Kindled Spirits

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From the moment he woke, the Luminary had wrung him like a towel for information. “I just remember being attacked – taking a heavy hit from a mace, but then everything went black and…” Eli paused for a moment; images skittering across his memory. A void. A sound. Shadows. His eyes widened slightly in vague recollection.

Renaulte looked at him chillingly. “You remember something.” It was not a question.

“No. Not really, just a few flashes…” Eli said tiredly, staring at the Luminary with a blank expression. “Now, where is Rien?” Eli asked with a forcefulness that made Ana wince.

“She is resting in the other room,” Ana replied softly, concern filling her pale blue eyes. Her hand repeatedly opened and closed on the loose fabric of her shirt, making her worry ever more apparent.

“And you should be resting yourself, my friend,” Janus replied, stepping into the room and seating himself at Eli’s bedside. “The wise Luminary asserts that I should be abed, as well. However, I think he greatly underestimates my fortitude,” he said with a smile.

The mere sight of Janus seemed to alleviate Eli’s throbbing head. At least a little. It was good to know Janus was unharmed. “I want to see her. Now.” Eli found the firmness of his words odd; he barely knew this woman, and her very presence always seemed to give him headaches. Surprised flashed on the faces of all in the room. Ana looked at Eli oddly.

Renaulte stepped forward, gesturing defensively “Have patience, lad. Her clan is with her now, give them some time. Besides, we have some things we need to discuss, first.”

Eli sighed heavily, and nodded. “As you wish, Renaulte,” he said with a more respectful tone.

“Good lad. Now, start from the beginning, what do you remember?”

Eli took a moment to collect his thoughts and decide just how much of the nightmare he should reveal. Not too much, he decided. Visions belonged to the priesthood and heretical madmen. Eli was no priest, which left one option. Yes, better to not divulge that in front of Ana and Janus. “The man in the blue tunic. He is the one who struck down Janus. I did my best to fight him, but he was strong. And very fast. I could barely avoid his mace swings. I saw one of the men beating Rien, she was unconscious and.. bloody.. and..” Eli’s hand trembled with fury and fear at the remembrance of that sight. Few things had ever twisted his stomach into such a knot.

“..and you let your guard down,” Janus added with an odd mix of condescension and worry.

Eli was amazed that the man could appear so caring and friendly, yet somehow unreachable and superior. Nevertheless, Eli nodded. “Yes. His mace crashed into me, and… everything went black.”

Ana and the Luminary glanced at one another oddly. The Luminary cleared his throat and stepped closer, his eyes heavy with fatherly pity but smoldering with determination. “What happened in the darkness, Eli?”

Eli stiffened slightly, his eyes darting around the room. “Blurred images. Muffled sounds,” he said, only half lying, “why does it matter what I saw then?”

“Because, Eli,” said Ana softly, “we only found two bodies. Neither one was garbed in a blue tunic.”

Renaulte pressed onward, “Your hands and clothes where drenched in blood that wasn’t your own. If he had simply put you down, he would have killed Rien and fled. So tell us, why is she still alive?”

Janus looked at Eli with wary eyes.

Eli suddenly recalled the feeling of blood spattering his face, gore dripping from his fingers, bone crunching beneath his shattered blade, and laughter bursting from his throat. Madness. He felt as if he would vomit. He could never have done that. Never. Eli swallowed heavily. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” Renaulte nodded gravely, obviously not convinced. “I am sorry I cannot remember more. Can you tell me why those men attacked us?”

“They wanted the witch dead,” Janus said, nodding to the door of the room where Rien was resting, “Very badly it would seem.”

“Guards arrived shortly after we did, and we thought it best to pull you away and make ourselves scarce. We had little time to examine the corpses. However, your assailants seemed to be street crawlers, part of the rather small underclass that lurks in the darker alleys and old tunnels. The brutes must have been hired,” Renaulte added with sureness.

“How do you know that? They were hardly fit for interrogation, courtesy of Eli,” Janus retorted.

Something stirred in Eli’s memory. Remembering the voices in the void, he twitched slightly.

“Crawlers don’t usually carry gold triums,” added Veredus flatly, stepping in from the night. A monstrous dune hound followed him in, causing Ana to pause in stupefied horror before she jumped and squeak in fear. The beast stood more than a meter tall, and bristled with thorns. He padded across the room on claws black as midnight. The hound looked at Eli curiously, the gnarled scar tissue on the hounds’ eye tightening. Eli recognized the beast immediately, his eyes widening in fear. Eli could swear the beast was smiling. “To’ka, do not taunt the boy,” it was neither a command or a request, merely a statement. The hound looked back at Veredus for a moment, and Eli thought he could hear faint whispers on the wind. The hound strode to a small rug and sat, staring at the room where Rien lay. “Besides,” Veredus continued, his eyes lingering for a long moment on the hound, “crawlers would have little reason to murder anyone but for a profit, and there would be little profit it attacking a Charric.”

Janus smiled at the sight of the hound, a mischievous grin splitting his face. He leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms across his chest. “You surely keep the queerest of company. A truly unique beast you have here,” his eyes flicking to Veredus briefly.

Veredus nodded appreciatively. “To’ka is a friend and-”

“I was not addressing you, hunter. I was talking to Renaulte.” Veredus’ stony countenance failed to hide a small flash of annoyance. The Luminary locked eyes with Janus, Renaulte’s face was a mask of suspicion and interest. Janus leaned forward, his loosely curling hair lolling around his head. “It makes no difference. The matter at hand is far more dire. Who would have paid street crawlers to kill us? We are hardly persons of interest.”

Renaulte’s eyes were fixed on Janus. “We both know that is not true.”

Janus returned the Luminary’s glare. “I’m sure I have no idea what you are talking about, good sir. I am a man of no consequence.”

Renaulte grinned slightly. “Fortunately, no one else seems to know either. This particular attack was directed at Rien.”

“But why?” Eli asked, ignoring the curious exchange.

“For the same reason that her very presence causes you a degree of pain. She is a Nullsoul, as are all true Charric. It is a genetic deformation unique to their people. It is the reason they are so reclusive, and they reason they are so misunderstood. They have no psychic presence, or, if you prefer the generally accepted view of the church, no soul. For us, who are born being bombarded with psychic input from all other life, being subjected to the presence of a Nullsoul can be a painful experience. They are impossible to sense, and this strangeness, combined with their reclusive nature have led them to be branded as witches or kin to demons by the Goldmasques, and intensely shunned by most others.” Renaulte laughed softly, “Truly, The irony is stunning.”

Ana smiled at that. Eli nodded at the Luminary’s explanation. Many of the words seemed unfamiliar, but he was able to glean meaning regardless.

“I think I understand” Eli said with a nod, “yet, who would pay street crawlers to kill her? Why not mercenaries?”

“Someone who wanted it to look like a common murder.”

“But who?” Ana asked. Eli twitched almost imperceptibly, earning him a curious glance from Renaulte.

“We do not know,” answered Renaulte, “there are many who distrust the Charric, but wishing them dead is another matter entirely. Veredus and I will continue to look into it.”

“To’ka and I went back to the site of the attack. There was little left, but we smelled much and more. The stale smell of guards from the garrison, too long cooped up in the barracks, the stench of the street crawlers, and the incense-laden trails of holy men.”

“That would not be unusual,” Janus cut in, “it is part of the priesthood’s duty to commend the souls of the deceased to the Father. Even the souls of men such as they.”

Veredus shook his head. “These men were different. They smelled of iron and violence.”

“Interesting… The Church of the Holy Family certainly have no love of Shiners or Nullsouls, nor would they even blink at spending a few paltry gold triums. It is possible that they may be behind this, but that is quite an accusation to make. And one that is likely to get you excommunicated and executed for heresy.” Renaulte tsked and shook his head. “This is disturbing news indeed. Best to not speak openly of this, lest we bring the eyes of the Goldmasques upon us. Secrecy would serve us well at this moment,” Renaulte sighed heavily and glanced at Veredus. He nodded.

“There is something else,” Veredus added, “this incident has shown us that your training must be accelerated and expanded. You will all begin to learn basic combat principals as soon as you are well enough to continue.” He was cut short by the soft creak of a door. One of the young Charric children cautiously peered out from the dim side-room and nodded wordlessly to Renaulte, who smiled softly and stepped toward the child. “Come, Eli. Her clan wishes to see you.”

Eli stood as quickly as he could, taking care to not strain his already throbbing shoulder and hurried to the Luminary’s side as they retreated to Renaulte’s solar.


A cluster of Charric stood hooded and silent around Rien’s form. Eli’s head ached and throbbed. Nullsouls, Eli thought. Somehow simply knowing what caused the headaches seemed to lessen them. Renaulte seemed only mildly bothered by the effect. The air was heavy with the scent of salt and sage. The dim light left the faces of her clan in shadow. Eli stepped forward, shrugging off Renaulte’s cautionary gesture. He knelt at Rien’s bedside, and placed his hand upon hers. He felt the eyes of her clan upon him, glaring, disapproving. He didn’t care. He wanted to touch her hand. Why? Why do I even care about this stranger? Because she is my friend. That thought giving him assurance, he placed her hand in his, squeezing it softly. “I am sorry,” he whispered. “I am sorry…” Her bruised face was swollen and cut, but she was still beautiful. Her arms were splinted and bandaged, but they still appeared strong. Yet here, on this bed, she seemed so frail and vulnerable. The thought twisted Eli’s stomach in a knot.

The tallest figure spoke, his voice deep and his speech clipped and strangely accented. “Hash’an tolera, Machus. We must thank you. It is remarkable to find a batu who would risk losing a coin to help one of us. To find one who would risk his very life… The gods have surely smiled upon us this day.”

Eli smiled sadly, and nodded. Words were not needed, he felt. These Charric seemed stoic and content with silence. In the dim light, they made statuesque and imposing figures with their gray cloaks and shortswords. Even the young children seemed capable and disciplined.

“How did you come to cross paths, batu? How did this happen, and who is responsible?” It was the mother who spoke this time, her voice soft and undulating, sharing the same odd accent.

Renaulte shot a cautionary glance at Eli, warning him to not mention too much. The speculation of the Goldmasque involvement would be better left out, he decided. He relayed the events of the incident on the streets, the Charric appearing stony and impassive as ever. They never questioned or doubted, merely listened, emotionless. Veredus would have approved.

“Why did our clan-sister accompany you in the first place?” Said one of the older children, a young man who sounded very much like his father.

“I was going to bring her here, to the Luminary. I thought he might be able to assist in her search for her mother.” Her mother! Eli thought. He had nearly forgotten.

The Charric collectively tensed. “She told an outsider of her agewish, did she? That is most… unorthodox.” It sounded half a curse from the lips of her father.

Eli turned to Renaulte excitedly, whose countenance waxed melancholy as he looked at Rien’s fragile form. “Renaulte, her mother was supposedly seen in the enclave close to 15 years ago before she disappeared. Do you ever recall a Charric woman passing through?”

Renaulte said nothing, merely stared at Rien, his lips silently mouthing words. The Charric shifted to look at the Luminary, who seemed lost in thought. Eli had never seen his face look so sad. Or so empty.

“…Renaulte? Do you remember any-”

“She looks just like her mother. It is the eyes. Mim had them, too.” The Luminary chuckled softly, shaking his head. “She always smiled beautifully.”

His words hung in the silent room. No one said anything in response for a long moment. The Charric said nothing; merely stood there, taut as a bowstring. Perhaps they did not know what to think.

“You… You knew her?” Asked Eli cautiously.

“Aye, lad, that I did… I spent most of my life with her. Mim was no true Charric, at least not by birth, which is why it took so long for the Charric to finally come, I imagine. They tend to look less than favorably upon outsiders, and no matter how much of a Charric she was at heart, she was not by blood. She took that title for herself when she was still young.”

The Charric seemed more rigid than usual, almost as if they were ashamed of Renaulte’s words. The clan-head shuffled slightly. “You know where Mithra has gone?”

The Luminary tore his eyes away from Rien and held the clan-head’s gaze. Eli had never seen the Luminary so full of emotion. After a long pause, the Luminary sighed. “No. I do not know where she now walks, or if she even lives.” He is lying. Eli was sure of it. But why? There are always more questions, it seemed. The Charric appeared unsatisfied, but did not question Renaulte further. Soon, they prepared to leave, and they agreed to allow Rien to stay in the Luminary’s home to rest, as it would be more comfortable as well as safer than the inn. The clan bowed in thanks to Eli and Renaulte, and quietly departed into the early morning twilight. As they left, Eli’s headache lessened before quickly fading away completely.

Ana had since fallen asleep in the bed where Eli had only recently lay unconscious, and Janus slept haphazardly in a chair close to Ana. Renaulte and Eli stepped down to the lowered hearth where Veredus sat cross-legged on the floor, his hand upon To’ka’s back. The leather and iron armored man was motionless, his eyes shut and his breathing slow. The seated hound stared into the flames, his solid silver eyes sparkling like a polished jewel. Eli found the hounds presence strangely comforting, considering it had attempted to kill him at the edge of the Red Plains. Eli froze, his breath catching momentarily. The light flickered outward from the flames, causing the shadows to dance, but there were one too few shadows. Veredus and the hound shared a shadow. A truly unique beast you have here… Janus’ words echoed in his head. The sight made his head spin, and he looked away lest his mind falter.

Sitting down heavily, the Luminary let out a long sigh of relief. His shoulder length hair was more frazzled than usual and the touch of gray on the temples more pronounced. His normally fiery green eyes were dim, and his brow was set with a heavy furrow. Eli had never seen the man so drained. His emotions regarding Mithra must be strong, indeed. Eli sat on the floor next to the hearth, warming his hands on the fire. The soft hum of the wind as it slipped down the peaks of the God’s Wall rolled around the building in bursts and rustled the branches outside. The wood in the fire cracked and popped, filling the room with the earthy scents of pine and oak. To’ka yawned, his massive maw stretching open to reveal rows of ferocious teeth. Eli stared at the Luminary, deciding how to best ask his question. Directly, the Luminary would say.

“You lied.” Eli said simply. “Why did you tell the Charric that you did not know where Rien’s mother was?”

“Despair does strange things to a man, Eli Machus. Why did you lie to me about what you saw in the void and about what happened in that fight?”

“Despair does strange things to a man, Renaulte Jarta, Luminary of Arcturus.”

Veredus smiled – a rare sight indeed. The Luminary snickered. “It is good to see that you are taking my lessons to heart, lad. An exchange, then. I will tell you all about Mim, and you will tell me everything you saw, and everything you remember.”

With Janus and Ana asleep, he had no fear he would be misunderstood. The Luminary would surely not brand him as mad. It could not be that simple. “Aye, sir, that I can do.”

“Good lad,” Renaulte said. “Now, there is something you must understand: you are safe in this enclave, protected from the tides of war and the greed of tyrants, and bloodlust of madmen. The people here want nothing more than to live as their fathers, age as their fathers, and die as their fathers. The people of the enclave have never wanted anything more than what they already have and what they already know. Matthias’ father changed that, for some, but that is a story for another time. The people of the enclave know little of the world, they are blissfully ignorant and protected. The other inhabitants in the cradle of the Targus Valley do not enjoy such freedom and isolation. The petty southern kings bicker over tracts of land, and the northern freeholds are plagued with stalemated parliaments and apathetic senators who care only for their own riches, and the Charric are recluses who want no part of the world of men. Beyond the Gods Wall and the Red Plains, barbarians armed with the tools of their ancestors failed technocracies slaughter their brothers so they may live another day. There is no unity, merely strife. War is a mostly foreign concept to you.

I knew Lady Mithra long before she became a lady. I knew her when we were children skipping stones on the banks of the Jeweled Sea, far to the southwest where the God’s Wall gives way to hills and and stony beaches. This was many years ago, when the southern kingdoms were still a unified empire under the Aristhene dynasty. In her short hair she often acted the boy, despite the scorn it earned her from the other women. She was a lovely girl with amethyst eyes, a heart that never yielded to bitterness, and a mind that could solve any problem with remarkable quickness. We spent many years on those stony shores, learning our trade from our elders. She was to be a seamstress, as many of the women tended to be, and I was to be a carpenter. It was a simple life, but in simplicity there was great contentment. Our village, Landsdowne, was a sleepy seaport sitting on the banks where the Hausmann Rush met the Jeweled Sea in a wide bay. We were insignificant, lost in a city of little significance. Until the Morvian Empire crumbled once the Arithenians were ousted. Then the petty kings could not agree on whose property we were. Four years after the collapse of the empire, King Harlus and King Pentus brought their war to our city.”

