t he returned to Kugane? Why hadn’t he come to see her?

 

Nabi frowned. She was being more selfish than she realized. Just expecting him to come to her, after all he’d done for her already.
 

Pushing off her legs, she rose. She was free from danger now. She couldn’t push aside these questions anymore. Not that she knew the answers to them, but…

 

She knew she needed to speak with Tserende.

Edited by Roen

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“He’s… gone?”

 

Nabi stared at her with that wide eyed confused look. Shael could see the all-too-familiar shadows of worry starting to darken the Xaela’s visage. It was a look Shael thought for sure she was done with for awhile.

 

That soddin’ Ishgardian…

 

“Not gone,” Shael snorted with a roll of her eyes. “Just went back home for awhile. Probably needed to tidy up some business after getting the explosives from his old contacts or whatever.” She flipped her hand into the air as if to dismiss the whole affair. “Don’t worry about it, yeah? He’ll probably drag himself back here after all’s well.”

 

The Highlander hoped that she sounded more convincing than she felt. Nabi was chewing her lower lip as if to ponder on it, though the crease between her brows remained.

 

“So… you don’t think… he left because of me.” The Xaela was rubbing her thumbs over each other, her gaze lowered. “Do you?”

 

Shael arched her brow with an incredulous expression. “What? No. What makes you even think this is about you?”

 

Nabi’s head remained lowered as if chastised, but her eyes slowly rose back toward her. “Because… I asked too much of him. I insisted on so many things. I’m sure I’ve hurt him. He wanted me to stay. But I went anyroad into the mountain. And then… I…” Her words were coming haltingly and stumbling over each other. Her golden eyes couldn’t meet the Highlander’s gaze for too long, they looked to her hands again as she continued to fidget.

 

Shael had an idea of what Nabi was struggling to say. She had long suspected something had happened between Anchor and Nabi in those suns where she went missing and he had come to her rescue and then subsequently hid her from Grave. The Xaela had returned to Kugane after that, completely distraught over what had happened to the Confederate. The sorrow and the despair in the woman’s eyes the suns following were obvious for anyone to see. Tserende must have noticed it too.

 

The Ishgardian rarely showed any emotion, but Shael knew him well enough by now to know that he too saw what she did. And just like her, he couldn’t have approved of this new attachment between Anchor and Nabi. It should have been even more so for him, since Nabi and he were in a relationship. It was something he rarely talked about, or even admitted openly, but she’d seen the gestures of affection between them, before all this began. He was even considering opening up shop in Kugane. Shael was sure he was planning on settling down here because of Nabi.

 

His refusal to go help Anchor made Shael suspect his true feelings on the matter. But his subsequent rejection of aiding Nabi when the Xaela went after him, that surprised her. She couldn’t deny that he was just being pragmatic to a fault, and going in hot headed after Nabi would have been impractical. But she wondered if it was also in part due to his resentment over Nabi’s new feelings for the Confederate. But he also seemed more determined than ever to kill Grave after that. And once the deed was done, he just… left. With nothing but a short note addressed to Shael. He didn’t even see Nabi after everything was finished.

 

Either the bastard was colder than Shael had given him credit for, or this whole thing with Anchor hurt him more than he ever wanted to show. Or there was a third option, of some trouble coming to find him and he had to go deal with it. But Shael believed that if there was real trouble, that he would have told her. She had come to believe that between the two of them, there was a measure of trust, that if there was something that needed to be dealt with, they would confide each other.

 

Was she wrong?

 

Or was this all because of Nabi?

 

The whole mess made Shael groan out loud and toss her head back. “He’s a shite-eatin’ idiot if he blames you for any of that,” she spat out. Nabi blinked, taken aback, so the Highlander rolled her eyes with a sigh, and softened her tone. “You know him, nothing ever bothers the man. I doubt he’d run away cryin’ because of somethin’ silly like that.” She gestured with her hand spinning in the air. “He’s got… people in Ishgard. And history there. I met them myself while you were in the pits. He owes ‘em for what they gave him. He probably has to square some debts is all.”

 

Shael gave the Xaela a flat look when Nabi continued to have that nervous expression. “Just don’t worry about ‘im, yeah? He’s fine.” When Nabi parted her lips to say something more, Shael held up a hand to stop her. “Tell you what, I’ll go check on it myself. You just keep tight here. Rest, get strong, look to rebuilding stuff, and get back to yer usual things, eh?”

 

Nabi regarded her for a long moment, then eventually nodded. “As long as you make sure he’s alright. And... if you do see him, tell him I miss him. Yes? And that I am grateful.” The Xaela immediately frowned, biting her lower lip. She shook her head soon after. “No, don’t say that. I want to tell him myself. So, if… when he decides to come back, tell him I would like to speak to him.”

 

Shael nodded with a tired sigh. “Yeah yeah. I got it.” She waved her off impatiently. It seemed as if Nabi wanted to say something more, but the Xaela girl just... nodded, once, and then walked away. Shael only let out a sigh of relief after Nabi was a good distance away. She didn’t want to keep lying to the girl.

 

There was no question that Nabi was going to ask her about Tserende again. Hopefully by then, Shael’s letter would have reached Ishgard and she would have heard something back from the man. Something more than just some cryptic missive about how he had to leave and return home without any other explanation.

 

If you left her like some jilted lover, I’m gonna… Shael began to scold the Ishgardian in her mind, then scowled at herself in not being able to yell at man face to face. She didn’t like where her angry thoughts were leading her. Was Nabi the only thing that was keeping him here?

 

She pushed off the chair she’d been perched on, stomping angrily on the ground.

 

Whatever. Shael didn’t care why he left. She just needed to keep reassuring Nabi that he was fine and that she’d already checked into it. Tserende could give his own godsdamned explanation whenever he returned. If he came back at all.

 

I don’t give a soddin’ shite. She believed it, too.

 

Shael briskly made her way to hostelry and the pier beyond it. She needed to find new work after all, now that Tserende was no longer around.

 

And she knew just where to start.

Edited by Shael

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The shed was small and cold. The winds whistled in through the cracks in the walls, and the door rattled against an incessant gust that wanted entrance like an unwelcome visitor in the night. Nabi recognized it well. Dread pitted her stomach as she found herself here. The place's disuse over the years was apparent in the cobwebs, the dilapidated walls, and the thick coat of dust that covered everything. But it was their only shelter from the cold, the only respite in sight after they emerged from the freezing waters of the lake.

 

“Rest with me a spell,” Anchor whispered as he tugged on her dress. His breaths were so faint and there was hardly any strength left to his body. Nabi was about to frantically look around the dark space, looking for something, anything to warm him. But his grip made her pause. One of his eyes was fully red with blood, and it was obvious he wasn’t seeing what was in front of him, the way his hand weakly felt toward her wrist until his gauntlet lightly encircled around it. He kept trying to grasp upward toward her arm but his touch kept slipping down to her hand.

 

“S’enough…” he exhaled, his head limply resting against his chest.

 

It wasn’t enough, Nabi wanted to tell him. He had nearly died, many times over in that mountain. For her. He had gone into that mountain, in a trade for her freedom. And now, they had finally escaped, and here he was, propped against the wall of an old deserted shack, his arm awkwardly bent and his skin ashen pale. He was so cold. How could it be enough?

 

She should have protested. After all he went through, he had kept his promise and gotten both of them out. And now, he was slipping away from her. But as she looked to her wrist and his shaking hand there that seemed desperate to pull her back to him, she swallowed. How could she deny him anything?

 

“Just for a spell…” Nabi said quietly as she settled into a seat next to him, tucking herself between the crook of his arm and his chest. She pressed herself against him as closely as she could, one hand draping across his torso. At least she could try and warm him.

 

But when she laid her head against his chest, she heard his heartbeat. It was a feeble and distant thing. And it was slowing. It skipped beat. Then two. Then the next was even slower to come.

 

“Figures…” he breathed faintly, his lips brushing against her brow. “To find again… only to lose…”

 

“I’m going to try and heal you.” Nabi said firmly with a grimace, rising from his chest. Her own aether stores were drained, and her body was only able to continue because of the potion she had taken in the morning, one that kept her adrenaline running throughout her body. It was a dangerous thing, to try and heal him as she was, but what else could she do? She was going to lose him.

 

“Nabi…” His metal hand closed around her forearm unsteadily as if to protest. But no more words came forth from his pale and broken lips.

 

I can do this, Nabi told herself as she laid both her hands on his chest. The light from the small fire within the oven licked the metal augment of his arm, giving it an odd red glare. Nabi closed her eyes to shut away the darkness that was creeping upon both of them, gathering the last bits of aether left in her body. She called out to the earth to answer her heartbeat, to beat with her own, to give her strength to pull Anchor back from the precipice of forever-darkness. I can.

 

Only, she couldn’t.

 

Instead of her own heartbeat in her ears, she heard his, as it skipped a beat then another, then it paused. One more beat echoed in the distance, as if he was far far away. Then... there was silence.

 

Nabi felt herself reaching for him, to grasp whatever strand of life she could within him, but it slipped away, like grains of sands sifting through her fingers. His skin turned frigid cold beneath her touch and when she opened her eyes, his body had turned black and distorted, much like that of Ashen Bear, the final champion Anchor had fought. And just like the mutated roegadyn after his death, Anchor remained still, even as his blackened body began to melt away.

 

But the enhancement remained, still encircled around her arm. And despite his body no longer containing life, the gauntlet began to tighten its hold, the razor sharp blades slowly emerging from its fingertips. It pressed and pierced into her flesh. Bright red blood began to pool forth in rivulets down her arm from the rends the sharp, unforgiving steel was tearing into her skin. Nabi tried to pull herself free, but to no avail. The agonizing pain as that gauntlet clawed away at both flesh and aether returned fresh from her memory, and Nabi tried to scream.

 

She startled awake.

 

Nabi was gasping for breaths, and there were tears that had stained her face and the pillow beneath her. She blinked rapidly as the recognition of her surroundings returned slowly to her, the dream of blood and death slow to loosen its hold upon her consciousness.

 

But Nabi saw Anchor, lying there next to her. She stayed frozen, just staring at him, willing him to breathe. And when she finally spotted the faint movement of his chest as he slowly inhaled and exhaled, a shuddering breath left her own, and she bowed her head, awash with relief. Careful not to wake him, she pressed her forehead against his chest. But the sight of seeing him alive gave her little relief. The despair and the horror from her nightmare still gripped her chest like a vise. Her fingers curled around his shirt, as if to hold him there with her. She was shaking. Wasn’t this over? They had gotten out. They were back in Shirogane. She was under the blankets with him. He had asked her to stay with him until she was recovered.

 

They were safe. They were free.

 

And yet, when she closed her eyes, her mind was pulled back into that mountain.

 

“Hold to me now…” he told her, before he tucked her under the blankets. “Ya can rest with me a spell, aye? So ya not be forgetting.”

 

Her fingers tightened their hold on the fabric of his shirt and she tucked herself against his body, suddenly desperate to hear his heartbeat. She didn’t let go, even when she heard the strong and even rhythm within his chest.

 

Nabi didn’t know how long she stayed that way, just listening to him. She didn’t want to go back to sleep, to return to the visions of that place. The darkness that nearly crushed her spirit. The mere memory of it was enough to make her tremble. But eventually the call of slumber prevailed, as fatigue finally weighed her eyelids closed. But her hands remained upon his shirt, over his heart, even in sleep.

 

 

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Twenty-six years ago...

 

 

Chanai watched him breathe as he slept next to her.

 

The flames flickered and danced chaotically, whipped by the winds that whistled into the cave. But the fire stubbornly continued to burn, lighting that small space she shared with the Xaela warrior next to her. The night had fallen, and the two tribes had retreated to their respective sides. The only ones that remained were the dead that laid upon the field, those that had yet to be gathered after the long and violent sun. And then there were the two of them, a Kharlu healer and a Jhungid warrior, tucked away from sight on a mountain that overlooked the bloodsoaked plain.

 

Chagur Jhungid was everything she had imagined him to be. He was the strongest of his tribe, known for his prowess on the battlefield. His skill with his greatsword was said to be unmatched, and he had slain many Kharlu warriors in the years past. Some said that it was because of his unspoiled lineage, his bloodline that was believed to be one of the purest from the earliest ancestors of the tribe that made him so powerful.

