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Cigarettes and Fireflies


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Years ago...


Arasen was certain his lung had been punctured from the broken ribs. Every breath was coming harder and more painful than the one before. He could taste both copper and bile on the back of his tongue, and the stones beneath him bore the stains of his lifeblood, as more droplets continued to splatter onto the ground from both his nose and his split lip. His stomach was roiling with both nausea and pain; every movement felt as if something new was tearing inside of him.


His assailants were sure he would die this night. They had left him alive for three suns now, and after this last beating, the most savage one yet, even they pondered out loud the thought of granting him mercy by delivering a quick killing blow to his throat.


But then the Jhungids laughed, and Arasen still recalled the callousness to which they dismissed the idea. “Let his gods grant him mercy, since they didn’t warn him of this.”


How could those words hurt him more than all the injuries he had suffered? And yet, the thought that he had followed his vision here, that meeting with the sworn enemy of his tribe would lead to peace, it speared him deeply with both pain and anger. He had been so certain that this was the first step in paving the way for the end, where wars were no more.


Why did they not understand? Arasen believed wholeheartedly that this goal to somehow bring an end to the endless cycle of violence would be welcomed with open arms by both sides. After all, he wanted both Kharlu and Jhungid to prosper -- to share in the wealth of the land, and to live in unity, for they all were sons and daughters of Nhaama.


But the meeting proved to be nothing but a trap. Upon traveling out to this ancient ruins, a place that long held forgotten magic and history, Arasen was met with betrayal. The Jhungid who had sent secret missives agreeing to negotiate for a treaty, they only sought information from him that they can use to gain advantage over the Kharlu. Anything that would give them further insights into the preparation for the next battle, and the movement and encampment of the main tribe.


When Arasen refused, stubbornly clinging to his hope that an agreement could be reached, they resorted to interrogation through torture.


Now, too, Arasen wondered if this would be his last night. Were those visions for naught? Were his dreams of peace nothing but a fool’s errand?


The Xaela dragged his battered body to the center of the atrium, the only place within this entire ruins where the twilight irises could be found. If he would die here, he wanted to die with the flowers that bore the colors of the sun, its golden shimmer as faint as the hope that was dying in his heart. He could barely hear the echoes of laughter from the Jhungid on the far side of the atrium.


That was when his eyes came upon a faint white glimpse buried in the soil. A small thin bone, lying within the flower bed. Arasen didn’t know why, but he reached for it. And when his fingers curled upon the white marrow, the visions came.


She was so angry. Another had died here too, so long ago, a woman named Otsuyu. But the flowers gave her no release. Nor did death. She had known no rest for as long as she could remember. But she knew brutality and cruelty. And in her fury, Arasen felt it too, the same hatred stirring deep within. And as her form slowly rose, materializing through stones and shadow, he felt everything grow cold around him. The walls and the paved ground had become black as if ink had spilled over them. White breaths plumed from his lips as his breaths quickened, goosebumps racing along his arm. Fear struck him then, but so did something else: Recognition.


Arasen knew instinctively that they both shared one thing: suffering at the hands of wicked men. And as he stared up at her pale white pupil-less eyes behind a curtain of tangled black locks, he understood. He had the gift to unleash her wrath, and in return, she would devour his tormentors. She hungered for vengeance, and for so much more. The spirit’s loneliness was almost palpable.


The Xaela heard the cries of alarm rising from the Jhungid. But he didn’t care. He extended his hand out to her without thinking. In this forgotten place, he was her only connection, and she was his only means of survival.


The spirit’s head lowered, her milky eyes looking to his open palm. Her withered lips parted, revealing hundreds of needle-like teeth. She didn’t smile but Arasen saw the faintest wisps of breath drifting from her lips, as if there were words that went unsaid. Then her hand lifted, and her finger touched his.


There were no screams that followed. Only deathly silence.




Arasen fingered the baubles hanging from his necklace -- a leather strap strewn with various carved crystals and totems. He knew every single one of them, from their shape to the intricate runes carved onto their surface. He could pluck any number of items from his necklace without looking, they were as familiar to him as the appendages of his own hand.


So when his touch drifted to the spot where a certain small and thin bone used to hang, his movement slowed, noting its absence. It was where the bone of Otsuyu’s finger used to hang, between the oval shaped onyx and a jagged nuummite, just below his left collar bone.


How strange that he missed her presence now.


Arasen stared across the campfire, their small band huddled around a small pit in the ground, trying not attract attention in the middle of the Steppe plains. Ghoa had bedded down on the other side of the flames, and both Batuhan and Shael were off on their patrols. Anchor continued to keep his distance from the rest of the group, and Nabi, as usual, went to his side once the camp was made.


Things had not gone the way he had planned.


Arasen had brought the group to Otsuyu and per their pact, she had fed on those she took. She had been so hungry, for he had not returned to the ruins for so long. But the three that the spirit took, they all still lived. Arasen would have been satisfied with the deaths of one in particular, although not all, for the dead would not require healing. And as expected, Nabi called upon the earth to do what she could to help them.


What surprised him was his cousin’s ability to free them from Otsuyu’s spell. He had imagined that he would play the essential part in releasing them, but Nabi had done it on her own, using her mother’s teachings. And even amidst the confusion wrought by the ghost, Arasen still failed to achieve one thing: to kill Saltborn, Nabi’s strongest tie to her current life. It was for the Confederate that she took off the warding bracelet, and it was to free him that she called upon the aether without hesitation. Arasen could feel her drawing upon the energies of the flowers, and he couldn’t help but feel a pang of resentment when they responded so readily to her. When Otsuyu could not fully satiate her hunger by completely draining another, she turned on him. Her only ally.


Outrage still burned inside of him at the thought. The bond that was forged between him and Otsuyu had been incorruptible for years. Then suddenly the spirit would turn on him when she was unsatisfied with his offering? Was it that their pact was disturbed by her feeding on Saltborn’s cursed aether? Or was it Nabi’s doing? He did not know.


But despite the fact that they all lived, Arasen still considered himself fortunate. Nabi’s mark had undoubtedly grown as she used more of her abilities to aid her friends. Saltborn, by some odd stroke of luck, also did not recall the actions Arasen had taken against him, just before Otsuyu took him. The Xaela had been so careful not to reveal his true intentions to any of them. But when he cast a spell on Anchor, making him doubly vulnerable to Otsuyu’s influence, Arasen knew the pirate had to die. He could not return to consciousness to let Nabi know what her kin had done. But Batuhan and Nabi had foiled his own attempts at bringing his blade to Saltborn’s neck without becoming aware themselves of his murderous motives. But as fate would have it, Otsuyu had scrambled the pirate’s memories prior to him waking.


Even in her death, the spirit granted him a boon. Arasen believed that this was yet another proof that he was on the right path. That the gods and fortune smiled upon him. The pains he had suffered was just the price he had to pay for his destiny. The fact that he had to shatter the bone, the only item that bound Otsuyu to him and to this earth, was unfortunate, but necessary.  He had to destroy the spirit, before she turned on him, or revealed to the rest that she and he shared a pact, that he had been to the ruins before. And none could know of the deeds he had committed there. Not if he had any hope of still convincing Nabi to abide by his council and return with him willingly to her people.


Otsuyu had to be sacrificed, for the better good. They all served a purpose, he himself included. He would help Nabi realize hers.


His amber gaze returned to the sleeping form of Ghoa. His thumb and index finger absently rubbed together, recalling the blood rune he had secretly inscribed upon her hand while he was tending to her wounds. Arasen’s face softened with regret. Batuhan cared for her. That much was obvious. His warden and kin by everything but blood, after all these years, was allowing himself to feel something he had not for a long time.


A pity that it could never be. There was a disheartened ache that saddened Arasen at the realization.


But he had decided since the night when he met Otsuyu, that loyalty and idealism had no place in his heart if he was to succeed. They were all gods’ pawns and everyone had to play their part. His own cousin, the spirit that saved his life, and even his best friend... he would give all that was asked of him and more.


Arasen narrowed his gaze as he stared into the fire, hardening his thoughts. There was no room for remorse. But his fingers still lingered by the necklace, between the two black stones, continuing to trace the absence there.

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Ghoa’s eyelids squeezed stubbornly shut against the sunlight filtering in through the openings in the blinds, a soft noise of irritation leaving the back of her throat as she turned her head to bury her face in the soft pillow beneath her. Yet try as she might to stall the inevitable, the damage was already done. Within moments, the Xaela was letting loose a frustrated whine as she turned her head out to face the window again, fixing the intruding light with a bleary, half-lidded glare for all the good it did. No matter how withering her stare, the first proud rays of Azim’s dawning light would not be dissuaded.


Knowing then that a return to sleep would be unlikely, Ghoa rolled onto her back and directed her eyes towards the ceiling above. Her stomach churned uneasily with the motion, and so too did her head begin to throb and spin. She set her eyes on some indistinct pattern in the woodwork above her, trying to bring her mind to a focus through the pain and discomfort. And slowly but surely, she started to remember.


Or not remember, as it were.


Ever since she had finally returned home from their venture to those gods-be-damned ruins, Ghoa’s slumbering had come in short and fitful bouts. No matter how exhausted she was – and gods, was she exhausted – she could only pass a few short bells in sleep at a time before the ever-present nightmares wrenched her harshly away from any semblance of meaningful rest. And once she was awake, powerless to stop the replay of awful thoughts that the dreams put into her head, it would be bells more before she finally calmed enough to try, however fruitlessly, again.


But now as she lie there staring up at the ceiling, no memories of awful dreams came back to the front of her mind to haunt her. Even when she tried to recall them, they refused to heed her. She remembered nothing but the deep, inky blackness of a dreamless sleep. And for the first time in weeks, despite her aches, Ghoa felt genuine relief.


For a time, she just lie there basking in the feeling of a somewhat restful night of sleep. A feeling that she had taken for granted all her life, but had recently missed all too dearly. A real smile, the first in countless suns, pulled at the corners of her lips. Things were getting better. Whatever horrors the ruins had imprinted upon her in their wake, it seemed, were finally beginning to pass.


Even the persistent discomfort and sickness lingering over her like a shroud wasn’t enough to bring her down from her oddly buoyant mood. Both could easily be whisked away by a curative and some warm tea once she managed to roll herself out of bed. But before that, there was another she had to rouse awake.


The smile still resting on her lips, Ghoa turned the rest of the way to face the other side of the bed. Lehko'a would undoubtedly be relieved to see that she had finally gotten some real rest, and that she hadn’t awoken into the same distant malaise that had plagued her since her return.


But as she finished turning, the only thing greeting her on the bed’s other side was a cold, empty expanse of crumbled sheets and blankets. The signs that someone had been there at some point in the night, but no longer. Her smile instantly faltered, at first replaced by a look of furrowed brows and confusion. Then, slowly but surely, the sickening worry began to steadily creep back into her mind. Was something wrong? Had something happened? Was Lehko'a alright?


The Xaela quickly pushed herself up into a sitting position atop the bed, instantly regretting the jarring movement. A sharp pain shot through her head in protest, and the whole world around her seemed to shift and move as if someone had spun it like a globe. One hand moved to splay atop the covers to steady herself, while the other pressed to her face. Her eyes squeezed tightly shut and a steady stream of curses, half in her mother tongue and half not, fell like a waterfall from between her lips. Panic rose like bile – or maybe it was bile? – in the back of her throat, silently pleading for the pain and dizziness to go away quickly so that she could go find him.


And sure enough, they slowly subsided enough for her to drop her hand away from her face and for her eyes to open again. Yet when they did, when she finally was able to look around the room, she found herself briefly frozen in confusion.


This room wasn’t her own, nor could she readily recall having ever stepped foot in it before. Empty bottles dotted the room, some turned over in the floor and others lingering half-empty on tables and counters. Joining the former, her clothes were strewn in haphazard heaps across the floor, scattered as if they had been tugged off in a hurry. In the very back of her mind, however, some distant voice told her something was missing. But what was–


No sooner had the question begun to form in the haze of her mind than did the answers all come flooding back to her at once, a raging deluge of memory washing over her. Once again her eyes squeezed tightly shut and her hands rose to clutch tightly at her head, and a soft gasp of distress tore from her raw, tight throat.


Suddenly she was elsewhere, not only in place but in time, shortly after midday at the rented suite that she and Lehko'a had been sharing. Her smile was hollow as she grasped at his hands and tried to give them a reassuring squeeze, placing a kiss on his cheek.


Nabi needs my help with something at the clinic,’ she’d told him. It was an excuse that she had used a lot since coming home. She used it when her head became so loud with dark thoughts that she needed to get away to calm her heart and clear her mind. When even just looking at Lehko'a for any length of time hurt her like a knife turned slowly in her gut, and she needed space just to be able to breathe again.


'It’ll likely be late before we’re done,’ she had told him. 'I’ll just sleep there, so don’t wait up for me.’


'Don’t worry about me,’ she had told him when she saw his concern. 'I’m fine, I promise.’


'I love you,’ she had told him when she saw the doubt and the hurt and the sadness on his face, and she had meant it. Out of it all, that she would never lie about. She just needed some time and some space to figure out how to put herself back together again.


The memories skipped ahead, and she was long gone from their temporary home. Yet nor was she at the clinic like she had assured the Keeper. In truth, not even one of the times that she had told him that that was where she was going did the Xaela actually end up at the House of Sparrows. After all, she was trying to avoid the others just as much as she was trying to avoid him. It all hurt the same.


Just as she had done each time prior, Ghoa had instead wandered her way back to Kugane, to the back alleys of Sanjo Hanamachi where drinks were plentiful and questions were few.

Wine and liquor helped, though perhaps not in the most constructive of ways. After a few glasses, she could feel the sharpest edges of the pain and fear begin to dull to a level that was almost manageable. Usually, she stopped there. Last night, she hadn’t.


Try as she might to figure out how to pull herself together again, she knew it was only getting worse. Turning off the awful emotions with drink during the day only did so much, and she knew that artificial numbness wasn’t a real, tenable solution. That she felt the need to hide it from those she cared about, out of both shame of her own weakness and a desire not to cause them concern, was proof enough of that. But even if she was aware of it, it still made it no easier for her to come up with a better alternative.


She had been several drinks into trying to puzzle it out when she had found her solitude suddenly interrupted. As she recalled it now, Ghoa could no longer remember what the man looked like in any explicit detail. A hyur, or maybe an elezen? Passably handsome, she thought, but that may have been either the alcohol or wishful thinking talking. She could certainly no longer recall his name but she did remember, however vaguely, that he had been a sailor of some sort. Not that that was hard to remember, considering that was seemingly half the city’s population at any given time.


Ghoa remembered being wary of being joined in her drinking at first. After all, it was far from her first time in a bar;  she knew exactly what a smooth-talking fellow approaching a lady in her cups was angling for. At first, she had only endured the conversation to be polite, trying to find a way to weasel out of it without incensing him. In this part of town, it was best to err on the side of caution.