Renaulte leaned backwards, shaking his head sadly. “The soldiers here talk of the glory of battle – Matthias, like his father, capitalizes on it – but they know nothing of war. A war is not brief, glorious duel between good and evil, it is a long and crippling series of murders between men too stubborn to give up something which neither had any claim to. It was not a glorious revolution, a fight against oppression, or a battle for survival. It was senseless killing to determine whose name would be writ in the annals of history as the victor. We had received a message from our “Rightful and gods-appointed King” that he would be arriving within a matter of days, and that we must make ready for his arrival, or suffer the consequences. The problem was that no one in Landsdowne knew who our “Rightful and gods-appointed King” was, or what he even looked like. We merely knew that we did not want to incur his wrath. It was Harlus who sent the message, we were to discover later, but it was Pentus who reached our city first. We welcomed him as we were instructed, and he was overjoyed at our reception. Harlus arrived a day later, and was furious at what he saw. He branded us traitors and swore that he would see our town burn.”

The fire cracked and popped, spitting embers onto the stone hearth. Renaulte stood and placed another log in the fire, kneeling as he stoked it. To’ka lay down, his ears falling flat and his eyes shutting. Veredus’ breathing slowed further. The Luminary made his way back to his seat, the chair creaking slightly as he sat. “Great King Pentus swore to us that no such burning would ever occur, provided we supply them with all the men we had. So, out of fear, we complied. I, along with the other men and boys, was placed in the vanguard of Pentus’ army. We were clad with rusted bits of armor, chipped swords, hammers, sticks, and stones. I was sixteen. Mim refused to leave my side, so she passed herself off as a boy and stood beside me in the vanguard. We marched, as best we knew how, onto the wheat fields a few kilometers outside the town walls, and the body of Pentus’ army marched behind us, along with Pentus’ himself. Then we saw the enemy, clad in steel and filled with violence, just like the men behind us. They wore the same armor, and used the same weapons; they merely flew a different flag. They all looked the same to us. They were the same to us. We were simply caught in the middle. We heard the order to charge. So we charged. And so they charged. And we died. Friends, teachers and priests alike were cut down by Harlus’ legionnaires. My father died when a sword took him in the belly. So we, being men in despair, did the last thing we could do. We broke, and we ran. I grabbed Mim by the hand and we made for the walls of Landsdowne, hoping that they would protect us. It was not long until Pentus’ men broke and fled with us.

We made it safely inside the walls, sealing the gates as soon as we could. Some of Pentus’ men made it inside the walls with what was left of the van. Pentus himself, however, was smashed against the walls with what remained of his forces. The highest ranking soldier of Pentus’ men inside the wall sent a courier to Harlus with a message of our unconditional surrender. Harlus sent us back his head with a blood-scrawled note that read “no quarter for traitors.” So Harlus and his men set about building rams and ladders. We prayed and made ready to defend the walls.

The first fires broke out after midnight, when flaming stones and arrows crashed into the cities tightly packed buildings. The legionnaires poured over the walls, slaughtering as they went. We had nowhere left to run. Mim and I heard a voice, from somewhere beyond the noise and clamor of battle. It called us to the temple. We thought it must be the father himself, speaking to us, saving us. We ran to the temple and hid there, beneath the altar of the father. Soon, more began to arrive, saying they had also heard the voice. There were six of us, all young. Soon, the Luminary who resided at Landsdowne entered. His clothes were ripped and bloody, his face ragged. His blade dripped blood, and his weapon glowed red from repeated discharges. He asked us where the other four were. No one knew. No one answered. He sighed sadly, and shook his head. He had been watching us, he told us, monitoring our progress. He said we possessed a certain spirit, a certain openness, and a certain inquisitive nature. He said he had a task for us, and that he would save us.

The legionnaires had found us, however, and they stormed the temple. A volley of arrows from bowmen burst into golden flame in mid flight, and the bowmen burned shortly after. His weapons killed many, his mind killed more. But they were bloodthirsty, relentless, and unending. The sheer press of bodies forced him back toward us. With a ferocious psyburst, he threw the men back. He turned to me and handed me his buckler, spinning the glass orb which rested within the wristplate. It began to glow brightly and spin rapidly in its socket. He looked at me with his pained, golden eyes and told me to lead them home. Then he turned and ran into the men who had begun to stumble to their feet. He threw his remaining buckler on the ground, and it began to shake and glow. The orb on the buckler in my hands turned red. I pressed my hand against it and the world flashed. The last thing I saw was a ball of coruscating blue energy burst from his remaining buckler on the floor, consuming the temple in flame and light. The world shifted and shook for an instant, and suddenly this six of us stood inside a room of soft clear light. We had arrived in the White City, Arcturus. We began our training shortly after. The rest, young Eli, is history.”

Eli had more questions than he could count, but he knew the first one he must ask. “Where is she now?”

“Mim was ever the wanderer and thrill seeker. Of the six of us from Landsdowne, I was the one selected to be a Luminary. The others were assigned to my retinue to aid in various capacities. There was an… incident… fifteen years ago. After which my retinue was disbanded, and Mim was reassigned, sent on an exploratory expedition. Where does not matter. She is beyond the reach of anyone here. I fear for her, and miss her terribly.”

Eli nodded, accepting the Luminary’s words. He wondered just how close The Luminary and Rien’s mother had been. He imagined that if he were to be torn away from someone so close to him, he would never be able to bear it. Eli had no wish to dredge up painful memories from Renaulte’s past, so he decided it was better not to ask. “Will you tell the Charric?”

“No. That would give rise to many questions I would not answer. Let us worry about this matter at another time, however. You have a bargain to keep.”

Eli swallowed heavily and cleared his throat. “I suppose I do.” Recalling the sights and sounds of the battle and the voices in the void, his heart began to beat more rapidly. The images began to solidify and he could recall everything. The slick blood on his fingers, the numbness of the mind, the laughter on his lips. He felt his stomach lurch. He killed someone. He killed another person.

“I lied because I feared they would think me mad,” he said gesturing to the sprawled and unconscious forms of Ana and Janus. “I still greatly fear you will think me mad, as well.”

“Go on, lad.”

“The man in the blue tunic, he nearly struck me down. But I heard a voice, a woman; she called to me. And then I felt… something inside of me fall asleep, and something else wake up.”

Veredus opened an eye and glanced askance at Eli, and To’ka perked up an ear. The Luminary leaned back, placing his crossed hands over his mouth.

“I… killed them. I killed all of them. I drove my knife into their skulls. But I felt as if… as if I was watching everything play out before me. I could not control my hands, or even my thoughts. It is all one hideous blur. I tried to stop, at first, but the more I thought about what they did to Rien… the more I wanted them to die. And then I stopped trying to stop. And I…”
Eli trailed off, feeling empty. “Then I awoke to a dream of darkness. I dreamt I walked for hours in a fog as black as pitch over pathways which I could not see or feel.”

“They would have killed her, Eli. You did the right thing,” came Veredus’ terse and flat-toned reply. He closed his eyes once again and returned to his meditation.

“You are a Shiner, Eli Machus. Just like Ana. It seems your Psyatts were fully awoken by your little encounter.”

“A… Shiner?”

Renaulte nodded. “Indeed. Shiners are those who have discovered, accidentally or otherwise, how to access their psychic gifts. It is rare for a person to make the discovery on their own, even rarer for them to survive it. During a Kindling, a persons third eye is opened, whereupon they become aware of their untapped well of psychic strength, and they are able to see into The Periphery for the first time. Opening the third eye is immensely difficult, learning how to close it is nearly impossible. Most go mad at what they see or destroy themselves with a sudden influx of power they cannot control. Never before have I heard of one coming so close to madness as you; consider yourself fortunate.”

Eli felt his stomach turn, both at the thought of standing on the brink of sanity and of witchcraft. “But there is no such thing as magic, the gods stripped mankind of that when they departed this world. I cannot be a practitioner of witchcraft, that is impossible!” The moment he spoke the words, Eli realized how utterly hollow they sounded.

“Come now, Eli. Closed-mindedness is unbecoming of you. Look into your heart, it knows the truth even if you would try to smother it.”

Eli’s mouth moved silently, unable to find words. “I know it.” His stomach churned. Not only am I a killer, I am a witch as well, Eli thought miserably.

“Good lad. Now, there are important things you must keep in mind. Being a Shiner does many things to you: it makes you supremely dangerous to yourself and others, it makes you a target for Goldmasques and witch hunters, it forces you to exercise constant control and vigilance. However, it does not make you evil, though the Priesthood would strongly disagree. If people discover what you are, they will revile you, curse you, and possibly try to kill you.”

“I must become a recluse, then? I do not see how this is a positive thing in any way.”

“Hatred is the last bastion of the willfully ignorant and the fearful,” Veredus said icily, “but not all are ignorant and fearful.”

Renaulte nodded. “Aye, Veredus is right. Even so, your powers can be easily concealed from most with relative ease. I, like all Luminaries, am a Shiner, as is Veredus. Ana, has gone through her Kindling, as well. Merely by surviving your Kindling, you have already learnt to control your third eye. The most difficult part is done, and with even a small amount of practice, you will be able to hide your abilities with little difficulty.”

Eli smiled as he felt a great weight fall off of his shoulders; he would not have to go through this alone, nor would Ana. The thought was a great comfort.

“Furthermore, Psyatt’s are unique to each person. They are influenced and channeled through your mind. Like water through pipes, the psychic energy must run the gamut of your memories, your thoughts, your emotions – everything that you are, your very soul, in effect. This changes the manner in which the energy is released, resulting in unique manifestations. Granted, there are many Psyatts which can be almost universally accomplished through thought and willpower, such as a burst of strength or speed. These I can teach you to control. Your unique talent, whatever it may be, is up to you to discover and harness.”

Despite himself, Eli was excited, elated even. He had never found anything that made him unique before, his countless apprenticeships had ended with good, quality work only because he worked hard, but he never had a particular talent or love for any of them. Others fell easily into smithing, farming, working the mills, or soldiering. Eli never showed the unique talents that others had. Perhaps he had finally found one. The thought filled him with joy, and for reasons he did not understand, with fear.

A shadow skirted across Eli’s mind. “This… void, The Periphery, you called it. What is it?”

Renaulte shifted uneasily. “It is a land invisible to the all eyes save the third. Little and less is understood of it, but we know that all Shiners have a presence within The Periphery. Veiled in darkness, it hides much from wandering eyes. We know very little, but not for lack of trying; something in the darkness breeds madness in those who gaze too long.”

Eli paused, considering. Renaulte leaned forward, curious. “You said you dreamt of darkness – that is The Periphery. Odd, though, that you walked the void for so long. Those without training and discipline usually can withstand fleeting glimpses before going fully mad or shutting their third eye. Your mental fortitude is commendable indeed. You are stronger than you know.”

Silence hung heavy in the room, interrupted only by the staccato crackling of the smoldering fire and the soft sound of Veredus and To’ka’s deep, harmonious breaths. Curiosity prodded at Eli’s mind. “So what makes the sound? Is that normal to hear?”

Renaulte froze for a moment and looked at Eli with an empty expression. “What did you say?”

“There was something in the void that made a sound, like a long, throaty wail. I saw them, or.. felt them, I suppose. I could not really see them, but I knew they were there. They were… darker, somehow than the blackness of the void, like ink on coal. I heard them many times before I sensed them. They followed me through the darkness, chased me. They nearly caught me, I think. What are they?”

Veredus and Renaulte looked at one another gravely. Eli’s stomach turned to rot as he realized that such a thing was far from normal.

“It would seem we have less time than the White City thought.” Veredus said, expressionless as ever. To’ka growled softly, hints of a snarl showing on the hound’s face.

“The Shadowsingers have come.”


The Periphery

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Previous chapter:

The silvery moon stood high and full in the night sky, surrounded by wispy clouds of silky foam. The world was black and empty beneath the sky. Eli sat dazed and silent in the void. Though he imagined he wasn’t really sitting on much of anything at all. He swung his foot beneath him and it slid through emptiness, the tip of his foot fading away as if covered by black fog. He waved his hand beneath him, meeting no resistance. He stood shakily, his feet finding purchase in the void. He set his hand on nothingness to steady himself.

“Where in the Fathers name am I?” His voice was muted and dense, traveling nowhere. The last thing he remembered was… nothing. Nothing coherent, anyway. Just screams. Just sobbing. Just blood. Glancing around at the endless void, he shivered. Cautiously, he picked a direction at random and pressed into the void. His footfalls made no sound.

“…Hello?” He asked softly. “Is anyone there?” Soon he found himself moving upward through the void, the incline growing steeper and steeper. His feet naturally fell into the rhythm of steps, and he found himself ascending quickly. A long drone, distant and barely perceptible hummed in his ears. He froze, looking toward the direction of the sound. After a moment it ceased, fading away slowly. He lingered for a heartbeat longer, examining the nothing around him. He sighed and continued his ascent. Try as he might, he could not shake the feeling that he was being watched.

Hours slipped by and Eli’s legs began to cramp and grow stiff. Nothing seemed to change in this world; the void was solid where he placed his feet and the moon shimmered softly directly above him. The only thing that did change was the clouds. Every time he looked at them they shifted, even if he only looked away for a moment. This place made Eli’s skin crawl. The wind terrified him more than the darkness. At times he swore he heard faint whispers, rapid and incoherent, floating on the wind. His step quickened slightly. Perhaps if he moved faster he would reach his destination faster. Wherever that may be.




“Harkon!” Matthias barked irritably, “Harkon where the bloody hell are you!”

A large, lumbering figure with a massive beard entered the room, ducking his head to fit through the door frame. “Here, sir,” he said with surprising softness for such a large man. Upon the founding of the Crimson Blades, Matthias raised Harkon to his third in command. There were times when Matthias regretted it. Harkon’s ferocity and strength in a battle could not be overstated. He had taken remained in the fray after wounds that would have killed a normal man. Yet for all his strength and martial prowess, there was never a lazier sot. Give him a battle and he would give you an unstoppable vanguard. Give him an administrative job and would give you a belch, a laugh, and an unfinished task. Matthias’ uncle and second in command had left the enclave with twenty on a recruiting run to the lumber towns and farmholds to the west. Unfortunately, that left him Harkon.

“Look at this,” Matthias said, angrily shoving a parchment into Harkon’s hands, “That bastard Gamlen is trying to make a fool of me.”

Harkon stared down at the paper with a look of helplessness. He glanced back up, holding the parchment towards Matthias. “I can’t read, laddie,” he said with an uneasy smile. Matthias snatched the paper away from him. Usless, he thought, at least he is sober for the moment. Matthias was more accustomed to dealing with the handful of elite that led the garrison, or the men of his late father’s retinue, all of whom were well educated. Sometimes he forgot how little the people of the enclave knew. They carried out the tasks appointed to them by the Scribes and the Akkan, and as long as they received their bread and meager pay, they never questioned the established order. It was a shame Veredus had refused to follow him. Even though he was only a common soldier he was remarkably intelligent and educated; he would have been invaluable, and Matthias would have given him the command he deserved. He was so unlike the others in the enclave, none of them had any ambition. They disgusted him.

Matthias scowled. “It says the Akkan will pay the Blades to fight for him and follow his orders so long as they reside in the enclave. Follow his orders! As if my men were his!” Matthias crumpled the parchment into a ball and threw it across the room.

Harkon raised his eyebrows in wary amusement at his rage. “Well, our boys need supplies unless you fancy mass desertions or looting, these men are your responsibility, now. Your uncle Carth’s gold can only carry you so far, lad. It seems like you don’t have much of a choice in the matter.”

Matthias’ lusterless brown eyes were cold and spiteful. “And that bastard knows it!” he said angrily, waving his mailed hand. “We will need to play along for the time being. We have too little support to mobilize yet.”