 

Chanai’s golden gaze roamed over his bare chest as it rose and fell. There were many scars that marred his skin, and her trained eye could discern what came from which weapon and when he had incurred them. He had been a fighter for over a decade, and it was in thanks to the likes of him that the Jhungid won many battles.

 

She knew how the victors of war took their spoils after the annual campaign was over. How their warriors were expected to plant their seed onto many females, so that the tribe could swell their numbers with more heirs to the violence, who would soak the soil with their lifeblood in the years to come.

 

But this warrior had not looked to her as his spoil of war. When she found him amidst the smoky prairie, he had suffered his own injuries, although none that would have been mortal. Breaking custom, Chanai offered him her aid, and strangely enough he accepted. He could have cut her down, could have taken her as his own and brought her back to serve the Jhungid in any way he wanted. Chanai was fully aware of all these possibilities when she approached him.

 

“The battle is over,” Chagur said to her, a wearied smile softening his features. “And tomorrow, the strife between our tribes begins again. But for what few bells remain of this day, I would see peace between us.”

 

Indeed, Chanai had known this warrior to adhere to honor and duty. He fought for his tribe’s survival, and he killed because he had been taught since birth that it was expected of him. But he did not hold victory as something to relish in, bloodlust was not what drove him to cut down the Kharlu. Chanai knew too many warriors that lived only for battle, her brother enjoyed nothing more than to prove his superiority by taking as many Jhungid lives as he could. And this annual tradition gave him just the means to do so.

 

Chagur was not like her brother. Chanai knew this, when she chose to do this. There were only a very few who had the pure lineage as he did, but amongst those, Chagur was the only one that would not have killed her or raped her on the battlefield.

 

No… he was different. Even during the healing, they had talked. He was curious as to who she was, and why she was offering him her skills. And even though she gave him no reason to, he trusted her not to try and poison him. Something about the warmth in her golden eyes, he said. Chanai scoffed at him, chiding him for being too trusting even as she led him away to a secluded cave. But as his earthly brown eyes lingered on her, and his baritone voice continued to coax her to converse with him, she almost forgot the true reason she had sought him out. She was beginning to enjoy his company and appreciate his smiles.

 

But Chanai was too determined to let herself get distracted for long. Her touches became more intimate, her answers more inviting. Chagur didn’t resist her advances. But to her frustration, there was no hurry in his reciprocation either. Where males would often rush for immediate satisfaction, Chagur took his time gazing upon her, letting his fingers note the details of her scales, and his lips roam over her body.

 

Chanai hadn’t expected this. As she watched his scarred chest rise and fall evenly in slumber, she didn’t expect that she would relish this night. That she would stare at him, drinking in the view of him, not wanting to forget what he looked like. His tanned skin, his long, chaotic raven locks, taut muscles, and lips that wanted to smile rather than frown. She wanted to etch them all into her memory. Why did the thought of not seeing him again suddenly tightened her chest with unease?

 

She knew she should be gathering her clothes and slipping away in the middle of the night. She had gotten what she needed, she had accomplished what she had set out to do. But as her hand lowered to her belly, she felt a flush of warmth from within. There was a part of her that wanted to stay.

 

Chagur turned in his sleep, his eyes drowsily peeling open as he looked upon her, staring at him. His expression softened at seeing her, and it melted her heart. He reached for her, his thumb caressing her horn ever so gently. “You are still here,” he murmured.

 

A soft sigh escaped her lips. “There are still a few bells yet, before the dawn.”

 

“Then stay with me for awhile longer.” His hand drifted from her face to her hair, following its course onto her collarbone. He idly traced its contour, his eyes becoming half-lidded again.

 

Chanai nodded, entwining her fingers in between his, her smaller hand closing over his callused and bloodstained knuckles. She was doing this, to try and end the conflict once and for all, was she not? Then why not allow herself to revel in this fleeting moment of yearning and tranquility?

 

The morning can wait. Destiny too… can wait.

 

Chanai tucked herself in against his chest and closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of him as she welcomed his embrace.

Edited by Roen

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Nabi tacked up the last of her notices on the bulletin board outside of the Hostelry, smoothing out the parchment and squinting at the written letters. She didn’t have too much time to admire her work however, for she noticed Wlveva making her way back from the tea house. The Xaela turned and quickly paced away since she was sure the hyur wasn’t too keen on advertisements on the board that distracted potential adventurers from the Clan marks. Still, what better place did she have to drawn in potential capable hunters that would go to Yanxia and the Steppe to retrieve her reagents?

 

She was confident that some of her stocks would be replenished with the help of Mister Eshem -- no, he wanted to be called Marsazio, Nabi reminded herself -- but she couldn’t rely on one man to restock all of her supplies. Ever since her clinic had burnt down and she had gone into the mountain after Anchor, her business of selling herbs and potions had come to a complete standstill. Yoshinari and Mimiyo had yet to return from their trip to Hingashi -- the one that they took at her behest -- and so it was left to Nabi to see to restarting the shop, now that most of the stall has been rebuilt.

 

The ferry back to Shirogane was still a few bells away, so Nabi took the opportunity to go visit her favorite spot in Kugane, the koi pond by the consulates. She leisurely made her way through the Kogane Dori, winding through the crowds there, both Hingan and foreigners alike. She gave a friendly wave to Kurogai as she passed by her favorite teriyaki stall, then hopped up the steps toward the Ijin Diistrict. And while the cherry blossoms were in full bloom all throughout Shirogane, Kugane had the swaying willows and the crooked pines, with their own delicate scents that was just barely hinted in the caress of the ocean winds that washed through the port city.

 

It wasn’t like the Hanami Festival, where the countless pink flowers blanketed all the branches, and the higher mountain air enticed her senses with the fresh aroma of spring. Nabi could not help but smile at the memory that returned of her and Anchor’s visit to the Plum Springs. He had agreed to go with her to the festival -- with a healthy dose of reluctance, of course -- but she had successfully convinced him it was good to get out and enjoy the sun and all the splendors that made their return when the last of the winter had thawed away.

 

There were singing performances and plenty of vendors. She even purchased a couple of festival masks for the occasion, although Anchor refused to wear his. The sun lent its illumination behind the cover of clouds, and the veiled sky reminded her of the morning when she had left Kugane to go into the mountain. But it had been cold then. Now, the air was warmer, with the gentle breeze causing small ripples in the shallow pools that outlined the periphery of the Spring. The water gently lapped on the shores of grassy mounds where the trees were lush with fresh cherry blossoms. Nabi enjoyed the crowded yet somehow still tranquil ambiance of the festival, watching all the attendees milling about. She and Anchor meandered leisurely, gazing at the flowers and browsing through various stalls.

 

Then Anchor did something Nabi didn’t expect. He suddenly held out his hand to her. “Alright. Let’s be gettin’ this over with. To me now.”

 

Nabi didn’t question at first. He beckoned, and she came as she always would. She followed along as she entwined her fingers in his, as Anchor led her to another quieter island. She didn’t find it odd either when he then placed her at a particular spot near a few trees. She was too busy reveling in the moment. Surrounded by cherry blossoms beneath a hazy afternoon sun, she couldn't help but admire how the day warmed his face, even his ever-slanted lips.

 

“Jude,” she whispered his name, the one he had confided in her beneath that mountain. “This was one of the things I wanted, back then.” Her voice had turned timid, sentimentality suddenly welling up in her chest.

 

Anchor blinked, surprise flickering over his eyes at his name. “A-aye, ya mentioned it then. And again.” He cleared his throat, narrowing his eyes at her. “Ya be satisfied, then?”

 

Nabi nodded wordlessly, her gaze lowering to their hands, her thumb grazing over his knuckles. Her lips slowly split into a warm smile. “I am,” she murmured. “And I am glad that you are here.”

 

Anchor seemed to hesitate for a moment, his lips parting then pressing tight again. Then after regarding her for a moment longer, he huffed. “Don’t ya bloody lie to my face!” he said indignantly, chin tilting up sharply. “Ya ain’t be satisfied.” He spun away from her, releasing her hand, and marched off a few fulms to a nearby tree.

 

Then he promptly kicked the tree. Three times in all. It brought a heavy shower of pink petals raining upon his head. It covered his hair, his shoulders, and the ground beneath his feet. He then turned on his heel, facing her. “There. Like ya bloody well wanted. Ain’t it everything ya ever dreamed.” There was plenty of sarcasm in his voice.

 

But Nabi didn’t hear it. She saw the cherry blossoms petals spinning and floating all around him, to land lightly over his face and frame. It was what she had wished for. One of many things that she had pictured when she hoped for more tomorrows. Nabi remembered her lungs filling with so much air in that moment that she thought she would float away. Instead, she hopped over to Anchor and threw her arms around him, planting her face against his chest.

 

“You remembered!” She laughed gleefully.

 

“I--aye. How the hells could I be forgettin’ somethin’ so utterly ridiculous?” he scoffed.

 

Nabi peered up at him, still grinning from ear to ear. She stepped back and clapped joyfully. “Still. You did do it.” She tiptoed, brushing a few petals from his hair.

 

Anchor sighed, leveling a flat look at her. “See?” He too reached over and plucked off a petal from her hair, flicking it away. “Now ya be satisfied.”

 

A soft sigh escaped her lips as Nabi recalled that very moment, letting that warm memory linger in her mind for as long as she could. Anchor wasn’t with her in Kugane this afternoon, and Nabi was starting to not feel so anxious when she wasn’t near him. It was probably because he was getting stronger every sun, color returning to his complexion, and his joints and bones no longer as prominent as they were when they had escaped. Still, there was always a certain feeling of elation when she saw him again after she had been away for just bells. As if she was reminded yet again, that he was alright. Nabi knew it was silly to be so overly protective now that they were free, but it didn’t ease the sense of vigilance she had over him.

 

That thought brought to mind something she had nearly forgotten. Nabi pushed off from the bark of the willow tree she had been leaning on. There were other things she should be looking into while she was in Kugane. She furrowed her brow, dismissing the daydreams and the recollections from her mind. Now that she too was feeling better with her own aether beginning to replenish itself, it was time to start delving into what she had been putting off for too long.

 

With quicker steps, Nabi started making her way back toward the pier.

Edited by Roen

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Many years ago...

 

 

 

 

“I can’t.”

 

Her hand was so small, yet it held on so tightly to Chanai’s forefinger that the Xaela could only stare in wonder at the fragile thing in her arms. The babe was but a few suns old; her raven locks were soft and wispy upon her tiny head. And when those sleepy eyes blinked open just a slit, Chanai saw her own golden gaze looking back at her.

 

“I can’t do it, Siban.” Chanai’s voice trembled, full of both awe and anguish. “She is beautiful. And she is his. And she is mine.” A shuddering breath left her, her lips parting into a smile as the babe began to suckle upon her fingertip. The Xaela’s sadness gave way to stubborn resolve. “I won’t.

 

“You speak from the mother’s heart,” the elder seer answered, her aged hands holding onto a necklace of bones gathered in her lap. She sat hunched in her seat made of leathery hides, her back bent with the passing of decades. Gifts of meat, woven cloth, and incense were scattered around her feet and throughout the yurt, although the attendants that had hovered about had left the two auri female to their privacy. Such was the intimate relationship shared between the elder seer and her star pupil.

 

The udgan did not look at Chanai nor the baby she held. She only stared at the floor as she thumbed through the carved baubles, made of both tooth and stones of the earth. Her voice was muted, laced with melancholy. “Will you forget all you saw? All that you know? Will you forego the lives of many more generations to come?”

 

Chanai felt herself shake, her hold upon her own child tightening as she brought the babe closer to her breast. “Do not speak to me as if I am but one of your adepts. I was the only one willing to do this from the start. The only one to see it through.” Even as her own words left her lips, she heard the confession of her own betrayal.

 

Siban remained still as stone, as she continued to stare at the bones in her grasp, but new lines appeared around the woman’s eyes. Chanai couldn’t tell if they were drawn by sadness or ire. The udgan’s voice remained low and steady, quiet as to not carry beyond them and the yurt.

 

“And now you are the last.” The soft clatter of the necklace came to a silence as Siban laid her hand over it, her gaze rising to steadily fix on Chanai. She felt as if the woman's eyes were spearing straight though her. “You and that babe you hold are the last remnants of hope we saw in the divination. She bares the mark.” The old Xaela’s chest sunk as she let out a heavy exhale. A weight of sorrow seemed to weigh heavily upon her frame. “Our people will never know peace... if you make this choice.”