Yet the longer he stayed, the more comfortable she found herself becoming. Whereas she had spent the last few days trying to avoid direct eye contact with Lehko'a and forcing herself to endure conversation despite the aching in her chest, both came easily and naturally to her with this stranger. He was charming, and he didn’t pry into why she was there drinking alone. Rather, he fed her drunken wonder with stories of his time abroad and had her in tears of laughter with the tales of his misadventures, all while making sure that neither of their cups ever went empty for more than a tick during the bells they had spent just talking about nothing.


The rest of the memories only came in disjointed fragments of limited recollection and phantom sensation with large gaps of time missing between them. Stumbling back to where the man was staying, and and both of them breaking down into laughter when she realized she had lost a shoe somewhere along the way. Her back pressed against the wooden door, breathlessly watching as the man tried to open it as fast as his drink-addled hands would let him. Almost tripping over her clothes in her hasty attempts to rid him of his between kisses steeped in desperation and longing.


But the very last thing she could recall – and in disturbingly vivid memory compared to the rest – was the feeling of peace that had settled over her like a blanket as she had curled in against him and rested her head on his chest. Of closing her eyes without fear of the nightmares that now lived behind her eyelids. Of the soft smile that had lingered on her flushed face as she drifted off to sleep.


Now, she had been released by the onslaught of memories and was left to sit there, dumbfounded in the present. Her eyes once again stared at the clothes strewn about the room, realizing now that what was missing was her nameless and faceless bedmate.


And when that realization dawned upon her, a tidal wave of loneliness broke over her with it. Loneliness that brought her back to other, more distant memories. A childhood spent largely alone, wishing only for the company of friends and family that the other children her age didn’t know how lucky they were to have. Years later, a night of peculiar joy that had turned to unexpected horror, afterward spent curled up in a ball in the back of a dark yurt longing for the almost motherly presence of Togene, her only friend among the Kharlu. Years later still, and she was right back at the days spent in the cramped and claustrophobic dark, with dried blood caked under her fingernails from hours spent desperately trying to pry her way free and her voice hoarse from screaming in hopes that someone, anyone, would hear her.


It was then that the realization hit Ghoa that the only thing that brought her any relief from the pain she was feeling – the only thing that she had ever wanted in such times – was the company of others. To not be alone. For someone to hold her and calm her fears and tell her that she was alright. Yet at the same time, she realized that the people that she should have longed to turn to for comfort the most – Lehko'a, Nabi, Batuhan, and even Anchor and Shael in their own strange way – weren’t the ones that she was wishing for now.


It was the man from last night, whose name nor face she could not remember and would most likely never see again. A man who knew nothing about her, who cared nothing about her, but because of that, one whose company it didn’t pain her to share.


Her stomach rolled violently with sickness at the thought, and hurriedly the Xaela scrambled to disentangle herself from the sheets. Her head was pounding in protest as she rose to her feet, unsteady steps causing her to trip over discarded clothes and to bounce gracelessly off of the door frame as she all but ran for the bathroom. No sooner had she set her blurred, tear-stained sights on the wastebin did she collapse with a hard thump onto the floor in front of it, her whole body heaving with sickness as she emptied the contents of her stomach.


Monster, the voice that had been ever present in her head since her encounter with Otsuyu whispered from the recesses of her mind. Monster, it chanted as its voice grew louder and angrier and more insistent. M̸͓͐Ŏ̶͍̤̆N̶̛̙͝S̷̱͔̎̚Ṯ̴̡̋̋Ë̶͔̿ͅR̴͔̅, it all but shouted at her, now an eerie, distorted chorus of all the accusing voices of loved ones that always came to her in her nightmares.


Another heave came, and another, until there was nothing left but sour, burning bile left in the woman’s stomach. She swiped the back of a shaking hand across her mouth as she leaned away from the waste bin. After a moment, drawing in a shaking breath, she all but crawled across the cold floor to the shower. Unsteady hands turned the knobs until water, almost scalding hot, began to spray from the nozzle. But she didn’t seem to mind as she crawled inside, even as the heat caused her skin to flush red.


“What’s wrong with me?” she wailed to no one but herself, curling into a ball on the tiles below. “What’s wrong with me…?


And though she stayed there, wracked with sobs, until the hot water had turned icy cold, no answer came.



Edited by Jaliqai
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Shael tapped on the tip of her cigarette, letting the ashes drift to the ground. She took another deep draw and exhaled the smoke into the air, watching the plume fade away into the dreary sky above. She leaned back against the stone wall, hooking one foot over the other, giving a sidelong glance to the building at the end of the paved pathway. She was just around the bend, out of sight from the front gates of the Imperial clinic.


Of all the places in the East, Nabi decided that bringing Saltborn to a Garlean facility in Shirogane was the best idea. And despite Shael’s deep-seeded aversion to anything Imperial, she couldn’t really argue. The gauntlet that was placed on the Confederate’s arm definitely incorporated magitek, and who would have the best tools to remove such a thing than the Empire who originated the technology?


Shael still hated the idea. And the thought of stepping into a building manned by Garleans darkened her mood quicker than the gathering rain clouds above.


The Highlander scowled. She thought she had put all that rage behind her, or at least shoved it into the furthest corners of her mind where it didn’t make her want to take up her gun every sun and storm the Garlean Consulate. She had even made deals with one Imperial soldier in particular, filling the power vacuum that Grave had left behind in black marketing Garlean weapons. Using his contact within the Consulate to skim off the top of each shipment, smuggling Garlean weaponry was turning out to be a very lucrative deal.


But after the ruins, that twitch of her trigger finger came back whenever she crossed any Imperial’s path. She found herself tensing whenever she spotted their black and gold uniform walking along the streets of Kugane, that not even bottles of sake would soothe her ire. And her hands felt slick and coated with something warm at the most random times, that it made her look to her palms to make sure she hadn’t spilled something on them.


Shael almost expected to find them covered in blood each time.


"Soddin’ ghosts…" Shael muttered to herself as she impatiently sucked on her cigarette, her annoyance not abated by the time she let out a harsh forced exhale. The visions of the nightmares were still fresh in her mind, and they returned nightly. Only, unlike the time when she had lost Shooey, she didn’t wake up in a cold panicked sweat from these. No… it was much more akin to something dead and heavy inside, like a part of her mind shut itself down so she could go through the motions again.


The dreams always started with Remus, the first person she’d ever killed. But soon, the rest became faceless silhouettes, all bearing the metal insignia with the rank of the Imperial army emblazoned on its polished surface. At the start, there was always horror that twisted her insides at all the bloodshed. But by the time she woke, it didn’t bother her anymore. It felt almost cathartic. Like she was doing exactly what she was good at.


“This isn’t who you are, lass.” A familiar voice echoed from the depths of her memory. Aylard was kneeling before her, and she found herself back in one of the Resistance camps, surrounded by tents and armored men. Many were glancing in her direction, but the only pair of eyes she cared about were the ones that were leveled with hers, aged lines growing at the corners as the older man’s visage softened. His weather-worn hands came to lay upon her shoulders.


“I see a ball of anger, with plenty of rage to be unleashed onto the world.” It was odd to see his gruff expression crinkle into a smile. Shael didn’t remember being moved by it back then, so determined was she to become the greatest soldier the Resistance ever had. His warmth and patience had confused her, making her restless. “But you’re not a weapon, Shaelen. You think you want to be, but you’re just lost in grief. Hating those that took from you. But I’m not looking for a killer.” Shael remembered his voice so clearly now. It always sounded so certain and commanded authority. Even when he was speaking softly to a child of twelve summers. “I need a fighter. Someone who’d fight tooth and nail for what she wants to protect. Y' be a daughter of Ala Mhigo.”


An irritated snort huffed out of her nose along with more smoke. Only if Aylard could see her now. Once a proud Resistance fighter, she was now about to walk willingly into a Garlean clinic and surrender her weapons, all to help an Imperial tinker with illegal magitek. Aylard would be so proud, she thought bitterly.


Shael leaned slightly forward, briefly glancing at the pale haired hyur waiting by the gate. She could still change her mind right now, if she wanted. Her index finger twitched by her side, and her mind wandered to the quiet hum that Jolene would make in her hand. It would just take one shot through the head. Shael could imagine it so clearly. After all, she’d seen it more times than she could count in the visions induced by the whore of a ghost.


What the fuck am I doin’...? she asked herself, frowning suddenly. Every since their departure from the ruins, her mind would just slip back into those nightmares, where she killed and killed again. Even now, standing leisurely within the quiet streets of Shirogane, she was daydreaming about murdering a man.


No, another voice whispered in her head. He's a Garlean.


Shael shook away those thoughts, reminding herself yet again why she was here. Killing an Imperial guard that would put everything in jeopardy. Not just her freedom or her smuggling business, but also Nabi’s chances at helping Saltborn. Even if she could pin the Garlean's death on someone else, Nabi would be implicated since she arranged this meeting. And while Shael had no love for the the Confederate, she saw how his suffering caused the Xaela woman equal measure of pain. And Saltborn, was certainly suffering.


You can get this off o’ me, aye?” She had never seen him so… desperate, his wide eyes rimmed with fear. He had never allowed himself to show such weakness before, at least not in front of her. But in the middle of the plains of the Steppe, in the dark of night, he held out his left hand to her, one that had been trapped in Grave's enhancement for months. “Anything.” His anguish was laid bare. “Jus’ do anythin’.”


Soddin’ hells. Shael exhaled, almost relieved to focus on those memories rather than the violent compulsions that speared her thoughts without warning. She inhaled deeply of the cigarette until the grey cinders reached her fingertip, before flicking the remnant to the stones beneath her feet.  She exhaled again, as rain drops began to pitter patter over the rim of her hat. She pursed her lip with a displeased look, glaring balefully to the skies above.


I ain’t a killer no more, Shael told herself. Aylard’s ghost was long gone from her mind’s eye but there was a part of her that still wanted him to know that too. Turning her back to the Garlean building and the Imperial that stood in front of it, she reached for another cigarette in her chest pocket.  But as she stood there and watched the stones around her started to become darker with the raindrops, an image of crimson splatters flashed before her eyes in an instant. Then in a blink it was gone again.  


Shael froze, her eyes staring at the ground. Then in another beat, she mechanically continued to light the new roll hanging between her lips. You’ll see, she swore to a man long dead and mayhap to herself. Nothing was going to turn her back into that wild and angry child that knew naught but violence as a way to cope. Certainly not some soddin’ ghost.


I’m a fighter, she reminded herself for the thousandth time as rain began to fall more in earnest. And she would keep doing so, for as long as it took.

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The last of the lanterns were starting to blink out in the streets of Shirogane, the residents bidding farewell to the day as they readied themselves for the respite of slumber. The crickets’ quiet chirps filled the night air, and the stars littered the sky, matching each light that had been extinguished below by waking ten more above.


But the beauty of night was lost on Nabi, her gaze solely upon the man she was laying next to. This was her usual nightly ritual, to drink in the view of Anchor Saltborn as he slept. They would murmur quietly about something or another, and slowly but surely his eyelids would grow heavy. Sometimes he would stifle a yawn, trying to continue to listen to her usual rambles, but as her voice grew softer, Nabi could see in the corner of her eyes his blinks growing slower until finally, sleep claimed him. She was usually soon to follow, but just for a bit, she relished in watching him, as peace settled over his features.


But this night, it was not so. Her eyes didn’t leisurely roam over him, carefully tracing the scar that traveled across his face, wondering how old he was when someone marked him so. She didn’t marvel over the tattoos on his cheeks, those that still resembled thorns on a stem of a flowerless rose. Nor did she lean in, almost bringing her lips to press against his, so slightly parted. It looked as if there were words held just within, waiting to escape. Perhaps if she kissed him, she would learn what unspoken sentiments were on the tip of his tongue. But she didn’t want to wake him, so only her breath was allowed to brush his lips. But there was always tender affection that swelled her chest as she lingered just a finger’s breadth away from him. She usually found herself beaming, remembering how soft the tip of his nose was. Despite his scarred face and weathered skin, when she lightly grazed the very tip of his nose with her own, it was always surprisingly soft.


But Nabi didn’t revel in any of these things. Not this night.


Instead, all she saw were the dark circles under his eyes, lending his sallow cheeks a more ashen hue. Even in sleep, the lines between his brows didn’t diminish. Was it exhaustion? Pain? Fear?


All of them, Nabi told herself, and there was a cold shudder that rose from deep within. All those nights she doted on his sleeping visage, she had never thought that parts of him were suffering, his arm slowly becoming lost to the energies of the mutated crystals unseen beneath the enhancement.


How could she have been so negligent? She was there when the Curator brutally drove the metal rods into the bones of his forearm, so that they could make him a more deadly killer, a pawn in their bloodsport.


Why did she allow him to keep it this long? Anchor needed to get stronger before another surgery, she told herself. Then they both put Batuhan’s needs first, because the Xaela’s condition was much more dire. But after that? Shouldn’t she have insisted that Anchor not return to Ironsong until the enhancement was removed? Why didn’t she beg, plead, or say anything to get him to agree to do away with that cursed gauntlet, before they set out for the ruins deep in the heart of the Steppe?


Nabi already knew the answer. She had grown too complacent. Too happy.  She was busy making him a nameday cake. Planning beach picnics. She wanted to cry and laugh ruefully at the same time. While she was sharing sunsets and fireflies, his arm was slowly being corrupted and warped. So when Anchor stepped up to protect her, when he took it upon himself to become her shield against an angry spirit that haunted the ruins, it costed him dearly. The ghost drained his aether and scrambled his memories, and destabilized the crystals beneath the metal, causing them to shatter and embedded themselves further along his arm.


Shael blamed Otsuyu, the ghost of the ruins. But Nabi knew better. She herself allowed this to happen. She was the reason that the gauntlet was on Anchor in the first place. He was forced to use the gauntlet and his aether because of what he did for her. And they had all volunteered to travel to the ruins for her sake.


None of it would have happened, if it weren’t for her.


Nabi could look on him no longer. Her eyes were spilling over with hot tears, her chest starting to burn. She had refused to show her despair during the surgery, and even after. Anchor couldn’t know of her guilt. He would only be upset, and he needed to focus all his energies on his recovery. For unlike after the escape from the mountain, Anchor now seemed more frail than ever. At least in the fighting pits, his tenacity always burned stubbornly behind his gaze, no matter how broken his body was.


But after the ruins, racked with pain and exhaustion both physical and mental, Nabi watched as the man before her struggle with keeping his thoughts in the present. Otsuyu had ravaged his memories, and Nabi wasn’t sure if all could be regained and when.


Nabi quickly brushed away the moisture from her cheeks, pulling her brows into a tight frown. She couldn’t let Anchor see her like this, just in case he accidentally woke. She pressed her lips in a determined line instead, and curled in closer to him. She almost listened for his heartbeat, a sound that used to bring her comfort in times of darkness. But now she could only hear that distant thrum, that other presence that beat and hummed alongside his heart.


Nabi shut her eyes, burying her face into the pillow as more tears began to flow. Not even the sight of the fireflies taking flight would give her peace. She balled herself up beneath the blankets, thankful that the sheets muffled her quiet sobs through the night.