“Perhaps I can help you with that,” sang a smooth, calm voice. Goldmasque. The man was armed and armored as all Goldmasques always were. He wore a black breastplate over blackened mail over black, hardened leather. If not for the smooth, almost featureless gold metal masque he wore, he would have seemed a complete shadow. The mask covered his entire face, and his hair and skin were all covered in black fabric. In his right hand he carried a fearsome glaive whose blade shimmered in the lantern light. He was identical to every other Goldmasque. The militant arm of the church, they defended the church from any threats and ensured that all kept the faith.

Harkon grimaced at the man, but allowed him to pass. Matthias gave a respectful nod. The pole of the Glaive was covered in countless red bands, designating him as a higher ranking official. “Well met. May I ask to whom I am speaking?”

“I am the son’s son. Child of Zakai, son of the Holy Father. I serve the church in body and soul as a prelate. I have no name. You may address me by my rank.”

Matthias examined the man warily. This goldmasque made him uneasy. Despite his reservations, politeness was a necessity. Making an enemy with the church would bode ill for his company. And his livelihood. “An honor, prelate. You said you may have a solution?”

“Yes. Become a hand of the Goldmasques,” his voice was oddly clear and crisp, despite the masque.

Matthias could not hide his irritation completely, despite his best efforts. “And why, prelate, would I do that? If I wanted to serve the church in such a form, I would have joined the Goldmasques myself,” he said brusquely.

“It would require little of you. Merely that I and two others accompany you. We will ensure the continued faithfulness of your men, and you must only assist us in procuring certain individuals should we come across them.”

“Aye?” Harkon cut in, “and what individuals would those be?”


Harkon snorted, “The church holds sway in many places, but there are many heretics. We would come across far too many to ever detain.”

“A very specific kind of heretic,” he said emotionless and matter-of-factly, “Witches.”

The room fell silent and cold.

Matthias stared at the Goldmasque with measuring eyes. The Goldmasque stared back. Harkon was incredulous, and let out a soft chuckle. “You don’t expect us to believe that witches are-“

“Enough, Harkon.” Harkon looked at Matthias in surprise and confusion. Harkon, like most people, believed that magic was nonexistent. Matthias knew better. He had seen it. “And what would I get out of this, prelate?”

“A healthy sum of gold; enough to keep your men supplied. And revenge.”

Matthias and Harkon shared a look of confusion. “Revenge?” Harkon asked. “For what?”
The Goldmasque tapped the metal butt of his glaive on the wooden floor. He stepped aside as two more Goldmasques entered behind him, dropping a corpse to the ground. He wore a dark blue tunic and mail, and had a gaping wound in his jaw. Matthias recognized him instantly. Harkon’s eyes widened in horror.

“Bluejay! Oh gods, no!” Harkon cried as he dropped to his knees, cradling the corpse. Jarrid was Harkon’s young cousin, but Harkon had known him as a brother. Harkon lovingly called him Bluejay. Jarrid had left the enclave garrison along with Harkon and joined the Crimson Blades. Matthias had been fond of the man himself, but it was Harkon’s sadness that made his heart ache. Harkon sobbed heavily, his breath coming in short gasps as he clutched Jarrid’s corpse, rocking back and forth in grief. It was strange to see such a massive man reduced to wails.

“Who did this? Where did you find him?” Matthias demanded angrily.

“Near Scribblers Way,” said the Goldmasque in a voice that sounded like it was meant for song, “he was found with two other corpses. Simple street crawlers.”

“Then who did this?”

“Witches. An entire clan boldly walking the streets of the enclave. They call themselves Charric, and their presence cannot be tolerated, for demons follow in their wake.”

Matthias knew little and less of the Charric, and that was still more than most. Still, he did not think them witches. But the Goldmasques absolute hatred toward them was well known. Though, it was possible. Perhaps it did not matter if they were or not. He could not stay in the enclave forever, and the gold they offered would help him get his company underway.

“Bring us these witches, and we will consider this an acceptance of our terms. Try to do it quietly, commander.” Matthias paused for a moment, considering. He nodded gravely. “Then we take our leave. Brother protect you.” They turned and marched out with absolute precision. They looked like reflections of the same man. The thought made Matthias shiver.

Matthias turned his attention to the sobbing Harkon. He knelt beside him, placing his hand on the shuddering, grief stricken man. Matthias knew Harkon’s pain all too well. “I am sorry, my friend. We cannot bring him back, but you will have your vengeance. I swear it.” Harkon wept.





How many hours had passed, he wondered. Six? Seven? Too long. His surroundings had never changed, yet he had the sensation he was moving forward. That, and the ache in his legs told him he must have been going somewhere. The whispering wind had occasionally returned for brief periods. Incoherent as always. The voice, then, startled him. “…must have been hired…” came the soft, dulled echo. Eli spun quickly, searching for the source of the sound. Renaulte, he thought, that sounded like Renaulte.

“…how do you know that?” came the muted echo of Janus’ voice. He sounded tired. The sound seemed to come from the direction he had been walking. He moved up the void stairs at a loping pace, taking two or three steps at a time. The sensation that he was being watched grew stronger.

“Janus?” he said loudly, his voice hanging still in the air.

“…Crawlers don’t usually carry gold triums,” came Veredus’ stony voice. He sounded so close. Eli ran.

“…Who would have paid street crawlers to kill us? We are hardly persons of interest,” Janus replied.

“Janus! Veredus! Anyone!?” Eli shouted.

“….both.. know… not true…” Renaulte’s reply was getting fainter.

No, no, no! Eli thought frantically.

“Someone who wanted it to look like a common murder,” came Veredus’ distant reply. Eli reached the top of the void stairs, once again on flat ground.

“But who?” Ana’s voice rang clear and loud, echoing through the void. Eli froze in surprise, a shaky smile on his face, and a relieved laugh bubbling on his lips.

“Ana!” Eli bellowed. No reply. His smile faltered. “ANA! his voice broke through the density of the void and echoed across the sky.

Silence. The void came alive with thousands of pairs of twinkling orbs: Red, yellow, green, brown, golden, carmine, cobalt – more colors than he had ever seen, and more than he could ever name. Each pair uniquely colored, and uniquely bright. They all looked at him; he could feel them looking at him. He could imagine nothing more beautiful. Next to him floated a pale icy blue, a dark sapphiric blue, a dim, ruddy ochre, a fiery emerald. These he knew: his friends. Eli smiled softly, unsure of what to make of this bizarre situation. A realization hit him like a stone: no purple. Gods, Rien.

The drone sounded again. Long and harrowing, it pressed against him like a great weight. The lights shook and wavered. Again, louder and harsher, building in intensity. Eli stepped backward fearfully. His hands shook and his footing became unsure. It came again, nearly deafening. The force of the sound threatened to knock him to the ground. The countless lights sputtered and winked out.

Then he saw it. A seething wave of black shapes, rolling over the void and twisting toward him. They were shadows against an already impossibly dark void. They had no form, merely glowed like midnight. The shapes plunged toward him in a chittering mass stretching from horizon to horizon. Eli ran.

Terror unlike anything he had ever known gripped his heart with icy fingers and threatened to crush him. His feet grew heavy and the void gave way beneath his weight, swallowing his legs. He moved as if trudging through a snowdrift. Eli frantically scrabbled forward, desperately trying to escape the writhing mass of nightmares screaming toward him. The drone came again, forcing him to his hands and knees. Failure, he thought miserably as he clawed forward, always a failure. But he had tried so hard. He had always tried.

He trudged onward, pulling himself through the thick ethereal void. He looked back and saw a face. It was many faces, yet one. It looked at him. It had no eyes, but it looked at him. He could feel it looking at him. It swarmed closer.
His muscles gave out. He was too tired to continue. Perhaps he was just tired of running away. He had always been running away. Maybe there was nothing shameful about failure; maybe all that mattered was that one stood his ground and never gave up. He hadn’t given up. I might as well die on my feet. I’ll be damned if I die on my knees. Eli stood, reached his hand toward the mass of shadows and closed his eyes. The moon began to glow more brightly. The drone screamed in his ear, echoing in his mind. The world flashed. The nightmares howled.

Eli let go.

He fell, the shadows racing downward after him. His plunging form outdistanced them quickly. The void floated around him, never changing. He met the ground with a dull thud.

Bolting upright in his bed, Eli gasped for breath. His body was covered in a cold sweat, and his shoulder pulsed with a blunt pain. Ana jumped in surprise from her chair by his bedside and wrapped her arms around him. Tears filled her eyes as she squeezed him tightly against her thin frame.

“Welcome back, Eli Machus,” Renaulte said with an odd tone of severity, “You have some explaining to do.”

Next chapter:

Suffer not the witch to live.

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“Magic,” she said, horrified, “you are talking about magic.” Disbelief sat heavy on her heart, but the Luminary had not been wrong thus far. And the things she had seen… she still shook with fear from them. Perhaps there was some truth to his words. The Priests assured the commonfolk that all mysticism had been taken from the world when the Holy Family departed as active participants. Still, some whispered of magic in hushed and fearful tones. Any who admitted to, or were accused of, practicing witchcraft were seized by the Goldmasques and burned. An impossibility and a heresy, the priesthood called it.

Renaulte laughed, a deep throaty chuckle that spilled from his lips with an odd softness. “Magic? Not exactly. We call them Psy powers and Psyatts – Psychic attributes. Some think the powers come from the mind, and only the mind. Some believe they are utterly supernatural or based on faith and merely channeled through man. In truth, we do not know for sure where the powers come from. Perhaps it is some combination of the two. Either way, it is believed virtually all humans possess the capability, and merely lack the understanding. In some cases, some, unconsciously or otherwise, discover the ability. The abilities are at least partially unique to every person, taking on characteristics of the user’s psyche. Or soul, depending on whom you ask. Sometimes the Psy powers are instantly apparent, often destructively so. Sometimes, however, they are far more subtle. Those who do find the spark are often discovered by the Goldmasques and hauled off, or they flee and hide away in dark and remote places.”

“That sounds very much like magic,” she said shakily, her eyes still wide and her skin pale with fear.

Renaulte looked contentedly pensive. “In a way, dear Ana, I suppose it is. Psyatts are something barely understood beyond the fact they tend to bend and break the normal rules of the universe, but labeling it arcane or an advanced neuropsychic phenomena makes no real difference.”

“What does this have to do with my dreams, and is there a reason you saw fit to terrify me?” Ana demanded with all the anger she could force through her numbness.

Renaulte raised his hands in an apologetic gesture, his green eyes waxing warm. “I apologize for frightening you, but I had to definitively determine if you were Psy-sensitive, and I had to do it quickly. That night on Scribblers Way, I fear my psychic bursts inadvertently shook your own abilities loose.”

“Is… is that way I had a vision when you picked up Eli?”

“Yes. I psychically gave my body a small burst of strength to ease the effort of carrying him. Those who are psychically attuned can pick up on others psychic bursts. Usually it is just a sense, a feeling, that a psychic forces are at work nearby. Most would not detect such a small burst, it is impressive that you did,” Renaulte said tilting his head slightly and nodding. “Though, it affects some differently. For you, it apparently triggered your waking dream. The stronger the psychic burst, the stronger the reaction by those who are psychically attuned. Luckily, I only used a small, brief burst. If I had done something more psychically strenuous, your untrained mind might well have been shattered.”

That nightmare was small!? What would I have seen if he had pushed himself? Sister save me… she thought with horror. “What of my dreams? Why have they suddenly become so… real?”

Renaulte leaned back, the chair groaning softly under his weight. “I do not know for sure.” He tapped his finger upon his chin, his gaze drifting off into the air. “In sleep our minds are set loose, and this is how many discover their Psyatts. Perhaps your Psyatt feeds off of dreams, somehow. Psyatts are complex things, taking countless years of training to master, and even then they are mysterious at best.”

“So the nightmares will continue?” Ana said dejectedly.

Renaulte paused briefly, considering. “Yes.”

Ana’s head sank low, obviously disheartened. “However,” Renaulte added, “I can train you to the best of my abilities, and at least teach you some degree of control. Mastery is up to you.”

With that, Ana smiled slightly and sank bank into her lavish chair.

The click of boots upon wood announced the entrance of the Akkan to the parlor where Ana and the Luminary waited. Renaulte sat up straight, shed his warm fatherly face and put on a mask of cold authority. The Akkan possessed more girth than most men, but he was still an imposing figure, bedecked as he was in his rich garb rivaling the extravagance of even Janus’ fine clothes. He strode in purposefully, taking a seat across from the Luminary. He never spared a single glance at Ana. His face was gaunt and hard, his lips thin and his eyes cold. His demeanor was distant and unpleasant, and his voice haggard. Ana decided that he was positively unlikable.

“What is this all about, Luminary? In case you haven’t noticed I have a company of potentially hostile deserters and traitors in my walls,” the Akkan said angrily.

“Mind your tongue, Gamlon,” Renaulte said with surprising harshness. “Do not forget to whom you speak.”

The Akkan flipped his hand in a dismissive and angry gesture. “Fine, fine. What is it you wish to tell me?” he said a degree softer.

“I might have a solution to your problem…”

The Akkan listened intently and his seemingly permanent scowl twisted into a mockery of a smile. “That will work for now,” he said with a nod, “but I propose something more…” The Akkan began to speak at length about his plans for dealing with Matthias, smiling as he spoke.

That smile frightened Ana, and twisted her stomach into her knots. Tighter. And tighter. Something was wrong. An image flashed before her eyes. Eli! She rose slowly. The Akkan ignored her. The Luminary cast her a concerned glance, his eyes soft and his brow furrowed. He can feel my psychic bursts, she realized. She focused inward, attempting to recall the image. She could hear a scream. Eli’s scream. Distant and muted. She focused. She held the image longer. Focusing harder and deeper, attempting to make it more vivid. She looked Renaulte in the eyes, holding the image of Eli in her mind. She… pushed, somehow. Everything was still fuzzy. But it was enough. He saw it, too. Renaulte’s eyes widened and he stood quickly, the chair screeching as he rose. The Akkan stopped in mid sentence, perplexed. “Ana,” the Luminary said fearfully and urgently, swallowing heavily, “make haste.” They ran.




Eli and Janus left the Blackstone Inn with Rien following close behind, her steps a occasionally uneven and shaky. Despite this, she stood tall and proud, regarding the world with her usual impassivity. Eli was surprised at how gracefully she moved, even though she had consumed enough ale to knock most men off of their feet. That spoke highly of her impressive grace and focus, and of her natural resistance to toxins. They strode along the dark streets, slowly making their way back towards the eastern wall. Eli’s head still ached from Rien’s presence, but the pain was at least manageable.

The streets were oddly empty. Something felt wrong. As they rounded a corner, Eli saw movement in the darkness. He froze, and the group stopped behind him. His eyes scanned the darkness. A large man garbed in rags and mismatched bits of cloth lumbered out from the shadows, a cudgel clutched in his meaty paw. His face was scarred and covered in dirt, his teeth rotten.

“There’s the witch,” he said with an disturbing grunt that sounded oddly like a chuckle. His voice was rough and his words clumsy.

“She e’en done come ta’ us!” said a second figure with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, moving to stand next to the thug with cudgel. His eyes darted back and forth, his fingers twitching nervously on the hilt of the rusted and beaten dagger he held in his long, wiry fingers. “Kill ta’ witch, dey saids. Kill ta’ witch.”

Janus took a step backward, and began to reach for his weapon beneath his cloak. Eli did the same. Rien stood straight and still as a pillar. Her face was covered in shadow, rendering it invisible. All but for the two softly glowing purple orbs that were her eyes. Eli found the sight almost terrifying. His head began to ache a bit more. Janus took another step back, pulling out a shimmering steel shortsword. He brandished it with an expert flourish and held the blade deftly, facing the attackers defiantly. “We wish no trouble, good sirs. Take your leave now, and we shant pursue you.”

The sunken-eyed man started shaking rapidly, “No no no no no! Kill ta’ witch, dey saids. Kill ta’ witch!” He was silent for a a long moment as he looked at Rien. “Right boss?” he said quickly as his eyes darted back to Janus, who hit the ground with a heavy thud, his steel ringing off the cobblestones. Eli’s head began to throb painfully.

“Right.” Came a smooth voice from well built man in a dark blue tunic and leather armor, holding a blackened mace with a small spike on the tip. “Kill the witch. Spare the boy if you can. We don’t need a mess.”