 

“Will you betray me to the khan? Or my brother if I refuse?” Chanai bristled, her nostrils flaring. “Will you tell them of the forbidden ritual? As if the khan would accept your words over his own udgan.”

 

The look that Siban gave her surprised the younger Xaela. The elder seer looked truly forlorn, her shoulders slack and her aged face seeming more weathered than ever. “You have always stood by my side and never betrayed me. I would not betray your faith. Even for the sake of all.”

 

Chanai stared at her, a new pain contorting her visage. Those words were like a slap to the face, reminding her of the bond she and the elder shared. How committed she had been to this task, this unimaginable gift the gods demanded for the sake of peace. Year after year, she had witnessed the bloodshed between the Kharlu and the Jhungid, mended the seemingly innumerable wounds that resulted from the battles, only to repeat it all again the next year. All that the Kharlu and the Jhungid did beneath the remainder of their suns was dedicated to this ritual of violence that was doomed to repeat itself. The prosperity of the tribe depended on winning the next battle, and the next, and the next. Strengthening their numbers was mandated to defeat the Jhungid. It was fated for all time.

 

Only Siban’s visions said otherwise.

 

How had Chanai ever thought the completion of this task was possible?

 

“The gods are too cruel.” She shook her head. “Your visions come from the cursed moon. It cannot be the only way. I’ve already lost him. I can’t…” She swallowed down the lump in her throat as she looked back to the babe in her arms. There was only a look of peaceful slumber there, so unaware of the terrors that existed all around them.

 

The udgan’s head lowered again, beads of her braids clacking quietly with her movement. “I cannot make this choice for you. It must be made freely of your own will.”

 

“So then, you will tell no one?” Chanai’s question was held both apprehension and a desperate plea.

 

Siban rose from her seat, leaning heavily upon her gnarled wooden staff. “The offering has to be a willing one. It is useless for me to tell another.” Her deep-set eyes bore into the younger seer. “I see you as my own, so I understand your need to protect your child. But someday... someday she will question. And she will come to understand the circumstances of her birth. Then what will you tell her?”

 

Chanai just stared back at the elder in silence, having no answer. The udgan didn’t wait for one as she turned and made her way out of the yurt.

 

Left alone, the air seemed more stifling than ever. But all her fears and doubts vanished as soon as Chanai laid her eyes back upon the wrapped newborn laying against her chest.

 

“Nabi,” she whispered to her baby daughter. “That is the name your father gave you when you were growing in my belly. I won’t let anyone harm you. You will forge your own destiny. You will walk your own path.” She leaned down and pressed her lips against her soft hair.

 

And not the one your mother bequeathed onto you.

 

Edited by Roen

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NOTE ]  I’m going to stuff this bad boy under a spoiler tag, not only because it’s long but also because it deals with some very heavy content. So if you decide to continue reading, be warned that there’s potential triggers like:  mention of spousal abuse, implication of sexual assault, and mention of suicide. If this sort of content will cause you distress, please take care of yourself and avoid reading this one! 


 

Spoiler

 

ROUGHLY TEN YEARS AGO ]


“Mama! I found her!”

 

The spirited little girl, no older than perhaps eight or nine summers, held tightly onto Ghoa’s hand as she insistently tugged her along behind her into the yurt. Her grin was wide across her face, short and stubby tail wagging excitedly behind her. Yisu, the oldest of Togene’s three children, was always so very eager to prove herself. With as many siblings and half-siblings as she had, it was little wonder the girl craved any reason to be noticed and praised. Only once she had reached the hearth in the center of the tent where her mother sat waiting did she let go of the hand she had been holding.

 

In stark contrast to the bubbly girl’s happy expression was the look that clung to the face of the young woman behind her. Ghoa’s cheeks were streaked with red, silver eyes watery. Her lips held a soft frown until the little girl leading her along turned back to flash a gap-toothed grin back at her. The smile she forced in answer was thin and weak, but the little girl knew no better, innocent as she was. She had never been given a reason to fake a smile in her young life. Not yet, at least.

 

The girl’s mother, however, was not so blind to the pain so obviously written across the other woman’s face. Togene pushed the concern away briefly as she looked back to her daughter, reaching out to gently take hold of her arm and pull her in close.

 

“What a good hunter you are,” she cooed sweetly, pressing an affectionate kiss against the girl’s tiny horn. “Go play with the other children now, little lion. Ghoa and I will take care of the rest, and I’ll call for you and your brother when dinner is done.”

 

Yisu beamed, a font of seemingly boundless energy and happiness, as she turned to race from the tent freed from her chores. Ghoa half-turned to watch her, managing another rueful smile. What she wouldn’t give to be that carefree and blissfully ignorant of the cruelties of the world around them.

 

“Ghoa..” The gentle voice pulled her eyes forward again, finding Togene fixing her with a worried look. “You’ve been crying again.” It was a statement, not a question, and one she didn’t bother trying to deny. The fourth wife had seen her crying far too many times now to be fooled by half-hearted protestations, even when the signs weren’t so blatantly obvious. “Come, dear.” She reached out an arm in offer, beckoning her closer. “Sit with me.”

 

The other wife didn’t have to ask twice. Scarcely had the words left her mouth before Ghoa was crossing across the yurt, a barely contained urgency in her steps. As she sunk down into the cushions next to her, she turned to duck under the offered arm and to bury her face into Togene’s shoulder. Those arms closed around her in a warm embrace and once more, the tidal wave of emotion crashed over her and wracked her body with sobs.

 

She wasn’t sure how much time passed like that, but it was no small amount. In truth, when she had been found and dragged along by Yisu, Ghoa had thought herself nearly out of tears to cry. How terribly wrong she was. Togene always did have a way of causing her defensive walls to crumble and crash down, the only person who had showed her warmth and kindness and compassion since she had arrived the better part of a year ago.

 

Tears were still leaking from her eyes when the sound of a baby beginning to fuss joined that of her own crying. A soft noise of reluctance rose from the other Xaela, Togene’s head turning worriedly towards the source. Before she could say anything, Ghoa moved to gently extricate herself from the fretting mother’s hold.

 

“I’m sorry,” she sniffled quietly as the other rose and crossed the yurt to where her child lay. “I didn’t mean to wake her.”

 

“You’ve not a thing to apologize for,” she reassured her as she gingerly scooped up the tiny, tiny bundle swaddled in warm furs and cloth. After giving her a gentle bounce and cooing to her softly, her mother had warded off what had seemed to be the beginning signs of a crying spell, turning it to joyful and playful giggles and babbling instead. Ghoa couldn’t help but wonder if the golden-haired Xaela was an especially good mother, or if that was just what mothers were supposedto be. She had no frame of reference to call upon for such things, considering that she had never known her own.

 

Once the little girl had calmed and quieted, Togene returned to the sunken pit hearth next to Ghoa. Carefully tucked into her mother’s arms, the babe’s pudgy little arms awkwardly reached for and grasped at her clothes and jewelry as she cooed. Now that both were settled, her focused returned to Ghoa, free hand reaching out to gently squeeze the girl’s arm.

 

“Tell me what it is that hurts you so,” she urged gently. “I haven’t seen you this upset since shortly after you arrived. I had hoped that meant things were becoming easier for you..”

 

Ghoa grimaced, dropping her gaze to the fire flickering in front of them. For all of Togene’s affection and support, the woman never truly understood. She had claimed that she had been like her once, afraid and lonely and angry and hurting. And so she had reassured her, time and time again, that things would become easier in time. Stop fighting every step of the way, and eventually she would be able to find peace and joy and contentedness in her life. Be a dutiful and obedient wife, and Bayanbataar’s flares of anger and frustration with her would cease.

 

The advice was always the same, but this time, Ghoa had tried so hard to follow it. She really, really had. She had tried to look for peace and joy, but all she had found around her were leering stares and cold distance from those to which she had tried to get closer. She had tried her best to do as her husband wished, and his hand had been no gentler.

 

Keep trying,’ she had practically heard Togene’s voice echoing in her head. ’It will get better if you just keep trying.

 

Only, Ghoa had kept trying. She had tried right up until the previous night’s feasting, celebrating the successful return of a band of riders sent out to bring home more bodies to swell the tribe’s ranks. The Kharlu were her people now, she had tried to tell herself. Their celebrations were now her celebrations, even if she still found it hard to find joy in the thought of more slaves being forcibly inducted into the tribe’s ranks.

 

But gods, she had tried so very hard.

 

She had helped the other women in preparing the night’s food and drink, and for the first time, she hadn’t felt such an outcast among them. She had danced and played with the children, and for the first time, her smiling and laughter hadn’t been forced. She had kept her khan-husband’s cup full throughout the evening, and for the first time, he had looked at her with what may have been a fledgling air of approval. For the first time, Ghoa had thought that Togene might really have been right all along. Perhaps it really did become easier.

 

If only Ghoa hadn’t left that celebration, even if only briefly. If only she hadn’t wandered away from the mirthful crowd to bring back more drink for them. If only she hadn’t been so caught up in the first and only good feeling she had had in moons to realize that she was being followed, hunted. If only she had stayed, she might have finally been convinced by that lie.

 

Togene wouldn’t understand;  she never truly did. But she was the only person that Ghoa could speak to, and more than anything right now, that was what she needed.

 

“I can’t do it anymore,” she whispered, voice cracking along the edges. “I’ll never be happy here, no matter how hard I try to be.” The younger woman sucked in a trembling breath, shaking her head. “I can’t spend the rest of my life pretending to be a part of a people who celebrate ripping families apart to feed their war. I can’t dance and play with the children when I know that so many of them won’t live long enough to have children of their own. I don’t want to be the wife of a man who might, at best, come to tolerate me one day.” Her eyes fell, landing upon the outer edge of a dark, shadowy impression upon her skin barely hidden under her sleeve. Spotting it, she made a pained face, her voice growing quiet and distant and full of hurt. “Nor anyone’s drunken conquest.”

 

The other had been listening, still and quiet, as Ghoa spilled everything that had been weighing so heavily upon her mind. But it was those last words that had Togene’s expression turn to alarm, her eyes following Ghoa’s down to her arm. Slowly, she reached out, taking hold of the hem of her sleeve to gently pull it up.

 

Dark and angry blue-black, the bruise covered most of the younger woman’s thin forearm. Though it lacked any true definition, it was still clear enough to see the partial imprint of a large hand as if she had been grabbed and held painfully tight. Setting her eyes on it again made Ghoa’s stomach turn and her skin crawl and her eyes sting and water, forcing her to turn her head away from it. It hurt too much to look at, to remember.

 

“Ghoa,” Togene began, quiet and compassionate. “Who did this to you..?”

 

Her mouth opened but the name hung in her throat, frozen there with a sudden rush of cold fear that accompanied it. Instead, she swallowed hard, gently pulling her arm back from the woman’s grasp and tugging her sleeve over it once again.

 

“Does it matter?” she managed weakly, but defensively. “If I stay, it will happen again, by the same hand or another. Nothing ever changes. Nothing ever gets better.” She shook her head. “I’ve tried listening to your advice, tried to make it work, but I can’t. I can’t stay here any longer, Togene. I have to leave.”

 

Where before the other’s expression had been full of concern, those four words instantly saw a shift towards fear and panic. She shook her head quickly, reaching out a hand to grab tightly onto Ghoa’s own.

 

“Don’t say that,” she answered, voice quiet and urgent. “You can’t leave, Ghoa. It’s.. it’s far too dangerous.”

 

“I have to,” the younger Xaela answered stubbornly, trying to pull her hand away. But even the normally passive woman wouldn’t let her go now. It stirred a sound of annoyed distress in Ghoa’s tone as she continued. “I would rather take my chances out there alone than spent even just one more sun here. What could any creature of the Steppe do to me that would be any worse than what the beasts of Kharlu have already done?”

 

Togene flinched, and the hand holding Ghoa’s own tightened into an almost vice-like grip. Pain was written plain as day across her features, but it seemed.. distant. Not wholly intended for only the woman sitting beside her. It caused Ghoa to pause, her brows furrowing in the brief but tense silence, until Togene spoke up to break it.

 

“Ghoa,” she began, voice barely above a whisper. “Did you ever question why you are Bayanbataar’s seventh wife, but you count only six of us?”

 

The question seemed to take the younger by surprise, floundering for a moment before she found her words.