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  • 1 month later...

A drop of blood spattered onto the dried marrow, a thick crimson trail left in its wake as it flowed down the length of the bleached bone.


Arasen squeezed his fist harder as he held it hovering above the ground, forcing more droplets of his lifeblood onto the carefully arranged stones and bones before him. The pain of the clean cut upon his palm barely registered in his mind, his focus solely upon the arcane patterns and symbols forming before him.


It was not an easy task to find a completely isolated area to perform the augury. Ever since their return to Hingashi, he had withdrawn from the company of others, save Batuhan who was insistent upon checking in on the Xaela. The fact that the rest of the group that had traveled to the ruins cared little on what Arasen did or where he went was no surprise. It was plainly clear that the three that were taken by Otsuyu were each struggling on their own to recover after the ordeal. And Nabi was too engrossed in Saltborn’s illness -- for the Confederate seemed to be in the worst state of them all -- to mind the affairs of her cousin.


And this suited Arasen just fine. He needed time to contemplate his next steps. He had thought that the ruins would bring him so much closer than it had to bring Nabi to his side. But his cousin seemed to be solely devoted to aiding in Saltborn’s recovery. Whatever it was that plagued the Confederate’s health, Nabi seemed to prioritize above her own well-being. He thought for certain that the growth of the mark upon her skin would have alarmed her, and that she would turn to him for answers. But it was all but forgotten in face of the hyur’s pain.


Arasen reached into the alter, a circular arrangement of white sand upon the ground encircled by a thin copper wire, his bloodied finger starting to trace lines and symbols upon the granular canvas. As the crimson smeared in between the formations of crystals, each rock started to emanate a subtle glow, as if awakened from a deep slumber. And with each additional illumination, the Xaela’s clear amber eyes began to shimmer.


Questions floated through his mind. Would killing the Confederate be the answer? It would be a difficult task, especially amidst the serenity and security of a place like Shirogane. But it was not impossible. But as his fingers became more coated with stained soil, the bloody patterns on the ground began to whisper to him. His answers laid elsewhere. Saltborn in peril as well as the suffering of the rest of her friends only seemed to motivate Nabi into further devoting herself in aiding them, rather than instilling fear and uncertainty in the Xaela.


The movement of his hand quickened with the next stroke, some white sand thrown into the air as Arasen’s tracing upon the earth became more frantic. He needed to know. He needed to see.


With another flick of the wrist, more flecks of his blood were scattered over more bones, and it was then that Arasen’s eyes flared bright for an instant. There he saw a scene he should not be privy to, except for his Sight. Saltborn was screaming at Nabi, trapping her against the wall. Arasen heard not the words. But the Confederate had a maddening look to his eyes as he spun and reached for a knife. Arasen was both horrified and enraptured at the scene. For an instant, he thought the pirate would do Nabi harm, but he turned the blade towards himself, about to plunge it into his arm. Arasen squinted, as he only saw a glimpse of the man’s flesh, but where once a metal gauntlet used to be, now his limb was dark and marred. Nabi bolted forward and screamed something, though no sound reached Arasen.


With another blink of the eyes, the vision faded, giving way to another. Ghoa and Batuhan were seated on a large rock, overlooking the ocean. She was handing him a small ring, and the woman’s features held both melancholy but also tenderness. The ease in both their forms as well as their proximity to each other, Arasen knew that the two had grown much closer since their first meeting. Despite the wistful pang that clutched at his chest, Arasen’s hand moved again to continue the tracing before him, the deep red diagram becoming more intricate and chaotic. Another flick of the wrist, and that vision too left him.


He needed more. He knew he had not yet found that one thread, that singular vision to guide him on what his next action should be. That glimpse of a possible path that could bring about the destiny he so longed for. His breaths were becoming heavier, more hungry, his limbs trembling from the strain. The Sight was both a great gift and a great curse. Its price was never an easy one.


Then he saw a crackle of yellow energy across the darkness. Arasen’s movement stopped, and even his breaths ceased for a moment, as another vision unfolded before him. The Xaela’s amber eyes widened, shimmering bright within the black paint that crossed his features. His pupils darted aimlessly, seeing and unseeing at the same time.


When the vision finally released him, Arasen gasped, tumbling forward, both hands clutching at the ground as he struggled to stay upright. He gulped for air and his entire body stumbled with weakness from both blood loss and what the Sight took from him. It was a cost he had paid many times before, but each toll seemed pricier than the last.


But he finally had an answer. How to proceed. If all went well, it would require no bloodshed -- only the sharing of truths.


After all, that was his sole purpose here: to achieve the ultimate truth of peace, and through that save countless lives.


Now he had a way to make Nabi realize it as well.

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  • 1 month later...

Once the door clicked softly shut behind her, Ghoa leaned against it, letting her head tilt backwards and her eyes fall shut. A quiet, drawn out sigh escaped from between her parted lips. The arm from which the bag of foodstuff hung shifted to let it gingerly slide down to rest on the floor by her feet, and then returned upwards to clutch tight around the small box she still held within her grasp.


For a moment, she simply listened intently for any sounds of life present in the apartment. Yet the only sound that reached her was the almost inaudible ticking of a clock hung upon the wall nearby. Her eyes batted open again a moment later to look around, to find the space just as bereft of movement as it was sound.


“Lehko'a..?” the Xaela called softly, uncertainly, and waited.. When a few ticks passed and the silence and stillness continued, she was convinced that the other must have stepped out for a time. And for that, for having the apartment all to herself for a short while, she was relieved.


Ghoa still had secrets of her own, things she hadn’t told him. Things she didn’t want to tell him, though not for lack of love. There were skeletons in her closet that she didn’t care to dwell upon in her thoughts, much less breathe life into all over again by speaking of them aloud. Yet Arasen’s prodding but a short while ago had her doing just that very thing, and now she needed some time alone to think, to stuff all the skeletons back into the closet they belonged in.


And she could not do that with Lehko'a about, with how well he could read her even when she was trying her best to put on a front. She couldn’t pack everything back into the boxes they had come out of if he was there, worrying over her. Even if he wouldn’t push her to tell him what was on her mind, she wouldn’t be able to handle the guilt tying her stomach into knots if she once more subjected him to such concern without telling him why. Not when her botched attempt at dealing with the aftermath of the ruins by herself was still such a fresh, barely healed wound between them already already.


Finally pushing away from the door, the petite Xaela grabbed the bag from its resting place by her feet and moved to the small kitchenette, setting it down again alongside the box of reagents atop the table. She would worry about sorting everything away into its rightful place later. Right now, she felt the water – with all its safety and warmth and comfort – calling for her.


Hurried footfalls brought Ghoa to the bath, and there she wasted not a single tick in turning the knobs of the ivory tub to get the water going. With the temperature set, she added a healthy pour of bath oils and soaps coax it to life in a fragrant froth. It took but a moment for her to peel off clothing and toss it haphazardly aside, and only once the bath was almost too full did she slowly, carefully step inside and sink into its depths. A soft sound of contentment left her as she leaned back comfortably, until her head came to rest against its edge.


Warm bath water may not have been the same as the cool, refreshing touch of the sea against her skin, but it was a comfort nonetheless, not to mention far more private.

Her head tilted back further still until her eyes, half-lidded, were staring upwards and unfocused towards the ceiling. Her mind began to drift back to the conversation still fresh on her mind. To the request that had been made of her:  convincing Nabi to return with her cousin to the coastlands to avoid the ill fate he had forseen. To convince her that the pain of choosing to leave those she cared for now would be far less than the heartbreak of losing them for good, and knowing that she could have prevented it by leaving them sooner.


Yet somewhere in the back of her mind, a distant little voice tried to coax her to reconsider. ‘Haven’t you already tried that very thing before, yourself?,’ it whispered.'Don’t you remember how poorly that always ends?’ Her brows furrowed at the thought, at the uncomfortable memories that those silent words tugged at. 'Don’t you remember..?


But then there was Arasen’s voice, following quickly on the heels of that faint flicker of doubt.


I… sense that you have experienced something similar. You survived. You are a stronger woman,” he had told her. “My cousin… she is a delicate thing. I don’t know if she would live through this.


He was right, of course. Ghoa had survived Ino’s death and all of the guilt that it had laid upon her shoulders, though the process had been far from easy and certainly not pretty.


She had had to flee the memories to another land, spending several moons – cycles, even – just barely coping. And there had been no few times then that she had wondered if there would ever come a time that she no longer felt the crushing weight of guilt and sadness upon her. On more than a few occasions had she laid awake at night and wondered if it were even worth trying, if giving up would hurt less in the end. But she had come out of it eventually, even if the scars it had left behind were still tender to this day.


Could Nabi survive that same ordeal? It was hard for Ghoa to imagine. Her stubbornness and ever-present refusal to just lay down and suffer quietly had eventually carried her through it. Yet would Nabi have that same instinct, or would doubt and sadness swallow her whole like it had almost done to her? Somehow, the latter seemed more likely an outcome.


So, Arasen was right again, it would seem. It was best that Nabi go with him, for her own sake. Yet that didn’t make the thought of her leaving them any less painful. She was a dear, dear friend;  at this point, she might as well have been family to Ghoa, or the closest she had ever gotten to having one.


And to think that she would be encouraging Nabi not only to leave them, but to go somewhere that she would be right under the nose of two of the men that Ghoa hated and feared most. Men whose cruelty had left her with injuries that, over ten cycles later, still showed no signs of healing completely. What if she encouraged Nabi to go, only for her to befall some similarly foul fate at their hands? The thought of that alone terrified her, making her stomach roil with nausea.


But.. Arasen’s plan was a solid one, admittedly. Sow the seeds of anger, suspicion, and humiliation between the two most powerful and influential of the Kharlu, and let the chaos that ensued provide a distraction to keep their eyes upon each other, rather than Nabi’s presence.


And the lie – or, for all she knew, potential truth – that Ghoa had given him to use to instigate the conflict was a solid one. The likelihood that it would work was high, she felt. And though she herself had never really lusted for vengeance or justice from either of them, it was still oddly cathartic to think of the possibility:  to weaponize the hurts they had inflicted upon her to not only put them at odds with one another, but if all went to plan, indirectly leading to their downfall once the yearly war was ended and peace reigned. But most important of all, without a doubt, was ensuring that Nabi was safe and protected.


Still, as she lingered upon the thought, the frown she wore began to tug the corners of her lips further downward. Her brow knitted, and after a moment, there was a faint trembling to her bottom lip. The hurt was beginning to blossom anew in her chest, even keener than before.


All of this was too much. Arasen might have complimented her strength earlier, but even Ghoa had her limits. Now that she was alone with everything – the pain of a loss that had not happened yet, the uncertainty of what it would bring, and the sickening phantom feeling of hands upon her body – she could feel that defensive wall quickly beginning to crack under pressure.


Yet before Lehko'a made it home, she would be sure to put that back together, too. And then, come the next day, she would find the strength to do what needed to be done.

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  • 4 weeks later...

“I need more time.”


Arasen was trying his best to keep all contempt from his voice. He had practice with it over the years, but each time he had to “negotiate” with Kiratai, it had always ended in an extreme test of patience. Toragana was shrewd enough to bear witness to all the meetings between them, for Arasen dared not try something in her presence. While she was not as old or skilled as Siban, Toragana still had years of practice over Arasen.


Not that such a thing would grant any further clarity over the Sight.


If anything, it only entrenched the older udgans deeper into their traditions, making them rigid and single-minded. It was the elder voices amongst the shamans that continued this blood war between the two tribes. But Toragana, much like Siban, was different. They saw possibilities outside of the single path that was laid out before them.


Arasen should be thankful he supposed, for if it wasn’t her counsel to an influential warlord like Kiratai, he would never had an ally within the Jhungid. And despite what web of influence he himself had fostered over the years, all that had been accomplished so far would not have been possible without further aid from someone outside of the Kharlu. Even as patient and careful as he was, Arasen knew that he needed accomplices that would not fall under the auspice of his father or Bayanbataar.


But despite this alliance that defied the age old beliefs of their people, here Arasen was, again pleading his case. His frustration simmered behind his placid mask, his voice still never rising above a calm and reassuring tone.


“It is nearly done. She will return with me, any sun now, willingly.” Arasen’s amber eyes flitted between Kiratai and his udgan, then to the five other Jhungid around them. One stood next to the warlord, while two stood guard at either side of the cave they were in. They might still be in the isle of Shirogane, but Arasen had no doubt that these warriors would be able to dispatch of him quickly and silently should they deem him a threat, without a single Sekiseigumi being the wiser. Every time he was surrounded by the Jhungid, Arasen couldn’t help but recall the first time he had been lured out into that ruin. He'd nearly died. Those fears had long been dismissed, but the memory never quite left him, lingering in the furthest recesses of his mind.


“It has been moons already, son of Tugan.” Toragana narrowed her eyes on him, and the light silver limbal rings seemed to burn a bit brighter against her black irises. While his lighter eyes were set within the black tribal markings, her face was the opposite. White dots lined her dark brow, set like stars in the night against her near black complexion. It was almost an eerie sight, and Arasen couldn’t help but appreciate the intimidating appearance of it. Even if she called him by his father’s son, purposefully trying to dig under his skin.


Kiratai flicked a glance in the udgan’s direction, and Arasen knew that it was Toragana who needed convincing, not Kiratai. But he was astute enough to show deference first to the warlord, then to his udgan with a low nod.


“The lost daughter needs to come of her own accord, I’ve told you this,” Arasen reminded them patiently, yet again. “She needs to give herself willingly for the mark to be fully realized. And only then--”


“So were Siban’s words,” Toragana cut him off sharply. “That was her vision. But you and I know that the power is in the blood. The mark is only a tether. We can harness the power ourselves.”


“You saw what happened when we tried to recreate the mark using only blood. It was utter failure!” How could they be so blind? Arasen clenched his teeth to keep his temper at bay. It was greed for power that always made them arrogant. This was why they had always failed in generations past. None had the foresight. Or the patience.


“That was because none of them was gifted with the mark. She is the bearer.” The udgan sounded so sure, so confident.


“And what if we fail again? We can’t just feed her to the worm and start all over. This is our only chance we will have in our lifetime!” Arasen felt his mask starting to falter. All the females that have died so far, they were all Kharlu. The Jhungid had yet to bring an offering to the altar. They knew nothing of sacrifice. The warrior next to Kiratai brought his hand over his sword as if in warning, a sight that Arasen had become so accustomed to over the years. They have never trusted him, nor he them.


Toragana was about to retort, but Kiratai stepped forward, silencing the udgan. “You had enough time. Let her breathe the air of her homeland to be fully convinced, and be reminded of her path.” There was no changing the warlord’s mind, this Arasen saw in the Jhungid’s green eyes. “We have done it your way long enough. Sacrificed our own men in that attack outside of the Reunion. We could have killed your warden for what he did to my men. We let him recover here at your request.”