The leather-armored man attempted to grab Eli, who spun out of his reach, falling to his knee. Eli wanted to run. To run away from this danger and find shelter. It wasn’t him they wanted anyway. I can’t fight, he though with horror, if I fail I will die. I can’t die. I don’t want to die! But failure had been his long time companion, and he no longer feared it. More courage than you know… echoed Renaulte’s voice, Stand, Eli Machus!

Eli grabbed his belt knife and rose to his feet, eyes shining a soft silver. “I wont let you touch her!” he shouted, slashing at the leader of the group with his belt knife. The man grunted in amusement as he dodged the clumsy swipe. “Suit yourself, boy.” The man stepped in and swung his mace at Eli with shocking speed, Eli only barely avoided the head of iron as it came down at him. He danced away from the man, barely keeping away from his blows. “Run, Rien! RUN!” Eli shouted.

She stood perfectly still, her eyes gazing intently at the scene. The large man with a cudgel moved toward her slowly and carefully. The lanky man with the dagger rushed her, cackling as he went. His bare feet slapped the ground noisily, and his breath came in ragged noisy bursts through his manic laughter. The laughter stopped when a quarrel burst through the back of his neck, spraying the large man behind him with blood. He fell to the ground, twitching violently, his lifeblood pouring onto the stones. The large man roared and rushed at Rien, who darted to the side, dropping her small, concealed crossbow. Eli continued to dance with the leader, making occasional, clumsy swipes at his attacker. The man with the cudgel took rapid, fearsome swings at Rien, who glided gracefully across the stones despite the drink in her veins. She reached for the blade on her lower back, and the drink finally caught up with her. She fumbled at her shortsword, only to have it fall to the stones with a clang. Fear flashed across Rien’s face for a brief moment. She tried to twist away from the large man as he barreled toward her. She only succeed it shifting her body slightly when the man crashed into her, slamming her bodily against the wall, knocking the breath from her lungs. The brute slammed her to the ground and raised his cudgel, bringing it down into her forearms as she attempted to cover her face. The man swung his foot into her side, causing her to yelp in pain.

“Kill the witch! Kill the witch! KILL THE WITCH!” he brought the cudgel down again and again, breaking through her guard and striking her face.

Eli glanced over and watched the scene with horror. That was all the opening the leather-armored man needed. He brought the black iron head of the mace down on Eli’s left shoulder like a mighty hammer, knocking the arm free from its socket. Eli fell to his knees and howled in agony. His left arm hung limp at his side, the knife still clutched tightly in his right. His head swam from the pain. The image of Rien feebly attempting to block the cudgel blows lingered in his vision. His head groggily swung back to face his attacker, who was swinging the mace in a brutal sweeping arc towards Eli’s skull, a grin on his face. Eli closed his eyes, and the world became black and silent.


Rise… and Shine, Eli Machus.


His eyes snapped open, and found himself face to face with the leather armored man. A blade jutting through his assailants jaw and into his skull. The man’s eyes rolled back into his head, his face twitching.

Eli saw nothing.

The man’s mace dropped to the ground with a fearsome clang, causing the cudgel-wielder to pull his attention away from Rien. He shouted obscenities and rushed at Eli, roaring as he came.

Eli heard nothing.

Eli wrenched the knife from the leader’s jaw, whose lifeless body dropped to the ground. Eli’s arm fell to his side, his forearm and face coated in blood. Eli’s jaw stood locked in a disturbingly wide grin, revealing two rows of clenched teeth, blood running in rivulets between them.

Eli tasted nothing.

Eli’s head lolled limply to the side, the smile stretched across his face like some grim mask. His eyes burned luminescent silver. Eli laughed, a high pitched manic chuckle that bubbled through clenched teeth. The cudgel-wielder rushed ahead, his dead companion’s dagger now clutched in his hand. He roared, fire in his blood and murder in his eyes.

Eli skittered forward, his feet beating an uneven tattoo on the cobblestones. Eli leapt toward the attacker like some mad beast, his knees curled to his chest and his belt knife grasped with both hands. His burning silver eyes leaving an after-image in the night. The cudgel-wielder raised the rusted blade in front of him. Just a moment too slowly.

Eli’s feet landed on the man’s chest, and his belt knife found the man’s eye, sliding hilt deep. The man fell backward with a soundless scream, his body limp. Eli crouched on the man’s chest. Smiling. He removed the knife slowly and planted it into the other eye, blood and gore showering Eli’s face. He removed the blade, and brought it down again more quickly. And again. Faster and faster. Soaking Eli’s entire torso with crimson gore. The knife shattered from being repeatedly driven through bone. Eli continued to repeatedly force the broken stump of steel into the ruin of the man’s face, smiling and laughing as he went.

Finally, he left the blade where it stuck. He stood slowly and laughed again, more loudly. His jaw wrenched open, releasing a throaty cackle that echoed down the streets. He spun and twirled, his bloody face and arms throwing sanguine streams as he danced in the dark. He fell to the stones heavily and stiffly, landing on his back, his arms spread wide.

He felt nothing.

He laughed until the world went black and silent.


When Ana and Renaulte arrived, they found Janus unconscious but unhurt, Rien beaten and bloody, but alive, and Eli’s wounded and unconscious form sprawled on the ground, his hand outstretched towards Rien. A smear of blood marked where he crawled across the stones.

“Oh gods, no….” Ana whimpered.

Next chapter:

The Founding

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Previous Chapter:

In three weeks, Matthias had fulfilled his promise. The Crimson Blades was formed, much to the distaste of the Akkan and the scribes. Over one hundred men left their various crafts or their positions in the garrison to follow Matthias; including one of the garrison commanders, the late-Akkan’s brother, and Matthias’ uncle, Carth. The sudden shift of personnel had the scribes scrambling to find replacements, change rosters, and recalculate supply lists.

Since birth, everyone had expected Matthias to become Akkan, like his father before him. Instead, his father had burned to death over a decade ago in a conflagration that swept through the Highridge district, damaging many of the estates there. A well-loved, warrior of great renown, picked from the officer cadre of the garrison, he died alone in his burning home, leaving nothing but charred bones. The enclave had never collectively mourned so greatly. The fire had taken Matthias’ father and future away from him. Even so, raised by the late Akkan’s brother, he had received much of the same experience he would have received under his father, preparing him for leadership. The Akkan served for life, however, and the current Akkan would live for many years yet, meaning Matthias would be too old to be chosen when his opportunity came. The words of Matthias uncle, Carth, had convinced him the rule that should have been his. He also whispered to Matthias that he saw the Luminary fleeing the Highridge district the night of the fire. Bitterness at his lot, and hatred of the Luminary was sown in his heart, turning it cold and sharp. A stoic determination to become something great like his father rested on his soul like a dense immovable stone, forcing him ever onward.

In those same three weeks, Eli and Ana had already learned a great deal, and their bodies had begun to strengthen considerably. Having gained a firm grasp of basic mathematics and simple scientific principals, they had already begun to view the world in an entirely new way. Strangely enough, the more they learned, the more questions they had. Everything was linked, it seemed. Eli had discovered a new love for reading, especially history texts, and Ana’s love had been strengthened in the presence of such a great number of books. Even so, Renaulte bemoaned the lack of literature in his library almost as much as he bemoaned the complete lack of art in his collection. Renaulte spoke of portraits and sculptures, but Eli could not imagine such a thing. He had seen paint on signs, and thread and dye used in the manufacture of banners. Useful things. Anything else seemed a waste. Whenever he said as much to the Luminary, Renaulte simply shook his head sadly, his green eyes heavy with wisdom.

“The Akkan is worried,” Renaulte said, shaking Eli from his brief reverie.

“Likely I would be as well, were I in his position,” Veredus said flatly, “There are one hundred men, most armed and trained, inside the walls, and they are no longer loyal to him, but to the son of his predecessor.”

“He is strengthening his guards in Highridge and around the major armories. Such a gesture shows great concern and does little to alleviate the tension in the enclave.”

“Do you think Matthias might try to capture the enclave? That would impossible… His company is severely outnumbered by the garrison. Why would the Akkan be worried?” asked Eli, disconcerted. The idea seemed insane and terrifying. Unfortunately, Matthias was both.

Eli, Ana, Veredus, and the Luminary had begun to finish their sessions with simple discussions. Discussions of what they had learned, what they wished to learn, their veiws, and life in the enclave and the world around. Eli and Ana’s knowledge of the lands beyond the enclave where still limited, meaning when the topic shifted to the freeholds in the north, or the western harbors, they had little to add. Sitting in the shaded comfort of a grove of birch trees behind the Luminary’s home, they would sit for a time, drinking hot tea, discussing, and watching the sun set.

“It is not the number of soldiers that worries the Akkan,” the Luminary replied, shaking his head, “it is the man leading them.”

“The soldiers and craftsmen who put their faith in Matthias now look to him to feed them and supply them. If Matthias is unsuccesful, his men will become desperate, desert him, or find less noble methods of attaining supplies. That, or Matthias himself will order supplies to be plundered.” Veredus looked more grim than ever as he spoke, his face a mask of stone, and his ochre eyes glinting softly. “Turncloaks would never be taken back, and thieves do the enclave no good. Matthias ordering such a thing would be even worse. Either way, he will be desperate to keep their loyalties; he is too stubborn to admit failure and he would rather drag the world down with him than back away. If he is as headstrong as his uncle, he will be certain that he could fight ten times his number and emerge victorious with nary a scratch,” he added matter-of-factly.

Renaulte nodded in agreement, “Yes, and if he resorts to such measures, there will be bloodshed. If he somehow does attain supplies elsewhere, he will be viewed as a successful upstart, and the Akkan will appear weak. Then more will turn to him.”

“His father was well loved by the people and, Matthias’ is a continuation of that legacy. He is very much his father’s son,” Veredus added.

Renaulte’s face darkened and seemed to sadden greatly. Eli could not have imagined the Luminary could ever look so downtrodden. “Yes, I fear this is so. Tragedy is the crucible through which boys are forged into men.” Or monsters… he added under his breath.

“How, then, will the Akkan keep the peace? Matthias does not have the necessary supplies to strike out on his own with the Crimson Blades, yet,” said Ana, asking the question that had been on everyone’s mind.

“Nor are his men disciplined enough to form a cohesive fighting unit far away from supply lines,” said Veredus quickly with what seemed like a look of dissatisfaction.

“Not by sending out the garrison, surely. Everyone is on edge, I fear even a small disturbance may cause problems,” said Renaulte pensively.

“The Akkan simply needs to continue rendering payment unto them.” asked a voice from behind them.

The four turned their heads to look at the figure who had just interjected. A young man, not much older than Eli, but by far the most attractive man any of them had ever seen. On his hip hung a stremmyr, and on his shoulders rested his auburn curls. Janus. Over the last three weeks he had repeatedly hounded Ana, in some bizarre attempt to win her affection, much to her chagrin. Initially, he regarding the idea of Ana’s studies and the Luminary with humor and mockery. Yet, that had quickly changed; he had spent more time inquiring after the Luninary of late, though Ana had few answers for him. As much as he hated to admit it, Eli was actually becoming fond of the boy. His affable manner, quick wit, and surprising level of sophistication and intelligence had prompted numerous conversations between the two. He always had a smile on his face, Eli admired that. Janus came to visit Ana virtually every night, and in those visits, Eli had taken to discussing with him the subjects they had learned that day. This only interested Janus more. Soon, it seemed that Janus came as much for Eli as he did for Ana. Once Janus was not doting on her every moment, she began to warm to him. Or, at the very least, tolerate him with a smile. Until he began to sign grandiose descriptions of her eyes, that is. Though, he never seemed to be satisfied with the information Eli and Ana gave, always asking for me. To what end, Eli was not sure.

And now, here Janus stood. The Luminary and Veredus exchanged surprised glances so quickly, Eli was not sure it had actually happened. How had none of them heard him approach, and how long had he been listening? Wait, Eli thought, I remember hearing him. I just didn’t turn around. Why? The group stared at him silently. Veredus and Renaulte questioningly, Ana irritably.
Janus moved in quickly, brushing a few leaves from a chair before taking a seat. “Don’t you see? That is how the Akkan may keep the peace.”

Ana looked at him incredulously, “Why would he divert enclave funds to pay for soldiers that are not even his?”

“Why, my dear lady, because he can make them his.” Renaulte began to smile widely. Veredus couldn’t help but keep a look of respect off of his face. “I see you two understand,” Janus continued, “Loyalty to a cause is a noble thing, to be sure. People live for causes, and die in fire and violence for them. A man has to eat, however, and a handful of triums goes a long way to securing allegiance. If the Akkan were to supply Matthias’ men and pay them, even meagerly, under the guise cooperation and protection from outsiders whilst they reside in the enclave, Matthias could not refuse even if he wanted to.”

“Then the Akkan will maintain the illusion of control. And the added supplies would allow Matthias to get his company underway much faster, and then they would be Matthias’ problem, and the enclave would suffer no backlash.” Eli added with excitement.

Renaulte looked pleased, if cautious. “It could work. Sadly, we don’t have many options. I will relay the suggestion to the Akkan as soon as possible.”

Eli could not help but be impressed by Janus’ ingenuity. Even though the solution was not his, he was a part of the discussion which may have just solved what could have been a significant problem. He felt that he was just part of something important, something monumental by his standards. The thought made him happier than he had been in a long time. Though, he felt as if he should give credit where it was due.

“I do not know where you came up with such a simple solution, but it is very helpful. Thank you.”

Janus looked sincere, an odd look on his normally mischievous face. “Ah, you are welcome, my friend. I am happy to be of service,” he smiled soflty, glancing at Ana who rolled her eyes.

Eli laughed despite himself. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Ah, that, well…” Janus paused for a moment, speechless. That was a first. He turned to Renaulte, and held himself as straight and confident as possible. “I wish to enter into tutelage with you.”

The Luminary looked taken aback. Ana’s jaw appeared as if it would hit the floor. Veredus looked amused. “Aye? And why is that?” Renaulte asked.

Janus looked at the ground, silent for a moment. He looked up, meeting the Luminary’s gaze intently. “I have questions.”

Renaulte stared at Janus for a few moments before nodding. “You will do what I say, when I say. You will fulfill all duties and tasks given to you. Will you do that?” The Luminary’s eyes were pools of emerald, shining fiercely.

Janus did not falter under his withering gaze, but held it intently, his deep blue eyes glowing softly. “That I can do, good sir.”

“Then I will see you here on the morrow at dawn. For now, you are all dismissed, I need to speak with the Akkan,” said the Luminary, standing to leave.

The rest stood to leave. Veredus grabbed his pack and without a word trotted up into the hills behind the Luminary’s home, likely for his routine hunt. Ana looked at Eli with a worried and fearful face. “You two go on ahead,” she said shakily, “I need to discuss something with the Renaulte.” She waved farewell and trotted forward to join the Luminary, already making his way toward the enclave. Eli’s concerned gaze lingered on her as she moved away, wondering how that conversation would go, and if she would find the answers she so desperately sought. Her dreams had only become worse.

Janus clapped his hand on Eli’s shoulder, shaking him from his thoughts. “Interesting masters you have, and an even more interesting woman,” he said slyly.

“My.. woman?” Eli asked incredulously. “She is just my friend… I don’t think that… I mean…”

Janus laughed heartily, and even that managed to sound beautiful and soft. “You are more than friends, that much is plain to see.”

Eli felt cold. He watched her fade into the distance with the Luminary, her long, silver-blonde hair shining in the last hints of light from a falling sun. “She is my friend,” Eli said as if that explained everything. It did. It was the simplest thing, but no one understood. Why couldn’t they understand?, Eli thought sadly.

“Oh? Then I suppose I will continue my pursuits.” Janus said with a sly smile.

Eli was silent, lost in his thoughts.

“Your face is troubled, Eli. I extend my apologies, I did not mean to upset you. Come, my friend, let us eat together.” Janus extended his hand, Eli looked at it warily. A new friend?

“Aye, a new friend,” Janus said. Eli had not realized he had said that aloud. Eli smiled, looked into Janus’ deep blue eyes and shook his gloved hand. Forging a link between hearts, unbreakable and timeless. A new friend, thought Eli. Inside, he smiled wide.