 

“I heard that the fifth was killed in a bad fall,” she answered, suddenly unsure.

 

Togene’s lips pulled into a small, tight smile that held no warmth or humor. Only more heartbreak. Her eyes dropped and her head bobbed in a slow nod, looking down to the hand she held in her own. Her grip loosened, but didn’t release, instead running her thumb over the back of the girl’s hand, as if the motion helped to soothe her own frayed nerves.

 

“Sechen was her name, and she was much like you. She was never happy with this life, and I.. I didn’t know what to do for her. I wanted to help her, but I never knew how. I never knew the right words to say, nor the right thing to do.” She looked shamed by the admission. “And then one day, without warning.. She was gone.”

 

“She escaped..?” Ghoa asked, eyes wide. No one had told her, not even hinted at such a thing..

 

“She escaped,” Togene repeated, mournful. The story might have given Ghoa hope, if only the way the other was speaking didn’t seem to suggest that there was more. That there was no happy ending to this tale she was telling. And sure enough, once she continued on, Ghoa quickly understood why.

 

“I have never in all of my years here, before then or since, seen Bayanbataar in such a rage as he was then. You’ve seen him wroth, I know, but no anger that you’ve inflicted upon him comes close to the dark, foul temper that he was in for days after.” She grimaced, shaking her head. “Even Cota feared his hand for a time.”

 

The blood began to drain from Ghoa’s face at that thought. That her husband would raise his hand to any of his other wives wasn’t surprising, but to imagine him striking Cota.. His first wife, the only one born to the Kharlu, and the only one of them who could actually lay claim to the khan’s heart and affection. Ghoa had never seen Bayanbataar so much as raise his voice at her in all the moons she had lived amongst them, so to imagine a rage so deep and black that even she would cower from him..

 

“He demanded that Sechen be found and returned to him and, after three suns’ time, one of his men returned with her in tow. She was brought to him, and he..” Togene’s voiced cracked, and the breath that she inhaled shook with emotion. “We were told to watch, I suppose in case any of the rest of us had thoughts of running away as she had..” She let out the breath and, this time, it was her turn to let out a soft sob, tears suddenly flowing at the awful memory. “Gods.. I thought it would never stop. I was certain he would kill her, but.. he didn’t. And when I thought his wrath was finally spent, he took hold of her leg in his hands and..”

 

Her whole body shuddered hard, eyes squeezing tightly shut, as if just speaking the words were causing her to relive the unpleasant memory. It took her a moment to regain her composure, to finish the story.

 

“He allowed the menders to tend her cuts and bruises and broken bones, but he forbade them from healing her legs. Sechen was bedridden for so long, and when she was finally recovered, her legs had healed weak and warped. She could barely walk anymore, much less run or sit a horse..”

 

Suddenly feeling a few drops of wetness plop against her hands in her lap, Ghoa lifted her free hand to her cheeks to find them streaked with tears again. She wasn’t sure at which part of the horrific story that the tears had returned, but now they coursed down her cheek like quietly babbling streams as her heart ached for a woman she had never met.

 

“Sechen barely spoke after that, broken in far more than body alone. And one day when no one had their eye upon her, she left again. She.. she didn’t get far. She didn’t have to.” Togene sighed, squeezing Ghoa’s hand in her own again. “The camp back then sat atop a tall cliff.. They found her below, at its foot.”

 

She had been killed in a bad fall.. Ghoa understood now what that answer had truly meant. But knowing the whole story, she knew that it wasn’t truly the fall that had killed the fifth wife. Sechen had been dead long before she had stepped off the cliff’s edge.

 

The silence that fell between the two women now was thick and heavy and somber, punctuated only by the occasional happy babble of the little baby girl held in Togene’s lap. Ghoa’s mind churned with an unending stream of thoughts and worries, repeating the story that she had just heard over and over.. And as the minutes ticked on, the flood of emotion finally came crashing back into her.

 

No matter how unhappy she was, no matter how she feared her husband or his men, no matter how much a stranger she would always feel among the Kharlu.. Ghoa couldn’t run away.

 

This time as Togene pulled Ghoa in to hold her, both of the women were crying.

 

Finally, she realized that Togene had understood all along.

 

 

Edited by Jaliqai

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The darkness of night blanketed the Azim Steppe like a heavy shroud, lit only sparingly by the glow of the stars and moon above. It seemed a peaceful time, where the toils of the day faded away under the Mother’s loving gaze. Yet any child of the Steppe knew that, no matter how calm and quiet the night might seem, the creatures that prowled in darkness were no less deadly. While that knowledge would normally have stopped Ghoa, tonight it found her joining the ranks of those brought out by the rising moon.

 

After Akhutai had escorted her back to the camp earlier in the evening, Ghoa hadn’t said much. There wasn’t much to be said, in truth. Akhutai had told her a little of what had transpired, but still she felt compelled to find out more. But not tonight. She could only imagine how distraught and upset Nabi must have been, and she wouldn’t upset her further by prodding at fresh wounds.

 

She had, however, spotted the parcel that she had given the other Xaela earlier in the evening. Only then had it struck her that Batuhan’s absence from the meeting meant that it could not be delivered. In truth, it relieved her to see it then, that it hadn’t been passed into Arasen’s hands. That the man would have found the four vials of antidote inside wasn’t the problem;  the proof of her ‘death’ that she had included with them for Batuhan to take back to her husband, however, very much would have been.

 

Or would it, now? Would any sort of proof matter now that she had made such a stupid mistake?

 

That she had allowed herself to linger overlong and had gotten herself spotted when Arasen had approached made Ghoa’s stomach churn uneasily. She had done her best to hide, and her face had been shadowed by her cowl. And a decade was a long time to remember the face of someone you had only met incidentally, was it not? Not that she could ever forget his face, in a sense. It too strongly resembled that of another, one that she had tried and failed to cleanse from her memory.

 

If Arasen had recognized her, then his words before the meeting hadn’t betrayed it. Though the look that he had given her on his departure, brief as it was before she looked away, had made her skin crawl. She had no way of knowing whether or not he had figured it out, but the ever-paranoid Mankhadi woman had a terrible feeling about it.

 

But still, without proof that the lie was dead upon arrival, there was a flicker of hope that it yet lived. That was all that was needed to feed Ghoa’s motivation – or perhaps, her desperation – to take the package and sneak back to Reunion, back to Batuhan’s tent.

 

For a mercy, the brief jaunt back to Reunion was uneventful. Though it was the matter of skulking about there that proved more tricky. When she had reached the site where Reunion’s many visitors had set up their tents, large and small, she had slowed her pace and cautiously stuck to the shadows as she moved along. It didn’t escape her how uncomfortably familiar the feeling was, and her heart was certainly pounding no less rapidly than it had the night of her escape. Save now it wasn’t a horse she was looking to steal, but what was hopefully the key to her freedom that she was leaving behind.

 

Finally, Ghoa had made her way to Batuhan’s tent. Though judging by the cold ashes that remained in his fire, it had seemed that he had yet to return. That had worried her as much as perplexed her. He had always returned around sundown during this last week that she had been watching him. Despite the unease it gave her, however, she still left behind the package for him to find – set right in the same spot as she had placed his returned knife and the woven box of buuz only suns prior.

 

She didn’t linger long this time. As soon as the box was placed, she was sneaking back through the tents, through Reunion, and out past the gates once more. But her return to their camp didn’t come immediately. Sleep seemed an unlikely possibility that night, despite how long and draining of a day it had been. Ghoa’s mind was buzzing with thoughts and worries and memories. Rest wouldn’t come until she had tired her mind out as much as her body, and for that she needed to be alone.

 

Her sights had landed upon the empty watchtower just outside of Reunion where the archery tourney had been held only bells earlier. It seemed as good a place as any. With a huff of effort, Ghoa climbed the awkwardly steep stairs, arms aching by the time she reached the top. But as she turned to cast her eyes outwards, the view was well worth it.

 

And with no small bit of frustration at herself for even entertaining the thought, she wondered if perhaps being even a touch closer to the heavens might make it easier for the gods to hear her pleading to them.

 

A few steps brought her closer to the tower’s edge, until the Mankhad carefully lowered herself to sit with legs draped over the side. The gentle, cool breeze blowing had her eyes falling shut in contentment. Her head tilted back towards the sky, and she reached up to the cowl covering her head, pulling it away.

 

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Her brows furrowed and her lips pulled into a frown as the wind brushed past her again, this time stirring the the uneven, choppy strands of inky blue hair that now hung haphazardly around her face. It felt awkward, unnatural, uncomfortable. Her hair had been long all her life, never sheared any shorter than it had been at at the start of that sun.

 

It had been a hard decision ever since she had decided upon it shortly after her last conversation with Batuhan. Hard enough that she had balked every time she had brought the knife to her hair, hands shaking, until she put it away again. Tomorrow, she would tell herself. I’ll definitely do it tomorrow. But she didn’t know why it even bothered her so badly, and each time 'tomorrow’ came, it played out just the same.

 

But the final day, the day of the meeting, was different. She had left the tournament early to mix the antidotes and, once she was finished, had found herself sitting there with the knife in her hand again. She had tightened her hand around the hilt until her knuckles turned white, trying to stave off the shaking. But the harder she fought it, the more pressure she felt building up behind her eyes. And as she finally lifted the blade and began to saw at the base of her braid, those stinging tears had begun to fall.

 

Ghoa had felt foolish. It was only hair, and it was the only way. Every article of clothing, every piece of jewelry or pretty bauble that she had owned during her time with the Kharlu, she had sold or traded or burned away. She had to give Batuhan something as proof that Bayanbataar would know at a glance to be hers, and the poisoned warrior had said it himself:  her hair, 'born of the sea’, was unmistakable.

 

With the time of the meeting quickly approaching, the woman hadn’t had the luxury of time to mope overlong. After wrapping the long bundle of blue-silver hair in a cloth and placing it in with the antidotes, she had wiped her eyes dry, pulled her cowl back on, and hurried back to Nabi.

 

Though now as she sat on her perch, alone with her thoughts, there was no more need for her to put on a strong face. As she sat there, replaying the day’s events in her head, the tears began to well in her eyes once again. Her hands rose to press the heel of her palms to her eyes, stubbornly trying to stop it, though it only pulled a soft sob from her instead.

 

Yet this time, it wasn’t only her hair that had her in tears.

 

When she had made the decision, Ghoa had convinced herself by saying that it would be the last piece of her that the Kharlu would ever take. With it, her husband would count her as dead and give up his search. In time, her hair would grow back, and with it her freedom from a past that she had never quite been able to escape before.

 

But now, after having been caught up in the meeting that she was not supposed to be seen at, Ghoa was terrified that she had been wrong.

Edited by Jaliqai

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Shael couldn’t sleep.

It was the third time she had angrily turned over in her bedroll. And it wasn’t that she wasn’t used to sleeping outdoors; plenty of past smuggling jobs had her bunking down in the oddest of places. It wasn’t for thoughts of any impending dangers either; she had learned in her time in the Resistance that rest was essential to staying sharp, and worrying over the next Garlean bombing or raid would only result in dulled senses the next morning. And that would lead to carelessness and eventually a mistake that could cost someone’s life.
And even that didn’t keep her up most nights. Once a fellow Resistance fighter noted with some measure of disgust that she always found a way to sleep even after participating in a mission that resulted in numerous deaths, Imperials and Ala Mhigans alike. Little did he know that she always had something to resort to, drugs or alcohol, to ease her mind just enough to push her into a dreamless stupor.

But there was a time that even those measures proved futile, despite all the substances she could get her hands on. It was after Shooey died. That’s when the visions and the memories of him replayed over and over behind closed lids. The moments leading to her final view of him always returning with crystal clarity. He flashed her his quirky but reassuring smile as he gave her a thumbs up, when he wired up the last of the explosives. Then an instant later, she bore witness to all of him becoming enveloped in a fiery explosion of fire. Then he was no more.

Those visions came to her every night, and even in her waking bells, whenever she closed her eyes for any length of time. There he was, smiling at her, then his flesh was burning off, exposing the bare skull beneath as it cracked and exploded into a thousand pieces. It always woke her in a cold sweat. Shael ran as fast as she could, away from the Resistance, sailing away from Eorzea, fled all the way to Othard and Kugane in trying to escape those memories. Even still, she found no respite until Nabi concocted a special brew for her, and finally she was able to find solace in the dark.