Kiratai stepped within ilms away from Arasen, his hissed words washing over the Kharlu’s face. “You’ve played your games long enough. Don’t think I don’t know about the escaped wife. I can pluck any of your pieces off, whenever I choose.”


Arasen almost bared his teeth. “I’ve already told you the use she will have. If you want to topple the powers within the Kharlu, she is essential.”


Kiratai held up a hand, silencing him with but a gesture. Arasen knew better than to contest his authority. How much this warlord reminded him of his own father… it brought a hint of bile to the back of his throat. He just had to remind himself yet again that the male was useful. A means to an end. For peace.


“We are leaving with the lost daughter. If she isn’t convinced yet, then you will make sure she is by the time we reach the ruins.” The warlord spun away from Arasen, unwilling to accept anything else other than silent obedience. “Send word to your people to make ready the preparations.”


Kiratai nodded to the Jhungid standing behind him, who returned the same and darted off toward one of the ends of the cave. With a single hand gesture, the three raced off into the streets of Shirogane. Toragana lingered a few moments, as her warlord exited the cave in the opposite direction.


“I thought you would have stepped out of Siban’s shadows by now,” the udgan said with a smug narrowing of her eyes.


“And I thought you stopped trying to prove yourself better than her,” Arasen shot back cooly, meeting her gaze with a venom of his own.


“Siban?” Toragana scoffed as she began to make her exit. “The old woman is dying and delirious. I have long passed her skills.”


“No,” Arasen called out after her. “Chanai.”


That stopped Toragana in her tracks but only for an instant. She said nothing as she resumed her pace a tick later, her stride more brisk than before.


But that jab gave Arasen little satisfaction. He had so little choice now, and the Jhungid was about to topple the house of lies he had so carefully erected. After waiting for what felt like forever, he finally started to make his own exit out of the cave, when another figure appeared to darken the mouth of it. Another Jhungid? Perhaps Kiratai finally decided to dispose of him? Wild thoughts began to swirl in his head. With Toragana’s interference, it was difficult to foresee what they would intend. But when Arasen approached closer, recognition began to settle upon his features, and his amber eyes widened.


“What were you doing here?” Batuhan asked in a voice that rumbled with both disbelief and suspicion. “What were you doing with the Jhungid?”

Edited by Sentry
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“How come you’re not afraid of blood?”


A pair of amber eyes peered up at him, wide and curious. The summer skies lit his pale irises even more brilliantly, like jewels that had caught the ray of the sun and trapped it within its facets.


Batuhan regarded the young Xaela with equal interest, a small smile quirking up one corner of his lips. He was older than the boy by eight summers and easily towered over him at his full height. “Should I be afraid of it, boy?”


Arasen smiled wide, white teeth gleaming within the tanned complexion. “Not at all! It’s only that there are others who don’t like seeing it. Their own anyroad. It might be that aether makes up our soul, but it’s our blood that gives us our strength.” The younger boy puffed out his chest and proudly pounded his fist against it twice. “It’s our passion and life, pumped through our veins.”


The older Xaela tilted his head with amusement. The boy had enthusiasm of his youth, but there was wisdom and knowledge in his eyes. Confidence in his words. “Is that why you are studying in the ways of the blood shaman?”


Arasen bobbed his head excitedly. “I am going to be the best there is.”


Batuhan huffed, laying his larger hands on top of the boy’s head, tossing his braids about and letting the beads at the ends of them clack around playfully. “I guess then I better look after you very carefully.”


The younger Au Ra pouted, frowning and waving off Batu’s hand. He clearly didn’t appreciate being treated like the child that he was. “Well, good thing you are not afraid of it then,” he muttered. “Since we will be bound by blood. Through a ritual.”


Batuhan nodded sagely. “Until the end of all suns. I, as your warden, will always be able to find you. And know if you are in danger.” There was an odd twinge in the back of his mind, that after the ritual, he will forever be linked to this young boy. And yet Arasen belonged to a strong and important bloodline, and Batu had been watching this boy from afar. Unlike so many others of his age, Arasen always looked to the stars and to the distant horizon. As if looking to a life and possibilities beyond what was right in front of him.


That was something worth protecting.


“You are not afraid of it are you?” The older Xaela teased, eyeing the boy. “It is not an easy rite. You will shed as much blood as I.”


Arasen paused before answering, a frown pinching his young face. When he did look back to Batu, it was after a good amount of thought, and there was new eagerness to his expression. “I am not afraid. I want to know firsthand what it’s like, to feel blood magic. Runes written in blood are far stronger, you know. I already know what summoning and weaving aether feels like, but using blood… that is going to be something else.” The young Xaela grinned from horn to horn in anticipation.


Any other might have doubted the wisdom of being bound to a boy that spoke such nonsense and with such fervor. But Batu saw the dreamlike idealism on Arasen’s face, the boy continuing to talk about endless possibilities of blood magic. Of how it can change the properties of runes, promising to find ways to enhance even the oldest and simplest of spells, of healing what was incurable before, and many more that was beyond Batuhan’s limited understanding of such magic.


The boy wanted to better the world. And Batuhan wanted to see that world.


“I am sure even our bond can be improved…”




“How long?” Arasen stuttered, his eyes wide. It lacked the light and clarity that Batu was used to seeing. “How long have you been here? Were you following me?”


Batuhan narrowed his eyes, tilting his head slowly as he scrutinized his ward. “Long enough to know that you and they were not strangers.” His jaw was set, and his tone hardened. “You were hidden from me.” The older Xaela never liked it when Arasen dampened their link, making it impossible for him to use their bond to track him. It was something that should not be possible, and yet for Arasen, almost anything was possible where blood magic was concerned. Batu had learned this long ago.


“As long as I have been residing here, I have been patrolling the area regularly. I became aware of more Xaelas on this isle in the recent suns, so I followed them. And after scouting them, I discovered they were Jhungid. They wore no obvious markings, but I recognized their scent upon the wind. The udgan of various tribes often carry a unique totem on them that they would never discard. And with the Jhungid, it is a peculiar mix of herbs. I would recognize it anywhere.” His gaze and tone sharpened slowly as he looked over the younger Xaela. “I followed one of them here, to discover that you were meeting with them.”


There was a pause as Batuhan lowered his chin, locking his gaze with his ward. There was a keen and almost accusatory edge to his expression, one that would brook no lies.


“...How do you know them?”


What happened next was something Batuhan was wholly unprepared for. His eyes flickered to Arasen’s hand, one that rose with the palm facing him. And in that instant, he felt a sharp piercing pain on his chest, beneath his shirt. When he pulled the fabric away, Batu saw the mark. It was the one that was branded upon him years ago, the rune that bounded him to his ward. Only now, it was bleeding like it was a fresh new wound. Droplets of blood began to seep through the pores that had long sealed over with scarred flesh.


And suddenly, this sensation was familiar to him. Batuhan remembered that this had happened before, these old tattoos from the rite of binding coming to life again. It had involved the Jhungid back then too. But somehow, that memory had been hidden away, until now.


Batuhan’s hand locked around Arasen’s, and despite its weakened state, the grip was firm, fueled by outrage. “What are you doing?” Again the memory returned, he had asked this very thing before. Years ago. Back then, Arasen had worn a sorrowful smile. He shook his head and whispered words that were still lost to him.


The ward that looked back to him now, however, wore an expression of panic and frustration. “I am sorry, my brother, that I must invoke this mark once again.” His hand pressed against Batu’s chest, the crimson stain spreading across his splayed fingers. “Three commands you will abide, you will not question and you will not remember. You will only obey the will of the one who bound you.”


Batuhan’s hand shook, with pain as well as a newfound rage, as rivulets of his own blood began to trail down over his knuckles. But his body couldn’t move. It was as if invisible chains had sprouted from where Arasen’s hand laid against the mark, and held him still where he stood. The whites of his eyes surrounded the deep green pupils as the older Xaela glared down at the ward he had trusted all his life.


You bound me…” he hissed, furious and incredulous.


Arasen’s visage softened where Batu’s was riled. “I did,” the younger Xaela said quietly. “Long ago. When I thought I would use this to save you.” But the flicker of tenderness didn’t last long as Arasen bore into him, his voice turning cool and losing what little remorse it had. “I am lucky I had the foresight to bind you thrice.”


Batuhan glared at Arasen, and barely managed to shake his head. “What are you planning to do?” he demanded hoarsely.


“I will ask you to believe me, as you have always done.” Arasen’s voice was calm and his words were slowing impossibly. Batu saw the younger Xaela blink, but when those eyelids opened again, his eyes were shining like the brightest sun, blinding all else from his sight. His words echoed loudly, almost painfully, as if reverberating within the cave walls.


“And help me get my cousin back home.”

Edited by Sentry
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  • 2 months later...

"Mama, what’s on my back?”


Chanai was wringing a rolled up cotton shirt when a voice from behind made her pause. She wiped her brow on the back of her wrist, turning around to see Nabi standing just a few fulms behind her with a small bundle of soiled clothing in her arms. If it wasn’t for the question, the sight of the child trying to balance a pile of robes much too big for her small stature would have brought about an amused smile. But even the view of her seven-year old daughter trying valiantly to help her mother do the laundry, couldn’t alleviate the dread that settled in the pit of her stomach.


She  knew that someday she would have to explain. But under the bright summer midday sun with washed sheets hanging about all around them, the older Xaela found herself without an easy answer. Had someone else pointed it out? Surely, the child could not have spotted it herself.


It was almost laughable. That one such as herself, would be caught unawares by something so predictable. Sight or no, Chanai should have been better prepared to be asked about a strange pattern that was on her daughter’s back since the day she was born. Was it that it was something she herself truly didn’t want to acknowledge? She had come up with a different answer each time she had imagined this moment. But they all felt lacking in some way. Or untrue. Perhaps there really was no acceptable response. She had willed herself to forget it all in the tranquility of the mundane life that Hingashi provided. Matters like a sun spent doing laundry with her child was what was important, rather than ancient visions and prophecies.


Chanai sighed, letting the wet linen slide back down the washboard into the lathered water of the wooden tub, canting her head in her daughter’s direction. Nabi was trying to set down the clothes she had collected, even as they began to haphazardly spill out of her grasp. She always was such a helpful child. Squatting down next to her, Nabi looked up at her mother curiously, those golden eyes round as saucers.


“How did you come to see it, my love?” Chanai asked quietly, shifting the contents within the bucket, which prompted Nabi to scoot closer.


The child concentrated on the task at hand first, to carefully tie up her sleeves as Chanai had done, although they was lopsided here and there and they only made it half way up her forearms. The older Xaela made no mention of it, only smiled faintly at the effort. But her brow remained pulled low even then, she was struggling for an answer.


“Aunt Mimiyo thought it was a dirt stain at first. But it didn’t wash off!” Nabi dunked a shirt into the water, leaning forward with the effort, her arms submerging well past the elbow. She didn’t seem to mind her sleeves getting wet. “She said you knew.”


Chanai watched the folds of fabric within her daughter’s small hands starting to balloon up with the trapped air within. She moistened her lips slowly, her lingering affection slowly giving way to something more thoughtful. “It is… a mark of a prayer,” she said quietly, soberly. “I prayed that you would come to me, and you did.” Her voice trembled with the weight of the truth in those words.


Nabi’s eyes blinked wide, her mouth opening in a gasp. She straightened with an awed look, the laundry suddenly forgotten. “A prayer! So… you asked the gods? About me?”


The wonder in her child’s expression, what mother would ever want to deny it? Under any other circumstances, Chanai would have done everything in her power to see such a thing to its full bloom. But this sun was an exception. In the face of the light that shined in Nabi’s eyes, her own darkened and lowered. “For as long as I could remember, I wanted one thing. I was so certain that it would be the only thing that could bring peace to my heart, that I’d be willing to sacrifice anything to achieve it.” Her hands had gone slack upon the edge of the vat, droplets of soapy water dripping from her fingertips. She was looking off into the distance, and rather than seeing the streets of Kugane, there was a familiar meadow that stretched out before her, a sea of green and gold swaying with the summer breeze. She had been so sure, for so many years, that she could restore the beauty and that feeling of serenity to the blood soaked lands of the Steppe.


There was a pause before Nabi’s voice brought her out of her reverie. “You look sad, mama.” The child had stopped her own plunging of the soiled clothing, instead placing a wet hand over that of her mother’s. More droplets fell from their touch, rippling the water below.


Chanai sniffed, blinking back down at her daughter. Her smile was tentative at first, but soon it warmed with all the affection that bloomed in her heart. “No, my love. I’m not sad. I am… sorry.” She shook her head, those words bringing about a stirring in her chest. “But not because of you. You are my little miracle. My beautiful winged thing.” She squeezed the smaller hand in hers, bringing it up to brush it gently against her cheek. “You brought love to a heart that was ailing. I was trapped in darkness, seeing only the shadows. But you brought light into my life. Now I see love where I thought there was only death. Freedom and hope rather than inevitability.”


Chanai turned, her head dipping as she leveled her gaze to that of her daughter’s, the intensity in her voice and expression wholly summoning the young Xaela’s full attention. “I wished for a change, Nabi. The mark you bear is one born of twilight. When the bell tolls of change and rebirth.” Her hand squeezed tighter, and her eyes flicked to the glint of woven metal that hung from the child’s wrist. “It is a great and terrible thing… for it can free you or bind you.”


“I don’t… I don't understand,” Nabi whispered, her eyes now starting to show fear as it darted between that of her mother’s. “I’m scared, mama.”


Chanai bowed her head, a long sigh deflating her chest. The truth was too hard. Nabi was not ready for it, and she was not prepared to share it. Was she hoping that by blurting it out, that she would find some release? Relief from her guilt? Or forgiveness from the young and naive heart of an innocent child?


“I am sorry, little one.” She caressed the child’s knuckles with her thumb, shaking her head. “You are my greatest gift. I only want to give you the life you deserve.” She brought her lips to Nabi’s hand, before setting it upon her lap and straightening. She smiled down to her daughter, giving her the most warm and reassuring look she could manage. “The mark means nothing now. Only a memory of a supplication long forgotten.” She gently tucked away an errant lock of hair behind the child’s horn.


“Don’t show it to anyone, from here on.” Her fingers gently held the child’s chin, lifting it to call upon Nabi’s gaze intently. “It is something we left behind. Same as our home. Now we make a new home here. A brand new start.” She extended a forefinger to lightly twirl the bracelet around the child’s wrist. “And remember this, a gift from both your father and I. Make sure it is with you, always. It will protect you.”


Chanai searched Nabi’s eyes, and there was something unwavering in her words despite her gentle tone.


“You promise?”


There were many questions in her daughter’s wide gaze. But despite her curiosity -- and mayhap even a hint of fear -- one thing shined bright and certain in the child’s eyes. A trust in her mother. And so Nabi nodded earnestly, and Chanai pulled her in for a gentle kiss upon her forehead.  


I too will promise. I will make it right.

Edited by Roen
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It still hurt.