A few weeks ago, the short run would have robbed Ana of her breath. Yet now she caught up to the Luminary without any difficulty. The thought gave her measure of confidence in herself and the Luminary that she desperately needed. Falling in step next to the Luminary, they strode toward the bridge. After a brief silence, Renaulte glanced down at her out of the corner of his eye, his lips slightly pursed. “There is something you wish to ask,” he said simply. It was not a question.

“Always,” Ana said, nodding slightly. She paused again, considering her question. “Why do we dream?” she asked finally.

Renaulte smiled broadly, exposing his white teeth. His next words scared her almost as much as that grin. “I do not know.” How could he not know? He is… the Luminary, Ana thought. Stepping onto the bridge, they spied a wagon rumbling towards them. The wagon driver slouched low in his seat, his tattered clothes dirty from a long days work, and his straw hat veiling his face in the waning light.

“What do you think he dreams about,” said Renaulte, gesturing towards the stocky wagon driver. “Or the guards on the wall, of what do they dream?”

Ana shrugged.

“Likely they do not know either,” Renaulte continued, “Dreams are forgettable for most. Many think they are wild imaginings and nothing more. Though some think they have meaning, or are prophetic.” He waved his hand dismissively, “People can argue as much as they wish, you must simply believe what you will. Dreams are by no means an exact science, and there is no harm in going with your instinct.” He paused for a moment, considering. “Do you recall your dreams, Ana?”

“Yes,” she said sadly, a pained look on her face, “as easily as I remember my waking moments. Sometimes they happen in my waking moments.”

Suddenly, Renaulte tensed, and she felt an odd pressure change in the air, and his voice became strangely terse, “Have you always had these dreams?”

“No…” she replied warily, “along with the headaches, they started the day I met you – that first night on Scribblers Way.”

Renaulte stopped in his tracks, staring towards the enclave, the sun setting behind the spires of the great temple. He did not say a word, and appeared to be holding his breath. Ana looked at him curiously, her eyebrows raised in confusion and expectancy. The pressure changed again. Everything felt like it was pressing against her, softly constricting her. She blinked, and suddenly the world was black. A darkness so complete and total, she shrank from it as if it were pressing against her. The ground beneath her feet was a pale shadow, fading into midnight as it fell away from her. The ground beneath the Luminary stood solid and tangible. Fearing the darkness, she quickly stepped closer to him, and looked into his face. His eyes were endless pits of emerald fire, billowing up his face and causing her to recoil in fear.

She stumbled backwards, falling into the midnight shadow that resolved itself into dirt. The monstrous form of the Luminary stepped forward, and with a rasping voice that came from a thousand mouths, including her own, he asked her a simple question.

“What do you see?”

She stammered, her voice failing her. She closed her eyes as she had done before, expecting the vision to be gone once she awoke. She threw her eyes open, the Luminary’s face hovering mere inches from her face. “WHAT DO YOU SEE?

Ana began to sob.



By the time Eli and Janus had reached the bridge, Ana and Renaulte were long gone. Eli hoped everything was well, and that Ana’s question had been answered. As his they moved under the walls of the enclave, Janus cast worried glances at Eli, whose heavy thoughts seemed to drag him down. Wearing a brown sable cloak and a padded green and gold doublet, Janus walked with a confident swagger bordering on arrogance. His deep blue eyes, soft auburn curls, and shining face drew the eyes of many a woman and man. Eli, by contrast, wore simple sackcloth pants and a white linen shirt. Eli’s walk was heavy, his face simple and average, indistinguishable from any other man in the enclave. Eli admired Janus’ clothes, in a way. They had a certain beauty to them, but clothes meant little to Eli, they seemed terribly unimportant. How Janus acquired the triums for such expensive clothing, Eli had no idea. Janus’ clothes alone must be worth more than all of Eli’s possessions. His exquisite clothes made him appear as a supremely vain man to most in the enclave. Yet, Eli felt this was not the case. His time with Janus had shown him to possess a massive amount of confidence, but surprising humility. His mother had once told him that the clothes a man chooses to wear say a great deal about him. What, then, did Janus’ clothes say about him?

As they walked toward Scribblers Way, Eli told Janus of many of the things the Luminary would require of him: the late night studies, the long lectures, the strengthening regimens, fetching tea and cooking for the Luminary. Janus seemed oddly excited by the prospect of it all. There was none of the hesitation that Eli had expected to find in a man who seemed to be so averse to work. Though, he seemed put off by cooking, cleaning, and fetching tea. “Why must we do such a menial task?” He asked, with a slight scowl, “We are not servants.”

“There is no greater honor than to serve, the Luminary says we must learn and understand this,” Eli said with a shrug. The serving did not bother him, truthfully. In a way, he enjoyed it. He found a measure of comfort and happiness in knowing that his works have made someone happy.

“No greater honor?” Janus scoffed. “Shoveling shit in the stables is greater honor.” Eli ignored the comment. He was too relaxed and content to let such a statement bother him.

The sun had sunk below the horizon, and the night watch had begun to move down the cobblestone thoroughfares , lighting the lanterns the streets. A small group of men clad in mismatched armor and uniforms strode proudly down the street. Eli recognized one of them as a miller, and another as a baker, the others he did not know. On their arms they wore a white armband bearing a a red insignia of a fiery bird clutching two blades. Crimson Blades, Eli thought. The love the enclave bore for Matthias and his father was strong, indeed. Enclave members were not fond of disrupting the natural order of things.

They arrived at the Blackstone Inn, and stepped inside. Eli’s head began to hurt The room was empty, save for Mikal and a few other staff, and two figures hunched at a table. Odd, Eli thought, The common room should be full at this time of day. Upon entering, one of the figures at the table stood and walked out, a disgusted look on his face, pushing past them angrily. Janus gave him a caustic look and muttered something under his breath. Mikal wiped a cup with a cloth, repeatedly rubbing the same spot as he stared at the seated figure in curious distaste. The purple-eyed girl looked up from a small notebook, scribbled with a strange script. Seeing Eli, she smiled ruefully. “Eli Machus. Are you following me again?” Janus cocked his eyebrow, shooting Eli an odd glance. He stepped forward, smoothly sliding past Eli and coming closer to the girl. “Why, Eli, who is this lovely young lady?” He turned his attention to Rien, smiling slyly, “Allow me to introduce myself, my lady. I am Janus. Who do I have the honor of addressing?” he said with a flourish and a bow.

Rien stared at him with amusement, as if she were watching some mummers farce. Rien said nothing to Janus, and turned to face Eli. “Your friend moves like a dancer, batu. He is very unlike anyone else here.” Janus tensed considerably, and stiffly took a step back, earning him a look of curiosity from Eli. “Hash’an tolera. Sit, and break bread with me. Let us talk.” Eli still had a hard time focusing on her, his mind slipping around her. It was far more painless than the first time he met her, though; the effects of her presence seemingly subdued, somehow. Her polished purple eyes shone brilliantly in the darkness, seeming to glow from within.

Warily, they sat. Eli nodded to Mikal, who disappeared into the kitchen. Rien turned toward Janus, regarding him disdainfully, “I am Rien, daughter of Mithra,” she said with a mocking nod, “And I am not your lady. If you wish to keep your tongue, you will never call me that again..” She looked back to Eli, her face softening somewhat. “Why are you here, Eli Machus?”
Mikal reemerged from the kitchen carrying two bowls of stew and some bread, setting them down gently in front of Janus and Eli, along with two cups of ale which Rien eyed curiously. Janus picked at his food, eyeing it sullenly.

Eli smiled, and gestured down at the plates. “Dinner. Would you care for some?” Rien shook her head softly. “What are you doing here, Rien?”

“Searching for something,” she said, still eyeing the dark liquid.

“A piece of your heart,” Eli said softly. The words came unbidden from his lips. Rien eyes flashed in surprise, her cool and composed face slipping briefly. She said nothing, simply stared at him with those shimmering purple eyes.

“A piece of your heart?” Janus said smoothly, in that sweet sing-song voice of his. “If your heart is broken, well, I would be glad to take upon the task of mending it.” Eli glanced at him with a half-smirk and a look of incredulity. Rien glared at him, saying nothing. Janus’ expectant smile slipped from his face. He returned to sullenly picking at his food, muttering under his breath.

Eli’s head began to ache more fiercely, but it was still yet manageable. “Is that why the rest of the Charric are here? Are they searching for the same thing?” Tearing off a piece of bread and stuffing it in his mouth, he smiled, “Perhaps we may be able to help.”

“My kin share in my search, yes. But…” Janus lifted his cup of ale, drinking deeply. Rien watched him drink the liquid with curiousity, never taking her eyes off of the cup, even as she spoke to Eli. “But our reasons are not for batu’i to know, Our reasons are our own. And…” Janus set down the nearly empty cup, sighing with satisfaction. “…And what is this bizarre drink?” She said, leaning forward with curiosity and excitement.

Janus froze as he lifted a spoonful of stew to his mouth. “Ale,” he said questioningly, “you mean the ale, my la- er… Rien?”

Ai-ull..” she said, the word sounding strange and foreign on her tongue. Curiosity seemed to have broken down the wall of indifference she had just been perched behind. “What… is it? I’ve never seen such a drink. Our kind only drinks water and the milk of the goat.”

Eli chuckled and waved to Mikal, gesturing to the cup and to Rien. Mikal arrived quickly, setting the drink down in front of her with a smile. “Courtesy of that handsome man right across the table over there,” Mikal said jovially, gesturing to Eli, “A nice cup of ai-ull.” Rien smiled softly, taking the cup with a gracious nod. She sniffed it warily and lifted the cup to her lips slowly, surprisingly nervous-looking. She drank long and deep, her eyes widening in surprise. She set the cup down with a satisfied sigh. The sight brought a smile to Eli’s face, and gave his heart a lightness he found unusual. Janus chuckled.

“Would you like more?” Eli asked happily.

Rien looked slightly abashed. “I thank you, but no. I have no money to spare, and-”

“It is my treat.”

“We do not accept gifts so easily, it is not our way-”

“You took the rose.”

In an act that surprised Eli more than he could say, Rien blushed. “Yes, but, I.. that is…”

“My treat,” he repeated a touch more insistently, yet just as genially “Or, perhaps, you can repay me by telling me why you are here? If that is too high a price, then simple conversation will do just fine.”

She looked into his eyes for a long moment, her eyes digging through him and leaving him bare. She smiled softly, still a little unsure. “You have shown me more kindness than I would have expected from an outsider. I will tell you what little I can.”

Eli gestured to Mikal again, who quickly produced another cup for Rien.

She closed her eyes and took a long, soft breath. Her chest and shoulders rising and falling with the motion. She opened her eyes, and her face seemed to soften. “I am looking for someone. Failing that, I am looking for answers.”


“My mother.”

“Is this not a little far from home? Why the enclave, of all places?

Janus leaned in, politely adding to the conversation, “Charric are an uncommon sight outside of the southern highlands, especially this far north. Why would your mother come here?”

Rien’s face held a mix of sadness and annoyance. “I do not know. I do not know if she even came here.”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“Fifteen years ago. Close to sixteen, now.”

Eli and Janus looked at one another in confusion and surprise. “Have you been searching this whole time?” Eli asked with a degree of awe.

“No. I am the only child of my mother, my father found another mate after she vanished. It was my Agewish to find her.”

“Your Agewish?” Janus asked, obviously interested.

Rien drank down another cup of ale, her cheeks turning a hint of red. “When a Charric reaches the age of eighteen, they are permitted to make an Agewish, a desire that is carefully considered for years, but kept secret until they come of age. They then share the wish with their clan, and their clan must attempt to fulfill it. All Charric are granted this boon.”

“So why the enclave?”

“We have been searching for the past eight months, slowly working our way north, this was merely our next stop. As you can imagine, by now the trail is stale and cold at best. More often, it is nonexistent.”

“Why did no one search earlier?” Eli queried.

“They did.” Rien said with a nod, “my mother traveled extensively, however. She returned home for a few years, giving birth to me and raising me for a time, before traveling again. She was expected back in one year. When she did not return, a search was called but quickly abandoned. They felt the trail was too cold. Mayhaps the trail was cold then, but I expect there were other motives at play – prejudices run deep in men,” she said sadly, her voice trailing off. She drank another cup of ale.

Eli leaned back in his seat, smiling to himself. “I happen to know a very wise man who just may be able to point you in the right direction.”

Rien looked up, a slight, hopeful smile playing across her lips, despite her wary expression. “Who?”

“A man who knows much and more, and who may know of the comings and goings of someone as peculiar as a Charric this far north. The Luminary of Arcturus.”

Next chapter!

The Crimson Blades

New to the story? Start here!

Previous chapter:

Eli was thankful for the shelter from the simmering afternoon sun provided by the cool, if stuffy, house in which he and Ana sat. Tey hunched over a table, scribbling with ink upon sheets of parchment trying to work out the arithmetic problems given to them by Renaulte. He called the problems “basic,” and while much of it seemed surprisingly intuitive, they still struggled. Arithmetic was known and practiced only by the same people who could read and write; the scribes. Since all significant business dealings were required to have a scribe present, and all market prices were determined by the scribes. There was no reason for the buyer or seller to have a knowledge of such things. After all, why learn something when someone else can do it for you?

Unfortunately, Eli was not a scribe. Nor was any of his family, though his mother could read and write very well, even by the standards of a scribe. Ana, having had only the smallest amount of training from her mother and father in arithmetic was not having much better luck. The Luminary insisted upon the importance of such things, though, and one always did as the Luminary said. Thankfully, Renaulte was always happy to assist them with the problems. Or, at least, assist them with the ones that proved exceedingly difficult, and only after they had been pondered for a sufficient amount of time. When not helping the two with problems, Renaulte spent his time filling sheaves of paper with scrawled notes and small sketches, or tinkering at his workbench with various strange tools and devices that consistently threatened to steal Eli’s attention.

As the hours passed, the room began to grow somewhat stuffy so Renaulte stood, lit some incense, and opened a window. The spicy scent drifted through the room and a slight haze floated through the air, causing lightbeams from the windows to appear. Despite her frequent complaints of headaches and difficulty thinking, Ana finished her problems first, followed by Eli almost immediately after. Without have being told of their completion, Renaulte turned from his work and strode over and collected their problems and reviewed them quickly. The Luminary smiled softly and shot quick glances at them as he read the papers.

“Excellent,” he said. “Not a single one incorrect.” They smiled proudly at the Luminary’s words. “You will do another set. This time, you will do it without help,” Renaulte said with a good natured grin. Eli and Ana looked at one another and sighed heavily.

Hours drifted by as Renaulte drilled a wide variety of basic skills into them: arithmetic, basic science, writing, and even a degree of literature. Though Tyria had taught him to read, he did not have the chance to exercise that ability very often with the distinct lack of books in the enclave. The Luminary, however, had a massive library and was glad to dole out books, which Eli excitedly stuffed into his bag for later reading.

By the time they had been dismissed, Eli and Ana were mentally exhausted, and the sun had sunk into the mountains lining the valley. The two trudged home, legs sore and aching and minds equally strained. Shortly after entering the walls, smells of roasted boar and fried vegetables drifted from inns and meagerly occupied eateries, causing their stomachs to rumble. Nearby, a large drunken man stumbled outside the open door of a tavern, clutching a tankard the size of Eli’s head. His laughter boomed through the relatively empty street as he stumbled on the cobblestones. Lifting the tankard to his mouth, he drowned his laughter in ale, spilling as much on his chest as down his gullet. He was still gulping greedily as he fell backward into an ale induced sleep. A tall, dangerously handsome boy with a gaunt face stepped out into the night after the drunken man, laughing. In a familiar voice he said “Gods, Harkon, you hold your ale about as well as…” he trailed off as his dark silhouette regarded Eli and Ana for a moment.

His mirth vanished and he stepped towards them. Eli moved himself between Ana and the figure. Matthias regarded them with disdain.

“Don’t make me laugh, Machus. If I wanted to get to Ana you would never be able to stop me,” Matthias said with amusement.

Eli stood straight and tall, but took no hostile stance, and said nothing. Ana stepped out from behind Eli slightly, facing Matthias more fully. “What do you want, Matthias,” Ana asked smoothly.

Matthias chuckled and took a swig of ale from his own, more reasonably sized tankard. “Simply to know what two pups like you are doing out at this time,” Matthias said with ale-induced joviality.