Looking back, Shael wasn’t sure when the dreams truly stopped. Was it because the drugs? No… because Nabi withheld them after a while, warning her of possible addictive properties. But without the drugs, how had those visions finally gone away?

The soft shuffle of fabric drew Shael’s attention to Nabi’s sleeping form within the same tent. And from the soft whimpers that escaped the auri lips now and then, she could tell that the Xaela’s dreams were not of the restful kind.

Shael sat up with a scowl, idly scratching her head as she recalled the exchange that had happened during that sun. Tales of rituals and destinies buzzed annoyingly in her head. Who soddin’ believed in all that shite? Nabi’s long-lost cousin, Arasen, that’s who. And from the look of things, so did some seer and the rest of his tribe. Did they mark Nabi at birth with some magical tattoo that would consume her otherwise if she didn’t return to them?


All for some impossible dream of peace?

Shael nearly snorted out loud. She’d known the ugly touch war for as long as she could remember. The taint of it ran through every Spoken’s blood. It seeped into every possible corners of the world, like spilled ink bleeding onto parchment. What insanity made these Xaelas think that one girl could end it?

Her mother must have been some deranged fanatic to scheme up a birth of a child to fulfill some enigmatic prophecy -- false promises that were likely the results of a drug induced hallucination rather than a gift from gods who never gave half a shite in the first place.

Shael knew all about visions, how they could plague the mind. How they could make someone either want to desperately flee from it or accept it wholly and blindly. She took all of Elam’s drugs after all, as he snuck it into her drinks. Not only did they temporarily turn the burning inside into a distant simmer, but in some rare instances, it brought forth the face of a ghost that wasn’t being immolated.

The smuggler glanced down to her hand that had started to tremble, and she clenched tight to still its twitching. She didn’t have time for that. She reached into her pack and drew out a vial, uncorking it with a thumb and tossing her head back as she swallowed the contents whole. She grimaced as the bitter taste stung the back of her throat, but eventually she eased into a breathy sigh as she felt the drug quickly working its way into her system. She flicked another glance to the sleeping Xaela, almost guiltily.

After all, Nabi worked hard to get all the drugs out of her system the first time. She worked patiently with her through the withdrawals, easing what she can with her own herbs and medicines. And now, Shael was right back to her old habits again. The smuggler knew that the Xaela would not approve.

But it was for Nabi’s sake, at least at first. Shael had to let Elam believe that he had her under his thumb. But as the charade went on and she discovered the true perks of those drugs, she couldn’t stop the cravings. They were like a familiar old friend, just like the glimpses of her former first-mate.

Shooey wouldn’t have approved either.

Sod all that, Shael groaned to herself as she began to slide her boots back on. Who cared who approved of what? Shooey was dead and Nabi was…

Even as she glanced to the sleeping Xaela, her earlier nearly tearful words echoed in the Highlander’s mind.

“If I fulfill whatever it is that my mother intended? Or if I don't? Does... does some horrible death await me??" The girl was shaking with fear and dread. That sight made Shael want to break something.

Arasen warned of some ill fate if that mysterious mark on Nabi was left to grow on its own. It was quickly followed by promises of help and guidance if she returned with him to her mother’s tribe. Where he and some old crone could perform another bloody ritual that he could only vaguely speak about.

Well, they can rot in all the hells with that.

Shael reached for her gun, suddenly hungry for some cold air. She was starting to crawl out to relieve Saltborn early of his watch, when she heard quiet murmurs filtering in. She leaned forward, just barely parting the fabric of the tent to gain a glimpse.

Speak of the devil...
 

Saltborn was talking to that Xaela, Arasen.

Shael nearly brought her gun forward. Mayhap a single bullet between the Xaela’s eyes would solve the problem and end this entire dilemma.

But Shael knew better. That would still leave the mark on Nabi with no leads to follow. She didn’t quite hear all the words that were exchanged between the hyur and the au ra, but soon Nabi’s kin rose and left, leaving Saltborn alone by the fire.

She watched his back awhile longer, before she rolled to the other side of the tent.  Undoing a few ties, she slid out the end. She holstered her gun on her back and moved away as quietly as she could, as to not draw Saltborn’s attention.

She would have her own words with this Kharlu.

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It felt as if the moist ground was embracing her feet as she walked, the earth seeping up in between her toes with each step. The soft sands kissed her flesh and the light ocean breeze caressed her cheeks, much like a back of a gentle hand tenderly brushing over her skin.

 

It made her think of him.

 

Nabi pulled the light shawl just a little bit tighter around her shoulders. Despite the warmth of summer, the mornings by the beach still harbored a crispness that threatened goosebumps along her limbs. But the cold did not deter her outing this sun, rising just before the arrival of dawn. The ocean to the east was slowly shifting in color as the sun began to rise from its long slumber, the deep velvet blues slowly painted over with the lighter hues of the horizon. Sometimes Nabi would spin around and walk backwards, watching the white foam rolling up to erase all traces of her passage.

 

“Our time here is finite. A flickering candle that burns out too quickly, compared to the eternity of the stars above. So live and love as you walk the earth, child. Let no one else choose your path for you. The horizon is vast. All you have to do is decide how to get there.”

 

Nabi took a deep breath in, filling her lungs with the cool salty air. Her mother’s words had been returning to her more often of late, ever since the fateful trip to the Reunion. Ever since discovering that her mother had planned her birth all along, that her life and her purpose on this earth had been predetermined by some prophesy gained from an ancient ritual. The very remembrance of that revelation still gave her pause in breath, an inkling of disbelief once again stirring deep within her consciousness.

 

But Arasen, her cousin, had confessed as much without any reservation. Making the journey to the Reunion to meet with a distant kin that she didn’t remember, the encounter was tepid at best. He too bore eyes of gold just like her own, and the Kharlu had trace of features that reminded Nabi of her mother. But mostly he resembled her uncle, the imposing Xaela warrior whose face never truly left Nabi’s memories. Tugan Kharlu was someone even her mother feared, although Nabi wasn’t sure what about Arasen reminded her of his more intimidating father.

 

Perhaps it was the fervor in the Xaela’s eyes. While they were colored the same hue as her mother's, those eyes held no gentility. Arasen, even though his carriage was that of a scholar, still had the same intensity that Nabi remembered of his father. She thought her mother also had that same stubborness as well, but when she looked into her mother’s eyes, there was never fear or apprehension, or even question.

 

At least that was what Nabi used to believe.
 

She desperately wanted it be a lie. That Arasen had fabricated the whole story of her heritage. That was the only way it made sense. All the tales of her mother’s love for her father... they felt true in Nabi’s heart. She didn’t want to believe that she had been lied to all her life. So once she had returned to Shirogane, she looked to Anchor for an answer, for he had always told her she was too trusting. She hoped that he would denounce all the words of her cousin. If he had just said so, Nabi would have believed him in a heartbeat.

 

“My mother couldn’t have done that, right?” she had asked him as he was leading her to the ferry to return home. “He must have made that up... right?”

 

But where Nabi expected possible frustration or annoyance, the look that was on Anchor’s face as he turned around to her, was gentle and patient. "Mayhap. Mayhap not." He huffed and stepped towards her. "There be no knowin'. Words of the desperate are oft not words to mind, aye?" His head canted and his eyes narrowed softly with curiosity behind them. "You spoke of her fondly not long ago. Even if it be true, them words suddenly nothin' now in light of the ones against her? Do her own in past suns, moons, and cycles, not weigh on ya as heavy in face of it?"

 

And that was at the heart of the matter, wasn’t it? Who to believe? What to believe?

 

Thinking back on his words, Nabi recognized them for the only truth that mattered now.

 

“I don’t... love her any less,” she had confessed. “I can’t. She is to me now as she always has been. My mother. A woman who loved me, who risked her life to save me. Who… who made me who I am.” For all the questions that were stirred up, as Nabi heard her own words, the churning began to settle somewhat in her chest. “Even if what Arasen said was true, all my life, all I’ve known is her love.”

 

She didn’t doubt her mother’s affections. She didn’t doubt that there was regret on her mother’s part, and that was why she had left the Steppe. And yet…  “But if it is true... why didn’t she just tell me? It wouldn’t have changed my heart. I would have understood.” Tears came then. “I would’ve loved her all the same.”

 

Anchor -- no, it was Jude when they were alone -- huffed quietly. "And all these blasted tears all the same. Hardly a mystery much." He reached for her, so his forearm and sleeve could wipe the moisture from her flushed features. The motion was somewhat brash, but Nabi knew it was meant in tenderness all the same.

 

A shiver climbed her legs as another wave from the sea washed over her feet. Nabi glanced down at the splash against her calves, her ankles disappearing beneath the foamy water. She wrapped her skirt tighter and lifted them, to avoid them from getting soaked.

 

A quiet chortle escaped through her nose. She hadn’t minded the water at all the night before, but that musing gave rise to a small private smile. No, she hadn’t minded one bit.

 

Nabi let out a soft exhale, tucking her hair away as a light wind tugged at her locks and her shawl. Just a sun ago, she had been so distressed, confused, and anxious about what was true and untrue.  She didn’t know what to make of the life that she always thought she knew. And that curious birthmark, Arasen said it boded ill for her if she didn’t return with him. She was struggling, trying not to succumb to the feeling of helplessness and uncertainty. Feeling hurt and betrayed by someone she had loved so dearly.

 

But after last night, there was a new calm to her core. A fullness that expanded from deep within, with a new determination turning away the sinking weight that wanted to take up residence in the pit of her stomach.

 

“I want to live my life, however way I choose,” she had whispered to Jude. She was on her tiptoes, her lips hovering just before his, her next words just a breath against him. “I choose you.”

 

Just as the questions of her mother’s intentions were set aside by Nabi’s unwavering belief of her mother’s love, so were the doubts of her future by this newly found vision on the horizon. It was one of her and Jude. Together.

 

“I want to dance with you,” Nabi had whispered to him with a sense of wonder, as they both lay in bed. Their bare bodies were huddled close for warmth, but also because they couldn’t abide any other distance. “I want us to travel to a place that neither of us has ever seen before. And I want to bake you a cake on your nameday. Westerners blow candles, did you know that? I want to see you do it.”

 

“I told ya ‘fore, I don't be rememberin' the day much.” Jude admitted, a softer breath huffed out in his amusement, his brow raising slightly in mock-wonder. “Sailed a number o’ seas, I have. Who knows how far we be goin' to see a sight we two never seen, aye?”

 

That didn’t deter her one bit. “That only makes me more curious on where it would be!” Nabi giggled, turning onto her back as her eyes searched the wooden boards of the ceiling. “They say even at the other end of the world, they still see the same stars in the heavens above. But what of the color of the ocean? The feel of the sands on the beach? The scent of flowers in the spring?” Her expression and tone had turned somewhat dreamy as she imagined those scenes playing before her eyes.

 

“Do the sunsets look the same?”

 

"Mayhap," Jude replied, his voice ever quieter, his words coming slower as lethargy of slumber began to take him. "When it all be over... I'll take ya to find out, aye? Far as we go... long as it be..." Another yawn claimed him, breaking up his words and drawing his eyelids closed. Nabi watched him all the while, taking solace in the peace she saw settling onto his visage."However long it takes for ya to say ya be... satisfied...."

 

Nabi was staring out towards the sea, as the sun just began emerging from the watery depths. The darkness of night was retreating in its wake, the luminescence of the day slowly beginning to seep into all corners of the heavens. And the sun cast its image onto the rippling canvas, drawing a radiant golden beam that stretched from the end of the earth to the very beach she stood upon.

 

She could see it so clearly. That brilliant dream on the horizon. The unimaginable beauty that filled her soul with awe and wonder. And that was what it felt like, falling in love and being with that person body and soul. She had opened her heart completely, and knew with absolute certainty who belonged there. And Jude, in his own way, took her into his own. This was where she belonged. It was like no other certainty she had ever felt before.

 

Nabi smiled and opened her arms out wide, drawing a deep breath and welcoming the new morning. She would embrace each new sun with hope, and perhaps just a little awe, and she was determined to weather even the darkest of storms should it come. It didn’t matter that her mother lied to her. She still felt loved. It didn’t matter if the mark was cursed, she would find a way to undo it. She had to.

 

She had a someone of her own to care for, to cherish, and to love most of all.

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Batuhan had never needed to read.