Batuhan’s hand rose to his chest, clutching at his leather tunic as he closed the door to the storage room behind him. He did not want to make a show of his discomfort to those he left inside, they seemed uncertain of him as it was. And he of them.


But it was not entirely born out of distrust. Despite his lack of recollection, a part of him knew that he had forgotten them. Somehow. That single memory that returned to him, of his word given to the hyur, it was enough. Batu knew they had met before. They had spoken long before this sun. And somehow, he had felt enough faith in the man whose face was now estranged to him, to swear on his life that he would protect the lost daughter.


How had he forgotten?


One hand suddenly shot out to the wooden wall of the hallway, his palm slamming awkwardly on the grained surface, skidding over it as his weak fingers found no purchase, his feet sliding as the ship titled violently against another wave. The far door leading to the deck was flung open, as two more figures appeared within its frame, they too struggling to find balance amidst the gale that pelted them with rain and wind. Lightening and thunder crackled behind them as shouts of sailors outside echoed in the distance.


“Batuhan, wasn’t it?” A female voice called out to him, her tone lacking any gentility. It was the Jhungid udgan. Something about her felt cold and distant, her very visage mirroring the darkness, the white dots upon her ebony brow like stars in the night. Only there were no peace to be found in her reflection, the six white circles upon her head starkly punctuated the lightless complexion of the shaman even more. Her black gaze, with its eerie white limbal rings, was fixed on him, her black robes settling upon her thin form as the warrior next to him forced the door closed behind them, shutting out the storm.


“Toragana,” Batu answered back dully. He regarded her, silently thankful that the throbbing in his chest made it easy to greet her with what would seem a flat, half-lidded look. The escaped wife had suspected that this udgan was why he couldn’t remember her. And while he was not studied in it, Batu knew of the various arts that the udgan were capable of, calling upon the gifts granted to them by the gods. He doubted not that Toragana would be capable of such strange feats. But as Batu lowered his hand purposefully away from his torso, the rune beneath felt as if it was freshly carved into him only minutes ago. And it gave him doubt.


“Checking on the prisoners?” Toragana asked as she carefully began to make her way down the narrow hallway. The wooden beams of the ship creaked all around them, boldly fighting against the turbulent sea. Another Xaela, one armed with a longbow across his back, was accompanying her, though he slowed as they neared Batuhan, his eyes narrowing on the Kharlu. When their eyes locked on each other, there was more than just wariness there. Batuhan sensed rancor behind the male’s gaze, the other’s lips just barely holding back a snarl. And yet there were no reasons that Batu could recall that warranted such animosity. Had they met before? It was Jhungid passing a Kharlu, it was very possible that they had crossed each other on another battlefield. But here, on this ship, they were supposed to be working together to bring an end to that yearly warfare.


Batuhan kept his eyes on the archer as they both passed by, just answering Toragana with a nod. When they slowed by the door to the storage room, Batu tensed and stilled, waiting. Both the hyur and the escaped wife within, seemed weakened from a recent bout. If the two Jhungid meant them ill, it was unlikely that those inside could put up much of a fight.


“I had to put the male down,” Batu grumbled, placing his hand on the door as if the matter within was already settled. “The escaped wife is looking over his wounds.” He flicked his eyes at Toragana. “Will you be performing the rite of passage?”


If the udgan was considering reaching for the door, the question stopped her in her tracks. The white rings of her dark eyes flared for a moment, before she narrowed a look upon Batuhan. The archer behind her stiffened as well at the mention of the fallen warlord. “It will have to wait until we can lay Kiratai upon the soil of his homeland," Toragana snapped. "His spirit will not rest easy until he knows the embrace of Nhaama.” There was a bitter cut to the edge of the udgan’s words. Even though she had immediately declared the untimely death of their warlord -- at the hands of a foreigner no less -- the will of the gods, it was clear to Batu that all of the Jhungid entourage seemed shaken by it. He would be too, had he witnessed Arasen’s death in the same manner, just fulms away from him, a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.


Toragana and Batuhan exchanged one more icy look before the shaman turned sharply and began to make her way down the corridor, undoubtedly to where they had taken the body of their former leader. The archer followed, although his eyes were slow to leave Batuhan.


A long exhale plumed from Batuhan’s nostrils as he pushed off from the wall, making his way to the opposite end of the corridor. He had only bought the hyur and the escaped wife a little bit of respite, but he hoped that they could make some use of it, before Toragana decided what her next play would be. Would she make a show of strength by making the prisoners suffer? No, as the escaped wife reminded them all when the hyur faced off against all of them at the pier, the Jhungid needed to keep the Confederate alive, as a way to make the lost daughter cooperate.


A low growl rumbled in the back of his throat as Batuhan stalked toward the last door on the hallway. There were too many questions and he had no answers to any of them. Was the escaped wife Arasen’s ally? Were they using the Confederate to force the lost daughter into fulfilling the prophecy? Was she not supposed to be a willing participant? Who shot Kiratai dead? Were there more enemies waiting for them on shore? Why could he not remember? Why was the rune, the one that was burned into him years ago when he accepted his lifelong bond with his ward, the mark that was supposed to symbolize their fealty and trust in each other, why did it ache in his chest everytime he questioned all these shadows in his path? Why was Arasen’s words, imploring him to forget everything since they parted ways, and only to remember his duty, why was that the last thing that rang crystal clear in his mind?


No. That wasn’t the only absolute. There was another unerring memory. The oath he swore to the hyur. The lost daughter’s guardian. Batuhan swore that he would protect her. It was his own words, and Batuhan was not wont to break his promises.


As he reached for the door leading to the captain’s quarters, he paused, looking to the slow movement of his weakened hands. Injuries he did not recall and yet his hands moved instinctively as if he had grown used to their slower speed. He had been this way for moons. He had become accustomed to the afflictions that he could no longer remember receiving. This void that existed in his mind began to burn like kindling, sparked by simmering frustration. He wanted answers. He pushed the door open, expecting to find the one person who he knew would have them within.


Batuhan paused as his eyes widened. Where he had expected to see the petite form of the lost daughter tucked in bed, he saw her now unconscious, her hands bound in rope. More, her robe had been pulled down and off her torso, exposing her entire back. Arasen was kneeling over behind her, his fingers tracing Nabi's bared skin, when lightning flashed through the portholes in the walls. They lent the amber within the younger Xaela’s eyes a cold but eerily glow in the dark, as his gaze snapped to the door.

What… are you doing?!”

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  • 3 weeks later...


- - - - [TRIGGER WARNINGS]   Rape mention, domestic abuse mention, abortion, and just generally not a happy, feel-good drabble. Take care in reading if you proceed!





A couple weeks had passed now since Ghoa had slept in her own bed. Ever since the night of the celebration of the Kharlu warparty’s return, she’d been able to find no sense of safety except when hidden away in Togene’s tent. Even though the other was just another wife to Bayanbataar like herself, the older woman was the closest to a mothering figure that Ghoa would ever get within the Kharlu camp. And she was the only one that the young Mankhad trusted enough to share in what haunted her.


Of course, her odd behavior had begotten questions, most notably from their husband. Bayanbataar had demanded to know why his newest wife was acting so strangely, scarcely leaving Togene’s quarters. The fourth wife had assuaged his temper and offense by reassuring him that Ghoa had fallen ill. With her having always been a loyal and loving wife, he hadn’t suspected any deception from Togene. So, if not reluctantly, he had allowed her peace and rest ‘til the Haragin saw fit.


Even so, Ghoa had known that that reprieve had a time limit. Togene had reminded her of that as well, in her own kind and gentle way. She couldn’t stay hidden away forever. Eventually, Bayanbataar would grow impatient – or worse, suspicious – and demand her return to routine. She knew that whether she was ready or not, she would have to face her husband again sooner rather than later. Worse yet, she would have to face Tugan again and pretend that nothing had happened, and that was a thought that made her blood run colder than the winter seas.


But even though she knew that returning to her life was as inevitable as it was imminent, that hadn’t made the thought cause her body to stop seizing up with fear. It hadn’t made the nightmares come any less often, nor cause her to wake up in a cold sweat on any fewer occasions. How was she supposed to return to normal when it felt as if she would never know the feeling of normalcy again? Time was supposed to heal wounds, it seemed that the only thing time had allowed her was to fall deeper into the clutches of despair and fear. Especially now, after this latest and most cruel twist in her time spent amongst the Kharlu.


Togene had been the one to realize it first, naturally. When she had begun to put together a fish stew – which she knew to be the coast-dwelling woman’s favorite meal – she’d watched as the smell that usually roused her spirits at least for a time caused her stomach to churn. As she’d held back the younger woman’s hair, she’d asked her warily when last she bled. Only then had Ghoa realized that in the span of all that had happened, she hadn’t realized that it should have since came and went. And that connection had her heaving all over again.


What a sick joke the gods had decided to play on her. When the initial shock of realization had worn off, she had jumped rapidly between fury and betrayal, to sadness and worry, to fear and panic, and right back to anger until she had completely tired herself out.


Togene herself had seemed conflicted as well. She had always told Ghoa that once she became a mother, her life among the Kharlu would become easier and she would finally find contentment with her lot. She hadn’t quite meant it like this, Ghoa knew, and she could see that she was grappling with her own emotions. And there was something else besides in her eye. Some manner of concern seemingly not for the younger woman herself, that had her worriedly looking to her own young son cradled against her chest as she held him closer.


When she had woken from her rest, Ghoa’s mood had calmed to a dull, numb aching. She awoke knowing that something had to be done. There was no scenario in which she could bring this child into the world. Either it was the offspring of the man who had stolen her from her home and made her his slave-wife, or it was that of the man who had taken her for himself out of envy of the first. Whichever case it was made little difference to her.


The hardest part would be making sure that didn’t come to pass, or so she had thought. She would have to have Togene’s assistance and she had thought the woman would be hesitant or resistant to her plea for help. It had surprised her when she had asked for the other’s help in discreetly bringing to her what herbs and reagents she needed that the woman agreed right away. Was she truly that sympathetic? Or was she simply trying to protect her own family from the inevitable conflict that would arise if word spread that Tugan had done what Bayanbataar could not, whether or not that was true? Either way, she didn’t question it for fear of causing the other woman to doubt her choice.


Over the next few days, Togene had quietly gathered what herbs and plants Ghoa had sent her after. She supposed that she had Unegen to silently thank too for her tutelage in herbalism, remembering her strict lessons on exactly which concoctions not to give to expecting mothers. And once all components of the draught were within her hands, it had taken her but a few bells to put it all together into a thoroughly unappetizing but drinkable solution.


But now as she sat there with it ready in her hands, it was not half so easy to lift to her lips as she had thought. Her hands trembled, her eyes stared into the glassy surface of the dark yellow-green liquid inside the earthenware cup she held. Her eyes suddenly blinked rapidly, tears welling up unexpectedly and rolling over her cheeks.


Seeing the emotion swelling, Togene leaned in close, her hands coming to rest over Ghoa’s own around the cup to steady them. Her head craned downwards to catch her gaze, and to hold it once she had.


“Oh, sweet girl,” she cooed softly. “Would that I could take this pain away from you.. It hurts me to see you hurting.” One hand moved from the cup to her cheek, brushing away a tear with her thumb. “You are sure about this, yes?”


Ghoa hesitated at that question. She had been certain of it before that she hadn’t really stopped to think about it. Now that the moment had arrived, all those doubts she hadn’t considered before had pounced like hungry gedan upon a straggling sheep. Now she had to truly ask herself:  was she really sure?


Togene’s advice from moons ago still rang clear in her head. If she was with child, Bayanbataar’s hand would still against her. Perhaps even the deep resentment he felt towards his apparently barren, and to him useless wife might disappear or at least fade. She might be able to finally tolerate a life among the Kharlu with his rage calmed and with something – a child – to focus her attention on other than her own plight.


But.. could it really be that simple? No, she knew herself better than that. Even if her husband’s abuses stopped, she would still have to find means to live with the deep fear Tugan instilled within her. Worse, if the child was his and such came to light, she wasn’t sure that her husband would be so willing to believe that a hurt had been committed against her. As tense as their relation was, she couldn’t see it as impossible that Bayanbataar might kill her for suspicion of transgression against their marriage – no, his ownership of her.


Most convincingly all, however, was knowing that no matter the father nor the circumstance, she would never be able to be a good mother to this child. She had been raised having never expected to raise a family, given that the udgan of her people weren’t afforded such luxury. Without that expectation, she had grown into a woman out of touch with any sort of mothering instinct. That, combined with the fact that in either case, this child was one borne of violence against her by men she reviled..


All children deserved love, and she knew she would never be able to give it. And it pained her deeply to think she would resign a child to the same loveless raising as she had had herself.


“…yes,” she answered, voice quiet and strained but certain. “I’m sure.”


“Then you needn’t torture yourself, Ghoa,” Togene cooed soothingly. “If you are sure, then drink.” She leaned in and pressed a kiss her forehead. “I’m right here. I won’t leave your side, dear.”


The tears began to flow heavier and quicker at that, but all the same, Ghoa finally brought the stoneware to her lips and tipped it back. It was bitter against her tongue, and between it and emotion, it threatened to rise from her stomach again. But she swallowed, and she kept it down, and she collapsed into sobs within the comfort of Togene’s embrace and the slow stroking of her hair.


The other had told her but a few weeks ago when this had happened of Sechen, the escaped wife returned. That horrific tale had terrified her out of the thought of running. But now, she knew she had to escape anyway. She didn’t know how or when, but she had to escape eventually.


No matter how strong she tried to be, Ghoa couldn’t withstand this sort of heartbreak a second time.



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  • 1 month later...

“Mama! Mama, come look!”


Nabi’s enthusiastic call drew Chanai’s attention from her work, as she set the mortar and pestle aside. There were various herbs and reagents organized in front of her on the desk, some soaking in oil and others chopped up or ground into powder. A small pot bubbled on the firepit nearby, filling the air with scents of windtea leaves and lotus roots, a sweet tangy scent woven in with the crispness of freshly cut leaves. Noting the time that was still left on the distilling process, Chanai wiped off her hands on her apron and rose from her seat, crossing the room to tilt over her daughter’s shoulder who was leaning out on the windowsill. The young child’s wide eyes were fixated on the small chrysalis hanging from a stem of a climbing vine along the outside wall.


“I think she’s about to come out!” Nabi whispered, as if speaking too loud would disturb whatever it was she was witnessing. 


Chanai leaned against the windowsill behind her daughter, the spring breeze greeting her with a welcomed cool caress. It also rustled the cocoon hanging from the plant nearby, but it moved mostly due to the passenger within. The spun shelter wiggled in place, although there was no visible break in the shell itself.


Nabi hunched closer, waiting patiently, then after a moment of no progress, she turned back to Chanai, a worried frown tugging her brow low. “Do you think it can’t get out? Should… should we help?”


“Give it some time,” Chanai reassured quietly, her expression turning soft. “Finding its own way out into the world is part of its journey. It helps it develop its wings, its strength.”