Eli frowned at “pups” part of that statement – Matthias was barely older than Eli. He was simply significantly larger. “We are returning from our tutelage with the Luminary,” Eli said, failing to hide a hint of pride in his voice.

Mention of the Luminary made Matthias scowl. “Hnh. I’m not surprised to see you running around with his ilk. Luminaries hide and scheme, caring nothing for the very people they claim to teach and save,” Matthias spat. “Hypocrites. Vipers. They all are.”

Eli protested, “You’ve never even met another Luminary! You know nothing of the Luminaries, you-“

“No. You know nothing of Luminaries.” Matthias said savagely, stepping forward and jabbing a finger at Eli. “You know nothing of kinship and you know nothing of the world!” Matthias glowered at them, and Eli and Ana stood in tense silence.

His outburst had a ring of truth to it: Eli never had many friends, and kept mostly to himself. Ana was more well known and well liked, but she was an apprentice scribe, and they did not have the luxury of numerous friends. Compared to Matthias, they did know little of the world. Matthias was the son of the previous Akkan, and though his father died when he was very young, his father’s close advisors continued to groom Matthias for the seat of the Akkan. While not dynastic by law, it was not uncommon for the son of an Akkan to inherit the seat. The Akkan was chosen by the people, the votes counted by the Scribes. The late Akkan’s advisors, which included Matthias’ uncle who was a seasoned soldier, raised him in the stead of his dead father. In that upbringing, he experienced more than Eli and Ana put together. He might have a violent temper, and the headstrong attitude of a youth who views himself as invincible, but he was not incompetent.

“I have fought and bled alongside good men, and seen things I am not like to forget. On my first true ranging, we fought against the savages in the dark forests to the south. Mad men, violent men, who ate the queer plants of the forest and were driven mad by them. They preyed upon any traveler, killing them and stringing their corpses up in the heavy vines of the forest. They had severely halted trade and the enclave garrison was ordered to put a stop to it. So we hunted them. We slaughtered them like the diseased animals they were. I watched friends die that day, their limbs and faces torn to shreds by the axes of the madmen.” Matthias paused, his fury subsiding and softening to what seemed almost like sadness. “ How many friends have you lost, Machus, and how many men have you killed?”

Eli had no answer. “…And where were the Luminaries that sent those men to die,” Matthias continued, “Back in the Enclave, sipping on honeyed wine, no doubt. True, it was the Akkan that had ordered the expedition, but it was the word of the Luminary that prompted his decision.”

Ana stepped forward, ever defiant, “Your hate blinds you, Matthias. You have no idea what the Luminaries are truly like.”

Matthias scoffed, “Your fondness blinds you, Ana. Those men were not the only the Luminaries have killed.” Matthias’ lusterless brown eyes suddenly burned with hatred. “Frolic with murderers and cravens if you wish, but I mean to stand with true men. The soldiers of the garrison are loyal to one another. My father was picked from them, and they are loyal to his legacy. That is why I intend to found a new company of soldiers.” Matthias nodded his head toward the drunken man on the cobblestones. “Harkon here will be going with me, along with many others. The Targus valley is home to strange and stranger things – I mean to sample them. We will be forming a company of brothers in arms. I have more than a hundred good men willing to follow, and many more will flock to us in time. I’ve promised them riches beyond their wildest dreams, and I mean to deliver.”

Eli was incredulous, “And just where do you expect to find these riches,” he asked unbelievingly.

Ana stepped in saying, “The red plains crouch behind the God’s Wall. All of those hold little and less. Almost none that travel beyond return, and those that do are mad. Save for the Luminaries, of course.”

Matthias smiled at them, a mocking gesture. “The Targus valley is vast; six hundred kilometers wide and near a eighteen hundred long, if the old maps are to be believed. There are freeholds to the north, Stoneharbor to the west with many villages and cities in between. Or there are the kingdoms to the south of the dark forest which are always at war for one reason or another. A company of hardened men can fetch a pretty price.”

Eli’s eyes widened, “Sellwords? That is your goal?”

Matthias shook his head ruefully, “That is simply a means to an end, boy.”

Ana raised a questioning eyebrow, “And what is the end you seek?”

Matthias simply smiled. The gesture sparked fear inside Eli’s gut. “What is this company to be called,” Eli queried cautiously.

Matthias looked down for a moment, considering. His had brushed against the dagger on his hip softly, stroking the hilt. He looked up at Eli and Ana, “The Crimson Blades.”

The darkness grew deeper as they approached Eli’s home. Lantern light spilled from the windows, casting a dull, ethereal glow upon the dark ground and thick grass outside. Opening the door, Eli heard hushed yet urgent sounding conversation bubbling from the back of the house. The children broke the relative silence with the shuffle of their feet and soft conversation as they moved into the kitchen. Their eyes flashed in surprise at the presence of Ana’s parents, and the looks of worry on their faces. Tyria and Arnen, sat with Delkam and Susanna – Ana’s father and mother. Eli had never seen their families ever speak to one another. Not out of dislike for the others, surely. It was simply because there had been no real reason to do so. That, and scribes rarely had time to mix with others.

Delkam and Susanna both wore the robes of a scribe, and their hands were stained with ink. Their faces showed great worry, especially Ana’s mother. Delkam, strangely burly for a scribe, stared at them with a face as hard as stone and ice blue eyes that made Eli shiver. Ana’s mother simply looked sad. Unlike Delkam and Ana, her hair was a dull brown, and her eyes a soft hazel. Pretty in her own right, but strikingly different from her husband and daughter. Ana shared her thin and wispy build, at least.

“Unacceptable,” Delkam said in a voice which seemed oddly hoarse, “Absolutely unacceptable.”

Arnen shook his head in agreement while puffing on a small pipe. Tyria looked directly at Eli, and only at Eli. She looked at once excited, proud, and sad. Her gaze was knowing and ominous. It was an expression Eli had never seen his mother have before, and one that churned his stomach. Eli and Ana glanced at one another in worry. Though, most of the worry seemed to be coming from Ana.

“Ana told us that you had planned on following the Luminary. That is completely unacceptable, it disrupts the flow of the enclave, it disrupts life for us all. Especially when you drag Ana away from her studies,” Delkam said harshly.

You have already decided, Ana thought, You admitted it to yourself. Admit it to them. Ana remembered her dreams, and the vision she had when she first met the Luminary, suddenly she felt vindication and confidence. “I have decided to study under the Luminary as well. Not temporarily, but permanently. I will not be a scribe any longer.” She thought about apologizing, as well, but she held her tongue.

Delkam shot to his feet, his chair squeaking on the floor behind him, Susanna standing up a bit more gracefully but just as quickly. “No, Ana. I forbid it!” Susanna shouted. “If you do not take a craft from a master, you will not be provided for. You will be forced to make your own way, through great uncertainty and struggle. A safe, steady life is certainly preferable.”

Ana remembered all the times she had died in her dreams. Struggle and uncertainty did not seem as terrifying once you had died a few times. She simply shook her head at her mother. She felt Eli smiling at her. Nothing had ever felt so wonderful.

“Aye, do ye know wha’ happen’ ta’ those picked by ta’ Luminaries? Leave, they do. Never ta’ come back home.” Arnen piped.

Delkam grunted his assent, “You have no idea what’s out there.” His temper began to rise, and sternness filled his voice, “You have no idea how dangerous the world can be!” He cast a caustic glance upon Eli and said, “There are far worse things in this world than dune hounds, boy.”

Eli winced at his words, recalling that Delkam was present on the hunt that saw them over the God’s Wall and into the Red Plains for a brief time. The same hunt that saw Eli nearly mauled by a massive dune hound.

“There are men who hardly deserve to be called such. They rape and ravage, and feed upon the flesh of their brothers until madness has taken them completely. There are monstrous things in this world, things that make even the fiercest dune hounds look like kittens. Then there is darker still…” Delkam said, his voice trailing off.

“That is enough, Delkam.” Tyria said, rounding on him with a surprisingly icy glare. She held herself like a woman who was used to being obeyed. “They cannot truly grow unless they experience the world. You know that better than most, old friend.” Delkam looked away, seemingly abashed.

Old friend? Eli wondered…

“There are dark things, yes, but there is beauty as well. Beauty beyond description. Would you have them live in fear and deprive them of such wonder?” Tyria’s voice was passionate and strong, the others had sunk back into their chairs. “Of all people, Del, you should know what blissful ignorance does to a mind, what horrors can be inflicted out of ignorance and fear. Or have you simply turned craven in your old age?”

The room fell completely silent. Ana shifted nervously. After a pause, Delkam spoke, “Craven? I think not. But.. Aye… I suppose you are right, Tyria. As usual.”

Satisfied, she eased back into her chair and sighed. “Leaving the enclave is always dangerous, Delkam was not wrong about that. If you continue to be a student of the Luminary you will leave, eventually. If he is even a half competent Luminary, he will demand it, and he is one of the greatest and oldest.” The last surprised Eli.

“Oldest? He is only in his middle years. No older than forty,” Eli remarked.

Susanna and Arnen did nothing but shrug. Tyria and Delkam simply smiled.

“Time for bed, you two. You have a long day ahead of you tomorrow, no doubt,” Tyria said with a smile. Delkam and Susanna stood – Susanna still looking horrified and pale – and bid their farewells. Delkams gaze lingered on Tyria for a moment longer than normal. Ana gave Eli a brief hug and followed her parents out. Eli made his way to his bed and collapsed into the pillows.

Sleep came almost instantly, along with dreams of a purpled-eyed girl searching for a piece of her heart.

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Eli yawned sleepily as he rubbed his eyes. Still not fully awake, he sat on a stool in a book-filled room only partially lit by the meager morning light. The musty smell of old paper filled the room, tinged slightly with the acrid smell of oil coming from a workbench against the wall. The sound of a soft morning breeze blew through the door, sending a slight shiver up Eli’s spine. Glancing to his right, he saw Ana staring blanking at the Luminary, her eyes half shut. Not for the first time, he wondered why he was sitting in this stuffy, book-filled room. The Luminary had roused both of them early in the morning, and brought them to his home outside the enclave.

“Let us begin, shall we?” the Luminary said lightly, showing none of the troubles which seemed to perturb him over the past few days.

Oh, yes. That is why. Learning

The Luminary had devised a curriculum which Eli would be forced to follow. Renaulte had told him it would be both physically and mentally intense, and that Eli would have to work harder than he had ever worked in his life. That notion worried him, but to learn the things the Luminary knew? Eli would pay any price gladly. He would learn to be capable, and he would never be weak again. Right now, however, he was very tired, and tiredness has that infuriating tendency to sap passion from even the most strong-willed. Thankfully, Ana had elected to accompany him once again before returning to her duties as apprentice scribe tomorrow.

Eli stared tiredly at the Luminary, yawned, and resumed looking at Renaulte with a blank expression. Ignoring Eli’s unspoken complaint, Renaulte smiled and said “What are your questions?”

Ana and Eli glanced at each other in confusion, and a brief silence settled on the room, broken only by the sounds of the carts and horses hauling supplies across the nearby bridge drifting in through the walls. “Questions?” Ana said, “Questions about what?”

“About anything you can think about, of course. Always ask questions.” Renaulte said far too cheerily for this early in the morning. He was obviously very excited to have someone who desired to learn, or he was very used to waking up very early. Probably both, Eli thought. “Knowledge cannot simply be handed out. That results in nothing more than misuse and failure. Knowledge is precious, and one must work for such a lofty prize. Just think about the world around you; think about why everything is the way it is. Start with simple things, some of the simplest things you can think of. Gaining knowledge starts with asking questions.”

“The world is the way it is because the gods made it that way.” Ana said flatly, as if repeating a phrase memorized but not fully believed. Only a couple days past she was declaiming her faith, at least her personal faith. Perhaps now she was trying to recant her earlier sacrilegious notions. Or perhaps she was just stubbornly clinging to an old ideal because she had little else to cling to. Eli was not sure which.

Renaulte smiled wider, “Ah, yes… Ezra the goddess of the waters, Cyanos the god of life, and Zakai the god of ground and sky. A common theme among peoples in the Targus valley.” he said, seemingly a little distracted. Ana grimaced at his offhanded way of referring to the gods. “Perhaps, little Ana, perhaps. But I know you don’t believe that, I can see it in you.” Renaulte stated. “Your heart betrays you. You need not lie to me, I will not drag you off to the Goldmasques.” Renaulte said jokingly, after a pause.

Ana crossed her arms beneath her breasts and set her jaw indignantly. Handling criticism was never her strong suit. “I know exactly what I believe, thankyouverymuch.”

Leaning back in his chair, the Luminary looked questioningly at Ana. “Do you? Tell me, then, how did the gods create the world?” Renaulte said with what seemed genuine interest.

Ana seemed put-off by the Luminary’s gentle interrogation. After all, this man already seemed to have a decent knowledge of the gods, why would he ask her about their history? He no doubt knew. Regardless, she answered his question to the best of her knowledge. She recalled the brief story of Cyanos and his two children, and the creation of the world. The god-children built the world from their games and toils, spending all of their childhood creating, destroying, and re-creating the world. Some days, Ezra, in a dark mood, would make waters black as pitch, or rivers forever locked in ice. In moods of glee, she would dip her hands into the waters, turning them a shimmering aquamarine, or set water to pour from the tops of the mighty walls of rock her brother built. Zakai, desiring to emulate the strength of his father, would build towering mountains, or carve massive gorges into the very stone. Yet, at times, he wished to honor his father’s soft heart, and so he laid out blankets of soft soil or sand, and he set a beautiful blue roof above the world, giving his sister yet another canvas upon which she could paint.

The god-children sometimes played, worked, and sometimes fought. As they grew, their works became more and more complex, until they were masters of their craft, and could instill unmatched beauty in anything they. Every aspect of the world was rendered as it is stands now because of the actions of these children. They built upon one another’s works, or sometimes ignored the other, allowing them to dominate a certain area. Eventually, there came a day where Ezra and Zakai stopped building; they had finished their work of art.

Very proud of their work, the two now full-grown gods presented the world to their father, Cyanos. Cyanos was overjoyed at what his children had created together, it was the greatest creation yet in existence. After all, everything the gods made was unable to be matched in greatness. He decided that such a wondrous creation should not go unused. Cyanos, all powerful god that he is, created an infinite variety of animals and plants to populate the world. Still desiring to add yet more, he created man – his crowning achievement.

Renaulte had a look of good-humored, fatherly condescension about him, as if his child had told him some grandiose tale to avoid a punishment. Ana looked tired. “And now? What has become of these absent creators?”

“They left, or are resting.”
“Why what?
“Why did they leave?”
“To make more life elsewhere, I suppose. I do not know.”
“Why would they rest?”
“They…” Ana trailed off, unsure, “they were tired, I suppose.”

Renaulte laughed. “Well, little Ana, if they have left then they are of no consequence any longer. The world is running on its own. If they are resting, well, all the same.”

Ana frowned, still somewhat disconcerted. “I guess you could look at it that way.”

“If the gods made the world ages ago, it has certainly changed since. Forests grow and die, rivers cut stone, and the earth shifts with time. So, perhaps the gods did sculpt this world, but the world is alive, and it is never resting. For just that reason, one cannot simply wave their hands and say, ‘The gods did it.’ The world demands more of an explanation than that.”

Ana sat silently for a few moments, then nodded slightly. “I understand.”

Renaulte smiled. “Then never stop asking questions, and never let a question go with such an inadequate answer.” Renaulte’s gaze shifted quickly to Eli, making Eli feel quite small and powerless. “And you, Eli? What do you know? What certainties do you have?”

Eli thought for a moment, then simply shrugged. “I can’t say I know much of anything for sure.”

Renaulte smiled once again. “Good, that means you will be perfectly willing to learn. Now, what questions do you have?”

Eli nodded. “Um, yes… What is the Targus valley?”

Renaulte stared at Eli incredulously. “…The valley you live in, dear boy.”

Eli turned red from embarrassment. “Oh.” he said quickly. Ana chuckled. “Though the enclave rests on the eastern foothills beneath the main mountain range that rings the valley. Most maps refer to the foothills as the Myrakkan range. This is likely where your enclave’s title of ‘Akkan’ comes from.” They both smiled broadly at that new bit of information.