 

All the knowledge he had gained throughout his life had been from listening, observing, and practicing. Books were never something that held any worth to the warrior. He could discern more details from the tracks the creature left behind, or how an enemy fought or even held their weapon, more than any written words on parchment.

 

So when he was left with a pile of books at his feet to pass the time as he recovered, the Xaela had initially scoffed at the idea. But one could only spend so much time sulking by himself. The lost daughter -- Nabi, as he had finally gotten used to calling her -- often left the clinic for errands, and to attend to the stall she often spoke of in Kugane. Which suited Batuhan just fine; the idea of being attended to like some infirm weakling left him exceedingly uneasy.

 

But there was only so much he could do on his own to pass the time. The dumplings that Ghoa had brought briefly motivated him to try and use his almost-useless hands. He appreciated that Nabi did not hover around him when he was trying to eat or practice coordination with what still felt like gnarled roots attached to his wrists. He became frustrated quickly in her presence, the heat of humiliation burning away his patience.

 

But when left alone, Batuhan had tried many times to grab those dumplings. A few attempts he succeeded in bringing it almost to his mouth, only to drop it just short of his lips. Eventually hunger got the better of him and he held the round container by the wrists and brought the entire thing to his face to gulp down the contents. A sun later, he spotted an owl outside his window. It had caught a mouse, held dead within the grip of its talons, and was tearing into its dinner with its beak. Batuhan narrowed his eyes. Plenty of creatures lacked hands and yet were capable of hunting and feeding themselves. And while his hands lacked the strength, at least the rest of him was no longer withering away from the poison of the enhancement.

 

The Xaela scowled at the pile of books again. While its contents may be useless, the purpose of why Nabi had brought them for him were not lost on the warrior. He reached out with his bare feet, gripping at the binding with his toes. While they were not as coordinated in the fine movements, there was undeniable satisfaction in the strength he felt in his muscles there. The book wobbled in the uneven grip of his toes but he slowly lifted it and brought it onto the bed, setting it roughly in front of him. His lips twisted upwards in satisfaction. It was a mundane and insignificant feat, and yet it made him not feel so incapable.

 

A passing thought that Ghoa might give him ‘extra points for style’ made him snort quietly.

 

He squinted with concentration as he reached out with his bandaged hand, fingertips now exposed. He could feel the rugged edge of the cover as he ran his thumb along the side of it. His lips twisted as he turned his wrist and curled his fingers just enough to open the book. The words there were Hingan and entirely unfamiliar to him, but that didn’t matter. He could feel the light weight of the binding against his forefinger. He pressed the pad of his digit lightly and swiped across from right to left, turning the page. When the paper yielded and he was staring at the next set of foreign words, Batuhan smiled.

 

Batuhan had never read a book, but just looking at those lines made him exhale with a feeling of accomplishment. He continued to turn page after page, pausing when he came upon illustrations, taking time to trace it with a fingertip, savoring in the light sensation there. By the time he was finished, he was holding the book open with his left hand in the loose grip he had managed, while his right was flipping through and turning each leaf easier than before.

 

He reached out to grab the next book by the bedside with his feet again, this time managing a much steadier hold.

 

Anchor Saltborn, the champion of the pit, had challenged him to face him one day, as they never did in that ring. Despite Nabi’s reassurance and Ghoa’s encouragement, Batuhan still could not deny that in the back of his mind, there were dark shadows of doubt that he might never be able to fight at all -- never be able to grip his axe, never wield another weapon in his hands.

 

But now with Saltborn wondering out loud if he would ever be able to stand against him in a contest of martial prowess, the Xaela felt a strong determination take hold of him. Not only would he recover to return to the Kharlu to give Ghoa a chance at freedom, but someday be able to meet Saltborn’s challenge. He had always wondered how a match between them would have turned out.

 

Batuhan was reaching for his third book when the door opened. There was eagerness to his gaze as he turned to the entryway. He wanted to thank Nabi for the books, for he was negligent in showing any gratitude to the woman who saved his life and possibly proved Siban wrong. And if it was Ghoa with more dumplings, he was eager to try yet again to grip them, either hand or feet. And perhaps show her how far he had come.

 

But the Xaela’s eyes widened at the figure standing by the door.

 

It was neither of the auri females, but rather a taller and broader figure. A ring of bones clacked around his neck and the polished baubles hanging from his horns glistened in the light of the room. The golden eyes that looked back at him were well known to Batuhan, but unlike those of the lost daughter, these pair were sharper, like crystallized amber rather than sunlight. White teeth emerged between the lips that grew into a broad smile.

 

“The rumors of your illness have been greatly exaggerated,” Arasen Kharlu said, greeting him with an appreciative nod. “I am glad to see you well, clan brother.”

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Spoiler

 


Hurt and bitterness had seen that Ghoa had not uttered a single prayer to the gods since she had been taken from her clan. Yet now, in the throes of desperation, she had hardly stopped since the Kharlu had left for the battlefield. They had turned a deaf ear long ago, but perhaps they would hear her now.

 

Bayanbataar had led the massive host of warriors to the heart of the coastlands to meet the Jhungid in war suns ago. If the last year that had passed in her stay with the tribe had seemed to drag on endlessly, then those few days spent awaiting the outcome of the battle seemed to span an eternity. She had barely eaten for her stomach feeling as if it were twisted into impossible knots. She had barely slept for the worrying thought of how life would change in the wake of either their victory or defeat.

 

And then, with the loud blare of a horn signaling the first sign of their return at dawn, the waiting was over.

 

Hurriedly, Ghoa rose and dressed, throwing a fur over her shoulders to ward off the chill of the early morning mist enveloping the land. Within the yurt she shared with the other wives, save for the first, there was an air of nervous tension as they made ready to receive the returning warriors. Nearby, Togene quieted her youngest’s fussing with soft and calm whispers, although the lashing of her tail behind her betrayed the mother’s own anxiety.

 

As the other wives went to collect their children, Ghoa made a beeline for the periphery of their camp. Those who had already begun to gather moved out of her way, allowing her to pass to the front. Yet despite having no young ones to round up, she was not the first of Bayanbataar’s wives to arrive. Cota stood at the head of the crowd, flanked by those children of hers still not yet old enough to fight, silently watching and waiting.

 

While the first wife had never mistreated her, neither had she been especially warm. Ghoa had envied her apparent strength, a feeling reignited now as she stole a glance in her direction. The overall atmosphere of those left behind – wives, children, elderly, and infirm – seemed about to boil over with tension. Yet the first wife was the picture of calm confidence, her eyes coolly set ahead and her back proud and straight. Her children mirrored her stance, pillars of strength that might very well have set an example for the other Kharlu awaiting their loved ones’ returns.

 

Slowly but surely, more began to join them, including the khan’s other wives and their children. Togene took up a spot next to Ghoa, greeting her with a soft squeeze of the arm. She had no words to answer with but gave the older woman a weak smile instead. Before she could face forward again, the feeling of a small hand tugging on her skirts pulled her attention further downwards to find Togene’s older daughter, Yisu, staring up at her.

 

“I can’t see anything, Ghoa,” she whimpered, looking back to the horizon and making a show of pressing herself up onto her toes though no one stood in front of her, and no other obstacles seemed to block her sight. The woman had a creeping suspicion that the unspoken request was less about seeing and more about her mother’s arms being full with a much younger sibling. It was likely the girl’s first time awaiting their return where Togene wasn’t holding her close, but the little lion of a girl wouldn’t dare admit to being afraid or needing comforting.

 

Despite her own nerves, Ghoa couldn’t help the corner of her lips quirking upwards in fond amusement. Yisu had grown on her during her time spent with the Kharlu, though at ten cycles old in comparison to her own nineteen, she felt more like a little sister than a daughter.

 

“Up you go then, little lion,” she whispered as she bent to scoop the smaller girl up, carefully holding her on her hip. Tiny hands clutched tightly at her clothes, a head came to rest on her shoulder, and now Ghoa could feel the pap, pap, pap of that stubby tail thumping against her side. Her hand rose to gently and reassuringly stroke her brown-blonde hair as she returned her attention to the figures dotting the slowly brightening horizon.

 

They were still so far away. Too far for any individual figures to be made out clearly among them. Yet still, something seemed wrong. They seemed to her to be traveling much more slowly on the return, and – maybe it was merely her mind playing tricks on her – there seemed to be far fewer of them now than had departed.

 

Yet as they gradually drew closer, as more details could be seen, it was becoming clear that her sense was not wrong. Moreover, judging by the low, hushed murmur passing through the gathered crowd, she wasn’t the only one who had noticed it.

 

“They were defeated,” Togene murmured breathlessly next to her, a whisper so quiet she could barely even hear it.

 

At first, that confirmation of what she had suspected set Ghoa’s heart to racing all over again. But with the distance, with the rising sun behind them cloaking their figures and facesuin shadow, it was still too early to tell if the gods had heard her prayers and finally deigned to answer them.

 

But then, after what seemed to be a lifetime of breathlessly waiting, her heart sank to her stomach.

 

There he was at the head of the host atop a different horse than he had left upon. Once he was closer, she could see the dirt and blood and grime that covered his armor and the spear slung across his back, not to mention the dark look that rested on his face. But though he looked worse for wear, Bayanbataar had survived the defeat.

 

Once more, the gods had refused to answer Ghoa’s plea.

 

The feeling of something brushing her cheek and warm wetness beneath it pulled her out of her own head, looking towards Yisu. The little girl was giving her a soft smile now, using her sleeve to wipe at the tears that Ghoa hadn’t even realized had begun to roll down her cheeks.

 

“It’s okay, Ghoa,” she whispered. “You don’t have to worry.” Her little chest seemed to fill with pride at her words. “Father always comes back.”

 

Only then did it dawn on her that she had spent the last suns praying that this sweet girl’s father had met his end at the end of a Jhungid blade. Not only her father, but the father of the small army worth of children standing there at their mothers’ sides, relieved to see his return. So many that would lose a man they not only respected, but loved.

 

But the only thing that stirred guilt within Ghoa’s heart was that her only regret was allowing herself to place even the smallest shred of hope in gods who had never answered her prayers to begin with. She pressed her eyes shut tight, inhaled a quiet and quivering breath, and did not fight the tears that continued to course down her cheeks.

 

 

 

Spoiler

 


A week had passed since the Kharlu’s decisive loss at the annual battle for control of the coastlands, and the mood at camp had yet to improve. If anything, it had been on a slow and steady decline.

 

It was not as if the tribe were complete strangers to defeat. With the clash happening every year, it was only natural that the Jhungid would occasionally take the upper hand. To hear the others tell it, losses past had only solidified their drive to swell their ranks and regain control in the next year. It was best to take the losses in stride rather than wallow and mourn.

 

But this loss was different, Ghoa had heard the others whisper, and she could understand why once she heard a retelling of how it had unfolded. Not only had many of the slaves and other such unwilling recruits thrown into the front lines perished, but that vanguard had broken under assault far earlier than expected. The backlines had been caught off-guard and quickly overwhelmed when the Jhungid’s warriors began to flood through. With their shield of bodies largely gone, a number of the Kharlu’s own had fallen as well.

 

Even then, the dip in morale would have likely been recoverable if it hadn’t been for a band of Jhungid riders arriving days later. Their message was simple: that they would generously return the Kharlu captives of war to their home, provided that they were given proper tribute in exchange. Slaves, arms and armor, supplies and sundries.. The price for the prisoners was steep, with the added insult to injury that it was clearly only a move to further weaken and humiliate a clan already put thoroughly on the backfoot.

 

Yet it was a deal that Bayanbataar could not simply dismiss. The families of those captured looked to him for their return to be secured. Even besides, the tribe now had a dire need to retain as many of their capable and experienced fighters as possible if they were to stand a chance in the next year’s battle. The ransom may have been high, but he could ill afford not to pay it.

 

When the riders had left, her husband had been in more foul of a temper than Ghoa could rightly recall ever witnessing. Fearful of doing anything to risk turning that black fury upon herself, she had tried to keep her distance. Instead, she had focused her own efforts on caring for those still injured.

 

The lion’s share of the menders’ attention and resources had been dedicated to treating the injured that shared Kharlu blood. The few handfuls of injured conscripts that had made it back, however, had been largely pushed aside. Only a scant few menders and those other slaves who knew anything about treating wounds were quickly finding themselves overwhelmed by the amount of help that was needed. And so, though it had been moons since she had even so much as thought of treating another, Ghoa had offered what help she could in stitching cuts, changing bandages, setting broken bones, and easing the passing of those beyond recovery.