Her daughter looked up to her with eyes filled with awe, before she quickly turned back to the chrysalis. She clenched her small hands into fists in front of her and leaned in with a whisper. “You can do it, little butterfly. I believe in you!”


A quiet chuckle softened Chanai’s features as she watched her daughter stand vigilant, encouraging the tiny creature to emerge. But soon her gaze drifted to Nabi’s back, and eventually came to rest upon her shoulder. The amusement began to fade from her, a pensive sigh sagging her shoulders. 


That was what she was doing, wasn’t it? Trusting that her own daughter would find her way out of her sheltered upbringing? Chanai did her best to build that cocoon, to protect her from what would inevitably come looking for her. And she knew, she would not be there to protect her child. Each time that realization returned, a pang of sorrow bloomed anew. But she had accepted that fate long ago in the ruins.


Did she do too much? Chanai had only taught Nabi the very rudimentary lessons on runic incantations. And her other lessons were never solidly tied in with her daughter’s abilities. She knew she had much to teach Nabi, and yet had held it all that back. She did everything she could to try and suppress her daughter’s growth when it came to her aetheric abilities.


Was she right in doing so? In holding back all the knowledge and truths about her origins?


It has to be this way.


For all the visions the Sight had granted her about her daughter’s prophesied end, Chanai had come to reject them all. All but one. She had to believe that what she saw in that one singular divination would eventually grant her daughter the life she would choose for herself. That it would lead her to surround herself with others who would love her and protect her. And those same people would help Nabi grow, and become the woman Chanai knew her daughter could become. And that was all she could hope for. 


Without her knowing, Chanai squeezed her daughter’s shoulder, sadness suddenly gripping her chest. Even though she was certain she had come to terms with what must be, even though she had made her peace with it, there was still an undeniable longing to see for herself the future she would sacrifice everything for.


But she knew she couldn’t.


Nabi gasped with surprise, mistaking her mother’s gesture for one of happiness as the spun shell began to crack open at the top, a small pair of legs emerging first. The child began to bounce in her seat joyfully as she started to murmur more encouragement, glancing back to her mother to also share in the wonder of it all. But she paused when she spotted the older Xaela wiping at her eyes, the smile on the young face fading into one of concern.  “What’s wrong mama?”


Chanai shook her head and patted her daughter’s back, bringing a warm smile back onto her lips. “I was just worried. That it might be too much for the youngling alone.” She leaned closer and kissed her daughter on her head with a soft coo. “But I was right. A beautiful butterfly will emerge and soar the skies.”


A beaming smile broadened Nabi’s lips from ear to ear and she nodded and turned, in time to squeal at the pair of antenna that was curiously exploring about the fresh new air. She bent closer to greet the small head that poked through. “Well, hello!” she chirped at the new critter with an enthusiastic whisper.


Chanai leaned forward as well, tucking her chin alongside her daughter’s small shoulder, watching the butterfly pull itself out of the thick cocoon. Such small moments were wonderous miracles, and she would not miss any moment of it. She would cherish as many of them as she could, for as long as she could. They both held their breath as the small thing fluttered its wings loose then tentatively spread them open, displaying its glorious colors for all to see under the spring sunlight. For such a beautiful fragile thing to emerge from its dense shelter, Chanai knew all the trials would be worth it. She had to believe that as she placed another soft kiss on her daughter’s head.


“You too will fly free, little one.”

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  • 3 weeks later...

The moment that Ghoa’s back hit the water’s surface, the breath came rushing from her lungs and a blinding white exploded behind her eyes. Yet just as quickly as it came, that lightness in her vision was swallowed whole by the deep dark of the sea.


Just as soon as she regained her wits and her bearings, the Mankhad’s arms and legs began kicking against the water to try and propel herself back to the surface. Though no matter how hard she swam and fought, she only seemed to be moving ever downwards as if a heavy anchor were pulling her towards the sea floor. The harder she strained against the current, the more her lungs began to burn with the effort until what scant breath remained to her escaped in a small shower of bubbles. 


Though she had never feared the sea before, Ghoa could now feel the fear and panic welling up within her breast as the cold, briny seawater filled her lungs. As the darkness grew deeper around her like the walls of a shadowy coffin.


You need not be afraid, child.


A voice called out to her. At once it seemed to echo within her head and all around her, from everywhere and nowhere. Yet for its strangeness, it seemed not in the least ominous. The voice was warm and matronly. 


None shall harm you here, the presence cooed to her. Within my arms, you are safe.


Yet it was not only the words the reached Ghoa now, but sensation. What felt like two arms wrapped about her slight form, holding her in within their grasp. With it the feeling of sinking came to a gentle stop, and so too did the breathless burning within her chest. The oppressive, frightening darkness began to pull away from the edges of her vision. Now, looking upwards, she could see – even if still murky and distorted – the surface above. 


Her brow furrowed in confusion. It felt as if she had been sinking for so long, and even more perplexing was the way her chest had begun to rise and fall with breaths once more as if she wasn’t beneath the waves. The bone-deep chill of the water receded like low tide from her body, replaced instead by comforting warmth.


Queer as it all was, a deep and soothing veil of peace had fallen over her. Her eyes batted closed, and now she could feel the heaviness and fatigue in her limbs from her struggle just moments ago. Oh, how she wanted to sleep here now, wrapped in the sea’s loving embrace. 


Rest, the voice coaxed as if it had read her very thoughts. I shall watch over you, child of the sea.


Somehow, she felt she could trust this voice at its word, and so Ghoa allowed her eyes to fall shut and for the tension to fade from her body. 


Perhaps only seconds had passed as the sea craddled her, or maybe entire bells. Time seemed a remote and meaningless triviality this deep underwater. But eventually, before she could fall too deeply into the rest it afforded her, the voice called again to gently rouse her.


You must awaken now. 


Her brows furrowed as she felt a tender caress to her cheek, but her brow furrowed and her eyes stubbornly stayed shut. Reluctance swelled within her. Why would she ever choose to release her grasp upon the sweetest peace ever to take her? 


You cannot stay here.


Why would she ever choose to leave this place where she felt so safe, so far removed from any who would ever do her harm? She hadn’t felt this deep sense of security since she was but a young girl, when she had still naively and mistakenly thought herself protected by old traditions and those whom watched over her.


Look, child.


That phantom, formless hand brushed her cheek once more and then gently guided her head upwards. Despite her own stubbornness, curiosity eventually won out as her eyes blinked open once again. In the water above her, she could see a shadowy, unclear figure above her. A figure that seemed to slowly grow larger as it drew nearer. But still, even as the distance between them closd, she could make out no details as to their identity.


You cannot stay here, the voice repeated, its tone ever patient and gentle. Go with them.


The figure loomed closer still, until finally a hand outstretched towards her came into focus. There was a pause before she shifted her gaze then, trying to peek past the splayed fingers beyond to the face of whomever to which it belonged. Yet even as they drew near enough for her to touch, their visage remained frustratingly hazy. Even so, despite knowing not their identity, she felt within her a sense of familiarity and trust that had her reach out her hand towards them. Yet it stopped just short of taking that hand.


She was hesitating. Though something wordless and indescribable urged her to reach for them, a voice in the far reaches of her mind whispered to her. Why leave this idyllic, peaceful place? The world beyond the waves could be so very cruel. She could stay here. No one would ever hurt her here, as the voice had said. She was, at last, safe from any who would seek to harm her.


You harbor doubts.


Once again, that motherly voice seemed to read her thoughts just as if she had spoken them aloud. 


You have suffered much, I know, and you have held fear in your heart that your path has led you beyond our sight and mind. You worry that we have forgotten you, or worse, forsaken you.


But know that though you have wandered far, all water returns to the sea in time – and so too have the tears you’ve shed. I have beheld them and wept for you, longing to bring you home to my arms for succor. The Storm, she has raged for you, howling and thrashing at those who would harm her beloved. Our love for you has never faltered, my child, and when the time should come that you return to us for good we will welcome you gladly and with opened arms. 


Yet until that time, you must walk your own path. To walk it is to endure suffering and fear and doubts, yes, but so too is it to experience love and laughter and joy.. 


And though you may wander far from us along this path, you need not walk it alone. Look again. Closer.


Once more she felt the unseen hand guiding her gaze, this time back towards the figure whose hand she held loosely onto. The indistinct face she had not been able to make out before began to slowly clarify into a familiar visage, and with it a name. Arasen. No, wait.. as she blinked again, the face she saw belong to Anchor. Again, and it was Batuhan. Nabi. Shael, even.


Your friends and allies walk beside you, and it is to them that you should turn when doubt threatens to overwhelm you. Lean upon them when you want for support, cry upon their shoulders when you are pained, but also share with them in whatever happiness and moments of peace you find.


So you cannot stay here, my child. You need them, just as they have need of you. They’ve their own paths, their own trials and sorrows and triumphs. You must be there for them as they are for you.


Now go, the voice coaxed. Go with them, and go with our love.


Ghoa paused at the gentle push, but not from reluctance. Rather, despite being underwater, she could feel tears welling up in her eyes and rolling over cheek and scale alike – not of sadness, but of immense relief. She wanted to say something, to say how much it meant to her to hear those reassuring words, but every word at the tip of her tongue felt wrong or woefully insufficient. But deep down, she knew that it didn’t have to be spoken aloud;  the sea would know her heart and her mind well enough without words.


Indeed, as if in answer, Ghoa felt what could’ve been the soft brush of lips against her forehead before slowly the feeling of those arms around her began to drift away. Yet still, though they parted, their warmth and comfort remained. 


Once more, she turned her eyes towards the surface. Yet this time, her hand tightened on the others’ and her feet began to kick and propel her upwards towards it. Up, up, and up.. and when she finally broke the surface again, once more her vision was overwhelmed by blinding light.

Edited by Jaliqai
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  • 5 weeks later...

A year ago...


“More. I need more.”


It was not enough. No matter how much was spilt, it was not enough.


The irises remained impassive as ever, their ebony petals swaying in the slight breeze. Their velvety skin wore numerous beads of crimson, and yet nothing happened. Were they not hungry? Do they not yearn to drink of life? Toragana glared at the circular enclosure, the bed of flowers that sat in the center of this ancient place. It was her altar, born of the earth and a resting place for the gift of the gods. She could feel the threads of magic woven thickly into the soil, and the very air itself tingled against the runes engraved upon her face. She had offered them what they wanted. And yet, the gods were silent. The sacrifice, ignored.


As another body was dragged off, she could hear the murmurs all around. So many were wavering. Losing their purpose. Weaklings.


“We have no more,” another voice murmured fearfully behind her. “She was our last.”


“Then get more,” the udgan hissed, spinning around sharply, her blood-soaked robe billowing out, as if a sea of red was pouring down the steps she stood upon. “Tell the son of Tugan, none of them were worthy. They could not bear the the true mark.”


Many bowed in deference or fear -- she cared not -- but she could see the glances of apprehension that they exchanged, she had heard the whispers on the wind. Some were starting to falter in their devotion. Unwilling to dirty their hands so that they may save everyone else.


Toragana’s chin tilted up arrogantly. Her conviction would never break. This was but a trial, to cull their numbers of the disbelievers. This path could not allow for the weak of heart. The white limbal rings of her eyes dimmed, all light disappearing from her dark gaze, as she scanned those gathered, for the weakest amongst them.


“No need,” a booming voice cut through the thick tension, drawing all eyes, including that of the udgan, to the towering figure that entered the atrium. 


“My lord,” Toragana bowed deeply from her waist, displaying due reverence to the warlord that led them all. Kiratai was the weapon she would wield for the gods, but to everyone else, this Jhungid warlord was the leader in their hearts, not her. 


“We have received word.” A slow smile crept along the warrior’s scarred face. “One of the Kharlu has located the lost daughter. The son of Tugan will head to Reunion to meet with her.” He turned to one of the warriors standing near and tilted his chin. “He wants a welcome party. Send five men.” A twisted look of amusement crossed the warlord’s face. “He just asks that none be killed.”


Toragana stared almost unbelieving. Finally. She was found. The last piece to the prophecy. An awed sigh left her parted lips, but that was the moment the gods would grant her a glimpse. The white arcs around her eyes suddenly glowed bright, white light suddenly encompassing everything between her lids. And she saw.


Kiratai no longer living, but as something more. Something that hungered and ravaged. There was blackness in him that seethed and roiled, spilling forth ravenous and deranged. There were others: she saw a giant blood stained sword, veins glowing with both light and sickness, and a crackle of lightning.  And beyond it all, she saw a hint of a golden glimmer, a warmth that had been too long absent. She reached for it, and all the shadows coiled and shot out from her hand, wanting to snatch what she had been longing for so long.


With a gasp, the vision was no more. Kiratai stood next to her, his large hand steady upon her bony shoulder. He regarded her with care, his eyes darting between hers. A fierce warrior he was, but she mattered to him. Toragana could not say the same.


“What did you see?” he inquired, curious.


The white limbal rings had faded to the pale slivers as the udgan looked up at the warlord. She could still see his bloated features, his jaws opened unnaturally wide in its wanting.


“Our future, my lord,” she breathed in awe.

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Shael didn’t have much time. 


Raindrops were starting to dot the ground as she raced up the stony path of Shirogane, her breaths misting in front of her nose against the winter chill. Most of the vendors had closed their stalls in the wake of the storm about the hit, and that suit her just fine. The infuriating fog was scattered away by the gale that was rolling in from the ocean, and she could smell the ozone in the air. This was going to be a violent one. She could sense it in her bones.


Her boots slid over the slick stonework as she ducked under the wooden archway, approaching the back of the building that she knew well but never visited often enough. The stand in the front was boarded down, the relics that were peddled there tucked safely away. But what she sought was not within the shelves of the antique shop. She skirted around the building to a corner in the back, where three large crates were piled against the wall. The hyur scanned her surroundings, listening for the whistles and the shouts of the samurais. She knew they must be swarming the pier by now, what with the commotion of gunshots that rang through the air. 


Even though the thick gloom had impaired her own vision in chasing down those who had taken Nabi and Anchor, it also aided her own escape from the guards who had descended on the pier after their departure. And now with the arrival of the downpour, she doubted the investigation would continue in earnest, at least until the tempest had passed.

It gave her just enough time to retrieve what she needed, and meet up with Brick and the Ironsong to chase down those Xaelas.


Shael squatted to push a large crate out of the way, another steam of exertion huffing out of her lips. Where the box once obstructed the view, now awaited a small pair of doors, leading into the basement below the building. She drew out a small metal rod from her pack and inserted it into the hole of the lock, and what looked like a plain iron latch flared to life with cold blue circuitry.  Her fingers pushed over a few glowing buttons, and with a click the clamp released.


There was a certain scent that could only belong to well polished weapons and magitek that Shael had come to appreciate. And it greeted her when she pulled the double doors open and stepped into the small chamber below. 


A flick of the finger and white light flooded into the room, illuminating the long shelves on both sides of her. Things were just where she had left them. Flamethrowers, turrets, new cartridges of advanced rounds, and automatic crossbows. This was where she usually came to feel a sense of pride in the past. But her mood was anything but content, the intensity in her eyes mirroring the turbulent weather raging outside.