Renaulte looked at them expectantly and said “Come now, this is not terribly difficult.”

Eli paused for a moment as he thought of another question. “Why is the soil here so dark?” Eli asked, a smile on his face.

Renaulte smiled, obviously pleased at having a genuine, albeit simple, question presented. “Volcanic soil.” He said simply, leaning back into his chair. “The enclave is built on the remains of a dead volcano. The volcanic soil still lingers, which is why the farmland to the west is highly sought after – volcanic soil tends to be remarkably fertile. The whole eastern side of the Targus Valley is a tectonically active zone, actually. Though no major eruptions have occurred in a very long time.”

Eli was skeptical. A mountain that spews liquid fire? He had heard stories that such things existed, but he marked them off as legends. Though, it looks like he might have been hasty in that denial. Another question popped into his head. “You side ‘this side.’ What is on the other side?”

“An ocean to the west. The north, south, and east, are all ringed by a virtually impassable range of mountains called the God’s Wall.” Renaulte nodded to Eli, “and the Red Plains lie beyond that, as you well know. If the mountains are truly a wall built by the gods, they were built to keep the Red Plains at bay. Those lands are truly treacherous.

Eli and Ana looked confused, many of these terms unfamiliar to them Renaulte laughed lightly and said, “You are undoubtedly having trouble understanding. Your unfamiliarity with basic concepts is undoubtedly causing you problems. So, we will start from the very beginning.” Renaulte gestured to a stack of books on his old oak table.

A large grin split Renaulte’s face. “But we have more to do than simply read books. A strong body is just as important as a strong mind. Though I shant be the one to help you with that aspect of your training.” Renaulte said.

“Who, then?” Eli asked apprehensively.

A figure moved in the shadows and made its way toward them. “Another student of mine. One I have taught for years.” He said with a soft smile.

Eli and Ana glanced worriedly toward the figure. Veredus stepped from the darkness and regarded them with a somewhat stern face. “Eli. Ana.” he said stiffly, nodding to each in turn.

Ana paled visibly. After yesterday, the prospect of more physical exertion was not likely to thrill her. “Ah… since I am not actually your apprentice, does that mean I can skip this part?”

“No.” came Veredus’ deadpan response.

The Luminary laughed and set a comforting hand on her shoulder. “This is important, Ana. Teaching yourself discipline is very important. Verdus knows many things; he is an excellent student. Though, despite my best efforts, I’ve not been able to teach him to smile..” Renaulte said wryly.

Veredus seemed to smile a little. Just a little. “Listen to Veredus as you would listen to me, and you will learn a great deal.” Renaulte instructed.

Eli and Ana turned to Veredus, who regarded them with a unnerving smile as if he were privy to some joke that only he knew. Both Eli and Ana swallowed hard. Eli suddenly had a bad feeling in his gut.

Sweat dripped from Eli’s brow as he ran alongside the wall which surrounded the perimeter of most of the enclave. The midday sun had brought its full heat to bear upon Eli, and Eli cursed under his breath. The pebbled ground crunched underneath his feet and tiredness seemed to pulse through his legs. His breath came in heavy, almost ragged gasps. The smells of food drifted through the warm summer air, and the sounds of the enclave buzzed in Eli’s ears. Luckily, there was little foot traffic in this area that might impede him, save for the occasional guard. Ana was by his side, as she most always was. Though she seemed to be faring worse than he was, and he was hardly faring well. Her face was red, and her expression blank, save for exhaustion. Not for the first time, Eli felt a desire to reach out help her in some way. Sadly, he knew that would be impossible, and counter productive.

The sound of his breathing and heartbeat filled Eli’s head, yet he still managed to hear soft, quick footfalls behind him. Veredus passed them easily, perspiring only slightly, and his breathing natural and controlled. Eli did his best to suppress a twinge of jealousy and anger. He was not entirely successful.

“Do not lag behind. We have only a kilometer to go!” Veredus said in a tone which was intended to be encouraging. His words were anything but, however.

Only a kilometer!? Eli thought with exasperation. Ana merely let out a low, throaty groan and continued running.

“I will wait for you at the end.” Veredus said, before effortlessly, and abnormally quietly, speeding ahead. Sometimes, just sometimes, Eli hated that man.

After a couple more minutes of running, Eli and Ana reached Veredus, who was stiffly standing in the shade of a tall oak tree. He looked neither pleased, nor displeased with Eli and Ana’s performance. Though, that is how he looked with most everything, Eli noted. Hunching forward, Eli put his hands on his legs and attempted to catch his breath. Ana practically collapsed on a patch of grass in the cool shade of the oak tree. Looking at the two of them impassively, Veredus simply waited for them to catch their breath. Glancing at Ana’s piteous form, Eli hobbled over to her and unbuckling his waterskin he offered it to her with as much of a smile as he could muster. She happily drank the cool, refreshing water, desperately trying to quench her thirst. Gasping with satisfaction, she handed it back to Eli, who put up his hand and said “No, you need it more. Drink.”
Ana wanted to drink as much water as she possibly could, but she restrained herself and instead pushed it into Eli’s hands.

“I am fine, now,” she lied. “You need some, too. Please, drink.”

Eli protested once again, “No, no, you should-”

“Drink, or I will make you drink, Eli Machus.” Ana said sternly.

Eli looked momentarily taken aback. Grudgingly, he took the waterskin, and drank greedily. A cool breeze blew through the enclave, and tugged Ana’s long hair away from her face, bringing welcome relief from the heat. Ana smiled.

Veredus allowed them a moment to enjoy the breeze before speaking. “Not bad.” He said with a shrug. “Time to do it one more time.”

The smiles were instantly wiped from their faces, and Ana collapsed onto her back, arms splayed outward, and let out a long, annoyed groan.

Then, for once, Veredus smiled.

Eli and Ana completed their second run quite ably, though slower than the first. Veredus had then dragged them to the quarry, forcing them to lift stones in and out of carts, push them, carry them above their head, and all other manner of physical exercises. Every muscle ached and throbbed with exhaustion. “Good. You will repeat this exercises every other day. No excuses. The Luminary will civilize your mind, but I will make savage your body. I will see you again soon, Eli,” he said with a polite nod. “And perhaps you as well, Ana.”

They were allowed one hour to eat before they were required to return to the Luminary. Sitting in the shade of a grove of trees near the edge of town, they happily snacked on fruits, bread, and small portion of salted meat. After finishing their meal, Eli reclined back, resting his head on a root and closing his eyes. Ana pulled her knees to her chest and gazed out at the enclave. They quietly enjoyed the company of one another, contentedly listening to the wind rustle the leaves and grass.

“Why are we doing this?” Ana questioned, breaking the silence.

“Doing what?” said Eli.

“What the Luminary says. Why didn’t you just pick a craft like everyone else? Why are we doing this instead, and what will your parents say when they find out?” Ana said, her voice sounding increasingly worried. “We both know how spectacularly my father took it.”

Eli opened his eyes slightly and looked at Ana. “You worry too much.” Eli said languidly.

“And you worry too little.” cautioned Ana. “I know it is… accepted.. that people are sometimes apprenticed to Luminaries. But it is rare, and those apprenticed to a Luminary never stay in the enclave much longer. I don’t even know where they go, afterward, or why…” Ana’s voice trailed off before pausing. “And even though it is accepted, does that mean we should do it?”

“You keep saying ‘we.’ Does that mean you’ve decided to follow the Luminary as well?”

“No!” Ana shouted indignantly. “At least, I don’t think so…” All those books, all those stories, she thought, Your mind has already been made up, you have just yet to admit it.

“Well, you should. He might even be able to help you with those nightmares of yours.”

Ana’s head snapped around, “How do you know about my dreams?”

Eli shrugged. “You are my friend,” he said simply, as if that answered everything. Strangely enough, it did. He paused, looking down at the ground thoughtfully. “And… I’ve been having them, too. Ever since the first night with the Luminary, my dreams have grown stranger. Though, judging from how you shake and sweat at night, I imagine yours are worse.”

Ana could not say why, but that knowledge comforted her more than she would have thought possible. It is nice to know you are not alone.

Eli closed his eyes again and took a deep breath. Clearing his mind momentarily, Eli felt nothing but the wind, and listened to nothing but his thoughts. The answer came to him. Sitting up with a slight groan, he turned to Ana, who looked at him expectantly. “We were lucky enough to be given a new opportunity to explore.” Eli paused momentarily, and spoke again slowly. “And… I know that it would be irresponsible to waste such a thing.” Eli smiled, and confidence began to fill his voice. “Maybe this will work out for the better, maybe it wont. Maybe we fail, maybe we succeed at whatever the Luminary wishes of us. I’ve never fit with any of the tasks I was assigned, and if I had not found something soon, I would have been sent from the enclave a friendless pauper. This is a chance for me to do something I want, and do something significant in my life.”

Ana seemed slightly disappointed by his response, but she smiled regardless. She realized sadly that she had not asked for a reason to live a certain way, but for a reason to live. Perhaps she would need to figure that out on her own. Maybe the Luminary was a way to do that. At last, you admit, her mind mused.

Ana’s gaze drifted from Eli’s eyes, instead settling on something behind him. Her smile began to fade, and was replaced by a look of irritation. Eli turned around, and saw an approaching figure. The figure was well dressed despite the heat, and he walked with a sort of aloof swagger that spoke of a great degree of self-confidence. He was an incredibly handsome young man, and everyone in the enclave knew his name.

“Janus? What are you doing here?” Eli asked. Eli had never really been acquainted with Janus, they came from different circles within the enclave, so they rarely interacted.

“Greetings, Eli.” came the jovial response. “It has been some time since we last spoke.” Janus said with a degree of familiarity that the two certainly didn’t possess. It was unnerving to Eli, yet it was overshadowed by a general feeling of pleasantness which seemed to simply flow off of him.

“And you, my lady,” Janus said smoothly, turning toward Ana. “most happy greetings to you, as well. I must say, our time together yesterday was most pleasant. I conjured up the idea that we may meet again on the morrow. Would you be willing to grace me with your presence?” His voiced dripped with honey, and seemed to charm one into happy acquiescence.

Eli glanced questioningly at Ana. Since when was Ana so well acquainted with Janus? Since when was Janus, womanizer that he is, interested in Ana… Eli thought, and tried to suppress a twinge of jealousy.

Ana turned red, stammered and stuttered, then gave up on speaking. Instead, she simply groaned again. Janus smiled, and suddenly, Ana felt the keen inclination to accept his offer. She nearly did so when Eli interrupted and said, “Why don’t you give her some time to think about it, Janus. We have to get back to the Luminary, anyway.” Eli shot a quick glances at Ana. “Ask her again later tonight, perhaps?” Eli said. Ana gave Eli a quick nod, thankful for him saving her from another embarrassing conversation. Ana looked at Janus and smiled, “Yes. Ask me tonight.” she said nervously.

Janus gave Eli a murderous look, veiled by gratitude and respect. He smiled sweetly at Ana, and gave her a gracious nod, his elegantly curling brown hair moving slightly with the motion. “Of course, my lady. Good day to you.”

Eli stood quickly, brushing off his breeches and grabbing his bag before offering a hand to Ana. Ana took it gladly, which earned him a hidden scowl from Janus. They hastily waved farewell and made their way toward the Luminary’s house.

Janus stood in the shade of the tree, the wind gently tousling his hair as he watched the two leave. His mind sorted through various ideas and pathways, until one clicked into place. He gently rubbed his chin and smiled.

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Eli stood still, his leg muscles locked and cramped. His head hurt and waves of sickness washed over him. He could do nothing but stare at the figure now facing him. The Charric looked no different than any other human. No horns, no scales, no such bizarreness that so many rumors described. She was a head shorter than Eli, and she possessed a smooth copper-brown colored skin, which glowed softly in the light, giving her voluptuous frame a powerful presence. Her violet eyes twinkled with contempt, at odds with the languid expression on her face. Garbed in a tightly clinging smokey gray blouse which appeared to be made of silk, and matching leggings which accentuated her softly curving legs. A matching cloak hung from her shoulders, almost completely concealing the hilt of a blade behind her lower back. Almost. Her dark hair was tied neatly into a bun, giving her a sense of sternness which made the contempt in her eyes ever more apparent. She was beautiful; more beautiful than anything he had ever seen.

Eli was disgusted by her presence. His breath was strained, and his head throbbed. He realized that he was scowling, and that his twisted scowl seemed to deepen with every passing moment. Ana was obviously disturbed by this Charric as well, though she kept her face far more serene than Eli had managed. The largest of the figures turned and faced the onlookers, a similar look of contempt shone through his near-black eyes. His face was weathered and hard, and held only a passing resemblance the young girl’s face. Soon, the other figures turned an faced Eli and Ana. A woman, a young man who, along with the violet-eyed girl, appeared roughly Eli’s age, and two very young girls. All carried a very similar visage to the man and the woman. Something struck Eli as odd about the group – all but the girl had near-black eyes.

Eli found it difficult to focus on them, almost as if they were standing in a fog, yet he could see them clear as day. His very thoughts and perceptions seemed to bend around these Charric, like water parting around a rock. Eli felt an… emptiness. Not inside them, not around them, just… them. His thoughts slipped past them, around them, fell beneath the Charric, even as Eli’s mental image of them appeared almost incorporeal, broken, empty. It was almost as if he was continually forgetting what they looked like, even though he never took his eyes off of them. His thoughts parted around nothingness.

Like his thoughts, the crowds, too, parted widely around the Charric, creating a circle five meters wide around them. The only ones within the circle were the Eli, Ana, and the Charric. They faced each other in silence for a few moments. The young children glancing up nervously at the older man. The large man silently put his hands on the shoulders of the children, and began to walk away. All of the Charric followed suit, all but for the violet-eyed girl. Her eyes drifted between Eli and Ana, examining them.

“Rien!” boomed the husky voice of the man who was now walking away. The girl jumped slightly, seemingly startled, and turned to follow the rest of the Charric. They moved down the street, the five meter circle of space maintaining itself where the streets allowed. The Charric moved with impressive lightness, seeming to almost float along the ground.

Eli attempted not to gawk at the girl as he watched her leave. He failed miserably.

Ana slapped the back of his head.

Eli rubbed his head and glared indignantly at Ana, who was now looking away as if she had done nothing out of the ordinary. Eli’s discomfort, despite Ana’s slap, subsided quickly. Confused and conflicting emotions danced through Eli’s mind; admiration and disgust, dislike and interest. Staring after the departing figures, Eli pondered the strange feelings they had imbued him with. Eli glanced back to where the Luminary stood just a few minutes earlier; wondering if the Luminary had felt the same strangeness that he had felt towards the Charric. He stood on his tip-toes and shielded his eyes from the sun, vainly searching for the Luminary who had was nowhere to be seen. He looked in pain, Eli recalled, He felt it, too. Why?

The enclave square still buzzed with activity, though many people began to disperse and head to a quieter area to eat their midday meal. A distant rumble rolled across the sky, and Eli glanced westward. Large, billowing clouds loomed in the distance, carrying the promise of rain. It would be hours still before they arrived, but rain would fall tonight. Sighing heavily, Eli gave up on finding Renaulte and began making his way towards the very center of the forum. Pushing his way through the lessening crowd he walked past the well-manicured rows of flowers, shrubs, and the sparkling ring of water, he stood before The Akkan’s Dagger. Ana stood at his side, looking worriedly at the ominous clouds billowing towards the enclave.
“We should go inside, Eli. The storm looks to be bad, and we will not want to be caught in it.” Eli said nothing, simply staring at his reflection in the smooth, glassy black stone. He laid his hand on the massive, jagged rock formation stabbing upward. Eli looked down at his foot, already healed and free of bandages and thought about the Luminary, and what he would do in this situation. Staring at the stone, Eli thought about what to do next. An idea crept into his head. His curiosity would be sated. Reaching down, he plucked a black rose, placing it in his pocket. This act was forbidden. Eli wondered why he had done it.

He turned to Ana who was watching him with some curiosity. Tiredness had already begun to ring her eyes. Eli’s expression softened at seeing his dear friend so worn out; the last few days had been very difficult for Ana. Eli understood that even if he did not always understand how. He embraced Ana lightly, showing her a level of affection he was very reluctant to show anyone else. Standing still, Ana did not return the embrace. Ana was uncomfortable with displays of affection, especially in public, and even more so when it was not her who began the act. Though, despite herself, she curled her shoulders in slightly, obviously taking a degree of comfort from the gesture.