 

Despite their efforts, infection and fever only continued to rise among those under their care each day. The medicine supply was running low as it was, and what remained was largely being reserved for the warriors of the tribe; at least, what of it that the Jhungid hadn’t tried to lay claim to in their ‘negotiations’.

 

Finally, Ghoa had decided that if she would not be given the medicine she needed to help these men and women, then she would make it. She had seen a number of wild plants and herbs familiar to her from her childhood training during her previous supervised travels about Kharlu territory. If only she had some time to seek out her own supplies, then maybe at least some of the ailing slaves could be saved.

 

It sounded like an easy enough plan. That is, up until she realized it meant having to ask for Bayanbataar’s leave to make the trip.

 

The better part of the morning had passed before Ghoa had worked up the courage necessary to confront her husband, even as guilt gnawed at her for delaying so long. When she had finally sought out his tent, the midday sun had near crested in the cloudless sky. With her nerves steeled – at least, as steeled as she could manage – she made for his tent.

 

Regret came the moment that she pushed aside the door covering and heard voices in the midst of what appeared to be a discussion so intense that, at first, her entrance went unnoticed.

 

“That is only about half of what was demanded of us,” one man groused. “I’m sure those damnable thieves would only laugh in our faces at such a meager offering, much less return even the first captive.”

 

“And if we give any more, we might as well be handing them victory for the next ten years,” another snapped in return. “We won’t be able to recover easily if we give in to such unreasonable demands. Our people must come first!”

 

“Those captives are our people!” A third, a fair few cycles younger, all but roared. “Brothers and sisters who have fought and bled for us, and would fight and bleed for us even still! Or do you forget them from your coward’s place at the back of the host, Dagan?” The man sneered as his chin hiked upwards in what seemed a challenge. “I don’t recall seeing so much as a drop of Jhungid blood on your blade this year.”

 

“Do you dare question my–” Dagan began to snarl as he shot up from his seat, only to be abruptly silenced with the rise of his khan’s hand. His head turned towards Bayanbataar, begrudgingly quietening. But only when that fiery glare turned to meet her gaze did Ghoa realize that all of their eyes had finally turned in her direction.

 

Her husband sat at the head of the small gathering of his closest warriors and advisors. Unlike the others whose tempers seemed to be coming to a head after days spent in debate, he seemed oddly calm. Tired, even, if the dark circles beginning to form under his eyes was any indication. He seemed not a man yet defeated, but perhaps one headed down that path if a solution weren’t found soon.

 

“What is it that you want, Ghoa?” Bayanbataar sighed, his deep and rumbling voice already laden with exasperation before she had so much as spoken the first word. “It had best be important.”

 

The weight of all those eyes upon her was near enough to make the young woman buckle under the pressure, and what seemed like an inevitable explosion of her husband’s temper made her second guess herself. But though the words to apologize and excuse herself rested on the tip of her tongue, and though the muscles of her legs were tensed in anticipation of a hasty retreat, she stayed still. Those whom she had come on behalf of didn’t have time to wait out the passing of her fear.

 

Ghoa remembered the sight of Cota days earlier, waiting for the warriors’ return. Trying to emulate even a drop of the other wife’s strength, she straightened her back and dropped her shoulders. Her silver eyes came to rest on Bayanbataar and him alone, as if the other men weren’t even there.

 

“Medicine supplies are running low, and there are still many who are in need,” she began, trying to keep her voice calm and even. “I was a potion-maker before you–” Ghoa cut herself short, backpedaling slightly to change her wording to something perhaps a touch less accusatory. “–before I arrived here. I would like your permission to leave camp for a short while. There are some things I believe I could use to–”

 

“I was told just this morning by the menders that we should have just enough supplies left to see our people recovered,” he cut her short, eyes narrowing. “Are you suggesting that they have lied to me?” There was suspicion in his voice, though perhaps not aimed at said healers.

 

“No,” she answered, voice quietening. “I’m not saying that they are liars. It’s just that they have not accounted for all of the injured in their estimation.” As he quirked a skeptical brow, her hands tightened nervously at her sides. “Many of the injured slaves that made it back are still in need of care.”

 

Scarcely had the words left her mouth before the others in the room had begun to react. Some sneered under their breath. A few others offered scoffs and derisive snorts of laughter.

 

“Perhaps if they had fought harder upon the field, victory would have been ours,” an older warrior growled sourly. “That they had the nerve to crawl back to us and expect us to nurse them back to health after such an embarrassment, rather than die with their pride intact..” He finished his thought with a scoff, and murmurs of approval began to rise from around him.

 

Bayanbataar’s expression remained neutral – the same look that she recognized as the one where he was making an effort to control his temper. He looked from his men back to his wife, remaining quiet for a few ticks longer. But as the murmurs of disapproval and the sneers grew louder, he finally shook his head.

 

“No,” he answered. Though firm, his voice lacked the same bared steel that she had grown used to hearing in past arguments. “If you’re of a mind to help, then offer your assistance to the menders tending to our own. I’m sure they will be glad for another set of hands to lighten the burden.”

 

Her stomach sank.

 

“Bayanbataar, please,” she implored him. “Many of them will die if nothing is done, perhaps even all of them.” The murmurs from the wings began to grow into open disapproval, yet she tightened her fists at her sides and marched on. “They fought for the Kharlu, and they deserve–”

 

Enough!” he bellowed, bringing his white-knuckled fist down hard on the wooden arm of his chair. Her words had stopped in an instant, flinching as if struck. Even his advisors quietened until silence hung heavy in the yurt. “I’ll hear no more of this fool’s errand of yours. If they die, they die. May their sacrifice please the gods and bring us much-needed fortune in the moons to come.” When she lingered there in stunned silence, his hand rose, waving in impatient dismissal at her. “Go, woman. We’ve far more important matters to discuss than your bleeding heart.”

 

Taking in a shaking breath through her nose, Ghoa bowed her head in a nod and silently turned on her heel to leave. Only once she was outside and the covering of the tent entrance fell back in place did she exhale, turning to lean back against the tent’s side to regather her nerves and wait for the frightened and humiliated trembling to pass.

 

Even through the thick hide fabric, she could heard the din of chatter rising again from inside. Though she know she ought just leave it be, that actually hearing the words spoken in her absence would only hurt her, Ghoa still inched closer to the tent’s opening and inconspicuously pulled it back just enough to listen.

 

“If that girl had only half so much sense as she was beautiful, she might just be useful,” one mused aloud to subdued chuckles.

 

“Are you sure you don’t want to give her up to the Jhungid, brother?” another man pressed. “Not that it would solve our problem, but perhaps it might give you some measure of peace.”

“If they don’t come back later begging him to take her back, that is.”

 

Ghoa’s eyes stung and her face burned indignantly red as the chorus of laughter rose from inside the tent. She was so very glad that she could provide the tense warriors with a bit of levity.

But slowly, the laughter began to die down, but no chatter resumed in its stead. There was only silence. Though she couldn’t see what had happened inside, she wondered if the comments had pushed too far and caused her husband’s already simmering temper to boil over.

 

“You jest, brother, but that may be exactly the solution we need,” Bayanbataar finally answered, with not a single drop of humor in his voice. “Not just for myself, but for all of us.”

 

Judging from the lack of response, his advisors were just as perplexed by the response as she herself was.

 

“We will make up for the rest of what our offering is missing with her,” he pressed on. “If the Jhungid know not of my frustrations with Ghoa, then being offered a khan’s wife should be too tempting for them to refuse. Let them believe that they are humiliating me by forcing my hand into making such a seemingly degrading offer, since our shame is what they so clearly want.” He let out a snort. “And let their khan come to know the same regret that I have, but only after our brothers and sisters have been returned home to us.”

 

Slowly, the silence began to be filled with murmurs of approval. But whatever words were being said now were hard for Ghoa to hear over the sound of her heart beginning to race again. He couldn’t be serious..

 

“Khenbish,” her husband called over the chatter. “Make ready to ride tonight to deliver our offer: half of what was demanded of us, and my most beautiful wife.” The words dripped with contempt, and were punctuated with another scoff. “The rest of you, do not so much as breathe a word of this plan outside of this tent until it has come to pass. I’ll not suffer through anymore of that woman’s infernal whimpering if she learns of it.”

 

“Or Cota’s jealousy,” another suggested, and once more the laughter reached a crescendo. Even Bayanbataar’s exceedingly rare rumbling chuckle could be heard among them.

 

But Ghoa did not linger any longer to see what else was said. Panic was beginning to rise up the back of her throat like bile, and she was barely able to keep herself from running across the camp. She couldn’t afford drawing any undue attention to herself now, as she would not let herself be traded away again like chattel. Not again,  and much less to the Jhungid. 

 

If there was one thing that she had always feared more than her clan’s protectors, it was them. Perhaps the horror stories of Jhungid raids long past told to every child of Shuurga were nothing more than exaggerations meant to nip resistance to the arrangement with the Kharlu in the bud early on. But regardless, Ghoa had no desire to stick around long enough to see if the rumors of their cruelty held water.

It was a great risk, this she knew. Ghoa could still remember every word of the story that Togene had told her once before of Sechen, the fifth wife, who had escaped and suffered cruel punishment upon her return. But even the thought of facing the unfathomable wrath of her husband paled in comparison to her fear of finding herself left to the mercy of the Kharlu’s enemies.

 

Time seemed to both fly by and drag on simultaneously as she made her preparations. Her first task had been to go to the tents where the ailing slaves languished, to give instructions to one of the other menders on what plants to seek and where to find them and how to make them into the medicines needed. Once that task done, the rest of the day had been spent with her moving from place to place, nicking whatever bits and pieces of supplies would go unnoticed.

 

While nervousness had made her feel like all eyes had been on her during the daylight, nightfall and the blanket of thick clouds obscuring the moon’s light that had come with it had offered her much needed cover. Still, it was only late into the night when Ghoa was certain that most all of the Kharlu were asleep that she made her move. Silently, she stole away from the tent shared with the other wives and retrieved the pack she had hidden away.

 

The hardest part, Ghoa knew, would be securing a horse. They were always guarded through the night from thieves and beasts. But leaving without one was not an option. There was no way that she would make it far enough away from her husband by foot before her disappearance had been noted.

 

But finally, despite their usual reticence, the gods seemed to have mercy upon her.

 

Instead of the usual shepherd keeping watch over the herd, a boy just shy of manhood had taken his place. A son, she guessed, whose father had been among those who had not returned. Though clearly he still had much learning to do, as she had found him sound asleep by his slowly dying fire. In the back of her mind, she felt a pang of guilt thinking of the beating he would undoubtedly receive once it was discovered that she had made off with a horse under his watch. 

 

Still, it did not stop her.

 

Slowly and carefully, Ghoa made her way through the herd so as not to spook them and raise the alarm. She stopped once she found the same black coated mare that usually bore her on her rare excursions outside of the camp. Ever calm and gentle, the mare raised not a hint of protest as she was led away. Only once Ghoa had made it far enough away that she thought she would not wake the slumbering watchman did she even mount.

 

As her confidence in not being discovered grew, Ghoa gently urged the mare from a gentle trot to a full gallop. Feeling the cool night wind beginning to whip through her hair, she briefly closed her eyes and savored the first true feeling of freedom that she had ever experienced.

 

It was sweeter than anything she had ever tasted.

 

 

 

Spoiler

 

 

Before she had left the Kharlu camp, Ghoa had thought that the act of getting away itself would be the most difficult aspect of her escape plan. Yet now, days afterwards, she was realizing more and more just how naive of an assumption that had been.

 

The petite woman was anything but made for survival in the wild, that was certain at even just a glance. She had rarely ventured outside of her own people’s immediate territory, much less that of the Kharlu. She had never learned how to hunt, nor how to wield a weapon. While she had found within her the strength to survive the harshness of life within the tribe, she was now wondering if it was life without that would finally spell her end.

 

Before she had slipped away from the Kharlu in the middle of the night, Ghoa had told herself that returning to her clan was not an option. Surely that would be the first place that Bayanbataar would look for her. Would they have even sheltered her, anyway? It seemed unlikely. After all, Elder Unegen hadn’t fought to prevent her from being taken in her fear of inciting violence in the first place, and Ghoa didn’t have to think hard to imagine what would become their fate if their protectors learned that the Shuurga had harbored her from them.