This wasn’t just her trove of weapons she had collected over the years. Everything here was means to insure that no one would ever take away what mattered to her. Not again. 


Anyone who dared, she would make them pay.

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(sometime before this happened...)



It was but the briefest glimpse. 


If Nabi had blinked, or had she been only focused on her own fears, she would have missed it. But it was unmistakable.


She saw doubt. Regret. Hesitation. Where her cousin’s amber gaze usually shined clear with focus and precision, it now looked to her searchingly, even as his larger hands held her own immobile. There was anger, it burned the brightest, but behind that cold heat, she saw a man adrift, swimming desperately for shore.

She saw a man seeking reprieve.


Nabi had been petrified with worry and despair. She was taken against her will from her own clinic, a mysterious sickness weakening her body that she couldn’t even say a word as she was carried away from the House of Sparrows , through the piers of Shirogane, and onto a ship she didn’t recognize. She witnessed a Jhungid warlord as he was shot clear through the head, by Shael’s gun no less, then another less fatal wound inflicted upon Anchor’s leg by the same weapon. She knew not how he fared as he was dragged off, unconscious, to another part of the ship.


And Arasen had been part of it all. He and Batuhan had visited her apothecary that morning, and he was the one that spoke to the Jhungid udgan as if they were familiar with each other. 


So why was he looking so lost as he held her prisoner aboard a ship now in the middle of the ocean?


“Your mother understood,” he rasped, his hands shaking with fervor. “She knew this was the only way. For a woman like her to have gone through these lengths, to produce a child purely meant as an offering to the gods, it is cruel. But it is because she understood.


It was then that fear began to ebb, releasing its hold over her heart. Mayhap it was because her cousin reminded Nabi of her mother.


She hadn’t seen the similarity until this very moment. After all, he had been feeding them half-truths and manipulating her emotions to his own end, all to achieve the prophecy that her mother foresaw. But they were both driven, and they both bore the burden of the knowledge that their visions gave them; this unbearable weight upon their shoulders that none others could see. Her mother had been the strongest woman that Nabi knew. But there were those brief moments of weakness that would overtake her, and they didn’t escape the notice of her young daughter.


Nabi had caught her mother weeping by her bedside once, when she had taken with sickness. It was just a cold, her mother had assured her, but later she was awoken with quiet sounds of muffled sobs and discovered moist stains of tears on her blanket. Nabi was so confounded to see her mother so, she had always been the most unflappable person Nabi knew. It frightened her to the core, and she just reached out with her hand and laid them upon her mother’s. It was all she could offer in her fevered state, she didn’t know what to say. Her mother kissed her knuckles and cooed back to her, coaxing her back to sleep. They never spoke of it again after.


Ever since learning of the truth behind her birth, Nabi had reminisced about her years with her mother in a different light, as though looking through a new lens. Only then did she recognize the moments of silence, where her mother’s enduring composure would be shed like a cloak when she thought she was alone, and she sat by the window and stared out to the horizon, looking worn and sad. 


“None of that matters,” Nabi whispered to her cousin, her head bowing. “What she intended at first. She risked her life to save me. And all I’ve ever known is her love.” Her vision blurred and heat flushed her cheeks as the memories returned to her unbidden. “In the end, she didn’t want it. She must have seen this wasn’t right. That this isn’t the way!”


Her voice was starting to shake with emotion, and her glistening eyes rose, looking imploringly to her cousin’s. There was a soft smile that dared to emerge, pushing past all other anxieties. Her mother too had been haunted by the darkness of those visions. But their visits were brief and scarce. Instead, she had bathed in the sun with her daughter most days, gathering herbs, washing the laundry, and watching fireflies. “But if someone like her, full of love for others, could try for such a thing… then, then you must care for others just as much.” 


Her hands relaxed even as his grip tightened around her fingers. “I know she suffered, looking back. She had moments of quiet and solitude. So you must be suffering too. Carrying all of that burden.” A tear rolled down her cheek, her insides trembling but not with fear. “But she found peace. And happiness. When she chose the life she wanted to lead. To love and laugh instead.”


Nabi looked to him earnestly, offering him a gentle, inviting smile. “You can too. You don’t have to do this.”


You don’t have to be so lost.

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Aboard The Wavecutter


Nothing was ever simple. 


It was a lesson that always came to back to him when he least wanted it. Shigeyori found himself gritting his teeth, angry that it had been taught to him yet again, like a painful slap to the hand. Just a trip into the Bay of Yanxia was all that was asked, delivering Kiratai of the Jhungid tribe and his kin to the northeastern corner of the Steppe; it sounded like an offer too good to be true. Considering the debt that was owed the warlord in his captain’s stead, Shigeyori readily agreed.


Even when Kiratai informed him just the sun before the trip, that there would be some additional guests that would be accompanying the group, the Quartermaster of the Wavecutter agreed. But when those ‘guests’ turned out to be an unconscious Confederate, an unwilling Xaela, and another one so ailing that she had to be carried on board, Shigeyori’s shifted uneasily, biting back his protests. A debt was a debt. He owed them, and he would pay it back.


He heard the murmurs amongst his crew when the Jhungid udgan made her pronouncements as they returned: Kiratai had been slain, but their divine course still remained unaltered. When she continued to claim more power through words, that the vicious storm that appeared out of nowhere was a sign of the gods’ anger, the hyur simmered. He could see her bending the truth, using coincidences to sow fears into the hearts of sailors.


He was eager to be rid of the witch. Sooner he could get them to the Bay that they leave his company, the better. But the more she tried to wind the yarn of influence around her finger, more Shigeyori pulled in the opposite direction.


Mayhap that was the reason he approached the Confederate. He had been brought aboard the Wavecutter unconscious and injured, and left in the supply hold bound with rope. The Jhungid seemed to pay him no mind after that. But with the storm underway and the ship operating with a bare minimum crew, all hands were needed on deck. It was his decision to free the prisoner, he was a seasoned sailor and could help the crew, the Jhungid witch be damned.


Then when the Confederate, as wiry and gaunt as he was in frame, dove into the raging ocean after two Xaelas had that been thrown overboard, the man --Anchor Saltborn, Shigeyori later learned-- had caught his attention. Enough so that after when all things had settled, and Saltborn was breathing hard but still continuing to work the lines as he was previously ordered, Shigeyori offered him a chance at freedom. 


“You weren’t part of the bargain, and I don’t see that you gotta be.” The Quartermaster searched the hyur’s expression intently, trying to bore into the man’s heart. Why was he here? “If you set yourself apart from ‘em, I can make an argument to keep you on the ship when we drop ‘em off.”


The offer clearly surprised the Confederate, as he stared back in silence. But soon his expression hardened. “The lass--the one with sick--her lot be in with my own. She be no more their kind than I be. Set for Onokoro. I--there be contacts there--she needs a bloody doctor, not tae be dragged off tae them brutal plains o’ the Steppes.” The man had yet to show anything but grit, but there was a silent plea in his words. “Dead man can’t feel gratitude. But a livin’ one can owe ya--as much as ya believe ya owe these dalcops.”


Mayhaps it was the fact that Kiratai was no longer alive. It was the warlord that was owed, not his kin. Or the fact that the Wavecutter just barely managed to pull out of that storm, with no one lost at sea. In part, thanks to this man who didn’t bargain for his freedom, but for someone else’s.


And Shigeyori couldn’t argue. Kiratai was dead. And debt from someone living and capable as Saltborn was definitely worth more. 


“Tolui!” Shigeyori shouted to the boatswain without turning. “Set a course for Onokoro! We’re stopping there first!”


The roegadyn by the main mast poked his head up, leaning to the side to get a better view at the two hyurs. “Onokoro? Not sailing straight to the Bay?”


Shigeyori’s continued to stare at Saltborn, expression grim and intent. “Need to pick up a few more men. In case we hit another storm like this along the way.” It wasn’t a lie. It would be pure luck if they were met with another storm like that and came out of it again unscathed. 


“Aye, aye!” Tolui hollered without hesitation, turning around, whistling and shouting orders to the rest of the crew.


The Quartermaster leveled a scowl at Anchor. “It’s just a short stop, for the safety of the crew and the journey.” He tilted his head. “You’re gonna have to figure out a way to make the best of it.” He spun around sharply from the man, making his way back to the wheel. 


Forgive me, Captain. I am going to have to find another way.

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“I would have word.”


Arasen had come to recognize that tone very well. On numerous occasions over the years, more than he could count, Batuhan had taken his ward aside, away from the judging eyes of his father, and spoken to him quietly. It was less when he was younger, for mistakes he made then were forgiven by the way of naivete and idealistic foolishness. But later on, when he began to learn the ways of steering other’s viewpoints, enabling him to make more bold choices for the sake of his own gains, often times it came with his warden’s stern disapproval. 


Batuhan never had the heart for the suffering of the innocent. But he was wise enough to know that such a price was what many within their ranks were willing to pay, for the path to nirvana was not without its darkness. But the older Kharlu remained ever the steadfast guardian, wanting to protect his young ward and their small but growing sect from the pitfalls of ambition. 


Arasen always took his counsel to heart. It was important to him to know where his brother in oath stood in all things. But the younger Kharlu never returned the same courtesy.


He couldn’t. If Batu ever fully became aware of all the sins he had already committed, and his willingness to go even further, Arasen knew he would receive more than just harsh words of rebuke. Would the man who swore a blood oath to protect and stand by his side suddenly turn against him? Arasen didn’t want to know. It pained him to imagine the day when his ardent guardian would no longer stand with him. Even if he had come to accept that such may come about of his own doing.


But on this very sun, Arasen believed that day had arrived. When rage lit his eyes like lightning at the sight of Nabi bound and partly unclothed, Batu had thrown him against the wall, his arm pressed crushingly over his neck. Such was a scene Arasen had envisioned, somewhere in the back of his mind, when fear and doubt often took hold. But hurried words had somehow stayed his warden’s fury. Since Ghoa had already laid the blame of the entire ordeal on Toragana, it was easy for Arasen to nurture it further. But while Batu allowed him to breathe, from that moment on, the younger Kharlu felt a distance between them that he hadn’t before. There was wariness where once there had been complete trust. Arasen found himself wholly unprepared for the depth of pain it wrought.


Had he been too reliant upon their bond? Or the magic that had entwined their souls together? Arasen believed that Batu’s growing fondness for others had been completely erased after the seal was spent, but something had changed after his visit with Saltborn and Ghoa. Had the two stirred up memories that were buried by his command? Had they such a power to break the influence of his blood bond? Or was his own warden starting to resist it on his own?


It was impossible to ignore the growing doubt in the older Kharlu’s eyes as more revelations came to light after. After having shared with Nabi much of the venom that flowed deep within his veins, believing that she would not wake in time to tell the others,  Batu freed her from the spell that enfeebled her. That left Arasen no choice but to tell the truth to the rest, or at least as much as Nabi and Batuhan knew. And if it wasn’t for Batuhan standing between Saltborn and himself, Arasen was certain that he would no longer be breathing.


So where did his brother stand now? Batu came to his defense again, at least when his very life was threatened by Pjel. ‘He is not whole, nor beautiful. But he is the lost daughter’s kin and my blood brother,’ Batu had told the Viera warrior, willing to put his body between her sword and his ward. Was there still a thread of kinship left between them? As frayed as it was?


Arasen had believed until now that he was willing to pay any cost the gods might ask of him. He had resigned himself in the past, with much difficulty, that if the gods asked for his brother’s life, he would give it. He had accepted the solitude and loneliness that this prophecy demanded of him. And yet when death came for him, when the depth of the ocean swallowed him whole while he still hadn’t fulfilled his destiny, when it seemed that the gods would forsake him after all he had sacrificed, it was the hand of a hyur that Arasen had marked for death that reached out to save him.


Now, he didn’t know what to believe. 


Arasen stared dumbly back at Batuhan, the younger Kharlu momentarily lost to his thoughts. He shook his head, giving Batu a weary smile. It was salvageable. Not all was lost. A new path had to be forged. 


And it started first with repairing what was left of the bond between him and the only person in the world who cared for him.


“Yes,” Arasen said quietly. “Let us talk.”

Edited by Sentry
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  • 2 weeks later...

Arasen had long become hardened to the glares, the looks of disapproval and distrust that most never bothered to hide from their faces. His father had always made his displeasure known to his own offspring – a son of a powerful warlord who wanted nothing of battle. It was a lingering sore to the mighty warrior’s pride, and had Tugan Kharlu had his way, his first born would have been left out in the prairie in the cold of night, for the wolves to devour.


Take the screaming whelp away,” his father had ordered. “The gods have cursed him and taken his mind. This is no blessing.


Even now, Arasen remembered those words, and the disgust that burned in his father’s eyes like embers. He was but a child, looking to his parent for succor when the grisly visions his young eyes were not prepared for still came for him, but instead he was cast out to die like a wild animal.


It was only by the grace of Siban, the only woman in the tribe who might have had more sway than the warlord, that the bedeviled youth was saved. She took him in to nurture him through his torment wrought by hallucinations, somehow able to pierce through his endless wails to lend soothing words. While Bayanbataar nor Tugan approved of her decision, neither challenged it, for who would dare defy the gods? As eccentric as she was, none could ever question her visions, not even the Khan.


So it was to Siban that Arasen owed his life, and it was to her that he would bow his head in earnest when sanity returned to him. To the rest, Arasen learned quickly how to act, to show deference when he felt nothing but disdain in his heart. His greatest test of his pretense was when he bent his knees, his forehead lowered to the ground in obeisance, in front of his father who had once sentenced him to death. Tugan had no choice then but to accept him back as his blood, for the boy had since been ordained by Siban that he too had been gifted with the Sight, and would learn under the old woman.


But the glower never faded from his father’s face. There was no hint of pride that a sire might show his cub; it was as if his progeny was a stranger to him. Tugan was too proud of a creature to hide his feelings, so the rest of the tribe also began to mirror his father’s wariness. If the eldest son could not earn the approval of the second most powerful warlord in the tribe, no one else dared to show him respect either. So as Arasen matured, he became very skilled at plucking even the sliver of distaste behind people’s mannerisms, even when they were disguised. It also begot numerous calluses around his heart, for if he could not be hurt, he was all the more able to maintain his composed veneer. It became his way of survival, and eventually, his means of realizing his destiny.


So the daggers thrown his way in the way of scowls by the crew of the Wavecutter pained him not. As he made his way off the Confederate ship, he merely curled a polite smile and offered a nod in Shigeyori’s direction before disembarking. But once his feet touched upon the pier and his face was no longer visible to any of them, Arasen was relieved to be finally free of their scrutiny.


The events of the day had taken their toll, even on him. And nearly drowning in the sea was the least of it. More than nearly losing his life, it was the moments of complete honesty that lingered with him still.


Nabi had glimpsed his darkness. His willingness for cruelty as he had shown her. It was his knee-jerk response to the gentleness that she showed him. Was vindictiveness the only thing he could offer in return for kindness? Was it the only thing he was capable of?