Pulling away from Ana, Eli smiled softly. A serenity coated Eli’s face when he smiled, making his normally somewhat mischievous shyness fade away into cool confidence. Ana smiled in return, shuffling her feet slightly. Eli smiled even wider at the brightness that shone from Ana’s eyes whenever she smiled.

“So, now what?” Ana asked awkwardly.

Eli smile turned from one of serenity, back to mischief. Eli tensed visibly, preparing to run.

Ana deduced what he intended to do, and her face grew dark. “Eli, don’t you da-”

Eli bolted away, leaping over the shrubs and fountains, and moved toward the street the Charric had just headed down.

“ELI! You fool boy, come back!” she yelled after him. Eli, fast runner that he is, was already turning a corner by the time Ana had finished her demand.
Her head throbbed, and her legs and back ached. She was far too tired to chase after him, so she merely groaned, mumbled to herself, and stomped off to find somewhere quiet. The Scribal House would do nicely, she thought. She turned her attention toward Scribblers Way.

Eli jogged down the street, his breathing labored and intense. He had to see the Charric again, there was something terribly odd about them, and Eli wanted to understand what it was, even if it hurt. His head still ached from the last encounter, but he had to know. He had to. Eli to a halt at a crossroads, pebbles bouncing away from his sliding feet. Glancing left and right, Eli searched for any sign of the Charric. Movement caught his eye, or, rather, a flickering disturbance caught his eye. He spied one of the small children turn a corner ahead of him, his mind still failing to firmly focus on them. Smiling, Eli jogged toward the the side street which they had moved down. Eli was greatly thankful for the shade that the darkening sky began to supply. Arriving at the corner, Eli peered around it carefully. The band of Charric stood outside of a potters shop a short distance down the road. They watched the potter work with what seemed like great interest, though their expressions showed little excitation, merely complete attention.

He looked at the violet-eyed girl again, his mind constantly slipping around her. Feeling only very mild discomfort, almost unnoticeable, he watched her with great interest. Like the other Charric, she stood straight-backed and proud with her arms held behind her. All but the two youngest children carried what appeared to be shortswords on their lower back, and ash-gray cloaks on their shoulders. Though, he could not help but notice the violet-eyed girl stood a little farther apart from the rest of the Charric. People seemed to step a little closer to her, as well, and her skin was a few shades lighter than the others. Eli thought her eyes flicked toward him for a moment, but it was so fast that he could not be sure. As one, they began to move down the street once again. Eli began to step out from behind the corner, when he saw a tall figure across the street from him, standing partially in shadow. Eli froze, and squinted to examine the shadowy figure.

It was Renaulte. “Renaulte! Over here!” Eli called. The Luminary’s head snapped around to Eli, and he scowled. Eli’s expression turned to one of confusion, and a chill ran up his spine. Renaulte stepped back into the shadows, which seemed to swell momentarily, and he vanished. Eli shook himself, and attempted to fill the pit in his stomach. Just the thought of the Luminary being wroth with Eli twisted his stomach into terrifying knots. Forcing himself back into focus, Eli stepped out from cover, and moved toward the Charric once again. The hunt began.

Ana meekly entered the dimly lit House of Scribes, taking each step with a sort of cautious reverence for the books, scrolls, and records stored within. Ana was destined to work in the House of Scribes, just as her mother did. Are you? the thought came unbidden. She shook the thought away; Ana never once argued against this. She loved books. She loved knowledge. She loved that sense of wonder when presented with a new idea or a new concept, and the sense of strength she felt when she firmly grasped it. Which is why this place will never be enough. Ana ignored the thought and smiled to herself, rejoicing in the smells from the musty old tomes.

The House of Scribes was the center of learning for the enclave, yet it only possessed a meager thirty or so books. Virtually all of the scrolls contained within the building were records of trades, orders, manifests, and other various business records. Simply there as evidence should some dispute arise between merchants or traders. A scribe was present at every major business deal, carefully recording the details of the transaction, ensuring only the most exact records. Business records. Not books. Most people had no interest in any form of learning beyond what was required for their respective craft. They were taught what they needed to know in order to carry on the work of their masters, and no more. People of the enclave had no reason to waste time with anything else, there was far too much work to be done, far too many chores, and far too many daily concerns. As such, only a handful of people could read; which meant the scribes were in high demand. They were an assurance to fairness and accuracy in any transaction, at least in theory. Which is why so many made trades and sales in the enclave, theoretical safety from a financial scam is more comforting than no safety. The scribes also had the responsibility of managing the communal finances of the enclave, assigning crafts to residents, deciding what supplies where needed, and when. Though, because everything needed final approval from the Akkan, they had virtually no political power. They were simply a massive body of advisers and bureaucrats, yet they were integral to the survival of the enclave. Despite their importance, their administrative, and often repetitive tasks were looked upon unfavorably. In a city of craftsman, builders, and warriors, the people who tallied numbers and counted coins behind the curtain were considered unimportant. Ana found that at once ceaselessly confusing and infinitely infuriating.

Sighing heavily, Ana reverently moved forward, making her way to the well-lit annex at the back end of the building which doubled as a reading area for any visitors who desired to read any texts. This was obviously quite rare. Due to lack of use, the annex was dusty, the windows coated in a thin film giving the annex a muted light. Ana stood in front of the small bookshelf filled with various texts. All thirty of them. Until she had seen the Luminary’s collection, these thirty had seemed impressive. No one in the enclave had more than a single book, and most had none. Well, except for Eli’s mother. She had six or seven, something which garnered more than a little condescension and mockery from the other enclave women. Then again, Tyria was once a scribe herself, so her comparatively vast collection of books was to be expected.

Ana closed her eyes and grabbed a book at random. The Flora and Fauna of the Erothi Lowlands. Odd. She had never seen this book before, and it appeared in remarkable condition… Her eyes widened in shock as a realization dawned on her; this book was… new! A new book had not come into the enclave in her lifetime. She flipped through the pages, looking for the name of an author. She found a name, scrawled in small print on the bottom of the last page. It was difficult to make out, but it appeared to read Nemo… Excited at the prospect of a new book, she hastily made her way to a stool, flipped to the first page, and began to read. Ana instantly became absorbed in the words, and became oblivious to everything around. She did not even notice the young man who sat down across from her until he leaned in and whispered… “Ana.”

Ana jumped in surprise, snapping back into reality. She looked, somewhat angrily, up into the soft blue eyes of a rather attractive man, and her face instantly softened. Or, rather, became uncaring. The image of his gaunt, patrician face, softly framed by loosely falling auburn curls would have stirred the heart of any girl. Ana, however, was far too busy for such nonsense. Ana stared at him for a moment, her eyes half closed.

“Hello Janus.” Ana said flatly, before returning to her book. Janus was young man, famous among the enclave. The owner of many women’s hearts, and many men’s envies, as well as many a father’s ire. An affable, and very attractive young man, Janus used his skills as a wordsmith to get out of the trouble he very often got himself in to. The clothes he wore were remarkably rich and well tailored, and on his hip sat a stremmyr, a curious little instrument roughly the size of a mans head, it was made from two hollow half-circles compartments of a dark red-brown wood, connected to one another with ebony dowels. Strung with some twenty odd strings, they would be plucked rapidly to create a rapid plinking sound, or rubbed with a small bow roughly ten centimeters long to provide vibrant – yet still relatively brief – sustained notes. His sing-song voice was soft and sweet, his face even sweeter. Ana had always thought of him as a scoundrel.

Janus raised an eyebrow, smiling a confident smile, enough to make any girl blush. Ana was well aware of his reputation as a womanizer.
“I saw you running through the streets with frightful haste, and I began to wonder what could possibly be so important as to force such a lovely lady to act so unladylike. Surely there cannot be any matters so pressing, and if there are, then, allow me to assist you with them. I would be overjoyed to lend my person to you for anything you… need assistance with,” Janus said, the rhythm of his speech making it difficult to focus on the text.

Ana blinked in surprise.

“Is this your important task,” he added, “hiding inside on a lovely day? Or is it something else? What lucky task holds your attention so strongly, and how may I usurp its place?” Janus said slyly, his voice dripping with honey.

“Reading, obviously. And no.” Ana replied tritely, turning back to the book. Janus simply sat there expectantly, staring at her for a moment. Sighing, Ana tore her eyes away from the back and added “And you? What is your task?” if only to be polite.

“Why, appreciating the view of course.” The response seemed almost rehearsed and meaningless, despite the smile that accompanied it.

Ana outwardly ignored his comment, but she took some pleasure from being complimented. Even if she knew it wasn’t true. Ana glanced behind Janus and saw a small, dirty mirror. She gazed into her reflection momentarily. Her face took on the strained, discomforted, and ugly expression that all people have when viewing themselves in a mirror. No, certainly not true, she thought. Her eyes moved back to Janus, and her face once again glowed with beauty.

“Ah.. Thanks.” She managed. An awkward silence hung over the conversation. Janus merely continued to smile and gaze at Ana.

Ana coughed, and said “Well, you’ve had your view. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have some reading to do.”

Janus’ face took on a somewhat incredulous look at the mention of reading. He was no scribe. He was… well, nothing. Like Eli, he had somehow never managed to settle on a craft or a task. Janus was like Eli in that respect. Unfortunately that was the only similarity Janus shared with Eli. Just seemed perfectly content to sing, dance, and talk the days away. He smiled widely, and despite herself, she felt slightly calmed. “How about a walk instead. Then, perhaps, dinner?”

Ana’s eyes widened and she tried not to chuckle. “Ah… No thanks. I think I’ll just stay here and-”

“Nonsense! Let’s have some fun!” Janus grabbed Ana’s hand, and Ana felt even more calm, and oddly willing to comply. Too shy and emotionally calm to resist, she was gently pulled up and pulled away from the table. As Janus pulled her down the aisles of scolls, she longingly looked back at the book laying open on the table. Ana groaned with irritation. Janus tugged a little harder, signalling her to speed up. The strange serenity washed over her once again, and Ana almost gladly kept step with the silvertongued Janus.


Hide. Watch. Follow.
Hide. Watch. Follow.
Hide. Watch. Follow.

The scene repeated itself for hours. The Charric would watch a potter, a blacksmith, a seamstress, or some such artisan for a time before moving on to another. Eli began to grow bored of watching them do nothing but watch others. He had spotted Renaulte once more not but thirty minutes before, also apparently following the Charric. This time, however, Eli did not call to Renaulte. Nearly overcast, the sky darkened considerably with the waning light. Darkness was fast approaching, as was rain. By this time, the Charric had made a full circle of the enclave and they were slowly but surely making their way to the oldest part of the enclave. Eli continued to follow the Charric deeper and deeper into the Highridge district, a well fortified hilltop of manses and guard structures, surrounded by a small curtain wall no more than five meters tall. The Highridge district was home to the local commander of the Goldmasques, the military arm of the church of the Divine Family, the four generals of the enclave garrison, as well as the head-priest of the temple, itself. And, of course, the personal residence of the Akkan himself.

Rounding a final corner, Eli watched the band of Charric walking directly toward the Akkan’s home, a little more than 100 meters in the distance. Massive estates with intricate gardens lined the street, giving the largerest mansion at the apex of the hill an even greater grandeur. The Akkan, due the respect as executive leader of the enclave commune, lived in a considerably sized estate. The building appeared fairly simple in its’ design; four stories tall, made of black, gray, and brown flagstones and framed in massive beams of oak, it made an impressive sight. Shaped somewhat like a large H, the massive main doors were flanked by two other wings, and crested by a balcony. The soft light of candles spilled out from virtually every window, giving the massive structure a sense of oddly inviting depth that contrasted markedly with its’ opaque stone walls. Something irked Eli about the building. The enclave demanded service of its’ inhabitants, in return for equality and safety. All contributed equally, and all were rewarded equally. Why, then, did the Akkan live in such a large abode. Though, it was not for Eli to question the order of things. There had to be a reason for it, surely. Or else it would not be so. Part of him wanted to laugh, though he did not quite understand why.

Eli glanced upward slightly, and saw a man standing on the balcony. He wore clothes befitting a man with considerable wealth. His figure was somewhat rotund, but by no means fat. Eli recognized him as the Akkan immediately. The Akkan looked down at the approaching Charric and sighed heavily before shaking his head slightly, looking very much like a man about to face something he did not wish to face. He turned smartly on his heel, and walked into the mansion, closing the door behind him.

Eli looked back down at the Charric who were now not far from the top of the hill, and he noticed a discrepancy. 1.. 2.. 3.. 4.. 5.. Where was the sixth?
Suddenly, he saw a figure clad in smoky gray rushing toward him, yet he could not hear her footfalls. His head hurt. He couldn’t focus. Before Eli could even think of reacting, she was on him. She slammed her shoulder into him, throwing him against the cobblestone road. In one smooth, twisting motion which never compromised her momentum, she reached down and grabbed his collar with her left hand as she twisted her body. Eli was rapidly dragged upward and smashed against the wall of a small gate behind him, knocking a few old stones loose. Her left forearm was pressed across his shoulders, pinning him, and her right hand held a knife to his chest.

Eli groaned in pain and confusion. He felt nauseous. Yet he still managed to involuntarily scowl at this woman. No, not a scowl. His face was twisted in rage at her proximity. The violet-eyed girl’s face was serene, yet her eyes burned with intensity. Eli took in every detail of her face, yet his mental image of her was blurred and hazy; a disconnect between what he saw and what he perceived.

“You have been following us, batu.” the girl said smoothly, her clipped, icy voice laced with venom. “Why?”

“I… I…” Eli stammered, unable to find his voice and unable to focus.

“Speak now! Or by the gods, I shall kill you where you stand!”

Eli was terrified, and he began to sweat. “I.. I was just curious!” Eli said, breathing heavily.

The girl seemed slightly surprised, though she tried to not let it show on her face. Her grip loosened, and the tapered black blade slid back into its sheath on her lower back.

Eli sighed heavily, his relief plainly visible, and his legs feeling as if they would give way any moment. The girl smiled slightly, obviously finding a degree of amusement from his reaction.

“I hope your curiosity has been sated,” arrogance and condescension tinging her words. “Take caution, batu, next time it may kill you.” she said icily, her face growing dark. The girl turned her back to him, and began to step away.

The girl turned around, surprised. Father guide me, she is beautiful. Eli could barely focus. He breathed deeply, doing his best to clear his head. Eli reached into his pocket for the rose, hoping it had not been crushed. He awkwardly thrust it toward her, offering it with the best smile he could manage under his mental strain.

She hesitated, her face softening slightly. She plucked the rose from Eli’s hand gently. “I… Thank you,” she said softly, gazing thoughtfully at the black rose. “…My.. name is Rien. Please, do not try follow us again. I do not wish to kill you.” Rien glanced past Eli toward the other side of the street. Amusement played across her face for a moment. “Tell your friend the same thing.” She said lightly, nodding toward the shadowy corner she had been looking at. “Goodbye, Eli.” she said tritely.

Eli’s surprise must have been plainly obvious for she smiled ruefully before moving back up the hill. The other Charric who stood at the door of Akkan’s mansion at the top of the hill, looking down at the two of them. He tried to watch her go, but her form blurred into the shadows with frightening efficiency, despite Eli’s now clearing head. Shaking himself slightly, he turned around to glance at the shadowed corner Rien had focused on. The Luminary stepped from the darkness, the shadows seeming to trail off of him, like a man stepping out of smoke.

The Luminary watched the girl make her way up the hill, raising an inquisitive eyebrow. “Very interesting.” he said with an impressed look on his face. Renaulte glanced down at Eli and smiled wryly. “You seem to get punched a lot,” he said with a smile.

“Yeah..” Eli half groaned, nursing his chest.

“We are going to have to fix that.” Renaulte replied, his expression was that of a man who had just watched his son learn an important lesson; cheerful and fatherly.

Renaulte put his hand on Eli’s shoulder and said “Come, we have much work to do, and much to prepare for.” Thunder split the sky, and rain began to fall. Renaulte glanced back up at the Akkan’s mansion. “Much work to do, indeed.”

Next chapter!