 

Even outside of her birth clan, the option of remaining in the coastlands at all was a risk that she could not afford. It was likely that any tribes she sought asylum with would immediately turn over to the Kharlu to stay in their good graces. Worse, there was a real danger in running afoul of the Jhungid now that they had won control over the lands for the year. No, what she needed was to get far, far away to a place her captors were neither likely to come looking or, if they did, lacked the influence and intimidation to force her return.

 

That plan had been well and good, save for one small but crucial detail: Ghoa had never set foot outside of their lands.

 

During that first evening, she had rode fast and hard in what was – she had hoped – the opposite direction of Kharlu territory. Once the sun had begun to rise the next morning, she had used it to correct her course and head due west, praying that she would encounter no great obstacles along the way to throw her off course.

 

Too afraid to stop any longer than to give her horse a brief rest from time to time, Ghoa had ridden through the second day and well into the third. Once the sun began to sink in the sky that evening, she hurried to find suitable shelter in which to rest. Not that it had come easy, either. Every howl of gedan in the distances or unidentifiable screech of whatever other beasts prowled those lands under cover of darkness had her starting awake each time they reached her eats.

 

Yet eventually, her exhaustion had won out even over her nerves. When Ghoa had finally fallen into a deep slumber, it had lasted well into the next morning. She cursed herself for wasting so much time, for giving her pursuers the extra bells to gain upon her. But even that paled in comparison to the curses that flowed from her lips unbidden upon the discovery that the stolen mare had pulled loose the knot in her lead and wandered off while she slept.

 

Ghoa hadn’t had the luxury of time to spend searching for her horse. So without any other option available to her, she pressed forward on foot.

 

During her time with the Kharlu, she had remembered Bayanbataar sending riders to the inner steppe for various matters, using her recollections of how long it had taken for them to return when estimating just how much food she would need for the trip. Of course, she hadn’t quite factored into her estimation that those men and women had traveled by undoubtedly faster, familiar routes – and, of course, that their mounts hadn’t left them mid-journey.

 

It took only a few days of travel by foot for her to exhaust the stolen rations.

 

For a mercy, Ghoa had found a river, and so lack of water had never posed an issue for her as she traveled opposite along its current. A person could survive much longer on an empty stomach than without fresh water, this she knew from her teachings. Of all the struggles that she had yet faced, hunger had blessedly never been among them; however, she had quickly started to see why that gnawing, empty feeling in one’s stomach was enough to drive men to desperation.

 

Once that sickening ache had become too loud for her to ignore, Ghoa had tried to get creative. Using a small hunting knife and a torn strip of cloth turn from her clothing, she fashioned herself a makeshift spear. Spearfishing had always seemed to effortless when she watched the men and women of Shuurga on the water, returning home with bountiful catches. How hard could it be?

 

Very hard, as she quickly found out after a handful of awkward, unsuccessful attempts. Undeterred, she kept trying and trying until the makeshift spear’s hit a rock too hard and at just the wrong angle, coming loose from its bindings only to be quickly swallowed up by the river current. With a yell of frustration, she’d tossed the rest of the ‘spear’ into the water with it and marched angrily, hungrily onward.

 

Still unwilling to give up, the runaway wife continued her trek, picking up whatever food she could along the way. Frogs made for the easiest catches, though the meager morsels did little and less to fill her stomach. Once she came across a small cluster of river mussels and devoured them greedily, even if they were much smaller and decidedly less appetizing than those from the sea, but they were few and far between. 

 

A giant fruit-bearing bush she had come across at the river’s edge had initially seemed promising. In a fit of desperate hunger, she had almost recklessly tossed a handful of the sweet smelling yellow-orange berries into her mouth without a second thought. But from the very far reaches of her mind, it was as if she could hear Unegen’s chiding voice just as she remembered from her childhood, warning her that often the most deadly of poisons lie hidden in the sweetest of fruits. Reluctantly, Ghoa had decided not to risk it.

 

Her luck did not seem to be improving the further upriver she traveled. Eventually, she had lost track of how much time had passed since her escape. Had it been a week? Two, or maybe even more..? Her initial resolve to persevere was slowly being chipped away, bit by bit, by fatigue and starvation.

 

But today, she had finally broken.

 

Ghoa hadn’t so much as had a single bite to eat in days now. Her reflexes had become too sluggish to catch the frogs along the riverbank. Her muscles had become too weak to smash open the thick shells of the mussels to get at the meat inside. And finally, her legs had given out from under her, refusing to carry her any further forward.

 

'If this is how I die,’ she thought as she slowly dragged herself across the bank, lungs burning and brow beading with sweat from the effort to make it to the water’s edge.'Then let the river carry my spirit back to the sea where it belongs.’

 

For all the fighting Ghoa had done since she had escaped, the resolution she felt now brought tranquility with it. Though her stomach still ached with emptiness and the sun overhead burned and blistered her skin, she felt only relief as the cool river water gently lapped at her. She would not cry, and she would not beg the gods for their intercession any longer. She was at finally at peace as she awaited what now seemed to be the inevitable.

 

Bells dragged on with the weakened woman passing in and out of consciousness. The sun had already crested in the sky and had begun its return towards the horizon when a shrill whistle in the distance pulled Ghoa once more back to waking. Mind clouded and confused, she wondered if she had actually heard it of if it had been merely some fragment of a fever dream.

 

But once she heard the drumming of hoofbeats against the earth, gradually drawing closer, the doubt fled her mind. Her head tilted towards the sound, but her vision was too blurred to make out the details from such a distance. Even without seeing clearly who they were, she knew – and as her eyes pressed tightly shut again, a low and anguished sob tore free from her lips.

 

Why did her pursuers have to find her now? Why did they come only after the merciful release of death seemed so close at hand? When the peace of the other side was almost within her grasp? This was nothing but a sick and unspeakably cruel joke.

 

All Ghoa could do was wait as the riders drew closer, bereft of even so much energy as to even contemplate escape. She listened as they dismounted, sand and pebbles crunching under their feet as they approached.

 

Gods,” one of them breathed to the other, a softly feminine voice barely above a whisper. “Are we too late? Is she..?”

 

“No,” the other answered in a quiet, gravelly rumble. “Look closer. She yet breathes.”

 

But neither voice seemed familiar to her, and the concern seeming to lace their tone was not what she had expected from her captors upon finding her. Slowly, as they came closer still, Ghoa opened her eyes and tried to blink them into focus to get a better look at them.

 

“Are you hurt, dusksister..?” the woman asked as she crouched down next to her in the water. “Can you speak?”

 

Now that she was close, Ghoa could finally make out the details of her face. Like her voice, neither was her face recognizable to her. But it was her clothes that drew the weakened woman’s eye then. The cloth and leathers were not dyed of Kharlu colors nor emblazoned with their mark. Her brow knit together in confusion and concern.

 

“Who..?” she barely managed, her voice quiet and rough.

 

“She speaks,” the woman breathed out in a sigh of relief, looking back to give her older, scarred  partner a smile before returning her attention to Ghoa. “I am Saran, and he is Muunokhoi,” she explained in a warm, gentle voice. “We are of the Kahkol.”

 

Kahkol. 

 

Not the Kharlu.

 

It took a moment for her exhausted mind to properly process the news, but when it did, she breathed out another sob. Worried that she had distressed her further, Saran reached out, grabbing her hand and giving it a soft, comforting squeeze.

 

“Shh, shhh.. Quiet now,” she cooed. “You needn’t cry. We don’t wish you any harm. We would like to bring you back to our home, get you fed and cleaned and rested.” She squeezed her hand again. “Is that alright, sister..?”

 

No more sobs came, but the tears – happy tears – continued to flow. Her bottom lip quivered as she bobbed her head in a weak nod.

 

“Good,” Saran breathed in relief, releasing her hand and stepping out of the way so that the much taller man could effortlessly scoop Ghoa up from the river’s edge and into his arms.

 

“You can rest easy, young one,” Muunokhoi offered as, very carefully, he pulled himself back atop his horse and held her securely – but not too tightly – against his chest. “Whatever horror it is that you’ve fled, it all lie behind you now.”

 

 

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The fresh scent of soil. The tickle of the threadlike roots as they ran over her fingertips. The firmness of the pebbles rolling over her skin when she dug into the ground with her bare hands.

These were the sensations Nabi recalled as she felt herself sinking into the ground, through the carved stones of the ruins and into earth beneath it. She imagined herself made of rainwater, falling free from her sleeping form above, seeping through the layers of the soil, her senses brushing over the smallest details that she came across. She could see the glimmering shards of crystals embedded beneath the earth, thousands of them, like the stars that lit the night sky. They shimmered most brightly towards the center of the atrium, as if countless stars had came together to form a cluster of constellations.

Nabi stared at it in wonder, and without thinking, found herself reaching for them. It would be the closest thing she would come to, holding the stars within the palm of her hands. And as she approached, she could hear a distant hum, a melody that was more felt than heard, like a soft vibration through the earth. It was resonating from the center of it all, but it felt distant and muffled.

She inhaled and parted her lips as if to answer back with a song of her own, only she couldn’t. She wasn’t here bodily after all, there was no air beneath the ground. She could only reach, so she did.

 

But just as her fingertips neared them, she felt a barrier in front of her, as if her palm came to lay flat against a wall made of clear glass. She could not reach further, but as she pressed, she saw the faint pattern of runes starting to take form beneath her hand.

The more Nabi pushed forward, the brighter the runes glowed, taking on a cold amber hue. She tried to call out again, to the choir that was somewhere beyond this invisible screen. Then she felt it, the soft faint brush of a root as thin as a string. It reached out through the soil from the opposite side, coming to curl around her fingers. She gently enclosed her hand around it, and as she did so, the amber pattern began to crack, fissures growing through its length. She could not hear it shatter, not in this plane of existence, but she felt the song that was trapped behind it suddenly rushing through her, reverberating through her core.

All at once, she felt an entire net of entwining roots reach out and embrace her, and through that touch, she could feel their stems rising above the ground. And beyond them, she could hear the whispers of the petals above. They were singing.

 

And with each note, they were plucking different chords of her soul, each emotional chime rippling throughout her entire being. She felt welcomed. She felt at peace. And as each note flowed through her, she could feel them expanding outwards, like the swell of an ocean wave reaching out into the vast sea.

That was when she felt something far below, deep beneath the mountain. It was still and quiet, as if fast asleep. Nabi couldn’t quite see or feel what it was, but the gentle swells were barely able to reach it, only able to greet it with the most softest of whispers.

Nabi thought if the song was just a little stronger, perhaps whatever it was beneath the earth, could hear it too.

But then she heard his voice.

To me now.

 

It was distant, barely audible, almost buried by the song of the flowers that soaked the soil all around. But those words, they reached into her very core. It was a call she could never deny. It sent ripples throughout her thoughts that pushed away all else. She could almost feel his breath against her cheek as he whispered, but as soft and reassuring as those words tried to sound, she could hear the dread buried beneath them.

I have to go.

Where her descent into the earth was effortless, trying to ascend back upwards was like trying to swim upstream. Everything around her, the song, the soil, the crystals… they all pulled and tugged at her, wanting her to stay.

But he needs me.

Nabi implored them, all the things of the earth, to understand why she had to go. She couldn’t deny him. There was an ache that tightened in her chest at his call, and it would not relent until she went to his side. It had felt so tranquil here, so perfect, that she had almost forgotten all else; why she had come, and those she had left behind.


The flower’s song would be answered another time. The presence beneath the mountain had to wait. The constellations of crystals, the warm embrace of the earth, Nabi peeled away from all of it, trying to return, to claw back toward the surface.

But the higher she climbed, colder it became. She couldn’t see her breaths, but she could feel the chill seeping into her lungs. Had she left him in the cold? She swore she would never do that again, not after the shed, the cold and the dark would never have him. But he felt so far away.

Nabi curled her fingers and she could feel the threads of the roots that were still wrapped around her fingertips. She closed her hand tight and brought them to her lips, and she whispered her plea. She could feel that familiar warmth that always grew within her palm whenever she spoke to the earth, and the tendrils answered, glowing faint with their golden light, before the warmth raced upwards toward the atrium above. And she could sense that he was there, standing amidst a bed of vibrant petals, waiting for her.

She silently asked them to lend him their light, to protect him just a little longer.

I’m coming.

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