The younger Kharlu peered up at his warden that walked in front of him as he was led through the beach of Onokoro. His exchange with Batuhan still weighed his mind, along with doubts he held for the others, and the dread of what the judgement his cousin would bestow on him. But despite his trepidation he followed, until all the eyes of those who mattered were on him. Did they burn with hatred? Were they cold with indifference? Darkened with misgivings?


It wouldn’t have pained him. He had not felt the weight of such things for as long as he could remember. He should have been able to meet all of them without cowering, as he had done all these years. His faith in his path and his belief in himself had dulled any ache it would have wrought. But when his amber gaze were met by a pair of warmer golden eyes, Arasen could not deny that single pang deep within.


He wasn’t allowed to wallow in that strange sensation. With a pointed look from Batuhan, Arasen dropped to his knees and lowered his head onto the sands, his hands placed humbly upon his lap. He bowed deeply in front of Nabi, no matter what her guardians wished for his fate.


“I’ve come to beg you for your forgiveness, cousin.”

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  • 2 months later...

“Do you hear them?”


Nabi placed her left horn against the boulder, both hands also laying palms flat against the rock’s surface. She could feel its warmth through the scales on her cheek, it had been resting in the summer afternoon, basking in the sunlight. A smile broadened her lips, although it soon disappeared as she focused on her other senses, namely her hearing. But even after quieting her breath, almost to the point of holding it, there was nothing. Only the birds chirping to each other on a distant branch, and the rustling of leaves whispering in the passing breeze.


But the boulder itself was silent.


“I hear nothing.” She pouted as she lifted her head from where it was resting, turning to the woman who was seated next to her on the grass. 


Chanai gazed upon her daughter, lines of mirth appearing at the edges of her eyes. “You don’t hear them like you would the calls of vendors or sounds of the ocean waves.” The older Xaela lifted one of her daughter's small hands and placed it upon her chest. “Do you hear my heartbeat?”


Nabi’s lower lip rolled out further, her eyes narrowing on their joined hands. “I feel your pulse.”


Chanai nodded patiently, pressing her daughter’s palm over her heart. “Yes, but when I speak, or take a deep breath,” and the woman inhaled slowly, filling her chest, “...or when I laugh.” She let out a quiet chuckle, her head canting to regard the child in front of her. “You can hear it, through your hand. Feel how I feel. Even if I were to speak no words, you would know if I am happy. Or sad. Or scared.”


Nabi’s eyes narrowed, listening intently, concentrating on her mother’s every word. “So, I am not listening with my horns, but with other senses…?” she asked softly.

Chanai nodded. “That you are. Learning to listen in other ways, lets you hear those who do not speak as we do.”


With a slow lick of her lips, Nabi nodded then looked back to the large boulder she had been concentrating on. She had picked it out of all the other rocks in Kugane, because it sat where the flow of the water was most gentle, sitting between the bridge and the willow that swayed within the Rakusui Gardens. It was her favorite spot, and also where the koi often lingered beneath the water. Her hand that was still resting upon its smooth surface slowly slid along the grains of the stone, fingers relishing in the warmth that gave way to something cooler when it touched the grass and the water’s edge.


That’s when she felt it. A sense of serenity and quiet emanating from within the stone. It was as if the rock was gazing at the glittering surface of the water, perched at the edge of the pond. It relished in the sun’s warmth, and there was a measure of peace in its stillness. It had been here a long time, brought by strong coarse hands, after being carried down from a higher rockier surface that held the Kugane Castle. Even though its previous perch afforded clear winds and view of the vast open sky, here by the pond, there were quiet conversations that drifted by, gentle ripples that tickled its underside, and birds that filled the air with their cheerful chatter.


Nabi found herself smiling wider than ever. “It’s happy here,” she murmured. “Napping beneath the sun. Daydreaming of all the seasons.” She blinked up at her mother, beaming with excitement. 


Chanai ran her hands gently over Nabi’s hair, brushing it back from the girl’s eyes. There was pride in her smile as she squeezed the hand she still held, although for a moment, something else flitted over her visage too. It was a touch of melancholy, something that Nabi had glimpsed on more than one occasion. It did not escape the younger Xaela’s notice, who blinked and tilted her head.


“What’s wrong?”


Chanai shook her head, her expression easing with affection. “It comes so natural to you,” her mother observed quietly. “Even without any practice.” She took a deep breath and took the girl’s other hand, lifting it from the boulder to clasp it in between hers. “My sweet daughter. You will sing to them all someday, and many will awaken, realizing they have a melody in them too, their own part to play.” She pressed her lips gently upon the child’s fingertips. “Until then, remember my lessons.” 


Nabi blinked a few times, a slow frown narrowing her eyes. Was her mother still talking about the rocks? But before she could ask, she felt the touch of the woven metal over her wrist, as her mother slid her bracelet back in its place. It was rare that she allowed it to come off for any lesson. But when it did, the times were brief and precious.

“It’s over already?” Nabi sighed, disappointment deflating her.


“It is enough for today.” Chanai raised a finger in between them, already heading off the protest that was on the tip of her young daughter’s tongue. “You know the importance of keeping this on you.” She brushed her forefinger over the braids of gold and silver, spinning it once around her daughter’s wrist. 


Nabi’s lips pursed to one side, but she nodded dutifully. Such lessons on earthly magic from her mother were rare and so she appreciated each and everyone of them. Little did she realize then, that it would be the last occasion where her mother would allow the bracelet to come off in her presence, and the final time where Chanai would teach her how to strengthen her connection to the earth. It didn’t matter though, since her curious nature would have Nabi practicing on her own when she returned to the gardens now and then. She started to learn where each boulder came from, determined to regale her mother with all their stories one day.


Nabi never had the chance, for her mother passed away before she could hear the tale.





A breath was slowly released through pursed lips, composure and focus settling over her form as Nabi felt the tension leave her shoulders. The obsidian waited in front of her, one that had been retrieved from the undead Jhungid warlord, the same stone that held the magical runes etched by the udgan Toragana. Now it was up to her to decipher the mysteries that could be hidden within, to discover the history that was hidden within the workings of this dark stone.


She lowered her hand slowly upon the polished surface, her palm coming to rest flat against it. 


I’ve learned a lot since that day, mother. You will see. 


Her lips parted, as if inhaling a breath to begin a song. 


That’s when the runes upon the obsidian started to illuminate beneath her touch, arcane symbols suddenly coming to life.

Edited by Roen
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  • 9 months later...

For as long as he could remember, Arasen knew he was destined for something important. He had prepared himself for it. He had prayed to the gods that when the time came, he would be worthy of the path that would reveal itself to him.


Then when the horrific visions came of the futures that could be, Arasen was nearly undone by the terrors that visited him every time he closed his eyes. But he didn’t bemoan that the gift of Sight was truly just a curse that no longer allowed him to see beyond the suffering that lay ahead. Instead, he persevered, escaping the precipice of insanity from the sleepiness nights and overwhelming despair. He had to learn that compassion and mercy had no place in his life, for if he was to walk the path that would lead to the salvation of all, he couldn’t afford any distractions that could detract him from his goal. He would fulfill his duty by any means necessary, truthfulness and happiness be damned.


And now, within the bowels of the earth beneath the ancient ruins that held powers capable of granting his ultimate wish, it was here that Arasen saw his destiny. This was where his years of torment and nightmares would end, where the prophecy of the Lost Daughter would be finally fulfilled.


Only, there were two paths that await him.


The first choice was the obvious one. It was what he had been working for, his years of machinations finally bearing fruit. The Lost Daughter had been found, and she had been brought to the altar of the ancients, where her blood and soul would give life to the god that slept. He needed only to nudge the tides of battle in favor of the black irises, so that they would take what is rightfully theirs, and awaken the nameless entity that slumbered beneath the mountain.


It should have been an easy decision. All those years he had labored, deceiving everyone, hardening his heart, and damning his soul, what was it for if not for this moment? 


And yet, it had been a journey of solitude. None else had walked this path with him, only the crushing weight of the foreboding knowledge was his companion.


But somewhere along the way, he saw the Lost Daughter for more than just the ends to his means. Nabi was warm and full of life. She was so eager to share her joy but also too generous in her mercy. Even after finding out about his machinations, she forgave him, and even offered him a second chance. But he should have expected that. The sacrifice had to be worthy of the greatness that awaited.


What surprised him, however, was the flawed and unworthy companions his cousin had around her. Arasen had long come to accept that the rest of the world was tainted. It was because of the imperfections, the hubris and greed in people’s hearts, that allowed for so much suffering to exist in the first place. And that was initially what he saw in everyone that Nabi called her friends and family.


Arasen had no hesitation in lying to them, using them, and manipulating them. He was certain a few of them would have to die, even if by his own hands. So then, why was he fighting by their side now?


Stormchild was easy to figure out, but dangerous to scheme around. A cold-hearted killer, whenever she threatened to take his life, Arasen had no doubt she would carry it through. But she held her hand, and risked much, including her own life, for the sake of his cousin. 


Then there was Saltborn. Quick of temper with a sour disposition, the hyur took a disliking to him immediately. Arasen was certain the Confederate had to die, for he was closest to Nabi, and the strongest obstacle in his way. Arasen had even put a blade to his throat, fully intent on killing him.


But in a twist of fate, Saltborn instead saved Arasen from drowning beneath the tumultuous sea, and even forfeited his chances to kill him outright, when more than a few opportunities were laid at his feet. With much reluctance, the hyur spared the Kharlu, even after fully remembering all the pain that the Xaela had caused him. All because of the slim chance that Arasen could now save Nabi from her fate. Arasen knew full well that he would not be here, if it wasn’t for Saltborn.


Then there was Ghoa. She was most like him, with her honeyed tongue and selfish motivations. And initially, whenever she extended a hand of friendship towards him, Arasen thought it much like his own incentive, to keep everyone close and yet at a distance, to watch them and discern their weaknesses. Enthralling her was an absolute necessity. But Arasen soon realized just how easy it turned out to be. Was it because she loved Batuhan that she assumed the best of him as well? Arasen could not deny that Batu’s fondness for the Mankhad may have softened his own disposition towards her. But that did not stop him from using his blood magic to tug on the woman’s thoughts, turning them to his own favor. 


But to his surprise, when faced with a great need, Ghoa offered something of herself, without any manipulation on his part. A schemer caring for the sake of others. That caught him off guard. But moreso, it reminded him that he too had such good intentions, at the very start of his own journey. So when had things gotten so warped?


It was because of all of them that he was even giving this second choice a thought. 


As Arasen stared up at the colossal darkness that loomed before them all, he reminded himself of the pure idea that began his journey. The prophecy had been about salvation and sacrifice. But what he hadn’t realized until now, was that somewhere within it all, was also a thread of hope. Of an impossible dream that could be realized if one was willing to give all they had for the sake of others.


Arasen touched his chest for the rune that was etched there, a tactile reminder of his childhood promise and his bond. Of his original ideals. To choose the second path would be to break the enchantment upon Ghoa. To return to Batu all that Arasen had taken from him. He would be severing his bonds with all of them. A wash of loneliness returned to him, but with it a sense of contentment. He wasn’t following Chanai and Siban’s designs, he wasn’t being driven by visions of death. The path he chose now was for hope, and a future of happiness, not for himself, but for others.


He would prove himself worthy.

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  • 2 weeks later...

“It started with me… so… if I can end it… with me… then…”


Those were her own words. Beneath that mountain. 


It seemed a lifetime ago, when in truth only a few winters had passed, when Nabi was willing to give her life to save another.


The decision wasn’t an easy one, by no means. As matter of fact, when she believed it was the only option left to her, it scared her to the core to accept it. But accept it, she did. What was the worth of her life, anyroad? Her suns were simple, selling herbs and medicines to strangers. She never struggled to survive, she had known no hardship. She held no position of import and there wasn’t some great ambition she looked to achieve. But there were others, like her mother, who had sacrificed so much, so that Nabi could lead a normal life. Anchor had traded his freedom for hers, willingly accepting his lot to fight to the death in a blood soaked arena, so that she could return to her aunt and uncle, minding the herbal stand in the Rakuza District.


There was nothing so important about her, that it was worth another man’s sacrifice. Nabi couldn’t accept it. It was more than fair to give back to that trade. For a man who had struggled and fought so hard for what he had, Anchor surely deserved his more.


But since their escape and starting their new life together, that outlook began to change. 


Nabi came to know Anchor, the dark sides of him, his losses, and his grief. And somewhere along the way, she made a promise to herself that she would never leave Anchor alone in this world. He had lost those who were precious to him, and she had come to learn the steep price of that loss. It left him with a deep festering wound, one that had yet to heal. So simply doing all she could to make sure he lived, was not enough for her. Not any more.


And yet, those words returned to her once again, as countless vines and roots reached for her. How appropriate they sounded to her now. More than ever. The reason they were all here, in this dark place beneath the ruins where no sunlight ever touched, surrounded by the mythical flowers that foretold her own birth, it was because of her. It did start with her. And all the tribulations they had endured, it could end with her.


But now, those words no longer belonged to her. 


It wasn’t just the promise. Nabi had learned what it meant to stand her ground, fight for those she loved. She watched them grit their teeth and bear the pain, so that they could continue to struggle onward. Anchor did this every sun, fighting his pain, fighting his sorrow, fighting his guilt to push forward.


Ghoa somehow smiled, genuinely so, despite all the hardships that were forced on her, by the Kharlu no less, and accepted Nabi as her kin. She opened her heart to Batuhan, who belonged to the very tribe that took the Mankhad forcibly from her home. Ghoa showed Nabi what it meant to face the hardships, and rather than succumbing to it, find a way to forge a new life past it.


“We almost lost ya then,” Shael’s voice echoed in the back of her mind. “I ain’t lettin’ ya do that again.” Nabi could almost feel the woman’s whisper brushing against her locks. “Ya hear?”


Nabi knew, if she just surrendered herself to what the generations before her expected of her, then Shael would be absolutely furious. Probably even more than Anchor. That scared her a little. And Nabi was just starting to see the Highlander smirk and grin a bit more freely of late. Tserende’s departure did hurt the hyur, that much was obvious, so Nabi couldn’t do that again to her friend. Like Anchor, Shael had lost everyone else she had loved in her life. 


Besides, Nabi also promised herself to one day see all of them become friends with one another.


So there would be no surrender. No sacrifice. Nabi refused. She could not leave them. She didn’t want to. And deep down, she knew it was for herself too. Mayhap, she wasn’t as selfless as her cousin thought her to be.


Nabi clasped the butterfly charm to her chest and closed her eyes, focusing on the aether around her. The sorrow and hunger were so prevalent in these black flowers. But she knew, like all other times of hopelessness, it wasn’t absolute. It couldn’t be. So she would show them what it would mean, to endure. To not just accept one’s fate. And push past. To see the light and possibilities beyond.


She heard the small bell of her charm let out a single note, before the wave of dark flora crashed into her.

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